Everyone Loves a Good Story; Not Everyone Knows How They’re Made

The other day I said I was going to concentrate this blog on theological anthropology. In other words, this blog is for everyone who has ever asked, “What in the world am I doing here?” It’s a big subject with a lot of different nooks and crannies to explore. But we’d better start looking at the forest before examining the trees.

Asking the question about humanity’s purpose presupposes a narrative frame of reference through which we view the world. If we believe we have a purpose—which I prefer to the alternative—we have essentially said that our collective existence begins with “Once upon a time…” After all, every (good) story has a goal.

With that in mind, it’s worth taking a look at the basic shape of stories. Of course, every story has a beginning, middle and end, but not every tale with a chronological sequence is worth telling. A three-year-old can tell you the story of her day, but it’s not going to be worth optioning to Warner Brothers. Real compelling stories have drama, conflict.

Narrative Framework
© 2016, Michael McKinniss

There is a basic shape we can draw that highlights the elements of a good, purposeful narrative, and these apply to nearly every good tale. [1]

A sender wishes to deliver an object to a receiver. To do so, the sender employs the help of an agent, who becomes the main character in the story. That agent is inevitably obstructed by an opponent. There’s your drama, the question raised by the audience: Will the agent get the package to its intended recipient? Typically, the agent cannot do this alone, and so a helper enters to get the agent back on track.

That’s your basic narrative structure, but let’s make this less stuffy.

Let’s suppose you are at home visiting your parents when everyone’s cell phones buzz all at once. It’s your tech-savvy grandmother. A spry 87, she’s been hiking in the back country and she’s texted to alert you all that she’s been bitten by a rattlesnake. Would anyone be a dear and run some antivenin out here right quick? Your mother, distraught, assigns you the task.

We’ve just filled in the first four pieces of the diagram. Your mother is the sender; the antivenin, the object; your grandmother, the receiver; and you are the agent who will deliver the object.

Dutifully, you steam out in your Hummer toward your grandmother’s location. (She’s activated Find My iPhone for your benefit.) You’re making great time until you get to the turnoff that heads into the wilderness. Fifty protestors, covertly funded by the EPA, have gathered—picket signs, bullhorns and all—to demonstrate against gas-guzzling off-road vehicles being permitted into the natural undisturbed wild. Seeing you attempting to enter the untouched lands in your monstrous SUV, the crowd recognizes its archetypal nemesis and concentrates its ire on you. They surround your vehicle, all the while spewing their tree-hugging slogans in your general direction.

Ah, an opponent. The plot, as they say, thickens. Will you get through to grandma in time to save her? Will you survive the environmentally friendly epithets of the eco-mob?

Then, what’s this?! A limo, flanked by patrol vehicles with sirens blaring, emerges over the crest in the road ahead and races toward you and the protestors. The caravan screeches to a halt just before the crowd and out steps a well-dressed, well-coiffured man in a dark pinstriped suit, along with a quartet of police officers. Calmly the man steps into the center of the crowd, between your H2 and the bio-degradable leader of the pack. He reaches into his Armani jacket and pulls out a slip of paper.

“Court order,” he says. “This protest is being disbanded as an unlawful assembly. You didn’t file the proper paperwork with city hall.”

Dazed by the irony of being funded by a government agency, then thwarted by government bureaucracy, the environmentalists trudge sullenly to the Priuses. You are free to proceed into the bush. Perhaps you can make it to grandma in time.

Antivenin Diagram
© 2016, Michael McKinniss

A bit more exciting, if unlikely, perhaps. We’ve demonstrated the various roles in a good narrative. We’ve had a sender (your mother), a receiver (your grandmother) and an object (the antivenin). To accomplish the task of transmission, an agent (you) was assigned. The agent had an opponent (the protestors), which made things dicey for a time, but a helper (the lawyer) arrived to thwart the opponent so that the mission could proceed.

We understand the concept now. Next time, we’ll have to apply the theory to the biblical story. What is the narrative structure and goal of the biblical story? And where do humans fit?

[1] I first came across this diagram in N.T. Wright’s New Testament and the People of God (71), but it’s based on the work of A.J. Griemas’s Sémantique structurale (1966) and Du Sens (1970). Now, where did we leave off?

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2 thoughts on “Everyone Loves a Good Story; Not Everyone Knows How They’re Made

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