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Story and History
Any storyteller will attest that writing is as much of a practiced science as it is an art form. There are principals of storytelling (such as antagonism, structure, substance, etc.) that must not be ignored. If you ignore these principals your story will be dry, dull and unreadable. But as the saying goes ‘art imitates life.’ Art reflects life and story is no exception. The same principals that govern story govern life. Every person tells a story with their life. In every life there is antagonism and structure, there is a central spine of the protagonist seeking their conscious desire and that unconscious desire that often runs counter to the conscious desire and will overwrite the conscious. Every person must take increasingly larger and more risky steps towards their goal or desire while combating the forces of antagonism. Stories, be it a novel, movie, comic book, or short, are just life with the boring bits cut out. But recently I noticed that this applies on a much larger scale. Before I get to this however I must lay out the principals of storytelling for those who aren’t familiar with our art.
Every story must have a protagonist, the hero of the story around which everything centers. Stories can be broken down bit by bit to the smallest interactions between characters. A story breaks into Acts, Acts into Sequences, Sequences into Scenes, and Scenes into beats. Each component combines to make a larger part and so on until you have a full story. Most stories have three Acts. The first act contains several things, first: An introduction to the story world, this is pretty self-explanatory. Secondly there is what’s called an inciting incident. This is an event which throws the protagonists life so out of balance that they can no longer stay the way they are. In a murder-mystery, it’s the murder, in a love story, boy meets girl. This incident can either throw a positive or negative charge into the story. From this point on every scene must bring a change to this charge, the effects of which compound, increasing the tension up to the first act climax, in which the most drastic change yet occurs. These moments are called the increasing complications and take up most of the story. The second act opens with the ramifications of the first act climax. The protagonist must begin taking further steps towards his goal based on his subjective view of his world. However the world will not respond the way he expected and a gap opens between his subjective view and the objective view of the world. In other words the world doesn’t respond in the way the protagonist expects and a gap opens between his view of the world and the way the world really is. Everyone begins with the smallest step towards their goal when this doesn’t work we must take a greater step towards our goal and with a greater step comes a greater risk. Once the smallest step fails the character can no longer take a step of the same size or less it must always increase. As the size of the steps increase so does the tension. At the close of act 2 the emotional charge will change again, it must be the opposite of the change from act 1 unless one of two things happens. 1: A mid-act climax has occurred which has changed the emotional charge of the story leaving you open for an act 2 climax with the same charge as the first. The only other option is this: to have two events of similar charges but the second is so huge that it makes the first look like the opposite. (I.E. Two lovers break up then one kills the other.) These are the options for the second act climax. The third act is the shortest and brings about a change so profound that the protagonist can never go back (boy marries girl) then comes the resolution which wraps up the story and any subplots.
Some stories have more than three acts so I will call the last act climax the penultimate climax. Penultimate simply means ‘next to last.’ Basically this is the next to last scene in a film or book after which the resolution comes.
Also as a side note any story that doesn’t have a central story arc is what’s called a Nonplot. In these situations the emotional charge at the beginning of the film or book is the same as at the end. From Credits to Credits or Cover to Cover the characters don’t change they just resign themselves to stay in whatever place they are. These films or books cam bring insight but they DO NOT TELL STORY. Keep this in mind.
Still with me? Congratulations. Confused? Understandable. This is a lot to process but is actually just scratching the surface of story. But this is all you’ll need right now to understand where I’m going.
Ok, so how do these principals apply to life? Well let’s start with an average day. Let’s set it up like this: the protagonist is an everyday teenage guy, the conscious desire and main plot is to get some friends together to see a movie that night, the sub plot is that he wants to ask a certain girl to come with him to the movie. The Inciting Incident: The alarm clock going off or your mother waking you up. This isn’t much but it doesn’t have to be, it throws your world out of balance enough that you have to get up. The increasing complications can be you forgetting your backpack or remembering that you have a test which you haven’t studied for or a friend that you wanted to come to the movie can’t. Whatever it may be the increasing complications are there and they add to the tension of the day. The first act climax could be something like [Positive] asking the girl out and she says ‘yes’ or [Negative] asking the girl out and she says ‘no.’ Enter into the second act the latter half of your day. You continue to try and gather friends to go to the movie some say yes some say no. This is where that gap that I was talking about comes into place. You expect some friends to say yes but they say no and a gap opens between your view of the world and the way the world really is. The second act continues on and you come to its climax. [Positive] You go home with mercifully little homework. [Negative] Your teachers pile on the homework and jeopardize your chances of seeing the movie. Enter the third act. This may change depending on the events of the day but for this lets assume that the first act climax was positive (the girl agreed to go out with you) and the second act was negative (you have a bunch of homework.) You race home and rush through your homework and turn the negative to a positive as you go to pick up the girl and see the movie with your friends. The Resolution is you climbing into bed after a long day.
Have I lost you yet? I hope not because I’m far from done.
Lets up the scale a bit. Take a human life for instance. Inciting incident: Birth. Increasing complications: potty training, first day of school, puberty, paying for collage, wrecking a car etc. Act Climaxes: [Positive]: Graduating from high school, graduation from collage, marriage, children [Negative] death of a friend or family member, failure to graduate, a nasty break up, learning you have cancer, your wife has a miscarriage etc. It builds through life on and on and on until you reach the penultimate act climax of your life, the point in which all of the events of your life converge and you look back and realize that it was always coming to this. And then the Resolution, your descent, the downward path and eventual death.
Ok, if you are still with me at this point you deserve a prize, if you aren’t following then feel free to look back over what you’ve read so far to make sure that you understand.
