What makes a good story?

Thomas Hardy, renowned English novelist, is the author of exceptional stories. He personally loved Bible stories saying of them:

“They are written with a watchful attention (though disguised) as to their effect on their reader,” (Hardy’s diaries – Easter Sunday, 1885). “Their so-called simplicity is, in fact, the simplicity of the highest cunning” (The Mayor of Casterbridge).

Some have dismissed the Bible as a book of stories, and nothing more.

Like Hardy, I think Bible stories offer a rich expose of human nature. I recently read a short story about King David in 2 Samuel. The setting is this: King David banishes his son Absalom who has killed his step-brother (Amnon) in revenge for Amnon raping their sister. No reconciliation looks likely between the King and his son Absalom, till Joab, one of King David’s most senior and trusted generals, watching from close quarters the misery of the King and the damage to relationships in this royal family, tries to broker peace.

No formal or informal words from Joab (or indeed anyone else) would likely have persuaded the King. If you have read the Psalms, you will know that King David was remarkably ‘in touch’ with his feelings and eloquent in his expression of these. But some emotions we carry are deep scars, hidden mental turmoil, broken hearts.

So Joab devises a plan, and it involves a story. An emphatically simple, earthy, heartfelt tale of loss and family dispute in a staged dramatisation performed by a ‘wise woman’, but one so strikingly similar to David’s own unwritten memoir.

King David knows immediately he has been duped, but emotions unleashed, he arranges for his son Absalom to be brought back.

The tale continues and unhappily so. Half-hearted reconciliations often lead to disappointment and hurt.

There are so many details about King David’s family and this tale in particular that we do not know and interestingly there is no proclamation from God about rights and wrongs in the plot. But peace and reconciliation are offered by God to David through the actions and the stories of others.

My favourite stories are autobiographies:

Here are two I’ve read recently and can recommend:

Edie Wadsworth’s memoir All The Pretty Things touched my heart so deeply, our paths so different and yet so similar, and I already feel a bond with this woman. And yes, God is teaching me many things from her book and her life. Her words articulate grief and loss so well they are therapeutic for the reader.

Another autobiographical account I’ve read recently is Christie Purifoy’s work Roots and Sky. I’ve enjoyed ‘armchair travelling’ with her on her spiritual pilgrimage. I’m taking some of her beautiful words to heart:

When I stop trying to fill my empty places, I leave room for glory.

Christie Purifoy   Roots and Sky

Shared stories unite our human souls, across class, race, religion and cultures. An invitation, rather than a prescription to see things differently, to learn, to love, to work through slowly.

Our own stories need developing too with the help of others, scripting perhaps, and in doing so help us find ourselves and clarify our purpose.

We must find time to listen to the stories of others. Pain is eased in the telling and re-telling of difficult stories.

And then there’s God’s story. A complex plot of love and loss, redemption, suffering and glory. The script is still being written. All parts for ‘Old Testament Warriors’ and ‘Thundering Prophets’ are now taken, but there are still some unfilled roles. God is building His Church and His Kingdom and is looking for those whom he can adopt as “sons and daughters”. And one day God will show “His-story” in glorious technicolour in the backdrop of a new heaven and new earth – a set created specially for this purpose.




3 thoughts on “What makes a good story?

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