As I stared at the blank page beneath the title of this article, my mind revisited all the stories that have given me a transformative experience. I love when my heart skips a beat and I pause to process the exhilarating symphony that the words are orchestrating in my imagination. Or when I come to an ending so satisfying that I’m amazed.
Why did those moments trigger such a strong reaction in me?
Because beauty and truth were magnified.
Glimpses of Wonder
The first time a story struck me with awe, I couldn’t explain the reason except in retrospect. The Chronicles of Narnia contain numerous breathtaking scenes, but the final chapters of The Last Battle have always affected me the most deeply. The joyous journey “further up and further in” awakened an ache in my soul to seek closer communion with God. That scene transcends fiction because of its profundity, yet it remains consistent to the sub-creation of Narnia. It is the perfect combination of meaning and artistic integrity, which is a recipe for wonder.
Unsurprisingly, I was similarly enthralled by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Several moments throughout the saga brought me to the brink of wonder, as if it were woven into the story’s underpinning. But when the characters exchanged goodbyes at the Grey Havens, and I began to understand the full significance of the events, wonder overflowed the pages and settled in the core of my heart. Life would never be the same for anyone in Middle-Earth—and especially for dear old Frodo Baggins. He had lost so much of himself, and he was about to be separated from nearly all his friends and Middle-Earth entirely. Yet the splendor of the West, his destination and final resting place, sweetened the farewell.
In all my travels to fictional worlds, I have never encountered a more poignant symbol for the death of a Christian. So much sorrow is bound up in it, yet it is peaceful, resigned. We do not belong. We never did. Hope tinges our departure, and glory burns at the edges of the canvas.
Once again, Beauty and Truth were the twin shepherds who herded me toward wonder. The truths in Lord of the Rings were subtler than those in The Last Battle, but every story will vary. Nonetheless, the interplay between those two attributes, whether opaque or transparent, tugs at readers until they’re captivated.
To more expertly sow beauty and truth into our own storytelling, we need to explore their meanings.
On the one hand, beauty is a simple concept. We recognize it by sight, yet it seems to defy definition. What one man calls beautiful, another finds commonplace. What stirs the heart of one woman leaves another unmoved. But we know that many things are considered universally beautiful. So is beauty subjective or objective? I’d propose a third, more comprehensive answer: beauty is multifaceted.
When I hear the word aesthetic, I think of visual masterpieces (photography, art, architecture). But aesthetic also includes the auditory and the literary. As storytellers, we’re naturally inclined toward the literary aesthetic: presenting ideas/themes in a pleasing, harmonious way through plot structure, sentence structure, and word choice. Devices like chiastic structure, ring theory storytelling, and the hero’s journey assist us on a broad scale, while metaphor, imagery, and diction help on a much smaller scale.
Whether visual, auditory, or literary, aesthetic beauty is the result of fabricating and enjoying order. It is intentional—sparked by intelligence and executed with skill. This is true if we’re talking about the arrangement of elements in a photograph, notes in a song, or words on a page. All of it is composed with a keen awareness of what appeals to the mind, emotions, and senses.
This is the least controversial aspect of beauty. Even a quick glance at nature is rewarding, and I have yet to exhaust the delight that can be gleaned from a longer gaze. We cannot deny that ugliness exists, but it contrasts sharply with the marvels that fill the world at both macroscopic and microscopic levels.
Nature boasts infinite detail. Color, texture, geography, weather, and creatures weave an elaborate tapestry that is beautiful when we appreciate the threads individually as well as collectively.
Because art is a fictional recreation of reality, it intersects with truth. When the protagonist loses her only son in battle and then finds an orphan to adopt, that is beautiful. When a side character abandons friendship and his emptiness later motivates him to pursue it as valuable, that is beautiful. When love touches and changes a character, that is beautiful.
When a storyteller, painter, or songwriter captures a fragment of life in an accessible, impactful, and accurate manner, it is beautiful.
