I’ve been working on a novel for about two years. I have 10 completed chapters, which amounts to some 20,000 words. If you had told me a couple years ago that I could write 20,000 words of the same story, I would have scoffed at you—ha!—but I’ve learned so much in those two years that I don’t think I could have learned any other way: perseverance, discipline, and humility. My book is a combination of fantasy/adventure and science fiction, and tells the story of a young boy who suddenly and unexpectedly finds himself reunited with his long-lost mom and dad. He discovers that he has a younger brother, and realizes that he isn’t alone in the world.
A friend once asked me if I used any consistent, repeated concepts in my book. I told her “no,” I’m just trying to write a good story and focus on the basics: characters, plot, and setting. After I reflected on my answer, however, I realized I was wrong. I may not be doing it on purpose, but my book is filled with concepts from my life, my thoughts about specific topics, images that are meaningful to me, and ideas that have impacted me. These concepts fill the pages of my story layer upon layer, like rock that’s built up over thousands of years, encasing hidden treasures and dinosaur bones. I’ve noticed that I can divide these concepts into two categories: living ideas and themes. Living ideas form the foundation upon which my story stands, and the theme provides the over-arcing top layer, more easily accessible to the reader.
Living Ideas and Themes in Stories
The term “living ideas” comes from my favorite homeschool educator, Charlotte Mason. Miss Mason writes,
“An idea is more than an image or a picture; it is, so to speak, a spiritual germ endowed with vital force—with power, that is, to grow, and to produce after its kind. It is the very nature of an idea to grow: as the vegetable germ secretes that it lives by, so, fairly implant an idea in the child’s mind, and it will secrete its own food, grow, and bear fruit in the form of a succession of kindred ideas.”—Home Education, pg. 173
She notes, truthfully and wonderfully, that the Bible contains the most and best living ideas:
“By degrees, they will see that the world is a stage whereon the goodness of God is continually striving with the wilfulness of man; that some heroic men take sides with God; and that others, foolish and headstrong, oppose themselves to Him. The fire of enthusiasm will kindle in their breast, and the children, too, will take their side, without much exhortation, or any thought of talk of spiritual experience.”—Home Education, pg. 249
My own defintion of living ideas would be something like this: ideas that you can take, apply to your life, and make your own.
One of the living ideas in my story is that change begins at the ground level and radiates outward and upward. Would you like to live in a kinder world? Then begin by being kind to your neighbors. For me, that’s my kids and my husband, which are sometimes the most challenging group of people to be kind to—not because of them, but because of my impatient heart. More importantly, would you like to live in a world where more people know and love Jesus? Then begin by praying for opportunities to share the gospel, and boldness to grab ahold of them when they come. In my story specifically, the main character lives in a totalitarian regime. Instead of planning a military coup, his family fights to spread truth and goodness by inviting people into their homes to have dinner with them.
One of the most beautiful living ideas from the Bible is self-sacrifice, the giving of your own life, either literally or symbolically, to preserve the life of another. The friendship between David and Jonathan comes to mind. Jonathan pledged himself to David, even though his father, King Saul, viewed David as his greatest enemy. Saul was a dangerous man, and despite this, Jonathan promises David, “Whatever you say, I will do for you.” (1 Samuel 20:4) This is true friendship, love for another blooming and thriving in the darkest of circumstances. Of course, Jesus is the best example of self-sacrifice. He died so that we could live; he did what the Old Testament sacrifices could never do. He begged that the cup might pass from him, but he took it willingly for us, the joy set before him, and so that all might see and understand God’s justice and his great love for his people.
One story can have many, many living ideas packed into it like bedrock. Ground-level change, self-sacrifice, boldness and perseverence in the face of adversity, true friendship despite dangerous circumstances—living ideas like these reveal the depth of the characters in our stories, and give us something to strive for ourselves.
On the other hand, stories typically have one over-arcing theme that provides the reader with a bigger, clearer picture of life in the world God made. Some common themes in literature include the circle of life, coming of age, good vs. evil, family, survival, and war.
