Guidelines Instead of Rules: A bit of preparation…

First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement so I must do nothing. And secondly, you must be a pirate for the pirate’s code to apply and you’re not. And thirdly, the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner.

Captain Barbossa, Pirates of the Caribbean

Tomorrow I’ll begin a series that will last a month of Fridays on some of the most common problems I address with my history classes at the collegiate level in their formal prose.  I’ll then translate that advice into ways we can improve our fiction.

Before I do, I wanted to make an important point:  Many of the “rules” that we must work with in academic prose quickly transform into “guidelines” (or even disappear altogether) when we start talking about fiction.  I do understand this.  In academic work, the goal is to communicate with absolute precision.  Therefore, strict adherence to form, function, and specific meaning are important.  A clear definition always trumps stylish vagaries.  In fiction, we find something much different.  Some of the best, most interesting authors are the ones who “violate” the rules of formal prose in ways that take us by surprise and we therefore find refreshing, enjoyable, or even disconcerting.  So why even bother to relate the one to the other?

The answer is simple and two fold.  First, whether you are talking about academics or fiction, many of the good practices of human communication–organization, clarity, point of view, etc.–are similar and in some cases even identical.  As authors of fiction, we may have need to ignore certain “norms” intentionally from time-to-time to create a mood or set up a plot twist, but there are also other times when those norms are indispensable.  Second, before you can intelligently violate one of the “laws” of formal prose and reap the side effects, you really must understand that the “law”says to begin with.  If not, whether you actually achieve your end or not is left up to blind luck.

So, as we proceed, please keep all this in mind.  It isn’t my intention to try to hem in anyone with rules that don’t apply.  They’re guidelines, and, like Barbossa, you should feel free to ignore them whenever it seems advantageous!

Fantasy, Dragons, and a Longing This World Cannot Satisfy

I am hiking somewhere on the magical Isle of Skye, so today’s post is about this world and our search for something beyond it.

If we discover a desire within us that nothing in this world can satisfy, also we should begin to wonder if perhaps we were created for another world.

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

I have always loved the idea of being created for another world.  It’s not that this world does not satisfy me.  This world is meant to be satisfying to a degree.  If we spent our days dissatisfied, we would be missing out on what this world has to offer.

A tree stump carved into a dragon in Wales.

But sometimes I think about what makes a fantasy novel so enthralling, at least for me.  I read them and I write them.  I enjoy some film versions as well (though tragically few of any worthWhy are fantasy films often so cheesy?).

I think, too, about why dragons are my favorite animal.  A creature that no one living has seen (who will admit it – I will neither confirm nor deny…) is the one I love the most.  What made me graduate from horses, my childhood favorite, to fire-breathing, flying creatures of fantasy?

I think that it has a lot to do with what Lewis is saying, though his quote goes a lot further and a lot deeper.  Many of us are supremely aware of a world beyond this world, the ultimate satisfaction at the end of this life.  That, of course, is the world he is talking about.

But there are other worlds to pursue in the meantime, worlds that I feel we are meant to pursue and create and explore and enjoy.  This world may not satisfy my love of dragons, mystery, and magic on the surface, but I can fall into the pages of a book or step through the looking glass of my camera lens.  Somewhere between the pages, around a secret corner, after a sunset, that’s where my longing drives me and where I find some measure of otherworldly satisfaction.

Why do I love fantasy?  Because there is a longing that nothing in this world can satisfy.  And while there is a greater world, the ultimate, perfect fantasy, that will someday replace this one, until then, there are also stories.

Why else did the Creator make us sub-creators if not to create worlds of our own?


Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

Now for the second movement of the suite on what’s wrong with contemporary poetry.  It’s not just the poets who have landed us in this mess.  They had help.  They were aided and abetted by a large group of accessories to the murder of Poetry, people who ought to have known better—whose job in fact was to know better.  Good luck with that.


A Musical Suite in Four Movements



Allegro Stupido

(For Editors, Critics, and Teachers of English)

The Modern Poets have just said

Why they want the Muses dead.

Shall we then resist this trend

And seek the Muses’ wounds to mend?

Never!  And just cause we’ll show

In the lines that come below.


All now confess Modernity

The essence is of quality

And Novelty is the greatest good

That can by man be understood.

Words of beauty, verse that rhymes,

Are not suited to the times.

Rhythm and alliteration

Are a vile abomination.

Like the plague, all now do flee

Metaphor and simile.

If the work makes any sense,

It only proves the poet’s dense

And is a vain and snobbish prig.

For meaning, then, give not a fig!

Only an archaizing fool

Would break this, our most basic rule.

If any such these words should hear,

Let him mark well, have no fear,

His fair, just punishment will be

Never his work in print to see.

No, let him not ask us to read

Aught with messages to heed.

Fractured prose, thoughts torn asunder,

Fill the readers’ hearts with wonder

And leave him them with no ground to tell

The road to Heaven from that to Hell;

And sets us free to fill the nation

With any old interpretation,

Immune from being proven wrong

Or right.  And thus the Muses’ song

Becomes (‘tis our firm resolution)

An instrument of prostitution

Designed to keep us (Aren’t we clever?)

In our tenured jobs forever!

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to and order Stars Through the Clouds!  Also look for Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest book from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty

Donald T. Williams, PhD

Meditations with C. S. Lewis: The Cosmic Grandfather

C. S. Lewis, best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, was also one of the most profound thinkers of twentieth century Christianity.  Along with J. R. R. Tolkien, he has inspired millions of people, include all of the authors at Lantern Hollow Press.  On Sundays we would like to take a moment to offer up a little Lewis for your consideration.


We want not so much a Father but a grandfather in heaven, a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’

–C. S. Lewis The Problem of Pain 

This is indeed symptomatic not only of modern Christianity, but of humanity in general.  From the very beginning of recorded history, we see that as a race we care first and foremost about getting what we want instead of doing what is right and best.  All too often, we project that demand directly back onto our expectations of God.

The examples are too many to examine in so short a space.  Consider only a sampling:

  • In the political realm, there is the battle between secular capitalism and socialism.  On the one hand, I demand the ability to work all things around me for my own good–even other people’s lives.  On the other, I demand that the government forcibly take from someone else to insure that I can have what I want.
  • In deism and atheism we see worldviews that demand people be absolute sovereign of their own destiny and morality.  Not only can I have what I want, but no one–least of all a non-existent or irrelevant God–has grounds to even express disapproval.  I am only held accountable to myself and a standard of natural law that rarely, if ever, enforces itself.
  • Moral relativism takes it even a step farther and declares that there is no standard by which what I want can be measured at all.  Since nothing is “right,” everything is.  It is, perhaps, the ultimate example of the grandfatherly indulgence that humanity has come to expect and demand.

The problem has only gotten worse since Lewis first wrote about it.  The idea of “grandfatherly Christianity” has spread like wildfire through western churches.  We long ago abandoned the idea of “meeting people in their need” (a good thing) to “giving people what they want” (a much more questionable proposition).  The end result is a castrated faith that, in many ways, bears a pale resemblance to what the world it imitates looked like five to ten years before.

And we wonder why people don’t respect the modern church?


Click here for the entire run of “Meditations with C. S. Lewis” so far.  Interested in more about C. S. Lewis?  Check out Passing Through the Shadowlands–an extended project where I am blogging through his life in letters, essays, and books.

“Still a better ending than Mass Effect 3….”

Still a better ending than Mass Effect 3
For the record, I corrected a spelling error on the original version…

Erik and I have had occasion to remark somewhat harshly on the now infamous ending to Mass Effect 3, and I’ve come across something that I think further illustrates our points.  I saw this meme the other day–one of many–and it made me laugh enough to post it to Facebook.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was the literal, if sad, truth.  The bouncing cards at the end of Windows Solitare, which have been around since Windows was dependent on DOS, illustrate how to end a game, story, or challenge, better than what we were actually sold in Mass Effect 3 back in March.

Here are a few reasons why:

  • Solitaire’s ending provides a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment appropriate to its level to the average participant.*  You feel like your several tries to get to the end have been rewarded and acknowledged.  We got none of that in the ending of ME 3.
  • The ending is consistent with the tone and feel of the rest of the piece.  This fact is so simple in relation to Solitaire that I know I had never considered it before.  It is a small challenge with an appropriate reward that follows in the specific theme of the game.  ME 3 was the end of an epic series with a reward that was unfitting to its scope and the magnitude of its experience.
  • It is a complete ending.  The participant isn’t left with a slew of unanswered questions–questions that apparently have answers that no one bothered to provide.  Ending with unknowns is of course OK, so long as you intend to continue the story.  Unfortunately, both Solitaire and ME 3 are supposed to be decisive culminations to the participant’s specific efforts.  Solitaire comes through; ME 3 falls flat.
  • Perhaps most importantly, the end of Solitaire, small (and even petty) though it may be, leaves the participant ready to give it another shot.  People play Solitaire more than once specifically to see the end.  The ending of ME 3 was so underwhelming and disappointing, that most participants I know–myself included–continue to play the game on occasion in spite of the ending, rather than because of it.

But perhaps all is not lost. There are some brilliant minds at Bioware, and I just can’t bring myself to believe that even they think that what they gave us was as good as they claim to think it was.  I can’t help thinking that there has to be another shoe yet to drop.**

Anyone else rooting for Indoctrination? *Sigh*


*I’m intentionally using the word “participant” instead of “player” here.  I think that these principle are broadly applicable to everything from games to movies to books to management, and I don’t want my language to pigeonhole me.

**I think it might be worth noting that Bioware continues to insist that they will stay true to the “original vision” for the ending.  That doesn’t sound encouraging.  Then again, if the “original vision” included something more up their sleeve, anything might happen!