I’m reading a lot about story theory at the moment, mostly for work (I love my job). I’m trying to give myself a major crash course in narratology and myth and story and creative writing. Its hard, fun and quite inspiring.
On the more pop end of this — where story theory gives way to ‘how to write a best selling novel in 3 hours’ books, I’ve come across a few gems of how to think about story. The two most significant, I think are these:
First — a plot is a question — you ask a question near the start of a plot-line, and answer it at the end. There should be only the minimum of content before the question to make the question understandable, and even less than that at the end. It may be “will the heroine get the boy?” or “will the terrorist succeed in blowing up the train?” Smaller plots figure the same, “will they get to the station in time?”, or “will her message reach him before the news of her apparent death?”
Second — a character arc is a choice made differently — give a character a similar choice at the start and end of their arc. They should go a different way. This shows their change in character. The heroine runs from a bully at the start, but stands up to another at the end. The hero chooses career over happiness at the start, but gives up his job for love at the end. The cop invents evidence at the start to secure a conviction, but at the end lets a guilty man go free through compassion.
I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words of fiction over the last 25 years (including this story). It’s fun. I don’t do it seriously, I don’t expect to be published as a fiction author (I’ve written over a million words of non-fiction which has been published). But I look back now at the stories that I’ve written that I thought were written well, that were linguistically good, evocative, and imaginative, but flat somehow. and I realise these two simple ideas could have radically improved them. I’m excited by what this knowledge means for the next stories I write.
I’ve always been dissatisfied with the claim that the bible contains the greatest stories ever told. The claim, from some non-theistic Christians, that it is the bible’s literary merit which attracts them (there are many other reasons non-theistic Christians identify as Christian, of course). Aesthetic appreciation is to some extent subjective (although not entirely), but I’ve never found it so, myself. Bible stories are interesting, evocative of time and place and an alien culture. They are spectacular in places, and laced with linguistic sophistication, poetry, irony, subtext, and so on. But as stories, ultimately very flat.
And in analyzing my own story telling in this light, I see why. The bible rarely sets up plots via questions and rarely gives a character arc.
I can think of some exceptions on each score, which are the more striking stories for that. But I can’t offhand think of a bible story with both qualities. Can you? I’ll keep my suggestions to myself for a while to see if there’s any takers….