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Stealing from Aesop

Last month Dave King posted about ideas in stories [1], highlighting this technique drawn from long-form journalism: “treat ideas as characters and tell a story about them.”  That started me thinking about the Greek slave called Aesop and his pithy fables with their sharp points.

For instance, the tale of the the ass in the lion’s skin.  In this fable, a too-clever ass puts on a lion’s skin and walks into town.  The townspeople are terrified…until the animal brays, revealing himself as an ass.  The moral of the story is, “When you talk too much, you can reveal too much.”  Point noted, at least by some of us outside the Beltway.

Now, fables traditionally are brief.  Parables generally are too.  As with jokes, they are set up quickly and quickly deliver their surprise punch, the moral.  Fiction, on the other hand, is a long-form art.  Fables and parables can be long too, however, as allegories can as well, which is why we can find them still today on bookstore shelves.

The story patterns of parable, fable and allegory were definitely not retired after Edmund Spenser and John Bunyan.  Their methods can be found in fiction such as 1984, Animal Farm, The Pearl, Lord of the Flies, Siddhartha, Watership Down, The Alchemist, The Thief of Always, The Time Keeper, Eyes Wide Open, The Life of Pi, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and many others.

We all enjoy such tales but few of us would attempt them, or want to.  They’re…what?  Too simple?  Too easy?  Unsophisticated?  Akin to folk tales, fairy tales, sermons?  No one wants to tell stories so plain, purposeful, obvious, or full of characters who are anthropomorphized animals.  Right?  Maybe, but the methods of parables, fables and allegories can give us some powerful storytelling tools, even when our story patterns are not strictly those of Spenser and Bunyan.

A parable is short and has a point.  A fable uses animals as stand-ins for humans.  An allegory uses a different world as a stand in for ours.  Those, however, are only the most obvious characteristics of such stories.  Each type of tale also requires us to recognize a truth.  Each has intentional meaning.  Their objective is not to capture life but to embrace an ideal.  Their characters represent distilled human qualities and their story worlds embody universal conditions of life.  Their aim is to change our behavior.

Parables, fables and allegories make judgments.  They are not post-modern or morally neutral.  They assume good or bad, right or wrong.  They recommend caution and provide direction.  Their power rests in their truths.  Their appeal is that they show us how to live.  Is that out of keeping with our cultural moment?

Our western culture extolls inclusion and diversity, yet I would argue that we are pummeled by judgments.  Daily.  Relentlessly.  We are not politically correct, you see, or we are too much so.  We should work harder but vacation more.  We must protect our kids but not helicopter hover.  We must not cause girls to obsess about weight but we must also remember that we Americans are obese.  Passing judgment is a universal habit and our unending burden.  We can’t win.

On top of all that, we live in a world where no one is pure, the game is zero sum, the prize is an empty throne, and morality is relative.  When there are no standards, no absolute right or absolute wrong, no guys wholly good nor wholly bad, shouldn’t we forget morality and disdain good-versus-evil, leaving those bankrupt values to kiddies’ picture books and adolescent superhero movies?  Isn’t it better for mature fiction to eschew strong meaning, demure, merely “illuminate”, and take no stand?

Haven’t we had enough of judgement?

It feels that way, but I don’t think we will ever lose our desire to know right from wrong, good from bad.   We forever want to know the best way to be.  It’s true that heavy-handed morality persuades no one.  (The literary form known as the morality tale died for a reason.)  However, it’s equally true that when we feel lost in the night we search for beacons, bonfires, and lighthouses.  We pray to God.  We navigate by the stars.

The complexity of the modern world causes us to crave simplicity.  Angst seeks relief.  In literature, anxiety is expressed through paradox, irony, contradictions, dilemmas, hypocrisy, and the great imperative of conflict.  But always the tide of stories runs toward resolution.  Critics may deconstruct texts, denigrate authorial intent, or call the desired effects of stories affective fallacies.  Let them.  The fact is, we crave catharsis.  We long to be transported, if not transformed.  We adore beauty, which is to say that we love what is good.  We dig plots because they have a purpose.  The interpretation of a text that matters the most is our own.

I said earlier that the power of parables, fables and allegories rests in their truths.  To tell a truth is not to pass judgment, but to declare what is right, to share what we have in common, and to inspire us to be better.  No one wants to be condemned, but we all long to be lifted up.  Judgement is oppressive, but truth sets us free.

Who are our beacons?  Where are our stars?  Those are you, or more precisely your characters.  To tap into the power of parables, fables and fairy tales, try these approaches:

The stories and parables in the Bible have endured for a reason.  They convey timeless truths.  Those truths can be found in the fables of many cultures, as well.  Even economic and ethical principles are conveyed in a story framework.  Timeless and surprising truths might emerge in your current novel, too.  Heck, why not?

Are you afraid of being obvious?  Didactic?  Artless?  The nice thing about fables, parables and allegories is that their meaning sneaks up on us.  Because we are borne along by the current of a story, we don’t immediately see where we are going.  The ultimate point, when we arrive at it, takes us by surprise.  It lurks metaphorically and reveals itself when we are ready to see it.

Springing a point on readers isn’t artless, it’s artful.  It’s welcome.  When the point is a truth, we don’t turn away.  We become better, and are glad for it.  So, go ahead and steal from Aesop.  He wasn’t stoned for telling truths.  You won’t be either.

And hey, Aesop’s methods are public domain, so it’s not really stealing anyway.

How might the methods of fables, parables or allegories be applied in your WIP?  What’s the point you want to make?  What’s the truth you are telling?

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About Donald Maass [2]

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [3]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [4], The Fire in Fiction [5], Writing the Breakout Novel [6]and The Career Novelist [7].