What's In a Story?

Dear Church Family,

One of the most helpful books that I have read concerning how to watch, understand, and interpret movies is a book by Brian Godawa called Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment. Godawa is a screenwriter, and he is also a Christian. Thus, the three main parts of his book (Storytelling in Movies, Worldviews in Movies, and Spirituality in Movies) provide helpful insights for how believers can more discerning in their watching of movies. He devotes a chapter each to existentialism and postmodernism, and how these themes are presented in various contemporary movies.

The most helpful chapter in my view, however, is his chapter 2, “Redemption.” In that chapter, he lists the nine basic structural elements of a story. In our Men’s Movie Night, we are using these nine elements to guide our discussions after viewing the movie. Surprisingly, after sorting out these elements in the analysis of a movie, the main point of the movie is sometimes not what one thought it would be at first.

The Structural Elements of a Story

According to Godawa, the nine structural elements of a story are as follows:

(1) Theme: This is the moral of the story. It can usually be stated as “x leads to y.” Many movies contain more than one theme, but usually one is predominant. The author, screenwriter, or directory constructs the other elements of the story in such a way as to support, illuminate, and drive home the theme. That is why, when seeking to analyze a movie using these nine elements, I find it best to examine the other elements first, and then try and discern the theme at the end.

(2) The Hero: The hero is the main character, the one that the story is about. The hero is usually pretty obvious on the surface; however, sometimes, the character that we thought was the hero actually turns out to play simply a supporting role. Usually, the hero is the one who undergoes some kind of change in his perspective by the end of the story.

(3) The Hero’s Goal: The hero is usually driven to the point of obsession to achieve some goal. It is this strong desire that drives the story.

(4) The Adversary: The adversary is the external opponent of the hero and the hero’s goal. The adversary represents the contrasting belief system of the hero. Most often, this results in a clash of worldviews between the hero and the adversary.

(5) Character Flaw: Where the adversary is the external opponent of the hero, the hero also has an internal opponent: the character flaw. The adversary blocks the hero from achieving his goal, but the hero’s character flaw holds him back from achieving it. The character flaw of the hero can be described as his inability to recognize what he truly needs. Once the hero discovers his need (as opposed to what he wanted), how he responds determines what kind of story it is. If the character responds to the revelation of his need appropriately, the story is a comedy or a drama; if he responds inappropriately, it is a comedy or a tragedy.

(6) The Apparent Defeat: There is almost always a point in every story where all the attempts on the part of the hero to achieve his goal are frustrated to the point of total futility. This is the ‘apparent’ defeat – sometimes called ‘the gauntlet’ or the ‘visit to death.’ At this point in the story, it seems that all is lost.

(7) Final Confrontation: Otherwise known as ‘the obligatory scene,’ the final confrontation is when the hero and the adversary meet face to face and their worldviews come into conflict. This can be a physical or a verbal face-off.

(8) Self-Revelation: Usually near the end of the story or movie, the hero learns where he was wrong in what he desired all along. He realizes that what he wanted was not what he needed. Through the self-revelation of the hero, the writer is trying to communicate to the audience how they should or should not live.

(9) Resolution: Also called the denouement, the resolution is the short epilogue to the story showing what results from the hero’s change or lack of change. Often, the tension of the story is typically resolved in the resolution.

The Book of Jonah

I’ve been thinking about these nine elements of a story this week because of our Men’s Movie Night. But, I’ve also been thinking about these nine elements of a story because of the sermon this coming Sunday. This coming Sunday, we will conclude our sermon series in the book of Jonah with a look at Jonah, chapter 4.

In the fourth chapter of Jonah, we see the last three elements of the story. There is a final confrontation between ‘the hero’ (Jonah) and ‘the adversary’ (God): Jonah lashes out in anger to the Lord. [Please note that I am using the term ‘adversary’ in a purely literary manner in that God’s view of the world is starkly contrasted with that of Jonah.] Then there is the intended self-revelation. That is to say, God intends for Jonah to learn something about himself, but Jonah refuses to learn the lesson. In this way, the story of Jonah actually takes on a tragic element in the end.

Finally, in the last verses of the book, there is some resolution in that God does instruct Jonah concerning His own true nature; God reveals certain aspects of His character. But, the book of Jonah never really finds complete resolution. When you get to the end of the book, it feels like something’s missing – there is a definite lack of resolution. There’s a reason for that. It’s intentional. But if you want to know why the story of Jonah doesn’t resolve, you’ll have to wait until Sunday! [In mass media communications, that’s known as a hook.] See you on Sunday.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch