The Dynamics of a Good Story
All writing is storytelling. Christian writers can use that important idea to attract and sustain the interest of their readers.
There are all kinds of stories. Some are long, others very short. Some are fictional; most are factual or based on fact. Great teachers have always used stories to introduce their topic or make their point.
Jesus was a storyteller. He captured the attention of people with the fictional stories we call parables, and he used them lead them to a deeper understanding of his mission and God’s plan.
His followers mimicked him. They retold his stories and they told stories about his life and times. Jesus was killed and rose around 30 AD, and for about 40 years the stories were not written, but were part of what we call the Oral Tradition. Paul was the first New Testament writer, around 50 to 52 AD, or about 20 years after Jesus. After that, Mark wrote his gospel.
So, between the death of Jesus and the writing of the Gospel of Mark, Christians were doing what Jesus did, telling Kingdom stories.
Today, seasoned writers understand the value of stories. Usually they tell the stories in their mind before they commit them to paper. They don’t throw words on a page, they work to capture the interest and imagination of readers.
Nonfiction writers tell stories in the same way as fiction writers. Stories create a psychological connection between the mind of the teller and the mind of the reader.
People Love Stories
Cavemen loved to hear them when they sat around their glowing fires and today people love them as they sit around their glowing TV sets.
The human mind is hardwired to receive stories. The imagination craves them. People act on the stories they hear—they want to go out and live the life of the hero or heroine.
Even sporting events are unfolding stories. All games start the same, but then the plot thickens. How will it end? Who will be the victor and who will be the vanquished? Each sporting event is filled with drama and plot twists.
In fact, life is an unfolding story.
The Unchanging Plot
What are the dynamics of a good story? There are three obvious parts to every good story: a beginning, middle and end. This is a natural flow to all stories, even jokes. That natural flow has been adapted in plays, movies and TV shows. There is almost always an Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3. Each act is a story and each act contains other stories with a beginning, middle and end, which we call subplots.
Novels have the same structure, although it’s sometimes harder to see because novels generally have multiple subplots.
Each Emma Coats, former Pixar storyboard artist reduced the storytelling process to a few simple phases:
1. “Once upon a time there was ___.
2. Every day, ___.
3. One day ___.
4. Because of that, ___.
5. Because of that, ___.
6. Until finally ___.”
“Once upon a time” introduces the characters and the location.
“Every day” is an extension of the introduction and describes normal events of the lives of the people. We get comfortable with the characters and want the best for them. Sometimes we quickly hate characters, and that creates dynamic tension in a story.
“One day…” Oh, oh, here is comes… disruption. The shift from “every day” to “one day” indicates that life is going to change for the characters. It signals the idea that they must soon overcome a series of challenges.
“Because of that…” indicates that consequences emerged from the disruption. There may be an individual consequence, but interesting stories often have a chain-reaction of them. One disruption causes another, and as readers we find ourselves on an emotional roller-coaster. It is those conflicts that maintain our attention.
“Until finally…” The “finally” is the resolution of the conflict. This outcome is something that is also hardwired in human consciousness. We all want all stories to end with those wonderful words, “…and they lived happily ever after.”
The Pattern Always Works
This sequencing is just as important in nonfiction as it is fiction. It is just as important to articles and blog posts as it is to a book. A writer must make an initial connection with the reader, create conflict (or a series of conflicts) and bring everything to a happy conclusion.
Grab the interest by your readers by telling a story. If your writing starts to bog down, revive reader interest with another story. Tell a story within a story. Take your readers through the full cycle in each case. The story trigger is always the same: “Once something happened.”