Saturday, May 5, 2018

Miracles Don't Just Happen, and Neither Do Story Hooks.

Story hooks are very much like miracles. But unlike miracles, your audience won't take the hook on faith. You have to explain it.

I have been working on a non-fiction book that has a couple of chapters that deal with the intersection of miracles and natural law. It occurred to me that miracles are very much like story hooks.

What's a Miracle?

A miracle can be defined as any unique physical phenomenon that defies natural explanation and which appears to have some benefit to a person or group of persons. That definition is an attempt to separate incidents of fate, or natural catastrophes that harm humanity (e.g. tsunami, tornadoes, or ...falling branches—like the one that totaled my wife's car yesterday in our driveway) from a similarly fascinating natural event that saves a person's life or prevents catastrophe. While a tornado may level a house we would not call it a miracle. But the baby that is carried by that same tornado to a field 2 miles away and set down without serious injury—
The view out my office. NOT a miracle, unless it can be fixed.
—that's a miracle!

And of those two events (the house leveling tornado or the tornado as baby transporter) which is the story hook?  The baby for sure.

My examination of miracles for this book I'm the editor of (in which I find myself at times rewriting the material), has revealed that there are many ways miracles can be naturally explained, although such explanations are nearly as miraculous and as fanciful as the event itself. The explanations involve unseen hierarchy of the nature's laws, the hierarchy of species, coincident of event timing, and the intersection of spacial and time dimensions beyond those which we normally perceive (3 of space and the point-dimension of time).

Miracles (and perhaps story hooks, too) seem to have two common components:
  1. There is an instigation or incident from an outside trigger, and
  2. After the outside trigger natural physical laws take over. 
In other words, the idea that a miracle violates or breaks natural laws is probably a false concept. It appears that the unusual event is the trigger, after which Natural Law dominates. (Ah! Now, I'm sure some of you would argue with that. Well, hold on, there's more but I can only type one finger at a time.)

Do Miracles and Hooks Break with Nature?

Now, as I just stated, people of religious faith will challenge me on ideological grounds that miracles do not violate or break a natural law. They will claim that unless there are miracles that defy nature they aren't miracles, and if there are no such nature-defying events then religious faith is dead...and since we can't have that, miracles must defy, violate, or break with nature.  (So much for the circular reasoning of ideology. I prefer evidence, else one could believe in anything....really.)

I'm not going to try to defend religious faith here (although I have it, and I do believe in miracles), but let's examine some ideas and see the story potential in each. My point is that miracles are a good way to conceptualize story hooks...and likewise your hooks should be/could be/must be miraculous...with an explanation of a sort. 

Are These Miracles? Could they be Hooks?

A dandelion growing in the middle of the desert? We'd call that a miracle, but it's an event that can be explained. The miracle here is that a dandelion seed got into the desert mud. After that inciting incident, natural law took over...when the conditions were right we have a blooming dandelion.

We call the development of a human being in a mother's womb and its delivery, The Miracle of Birth, although biologists claim that it can all be least at some level. Frankly, science can explain very little about how it happens nor can they create a baby from scratch. That makes it a everyday miracle, hey get that thumb out of your mouth, you want buck teeth? Why look at that thumb and those teeth...wanna explain either of those?

Aunt Millie being healed of some strange lung disease is one thing...we're not really sure if there was a misdiagnosis, or if some "miracle" drug actually worked, if if an angel visited her in the middle of the night. 

But how do we explain Splash, Jesus walking on water or healing the eyes of the blind, or Moses leading the Children of Israel through the Red Seat on dry land? The skeptic's easy explanation of the Bible miracles is that they're as real as Splash—they didn't actually happen. The person of faith, on the other-hand, is much like the avid story connoisseur...they believe, for there's something of value in the story and the belief. And a good hook or miracle can reveal truth in the story myth that follows.  (Where "myth" is the story vehicle, regardless of it's truth. J.R.R. Tolkien once told C.S. Lewis that the Jesus myth was a true myth worthy of belief. The Chronicles of Narnia were the result.) [Did you ever wonder why those British authors only used initials for their given names?]

