There are stories which are not really stories. They are accounts, or anecdotes, or romps, but not “stories.” According to author Matthew Dicks, in his aptly titled book Storyworthy, there is one non-negotiable, absolutely essential ingredient for a story to be a story.
“A story cannot simply be a series of remarkable events,” Dicks writes. “You must start out as one version of yourself and end as something new. The change can be infinitesimal. It need not reflect an improvement in yourself or your character, but change must happen.”
In our last article, I mentioned Dicks’s book and his notion of the “five-second moment.” The five-second moment is the sudden instance of transformation, or realization, when life changes for good. This five-second moment is the heart of every story. In fact, all the other stuff included in the telling is really just window dressing to ensure maximum insight and impact with the moment of change.
I have a whole theory (or theology) of stories, which I will not get into now, but suffice it to say that change is at the heart of the Gospel. It is the story of God changing the guilty into the just, the lost into the found, the dead into the living. He is on a mission of transformation for the whole creation, and good storytelling thus taps into this God-given longing for genuine change.
But what does this have to do with your sermon on Sunday?
We have been talking about the value of stories in preaching, their types, and where to spot them. Today, I want to share with you one simple trick from Matthew Dicks which will help to ensure the stories you tell are truly “stories,” and not just an arranging of events in supposedly narrative form.
In your end is your beginning.
First, a “well, duh” comment. The key to your story is identifying the five-second moment. Perhaps this goes without saying, but if you do not know the point of the story... why are you talking? You do not tell a joke without a punchline, and you do not tell a story without a five-second moment. Capeesh?
Perhaps this goes without saying, but if you do not know the point of the story... why are you talking?
Once you know the five-second moment, for all practical purposes you have got the ending of your story. Relating it might not be your literal last words (although it might!), but as Dicks says, “It is the ‘purpose and pinnacle’ of your story.” So, there is that.
Determining the beginning of the story, however, can be even more difficult. Here is where Dicks’s slick trick comes in. He writes:
Simply put, the beginning of the story should be the opposite of the end. Find the opposite of your transformation, revelation, or realization, and this is where your story should start. This is what creates an arc in your story. This is how a story shows change over time.
In other words, reduce your five-second moment (your climax) to its core message, and then flip it on its head. Bingo, bango, bongo: Story. To be sure, this is an oversimplification, and like any template it can be overused and abused. But if you are looking to grasp the heart of story-design, it is undoubtedly a helpful heuristic.
The paradigmatic New Testament story in this respect is the man born blind in John 9. It is a rather long and detailed account, but the character in question does the heavy lifting for us. Challenged to profess the supposed sinfulness of Jesus, the man responds, “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25).
Indeed, the famous hymn which immortalized those words encapsulates this simple before-and-after arc of stories:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see!
I used to be this, but now I am this. That is the shape of a story distilled to its most fundamental essence.
Once you have an eye for it, you see how often it shows up in the Scriptures. Just try a basic search for that phrase “but now.” Notice how these single verses are like the Cliffs Notes of a longer tale:
- Exodus 32:32 — “But now, if you will forgive their sin, but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.”
- 2 Samuel 12:23 — “But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”
- Luke 16:25 — But Abraham said, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.”
- Romans 3:21 — But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it.
...and so on. Like I say, God is in the business of transformation. The Bible is chock-full of change.
So, if you want to tell better stories in the pulpit, follow this simple two-step plan. First, clue in to the five-second moment: The key moment of realization or transformation, what your story is really about. And second, start from the opposite of that moment. This creates a change-arc which causes stories to be compelling. Because ultimately, we long to hear the Story, as Tiny Tim puts it in one of this season’s most famous stories, of “Him who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”
Caveat lector: Storyworthy is not a Christian, much less homiletics, text. That said, I cannot recommend the book highly enough for anyone who wants to understand better how stories work and himself to be a more capable storyteller.