Stories and our place in them

It is fairly common knowledge that there are seven basic plots to stories. These plots can be found in novels of all sorts on the big screen as well. These were outlined in Christopher Booker’s book the seven basic plots: why we tell stories, but probably originated somewhere else before the book.

Here are the seven basic plots:
One. Overcoming the monster. This is where there is a great evil threatening the land-the monster-and their hero of the story set out to overcome. Examples include stories where there are literal monsters, as well as evils or injustices such as in James Bond, or Star Wars.
Two. The quest. Here our hero learns of something that he desperately wants to find, or somewhere he desperately wants to be, and set off to find or do it. For example. Harry Potter, Lord of the rings, that Narnia series.
Three. Voyage and return. The hero is sent or transported into a land or reality that is not his own with different and/or difficult rules, and ultimately triumphs over it and returns home more mature than when he set out. For example, back to the future.
Four. Rags to riches. Surrounded by forces or people who want to keep him down, that hero slowly blossoms into a mature figure who ultimately gets riches, a kingdom, and the perfect relationship. For example, Aladdin, Brewster’s millions, some stories use this as a starting point such as Harry Potter.
Five. Comedy. This is about using the absurd to make observations about people at their worst. Often out of these observations the character is transformed and the situation is resolved.
Six. Tragedy. A true tragedy is one where to hide status character is forced into a situation where the important things in their life are taken from them. Often they struggle. Most tragedies in film today have some sort of resolution, but classical tragedies didn’t necessarily: such as Hamlet.
Seven. Rebirth. This is one of the most common ones used in films. The hero is on a course for destruction, embarrassments, or some other fate, but realises before it’s too late. There is a transformation of character before the hero saves the day.

What do you notice – all of these? Well if, for example, “I” am the hero, then they are all about me. First and foremost, “I” am right at the centre of the story. Sure, there may be companions along the way you give the hero a helping hand, but ultimately the story rises or falls on what the hero achieves.

The author Donald Miller is big on story. In his book a million miles in a thousand years he defines the idea of story as”

“a character or characters who want something and overcomes conflict to get it.”

He takes the idea and applies it to our lives, in the setting of goals, and the focusing of our lives to achieve those goals. These goals don’t have to be spiritual – they could be anything that you think would help you in your life. He uses the illustration of a person who wants to lose weight. He says:

“if you want to lose 30 pounds, don’t set that as a goal, make the goal finishing at marathon. Finishing a marathon is visual and much more motivating.”

Donald Miller’s idea is that we take control of our lives and start living the story that we want to live. His definition encompasses all the definitions of story above, maybe apart from tragedy. But does it always has a happy ending? I can’t imagine people knowingly creating a story to live by which doesn’t! But there are clearly lives and situations where attitude like this doesn’t work, see for example Tanya Marlow’s blog from a few months ago.

But, I maintain that we are all living in some sort of story, whether we realise it or not. Sometimes the story is one we clearly chosen – such as the story of self-improvement. Maybe this is the secular default in the west. Self-improvement ends up being the driving force behind many of our decisions, if we are living that story. We want to make the best of ourselves, be it by career improvements, monetary gains, acquiring stuff, educational advances, or anything else. We take risks, make sacrifices and reasd self-help books to do this.

Some others inhabit the story of “victim”. Whether by choice or not, something happens to put them into that bracket, and are unable or perhaps occasionally unwilling to break out of it. “Victim” is a narrative that many cannot seem to escape from, and therefore cannot make choices for themselves. Another common narrative is living by the mantra “live for all you’ve got as this is all there is!” You have one life and it is yours to live. Images of extreme sports come to mind for me on this one – anything that maximises short term excitement.

These are all generalisations of course, but the trouble with living by any of these stories, is that we don’t know the ending. We might want to know the ending, and we might want that ending to offer us hope, but it cannot be known for certain. What about all those self-improvers who never manage to improve? Or if you don’t get that dream job in the corner office? Or who, despite their best efforts, find themselves redundant and struggling to get work simply to pay the bills. All who are beset by ongoing difficulty and suffering? All of these stories that we’ve mentioned put the onus on the central character, the “I” in the narrative to get the results, and to get out of the hole if they are in one. Is there an alternative?

The Bible offers us a story (which is not to say that it isn’t true) with a cross in the middle. The story is basically this: We were made to be with God but at some point we became separate from him. We still, however, whether we realise it or not, yearn to be with him. And it is this yearning that we fill with all sorts of other things. So we are separated from God, and the question is, how is he going to get us back? This is the question to which the cross is the answer. And crucially, the resurrection tells us that the end of the story is not a vague hope, but a certain one.

This has been a useful introduction (for me) to some thinking I’ve been doing for a talk to bring us into the subject of the cross. Maybe I’ll finish this thought later in the week.

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