Have you ever set down a book, startled that the author turned your outlook upside down with tiny black marks on paper? Do you want to write stories that have the same effect on others?
A week ago, I delved into the definitions of truth and beauty—the roots that lead to wonder. But my article was heavily theoretical, and now I’d like to provide advice for applying the concepts I addressed.
Wonder is difficult to dissect. It’s part of the reader’s response, similar to the bliss of eating an expertly crafted cheesecake. As writers, we cannot guarantee that a specific moment in a story will awe every reader. After all, some people dislike cheesecake. But a dessert chef knows the ingredients that will delight tastebuds, and we can likewise graft truth and beauty together to produce wonder. With practice, these saplings can be nurtured into tall and majestic emblems in our stories.
Planting Seeds of Wonder
In my own writing, the moments of wonder that I’ve had the privilege to create were unintentional. I didn’t irrigate the plot at points A, B, and C. Instead, as I developed my story, a powerful moment sprouted organically. Since I’m a (debatably sane) pantser, I don’t necessarily follow a linear path. Only by tracing my footprints afterward have I been able to draw a map to the four places where wonder thrives:
- Answers to thematic questions
- Major plot points
- Pivotal events within a character arc
- The climax and the denouement
These offer opportunities to evoke emotion, build on structural patterns, and give readers an epiphany alongside the protagonist. And when any areas intersect, the soil becomes even more fertile. Moments of wonder are often clustered together and occur in quick succession.
Remember, however, that we can’t manufacture wonder in the heart of another. The moment must be integral to the story. If it feels contrived, we may need to gain a deeper understanding of our story—or rework it entirely. But we mustn’t lose our own wonder either. As storytellers and artists, we’ve been captured by the truth and beauty we’re trying to convey. When we write with this mindset, it will infuse even the simplest details with a sense of otherworldliness that compels readers to look beyond the story.
Now that I’ve identified the conditions that foster wonder, I’ll let the story’s moral compass set the direction. If I’m exploring the theme of growth as an individual, I would search for realities that display the three aspects of truth I covered in my first article.
- Present: Growth is painful and frequently marked by what seems like failure.
- Future: Growth does not stop but is continuous, and tomorrow holds new possibilities.
- Unseen: Growth is accelerated by reliance on God to refine us, rather than our own efforts.
Next I would focus on scenes where these truths naturally push to the foreground—usually at turning points. If my protagonist has made a terrible mistake, I can reorient her with the truth: she feels like a failure but gradually recognizes that faith enables her to change. (This assumes, of course, that I’m writing a positive character arc. A negative arc is an equally effective method for showcasing truth, but it’s harder to understand in an example.)
Our mission is to tell stories, not preach sermons. Sometimes readers will miss the truths behind our themes. That’s okay. Our responsibility is to ground our stories in the archetypes of biblical truth—and viewing the truth through the definition I gave in my previous article will keep our perspectives balanced.
Truth is beautiful, and beauty is truthful. This axiom guides our quest for moments of wonder to accentuate. When the truths that form the backdrop of a story are enacted in the plot, beauty shines through, and vice versa.
In my first article, I divided beauty into three dimensions: aesthetic, natural, and artistic. As storytellers, artistic beauty is our primary outflow, which we achieve through the mastery of literary aesthetics. But without truth to color the depictions, the results will be shallow.
Continuing with the theme of growth, a coming-of-age story might contain these moments of artistic beauty:
1. The newfound awareness that the world is vast and the character has much to learn and become. Children are often starry-eyed instead of daunted about the unknown. The song “I Can’t Wait to be King” in the Lion King reflects this feeling of smallness in the face of a big world, yet also the determination to rise to the challenge. This moment relates to the truth about growth as an ongoing process.
2. The first major breakthrough. After the mistakes and tragedies that are hallmarks of a coming-of-age storyline, victory is like dawn after a long, dark night. While the battle isn’t over, the character has hope that she can accomplish the impossible. This second moment underscores the truth that growth is currently happening.
3. The evidence of maturity. At the end of our hypothetical story, imagine the protagonist surveying her experiences and realizing that she’s wiser and more capable than she was at the beginning. This third moment reveals that she’s attained future growth.
Not only do each of these moments carry a distinct meaning, they also progressively communicate truths that we may have isolated into static principles. Stories surround truth with change and artistry so that all the branches strengthen one another.
Reaping the Wonder
In Hebrew parallelism (which can be found in Psalms and Proverbs), the same idea is repeated twice but from two slightly different angles. This technique helps us interpret the verses with greater accuracy. Similarly, moments of wonder should be comprised of multiple layers united in one thrust, amplifying the impact. I’m not saying our stories need to be highly complex, but as I’ve been emphasizing throughout this two-part series, elements must interconnect to produce wonder.
Truth acts as the background—it’s the ideology and worldview that we might not consciously think about. Artistic beauty shimmers on the surface, and through it we can add even more layers to enhance a moment of wonder. The moment itself may be intrinsically sublime in addition to being significant to…
- The plot
- Progressive parallelism
- Character development
- The story’s symbolism
- Our world’s symbolism (biblical or cultural)
- The reader’s personal experience
The finale of my short story “Endbringer” demonstrates how to combine several of the above into a single moment. The protagonist has succeeded at his last mission of destruction—a magnificent mountain city—by causing it to erupt. However, he’s received a mortal wound. The character known as Restoration appears and talks with him briefly, then leaves. Endbringer plucks a little white flower that grew where Restoration sat and cradles it in his hand, weeping.
The background layer of this moment encompasses the truth I was building on—that death will cease when Christ returns and makes all things new. The outer layer of artistic beauty can be seen in Endbringer’s retrospection, and though characters commonly undergo a death-bed repentance or revelation, it’s true to reality. The third layer of aesthetic beauty is multifaceted, and it can be broken down thus:
1. Endbringer’s interaction with the flower is rich with pathos, making the moment intrinsically sublime.
2. Rather than crushing or ignoring the blossom, he brings it close to his chest and cries over it. This shows his acceptance and love for Restoration, completing his character development.
3. The flower is symbolic of the new life that will spring from the city’s ruins. And when Endbringer uproots it, he is yet again dooming a living thing to death.
4. The entire story is rife with biblical, apocalyptic symbolism, but the ending features more culturally recognizable symbols. Small white flowers are reminiscent of snowdrops—first to bloom after the departure of winter, which the falling volcanic ash hints at. The color white itself represents purity and new beginnings.
5. The scene moves me on a personal level because it’s an encapsulation of hope and change in the midst of death, and restoration is one of the bedrocks of my faith.
Whether we pile on three, five, or nine facets of aesthetic beauty, each moment has the capacity to captivate readers with wonder, hope, and joy if crafted with care.
After putting intense thought and hours of work into a story, we feel the emotional beats we’ve tried to incorporate. I’ve shed tears while writing a scene only to learn from beta readers that it’s underdeveloped. We always benefit from qualified external feedback.
While the need for revisions can be disappointing, all the effort will be worthwhile if you emerge with a story that’s better able to positively influence readers.
That’s one of our driving beliefs at Story Embers: stories linger with readers, and the most powerful ones can transform them. Although the events are fictional, the experience is as palpable as tiptoeing on the grass and listening to birds sing under the gloom of twilight.
Beauty can be sown alongside truth in an artistic, effective way. I hope you now have more of an inkling how to grow a forest of wonder in your stories.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 22, 2019. Updated June 19, 2023. You can find the first part here.
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 with his wife in South Carolina, where she keeps his sky-high hopes and dreams firmly rooted in the humble yet beautiful soil of reality.