I’ve been studying the three-act plot structure as I try to shape my vague ideas for a story into a cohesive, writable novel and I have concluded that there’s something universal about this storyline. In fact, every page-turner I’ve ever read, and many Pulitzer-, Nobel-, or Man Booker- winners, follow this same path to structure their beginnings, middles and ends.
And the more I look at it, the more I see the Bible is set up along exactly the same lines. Because it’s an inventive, artful compilation of texts designed to trick us into thinking it’s history, when in fact it’s just a story? You know I don’t think so. The Bible was written by about 40 different writers, in three languages, on three continents, over a period of 1500 years. For it to be so internally consistent is nothing short of miraculous. I’m convinced the reason the three-act structure resonates so deeply with us is because it reflects the greater reality of human history, which the Bible so accurately records.
But crack the Bible open at random in a few places and the one long story is not apparent. Perhaps you landed in the book of Judges and Jael has just driven a tent peg into Sisera’s temple. Or Song of Songs, “Your hair is like a flock of goats, leaping down the slopes of Gilead.” Or Paul’s impassioned words: “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” The storyline isn’t obvious, even if you read the Bible cover to cover.
So if you’ve ever wondered how the apparently disjointed pieces fit together, come along for the next three posts as we look at Act I, Act II and Act III of the Bible’s story.
In Act I, an author needs to introduce the setting and the characters, as well as the big problem the character(s) must face. There’s some wavering initially about the best response to the problem, but by the end of Act I, the protagonist has committed to a course of action that will be worked out for the rest of the story.
The plot points are: Beginning, Inciting Incident, Second Thoughts and Climax Act One.
Let’s see how these four are played out in the Bible.
BEGINNING: This one is pretty obvious. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen. 1:1). But notice that we meet the protagonist of the Bible, God, and we see that the setting is the heavens and the earth. The beginning of the story covers the first two chapters of Genesis, where God creates the universe, then zooms in on Planet Earth, covering it with vegetation, giving it time-keeping and light-generating orbs, filling the seas and skies with fish and birds, and populating the earth with animals and insects of every kind. Then he creates humans and breathes his own breath into them. God establishes marriage and a vegetarian diet and puts his two humans in charge of the good world he has just made. We have the exposition: who the story is about, where it takes place. So far so good. Very good, in fact, says God. But just as Little Red Riding Hood’s mother tells her not to stray from the path en route to her grandmother’s, God tells his humans not to eat from one tree in the middle of the garden where he’s placed them. Just one rule. Not hard to follow since every other tree is open for business. Even by the end of Genesis 2, we can see it coming and we’re groaning, “Don’t do it!”
INCITING INCIDENT: Little Red Riding Hood leaves the path. Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit. And from there, things go terribly wrong. The humans are expelled from the Garden of Eden where work was a pleasure and now must toil for their food. Yet even here, God promises that one day their offspring will crush the head of the serpent who tempted them. Still, the consequence is that death enters the world, first in the animals sacrificed to make clothing for Adam and Eve, and then in the first murder not many years later. Within a generation, humanity is on a path of murderous revenge, with Lamech, Cain’s descendent, boasting he’s eleven times more violent than his ancestor. This one little fruit-eating incident has turned “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart to evil all the time.” (Genesis 6:5) and God begins to have Second Thoughts.
SECOND THOUGHTS: This is where the protagonist still has a choice about whether to get involved or walk away. In The Pelican Brief by John Grisham, Darby Shaw has researched and written her theory about the assassinations of two Supreme Court judges, but she’s non-committal and writes DRAFT across the top of it. She shows it to her professor, but has second thoughts about taking it to the next level. In Genesis 6, God has second thoughts about the humans he has created, so troubled is his heart at all this “evil all the time”. Enter Noah. God decides to wipe the slate clean and start over with the only righteous man left. He floods the entire world and saves only enough people and animals to repopulate it. He makes a promise to Noah after the catastrophe, that the rainbow after the rain is a sign he will never destroy the earth again by water. That’s a big commitment, but there’s a bigger one to come which will bring us to the climax of Act One.
CLIMAX ACT ONE: The Climax of Act One is the point of no return for the protagonist. They may have wavered about whether to commit themselves to a course of action earlier, but something happens to change hesitation into firm resolve. We come to Genesis 12. A new character is introduced, named Abram, who, not coincidentally, is a descendent of Noah himself. A Mesopotamian living in Ur, Abram is a God-worshipper and one day hears God calling him to leave it all behind and travel to a new country which God will give him and his descendants who will number the stars. This is formalized by the covenant of circumcision in Genesis 17. God is starting something new, setting apart one family, promising them one piece of land, and saying, “through your offspring all nations of the earth shall be blessed.” Now there’s no turning back for God. He’s promised not to destroy the earth but to bless all nations through Abraham’s “seed”. But just as we’d expect, opposition is brewing, and will continue to brew for the next 1500 years, leading up to the surprising mid-point twist in Act Two.
By the end of Act One, the inner and outer problems are clearly defined. God has the inner problem of loving these creatures who invariably turn away from him, a theme that is fleshed out in Act Two. He can’t just pat them on the head and overlook their failure to love him because he is also holy. His spotless justice demands that their sin be punished. Tension!
This is the great romance of the Bible. It’s not how will the girl get her man in the end, but how will God get his people to love him faithfully in the end?
In the three-act structure, the inner problem is resolved by the end of Act Two, leaving the protagonist free to resolve the outer problem, which is Satan, who has been trying to thwart God’s redemption for millennia. We have to wait until the climax of Act Three, however, to see how God deals with the villain of the story once for all.
For a lot of people, the Bible is either art or truth. For me, it's both, and I hope to persuade readers in both camps to see the other perspective.