Marks of a Good Story (Robert Case)

Speech given to the students at the New York City course of the World Journalism Institute.

by Robert Case

Introduction

What do the most successful songs, movies, television shows, novels, short stories, essays, sermons, journalistic writing, and the Bible have in common?

Here is to Jimmy Hoffa

Let me explain. Humans are storytellers. We communicate by telling each other stories. Some stories are fables; some are truth. And some are a mixture.

The point is we talk to each other in stories. When Kim Collins, WJI Deputy Director, and I talk to each other Monday morning we often ask, “How was your weekend?” If one of us responds, “Fine,” and leaves it at that, it is unsatisfying—it sends a certain signal. If Kim asks about my weekend, she wants a narrative. She wants a story about my life over the last couple of days. Put me there, she says, where you were.

The best journalists are the best storytellers. Every introductory journalism text begins by telling the young journalist that he is in the story-telling business.

Storytelling celebrates the human condition. A well-reported and well-written story makes us feel as though we are experiencing what those in the story experience. Every story’s goal is to transport the reader, listener, or viewer to a particular place and time, and the best stories leave us outraged, elated, inspired or frustrated. Journalistic story tellers are literary teamsters!

It doesn’t make any difference if the place you transport the reader to is New Orleans, a Senate hearing room, Torino, Italy, or a school board meeting. The reader can’t be there, and so you, the storytelling journalists, are the sensory organs of the reader. The journalistic adage, “Show, don’t tell,” is the only way storytelling works. Compelling stories put us right in the driver’s seat, whether it is the plane with no wheels coming in for a landing, a car chase on a major highway, or a United States Supreme Court nominee hearing. Good storytelling will transfix us.

I want to suggest a universal narrative or structure to all effective story–telling—including all journalistic writing—that comes from Christianity: Creation-Fall-Redemption.[i]

This structure comes from the Bible. I believe the Bible to be true, but even if one believes the Bible to be myth, the story structure still stands. God has told us a marvelous story, and the story can be summarized into three strands: Creation–Fall–Redemption.

Jacques Barzun, in his magisterial work, From Dawn to Decadence (2000), wrote, “What gives the Bible so strong a hold on the minds that once grow familiar with its contents is its dramatic reporting of human affairs. For all its piety, it presents a worldly panorama, and with particulars so varied that it is hard to think of a domestic or social situation without a biblical example to match and turn to moral ends.” (p. 28)

This universal story of as told by the Bible’s authors is well known in Christian circles and fleshed out in every systematic and dogmatic theology text:

A) Creation

1) God is the creator of all things.

2) God rules that which He created.

B) Fall

1) The created world was universally corrupted by Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.

2) Human beings are thoroughly corrupted by what Adam and Eve did.

C) Redemption

1) Jesus Christ redeems creation from sin and death into a new creation.

2) Through God’s self-disclosing revelation, human beings can understand and know God.

This Creation-Fall-Redemption story line is innate in all humans since we are created in God’s image in order to think our thoughts after Him (sensus deitatis). This innate theme or narrative has been played out in literature, art and communications for all recorded history because this is the way we humans were created to look at the world. This is the way we are hardwired. Every creative human communication that is satisfying to the mind and soul has these three elements. This is important for us to understand.

The narrative is as simple and as wonderful as, “Boy meets girl (Creation), boy loses girl (Fall), boy finds girl (Redemption).” If a story doesn’t end with redemption, it is nihilistic and unsatisfying to the human soul because it is not hopeful and therefore, not real.[1][2][3]

Do we journalists use these theological terms of Creation, Fall, and Redemption in our story-telling, in our reporting? Of course not. We use words for Creation, such as inauguration, honeymoon, began, started, opened, born, organized, commenced, created, made, and met.

We use words for Fall like problem, lapse, violence, war, disaster, crises, tragedy, failure, sickness, pain, evil, disappointment, and losses.

And we use words for Redemption, such as success, victory, healing, peace, save, solution, win, prosperity, happiness, joy, love, and finds.

Regardless of the terminology, it is still the same structure that is being used: a nice beginning, a lousy middle and a happy ending. And it all comes from the innate divine image-bearing character of the human.

 

A) Creation

First, let’s talk about the Creation strand of the Bible and how that might be seen in the Christian journalist’s reporting.

1) Culture

When we Christians speak of creation we usually think of the physical world around us—mountains, oceans, sunsets, clouds, waterfalls, etc. Those things are created, but as journalists we observe and report on other created things as well—human civilization and culture. Human culture—the cultivating of the physical world and ourselves—is governed by God’s ordinances just as surely as the sun and the moon are.

The leftist French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu stated that culture is the “present incarnation of the sacred” (Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, 1979). What a wonderful phrase. So we Christians need to be self-conscious about the “present incarnation of the sacred” in the world around us.

Cultural institutions such as marriage/family, commerce, politics, economics, international relations, aesthetics, sociology, education, and of course, ecclesiology—all of these human activities (and more)—are grounded in God’s created ordinances and direction. In short, there are godly rules and boundaries that apply to all human endeavors because everything is created out of the mind of a sovereign God. Human culture is grand and good and beautiful, despite the pockets of ugliness caused by our sin.

