In his entertaining book on writing fiction — not great literature, but fiction that will hook the reader and give him enjoyment — H. Bedford-Jones, “The King of the Pulps,” reveals what he considers to be the “deadly sin” that fiction writers often commit.
It’s not the lack of plot. Bedford-Jones himself was sometimes accused by editors of writing stories that didn’t have plots, novels that consisted of one episode after another, without one overarching plot that linked everything together. He argues that that sort of plot really isn’t crucial for a story, that there are great stories that lack that sort of overarching plot, though every paragraph of the story should be critical and no paragraph should be extraneous.
But what is the deadly sin? It’s the “lack of perception as to what must be emphasized, played up strong!” (46). It is the “lack of proportion in telling the story” (50). It’s … well, it’s what you’ve experienced from time to time when you’ve read a story:
You read a story, get interested in the characters, find the plot absorbing and good, entertaining. When you come to the climax, do you want to be told that the hero “knocked the skipper into the scuppers, overawed the crew, and took command of the ship?” Not much. You want the details of the knocking and overawing. You want to be on the inside, learn how the thing was done! In other words, you want to follow the emotions of the hero in detail.
Never forget that the reader, in general, identifies himself with the chief character of a story. He desires to see things through the eyes of that character. When the reader arrives at some crucial point in the tale and finds it glossed over in a couple of sentences, he is bitterly disappointed….
The amateur writer seems bound to commit this sin. He seldom realizes what points in his story he should lay most emphasis upon, and what points are least vital to his tale. It is a question of seeing the story in his own mind, of visualizing it, in its proper proportions. This perception of values, however, is something that he must come to learn unless he is to fail utterly. It is, undoubtedly, the great essential of fiction writing (This Fiction Business, 46-47, 48).
Commentary after commentary claims that the way to resolve the apparent contradiction between Matthew 5:16 (“Let your light so shine that men may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven”) and 6:1 (“Take care not to do your righteousness before men to be seen by them”) is by focusing on intention. On the one hand, we aren’t to do good works before men to be seen by them, as if that and that alone, were our goal. On the other hand, we are to do good works before men to be seen by them so that they will glorify God.
But what these commentaries all seem to overlook in their exclusive focus on intention is that Jesus is talking about different sets of good works, different kinds of good works. Matthew 6:1 does not stand by itself, or as a conclusion to Matthew 5. It introduces a new section of the Sermon on the Mount.
The earlier section — which includes the works we are to do in order to be seen by men so that they will glorify our Father in heaven — talks about how we deal with anger and lust, with eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth, with the inconveniences that oppressors heap upon us, with our enemies.
The section that 6:1 introduces has to do with the three foundational acts of Jewish piety: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. These acts, unlike the acts of ch. 5, are not to be done to be seen by men.
Jesus does not say that it’s okay to do these things in public, in an attention-getting way, so long as our motive is evangelistic and not self-aggrandizing, so that people will glorify God and not us. Rather, he says to do these things … but to do them in private, to not let your left hand know what your right hand is giving, to shut yourself into your inner room to pray so that no one watches, to look normal — or even as if you’re feasting — when you’re fasting.
That is to say, in his instructions Jesus does not focus simply on intentions (though intentions matter) but on actions that guard against our wrong intentions getting the upper hand.