The story arc

Have you ever read a book which follows the life of a main character, yet there doesn’t seem to be a story? This character does a variety of things, things good and bad happen to him or her, but they are just disconnected happenings without a point. Evidently, the writer had no idea how to fit it all into a story arc.

The story arc is the backbone of the story. The story begins with a central character who is facing some kind of trouble. He tries to find a way out of this trouble, but makes it worse. He continues to struggle to find a way to overcome this trouble, but it just compounds itself and gets worse and worse until it seems there is no possible way out. Finally, the central character gets hold of himself, faces his own weaknesses which have hindered him all along, faces the problem with courage he never had before and is victorious. The character has grown, the problem is overcome, and we have a story that grips our interest from start to finish.

This is not a newfangled modern concept. The stories in the Bible are prime examples of the story arc.

Moses is born in a time when Pharaoh has decreed that Israelite boy babies should not be allowed to live. His mother abandons him, but with a little help from his sister he is rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter and reunited with his mother until he is weaned. He grows up to be a prince of Egypt. Josephus tells us that he became a brilliant military commander. At the age of 40 his mind turns to the distress of the Israelites. He tries to help, but finds his help is not appreciated. But now he has crossed a line and can no longer stay in Egypt.

He flees to Midian and connects with a Midianite priest and shepherd. He marries this man’s daughter and spends the next 40 years caring for his father-in-law’s sheep in the Sinai peninsula. It seems that he keeps in sporadic contact with his brother and sister and is aware of the increasing oppression of the Israelite people. Then God appears to him in the burning bush and calls him to go back to Egypt to lead the Israelite people to freedom.

Moses balks at God’s call, claiming to be slow of speech. In the circumstances, the simplest explanation is that Moses could barely speak the Hebrew language. He had learned a little when he was very young, but never enough that the Israelites would believe that God had sent him to deliver them from bondage. God insisted and Moses went, with the support of his brother Aaron.

Moses has no difficulty speaking to Pharaoh and soon learns Hebrew so that he is no longer dependent on Aaron as his interpreter. But his repeated requests to let the Israelites go only increases Pharaoh’s oppression of them. The plagues of Egypt do nothing to make things better, until the death angel slays the firstborn of every Egyptian family. Then Pharaoh tells the people to go, and they get as far as the Red Sea which they have no means of crossing with all their people, possessions and livestock.

Pharaoh changes his mind and leads his army in hot pursuit. Here are the Israelites, trapped between the sea and an army with murder on its mind. Then God intervenes, placing a thick cloud between the Egyptians and Israelites and opening a passage through the Red Sea. The people walk through on dry land, with a wall of water on each side. Then God takes away the cloud and the enraged army charges after the Israelites. The wheels fall off their chariots and there is confusion and tumult. When the whole army is in the seabed, God lets the walls of water collapse, drowning the whole army. Moses has led the Israelites to freedom.

That is the classic story arc. Now, the Israelites were people just like us and one happy ending was not the end of the story. The Bible is full of story arcs like this. In fact, the Bible as a whole is one big, overarching story arc.

The stories in the Bible are about real people, people who are a bewildering mixture of strength and weakness, just like you and me. These stories reveal how God can use such weak, failure-prone people to accomplish His purposes. They are inspiring stories. And they are the ideal examples for us to study if we wish to learn how to write a gripping story.

One thought on “The story arc

  1. Yes, I definitely do feel that way about stories. Particularly the ones I’m writing, lol. I guess I’ll have to go back and revisit my character arc. Anyway, thanks for this post!

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