You’re always looking for inspiration. As a writer you depend on it. Your mind needs a constant influx of ideas, both new and old. The “why” behind your need for new ideas is obvious. It’s that mental stimulation that stretches your mind and allows you to reach greater heights with your prose.
But we need to be careful not to blindly follow every literary fad that comes down the pike at us. We also need a solid grounding in the fundamentals of good storytelling. That’s why we read the classics like Moby Dick or the works of Shakespeare. We consume stories with a solid grounding in the fundamentals so that these fundamentals can be grounded within us.
Normally this is a boring slog, at least for me. I’m very much a product of my time, which means content without aliens, explosions, heroes in stupid costumes, or any combination thereof, barely registers on my radar. I still read the classics and I will continue to do so, though more for academic reasons than pleasure.
So it’s a genuine treat when I come across solid storytelling principles in a place where I didn’t expect them to be. Such is the case now and I think the greater takeaway from this article is to keep an open mind. Learn the craft, always be on the lookout for where it has been used well and let their examples reinforce what you have learned. Even if it’s from a simple children’s program.
Yes, this is a Bible program. I realize that most of you probably aren’t Christian, but please don’t let that dissuade you. This isn’t going to be a preachy sermon and I’m not trying to convert anyone with this. I’m only trying to show you how proper storytelling technique can enrich any media.
At first, I didn’t have much hope for this program. Initially, I discounted it completely for at least three reasons.
Reason #1 – It’s a YouTube program. There’s a lot of good content on YouTube, don’t get me wrong. But little of it is of the same quality as a properly produced TV show or movie. If given the choice between two shows I like on YouTube or TV, I would choose TV nine times out of ten. Traditional media tends to have better overall quality.
Reason #2 – It’s a children’s program. Let’s face it, the bar isn’t too high here. Children’s programs are intolerable at the best of times and most YouTube children’s programs are at the bottom of the barrel. Being a parent in the 21st century has taught me that much.
Reason #3 – It’s a Christian program. Real talk, Christian media sucks. Come at me.
Now, I’m not an atheist or an agnostic. I’m not a Jew or a Muslim. I’m not Buddhist or Hindu or anything like that. I’m a born-again Christian myself. But I’m also a born-again Christian who is educating himself in the literary arts. As such, I think I can say with a degree of impunity that modern Christian media sucks. The program I’m discussing in this article is a rare exemption to this.
I think the reasons why Christian media sucks are interesting and I’ll go into more detail on those in another article. I don’t think the problems are insurmountable and they’re completely fixable. We just need to shift our perspective.
Back to the topic at hand, the only way this show could have sparked more disinterest from me is if it was Canadian.
That’s right, Canadian media sucks, too. And I’m also Canadian. Come at me.
However, after my children started watching the shows, I noticed something interesting. They were engaging with the show in ways I had never seen them do before. My children aren’t really ones for engaging with TV and other media at all. They’re a lot like me that way. For the most part they just prefer to watch the show, laugh at the funny parts and cover their eyes at the scary parts.
Just like me.
But not with this show. With this show they were engaging. They were repeating things that the hosts said. They were learning Bible verses and repeating them back in toddler-speak. They were clapping and dancing when the music was playing. I had never seen them engage like this before, so I put down my phone and paid attention to what they were watching. What I saw was surprising.
Before I get to that, I think it’s worth acknowledging a few things. Every genre has its own tropes. In horror the pretty young coed who ventures off alone is guaranteed to die in ways that she did not deserve. For the western it’s a grizzled stranger with a heart of gold who rides into town to vanquish some desperado. No disaster movie is complete without the obligatory “cut the rope” scene where one unlikely hero sacrifices himself for the good of the group.
This series is no different and replete with children’s media tropes. Bright colors, over the top characters and catchy music all add to the attraction of the show. Not to mention an intense amount of Barney level manic joy that every character seems to possess.
The show is also highly formulaic; another trope of children’s programming, which I count as a benefit. Many popular examples of children’s programming are highly formulaic. Each episode of The Power Rangers, for instance, usually tends to follow the same basic plot.
- The Rangers face some unique moral dilemma at the beginning of the show.
- The big, bad alien boss attacks [INSERT NAME OF GENERIC PEACEFUL TOWN HERE] in such a way as to exacerbate the moral dilemma at the start of the show.
- The Rangers attack the alien boss’ minions.
- The Rangers defeat the minions and face a unique monster that represents the moral dilemma they are facing.
- They defeat the monster, which then grows to the size of a building. Because… Japan.
- They transform into their giant mechanical Zord phase and destroy the monster a second time.
- The defeat of the monster brings catharsis and the moral dilemma is resolved.
