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LDS Fiction: The Problem of The Gap and Hitting Rock Bottom

March 7, 2009

I’m in the middle of a great book on storycraft, Story: Substance, Structure, and Style, by Robert McKee. (thank you, Stephen Carter at Red Brick Store for recommending it) I’ve got it highlighted every which way.  Even though it’s a book on screenwriting, and I have no interest in that, I feel like it’s finally helping me understand how to craft and structure a good story, something I have wanted to learn in every single creative writing class I’ve ever taken.

I’m also in the middle of judging Whitney Award finalists, since I get to be on the Whitney Academy this year (woohoo!).  I have been impressed with the books I’ve read so far. Surprised and delighted by how much I enjoyed Fool Me Twice, for example, or Seeking Persephone. Not all of the nominees are going to win, obviously, but in every category I’ve finished so far, you could make a case for any of the nominees winning, and that’s a very good thing.

Me being me, though, and me having that storycraft book in the back of my head, I’ve started to think about the problems LDS writers face in crafting good fiction.  Here’s what the brilliant Robert McKee says:

The substance of story is the gap that splits open between what a human being expects to happen when he takes action and what really does happen; the rift between expectation and result, probability and necessity.  To build a scene, we constantly break open these breaches in reality. (page 179)

and then later:

Choice must not be doubt but dilemma, not between right/wrong or good/evil, but between either positive desires or negative desires of equal weight and value. (page 251)

Okay, so what I’m seeing as I read these LDS works is this: in books that are written by LDS authors but published by national presses, where the characters are not LDS, the authors do this.  They create gaps. They break open breaches in reality, they force choices of dilemma rather than doubt. In Jessica Day George’s Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow, the lass must choose between lighting the candle and observing her sleeping visitor, or following her original instructions not to meddle.  She’s forced to make difficult choices.  The choice creates a gap.  There’s no safety net for her.

But. In works by LDS authors where the protagonists are LDS, I have often noticed this problem, and it’s huge. The problem is that, for a faithful LDS person, the gap created through choosing in a dilemma is filled by God way too soon. Rock bottom doesn’t really happen. We have a deus ex machina inherent in our theology.  God rescues the characters from their emotional dilemmas, by sending the Spirit to comfort them. Or, in a couple of books I read recently, He provided a miracle to rescue them from a sticky situation.

I am all for the Spirit. I am all for miracles. I believe very much in both of them.  I just think that some of the works I have read so far hand out miracles and spiritual comfort to their characters to the detriment of the story.   I think these authors are wanting to establish the characters as faithful people, and I respect that. I do. But there’s gotta be a way, we have to figure this out, to allow a faithful believing LDS character to totally hit rock bottom.  And maybe even for him/her to find a way out of the dilemma strengthened by the Spirit, but without a deus ex machina event.

It’s tough though. Because if you’ve got an active Latter-day Saint in your book, what your readers are expecting is someone who believes in God, who has a network of friends and family, who has access to the scriptures and the temple and all the things God has given us so that we have a way out of the abyss.

There’s gotta be a way, I repeat, though, because I know real LDS people who feel like they’ve hit rock bottom before.  I have felt like that myself. And we will never get true, powerful, resonant stories, ones full of depth and power, until we show (NOT TELL) the LDS characters in our books feeling faithless and abandoned, and then show them healing.  Not forced healing, mind you.

All this speculation. You are wondering, why don’t I write something myself, if I presume to pontificate about it?

The answer: I am deeply lazy. And I recognize that it’s much easier to talk about writing than it is to actually write. That may change one day. But it hasn’t so far.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. March 7, 2009 6:00 am

    ‘We have a deus ex machina inherent in our theology.’

    Zing! What a great way to put it. Maybe this shows my bias but I think Angela’s ‘Bound on Earth’ did a pretty good job of letting the characters hit bottom before they picked up the pieces and went to the work of ‘saving’ themselves. I think Todd Robert Peterson’s short stories (can’t remember the collection name, Zarahemla published it) are a good example of that as well (although with a less hopeful bent). But I agree that bringing in the gospel without letting the characters feel the full range of emotions, IOW creating stories without nuance, is a (perhaps THE) fatal flaw of LDS fiction. Great post Em.

