So you want to write stories.
But not just any old stories, no. You want to write powerful, positive stories. Stories that can change people’s minds and lives. Stories that echo on long after you’ve died.
You’ve read writer’s memoirs, you’ve studied story structure. You’ve taken classes and purchased books like Save the Cat, On Writing, Story Genius, and anything about writing stories that you can get your hands on.
But you’ve hit a wall.
You need a fresh perspective, a book on writing that doesn’t just repeat everything you’ve read before.
You wonder if there is a handbook modeling everything you need to know about writing powerful AND good stories.
Answer: Yes there is.
Within the pages of this one book, you can find all the elements that make up a good story — epic plots, unforgettable characters, unique artistry, and more.
You could call this book the Bible for Writers.
Actually, you could call it the Bible, period.
3 Elements All Great Stories Share
What do powerful stories have in common? Three things:
- Believable characters
- Impossible conflicts
- Universal themes
For example: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird changed attitudes toward civil rights. But would it have had the same kind of story power without:
- A colorful cast of characters, including the wise and courageous Atticus Finch, the zany relatives and neighbors, and the diabolical Bob Ewell?
- The impossible task Atticus faced: trying to defend an innocent black man in a totally racist town?
- Or the all-too-real struggle between prejudice and righteousness, the gritty truth of racism, and the bittersweet themes of loss of innocence and coming-of-age?
And it’s not just To Kill a Mockingbird.
Other powerful stories (like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin) have not only captured people’s imaginations but also changed the world for the better…using the above three factors.
But the three elements of Great Stories don’t come from nowhere. All of the interesting characters, situations, and themes that feature in the best novels already exist, in multiple forms, in literature and in life.
So where can a writer look for sample characters, conflicts, and themes to create their own original stories?
Try the Bible.
With over 190 stories, featuring a wide array of unique people, hair-raising problems, and universally relatable themes, the Bible is a treasure trove of templates that writers can learn from, or even borrow. For instance…
Three-Dimensional Characters You Can’t Help But Invest In
Everybody knows: Boring, two-dimensional characters ruin stories.
No one wants to read or watch a story about a boring, unrelatable character, because story is a kind of virtual reality.
When we take in a story, we are borrowing a character’s life for a while, walking around in their skin, looking at the world through their eyes.
And we’re only willing to do this when we can relate to the story character(s). If the character is boring or unbelievable, your reader is going to peace out.
In other words: As a writer, you need to write believable characters.
But what makes characters believable?
Believable characters are a mix of good and evil, strengths and weaknesses. They show that humans are great, yet also flawed, just like they are in real life. They can be male or female, serious or zany, heroic or diabolical — or sometimes both.
But they must be real. They must be the kind of people you could, possibly meet in life, some day. People who have existed before.
The Bible describes many such characters, including:
These characters are your role models. They’re the Pollyannas, Atticus Finches, and Baymaxes of the story canon. In the Bible, we have a few pure hero types, who seem to never do anything wrong:
- Daniel: After he became a teenage refugee in a hostile nation (Babylon), Daniel eventually won the king’s favor and became a leading politician in more than one dynasty…all without sacrificing his integrity.
- Joseph: Betrayed by his brothers and falsely accused of rape, Joseph eventually rose to second-in-command in Egypt, and forgave the brothers who sold him into slavery.
- Esther: Forced to marry a polygamous pagan king, Esther risked her life and used her position as queen to save her people from genocide.
While we look up to the too-good-to-be-true Pure Hero characters as role models, sometimes we also want to read about severely flawed characters, to remind ourselves that we still have hope:
- David: The former shepherd-turned-king who honored God and refused to kill the former king (who was trying to kill him) later committed adultery and murder…but repented when a prophet confronted him.
- Samson: Born with the gift of super-strength, Samson protected his people from their oppressors, but his weakness for women led to him to be blinded and imprisoned by his Philistine enemies…until he brought down a temple, killing thousands, including himself.
- Hezekiah: This king of Judah was so faithful that God sent a plague to defeat his enemies, and also allowed him to live 15 extra years when he fell ill and begged for more time. Yet Hezekiah also grew proud of his wealth and accomplishments, which led to the eventual downfall of his country.
