The Greatest Story Ever Told

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….


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10 responses to “The Greatest Story Ever Told

  1. I have never been impressed by the Bible. I tried to be, when I was a Christian, but it never worked.

    I asked on my blog if people found the Tanakh to be great literature — only two comments unfortunately (you weren’t one of them). But I think what people like is the message, perhaps, but as you say, the delivery sucks.

    And now I am looking at the Ramayana — you and I discussed looking at it together once. Every time I read the Mahabharata and the Ramayana I am far more impressed by Indian literature. And to think, our literature in Bible and Greek influenced. What a loss. How much richer are literature would have been if the Mahabharata was considered the cool and holy thing to allude to is stuffy literature.

    Sorry, no suggestions on Bible stories that fulfill your cookie-cutter formula. Good question though.

    But, I may remember to look for it while reading the Ramayana.

  2. Ian

    I find parts of the Tanakh to be literarily satisfying. Not very much though.

    I have not read the Ramayana in anything but kids versions. Maybe I should. I enjoyed the Bhagavad Gita the couple of times I’ve red it. But that too, hardly struck me as a rip roaring story. Ultimately I’m not confident I have the right sensitivity to literary genius. 🙂 I’d like to know more, but the way my brain works, I tend to try and figure stuff out, so i tend to exasperate folks who claim to understand literature intuitively. I tend to think, if someone’s genius can’t be articulated, then it is dubious in some way.

  3. I forgot if you you have read the Mahabharata — I like it better than the Ramayana. But as you may have seen by my post, the Ramayana is probably far more popular.

  4. Ian

    I have a copy of it, and it appears to have had its spine bent, so I think I have. But to be honest I remember nothing about it. It would have been abut 10 years ago if ever. So I’m probably due for a reread.

    Edit: The version I have is also an abridgment.

  5. Mellie

    I would say that Jesus’ longer parables work within this formula. The Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan stand out the most in that regard. The Prodigal Son has the plot question which is ominously foreshadowed when the younger son asks for his inheritance. The younger son also undergoes the character arc. In the story of the Good Samaritan, it appears that the reader (or listener) himself is the one undergoing the character arc. The parables seem to assume the listener as one of the characters in the story so they all may fit the bill to some degree.

    The drama of the Israelites escaping slavery from Egypt is very good as pure story but there is far too much extraneous detail in the telling. The story of Joseph is equally good and his brothers provide an example of the character arc. The plot question again revolves around escape from captivity

    There are too few stories of this type for the length of the actual book, though. This is clear just from looking at a children’s story bible which leaves out large swaths of the original book, as well as leaving out details of the stories themselves in order to make them both more readable and more palatable.

  6. Ian

    Excellent examples, yes, thanks.

    And on reflection I was unkind about stories not meeting both criteria. As you say.

  7. Mellie

    I don’t think you were unkind at all. I agree that most of the Bible is flat, as you say. A little of that might stem from translation issues but another factor could be that the Bible is read in every Christian service and followers are strongly encouraged to read it every day of their lives. Even the good stories with classic themes aren’t good enough to keep one’s attention at that rate. Since the book is so highly praised, even, as you mention ,as a work of literature, it is hard not to bring correspondingly high levels of expectation to it, only to come away with the feeling “oh, is that all?…”

    I don’t know if you have heard about this but in my state, lawmakers wish to declare this the “year of the bible”. I think there is genuine puzzlement on the part of some (along with the phony posturing on the part of others) when it is suggested that this might not be the best idea ever proposed.

  8. Many ancient or mythic characters are considered flat today because they don’t go through that choice-change arc (your #2). They are still heroic, though. Sometimes, they make the same exact choice but this time they succeed in making some difference (or I suppose they could fail, for tragedies).

    To tie this into recent conversations elsewhere, the lead in The Hunger Games is faced with a choice early on – offering herself in place of another. By the end, she has convinced someone else to make the same choice rather than accept the dictatorial rules of the game they find themselves in.

    The two gems you have dug up are pretty cool. But, you can play with them and polish them for whatever purposes you like. Sounds like you are having a lot of fun with work. I’m envious and curious – what’s the project that’s making you study story?

  9. Ian

    Many many successful books (and an overwhelming number of fantasy books) tell pretty terrible stories. They are often successful because of their setting. The Harry Potter books, are awful stories, but her world is so compelling and attractive that the books are worth it for that.

    Hunger games does have a big question: who will win. But the rest of the story isn’t that great. But the setting is again much more the star than Katnip et al. Similarly the Night Circus, story is badly setup and rather lame, but the setting is so attractive that fans will dress up in costume. The great example of this is the Hobbit, which is about as poor a story as you could hope to find, but rests on a wonderful setting, and okay characterization.

    It is rare to find it all. There is a reason that Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, and the Tempest are classics.

    All imho, of course.

    My job? I co-founded a digital publisher last year. Though I’m really the technical guy, we are publishing interactive books, so it behoves me to know a lot more about the mechanics of story than I did.

  10. That’s a brilliant point about the importance of setting. Escapism has become pretty huge in storytelling.

    The Hobbit was pretty important to me when growing up, so I’m tempted to defend it. But it would be from the heart, and without good argument. At the time of publication, I think it was nostalgic and tapped into a shared feeling of the time (the whole British bourgeois vs medieval gallantry thing). Today it’s probably read more as old and antiquated. In terms of structure it does play upon a couple of psychological tricks that still work on kids and enchanted audiences. It is, after all, about a generic, plump little kid on a series of escalating adventures.

    That does sound like a fun job!

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