§5. Plot

5.1.  Tension, Resolution, and Retardation

Traditionally, we think of the plot as what happens, its storyline. However, we cannot separate these events from the characters or from the narrative time and space. Likewise, it is not just the individual events that prove important, but how the narrator selects, arranges, connects, and recounts them.

As defined above, the plot moves from tension to resolution, but a story that resolves too quickly holds little interest. The storyteller delays the resolution by heightening the tension in various ways: initial failures, unexpected problems, the difficulty of finding a hero. All these and more help to retard the resolution and magnify the problem. Typically, smaller tensions arise and must be dealt with before the resolution of the main tension.

Retarding the action also creates suspense. Often suspense and surprise play an important role in a story’s impact. While biblical narratives have a first time for each reader, they are continually told and retold, and so we typically know what is going to happen. Their power then must lie not so much in what will happen but in how and why the tensions resolve and in the questions or insights that the story raises.

In analyzing a text, it is helpful to divide the story into its basic moments and chart the unfolding action. These divisions are open to some interpretation, and different concerns will lead to different divisions. The basic criteria include the change of time or location and the entrance or exit of speaking characters. The divisions should be useful rather than correct.

Amit stresses the importance of recognizing the moment of change when the tension begins to unravel.[1] In this story, the Lord’s command for Moses to stretch out his hand in 14:16, but he does not do it until 14:21, and with that, the tension begins to unravel even though the end of this story has never been in doubt.

5.2. Repetition: Key Word, Motif, and Theme

Robert Alter identifies repetition as a particular hallmark of biblical narrative, particularly verbatim repetitions. Others interested in the development of these texts have seen repetition as a sign that different traditions have been combined. While this is possible, Canaanite stories of Baal use much repetition, and critics like Alter have stressed the literary function of these repetitions rather than their being signs of difference.[2]

As is true for all literature, anything that repeats deserves special attention because narrators use repetition to create emphasis, design, and time. The insistence of repeating words and phrases provides a major clue to what the narrator wants the audience to focus on. Repetition also creates rhythm and design. It often appears in groups of three or three plus one. Finally, repetition gives the audience time; without it, the action would move too quickly to grasp intellectually, emotionally, and imaginatively.

Repeating words or phrases are identified as “keywords.” Recurring images are called” motifs.” Typically motifs reflect recurring ideas, called “themes.”

The keyword “pursue” appears in 14:4, 8, 9, 23 and defines Pharaoh’s misguided quest.

The column of cloud and fire serves as a motif manifesting God’s protective power and mystery.[3]

The motif of the “hand” plays an important role here. In Exod 14:16, 21, 26, 27, Moses’ “stretching out his hand” serves as a concrete expression for the divine power working through him. The Hebrew word for “hand” also appears in 14:8, “with a high hand” translated as ‘boldly,” and in 14:30 where it is omitted, and in 14:31 as as “word” in “the great work of the Lord.” The English may not reveal every instance. The New American Bible Revised Edition, for instance, often translates the Hebrew word  for “hand” as “power.” While there are resources to help those with little or no Hebrew discover these hidden words, readers do not need to discover everything to appreciate the power of these stories.

The search for keywords and recurring motifs is often the easiest way to begin an analysis of a story.

5.3. Sequence and Arrangement

Typically the storyteller recounts the action sequentially—that is, in the order in which the action unfolds in time. This orderly progression creates a sense of cause and effect even though the narrator may not literally state that A causes B. The coherence of the order normalizes the events and gives them a powerful claim as a reliable account without any other corroboration. This reliability may be a claim to historicity or just a claim to truth.[4]

Sometimes the narrator introduces a flashback to provide needed information from the past. At other times, a flashforward links the present to a future event. In biblical narrative, prophecies can serve this function. Here the Lord predicts in 14:3 that Pharaoh will pursue and in 14:4 says: “I will receive glory through Pharaoh and all his army.” This story has no suspense; its resolution is clear from the beginning.

As Chatman notes, “each arrangement produces a different plot, and a great many plots can be made from the same story.”[5]

5.4. Duration or Narrative Time

As discussed above, the more narrative time an element receives, the larger its importance. Since biblical stories put great value on economy, we should pay careful attention to longer scenes. In this story, the resolution with Israel’s escape and the Egyptians’ destruction takes up almost half of the narrative time. The narrator makes the resolution absolutely clear and gives us time to grasp its significance.

5.5. Frequency

Frequency is Gérard Genette’s name for the repetition of events. An event may be told once, or a number of times; likewise, something that happened many times may be told just once.[6] Of particular interest for the Bible is the idea of a single event told a number of times. As noted above in section 2.3, the Bible tells the Red Sea Story a number of times from somewhat different points of view. Even in Exod 13:17–14:31, the story is told or summarized from several viewpoints, and this layering adds complexity to our understanding. While those interested in the composition of the final story may separate these into different strands, the final text uses the frequency to create a complexity that preserves the mystery, particularly the mystery of God.

