Stories and the Classical Model, Part 1: Why Stories Work
Updated: Oct 16, 2022
Throughout the ages, people from all over the world have told stories. A story, of course, is simply a connected account of events, and can be historical (nonfiction) or fictional (allegory, fairy tale, etc.). But story as literary device is the presentation of events in a connected way, and the concept of story can be found in compositions and presentations of any size, from depressing six-word story (supposedly attributed to Hemingway) to large, multi-novel series such as The Lord of the Rings. Storytellers have had a profound influence throughout the ages for at least three reasons: they present information in an easy-to-learn structure, they capture the attention of their listeners for gaining understanding, and they pass down critical cultural values from one generation to the next.
Story Structure Makes Learning Easy
Story has three parts: characters and setting, the conflict, and the resolution. Without these elements, it's merely factual information and is thus less intrinsically interesting.
The characters and setting provide the context for story. The characters are far more important than the setting. If information about the main characters is already memorized, so much the better.
The plot is the heart of the story, and the conflict is the heart of the plot. No conflict, no plot. No plot, and we have a situation that is similar to the necessity of a verb in an English sentence: without the action, there's nothing really to say. The conflict can be thought of as the problem that the character(s) must solve, and the plot of the story develops around their attempt(s) to solve the problem.
The resolution is the place in the story where the climax is revealed and falling action takes place, but it also sometimes provides a place for the author to make commentary on the meaning or greater significance of the story.
Story Benefits Interest, Memory, and Understanding
Story is inherently compelling and interesting, and thus easily captures the attention of the audience. Professional speakers will often insert anecdotes partially to illustrate their points, but also to reclaim any wandering attentiveness from their listeners. This is a powerful tool because story has no age limit. Humanity has an innate understanding of story, making it accessible to both children and adults and commanding their interest.
Of particular importance to educators is the fact that the accessibility and inherent intrigue of story holds true for children even if some of the more complex details are not appreciated or fully comprehended by them. The structure of story is easy for people to remember because the details are often appended to important plot points in a story; a story's structure serves as an aid to memorization. Story thus serves as a mnemonic, a device to aid in the storage and retrieval of memorized information.
Jokes serve as a similar example of this mnemonic phenomenon. While some jokes are simple double meanings or surprising phrases in a humorous context, many of them are structured as an amusing tale with a punch line. Joke stories contain multiple pieces of very specific information, but listeners can usually retell them to new audiences after only one hearing, and often verbatim.
The benefits of story don't end with boosted interest and mnemonic power. In An Unexpected Blessing of Memorization, I talk about the power that pre-memorized content brings for students engaging with Biblical text, a incredible educational tool that has as much validity with narratives as it does with other sorts of Biblical literature genres, such as epistles and poetry. So, memorized grammar serves to enhance the understanding of the text by providing a little context. However, the messages in a story also imply a great deal about the way the world works (or ought to work) and often offers direct commentary on the themes and thinking that should be gleaned from the tale. By learning about and talking about how the characters in a story deal work through their problems and either succeed or fail, students begin to form an idea of how to respond in their own lives. In this way, story is singularly useful in helping to not only impart knowledge, but deep and lasting understanding as well!
Story, Narratives, and Future Generations
The idea of story has utility beyond simply describing historical narratives. After all, Jesus used stories called "parables" in his teaching. "Parables" are short stories that have a point. Because they were in story form, they were easily remembered and thus the people that heard him could easily contemplate them or pass them along to others. The point of stories is often much greater than the specific pieces of information that comprise them, and this is especially true of the parables that Jesus told.
This brings up what is probably the most important reason to use story: its ability to communicate the most important messages of a culture on to future generations. Because the structure of story helps with memory, because the action of story is compelling, because the application of story is often pertinent to real life, it has the incredibly ability to not only remain in a culture's consciousness and come up again and again in conversations between parents or mentors and the children in their care. When important values are encoded and shared in story, they have a much better chance of continuing to make a positive impact on the children of our children's children and beyond.
A caveat: Although I am writing about story as a literary device, you may notice that Bible Quest uses the word "narrative" in our published materials. This is because I personally resist using the word "story" when describing historical accounts from God's Word. I don't like the common implication that the things that we call "stories" are just fanciful, fictional tales. The events related in Scripture are accounts about real happenings that involved real blood, sweat, and tears humanity that lived on this same planet, just at a different time. For this reason, I prefer to use the term "Narrative" when I'm speaking with students about Biblical events. This is just my own preference, and not something that I consider a hill to die on.
Story as a Tool
Story helps students to learn, correctly connect, and pass on what they have learned, and is an incredibly useful classical-model teaching tool for any age group. The next article in this series will explore how to select effective Biblical narratives and tips and tricks to make storytelling in the classroom as engaging and effective as possible.