Complicated Villains and Tragic Figures:
Every story also needs its villains. A mesmerizing villain raises the stakes for the main character and keeps the reader’s attention riveted to the story. Here are some villains and tragic figures featured in the Bible:
- Balaam: Given the gift of blessing and cursing, Balaam misused his abilities as a mercenary prophet. When he tried to curse the people God told him not to curse, he was nearly killed, until his donkey saved his life.
- Saul: Initially handpicked by God to be the first king of Israel, Saul grew proud and jealous of David, the shepherd boy that the people liked more than him. He later went crazy and tried many times to kill David, and eventually committed suicide.
- Nebuchadnezzar: This pagan king alternated between trying to kill the servants who refused to worship his idol, and honoring the God who kept those servants safe from his wrath. He lost his mind for seven years and when he came to, he became humble and wrote a statement acknowledging his limitations and God’s power.
Women play an important role in stories, life, and the Bible as well. Here are some great women characters who can serve as models for your own:
- Deborah: A prophetess who encouraged a cowardly leader to fight and defeat their oppressors.
- Jael: A gutsy woman who killed an enemy general by driving a tent peg through his head.
- Abigail: When her husband insulted soon-to-be-king David, Abigail quickly and cleverly smoothed things over before David attacked.
Other Weird/Quirky Characters:
Sometimes in life you meet people who are just plain weird. They say weird stuff and do odd things. What would life be without these folks? They add so much spice to our otherwise boring lives.
In stories, also, quirky characters create humor, surprise, and fun for readers. For example, here are some oddball characters you can find in the Bible:
- Jonah: This bad-tempered prophet refused to preach to the Assyrian people God sent him to. When God didn’t let up, he tried to get himself thrown into the ocean. After a stint in a fish’s belly, Jonah finally did what he was asked to do, but was upset when God had mercy on the Assyrians and didn’t destroy them as Jonah hoped.
- Ehud: The left handed warrior who freed his people from oppression by assassinating a very fat king.
- Benaiah: Known for chasing a lion into a snowy pit and killing it there.
Impossible Conflicts With Incredible Stakes
The best story conflicts are not just difficult — they’re IMPOSSIBLE (in a manner of speaking).
Because that’s why we read stories in the first place: to learn what to do when we face seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Stories answer these questions: “What would I do if the unimaginable happened? How would I react? How would I survive?”
Here are some examples from two famous epic stories:
- In The Lord of the Rings, a ragtag group of diminutive hobbits are given the task of tossing a ridiculously powerful magic ring into a volcano.
- And in Star Wars, a newly-trained Luke Skywalker has just one shot to blow up a Death Star the size of a planet.
In both stories, the challenges are nearly insurmountable. Why? Because the higher the stakes, the more satisfying the story.
And for templates on how to do that, check out these Bible stories:
- David and Goliath: A young, unarmored boy faces off with a 7-foot-tall experienced warrior giant.
- King Hezekiah and the Assyrians: A weakling country is threatened by the most militant, powerful empire in the world.
- Daniel in Babylon: A teenage war slave must learn to survive in a foreign antagonistic country without offending his new masters or sacrificing his values.
- Elijah on Mt. Carmel: A prophet hunted by a murderous queen challenges her posse of pagan priests to a duel by fire.
- Josiah: An evil queen murders an entire family and takes over the throne. But one baby survives, rescued and hidden by a priest, who prepares him to retake the throne when he is seven years old.
- Gideon: An inexperienced young man must lead a tiny force of 300 against a massive army of their oppressors.
Impossible conflicts grab people’s attention and don’t let go until they find out what happened. This is what you want to do with your stories.
Epic Themes to Which Everyone Relates
Themes are necessary for stories to have meaning. Otherwise, you just have a collection of plot points that go nowhere and say nothing.
If you’re looking for epic themes to undergird your story, the Bible has basically every theme you could possibly need. Here are some examples:
- Naaman: Stricken with leprosy, an incurable deadly disease, Naaman’s own slave girl (an Israelite) helps him by telling him where to find a prophet to help cure him.
- Samson: After wasting his life womanizing and allowing a prostitute to use his weakness against him, Samson reclaims his honor by destroying the enemies who had imprisoned him and oppressed countrymen in one fell swoop.
Crazy, Unconditional Love
- Hosea: This prophet married an woman who left him many times for other lovers — eventually getting herself sold into slavery. But he kept rescuing her. Hosea’s story reflects God’s story with Israel.
