Learning from the Ancients. What the oldest world stories can teach contemporary writers. By Andrew J Chamberlain
From the moment our distant ancestors started to be social and communicate with each other we have been telling each other stories. The best stories entertain us, but they also help us to establish and remember who we are, to think about the world and make sense of it, they help a community to create a worldview. As Christian writer’s we should be very familiar with the power that stories have on us. Telling stories, in aural or written form, is a high and important calling.
When we analyse ancient stories from different parts of the world we discover an intriguing fact. Even though these tales come from different places in terms of geography, culture, and historical era, they are remarkably consistent in terms of the themes that they deal with. The best stories tend to have similar themes, themes that still drive many of the best stories today, themes like:
- Love and romance
- Power and conflict
- The quest for glory and victory
- Good versus evil
- Exploring the unknown
- Our relationship with God
The other feature that becomes apparent when we start to look at stories from different times and places is that they have a similar shape. These stories tend to start with the introduction of a character, or characters, who have a quest to perform, or a problem to solve. The story is then propelled into action by an incident of some kind, an event that acts as the catalyst for the story. This is often referred to as the inciting incident. The story proceeds with a build-up to a climax of some kind – this is often but not always a conflict, and then closes with a resolution of the problem or completion of the quest.
By way of example, here are two very old stories from different parts of the world.
The story of Rama’s bridge comes from the epic Indian poem the Ramayana, written between 1,800 and 2,500 years ago. Sita, the wife of the God Rama, is kidnapped and taken to the Demon Kingdom on the island of Sri Lanka. The kidnap serves as the inciting incident of the story. Rama wants to rescue his wife, and he and his brother Lakshman build a bridge to Sri Lanka with the assistance of some bears and monkeys. Rama then leads an army of monkey-like men and rescues his wife. The story ignites with the kidnapping of Rama’s wife, rises to a crescendo with the building of the floating bridge, reaches a climax with the rescue itself and then quickly concludes.
The story of Crater Lake is a myth of the Native American Klamath people. Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States and is found in Oregon. About 7,700 years ago a volcanic eruption created the crater which then filled with water to create the lake. The Klamath people consider Crater Lake to be a sacred site. Their myth states that the lake was created by a great battle between Llao, who ruled the Below World, and Skell, the chief of the Above World. During the battle, darkness covered the land, and Llao, standing on Mount Mazama, and Skell, on Mount Shasta, threw rocks and flames. The fight ended when Mount Mazama collapsed and sent Llao back into the underworld. Rain filled in the remaining depression, forming a lake in the mountain’s place. In this story the inciting incident, the battle between LLao and Skell, starts things off, the conflict rises to a climax at which point the mountain collapses and Llao is sent back, and the story ends.
These are all old stories from different parts of the world and have no direct connection to each other; but they have all survived to this day, and they share some common features which we can learn from. The lessons I think are:
- Good stories are concerned with timeless themes that affect all of humanity
- They have a similar shape that presents a quest or opposing forces and follows the conflict of those opposing forces through to its conclusion.
Perhaps the best source of examples for Christian writers is the bible where stories like Noah’s Ark, Daniel in the Lion’ Den, and Esther (to name just a few) provide us with some wonderful examples of how timeless themes and a proven story structure give ancient stories a contemporary appeal.
This article is an edited excerpt from my forthcoming book: The Creative Writer’s Toolbelt Handbook, and will be published in October 2017.
Andrew Chamberlain is a writer and creative writing tutor. He is the presenter of The Creative Writer’s Toolbelt, a podcast that offers practical, accessible advice on the craft. A handbook based on the best advice and insight from the podcast will be published in October 2017. Andrew has published fiction and collaborated on a number of ghost-writing projects through Authentic Media, including the bestselling, 'Once an Addict' with Barry Woodward. He has also self-published a number of science fiction short stories.