I love a good story. My current circumstances may not allow me to travel as much as I would like, but I have found a well crafted story can take me places I could never go to otherwise. Through books, movies, plays, histories, and even songs, I have been to other parts of the world. I have travelled in time, and I have met some amazing people. Whether they are actual or not is not as relevant. The power of a good story is the potential for me to consider things that I have not considered before. While a story may not be real, my application of ideas most certainly is.
As I place myself in the position of a fictitious character and consider how I would respond under a given set of circumstances, I wonder how my experience would compare with theirs. When the narrator of the story understands more than the main character, we often get insight and information that the character does not. More information makes it easier for us to make decisions, or so it seems. While the whole story is not revealed to the reader, it is easier, perhaps, to judge the character in the story unfairly. It may be easy to wish that you could give them some help because you have a clearer perspective. This may be similar to the way a devoted sports fan watching television will shout fruitless advice to a referee who can’t see very clearly. No matter how loud you shout, it may not change the outcome of the story.
Not all stories are told with clarity to the listener. When I am given a story problem to solve, and I have no more information than the main character, we are on equal ground, except for the fact that I am likely more comfortable and I can choose to ignore the problem when I am tired of reading. While I am engaged, however, very often the main character and I are both confused and perplexed. And yet, there is something that keeps me reading. There is something about the ingredients that holds my attention. The story is engaging and I can’t put it down.
Have you ever stopped to consider what makes a good story? Why is it that things which are unclear hold our attention so well? In the case of these questions, I think the power of fiction comes very close to the truth. For me, it’s in the relevance of the story.
The Savior Jesus Christ often taught in parables, or stories, that helped to emphasize a truth. During part of his ministry, “without a parable spake he not unto them.” (Mark 4:34) The examples of his stories were relevant but the meaning was veiled. Many were the times that he would share an example and would then have to explain what the story meant to his closest disciples because they did not understand. His response, “Know ye not this parable? And how then will ye know all parables?” (Mark 4:13)
When His disciples asked Jesus why He taught in parables, He said, “Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.” (Matthew 13:11) To those who are willing to receive shall be given more. But to him that chooses not to receive, he will lose the understanding that he has. Jesus chose to teach this way because the learner could listen and choose whether or not to understand depending on his desires and willingness. The faithful disciple will stop to look for the meaning in the story and then apply it.
Whenever we experience a significant trial in our lives, it may seem as though we are living inside of a parable. The circumstances are relevant by default. They are given to us to act upon. The meaning of the experience may be veiled behind the circumstances, unless we choose to look to the Savior as His disciples did and ask for an interpretation. “Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.” (Matthew 13:9)
As I consider my own question, “What makes a good story?” I find that in many instances I like the story when there is some kind of conflict where the resolution is not clear at first. It is the mystery and the hope of resolution that make the problem worth solving. Usually I can relate to the main character because I can empathize with what they are going through. My experience may not match theirs even closely, but I can relate to their emotions and motivations. Most often I hope to get something out of my investment in the story – I hope to see a different approach to a familiar problem. I like that kind of application.
Most often our emotions are tied to our expectations. If our expectations are met, we feel positive emotions. When they are not, we are left with sadness, frustration, and disappointment. Whether it is a story that we are reading, or whether we are watching the circumstances in our own lives, it is helpful to understand both our emotions and our motivations, that is if you agree with my assessment of what makes a good story.
Ironically, it is the motivations that we enjoy watching in stories of others that make us the most uncomfortable in our own stories. We don’t mind conflict when we can sit in an “easy chair” and observe. But when we are on trial, the fire seems much hotter. It still makes for the best stories, and I like recounting the story a lot more after I know there is a happy ending.
For the purpose of illustration, think of the writings of Shakespeare which can be grouped into three classifications, namely histories, tragedies, and comedies. Histories look at the way a story unfolds based on actual events and choices. Tragedies tell a story about powerful motivations that often do not have a happy ending. And, simply put, you may say that comedies are stories about people where bad decisions turn out all right in the end. Each of us may have a variety of stories in our own lives that are a direct result of our choices.
The determining factor for me as to whether my life’s story has a happy ending or not will depend on my ability to attain my ultimate purpose in life – to return to the presence of God. If I am successful, many of my tragedies may turn out to be comedies after all. My assertion that a good story is composed of relevant motivations and good choices is critical if I want any control over my own outcome. I liked choose-your-own-adventure books when I was a kid, and that hasn’t changed. I still find great happiness knowing that I can choose my own ending in spite of the circumstances that are given to me to act upon. It all comes down to good choices.
So, if our motivations are so critical to our decisions, what is it that motivates us to make good choices? What motivates us to be obedient to God’s commandments? I believe there are three key motivations – fear, treasure, and love. Not much different than good literature, these are the makings of a good story.
Fear is a powerful master when we let it be. It provides motivation to obtain our desires when it seems there is no other way. Choosing to do something we don’t want to do may appear to be a better option than feeling the threat of negative consequences, especially when those consequences may be applied immediately. Fear operates best when there is present danger or risk. Often, but not always, there is a focus on now rather than later. What will I have to give up now if I don’t? What will happen to me if I choose not to? What if it doesn’t work out? Fear has less power when consequences are prolonged. Because it may be hard to tell whether a story is a tragedy or a comedy until the ending, I believe it is safe to say that fear is not the most powerful motivator, not when there is hope.
