I apologize for the length.
This is my final paper for my Lordship class, and I liked it too much to just leave it in a drawer. Enjoy.
The End: Stories in the Eschaton.
Once upon a time . . .
A castle and a king. A princess and a witch. A knight under a curse and a kingdom under a spell. One thousand black ships are beached before city walls while a young boy pulls a sword out of an anvil and a little girl gently pushes her way through the back of a wardrobe into an everlasting winter.
The beginning of a story is what grabs us. Whether we admit it or not, we are all skeptics when we crack the cover and flip through the title pages. It is with raised eyebrows that we read those first few words. The beginning is where the storyteller makes his case, where he draws his characters, where he has a few breathless moments to convince us to keep listening. Syd Field, one of the most acclaimed screenwriting teachers in the world, says of beginnings, “the first ten pages of your screenplay are absolutely the most crucial. Within the first ten pages a reader will know whether your story is working or not; whether it’s been set up or not. That’s the reader’s job.” If you are not reading the set-up of a story with a fabulously critical eye, then you are not doing your job as a reader. Every audience should be a tough one.
This may sound like bad news for storytellers, but fortunately, they have had a lot of practice. Story after story after story starts from the same location, and follows the same path; it is only the scenery that is different. Strange as it may seem, The Iliad follows the same general structure as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and it is this structure that is the secret to their success as stories. Additionally, and an even stranger claim, nearly every story that has ever battled its way to being loved by an audience has followed the same structure.
It is quite simple, really. “The protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them” (Robert McKee, Story) In order to have a story, and make it interesting, we must introduce some kind of problem. A story creates people like us, with all our familiar faults and quirks, and then it turns their world on edge. Everything in the characters’ lives starts sliding out of place. This upsetting of the balance is called the inciting incident, and it occurs in every good story. Graendel ravages Heorot, and the lives of the Danes are disrupted. Gandalf knocks on the door of Bag End, and a hobbit is late for dinner. A droid with a top secret message stumbles onto the planet Tatooine, and a young man steps on the path to becoming a Jedi. Every story starts with a problem that needs addressing, and the protagonist is the one who must address it.
Once again, it may be surprising, but every ending that ever held an audience spellbound is fundamentally the same: the question that was raised at the beginning seems unanswerable, the problem seems to have gotten out of hand, but just when it seems nothing could get worse, the protagonist achieves his goal in a way that is always somehow both inevitable and unexpected. Every good ending comes as an fully-anticipated surprise. The problem is always addressed, but it is rarely in a way that we could have foreseen: Beowulf is slain by the dragon (unexpected), but Wiglaf’s actions show us that Beowulf’s bravery will never be lost (just what we wanted to hear). The Geat has taught his people to defeat monsters, and now he is no longer needed. With the danger gone and the conflict resolved, the story is finished.
But why is all this the case? Why should we be so enthralled with stories about strife injected into an otherwise peaceful place? Why should we like to hear how the characters change and learn until, after many struggles and adventures, the whole mess finally gets resolved in sweeping style? The answer is simple. This story resonates with us because it is the Story of God’s people: Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden, and Sin and Death entered the world. These problems had to be resolved; the serpent had to be crushed. But when a Savior finally arrived, He was killed. All was lost: things could not possibly get any worse. But, of course, it is always darkest just before Easter Morning, and the Story was resolved in sweeping fashion to the thunder of drums. Mankind was saved. The end.
But something is wrong. That was not the end. It was hardly even the beginning. We can try to close the book but we just keep turning page after page. The world is still here, history is still being spoken, I exist two thousand years after the great climax, the turning point of history, and I am writing this paper. What is going on? Every good story ever told is based fundamentally on the Story of history, but this Story is breaking its own rules. The climax is supposed to be the end, but the end is in the middle. The final battle happens, then the resolution, then we all go home, right?
Apparently, God did not think so. He’s not ready for us to go home. Not yet.
When Jesus comes to earth again to judge the nations and raise the dead, every tear will be wiped away, “and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Rev. 21:4). This is all well and good, but something appears to be missing. By eliminating death, sorrow, crying, and pain, we have just crippled any hopes we might have had for writing a story in heaven. Stories depend on a conflict of good versus evil, and if evil is absent, doesn’t goodness lose all perspective? Can a hero be heroic or a sacrifice sacrificial if the villain of the story ceases to be villainous? The stories that we love are battle stories. We must have someone to root for, and we must have someone to root against. How can we bite our nails over a character, or lie in bed all night wondering what will happen to him, if he is in danger of nothing save perhaps too much relaxation?
Battles do make good stories, and I have no doubt that in heaven we will sing of the marvelous acts of God and how He conquered His enemies. That story will not be forgotten. But there is more. Conflict is not the essence of story. It is merely a kind of story. The definition of a story is what God speaks, and it is wrong to believe that God may only speak goodness if He speaks evil as well. If evil ceased to exist, God would not be any less good, and neither would His stories. He was eternally good before evil was even created or conceived. He can beat ploughshares out of nothing; He doesn’t need swords. He has painted using black paint, but He is not bound by it; on his palette are more colors than we could ever imagine.
C. S. Lewis wrote in The Last Battle, “All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” The beginning of a story is what grabs us. In this short paper there is not enough space to redefine the concept of story, but whether we are able to understand it or not, God did not need to tame chaos to create the world. He spoke, and it was done. And what’s more, He then called it “very good.”
So there are actually two ways to begin a story and seize the reader’s attention: introduce conflict, or introduce potential. The cross was not just the climax and resolution of history. It was also the beginning of a new history, the inciting incident where the entire world was thrown off balance and will never stop reeling in amazement until it has been recreated better than before. In this story, climax follows climax and there is no last page, because the potential never ends. So perhaps at the beginning of the redeemed earth, when God introduces us to our new home, we will finally be able to understand what we always meant we when said “and they lived happily ever after.”