- The prodigal son: In a parable told by Jesus, a father eagerly welcomes back the son who dissed and abandoned him after the son wastes all of his dad’s money on parties and women.
The Power of Loyalty…and Family
- Ruth: Gave up her childhood home to accompany her widowed mother-in-law home to a foreign country.
- Joseph: Forgave the brothers who betrayed him and sold him into slavery, and took care of their whole families during a famine.
- Mephibosheth: After he became king, David adopted Mephibosheth, the crippled grandson of the former king who had tried to kill him…in honor of Mephibosheth’s father, David’s best friend Jonathan.
Underdogs Who Win in the End
- See the summaries above for stories like David and Goliath, Hezekiah and the Assyrians, and Joseph
Story Frameworks With Universal Appeal
Most story analysts agree, there are only a few basic story plotlines in the history of the world. If you understand how frameworks work, you can use that knowledge to your advantage when creating the architecture of your own story.
Here are seven story frameworks from Christopher Booker, along with sample Bible stories that illustrate these frameworks:
- Overcoming monsters: David & Goliath
- Rags to riches: David & Saul
- Quests: Abraham going to the Promised Land, Moses and the Israelites leaving Egypt to go to the Promised Land (there’s a musical about this story: “The Prince of Egypt”)
- Voyage and return: The Exodus, the Exile to Babylon
- Rebirth: Lazarus raised from the dead, Jesus
- Comedy: Jonah
- Tragedy: King Saul’s demise
The Extra Touch: Artistry in Language
Once you have your cake (a solid story), you need some icing. The language and imagery you use in your stories can really help it pop.
And if you’re looking for samples of artistic analogies, imagery, and rhetorical techniques to three-dimensionalize your writing, you can look in the Bible for that, too.
The books in the middle, known as Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, are full of poetical language and interesting imagery that can help you hone your metaphorical abilities.
Of course, some of the comparisons may not be relevant to your particular situation (hair like a flock of goats, anyone?), but it can help trigger your imagination, showing you how people think and feel, and how that can translate into language.
The Greatest Story
So far, we’ve been talking about the little stories within the Bible — The kings and prophets and ordinary people whose lives are like patchworks, sewn together to make a quilt…and the majority of this ancient Book.
But the Bible itself is one big story. It starts with the creation of the world, and ends with what will happen when the world ends.
In between, it focuses on the legacy of one people-group (the Jews) who alternately follow and fight God, and how God himself decides to rescue the Jews (and everyone else) by coming in person.
It’s a giant, epic, mind-boggling quilt of a story that includes many little stories, just as great novels also are composed of one overarching story supplemented and built up by little subplots and sub-stories.
So if you want to learn about story using the Bible, you need to zoom out and look at the big picture now and then. Why?
Because there are a few things everyone longs for and needs: love, hope, meaning. And stories are supposed to help address these universal desires, to a small degree.
Good stories get at every person’s primary desires. Bad stories do not.
Stories that change people’s lives for the better present a truthful picture of hope, love, and meaning that creates clarity and encouragement for readers.
Bad stories present a confused, darkened picture of twisted reality that wastes people’s time and leaves readers hopeless, despairing, and/or bored to tears.
So examine the way the individual smaller Bible stories each support and enrich the overall arc of the bigger Bible Story, and how all of it together addresses the deep questions and needs of people.
Then you will see how you might be able to write your own powerful, life-changing, good stories.
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Write Stories That Touch Hearts and Change Minds
Storytelling is one of the most powerful jobs in the world, because words can do so much good…or evil.
Writing a story is about meeting a reader where they are and then taking them on a journey, leaving them in a different place than where you found them.
The minds and worldviews of readers depend largely on the storytellers to shape them.
You can be one of those storytellers, too, if you learn from the stories of one of the most influential books in the world.
Bible stories have been told and passed on for thousands of years. They have touched minds and changed lives. They have a staying power that you too can develop if you choose to learn from them.
As you chew on these stories in your head, you will develop an instinctive grasp for creating meaningful characters, conflicts and themes.
Readers will be riveted to the tales you weave. And once you have their attention, you will be able to teach them the most important insights that inspired you to become a writer in the first place.
It’s your turn to write a story worth reading.