No matter what genre you’re writing in, you’ll want to be reading other stories in your genre.
Something I’ve wanted to write about for some time is what a writer can learn about writing in their genre from reading one of the oldest books ever written – the Bible.
The truth is, it has so much to teach storytellers like us.
Yes, I know, reading the Bible isn’t terribly easy going. But if you treat it as one big collection of short stories, then you can read a little chunk at a time and not be overwhelmed by trying to read it as a single epic tale.
One of my esteemed friends, Josh Bartlett has a wonderful YouTube channel, Storytime with Josh, where he features regular videos of dramatically-narrated Bible stories. This guy has a real flair for bringing out the real life drama of these stories – some that you might have heard many times, and some that even well-versed Bible readers will find surprising.
Storytellers should always be looking for the human side in stories. Many characters in stories never get their side of the story heard, or their point of view is always sidelined because the main hero’s actions are seen as more important. But the truth is that every character has an interesting story, even if it’s only about how the hero’s actions affected them and how they responded to that.
A guide to where you can find all the genres in the Bible:
The real version of Noah (not the movie) in Genesis 5.
The book of Revelation. (NB: It’s not “Revelations”. The book is all about one long revelation given to John by the angel of God.)
The book of Ruth tells the story of a woman who is faithful to her mother-in-law and is rewarded by meeting a faithful man who takes her under his care and marries her. The story focusses on how Ruth follows the instructions of Naomi, her mother-in-law, in order to attract the attention of Boaz. But it isn’t a conniving act, as Ruth’s character is established in the first chapters as a woman who left her lawless homeland and became devoted to God and loyal to her new family.
The book of Song of Songs is reportedly written by King Solomon about his wife, and tells the story of their meeting, courtship, and marriage consummation. It’s told through a call-and-response poem that has dialogues and monologues by the man, the woman, and the woman’s friends. (One of his wives – but I won’t go into that here.)
The book of Esther tells of a young woman who joins a beauty pageant and becomes Queen of Persia, then has to find a way to stop her husband’s adviser from authorising the genocide of her people. How will she do it? Read it to find out!
Joseph’s brothers try to kill him but can’t quite manage it, so they sell him as a slave, not thinking that his prophecies will come true. He is treated badly as a slave and put in prison, but when he interprets the Pharaoh’s dreams correctly, he is released and the Pharaoh gives him great power as the Prime Minister of Egypt. During a famine in the land, Joseph decides to rescue the family that betrayed him rather than let them starve. See Genesis 37 – 50.
Moses’ exile and rise to power in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. I especially like his exciting rescue from being killed as a baby, hidden in the rushes of the river in a basket as soldiers rush through the city.
John the Baptist was a fierce opponent of King Herod, but the king eventually had him murdered in Matthew 14 and Mark 6.
The fall of Queen Jezebel in 2 Kings 9. (Who let the dogs out?)
David’s battles as king with his band of Mighty Men in 1 Kings, 1 Chronicles, etc.
Joshua’s journey from becoming leader of the Israelites in the book of Joshua. He’s the one who had everyone walk around the city of Jericho 7 times to bring down the walls, then eventually led the people into the promised land.
Gideon, the reluctant leader in Judges 6 – 8, practiced an interesting brand of guerilla warfare.
In Genesis, the first murder was committed when Cain killed his brother Abel out of jealous spite.
Absalom’s death in 2 Samuel 18 is described in NCIS-like detail. Read the story to find out who did it…
Jael takes out the defeated enemy general, Sisera, with a tent peg in Judges 4 – 5.
Balaam’s donkey starts talking back to him in Numbers 22. It’s pretty hilarious. 🙂
Philosophy, Psychology, Self-help:
The ‘wisdom’ literature books are Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. Both of these are filled with ‘proverbs’ or observations about how the world works and how people should live in it. The intention is that people study these truths, positive or negative, and act on them for their own good.
(If reading Ecclesiastes gets too depressing, check out this dramatic reenactment of its main story by a guest speaker on Storytime with Josh.)
Every epistolary book written by Paul is like a self-help book designed to stop people from hurting each other in community and hurting themselves. He wrote: Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, Philemon.
Abraham goes on a massive journey in Genesis, following God’s ultra-specific, very detailed road plan: “Leave your hometown, and I will lead you.”
The book of Exodus is where the Israelites wander through the desert for 40 years. Not a fun trip, but definitely worthy of a good travel memoir.
