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Storytelling from simple to complex

Media | It’s vital to recognize that news stories have protagonists and antagonists, missions and obstacles

The deadline to apply to the World Journalism Institute college class in May and compete for summer internships is March 20. (For more information and to apply, visit the WJI website.) We emphasize hands-on teaching and want students to do some reading in advance about the basics of storytelling, so that they don’t confuse having a theme or a topic with producing a story.

What’s basic: Compelling stories have a protagonist or protagonists on a mission, one or more antagonists, and obstacles to success. For example, the three little pigs in their famous story are our protagonists. Their mission is building houses. The barrier to success for two of them is laziness—they don’t want to spend the time to build a strong house. They have an antagonist—the big bad wolf.

It’s important to have a strong, vigorous antagonist. If the wolf’s problem was just big teeth and a pointy nose, Congress could pass a bill giving him free orthodontist visits and free plastic surgery. (Wait—Congress may already have done that.) But what makes for a compelling story is the wolf’s murderous disposition.

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Even the simplest spot news story has a protagonist, mission, antagonist, and barriers. Here’s one:

“Firefighters [protagonist] last night battled a blaze [antagonist]. Because of high winds and low water pressure [barriers] it took two hours to extinguish the flames [mission].”

Or another:

“Police [protagonist] yesterday took a bite out of crime [mission] by arresting the East Side cat burglar [antagonist]. He surrendered only after he fired two shots [barrier] and yelled, ‘You’ll never take me alive.’”

The Bible has a more complicated structure, but essentially it is a story of creation, fall, and redemption. God’s mission is to rescue His people and save them from sin. Christ is the protagonist and Satan as the antagonist who seems to win in the Garden, seems to win at many times throughout the history of Israel, and seems to win on Good Friday—but loses in the end. Each book of the Bible, sometimes each chapter, has its own drama.

In chapter three of Genesis, for example, Adam and Eve are the protagonists with the mission of continuing to be able to walk with God in the Garden of Eden. Satan in serpent form is the antagonist, tempting the first couple to sin. The fruit of the two trees are the obstacles to mission fulfillment, which occurs through obedience. When Adam and Eve disobey they are cast out, and the next chapter begins: How will they and their children fare in wilderness?

Further chapters in Genesis and other historical books of the Old Testament could all be charted in this way. The difference between the Bible and the Quran is striking: News and features make up most of the Bible, but the Quran is almost all editorial, telling rather than showing. The Bible tells stories, the Quran gives orders—so one way that Christian journalists reflect biblical teaching is by emphasizing storytelling.

Even when the Bible moves away from story form, story frameworks are still evident. For example, in the passage from Ezekiel 33 about watchers on the wall, who have a calling like that of journalists, the protagonist is the watchman, and the antagonist is a literal enemy bringing a sword to the land, or a metaphorical enemy: sin. The watchman’s goal is to warn the people when a threat appears. Barriers to successful fulfillment of the mission include laziness (the watchman sleeping at his post), blindness (not seeing the threat), cowardice (fear that warning the wicked will bring retribution from them), or wickedness (siding with evil).

Let’s apply this to some stories in WORLD. Here’s one: Several years ago I visited China and saw with my own eyes the burgeoning house churches of China. I interviewed Chinese leaders, including CEOs who had become Christians, and then wrote, “With house churches multiplying in cities and influential executives coming to faith, Christianity is growing so fast in China that Communist officials are having a hard time keeping up.”

In that story Chinese Christians are the protagonists, with a mission of spreading the gospel, and Communist officials are the antagonists. The protagonists face barriers: harassment and sometimes persecution, their own fear and desires. I did not write that the success of their mission is assured or that we can derive easy lessons from their experience.

Another example: Near the end of a story with the literal headline, “Dead ends in Darfur,” editor Mindy Belz concluded that “More than three years after fierce militia known as janjaweed (“armed horsemen”) began raiding villages, raping women, killing children, and torching property, the world is little closer to a lasting solution to what many call the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” The protagonists are innocent people, their mission is to raise crops and children, and their biggest obstacle is the lack of any obstacles in the way of their antagonists, the janjaweed.

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