And so is the American newsroom. It can be an ugly, yet wondrous place for the Christian journalist to fulfill the cultural mandate[4] by reporting reality.

So the journalist of faith needs to report and write on the beauty and power of nature and human achievement, as well as the failure of human culture in the midst of an ambiguous workplace because God is present in human culture.

2) History

Another idea to come from the Creation theme is that human history is a history of the management of God’s will and work. The history of human culture is a history of God acting in the human race. This is the Bourdieuan notion that the unfolding of human culture and society in history is a manifestation of God’s creation and its development and cultivation by humans. Human history is not outside of God’s sovereign working in the world.

So the journalist of faith needs to look for the subtle hand of God in today’s current events. That’s always a tough assignment, but we need to have eyes that see.

3) Anthropology

There is connection between Creation and Fall, but not identification. The Fall did not abolish the Creation characteristics. That is, humans are created as image bearers of God and sin doesn’t change that. We are not identified in His eyes by the Fall and our sin. All are created in God’s image and thus to be treated with divine affection. This anthropological understanding of the Creation vis-à-vis the fallen person has enormous consequences on how we Christian journalists treat others whose worldview, lifestyle and actions we have strong disagreements with. Francis Schaeffer taught that the “final apologetic” for Christianity is that we Christians love those around us with a demonstrable love.

So the journalist of faith needs to treat everyone in the story with accuracy, respect, dignity and remarkable fairness and kindness.

 

B) Fall

Now let’s address the Fall and how that might inform the Christian journalist in his reporting.

In looking at the narrative structure of the Bible as a whole, have you noticed the vast majority of the Bible is devoted to the Fall and its effects on creation? Only the first two chapters of Genesis deal with Creation, and the rest of the Scriptures chronicle how the human race deals with the personal property of the Fall.

Given the extraordinary importance of Creation and a correct understanding of Creation, why does God devote the overwhelming majority of His revelation to our struggle with our fallenness, including our need for redemption? There are many theological answers, but I am looking for the story line.

Let me suggest that the reason the Bible’s authors spend so much time speaking of our ruination is because that is where we live. It’s what captures our attention and causes us to focus on our need for repair. You journalists should listen. If all God talked about was the beginning (the Creation), we wouldn’t be interested because Creation isn’t our problem. But when the story introduces Satan and the weakness and Fall of Adam and Eve, we are captivated because Adam and Eve are us.

The narrative of the middle theme – our fall – explains our lives. It conditions us to understand the past creation and prepares us to accept future redemption. Good writing is warm writing about our sinful humanity.

Concerning human history, are there sinful aberrations from a fruitful and edifying historical direction—diversions from the way history should play out? Of course. Do we Christians always understand and interpret human events correctly? No. Do we always comprehend what God is doing in His world around us? Of course not.

Human sin makes our stories interesting and compelling because it is about reality. But it is also tentative in that we really never know for sure. We report with humility because we know we report with eyes and minds clouded by our sin. And we know that the Fall is not the last word.

All other worldviews conflate Creation and Fall into one point. These worldviews say that we are as we have always been or evolved to be. We have always been beastly and materialistic, and only through our education, enlightenment, environmental change, etc., will the human predicament (weakness, ignorance, evil) be redeemed. In this view, we have only two strands: Creation/Fall and redemption. Nihilism accurately presents the Fall theme and we should learn from it. After all, Mapplethorpe’s and Serrano’s art is a vivid and accurate reminder of what happened in the garden. But it isn’t the complete story.

Only in Christianity is the human not defined by his/her sin. And we understand this because Creation and Fall are separate events in time and space. And only in Christianity is the human unable to redeem or repair (educate, enlighten, heal, change, etc.) himself. Only a power outside of the individual can return the human nature to its pristine creation state.

So the journalist of faith should be accurate, fair, and kind but skeptical when reporting humanity’s efforts to redeem itself through political, economic or social endeavors.

 

C) Redemption

Finally, we come to Redemption and how it applies to the Christian journalist in his reporting. The journalism text that the institute used for several years was a wonderful introductory text by Carole Rich (University of Alaska) entitled, Writing and Reporting News: A Coaching Method. In a chapter that is typical of introductory texts, Prof. Rich states that “most hard news stories are about a conflict or a problem and the attempts to resolve the conflict.” Or to put it another way, all good stories are about sin and redemption

When journalism teachers and editors talk about story structure, the story forms usually mentioned are:

1) The inverted pyramid form: The most important information to the least important information

2) Modified chronology form (hourglass, funnel): Most important information first, followed by a chronology of events to the end

3) Time contrast form: The story is ordered by time sequence

4) Question and answer form

5) List form: Summary lead first, then an itemized list of highlights

6) Pyramid form: Begin at the beginning and continue with a chronology of events until the end.

7) Sections/segmentation form: Separate paragraphs dealing with separate leads and endings

8) Non-linear form (web stories): Web stories with interactive and hyperlinks allow the reader to choose the story structure

These story structure forms are all fine ways to marshal the facts of a story, but they don’t address the human need for context and closure, and that is what the journalistic narrative of Creation-Fall-Redemption provides.