Step up the scale again. This time we’ll focus on the history of America. Inciting incident: The Declaration of Independence. Increasing complications: trying to establish a government, creating a rule of law, political quarrels, flu pandemics, terrorist attacks, etc. Act Climaxes: [Positive] Winning the Revolution, our first election, the abolition of slavery, winning the World Wars, the Lunar landing, the death of Bin Laden, [Negative] The beginning of the Civil War, the flu pandemic of the early 1900s, Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal, the death of FDR, the thousands lost in the world wars, 9/11, the list goes on. Now seeing as we’re still living in America I can’t say what the penultimate act climax will be or what the resolution will be, there are literally endless options, options shaped by the actions of our leaders and our people.
So up to this point you’ve seen that life is like a story, from a single day to an entire life to the history of a nation the principals of story are evident in life. Like it has been said ‘art imitates life.’ It’s not that I’m forcing the principals of story onto our lives it is, in fact the other way around, we pull our principals for stories from what we see in life, the conflict, the resolution all of it comes from life. With that said lets step up the comparison one more step.
I’m going to apply the principals of story to the history of the world. Now obviously there are many views of the history of the world and how we were formed but right now I’m going to apply this to the big bang theory and the theory of evolution. As I’m sure you are all familiar with these theories I’m going to jump right in. For the inciting incident I would say the big bang, obviously. There are rises and falls in the story with the evolution of man, the death of the dinosaurs and so on. However, if this is all there is and when we die we just fade away then there is nothing that I can imagine that is worth dying for. If there is nothing worth dying for then there is nothing worth living for. There is no reason to seek out an object of desire because it will fade away to nothing and be a wasted effort in the end. Also there is not protagonist to this story, there is no overarching hero seeking a conscious or unconscious desire. Furthermore there is no ultimate emotional change in the story. There is no point where the story has built to an ultimate action beyond which the audience cannot imagine any other. It becomes a nonplot. Remember what I said about nonplots NOT BEING STORY?
What’s my point? This: if each individual element of something uses a set of principals then the item as a whole must use those principals. Take a symphony for example. As you know a symphony is made up of many individual elements all working in concert to create a single piece of music. To make this music they apply the principals of Music Theory: rhythm, harmony, pitch, texture, beat, etc. They then proceed to use these principals to create a melody that is pleasing to the ear. Now each person in each section must use these principals to make sure that they’re on the same key as everyone else. Therefore if each person in a section is using music theory then the section as a whole is using music theory and if each section is using music theory then the entire symphony is using music theory. In the same way if the principals of story apply to every person every day then they apply to every person’s entire life and if they apply every person’s entire life then they apply to larger groups of people, the history of every nation or empire that has ever been. And finally if they apply to the history of every nation or empire that has ever been then they apply to the whole of history.
However if the big bang and theory of evolution are true then that leaves us with a great big stinking problem: the big bang and theory of evolution is a nonplot while the rest of our world follows the principals of story. In essence, a paradox. It would be like saying that even though every member of every section of a symphony is using music theory the symphony itself is not using music theory.
Compare this then with the Christian views of the history of the world. The introduction: God creating the world. Inciting Incident: When Adam and Eve sinned, something that is still affecting us today. This event created a negative emotional charge on the overall story. As we work our way through the Old Testament we see the increasing complications: Men becoming more evil, Israel repeatedly falling into sin, the evil kings of Israel, the many times that Israel was conquered, etc. As you work on through the Old Testament you see what I’m going to call ‘mini-climaxes:’ the flood, Israel escaping from Egypt, David being crowned king, Israel returning from exile, and so on. Then you come to the New Testament and the birth of Jesus, the Son of God. As Jesus grew up he lived a perfect life and then died on the Cross to save us from our sins. This, along with his resurrection is the first act climax. This action, this climax created a positive emotional charge as it provided a way for us to have our sins forgiven. As you move into the second act you see the ripple effects of this. Christianity quickly spread to most of Rome and beyond. The second act continues on through the ups and downs, Christian persecution, the Fall of Rome and so on up to today. We are in the second act right now. The second act will end in the moments just before the Rapture, the place where humanity reaches its most depraved moments. A negative emotional charge. Then the Rapture and the Seven years of tribulation make up the third act with the climax coming at judgment day and the resolution being the new Heaven and the new Earth. Now this is not a completely positive emotional charge.
Earlier when I was speaking of the principals of story I left one out on purpose. This is the principal of irony. Simply put irony is the most realistic ending a story can have as it ends with a charge that is both positive and negative. It will however lean towards one side or the other. Take the ending of the world from the Christian standpoint for instance, on one had those who have received Jesus get to live with him forever with no sin, or sickness or death [Positive] on the other hand many people are thrown into H-ll alongside Satan and his demons [Negative].
Also this belief has a protagonist: God. God seeks to reconcile with men even though we sin repeatedly. He is present throughout all of time and is constantly seeking his desire for us to come to him.
Another point is this: If there is a God who controls all things and created all things and loves us beyond what we can imagine, even to the point that he sent his own son to die for us then we should worship him. And in worshiping him we can live our lives to bring him glory, our ultimate desire should be to bring God glory and to serve him. And if there is a God and Heaven is real then living for God will last throughout all eternity and becomes something worth dying for.
Now assume for a moment that the Christian views are true. If they are true then the Christian view on the history of the world shows all of the elements required for story. Elements that the Theory of Evolution is lacking. If the Theory of Evolution is true then that creates a paradox where a set of principals apply to each and every individual and each and every group but not the item as a whole. If Christianity is true then this paradox does not occur and we have a viable story.