Regardless of your religious leanings, I believe that every writer should read The Bible. With an estimated 2.5 billion sold (and about 4 million additional copies given away) there is little doubt that The Bible is one of the widest read books. Why is it so popular? Because the details of its messages are woven into stories that people can retell, relate to, and reread.
Here are just three examples of what writers can learn from reading The Bible.
1. Establishing conflict in your story? (Example: The Book of Job)
As an example of good storytelling this book really has it all. Readers see both good (God) and evil (Satan) which provides immediate conflict. Poor Job is the pawn between the good and evil. As the tension builds in this story, one by one all of Job’s friends and family beg him to turn away from his beliefs. But this hero holds strong to what he feels is right. The challenge in this story seems so much heavier than this average man. Thus it is more interesting as we watch him survive/overcome each obstacle. To show this theory outside of a religious context, imagine an experienced climber on a little hill. That doesn’t make for an exciting story. To increase interest maybe you pair the experienced climber with someone new to the sport. It’s a better plot, but still not gripping with tension. Ramp it up yet again by putting that same inexperienced climber on Mt. Everest suddenly left alone and you’ll immediately command your readers’ attention. Make sure your conflict matches the level of interest you want to invoke in your readers.
2. Not everything has to be spelled out for the readers (Example: Matthew 15:29-36)
In this book, readers hear the story of how Jesus fed thousands with just seven loaves of bread and a few fishes. You’ll immediately realize that there are not details of how Jesus accomplished that feat but because readers have seen Jesus perform several miracles before this story, the minute details aren’t required. Readers accept the story (not on faith in religion) but because a precedent had been clearly established. The lesson for writers is that if you have established the skills in your characters then you always don’t have to go into every detail of how everything is accomplished. Imagine you have a character who can fix cars like Paul McCartney writes songs. Readers have already seen him working in a garage and successfully fix someone’s car. So the skill is established and when he stumbles upon a beautiful woman stranded by the roadside, it doesn’t take paragraphs of explanation to know that he is able to resolve the problem with just a few minutes under the hood. Fixing the car isn’t the focus of the story, establishing a relationship with the woman is. So remember that some characteristics need to be introduced but not cataloged. Writers often feel compelled to give readers everything. But readers have an innate sense of imagination, let them use it occasionally and it will help connect them to your story.
3. Compelling characters aren’t perfect. (Luke 22:54-62)
Just before Jesus is betrayed, he warns Peter that even he will deny knowing Jesus three times before the morning. Peter swears he would never do something so horrible to his Lord. However, after Jesus is taken into custody, Peter finds himself alone. Three times townsfolk question him and ask if he is a follower of the Lord. Three times Peter says, “No.” It isn’t until Peter hears the cock crow in the morning that Peter realizes what he has done. The reader knows each time Peter makes a mistake and denies his faith. And yet, the reader is made to feel compassion for Peter, not shamed by him. It is because readers will recognize their own human flaws in Peter’s actions. Writers can establish this same bond between readers and characters by showing not only the good but the lacking. Maybe it is a strong jealous streak even when the hero knows his lover is completely faithful to him. Maybe it is the dieter who sneaks a bit of chocolate in the middle of the night. These flaws add depth to your character like the grain in wood provides uniqueness to each piece of furniture. Don’t bury those flaws, make the most of them.
So the next time you are stuck for how to present a character or situation, maybe a few minutes skimming the stories of The Bible will help provide direction. Don’t let the religious subject matter frighten you away from one of the most read books ever.
Find more examples of good storytelling in: