I would like to write a novel. This is not something new. It has been in the back of my mind since I graduated from college. Really, the desire was present even before that. In third grade I wrote my first (and only) book to date: an illustrated exposé on my archenemy David P., who sat behind me in class, poked and pestered me, and occasionally got me in trouble with the teacher.
Though I have never written a novel, I have read books on the craft. To write a compelling story, an author needs a protagonist and a problem, or rather, problems. One protagonist will do, if his character is adequately developed, but more than one problem is needed. For the reader to be captivated, the problems cannot be trivial. Something crucial must be at stake. The ante must be upped in each succeeding part of the book.
In Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped, young Davy Balfour has a problem: his parents have died, and he is poor. When he goes looking for an uncle he has never met, his problems increase: his uncle has him abducted, and sent to America as an indentured servant aboard the brig Covenant. The ante is upped again: Covenant is shipwrecked. The story continues with Davy encountering and surviving one problem after another.
Think of any movie, and you’ll recognize the same outline. Luke Skywalker is orphaned. His problem is compounded when he comes into possession of a message intended for Obi-Wan-Kenobi and finds himself embroiled in a plot against the Empire. Throughout the story, Luke’s problems multiply and intensify until at last the Death Star is poised to wipe out the rebel alliance.
Sometimes the problem in a story is not outside the protagonist but within. Unless their fatal flaw is overcome, their lives will be “bound in shallows and in miseries.” In all the stories we love, whether in Stevenson or George Lucas, our heroes encounter problems and overcome them or, in the case of Shakespeare’s tragedies, fall before them.
The stories we learned as children followed the same pattern. Red Riding Hood meets a big, hairy problem at her grandmother’s house. Hansel and Gretel’s problems escalate from poverty to parental rejection, to a ravenous witch. Cinderella has a wicked stepmother and stepsisters who treat her like a slave. As midnight approaches, her situation grows more dire: the magic will fail, and she, a mere peasant girl, will be humiliated.
All our favorite stories feature protagonists who move from one problem to another. We resonate with these stories because they ring true to our experience. Opportunities are almost always entangled with problems and successes are offset by losses.
Someone told me years ago that history is God’s story. If that is the case, one would expect God to have a problem—and not some piddling, low-stakes glitch that is easily put right but a deadly dilemma that can only be resolved at great cost. This is precisely what we find in the Bible.
God has a big problem. Rebellion has marred the beautiful world he made, and the beautiful people he made to rule it. The blessing he gave has been replaced by a curse. This is the gist of the first three chapters of the Bible. The next eight chapters up the ante: we see how awful things have become. Then, in the following chapter, God’s rescue plan begins to unfold.
Those familiar with an effective plotline might expect the protagonist – God – to embrace great risk to overcome his problem. This is what we see in the Bible’s best-known line: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” That Son’s death, which exemplifies and encompasses every evil ever committed, is gloriously surmounted by the resurrection.
This story, unlike the stories produced by even our best authors, is still being told. It is an interactive story. When we submit our stories to the Author, he writes them into his story, masterfully develops – in patient cooperation with us – our character and gives our lives transcendent meaning.