And likewise, this show has a highly repetitive nature that I’m certain is comforting to younger audiences.
Now that we have that bit of housekeeping out of the way, let’s carry on by counting the ways that this show is surprisingly sophisticated.
As I continue to learn and grow in the literary arts, one of my favorite voices for authors in this arena is a man by the name of Sol Stein. Stein, who passed on in 2019, was a best-selling writer of 13 books and editor-in-chief of Stein and Day Publishing for 27 years. He also wrote several books on the craft of writing and developed a computer program to help writers develop their craft.
In his book, “Stein on Writing,” his advice is that your protagonist must have a desire straight out of the gate. They must be searching for something. It must be followed by a strong, urgent desire to attain whatever the prize may be. It doesn’t matter what the prize is, and it doesn’t even need to be necessary to the plot. It only needs to be a strong and urgently felt, pressing desire on the part of the character. Even a glass of water will do if they desire it urgently.
And that is how each episode of the Bible Adventures starts. Each one starts with a question. How can I be good? How can I be a friend? How can I love others? As they go on their journey through the rest of the show, this is the question that they will try to answer. The viewer is hooked from the start because they want to hear the answer, too. They want to see the protagonist, a young woman named Emily, find the answer through her adventure.
Conflict is essential to any story. But this raises an important question for this series, where do we insert the conflict? It’s a not like a Saturday morning cartoon where we can just insert some aliens, someone to shoot the aliens and call it a day. The audience that this media is intended for, which includes parents as well as the children, would frown on that kind of content. The show is intended to pass on morals and values that are contrary to that kind of ethic, at least in parents minds. And, as a father of three children under 5, the last thing we want is to expose them to content that will overstimulate them. Being a parent is difficult enough without content that will entice your impressionable son to engage in epic, knock down battles with his younger sister. So, we need to get creative with how we introduce conflict.
We can begin by understanding the main kinds of conflict in a story. I won’t go into depth on this topic in this article, but conflict falls into three main categories.
First, we have man vs. man. This is straight forward and is what most people think of when a show they are watching inserts some aliens and someone to shoot the aliens. This is by far the easiest way to insert conflict into a story.
Second, we have man vs. the environment. This is where our protagonist must struggle against some outward threat that is not man and doesn’t have a will of its own. A hero struggling against a storm or some other force of nature is an example of this.
Third, we have man vs. himself. This is where the protagonist, not having an external antagonism to contend with, must turn inwardly and muster his own strength to defeat the demons in his own soul.
This is where the Bible Adventures chooses to focus its conflict. The great conflict in these stories comes from Emily as she inwardly struggles to answer the question given to her at the start of the show.
There is a short interlude in later acts of the show where brief external conflicts may manifest, and I’ll touch on that later. But for the most part, the conflict in the series focuses on Emily and her inward desire to answer her daily question.
There is another book, also referenced by Stein, known as “The Hero with a Thousand faces,” by Joseph Campbell. I’ve also read this one. It’s highly worth reading and the premise is that the most successful stories, the ones that endure with us, are only one story. They are part of a global monomyth that we tell ourselves over and over and only the outward expression of the story changes. The collective works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spielberg, Lucas and even some stories of The Bible are expressions of this immersive cultural monomyth.
One aspect of the monomyth is the Mentor. The Mentor, as the name might suggest, is a character of sage like wisdom who accompanies the hero along on the journey. They don’t complete the journey for the protagonist, but they give the hero knowledge and gifts to aid them in the quest. And they frequently accompany the hero, but often not the whole way.
The important thing to take away is that it is the mentor who gives the “call to adventure” that the hero must follow. This call can either be initially accepted or rejected by the hero. In the case of Bible Adventures, Emily is often eager to accept the call, but a hero can just as easily resist the call to adventure.
In the Bible Adventures the spritely mentor comes in the character of Shine, Emily’s star buddy. Shine is a cartoon animated star which greets Emily at the start of each adventure. He then gives Emily the question to answer for the episode and sends her off on her way. They don’t meet again until the end of the show when Emily gives Shine, her mentor, the answer to the question.
Another aspect of the heroes journey is the gift. Before going on the journey, the hero gets a gift to aid him on the quest. This gift usually comes from the mentor, but not always. In Star Wars, Luke gets his fathers lightsaber from Obi Wan. In Harry Potter, Harry gets his wand from Olivander. This is one instance where the gift doesn’t come from the mentor. Another example would be Q from the James Bond franchise and I’m sure you can think of others now if you try.
