What Makes Any Story Great?

The Secret Hidden in Our Hearts

“I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?” So wondered Samwise Gamgee to his dear friend and master, Frodo Baggins, in Tolkien’s beloved epic, The Lord of the Rings (The Two Towers, 362). And what a tale it is. It is beloved by so many because it has all the elements we love so much in a great story.

Now, in some sense, it’s true that what makes for a great story has as many descriptions as there are people. That’s one of the almost incomprehensibly glorious things about humanity: billions and billions of unique facets of expression and preference. But many of the greatest stories have similar elements in common, even as they span different cultures and generations. And there’s a reason for this.

What Makes a Story Great?

At the core of nearly all the great stories is a desperate struggle between good and evil. This struggle provides the context and foundation for understanding everything else in the story. It defines who are the heroes and heroines and who are villains.

And though these stories can vary significantly in time and plot, there is a remarkable consistency among them when it comes to the nature of good and the nature of evil. Heroes, while typically flawed, are admirable and courageous, and pursue the good of others — often at great cost to themselves. Villains are despicable and view others as a means to their self-exalting, others-dominating ends.

And there are common, transcendent moral themes present, in greater or lesser degrees, in these stories that resonate deeply inside us: truth, righteousness, justice, mercy, grace, faith, integrity, and always various expressions of love. Romantic love (eros), yes, especially in the stories of the past few centuries. But there’s also deep love of friends (philio) and often familial love (storge). “But the greatest of these” expressions of love in the greatest stories is when someone puts the good of others before themselves (agape) (1 Corinthians 13:13). We are especially moved and inspired by sacrificial love, when “someone [lays] down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

A Tale as Old as Time

And these stories frequently follow a similar narrative arc. Think of recent epic stories, besides The Lord of the Rings, that have captured the imaginations of collective billions around the world: The Avengers, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and The Chronicles of Narnia. What’s the essential story?

An evil force, seeking to subject people under its domination, gains power and resources, and look invincible, while good finds itself in a weak position, outmanned, outgunned, and nearly out of time. And just when evil is about to deliver the final blow, and achieve its desire, against all apparent odds, the good finds an unexpected way through unexpected events to overcome and overthrow the powerful evil threat and deliver those who were imperiled.

This is a story told over and over and over again. And it has been told for ages. This narrative arc is in the biblical story of Esther, which is some 2,500 years old.

How to Gut Good Stories

But there’s one additional element I haven’t mentioned yet. And this element is ever-present, an indispensable component that holds the whole weave of these stories together: providence.

Toward the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, the wizard Gandalf was explaining to the troubled hobbit, Frodo, why first his uncle Bilbo and now he suddenly found themselves in possession of the Ring of Power. Dark forces surrounded them as Sauron, the Ring’s maker, desperately tried to obtain it. But Gandalf reminded:

There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The Ring was trying to get back to its master. . . . Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire! Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought. (The Fellowship of the Ring)

What we really love about these great stories is that the seemingly improbable turn of events and the apparently unlikely deliverances occur because, whether or not it’s explicitly mentioned, there’s a providence at work aiding the good and guiding the outcome. However it’s represented, providence is the iridescent moral backlight to the scenes in these stories that provides the good its beauty and makes its triumph meaningful.

In Western culture, the dominant narrative about human origins and destinations is Darwinian: that we and all that occurs in our experience are products of mindless, meaningless, moral-less forces. But deep down we know better. Our most beloved stories betray us. Remove providence and replace it with random chance, unguided coincidence, and all the beauty we love, all the meaning we need, is gutted out of the stories. Remove providence, and a story ceases to be a story.

Something deep inside us knows that good is supposed to ultimately defeat evil. We know this in our heart of hearts.

Echoes of the Real Story

Why do we know this? Why do we love these kinds of stories so much? I believe it’s because in them we hear echoes of the Great Story, the story of God’s redemption of fallen humanity. The narrative arc that our hearts recognize as glorious is the narrative arc of the Bible.

The Bible tells an epic story, but not in the way most of our epics are told. It is wholly unique — an odd, counterintuitive mixture of genres and authors and perspectives. We come away from it with sufficient understanding of the story’s origin and goal, but not anything we’d consider comprehensive. And the story is incomplete. It’s incomplete because the story is still being told — right now. It’s the Real Story being told in real time; the story we’re all a part of.

And the reason we love a story like The Lord of the Rings so much is because it taps into the deep places of our heart, where we long for real hope — the real “blessed hope” of the real return of the real King (Titus 2:13) and the final real overthrow of the dreadful evil in real life whose dark shadow we really live and languish under (1 John 3:8; 5:19).

What Chapter Are You In?

Perhaps, where we find ourselves right now in the Real Story, we feel like Frodo did in that conversation with Samwise Gamgee about the tale they found themselves in:

“You and I, Sam, are still stuck in the worst places of the story, and it is all too likely that some will say at this point: ‘Shut the book now, dad; we don’t want to read any more.’” (The Two Towers, 363)

Some are experiencing this in more excruciating ways than others, though, in truth, we are all living here, on the outskirts of Mordor. The great fictional epics have horrible parts to them because the Real Epic has horrible parts to it, sometimes unspeakably so.

But Sauron’s days are numbered, the White Witch’s wintry spell is melting, light is breaking into the Dark Side, Voldemort’s control is weakening, Thanos’s snap is being undone, and Haman will swing from his own gallows. Jesus has come “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).

No matter what we face, there is real hope because The Story is real: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). Therefore, “may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13).