Luke 2 tells us about a trip to Jerusalem that Jesus took with parents during the yearly pilgrimage for the Feast of the Passover. Luke 8 then starts talking about all of Jesus’ travel from town to town preaching his gospel. Interestingly, Jesus’ disciples travelled far further than Jesus ever did (because Jesus died before he could cover much ground) – take a look at Acts 11 onwards.
Elisha and the two bears in 2 Kings 2 – for stories about people who can talk to animals. (If you don’t know this one, read it. It’s hilarious. 42 boys are making fun of the prophet Elisha calling him “bald head” because he’s bald, so he calls up some bears from the nearby hills and the bears kill them all. Could we institute this for youth offenders instead of juvenile prison? It might be more effective.)
Jonah in the book of Jonah – for stories about people who end up getting eaten by giant fish and then spat back up onto the land after three days because they disobeyed God.
Phillip gets transported by the Holy Spirit – translation: teleported! – from the road where he converts the Ethiopian eunuch to “another place”, in Acts 8.
Now, we’re getting into dangerous territory here, where people start shouting “Sacrilege!”, but I’m still going to say that if you want to be a better fantasy writer, you should read about the miracles that Jesus performed.
What you’re looking for is not “How can I write about a character doing what Jesus did?” but rather “How do real people react when miraculous things happen?” Think about the storytelling aspects of those miracles: what the hero (Jesus) was doing when he was interrupted by a need to use his powers to save someone, the reluctance the hero showed the first time he used his powers in front of people, the reactions of the crowd who saw him do it, the emotions of those who were healed and their families.
I often wonder how different characters would react to being gifted with superpowers. Jesus used his divine power to help others, never to help himself; but others who had lesser powers from the devil only used those powers to help themselves. For example, you can read in Acts 8 about Simon the Sorcerer, who had some fortune-telling ability and was always craving more power.
Proverbs contains several self-contained fables – stories with a moral. In one, a foolish man sleeps with a prostitute and contracts a venereal disease, which later kills him. Many fables were later based on the proverbs in Proverbs, e.g. ‘The Ant and the Grasshopper’ is based on the ant in Proverbs 6:6-8, who gathers food and stores it for the hard times to come.
Jesus tells many parables about how God views his people, how people should live with one another, and what it looks like to seek God. The largest collection of these parables can be found in Matthew 13.
Isaiah the prophet says that the earth is round in Isaiah 40:22: “It is he that sits upon the sphere of the earth.” (Hebrew scholars say this is not to be interpreted circle as in disc, but sphere as in ball.)
God speaks in Job 38:7 about something that astrophysicists has only recently discovered – that stars emit radio waves, which are received on earth as a high pitch: “When the morning stars sang together…”
Solomon described a “cycle” of air currents two thousand years before scientists discovered that’s how winds travel the earth. In Ecclesiastes 1:6, he wrote, “The wind goes toward the south, and turns about unto the north; it whirls about continually, and the wind returns again according to his circuits.”
Leviticus 15:13 stated that a person with a skin disease must wash in running water to become clean, just as doctors now do after treating patients, long before humans knew about the invisible germs that dwell in pools of water.
Genesis 1 – 2 tells the creation of the world through an epic poem. Scholars point to the various devices of repetition used (“And God saw that it was good…”) and other ancient rhythmic devices used to say that, rather than being a literal, scientific text, this part of the Bible began in the oral tradition and even once written, was always meant to be read as a metaphoric poem.
The brotherhood rivalry story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis.
The epic battle where the child David kills the giant Goliath in 1 Samuel 17.
The book of Psalms is a collection of songs. Talk about an album including both light and dark! Some of these songs focus on a specific theme (worshipping God, love of nature, praying to God for help), while others can seem downright bipolar.
Not so much. There’s a bunch of sports metaphors used in the New Testament, though, during the reign of Greece and its Olympic Games.
1 Corinthians 9:24 – 25 says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable crown.”
2 Timothy 2:5 says, “A good athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.”
I’m not sure about this one. Have you read any of these stories? They all feature bloody violence, bigamy, and despicable sins of the most heinous calibre. There’s nothing wrong with that – it just comes from writing stories in an ancient middle-eastern culture. But would you really tell your little toddlers the real story of Noah, where everyone on earth, including all the fluffy animals that didn’t make it onto the ark, drowns?
What’s your favourite Bible story, from a storytelling point of view?
This post was written by TJ Withers-Ryan © 2014. Reblogging is highly encouraged as long as you credit me as the author.