Writing stories to pass values from one generation to the next

A Fascination with Secret Doors

Secret Doors

A Fascination with Secret Doors

While teaching three different grade levels of English, I have the opportunity to regularly delve into diverse literature and related writing assignments. I also write what my students write on a regular basis as a model for them and as practice for me. One of my current assignments is writing descriptions of superheroes based on real historical heroes, elements from the periodic table, and mathematical terms (for the arch-nemisis). Another grade level will choose from these descriptions to base a narrative involving said superheroes.

Another grade level is writing fantasy. I based this short story assignment on the fascination of readers through the centuries with secret doors and alternate universes. I wondered aloud to my students at the beginning of the teaching unit why secret doors still “work” in literature. That question is part of a greater and more fascinating literary discussion.

A football coach recently told a group how much coaches like to be innovative. He followed that statement by admitting that there are really only about fifteen football plays, and “we all like to think we invented them.” There is much truth in his statement. If you reduce the various formations and take away pre-snap motion and variables like that, the rules will only allow so many “real” plays. The variations of these same plays are the innovations.

Story writing is much the same. You can take millions of novels, novellas, and short stories with their myriad of settings and characters and reduce them to a handful of plots. In his mammoth work The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker argues that there are only about seven basic plots, or archetypes upon which stories are built:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

Some argue that even these can be further condensed into as few as one “real” plot. Wherever you land on that spectrum, you probably already identified several favorite novels and/or motion pictures that fit into Booker’s categories. They may take vastly different routes but essentially tell the same story. Secret doors appear again and again throughout literature not as a plot but as a path.

Secret Doors: A Path to the Plot

Secret doors have fascinated readers for years. Is it because those same readers desire to leave their ordinary lives (if only for just a while) and enter a land of fantasy? Or are they dreamers who desire a bit of fantasy to enter their own real worlds? Think about the movies and TV shows you have seen with secret doors. The Chronicles of Narnia is probably the most famous, but there are others like National Treasure, Monsters, Inc., and many more. And what would the Batman or Scooby-Doo cartoons be without secret doors?

Mac Barnett’s excellent (and most entertaining) TED talk “Why a Good Book Is a Secret Door” reveals the tension between reality and fantasy. The “in between,” he says, is fiction. He reveals this in-between place in a Venn diagram. In looking at this simple illustration, the fascination with secret doors as the gateway between reality and fantasy becomes quite clear.

Secret Doors

Why the obsession with secret doors and, by extension, alternate universes (Think: The Matrix)? They make us wonder, is there more to life than just what I see?

Secret Doors and the Greatest Story Ever Told

The greatest story ever told involves a not-so-secret and yet very much a secret door. Those who walk through it find a kingdom they discover they had always longed for but could never had known any other way than walking through the secret door. This door?

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (Jesus Christ, John 14:6, ESV)

More to the point…

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.

(John 10:1-7, ESV)

The fascination with secret doors makes perfect sense when the Creator Himself doesn’t just point to a secret door. He IS the door, not between reality and fantasy but between the world as we see it and His kingdom. Only those who walk through the door ever find it.


About Al Ainsworth

Al Ainsworth is a values storyteller. He works with individuals, businesses, churches, and other organizations to pass along their values through the stories they tell…and re-tell.

Al is the author of Lines in the Gravel, Stories from the Roller Coaster (of a Faith Life), and the Coach Dave series. Subscribe to his email list for more values storying.

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