The Story Pastor: The Heart of Story

I am writing a book called The Story Pastor talking about how to think about ministry in terms of story. I plan to blog a few paragraphs every week for a while to see how people responds to the ideas. Here I talk about the heart of story:

The heart of any story is the journey of this protagonist. In the beginning, they are in one place. They go through the middle of the story which is filled with challenges. They then have a final battle or effort that reveal them to be different at the conclusion. This is why the three-part structure is so important. It marks the different stages of the transformation of the protagonist. The story is never about the journey that the character goes on. It is always about the journey that the character’s character goes on. It is about the transformation of the protagonist. Rocky always must get stronger. James Bond always must push himself to the brink. Marlin must get over his fear of the ocean to find Nemo. This transformation is often called “the story arc.”

The driving force of the transformation is conflict. Protagonists do not change on their own. They are forced to change by circumstances beyond their control.  Every story is based on a readily apparent external problem. The character must go to a place or retrieve an object or survive an ordeal. The conflict builds throughout the story. Often, the story is complicated by the protagonist’s own actions. Their attempts to overcome the external problem are met with unintended consequences. They make things worse.

For example, the external problem in the original, Star Wars: A New Hope is that Luke Skywalker (the protagonist) must get the droids with the stolen plans to the rebels. That is the clearly explained external problem. When Luke and Obi-Won Kenobi attempt to do that, they end up on the Death Star, taking the plans even closer to the Empire. Then they realize a new external problem: they need to destroy the Death Star.

Underlying this problem is the internal problem. This is what the story is really about. It almost always involves some variation of the question, “Does the protagonist have what it takes?” Is he good enough? Can she complete the task? Whether it is a comedy or a tragedy, a horror movie or a romance, the story is always, ultimately, about the change in the character of the protagonist as they rise to the challenges of the journey. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker has all kinds of doubts about himself. He is constantly trying to prove himself. Does he have what it takes? Can he learn to trust the force, and himself? That is the internal problem that is the central driver of the film.

Great stories also tap into larger problems. The internal problems point to larger dichotomies like good and evil, right and wrong, or love and hate. The protagonist must bump up against these larger problems. Luke Skywalker must not give into fear, or fall to the Dark Side.


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