Storytelling is a central element of the Christian faith. From the story that unfolds over the thousands of years recorded in the Old and New Testaments, to Jesus’ use of parables, to the common practice of sharing testimonies among believers, storytelling is crucial. And yet, in contemporary evangelicalism, storytelling is more often a means to an end than an end in itself. That is, what we talk about when we talk about stories are actually anecdotes — little more than attention grabbing introductions to a larger argument we intend to make. Our stories need to come packaged with a “takeaway.”

I say “we” here, not simply to seem like I’m including myself in this misstep, but because I, too, have found that I’ve fallen into this routine. I tell a lot of stories in my writing, but they’re not very good stories. That is, they don’t have fully developed characters, or a true central conflict, or, often times, even a particularly compelling narrative arc. Rather, many of the stories I tell, like many of those I read or hear in sermons on Sunday mornings are not really intended to do much more than grab a reader or listener’s attention, before I hit them with my actual point.

Lately, I’ve been feeling kind of crappy about this. My educational background is English Language and Literature, a major I chose at Gordon College because I wanted to read and eventually to tell stories. When I went on from Gordon to the University of Massachusetts in Boston to study creative writing, I fully immersed myself in the work of great storytellers, and even tried my hand at a collection of short fiction. But, sometime between then and now, I’ve let my love of story give way to my love of exposition.

I used to blame this on my shift into journalism, until I started teaching journalism and began to realize (or remember) that the best journalists are first and foremost effective storytellers. In fact, the most basic elements of any journalists’ toolbox, the Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How of a piece of reportage are designed to insure that no important part of a story is left out.

So, recently I’ve began looking elsewhere to explain why I’ve let my love of story fall subject to strict argumentation (or pontification, in some cases) in my writing. It could be because I do so much blogging, but then there’s no rule against storytelling in blogging. Rather, I think it has more to do with the space in which I write mostly. That is, I often write to and for evangelical readers and evangelical readers expect a certain formula. It has various manifestations, but it typically goes something like this: introductory anecdote, argument, and application. We see this everywhere from Sunday sermons to book-length works. As I look back through a lot of my writing, it fits that formula more often than not.

Seminary students and graduates (or, for that matter, attentive church goers) will recognize this formula as basic sermon material. That is, many of us have taken to writing and reading mini-sermons. And, for me at least, I think this is regrettable. I think it’s regrettable that I only tell stories in service to a larger point, that I’ve reduced real life events that are in themselves imbued with deep meaning, to story sketches so that I can cheaply capture a reader’s attention. But if stories are so good at capturing attention, doesn’t it follow that they should also be good at keeping attention? Of course! There’s no need to keep a reader’s attention in a well-written novel. An effective film maker isn’t terribly afraid that you’ll leave the theater before the movie has ended.

The counter argument, of course, is that in Christianity the point of all our storytelling is a greater message. The Bible is stripped of a lot of its power (though certainly not its intrigue) if we try to read it without a sense of the larger truth it points to. In fact, it’s probably impossible to do so. And all great stories come equipped with meaning. Whenever words are written on a page and then subjected to interpretation, meaning arises. The difference, I think, is in intent. Do we tell the bare amount of a story to communicate a meaning? Or do we tell the full story, let the characters come as alive as they can, imbue the settings with a very real sense of atmosphere and depth, and try to make the reader feel the true turmoil of conflict?

These things are harder to do, which might be another reason that so many of us choose not to write this way. It’s easier to offer an anecdote, the illusion of a story, and move on to exposition. But if we were to tell stories the way they’re meant to be told, I believe, the reader’s sense of the meaning, not to mention his or her enjoyment, would increase.

These are the kinds of stories I want to tell. I’ve begun working on a memoir that tells the story of my family and my own relationship with alcohol. But even as I exult in the feeling of being free to simply tell a story again, I hear a voice in the back of my head asking What’s the point? After all, I’d like a publisher — and probably a Christian publisher — to publish my book and I can hear a future editor prodding me toward exposition, toward telling instead of showing.

This is the exact opposite of what I was taught in grad school when I was studying creative writing, but it is the kind of writing that dominates evangelicalism. I think this is unfortunate, and so I’m issuing a call back toward storytelling — slow, deep, descriptive storytelling. And for my part, I’m going to try not to subject a story to the belittling service of anecdote.

