Saturday, August 20, 2011

Bible Study Tips: Use Plot Diagrams

The most common literary genre found in the scripture is narrative. Estimates vary based upon how narrative is defined but most scholars argue that 60% to 80% of the scripture is in some form of narrative. Therefore, if we are to engage in thorough study of the bible we need to have some understanding of how to approach narratives. For example, the guidelines for interpreting narratives are much different than those for letters or psalms. The study tip that I am introducing today, however, is even more basic than applying those rules. Before you can interpret or apply the teaching in biblical narratives you have to be able to properly observe and understand the structure and emphasis of the narrative. Since these observations are tied to the plot development a useful tool for doing the observation step with a narrative is to use a plot diagram.

Scholars as far back as Aristotle recognized that the plot of any dramatic narrative can be usually broken up into 5 parts.

  1. The Exposition: This is where the story is setup. Background information such as the setting and characters are introduced and the coming conflict or problem is being developed. The exposition will also include the introduction of a conflict of some sort. It may be internal or external to the character and often it is both (a decision that has to be made about some external circumstance). This introduced conflict will setup an inciting moment. The exposition ends with this inciting moment. This moment is the problem or action that kicks off the narrative. Without this moment there is no story.

  1. Rising Action: This is a series of events that build tension in the narrative and move toward a climax in the action. This can be complicated by secondary plot lines and conflicts but the overall plot will continue to have increased tension and build toward a major turning point in the action.

  1. Climax or Turning Point: This is the peak of the action and after this event everything in the story changes. The tension is relieved and often the fortunes of the key human character will change at this point (In biblical narrative God is always the main character).

  1. Falling Action: This is where the conflict begins to unravel. There may be moments of suspense and a few more twists but the action unfolds and the key human character either “wins” or “loses”. The falling action often finishes with a final observation or action that functions as a type of finale.

  1. Resolution (denouement): This is the final state of affairs within the narrative. This is where the key human character ends up dead, living happily ever after, etc.

In 1863 the German writer and critic Gustav Freytag developed a helpful way to illustrate the plot elements visually, known as Freytag’s pyramid. Although Freytag was working on fictional drama his plot diagram is also helpful for studying biblical and other forms of dramatic narrative. Basically what he did was lay out the 5 plot elements visually, forming a pyramid.

The value in this is that it is easy to see quickly how the plot flows through the narrative and it can be applied to both simple and complex plot lines. For example, you can lay out the overarching plot of the bible’s redemptive history using this method:

Or you can use it for much smaller narratives within scripture. As our example we will use the short narrative of Jesus rebuking the storm found in Mark chapter 4.

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
(Mark 4:35-41 ESV)

Let’s find the following answers in the narrative.

  1. Exposition
    1. Who are the characters? Jesus, His disciples, and the storm.
    2. Who is the main character? Jesus- there are 10 references to him in this short section.
    3. What is the setting (place): They are in a boat on a lake.
    4. What is the setting (time): It is evening.
    5. What is the conflict? A storm arises while they are in the boat.
    6. What is the inciting moment? The boat was filling and apparently sinking and they are afraid.

  1. Rising Action
    1. Jesus was in the stern (not immediately available)
    2. Jesus was sleeping
    3. The disciples wake Him
    4. They ask Him if He doesn’t care that they are all going to die

  1. Turning Point
    1. Jesus rebukes the wind and waves

  1. Falling Action
    1. The wind ceased
    2. The sea was calm
    3. He questions their lack of faith
    4. They were filled with fear

  1. Resolution
    1. They marveled and wondered at Him

When we plot this out it will look like this:

One way to see if things are tying together is to look at the transition points that you have chosen. In this narrative we have both an internal and an external conflict. The external conflict is obviously the storm. The internal conflict is the interplay between fear and faith in the disciples. Since the three main transitions must be related in some way to the conflict we can look to see how it lines up. The initial conflict is that the boat is taking on water and appears to be sinking and the disciples are afraid. The action then continues to rise as they try and get Jesus involved until we reach the high tension point when they ask Christ if He did not care that they died. Then comes the second transition, the major turning point, where Christ rebukes the storm. Everything changes after that.  The tension then falls until we have the observation that the disciples were filled with great fear because of what they saw. The resolution of the incident is that they are in awe and wonder about Jesus and His identity. The key plot transitions are tightly linked between the external and internal conflicts. Storm/fear of the power of nature then the boat sinking and fear of Christ’s indifference. Then the storm rebuked and fear (reverence) of the power of Christ. As we can see from the plot diagram the narrative isn’t just about the display of Christ’s power but also the effect of that power on his disciple’s apprehension of His identity. The conflict (internal and external) is related to the doubt and then awe inspired consideration of who Jesus is.

The key to getting the most out of this tool is to get started. Don’t worry about getting every detail correct. The point is to start thinking about how the author is structuring the narrative. Just answer the questions as best you can and keep practicing. The more you do it the easier it is to see the transitions. Also, keep in mind that if you are working with longer narratives they may be difficult to fit into this structure if you try to be too specific.  You will likely have a series of conflicts and rising and falling actions. The idea is focus on the big picture of the narrative, ask what is the big problem, what major event happens as a result that changes the situation, and how is the problem resolved. Once you understand how the narrative develops and is structured you can then focus on the details and begin looking at how each of the smaller sections supports that overall plot.

I pray that your studies are profitable and that the Lord blesses you through them!


  1. One of the reasons this works so well is that Bible narratives are chiastic in structure:

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thanks Nazaroo,

    Although I know that Lund, who popularized the study of chiasmus in the NT, used the term to refer to longer passages I agree with Harvey that the term is best restricted to the description of structural compositional elements at the sentence level. I would use the term inverted parallelism for longer passages.

    At any rate this tool is useful for both narratives that have an inverted parallel (chiastic) structure and those that do not