  2. March 7, 2009 7:06 am

    I think you really hit the nail on the head–why do we have this perception that it’s not OK to talk about the dark places in our souls? Even in the BOM Nephi cried out to God about his anguish, and so did Joseph Smith.

    The only Mormon novels I’ve seen that do this well tend to be the not so mainstream ones, like “Falling Toward Heaven” and “Vernal Promises” (although the second one does have a bit of miraculous intervention I think) “Heresies of Nature” by Margaret Blair Young touches on these issues as well. So does Virginia Sorensen in her work. Although I think his books are still a little tidy, the historical series by Dean Hughes does get close sometimes–especially in the second one set during the 1960s (Hearts of the Children). But I think we could see even more of these kinds of stories and get even more depth in our writing than there already is.

  3. Emily M. permalink*
    March 8, 2009 1:28 am

    Thanks, Mara and FoxyJ. I have been wanting to talk about this with someone! Mara, I do think Bound on Earth does this well, and I think it’s because Angela takes the concept of the Gap and hitting rock bottom and does it on a small, personal relationship level. It’s nuanced and quite effective.

    FoxyJ, I need to look up the books you recommended when I finish with all the Whitney nominees. I think many LDS books try to talk about the dark places… they just don’t stay there long enough.

    And I also want to make it clear that I do think divine intervention needs to be a part of our literature as well; it’s just got to come with more work than it often does. God makes us work for our miracles; our literature should make the characters work for them too.

    And one more thing: I am a lazy writer. I am also scared that whatever I end up writing will be dreadful. It’s a lot easier to sit back and critique than it is to jump in and actually put words and ego on the line. So I have a lot of respect for those who try.

  4. March 8, 2009 1:37 am

    Nice work Em. My biggest complaint about much of the limited LDS fiction I’ve read (limited because I’ve turned up my nose–my bad), is that it’s either too manipulative (maybe sometimes we work to hard for a happy ending?–whether it’s through deus ex machina or, in the really bad stuff, a handsome “prince” to rescue us) or overly sentimental.

    Maybe we should demand characters who are faithful, but who do not always get a happy ending. I can think of a number of LDS people in hard situations who are trying to be faithful in the best way they know how and who get out of bed and keep trying day after day but for whom I suspect mortal life will continue to be difficult. There are also many people for whom temple attendance is a once-in-a-lifetime experience or who may or may not have a network of friends and family but who still find themselves alone and abandoned or those who live in impossible situations that may not get resolved until the next life. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who feels she has something to learn from and wants to read about characters in these types of situations.

  5. Michelle L. permalink
    March 9, 2009 1:44 am

    so interesting Emily. I’m actually writing a novel this year(a dare from my sister) and I’ve really had to work to get conflict in there. It’s hard– we WANT to solve it. Oh, and it doesn’t have a happy ending…

  6. Emily M. permalink*
    March 10, 2009 3:32 am

    Michelle, I want to read it! You go girl!

    Does it have a bittersweet kind of ending?

    And, I have an announcement: there is another Whitney finalist that does this!!! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I can fully endorse and recommend Waiting for the Light to Change as a book in which its overtly LDS characters hit rock bottom and are not saved by God too early.

    But. I’m not quite finished with it yet, so this criticism could be misplaced. I guess I want more Mormonism than just cultural Mormonism, which is what Waiting for the Light gives me. So I’m still ranking Bound on Earth higher, because the writing is more beautiful, and also because it is good at LDS mysticism (the testimony scene, the Three Nephites story/myth) and portraying faith, as well as having its characters crushed.

    Still, though, (channeling my inner Randy Jackson) props to Waiting for the Light to Change. It’s a great read. Tight writing, and such excellent characterization.

  7. March 10, 2009 4:38 pm

    Agreed. I find those fairy tale novels depressing, because they aren’t real. But the other side I see in the contract work I do with LDS manuscripts is characters that are acknowledged to be Mormon in like two sentences of the novel, but who otherwise might as well have nothing to do with the LDS Church. They don’t have a spiritual life. And that doesn’t resonate with me either. What I want is truth about what it is to choose to be Mormon infused in these characters and their stories. Some laziness. Some faithfulness. Some doubt. Some grappling. Some feeling lost. And yes, some inspiration and comfort.

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