Treasure gives us something to hope for. When life isn’t as pleasant as we would like, we can always hope for something better. Positive rewards and consequences reinforce the idea that good things happen to people who make good choices. The nature of hope takes the focus off of now and stretches it further and further ahead, usually in the form of some blessing or reward. The more we look forward to such blessings, the more we treasure them. We keep them close to our hearts. In fact we have to eliminate some of our fears to make room for the treasure we hope for. Unfortunately, hope is not the end-all if it is only treasure we seek. Once we have obtained some treasure, it is not difficult for fear to return in greater strength. Instead of resuming old fears, we may fear losing the good things in our lives. What if my treasure is lost? What will I do if I lose everything and have to start over? What if? Treasure may inspire us to act, but it may not have sufficient strength to overpower our doubts. Similarly, hope can do much in the face of fear to fight off the tragedies of life. But like fear, hope is not the most powerful motivator. Hope is too conditional.
Love is another powerful motivator that is often confused with many things. For instance, love and desire are often interchangeable expressions. If I love something, I may desire it. While love may generate desire, desiring something isn’t necessarily love. It is also possible to treasure an object without truly loving it. Loving someone may only be an expression of admiration. In these instances, desiring, treasuring, and admiring are only components of love. They are not the full expression. If we look at a part and forget the whole, love cannot be complete. When love increases to encompass greater aspects of good, it becomes more and more powerful. Without the full expression, love is still prone to weakness. In its perfect form, love is the most powerful motivator. It is without flaw.
Perfect love, or charity, is the pure love of Christ. Because it endures forever, it is both timeless and unconditional. Fear exists in the moment. Hope stretches our patience and endurance. Perfect love, however, knows no bounds. In order to be perfect, this love is completely selfless. As Mormon described, this love “suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” (Moroni 7:45)
It is a little frightening to look at this powerful motivator because it is so selfless. The implication is that one who desires to have this power must likewise be selfless or the power of love will be ineffective. You can’t use a tool you don’t possess. First you have to seek it. In the case of charity, you seek it by eliminating lesser motivations.
Fear may be an acceptable force when we are less experienced if it points us in the right direction. It is a beginning for our learning. As powerful as it is, fear is not a sufficient motivator to get us past the most difficult trials in life. It is not enough to get us to our eternal home. Fear can start out being a helpful tool, but as we begin to look for the deeper meaning in the parables of our lives, it is not a friend but only a foe.
Treasure and the hope of reward can likewise only get us so far before we run out of gas. The apostle Paul acknowledged this difference when he said, “But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child. I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (1 Corinthians 13:11) If we truly believe in God, then we have no need to doubt what He said was true. If we do not doubt, then there is no more need for fear.
President Thomas S. Monson has counseled us that “faith and doubt cannot exist in the same mind at the same time, for one will dispel the other.” (“Come unto Him in Prayer and Faith,” Ensign, Mar. 2009) Likewise our hearts cannot house both faith and fear. Our hope can also do much to crowd out our fears, but the most powerful is still charity. In a letter to his son Moroni, Mormon also taught that “perfect love casteth out all fear.” (Moroni 8:16)
While fear, treasure, and love are powerful motivators, they seem a less likely combination when they are restated as fear, hope, and charity. If we take Paul at his word, and we are ready to find a better way, then it is time to replace fear with faith and rely on faith, hope, and charity instead. In preparation to meet the Lord, Paul counsels, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” (1 Corinthians 13:12-13)
Similar to looking through a glass darkly, the veil that is placed over our minds is to test our faith, not our fear. The meaning behind our circumstances is veiled and slowly revealed one clue at a time, according to our faithfulness and capacity to apply spiritual things. Like watching the main character in a story, it is easy to judge and offer suggestions on how to live these principles. Yet, when we are in the story ourselves, overcoming our fears is one of the biggest obstacles we face. Perhaps the only challenge that is more difficult is getting to the point where we do everything out of love and not fear.
If we wish to cast out all fear, Mormon tells us how to obtain the gift of charity. “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ….” (Moroni 7:48) When we seek this gift, the Lord will expand our capacity to love and feel love. He will help us to love one another as He loves us. As we pray for charity, His love will push out the fear in our heart, which will make room for greater faith. As our faith grows brighter and brighter, the veil becomes thinner and thinner.
Just like a good story, we should expect a certain amount of conflict in our lives. Good days and bad days alike are punctuated with opportunities to find a different approach to familiar problems. As we learn to replace our fear with faith and in turn act out of love, we stop fighting the trials that make us stronger. Instead, we tap into a power that is much greater than our own, which allows us to face our fears head on. When we live and love as the Savior did, the parables of our lives begin to make more sense. The meaning behind difficult experiences is unveiled and our hearts are made whole again.
So what makes a good story? Perhaps it is fear and treasure in the beginning, but it is love that makes a perfect ending.