Daryl Hannah in a mermaid suit, Morgan Freeman walking on water, or Jesus spitting on a man's eyes are all good hooks, aren't they? How can they be possible? We wonder, we're intrigued, we allow mystery and suspense to pile in...and we become engaged in the story...because of the miracle. We're hooked.  Most people of faith don't want an explanation of miracles (from the ancient past or present day.) But story mavens need something, and I think people of faith need something too, otherwise belief in anything, true or not, would be probable. 

In stories then, when we're presented with the hook, we want to know something about it, like where did it come from, or how does it work? It can't be the writer's convenience and just appear. We can't expect readers or audiences to buy into the ideology just because we said it is so. Even if we can't explain it perfectly, audiences expect us to give it some basis in logic, even if the logic is faulty.  

For example, in WHAT WOMEN WANT, Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson) has a bathroom accident with a hair dryer and a bathtub, that "allows" him to hear the thoughts of women he's near. At first this is just what playboy Nick would want. But then it turns into a curse. Nonetheless, the hook, or miracle is least enough so we can suspend disbelief. And of course it makes no sense, whatsoever. If anything like what happened to Nick happened to a real person, they'd be electrocuted dead. End of movie. 

So, it occurred to me, that some of the philosophical, logical, and scientific understandings of where real miracles come from would help us as storytellers come up with believable hooks. 

5 Rules for Miracles and Story Hooks

1. Miracles and hooks are at first unexplained phenomenal events, seeming impossibilities in the physical realm. But in reality, miracles and hooks do not actually violate Natural Law. C.S. Lewis writes in his book Miracles:
If God creates a miraculous spermatozoon in the body of a virgin, it does not proceed to break any laws. The laws at once take over. Nature is ready. Pregnancy follows, according to all the normal laws, and in months later a child is born.
2. Miracles and hooks are not the same as events of fate or catastrophes which occur due to natural law of occurrences, but without moral purpose. Miracles and hooks are specific to a person or group of people with a moral purpose. That is, a miracle or a hook involves some intelligent, benevolent "person," or "force" that triggers the event.
"Everything in a successful story relates to the character arc described by the moral premise statement, including the hook, which describes the peculiar and person problem of our protagonist....Peter." (personal interview with Stan Williams) ...hey, I needed a quote...can't I quote myself even if I just made it up?
3. After the event is triggered, Natural Law takes over and all other things in the person's life or story transpire without additional miracles or hooks. Natural law is never violated, although the natural laws involved may be unknown.
Scientific discoveries reveal natural laws heretofore unknown which caused events that previously could only be described as unexplained phenomenal, or something God does in secret.  But even if we have some explanation for how the event occurred,  the phenomena's moral purpose defines it as a miracle.
4. The "person" or "force" behind the miracle or hook may be a representative of a higher order species that intervenes in the life of the lower species. 
A miracle to a nutritive plant could be triggered by a brute sentient animal. A miracle to a brut sentient animal maybe triggered by a rational person.  A miracle or hook to a rational person would be triggered by a supernatural entity. In each case, the higher species reaches down into the environment of the lower species to trigger an event. For both agents, in both species, no natural law is broken, although the lower species may not understand the natural law which the higher species invokes. 
For example, a young girl folds her laundry and puts 12 pairs of socks in her drawer. The next morning there are only 9, her three favorite pair of red socks are missing. She wonders if she counted wrong. But then a few days later a miracle occurs and the three missing pairs show up again, in the drawer, perfectly in place. She takes one pair out to put it on, and low and behold she discovers a second miracle, the holes in the heels of the socks have been mended. How did this happen? Well, you guessed it, a higher order species paid her a visit...her mother.
5.  "Persons," and "forces" can trigger miracles by operating in extra dimensions of time and space beyond the 3 dimensions of space and 1 point of time humanity normally experiences. Science fiction is always playing with time and other dimensions. If we're to consider some of the theories surrounding Quantum String Theory we have as  many as 10 dimensions to play with, and all we need is a 4th for Jesus to walk through walls, or for Bruce Nolan (Jim Carey) to hear the prayers that God hears and to walk on water.


So, the next time you're trying to think up a hook, think instead of a miracle. That impossibility that through your craft you make reasonable. 

1 comment:

Brenda Saldana said...

Great advise and very encouraging.
Let's see what I can craft...