5.6. Gaps

The narrator does not tell everything. If the story is a journey, the narrator presumes that the audience is familiar with journeys from their own experience. Therefore, there is no need to fill in the gaps. With the Bible, there is also a gap between their experience and ours. Their idea of a journey and ours may be so different that we need information to appreciate what they mean by “journey” or “house” or “ruler.”

The filling in of other gaps involves the reader in the interpretation of the narrative.[7] In this, the reader must find a middle way between underreading and overreading, between too little imagination and too much. Overreading finds connections not grounded in the text, and underreading fails to see the clues the text provides. At times, our understanding of a story turns on how we fill in a crucial gap. Round characters typically come with gaps. The narrator provides clues about their motives or feelings but does not state them completely. The audience is left to fill in the gaps from what has been said.[8] Just above in 4.3, I have done this by arguing that Pharaoh’s decision to pursue Israel is a sign of his stubbornness and refusal to acknowledge the Lord as God. The narrator does not say this exactly, but I have argued that the text invites this understanding.

5.7. Basic Plots

Stories told and retold from one generation to the next carry the core values and identity of a community. These traditional stories offer people a paradigm for dealing with possibilities and failures that come with being alive. Christopher Booker has argued that seven basic plots reflect the basic tensions of life.[9]

  • Overcoming the monster or the battle narrative:
    An enemy’s physical threat brings forth a hero who triumphs. The victory represents the larger triumph of a society’s values and culture over the forces of chaos.
  • Rags to riches:
    A hero begins in poverty and weakness but comes to possess great wealth and power. It explores the themes of independence and power.
  • Journey quest:
    A hero goes in search of someone or something and does not relent until it is found. This plot examines what is worth desiring and its cost.
  • Journey of voyage and return:
    The hero leaves home and moves out into a different and unknown world before returning home. Maturation and transformation are often major themes.
  • Comedy:
    The characters begin in confusion and separation but come to a clearer identity that brings union, which often means marriage.
  • Tragedy:
    The main character seems to prosper, but because of sin or flaw or fate, the events turn, and the resolution brings destruction.
  • Rebirth:
    Someone in a death-like situation is reborn. These stories celebrate the power of life over death.

Booker also names three recurring subplots:

  • Call and commission:
    Someone commissions another to carry out a task, or someone asks for and receives a commission or permission. This subplot typically touches on themes of duty and service.
  • Test:
    Someone must overcome an external obstacle before proceeding to deal with the larger tension. The hero’s success reveals their worthiness.
  • Temptation:
    A person beset by temptations of appetite (food, sex, pleasure, wealth) or animus (anger, pride, envy, ambition) must gain or show the self-mastery of a worthy hero.

While one basic plot typically dominates a narrative, stories combine them in various ways to tell their particular story. The audience’s ability to connect individual stories to these basic plots serves two functions. First, it allows them to follow a story more easily because they know what to expect. Second, they can identify not only what is similar but, more importantly, what is different and specific in each story. I offer a fuller examination of this topic in my article “Basic Plots in the Bible.”

5.8. Closure and Interpretation

Audiences expect the narrator to resolve tensions so that everything comes together. This means not just the plot but also the questions about how the world works or does not work. When all is resolved, then there is closure.[10]

The last fifty years or more have emphasized the reader’s role in forging a story’s meaning. The questions and understandings of readers shape their ability to find relationships within and to the text. These presuppositions tend to lead readers to conclusions that they expect. Still, narratives continually raise questions or blatantly challenge our presuppositions. Voices, like those of the deconstructionists or the post-moderns, point out that a resolution often leaves behind elements that do not fit or that even undermine the “obvious” coherence of the text. For some critics, this overturning of coherence stands as the main purpose of narrative, and they seem to leave little or nothing standing.[11]

On the other hand, those who come to these texts with a belief system and belong to a community of believers can find both affirmation and challenge. Their beliefs will provide limits to their interpretation, and the community will provide a context and a guide for generating meaning. Even so, they must guard against finding only what they want to find. As the deconstructionist and post-modern interpreters insist, these texts rightfully challenge our narrow expectations.

5.9. Footnotes for Section 5

[1] Amit, Reading Biblical Narrative, 47.

[2] Alter, Art of Biblical Narrative, 111-117.

[3] Exod 13:21,22; 14:19, 20, 24; cf. Propp, Exodus, 549-550.

[4] Abbott, Introduction, 46-52.

[5] Chatman, Story and Discourse, 43.

[6] Genette, Narrative Discourse, 113-116.

[7] Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985) 186.

[8] Abbott, Introduction, 86-95.

[9] Christopher Booker. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (London, UK: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004) 21-213.

[10] Abbott, Introduction, 47-50.

[11] Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008) 190-208.



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Elements of Biblical Narrative by Harry Hagan, OSB, © Saint Meinrad Archabbey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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