Story Arcs and Ministry

Nice little article in the Atlantic Magazine,  “The Six Main Arcs in Storytelling, as Identified by an A.I.” by Adrienne Lafrance. (Click Here). It looks at some interesting research as far as how stories flow in terms of emotional arcs. That particular research can be seen HERE. There are many ways to categorize stories, but one can look at six main ones from an emotional standpoint.

Story Arcs

This is not the total limit of possibilities. For example, there can be Quadro-directional or more. In fact, many novels can look like a rollercoaster. Still many of them trend towards one of these types— or a long story with many sub-arcs.

Additionally, some stories can be seen as different depending on more specific details of the flow. For example, on, they talk about two common types of stories in the Bible: Guilt-Innocence Arc, and Shame-Honor Arc. Both of these stories are essentially variations of the “Man in a Hole” arc. In the case of Guilt-Innocence, the story restores the main character to the same condition as the start (same normal). In the case of Shame-Honor, the story brings the main character to a new, higher normal. Likewise, Kurt Vonnegut, in a youtube presentation referenced and attached to Lafrance’s article describes two types of stories: “Boy Meets Girl” and “Cinderella” stories. However, both would be described in the graph above as “Cinderella” Arcs. With “Boy Meets Girl” the main character starts out neutral and in the second movement dips below neutral. With “Cinderella” the main character starts low, and in the second movement probably does not dip below the starting condition.

Curiously, in the research referenced above, based on Project Gutenburg downloads, the three favorite arcs are:



Man in a Hole

Man in a Hole is classic because it describes the classic plot. Normal, Problem, Resolution to the Problem, Normal. We love people who get into trouble and then get out of it.

Oedipus and Icarus are harder to understand because the end is “sad.” But people do like cautionary tales, as well as people who “get what’s coming to them.”

Rags to Riches and Riches to Rags are less popular, perhaps because they lack the classic tension of a normal plot. In one the problem exists before the beginning of the story. In the second, the problem comes into the middle of the story, but without a resolution. Or perhaps the issue is that they are just too simple. They don’t resonate with real life. Good things happen to good people may seem “right” but doesn’t feel that much in touch with reality… or even if viewed as normative, is not all that interesting. The same can be said about bad things happening to bad people. Real life ebbs and flows more. A athletic event is one in which the winner appears to be in doubt until the very end.

One reason that parables in the Bible appear to be successful is that they avoid the unidirectional story— the first become the last, and the last become the first. The one who is supposed to be the hero acts like the villain– while the one we expect to be the villain, becomes the hero.

Stories that are told for purposes of ministry should take this to heart. A lot of preachers like unidirectional stories (Victory stories… essentially Rags-to-Riches). Perhaps they think the listener cannot handle more complexity or nuances than this… but they would be wrong. The story should not be unidirectional— simple and expected. The story should resonate with the interests of the hearer. This resonance doesn’t necessarily mean giving the hearer what he or she expects. After all, one thing the hearer wants is to be surprised.

Preaching is a bit of a dying art… but its death is more of an act of murder than of natural causes. Preachers remove the narrative from sermons to be replaced by propositional statements, along with a few very predictable unidirectional illustrations to “drive the point home.”

I remember a sermon/lecture in which the speaker was speaking on raising up children to follow God. It was a propositional sermon with several bits of advice. The illustrations were all built on the same story line:  I did the right thing and my children became better than they were. My only real memory of the sermon was how uninteresting and uninspiring it was.

There is a better way.

2 thoughts on “Story Arcs and Ministry

  1. Pingback: 117 The Shape of Stories | Neil MacDonald Author

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