One “weird” trick can help anyone who wants to share or craft great stories.
Here I could promise instant results. I could pretend I’ve mastered this One Weird Trick, or sort-of imply I have this hidden backstory that makes me qualified. But then you would learn the truth, and I would have clearly shown I don’t have a clue how the trick works.
Some Christian authors have mastered the One Weird Trick. Among these are the authors commonly cited as examples of Christian-written fantastical fiction that has met with wider success: J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, of course, but also Frank Peretti, Ted Dekker, and increasingly, Andrew Peterson. Each of these authors managed to follow the One Weird Trick—and that’s why they succeed, while other stories, even good ones, still languish.
Here’s the one weird trick to making stories succeed:
Christian storytellers: gaining trust
For a while I’ve pondered this simple and pure truth, but more so thanks to the discussion after Why Isn’t There More Christian Fantasy? Readers of that article raised the successful names I mentioned above. So I recalled why they’ve “broken out”—that is, for Christians:
- C. S. Lewis did not first succeed thanks to “The Chronicles of Narnia.” First he gained trust with his long career as a professor of languages and medieval literature. Then he built acclaim among Christians thanks to his broadcast talks on BBC Radio and his nonfiction books on biblical themes—explicitly Christian material, by the way.
- J. R. R. Tolkien was already a professor of languages. His novels succeeded among Christians thanks in part to his proximity to Lewis, who gained Christians’ trust.
- Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness met moderate success until musician Amy Grant’s team began promoting it. Suddenly the angels-versus-demons spiritual warfare novels began flying off the shelves. Grant’s team helped arrange for Peretti to write a sequel. But after that hoopla, Peretti tried other kinds of stories.1
Ted Dekker began writing with Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright, a name known to evangelicals. Only then did Dekker write his own novels. (Compare the earlier cover for Blessed Child versus the new cover. Whose name got bigger?)
- Andrew Peterson began his career as a folk musician. Christians may struggle with music, but we trust music more than fiction. Long before I heard of The Wingfeather Saga, I had heard of Peterson’s music. He is popular among mainstream evangelicals, but—here’s a secret for you—he’s especially popular among a Christian segment often called the “young, restless, Reformed” set. That’s a great base in which to gain trust with fans. Oh yeah, Andrew Peterson! I don’t read fantasy, but I’m sure this book is fine, biblical, and excellently made, so long as it’s him. Must be great for my kids too.
The simple gain trust principle is even behind the oft-pommeled tendency of filmmakers and studios to return to remakes and reboots2 of already-known films. Behind “brand recognition” is this simple fact: Brand recognition is often the same as brand trust, or else, the effect is the same—folks buy tickets.
In fact, this can work out negatively: I “trust” those Transformers movies to be what they are, every time, based on what I’ve heard, despite never seeing a single one (and not wanting to). In a way I respect director Michael Bay for that reason. He gained trust.
‘Justice League’ filmmakers: gaining trust
Another director has struggled to gain the same trust: Zack Snyder, of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice fame. For my part, Snyder does have my trust thanks to his amazing work in both those films. (I’ve not seen his other films.) But other fans feel differently. That’s why several fandom-news writers were invited last week to the set of the followup DC Extended Universe film, Justice League, with no conditions on what they wrote.
Warner Bros. and Snyder’s team clearly know that, rightly or wrongly, they must gain more trust with fans. Batman v Superman may not have been to everyone’s taste. But it’s taken me a while to see the film’s critical thrashing was due to many other mistrust factors, like:
- People still expect Superman to behave like a shallow, flat cartoon, not a real person.
- People still expect Superman to be locked into their idealization of “Christopher Reeve,” e.g. not the Christopher Reeve of all four Superman films, including the abysmal III and IV, but the “Christopher Reeve” or popular memory. (A similar popular memory insists Sherlock Holmes must always be saying, “Elementary.”)
- People just got finished with Christian Bale as Batman in The Dark Knight trilogy, and were grumpy (or felt they should be grumpy) about a rebooted Batman story.
- Ben Affleck’s casting as Batman rankled fans who felt it was time for a piling-on, due in part to Affleck’s infamous attempt as the titular hero of Daredevil (2003).
- Popular and simplistic expectations of superheroes still cause people to ask what that one woman at Taco Bell once asked me: “Why are Batman and Superman fighting? They’re both good guys!” So they doubted the film’s very premise.
- Many people had not even cared to see Man of Steel (2013) before they saw Batman v Superman. That’s like seeing Empire Strikes Back before seeing Star Wars.
- Snyder personally catches absurd levels of ire because of his previous movies.
DC gets ire thanks to “okay” films like Green Lantern or horrid ones like Catwoman.
- A growing popular line (especially among the “intelligentsia”) is that we have a “glut” of superhero movies that really, come on now, must be ended eventually, because grown-ups have more important things to do, like social justice. Batman v Superman ended up a “scapegoat” thanks to its groundswell of critical thrashing.
- And of course, some critical thrashing was simply a trend. One popular person—who has gained trust in media circles—thrashes it, then another thrashes it, and then it suddenly becomes cool. (A similar effect occurs in real-life mobs.)
- … Which leads to bad word of mouth about the film, because now the person on the street has been led to believe “everyone says” Batman v Superman is a real stinker.
With all these factors of mistrust at play, I’m stunned the film did so well as it did. Nearly all my friends loved it. And the franchise has only jolted a bit on the tracks; it has not derailed.
Still, the filmmakers’ attempts to reach out to fans and critics should help them gain trust.
Once more, I don’t promise any formulas. I’m only showing observations. They may seem blatantly, dully obvious to some of you, and a glowing insight to others, like it was to me.
How can fans and authors of Christian fantastical stories follow this gain trust principle?
How could this simple idea help these stories get better and find more readers—both among Christians and among broader audiences who need the kinds of stories we offer?
I have my ideas. But perhaps for now I’ll keep them to myself. First I’d rather hear yours.