The One Story
The following is an excerpt from my book Unbelievable: Examining the Unlikely Beauty Of the Christian Story. Get yours from Amazon or order a signed copy directly from me.
My friend Amber is a professor of literature. Scary smart. She has written a doctoral dissertation on symbols of the incarnation in Doesteyevsky. I don't even know what that means. Amber tells me that there is really only one story in the world. Only one plot line has ever been invented, and certainly only one that resonates with people who call it "great" and "classic." Every story ever written is a derivative of this one story. You may have heard that theory in school. Even if not, you're familiar with the one story. Let's review it.
The story begins with some idyllic harmony, something at peace, something functioning and flourishing. In Tolkien's greatest works, this is the Shire. In fairy tales, we encounter it before the wicked stepmother shows up. In War and Peace, it's the sophisticated drawing rooms of pre-war Russia. It doesn't matter the genre; there isn't a story unless its background gives the plot something to restore.
Then conflict is introduced. Peace is shattered. The idyllic setting is stained. Something valuable is lost. There's an uprising or a crime or some miscarriage of justice — some wrong to be set right. That's when the story really begins. That's when the reader gets interested. That's when the viewer thinks, "This isn't right. Someone should do something. I hope a hero shows up soon!" This is Pap showing up and taking Huck Finn away from his buddies. This is Gandolf arriving in Bilbo's hole with an invitation to adventure and revenge.
At this point, the story must also become personal. We need to meet someone in the conflict. We need a character with whom we can identify. A page of information about an uprising, a battle, and a victory isn't a story; it's a history lesson. A page of information about a soldier in that battle is a story. Sometimes, we join the story after the conflict has already been introduced, when harmony is a distant memory. This is something storytellers call in medias res — "into the middle things.”
The characters in a story enter the conflict of the story and that produces an arc of events that move toward some climax — an arduous journey, an inevitable battle, a courageous confession — some series of events takes place leading up to some watershed moment. These events are barriers to resolution, and in the best stories, the last barrier is overcome much later than expected, at great expense to the protagonist, after it seems that all is lost, and that the story will end badly. Uncle Tom loses his life long before he inspires fair treatment of slaves. Both Maximus and William Wallace die before their righteous causes are recognized.
It's interesting to me that every human understands what it means for a story to end badly. This isn't just a Western thing or a pattern unique to Christendom. Every culture understands stories in which conflict prevails as inferior to those in which resolution restores. Even in Shakespeare's famous tragedies in which the protagonist doesn't get what he wants, there is some denouement; some narrator offering an excuse for wasting the audience's time with an inferior story. We don't understand unresolved conflict as simply another kind of good story; we understand it as a bad story. "Happily ever after" is part of the human vocabulary.
Finally, there is closure. The climactic events in an emotionally-satisfying story are somehow linked to a resolution — a restoration of what was good in the beginning or the establishment of some new harmony to reflect it. That's why it's called a story arc; the apex in the middle of the curve is framed by shoulders of peace or stability. So the Beast is restored to Belle in all his human handsomeness. Aragorn is crowned the rightful king.
All your favorite movies follow this pattern. Every fairy tale you've ever heard is a retelling of this one story. So is the story of God. The Christian creeds are just codified summaries of this story of harmony, conflict, sacrifice and restoration. The one story of man is the story of God.
Now, many in our culture would see that as evidence that God is just another invention of the human mind: God's story is just like all our other stories because it comes from the same place. It's all made up. I would agree that all stories come from the same place, but I believe that one place is heaven. I believe that humans only write one story because that story is written on our hearts. The story of peace / conflict / sacrifice / restoration calls to something deep in our souls — something time and evolution and science can't erase, something eternal and essential to our humanness, deep calling to deep. As Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, eternity is written in the hearts of men.