Shine also offers his own gifts to Emily. He offers three gifts which come in the form of what they call “picture passes.” These picture passes are clues to help Emily discover the answer to the question Shine posed at the start of the journey. She puts them in her adventure bag and pulls them out at key moments along the journey.
The Threshold Guardian
This is where the hero begins their journey and discovers their first obstacle – The Threshold Guardian. This entity guards the Road of Trials and provides some form of test for the hero to pass before they can proceed. It’s not always some big, frightful beast, but it can be. It can be as simple as solving a riddle or giving a password to a gatekeeper.
In the Bible Adventures, the Threshold Guardian comes in the form of Guy, the Bible Guy. Guy is a scary joyful character who consumes the Word of God with a zeal that would probably be medicated in any other setting. He answers questions for Emily and provides a Bible verse for her to memorize. Emily can’t proceed along to the road of trials until she memorizes the Bible verse. Once she does, she is free to carry on.
The Road of Trials
The Road of Trials is the crucible where the hero is forged and starts becoming the champion they were meant to be. This is where they encounter trials and tribulations through which they grow and mature.
In the Bible Adventures the Road of Trials is a literal road. It’s a path that connects all the stops that Emily will make along her journey. Each stop has a different clue that she will need to answer her question.
Tension and Drama
Yes, even a children’s story benefits from a proper application of tension and drama. And the Bible Adventures does this surprisingly well, for a children’s show.
In his book, Stein gives a few ways in which we can introduce tension and drama into our work. One way is to have a character give an order that another character refuses to obey. For as long as the recipient of the command refuses to obey we retain tension. As soon as the recipient obeys, or gets consequences for their refusal, the tension is broken.
Another way he identifies is by the cliff-hanger, and this is the method that the Bible Adventures chooses to employ. This is where we introduce a character to peril and then just leave them to stew in it while we check in on another character. We could think of this as a more sophisticated version of “peek-a-boo,” where the author covers our eyes and says,
“Where did the hero go? Where did the hero go?”
Only to remove his hands a moment later and declare, “There he is!”
But is Emily really in enough peril for the viewer to care about what happens to her if we cut away?
Yes. For as long Shine’s question remains unanswered, she is. So, what the writers of the show do is, after she leaves Guy, they cut to a group of her forest friends. Shine often makes an appearance as mentor in these sections and helps the friends through a dilemma that mirrors the question Emily is trying to answer. But the most important point to remember is that Emily is nowhere in sight. The viewers don’t know where she is or how she is doing along her journey because we are now focusing on her friends in the forest.
After this brief interlude, we cut back to Emily along her journey. The cliff-hanger ends and the tension is broken.
The Innermost Cave and the Ordeal
Understandably, in a children’s show like Bible Adventures, literary concepts like The Heroes Journey must be condensed and abridged considerably. Here we have the Innermost Cave and the Ordeal essentially combined into one.
In The Innermost Cave the hero enters the heart of the new world, a place full of peril and marvel.
You might think that this is where things break down a little since Emily isn’t in any real peril, but you’d be wrong. In a sense, Emily is in peril. She is in peril of not being able to answer the question given to her by Shine at the start of the quest.
In the Ordeal is where the hero must face a dangerous external conflict, solve an important riddle or face an internal conflict.
In the Bible Adventures this is where Emily must combine all her clues to solve the riddle. And usually, she does it by now. This point is represented by her visit to another character in the series, Mr. Music. Emily has a short conversation with Mr. Music where the last piece of riddle usually falls into place. Being a children’s show, this tends to come in the form of a song that they sing together based on the topic of the episode. It’s followed by a transition to the next phase of the journey that consists of short music videos with a couple of catchy worship songs.
Catharsis and the return home
Catharsis is the relief from emotions or the resolution of a story’s main antagonism or conflict.
After she is done with Mr. Music, Emily ends the last leg of her journey and returns home. It’s there that she completes her quest and gives her answer to her mentor, Shine. At this point along the journey she has usually used all three of her picture passes and pieced them together into an answer. Sometimes she has one left over that she needs help from Shine to answer, but not often.
When she delivers her answer to Shine, we have reached Catharsis and the show ends.
In this article I’ve shown how even a Children’s show can benefit from and display well thought out literary principles. Principles of literary writing aren’t just for Shakespeare or Spielberg. You can use principles of the heroes journey to create tension and drama in everything from the classics, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, to YouTube videos, Christian videos, and children’s programming. It’s possible, though unlikely, that even Canadian media can be improved by literary principles.
Come at me, eh!
So I hope you’ll give serious thought to including some of these in your own writing. If you would like a good place to start, I would recommend “Stein on Writing,” by Sol Stein, whom I mentioned earlier.
Thank you for reading and good writing.