Make ‘Em Laugh, Make ‘Em Cry

or Show Me the Tropes


Literary agent Peter Rubie would undoubtedly have read many story synopses, both fiction and non-fiction. His colleague Janet Reid advises that anyone wishing to write a bestseller should read at least two thousand novels before attempting to write their own. Peter gives some helpful advice:

My friend Gary Provost and I created what we teasingly called the Gary Provost Sentence (with some help from Aristotle). Here it is:

Once upon a time… something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.

This is classic dramatic structure. It works because it’s story telling that is most satisfying to the reader. Aristotle defined good drama as storytelling that defined character, created atmosphere, and advanced the action of the plot. No one has ever really substantively improved on this beautifully simple yet profound definition, though I think Norman Mailer came close when he said in a TV  interview “The best fiction is where art, philosophy, and adventure all meet.”

Let’s go through Gary’s paragraph again. This time we’ll stop along the way and I’ll talk about the elements of plotting. Once you understand these elements whether you’re a literary novelist or a writer of non-fiction, or a genre writer you’ll be able to plot any story you like… [1]

Perhaps one of the reasons Mr Rubie understands the rhythm of good storytelling is the fact that besides having been a journalist on Fleet Street, Radio and TV, he is also a jazz musician. He has a sense of the melody, harmony and rhythm that all good literature possesses.

The Gary Provost sentence describes the Bible Matrix perfectly, although mainly the Dominion element of it. There are three heptamerous elements: Creation, Feasts and Dominion, or Word, Sacrament and Government. The shape of Biblical history, like music, is triune. It is more than just a good story.

In An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis describes the “literary few” as those whose literary taste matures beyond the desire for mere “Events” (ie. wanting to find out what happens next) and are able to appreciate the texts as works of art; those who are able to move beyond delight in a picture because it is a reminder of pleasant or stimulating things that are in fact elsewhere, to the place where they can open themselves to be changed by the picture (or the text). [2]

The Bible offers us both. It is no wonder the narrative sections are more well-known and popular. People want to know what happens next! Will Abraham slay his promised son? Will Peter betray Jesus as He predicted? The Bible contains the most gripping stories in all of literature, and has arguably inspired the best of literature throughout history. But even in its translations, by its form, the Bible’s books are literary works of art. Moreover, the literary structure is, I would say, a major method of communication for the authors.

The beauty is that, in the Bible’s DNA, the Events thread of this matrix is fully compatible with both the architecture of the Creation and the annual harvest festivals of Israel. Since there are around 40 human authors, this integration of event, community and architecture in bookform makes the Bible an organic objet-d’art far beyond the skill of mere mortals; beyond even our ability to conceive of such a project. Every “story” resonates in triune form from deep within the heart the One who said “Let there be light.”

We analyse the language of popular culture to death. We pride ourselves on being able to identify TV tropes. We are so saturated with dramas and sitcoms that writers no longer need explain every point of the story. [3] We have seen it all before. Beyond “Events”, we analyse the artistry of the director and the composer of the soundtrack.

Do we have ears willing to hear the Scriptures at this level, to be Bible-saturated to the point where Ezekiel or Jesus uses an irony based on the Torah, without explaining it, and we are an audience au fait? Or when it comes to the Bible, as Lewis says, are we those of the “many” who are content to leave the performance of a symphony with only the memory of a simple tune to whistle?

[1] Peter Rubie, The Peter Rubie-Gary Provost Dramatic Sentence.
[2] On the abuse of Scripture by many modern preachers as an opaque sounding board for their own agendas, see Why Johnny Can’t Preach and Exploiting Nehemiah.
[3] “Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means ‘stereotyped and trite.’ In other words, dull and uninteresting.” TV Tropes

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