In summation, I’ll drag up a note I wrote several years ago when I began pondering what beauty is:
Beauty is the pure, and sometimes unimpressive, vision of reality. Beauty is the extraordinary nestled in the ordinary. Beauty is little pictures of God’s reality. Beauty is goodness reflected in form and color. Beauty is, in a way, incarnate truth.
If you’re interested in further study, I recommend checking out “Beauty” by Richard Doster. I can’t vouch for every theological ramification therein, but it is by far the most thorough and inspiring discussion about beauty I’ve ever read.
When I was young, Jesus’s lack of response to Pontius Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” frustrated me. But as I grew older, I realized the irony. Pilate stood face to face with Truth incarnate, blindly asking for a definition of it. To be fair, I doubt he desired or expected a response. Since Jesus is the linchpin for understanding truth, we must align our minds with Him, and then we’ll be able to identify truth in the world around us.
Truth is nowhere near as complex as beauty, for it’s simply what is real. But many people don’t fully comprehend the reality in which we live, believing it to be less than it is. So let’s unpack it further.
1. The Present
Death and suffering happen every day, and wickedness seems to reign in the hearts of humankind. These atrocities are real—and even true, in the sense that they exist. But love, joy, and hope are also real and true, and their light endures despite evil’s best efforts to snuff it out. As Christian writers, we must remember that both sides of the coin are fair domain for our stories, because we have the only perspective that resolves the deep questions death and suffering pose.
2. The Future
Sorrow, death, and the unimaginable wickedness that stalks the halls of humanity are temporal. God promised that tears will be wiped away and evil will be destroyed when He establishes the new heavens and earth. The saved will have perfect communion with Him for eternity. This is the ultimate answer to the questions that death and suffering pose, and if we don’t point to these truths in some way, we’re being unfaithful to the depth and richness of the gospel.
3. The Unseen
I’m referring to the spiritual world: God, heaven, hell, angels and demons, and the human soul. Most fantasy incorporates a spiritual dimension, so for those of us who write in that genre, underscoring the reality of something more will be easy. This may be trickier to accomplish in other genres without sounding preachy, but it’s still possible.
These three categories summarize the reality surrounding us. Writers tend to fixate on the first, because we often rely on the conflict between good and evil to drive the tension in our stories. But we would benefit from widening our perspectives and alluding to the invisible or yet-to-be-fulfilled realities.
Remember that this full-fledged understanding of truth/reality is not shared by the world. We are in a unique position. Embedded in the foundation of our worldview is a portal to sweep readers toward compelling (and transforming) wonder, as Brandon Miller attested in an article a while back. Read it. It’s truly inspiring.
The Source of Beauty and Truth
As we search for these seeds of wonder or attempt to plant them, we need to orient ourselves on two precepts.
Beauty and truth are inextricably tangled. Beauty is truthful, and truth is beautiful. Both are central to Christianity. Creation, salvation, and consummation burst with beauty and truth that buries the soul under an avalanche of wonder.
Both beauty and truth reach for the eternal. Our stories are not the point. Beauty is not the point. Truth is not the point. Even the wonder we hope to instill in readers isn’t the point. Our stories are conduits, beauty is a fingerprint, and truth is an arrow. Wonder, however, is the act of looking heavenward, where all beauty and truth originates and is sustained by God.
Let’s encourage readers to seek Him.
If you like this article and want to learn the practical application of these ideas, click here to read the second part of Martin’s exploration of wonder in storytelling.
Martin Detwiler is mostly normal. For a writer. He is, like most of us, a mess of paradoxes. Dreamer & cynic, philosopher & clown, hopeless romantic & grim realist—if there’s a contradiction, you’ll find it in him somewhere or another. But at the heart of it all, Martin is a man made new by Christ, the Author of that cosmic tale we call history. He has had a passion for stories from his earliest teen years, and the transition from reading others’ stories to writing his own seemed a foregone conclusion. His greatest inspirations are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, both of whom stirred a passion for stories that combine the aesthetic and the true in such a way that the reader is given an experiential glimpse of God’s reality.
Martin lives in Ohio, and his hopes and dreams are nestled in the stars.