I recently had the opportunity to write a 3,000 word story for a newspaper’s Sunday magazine (coming soon!). It strikes me that not once after the pitching/proposing stage did the editor ask me what the point was. On the contrary, he constantly encouraged me to fill in the gaps with description, to show rather than to tell, and to really let the characters come alive on the page. I’m proud of the piece that resulted. I think readers will take plenty away from it, and I’m even willing to be unsure as to what exactly that takeaway will be. Ultimately, the takeaway wasn’t why I told the story. It probably goes withouts saying that the publication isn’t Christian, but I’m hoping I can bring a bit of that experience with me back into the Christian sphere.

Certainly anecdotal stories have their place in exposition. A little story is better than none. But, I miss big stories. I miss writing them and reading them. I’ve cut back my RSS and Twitter browsing in favor of longer works, and now it’s time I try the same in writing. Starting…now.

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About The Author

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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  • http://garyhorsman.com Gary Horsman

    Story creation is an intensely difficult craft and very few people do it right. I agree it’s unfortunate that many evangelicals want to be spoon-fed their life lessons through anecdotes. It may be representative of a larger problem of people not wanting to be forced to think for themselves.

    Even Jesus himself left exposition out of his parables, leaving the listener the responsibility to ponder and ask questions. The lessons are driven home with greater effectiveness and depth when they are arrived at through a concerted effort of enquiry and discovery rather than by just having it all served conveniently on a plate with no thinking on the part of the listener.

  • ETS

    One of the saddest things I’ve noticed in storytelling on evangelical blogs has been the underdeveloped characters. We too often paint our opponents as caricatures that they themselves wouldn’t even recognize and not complex, multidimensional individuals.

  • AC

    If you can provide some examples of people who have done this in the ‘Christian sphere’ – I’m interested.

    Are you talking CS Lewis? I’m guessing maybe, but not quite…..extra points if you can give me an Orthodox Christian (could be Lewis) who has pulled this off (& the title of their work)……

    Sincerely

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  • http://www.stephindialogue.com Stephanie Smith

    Unfortunate and ugly side effect of this: the people in our stories can become props or mere story devices. It can become dehumanizing.

  • Jim

    It’s not just evangelicals…I listened to an otherwise great interview with Tom Wolfe re: his new book “Back to Blood” the other night.

    The interviewer kept pressing him for the message: “Is this the message you are trying to get out?” “Is this character the one who is your hero and is his story the one you are really trying to tell?”

    Wolfe resisted but not without a mighty struggle against the cry for the “Moral of the story.”

  • http://www.heartsandmindsbooks.com Byron Borger

    This is a good, good piece, well-written and vitally important. Thanks for the insight and challenge. I don’t want to sound as if I’m wanting to harp on a small matter, since I so appreciated this but “crappy”? What a dumb choice of a word. You could have done better, especially in piece that is announcing a call to good storytelling. Well told stories, big or small, demand the right vocabulary. I’m not so good at this myself, which may be why I noticed…

  • http://www.heartsandmindsbooks.com Byron Borger

    And, as you can tell, I’m not very good at punctuation, either. At least not here…

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  • http://leadingchurch.com Paul VanderKlay

    We are ardent technologists working to force life into the shape of immediate expectation. Good stories frustrate technology because the are wild. They frustrate us because they are free. Nice piece. Thanks.

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  • Mark Ellis

    A good piece on the difference between anecdotal exposition (however well-written and evocative) and true storytelling. As a journalist also schooled in the literary arts, I always try to include Joseph Campbell-esgue story elements (calls to action, gatekeepers, heralds, darkest hours etc.)in my feature stories, reviews, op-eds, and even introductions to interviews.

    A writing mentor once told me that once the narrative arc and other storytelling elements are internalized, you will automatically write that way, you won’t be able not to.

    http://therumpus.net/2012/06/mark-ellis-the-last-book-i-loved-i-am-ozzy/

  • Benjamin

    I feel exactly the same way, Jonathan. Very often it feels like the Christian sphere is obsessed with the anecdote, the ‘hook,’ and then getting the moral in there. I especially see this in Christian fiction, where it seems like the authors are trying to get a three-point sermon on the plan of salvation out, instead of a full story.

    Of course, conversely… one of the ‘problems’ with storytelling is that it’s more open to interpretation by the reader. What the author might have intended for Christian thought can be read in any number of other ways, and might even make things ‘worse’ in that sense.

    So, there are trade-offs, but I do think that we should start engaging in telling stories again. So, let’s work on that!

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