Friday, 12 June 2015

Jesus, the creative writing tutor. By Andrew J Chamberlain

There’s a reason why Jesus told stories. He knew that a compelling story is so much more powerful than endless rules and regulations. So what can as writers and story tellers, learn from Jesus?

I want to use the Prodigal Son to give you some answers to this question. I’d encourage you to read the story first, you can find the story here
The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt
So what can we learn from this story? Here are just three lessons:

          1. Authentic characters make the story.

When I read this story I am struck by the fact that with almost no introduction the characters seem real. We ‘know’ who they are immediately. Why is that? One reason is because we are all familiar with the context. We all grew up in a family of some sort, and even if we never had siblings we are familiar with sibling and family rivalry, jealousy, and hopefully reconciliation. We all know what it is to do something stupid and regret it, and we can all understand from real life experience or through our imagination how a parent might feel when they see their long lost child.
We can also empathise with the older brother, as both he and his father choose their own words to reflect his feelings. To the brother the prodigal is “this son of yours”, to the father he is “this brother of yours”. We can imagine them saying these very words. So, we learn that it is the authenticity of the characters that give this story its power.


2. Show it, don't tell it.

It’s one of the first lessons we learn as creative writers. And this story is such a great example. You won’t find any overt reference to the lessons Jesus is trying to convey. We are never told how any of the characters feel, or what they think. Why? Because we don’t need to be told, it’s there in the story. We can infer everything we need to know from what is presented. 

3. Use the senses.

Look at this story again in the context of the senses. The prodigal isn’t just poor he is hungry. The father doesn’t just wait for his son he sees him while he is still far off. Then there are some tactile images – the father throws his arms around his son and kisses him. When he arrives home, the Prodigal is not just given a meal, there is a feast. As the older brother approaches the house another sense comes into play, he hears music and dancing – Jesus is showing us that this is a celebration. This is all achieved with sensory language. It enlivens a story, and helps to make the images real and vibrant.
These are just three lessons from the great story teller. I hope to show you more of them in the months to come.

Andrew J Chamberlain is a writer, speaker, and creative writing tutor. He is the presenter of The Creative Writer's Toolbelt a podcast that offers practical, accessible advice on the craft. Andrew has worked on a number of ghost-writing collaborations for Authentic Media, including the bestselling 'Once an Addict' with Barry Woodward. He has also self-published a number of science fiction short stories. Andrew will be speaking at the First Page Writing Course this November.


  1. The story you have chosen bears repeated readings. There is always more to discover in it. After I had been to an event where this story was used as a focus I began to wonder about a character, who does not appear there. hope you don't mind me posting a link. Sue

  2. I thought I knew this story well but have just re-read it. The father runs to his lost son and goes out to his disgruntled son. Always the Father moving towards us. Thank you for making me read it again today.

  3. I don't write fiction but still found this helpful, especially showing rather than telling :)

  4. Hi all, thanks for your comments. Sue and Shirley, I think this is one of the most profound stories in the bible (and therefore anywhere) and I think part of that is because, despite its simplicity, it captures the complexity of human emotion so accurately.

    Tania, I am glad this was helpful. There are certainly some genres in non-fiction for which the 'show don't tell' principle is useful. Historical accounts and biography are definitely two that sprint to mid immediately.

    Thanks all for your comments