Pursuing Good: The Backstory

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When is something good? How do we know we are doing good work?
Is there an objective standard that church technical artists can use to make sure the effort that we are putting in is paying off?
How do we know if our transitions are good? Or the infrastructure we are adding to the word and worship is good?
Ultimately, it’s really about the service itself, as an entity, how do we know it is good?

Let’s find out.

The excellence caveat

I know people who do not like the word “good”. I work with one of them everyday! His main point would be that “good” is just too generic. In the world of goals, great and excellent seem so much better than good. Good is just too passé.
Though I agree with the idea that we should be trying to do something special and not something passable, I still think “good” is a good descriptor of that goal.

I reject excellence as a trumpeted standard, partly because excellence is often redefined to simply mean doing your best with what you have. We already have a phrase for that, here it is: “doing your best with what you have.”
Excellence is the quality of being outstanding or extremely good.
I talk more about that in my article, Why I Kissed Excellence Goodbye.

But how do you motivate people if you cannot encourage them to excellence? How do you get them to give their best and to bring a high commitment to their work?
Well, I like to encourage people to care. To care a heckuva lot.
I talk more about that standard in my article, Better than Excellence.

Pursuing good is a worthwhile goal. I ran across two conversations about this very thing this past week that really got me thinking about how we analyze the work we do and make sure that it is good.

What makes something good?

The first article (or podcast really) is John August’s, What is Good Writing? You can find the transcript of the podcast here.

On the podcast John and Craig talk about a Quora answer from Marcus Geduld to the question, How does one differentiate between good and bad acting?

After stressing that good is a subjective standard, Marcus highlights these identifying characteristics that, to him, make an actor good. [I’ve included a little summary of the point, but it’s really worth the read].

  1. He makes me believe he is actually going through whatever his character is going through.
    [This point is about authenticity. “If an actor is ‘faking it’, he’s not doing his job.”]
  2. He has to surprise me.
    [This is about creating a character that is not stiff or static. Good acting includes a range of reactions by the character to avoid them being wooden and static.]
  3. He is vulnerable.
    [They show us “parts of themselves that most people keep hidden.” That vulnerability is what communicates emotionally to us.]
  4. He knows how to listen.
    [This point is about engagement. Are they actively involved in the scene even if they aren’t speaking? Or are they just waiting to deliver their next line?]
  5. He has a well-honed instrument (their body and voice).
    [This is about being appropriate to the scene or action. Is the actor comfortable in their own skin? Are their movements natural?]

Now that you have the gist of those 5 points. I’d really like to emphasize point #2, surprise. Here’s what Marcus said:

2. he has to surprise me. This is the most nebulous requirement, but it’s important. Except for really small parts that aren’t supposed to call attention to themselves (e.g. a bank teller who just cashes the hero’s checks), it’s not enough for actors to just seem real. Seeming real is a requirement, but a second requirement is that I can’t predict their every reaction before they have it.

Think of how a woman might react if her boyfriend breaks up with her. There are many, many truthful ways—ways which would seem like a human being reacting and not like a space alien behaving in some bizarre, unbelievable way.

She might break down and cry; she might laugh hysterically; she might throw water in his face; she might go completely numb, having no expression at all…

An actor’s job is to know the breadth of human possibility and the depths of their own possibilities. They must pull from this well and surprise us. Otherwise, they become boring and predictable.

John and Craig discuss these points and apply them to writing and then go on and add a few of their own. Before I mention their additions, I really liked what they said about point #2 above.

John: And there’s no surprise without expectation. So the reason why a joke works is because you set up an expectation for what the natural outcome is and the punch line is a surprise.

The same thing happens in drama. You set an expectation for what is going to happen next and the surprise is something different happens or a different choice is made. So you don’t get those moments of surprise unless you’ve set expectation really well.

[…]

Craig: It’s remarkable how similar what we do is to what magicians do, because there is no surprise for the magician and there’s none for us. We know how it ends. We know everything. So there’s this careful craft of misdirection and misleading and setting up one expectation only to deliver something else. It’s all very crafted.

[…]

John: Yeah. I think the other crucial thing to remember about surprise is if everything is surprising, nothing is surprising. And so if you don’t allow characters to behave in a way that we can have some ability to predict what’s going to happen next, we will stop caring or just stop trying to put our confidence in you that they are going to do something worthwhile. That there’s going to be a payoff to this.

John and Craig continue by adding a few further points about what makes writing good.
Good writing has…

  1. layers.
    [This is about not being one dimensional. Craig:”Good writing I think is accomplishing more than one thing at a time.”]
  2. hidden seams.
    [This is about smooth transitions. They talk about a phrase, “That bumped me” — as if you are traveling smoothly and get jarred by a speed bump.]
  3. a point of view.
    [“The central dramatic element.” Not only do you have to have a point, and make sure we get it, don’t answer a question no one is asking.]
  4. comes full circle.
    [Did you deliver on the themes you were exploring?] John adds:

John: And yet, at the same time, ideally, starting at that place, you should not have been able to predict that it got to that place.

  1. confidence.
    [This is not just being in control of the story but avoiding mistakes that frustrate the audience.]
  2. a discernible voice.
    [This is about consistency  of style.]
  3. finesse.
    [Making the difficult appear easy. This is a concept I really like. Part of this idea is not revealing everything at once—being patient with the payoff of the story.]

All 12 of these points are fantastic.
As usual, I want to take these points and apply them to our job as technical artists, but they actually apply to any job and any endeavor.

The element of surprise

For the sake of keeping this as short as possible, I want to highlight the concept of surprise, then I’ll come back and summarize these 12 points.

  • A good service needs to communicate an expectation. That’s step one.
  • But to avoid being boring and predictable, we must surprise by pulling from the “well of human possibility” (Marcus).
  • With this caveat: if everything is a surprise, nothing is, and people will stop caring and we will lose their confidence that what we’re doing is worthwhile (Craig).

I love this idea of surprise. I am always trying to figure out where a story is going. Good writing keeps us one step ahead of the characters. Good writing drops bread crumbs to let us know where the story might be going, and then BAM! it surprises us with something that was there all along. It’s a balancing act between what is believable and realistic (but doesn’t become too routine—that’s where boredom comes from), and introducing something new.

Jesus was a master of surprise. Surprise is a main device of the parables.

Consider one of my favorites, The Good Samaritan.
We all expect to be the heroes of Jesus’ stories.
As the story unfolds we clearly see the distinction between the powerful of society and the everyday person (us). Of course the priest and the levite wouldn’t stop, they’re not like us. They are not normal, salt-of-the-earth, good folk. They are too concerned about appearance and religiosity. Of course, they can’t represent what being a good neighbor is all about. Haha  We’re loving it!
And then…

BAM! SURPRISE!

Jesus introduces that person we love to hate. The scum of the earth. The person that is destroying our lives and is literally the worst. These people not only don’t belong, we despise them.
And Jesus makes them, them!, the hero of His story.
With this surprise ending, Jesus’ demonstrates that we are not really loving our neighbor like we claim to be because we literally have an actual neighbor that we despise. Making them the hero surfaced our disgust and contempt.

This added element of surprise is used by preachers we listen to that are really good. Be it a nuance from the greek or an application we had not thought of, they take the familiar and, by adding a twist, surprise us. That’s when we feel we got our money’s worth.

In my Pentecostal faith tradition, we erred on the side of everything being a surprise. In that tradition,  we sometimes expected the Holy Spirit to surprise us every week, and always in a unique way. But when everything is a surprise, people stop caring and lose confidence that what we’re doing is worthwhile. This is partly why attendance suffers in those extreme examples. Now many Pentecostal churches, in an effort to correct those abuses, have erred on the other side and have no surprises at all.
[In my opinion, the fault was in connecting Holy Spirit direction with spontaneity, as if the Holy Spirit cannot plan anything ahead of time. The error, or over correction, is more nuanced but flows out of the misunderstanding that the Holy Spirit only desires to use the people who are in the planning session.]

What makes a service good?

Let me summarize all of this talk about acting and writing into 10 principles that could be used as the benchmark for something being good. These are subjective, of course.

A service is good when it is…

  1. authentic.
  2. surprising.
  3. exposing vulnerability.
  4. interesting (with a by product of my engagement).
  5. appropriate.
  6. complete or full (delivers on the expectation).
  7. special.
  8. smooth in transitions.
  9. purposeful (or communicating a point).
  10. impeccably executed.

Pursue these 10 characteristics and you will be pursuing good.

Before I close let me add this.
I can hear an objection as I type this. The objection of “What about the Holy Spirit?” I can hear a concern that I am placing all of the emphasis on human effort. Couldn’t one see these 10 characteristics as a way to manufacture a move of God? That is, am I replacing a genuine move of God with the pursuit of characteristics born out of my own self-effort?

A good service is birthed in prayer and worship. And let us not fall into the trap that we are so full of God, that what comes naturally to us is equal to being Holy Spirit led. We need to break out of those comfort zones.

A good service stewards the presence of God well. My hope is that by looking at our services through the lens of these 10 characteristics, we can assess whether we have been doing that or not.

 

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