White Fang by Jack London is an excellent example of the circle of life. We meet White Fang as soon as he’s born into the world, and we watch as he struggles to survive, ultimately finding a family of his own and fathering a litter of pups.
l just finished reading books 1-8 of the Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi. I believe these books would fall under coming of age. When we meet Emily as a teenager, she’s complaining about having to go to Algebra, and by the end of book 8 she’s a powerful master of her own fears and self-will.
Finally, Lord of the Rings comes to mind any time I think of good vs. evil. Tolkien clearly distinguishes between the good guys and the bad guys; Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn search for their small companions, whose lives may seem inconsequential to some, while the orcs kill and plunder anyone who stands in their way. Even characters like Boromir, whose allegiance is somewhat clouded, choose a side in the end.
Based on the first 10 chapters of my book, I would place it under the theme of family. I love to explore the relationships between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and brothers and sisters. I make clear the distinction between good and evil, but I still think that, at least at this time, the family relationships are really what’s moving the plot of my story forward. That may change as I write; as any writer knows, stories can and do take on a life of their own.
One story can have many, many living ideas, all woven together like fabric fibers, but each story typically falls under one, cohesive theme, the garment that points the reader to the bigger picture of life in the world God made.
Living Ideas and Themes in Our Lives
I teach fine arts courses at a small classical Christian school in rural Wisconsin. Teaching fine arts courses at a small school means that I teach every grade level, from the sweet, bright-eyed kindergartners all the way up to the fiercely independent high school seniors. When I arrive home from school with my kids, the first thing I like to do is tell my husband all the humorous things my students did during the day, my every-day, garden-variety form of practicing storytelling. My kids do the same thing—who did what at recess, Emily fell out of her chair during math, Johnny traded me all of his crackers for my cheese stick. As natural-born storytellers ourselves, we parents can guide our children to distinguish between living ideas and themes in their own lives and the stories they tell us.
I like how the Westminster Catechism expresses the theme of our lives as Christians,
“Q: What is the chief end of man?
A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
This theme gives purpose to everything we do, and mirrors 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” God, however, calls each of us to glorify him in different ways at different times and circumstances in our lives. This idea, that God gives us each our own gardens to tend, is itself a living idea.
I learned early on in my life that relationships are very important to me. I try to form relationships wherever I go, and if I can’t, I feel frustrated and alone. Likewise, when I do form those relationships, I delight in bringing my various groups of friends together. I love watching people meet each other for the first time and discover all the things they have in common. I’m good at forming classroom cultures that are welcoming and restful. This is a gift from a God, a testament of his amazing grace in my life. I would call relationship-building one of the living ideas of my life. Even my book reflects this part of my personality; much of the conflict in my story comes from family relationships. And of course, what is teaching but building relationships with students?
Being a relationship-builder has its drawbacks, though, and a wise friend of mine recently pointed this out to me. Most of the decisions I make come down to relationships. If I choose a new job over my current job, how will that affect the friendships I’ve made at my current job? Will I ever see my coworkers again? What if I don’t? One area I’d like to grow in is learning to put relationships in their proper place. They’re not everything, even though I’d like them to be. When making decisions, I have to consider my own goals and the goals of my family first.
We can use living ideas and themes to help our children evaluate their choices as I just demonstrated. The stories our children tell us reveal much about their desires and the living ideas that matter to them. They remember specific aspects of their days because of who they are. Noting the living ideas in the stories our children tell us can help us guide them as they move from small life decisions, such as which shoes to wear to school, to big life decisions, such as if and where to go to college. Living ideas point us to what is important to us, all under the theme of doing life to God’s glory.
Woven into the World
The more I’ve become acquiainted with the concept of living ideas, the more I notice them woven into the world around me. This makes sense when I think about God, our sovereign, wonderful, loving creator. Psalm 19:1 tells us, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” In Jesus, “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). God made a world filled with order, and Jesus undergirds all of the beauty we see around us by the power of his might. Living ideas don’t appear by accident. When I pay close attention, I hear them in the sermons my pastor preaches, read them in stories, see them in my life and the lives of my family, and, despite my obliviousness, write them in my own stories.
As Leland Ryken explains in his incredible book The Liberated Imagination, “Sooner or later, writers or composers or painters will say something about the things that matter most to them” (pg. 97). What a beautiful quote. May it guide us as we read and write and tell the stories God gives us to tell.
Featured image by master1305 on Freepik