Making Good Stories that Teach.

I have talked a bit before about stories that have a mythic or parabolic function. I feel that it is more useful to define myths and parables in terms of their function within a specific culture rather than their structure. If a story is resonant with a specific culture and challenges beliefs or assumptions in that culture, it has a parabolic function. If it is resonant with a specific culture but supports or reinforces the culture’s beliefs or assumptions, it has a mythic function.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Charles Dickens (1812-1870) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, it is entirely possible that a story may be relevant (valuable or important) in a culture rather than resonant (connecting with the imaginations of people in a culture in a uniquely powerful way). One can suggest, then, two other categories. If a story is challenging to a culture and is relevant, it might be described as revelatory in function. And if a story relevant but not really challenging to the culture, it could be said to have an illustrative function. These are how I would use the terms at least.

In the end, all of these stories can be used to teach… to instruct. But how does one make a story that can be used in a missional or ministerial environment that has value to teach. This is not always easy and many stories that one might think should be instructional are not.

In the 1800s (not just then of course) there were a considerable number of stories that were written to be instructional, particularly in the area of morals. In part this was because of Readers that were published for school children. The McGuffey Reader was well known, but there were others. I have a Sanders Union 6th Reader published in 1860s. It has many moral stories in it. They have value to a point, but it is not that surprising that many of the shorter stories that came out of the 1800s that are remembered today had a minimal amount of instructional value. Works by Lewis Carroll or Edgar Allan Poe for example (and perhaps one might include work by Rudyard Kipling) focused on action, horror, or adventure, but not so much on instruction.

Why is that? Is it because we live in a “depraved time” where we reject moral instruction? Perhaps, yet many works with a moral/ethical message are accepted and resonate. Charles Dickens’ works from the 1800s are appreciated today despite, or perhaps even because of, a strong social and moral message. People pay (in fact many have paid multiple times) to read or watch the origin story of Spiderman… a story with a strong ethical message.

Perhaps it is best said that if a moral story fails, it may not be that the moral is rejected… but that the story is rejected. So what can be done to help ensure that the story is a strong vehicle to support and enhance moral instruction? I am not a student of storytelling but here are some musings.

Story graph

  1. Consider starting from a familiar story structure and then twist it. For example, one story structure is the coming of age story, or hero’s journey. A child grows up and must leave the security of home and hearth to prove himself in the world. After considerable struggles and challenges, the child succeeds and returns to a hero’s welcome. Mulan is a twist where the child on the heroes journey is female. A similar story structure can take a different direction. The child leaves in rebellion and suffers the difficulties of the real world and returns sadder but wiser. The Prodigal Son is a classic form of this story while Pinocchio is the story form with a twist.
  2. Seek to draw the listener into the story. This can be done by making the characters, the plot, or the context the listener can connect with. The Spiderman origin story follows a structure like the structure of the Prodigal Son. It also has a main character (High School to College, young man, nerdy, and picked on) that is similar to the reader at the time it was published in comic book form.The story of Joseph, especially the part when his brothers came to Egypt to ask for help, really invites the listener to consider what he or she would (or should) do in response to betrayal. The story of Pandora also invites personal involvement. Of course, the storyteller must help the listener get into the story. If the storyteller says, “Pandora was given a beautiful box and told not to open it. Later that day she opened it and…,” the listener hasn’t been given the opportunity to enter the role.
  3. Utilize common roles and contexts. One can drift considerably away from reality as long as there are familiar aspects that one can relate it to. Let me give a silly example of this… an old joke that I (oddly) have always liked.

    A duck walked into a tavern and sat up at the bar. The bartender asked what the duck wanted. The duck said, “Got any grapes?”

    “No. sorry.” replied the bartender. The duck departed.

    The next day, the duck returned, sat at the bar and when asked said, “Got any grapes?”

    “No. This is a tavern. Why don’t you go to the market!” And the duck departed.

    This happened several days, and you can imagine the bartender getting more and more angry at this stupid duck. Finally, after a week of this happening, the frustrated bartender shouted,”You ask me for grapes again and I will nail your bill to the bar here!” The duck departed. Several days the duck stayed away but a week later the duck returned and sat up on the barstool. The bartender, quite annoyed, said suspiciously, “What do you want?”

    “Got any nails?” Taken aback, the bartender said, “Well, uh, no. I don’t have any nails.”

    Responded the duck, “Got any grapes?”

This odd story has several elements that make it unbelievable. A duck as a main character. A duck that talks. A duck that wants grapes. A duck that wants grapes at a bar. A bartender that doesn’t seem to be all that surprised to be talking to a serving a duck. Yet the scenario of someone going into a tavern and making a request, even a strange request, to a bartender is quite familiar. The response of the bartender (trying to be courteous and gradually drifting to anger and frustration) seems pretty familiar. The familiar elements provide the structure on which the unfamiliar (even ridiculous) elements can be attached to. In fact the juxtaposition of the normal and the absurd adds to the story.

  1. Provide shock in context. One way is to have Divine Truth be discovered in the mundane or even profane. In the story of Jonah, the prophet of God was shamed by the godly piety demonstrated by the pagan sailors, and the residents of a pagan city. The shocking contrast forces the hearer to recognize that, despite our tendency towards bigotry, God is a Universal God and loves all of His creation.Sometimes the setting itself forces one to face the importance of the message. Here in the Philippines, a very memorable advertisement was placed on TV. It appeared to be taking place in a slum or perhaps even a squatter’s community in Manila. There was a large middle-age Caucasion man walking through these streets (a strange sight. What does he want?) He calls over a young boy and takes his hand and starts walking with him (a shameful shameful thing. The Philippines is a center for sex trade, including for foreign pedophiles). Through narrow dark passages in the community they walk (why doesn’t anyone do anything to stop this. Doesn’t anyone care about this child?) Finally they come to a door and go in. It is a classroom full of young children. He is part of a program that teaches children from destitute families. The message… the need to care for these children and save them from a cycle of poverty and abuse… is made more clear by the initial misinterpretation of the plot.
  2. Hit the emotions strongly. Of course, one doesn’t want it to devolve into a morality play. But while facts provide information, emotions provide meaning. “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Anderson provides a powerful emotional punch without falling into the trap of gratuitous melodrama. The Parable of the Ewe Lamb (as told by the Prophet Nathan) uses emotion to draw the listener in, and then uses a switch at the end to act as an end-around on the defenses of the hearer.
  3. Humor helps. Of course, humor for its own sake doesn’t do much. But humor works at the emotional level and helps make the story memorable and interesting. Of course, humor here should be thought of in broad terms. Humor includes running jokes, shock, irony, hyperbole, understatement and more. Dante’s Inferno could easily have devolved into melodrama and morality play. However, Dante masterfully incorporated various elements of humor into the story.
  4. Clarify the message. Most stories have ambiguity. Is the Good Samaritan a story about identifying and loving one’s neighbor, or a warning not to walk on dangerous roads? The message needs to be made clear. Consider the story of the duck and the bar. There is no underlying message. But suppose there was… what would it be? Be like the duck and don’t give up? Don’t talk to ducks? Don’t look for grapes at at tavern?

I would welcome other guidance and hints for good stories that teach.

See Book:  Theostorying

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