Plot in Bible Stories

“Some good stories . . . turn upon the fortunes of men, the ups and downs of life, success and failure, surprise and disappointment. Other good stories turn on the perennially interesting topic of character in men, their varying traits and types, and the consequences of these.”— Amos Wilder, Early Christian Rhetoric: The Language of the Gospel

Setting and character provide the “where” and “who” of a story.  Now we are ready to look at the “what,” consisting of action.  That action is a carefully organized series of events known as the plot.

The heart of any plot is conflict.  Conflict occurs between the main actor in the drama, the protagonist (from the Greek, meaning “first struggler”), and the characters or forces arrayed against him or her, which go by the name antagonist.  The ingredient that draws us into a story and keeps us interested is suspense and curiosity about outcome.  A famous novelist once claimed that the most important task of a storyteller is to make the reader want to know what happens next.  A good initial piece of analysis that we can perform is to ask what there is about a story or individual episode within it that grabs our attention and arouses our curiosity about the outcome of the action.

Of course, stories are not random bits and pieces of action, but carefully arranged events with a beginning, middle, and end.  Three time-honored principles of good writing are unity (meaning that everything relates to a central focus), coherence (individual parts relate to the unifying core and to each other), and emphasis (at the end, it is clear what points are central to the storyteller’s design).  A plot has a unifying action that we need to identify.  The unifying action of the story of Abraham’s offering of Isaac is the testing of the hero.  The unifying action in the story of Cain is the self-destructiveness of unchecked evil in a person’s life.

Biblical storytellers use many narrative devices in their plots. One of the most common strategies they employ is to put their protagonists in situations that test them.  The hero’s test may be physical (such as David’s battle with Goliath), mental (such as Moses’ leadership ability in the Exodus from Egypt), or spiritual (such as Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the desert). Through conflict, fortunes rise and fall, and characters change.

Additional plot devices are found throughout the stories in the Bible.  They include the following:

  • The use of A foil is a character who dramatically heightens or sets in relief something that is important about the protagonist.  A good example is the way in which Abel’s virtue offsets Cain’s villainy.
  • Dramatic irony occurs when the reader knows something of which characters in a story are ignorant. For example, in the story of Ehud’s assassination of Eglon, we know that the left-handed assassin is carrying his homemade sword on the unexpected right side and has therefore escaped detection by the guards.

Poetic justice consists of virtue rewarded and vice punished.  Most stories end with poetic justice, and this is one of the ways in which storytellers disclose their interpretation or assessment of what has transpired n the story.