Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How Can I Make a Story Compelling?

As writers, we want to write compelling stories. The Bible has many compelling stories that we can use as our example, but today I would like to do a case study of the most compelling story of all, that of Hosea. It’s a short story that you should go read for yourself, but allow me to paraphrase.

The Lord spoke to Hosea and told him of a message he had for his people. As a way of illustrating that message, the Lord told Hosea to go marry a woman from a family involved in prostitution. Hosea goes and marries Gomar. They have a couple of children together, but then there is a third child that may not have been Hosea’s. Gomar seems to have tired of Hosea at this point and leaves him for other men. She believes they can give her what she wants better than Hosea can. Hosea remains aware of what is going on and takes care of Gomar by giving the men she is with the resources to provide for her. She is unaware that it is him taking care of her and not the men she is with. He withdraws his help and the men leave her. She is then sold into slavery, most likely as a means of paying her debts. At the slave auction, Hosea buys her back. He takes her home but as his wife, not as a slave. But now, Gomar is happy to be his wife and stays.

This story is the story of God’s love for the children of Israel as told through the life of Hosea and Gomar. On the surface, we might imagine that the thing that makes this story compelling is that it involves a man buying his wife out of the slave market. That certainly helps, but that isn’t all of it. We might think that it is because it is about unconditional love. That also helps, but when we look at the Bible we find that there are other places where God tells us about his unconditional love and buying his people back. But suppose we changed the story and told it like this: Hosea marries a whore. She goes back to her lovers. Hosea buys Gomar out of slavery. Gomar rejects Hosea and returns to her lovers.

Though the actions of the protagonist, Hosea, are unchanged, the story isn’t compelling without Gomar returning home. The reason it isn’t compelling is because no change takes place. It would be more compelling if Hosea moved on, found another wife or whatever, but Hosea is stuck in this story. He represents God and God never changes. If God loved Israel at the first of the story, he is going to love her at the end. Likewise, Hosea can never stop loving Gomar. His love must be truly unconditional. We are drawn into the story because we see Gomar falling farther and farther away from Hosea. We wonder how much farther she will go. But the events of the story transform her.

Every compelling story is about that transformation. A character enters the story one way and comes out another. The story itself is about how that transformation took place. We humans love to watch change take place. A simple screensaver that displays a few lines that move across the screen, changing colors, can be mesmerizing. While we wouldn’t normally think of that as a story, we can find ourselves sitting and watching the change take place over a period of several minutes. In our stories, we are trying to duplicate that by showing progressive change for our characters, so that the reader is always seeing something new, until the end of the story.

If you find the story of Hosea intriguing, I would also like to encourage you to consider reading my novel, For the Love of a Devil.