As journalists who are Christian, your stories should be framed in such a way that readers will see that the world is not chaotic or random, but is purposeful, designed and coherent. The world is headed for a conclusion. You don’t have to mention God or Christianity or spirituality, but every story should contain -- either explicitly or implicitly -- the reality of a solution, resolution or closure (redemption). Readers will flock to your writing because it will connect to the deeper aspirations of the human soul for hope and significance.

 

Conclusion

Let me begin my conclusion by stating that this three-strand reporting and writing is not hard to do. In fact, it is wonderfully simple and helpful in guiding your reporting and writing because it pictures reality. It is the way things really are. There is a direction toward redemption in every story. This may sound Aristotelian, but it is very biblical.

Don’t misunderstand me. As Christian journalists we are not prophets. We are not evangelists. We are purveyors of reality. So the story we tell may not have the outcome, solution, or redemption that we as Christian storytellers want. But there is a solution, outcome or redemption that some of the participants in the story want and are working towards. And that’s the story we report.

What I am arguing is that all journalistic reporting and writing should be organized around the structure or theme of Creation-Fall-Redemption or beginning-problem-solution. If you report and write this way, your editors will rise up and call you blessed, because your readers will devour your stuff.

Let me give you several practical suggestions:

1) Read, read, read. Read to succeed. You will see this three-fold narrative theme in all the best reporting and writing.

2) When you read tomorrow’s newspaper, look for the Creation-Fall-Redemption theme in every article. For instance, in an article about a school board meeting, note that the board meets at a certain time in a certain place with certain people in attendance (Creation). Then note the agenda designed to solve a particular school district problem (Fall). Finally, note what solution the board is proposing (Redemption). It is as simple as that -- but without those three fundamental elements, there is no storytelling going on.

3) Spend the bulk of your article telling of the Fall, i.e., the problem that needs to be solved. Flesh it out. Don’t spend the space on creation or redemption because the reader won’t care. What the reader wants to know is, “What is the problem?” If it bleeds, it leads.

4) Early during your Creation narrative, hint of the upcoming Fall and how the Creation narrative flows into the Fall. (E.g., What is the understanding of the school board members of the impending problem? Do the members have any vested interest in solving the problem? Do any of the members have any expertise in solving the problem?)

5) As you narrate the Fall or problem, note how the Fall flows into Redemption or solution. Are there different redemptive solutions or is there only one? How is that redemptive solution being treated by the participants in the story?

These three strands of Creation-Fall-Redemption are not airtight compartments. They flow into each other, influencing each other, relying on what went on previously and telegraphing what will happen in the future.

 

Final cautionary words

As you hurriedly craft your story under deadline pressure, remember your story will hang together and make sense to the reader if you shape it around the universal theme of Creation-Fall-Redemption:

*If you only have Creation and Fall, what is the context or meaning for the reader?

*If you only have Creation or Redemption, the reader will ask, “What is the relevance to me”?

*If you only have the Fall, there will be no hope for the reader. And we know that reality offers hope.

Only all three - Creation-Fall-Redemption - will provide an accurate picture of reality and satisfy the yearnings of the reader. To highjack a biblical passage, Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 4:12 in a different context, “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” Now, go out and be first with an accurate accounting of today’s events.


[1] This three-fold narrative structure is not an arbitrary arrangement – something the Church just made up. It is taught in the first three chapters of Geneses. From the very beginning of the Bible we know the story line of reality. It is so basic that is needs no qualification. Any other biblical theme (i.e., “God is with us,” God is love,” etc.) is a sub-theme to this Meta narrative and must deal with pre-fall, post-fall and redeemed fall themes. Only narrative of creation-fall-redemption encapsulates all of revelation.

[2] Jesus uses this narrative structure in His parables in Matt. 13, Luke 12 and other places. Simon Kistemaker refers to the triadic form of the parables. One of those forms is creation-fall-redemption.

[3] This is not new stuff. Every English department at every Christian college in the world will be teaching this to its students. Indeed every English department in the world will be teaching these themes, because they ultimately can’t help themselves but teach these themes. And as an old college philosophy teacher, I can make the same point about philosophy departments. Every philosopher, even Richard Rorty, frames his/her philosophy around these basic strands. It is impossible not to frame the story this way and still reflect reality. The easiest example to think of is Hegel: thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Francis Schaeffer argued this position throughout his writings.

[4] Genesis 1 and 2. John Murray and David C. Jones have noted this divine mandate calling for the harnessing and utilizing of the earth’s resources and forces for the promotion of certain ends which they were suited and designed to fulfill. ...The earth and its resources were to be brought into the service of [Man’s] well-being, enjoyment, and pleasure….There is not only a diversity of basic need but there is also a profuse variety of taste and interest, of aptitude and endowment, of desires to be satisfied and of pleasure to be gratified.” (Murray: Principles of Conduct; Jones: Biblical Christian Ethics)

[i] See especially Herman Bavinck and Albert Wolters