Stuck for a Story Idea? Go Old School. As in Old Testament.

Face it. We writers get in a slump sometimes and find it hard to come up with a story idea. And when people ask what we’re working on, we’ll say, “It’s just the beginnings of an idea,” or “It’s not fully formed yet.”

Welcome to the club.

But fear not. Help comes to us in the form of stories told over the past few thousand years. Stories that will surprise you. And with some skill, stories that you can adapt to your own nascent thoughts and craft into a real plotline. You don’t have to be a believer to use these stories. Just a writer. Summarized below are a story from Genesis in the Old Testament and one deuterocanonical story from the Book of Judith, along with some tips on adapting them to your work in progress.

Gutenberg_BibleTamar the Widow:
Original Story—Judah was one of the sons of Jacob, who was the progenitor of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Judah had three sons, and married his eldest, Er, to a woman named Tamar. According to the Bible, Er was wicked, and God struck him down, childless. Hebrew Law required that a man marry the childless widow of his brother to produce a child who would carry the deceased brother’s name. And so, Judah married Tamar to his second son, Onan. However, Onan refused to impregnate Tamar, and he was struck down, as well. Judah told Tamar to wait until his third son, Shelah, was of age, and he would marry her off to him. But when Shelah was old enough, Judah did not give him Tamar in marriage. So Tamar decided to take matters into her own hands. She laid aside her widow’s clothes, put on her best finery, and sat in the open on the way to the city where Judah was going to shear his sheep. Thinking her a prostitute, he went in to lay with her. In return for her ‘services,’ Tamar demanded Judah’s signet, bracelets, and staff. He obliged.

When Judah left, Tamar went back home and put on her widow’s clothes again. Three months later, she was called out for “playing the harlot” and was scheduled to be burned. She, however, brought out Judah’s belongings and said the father of her child was the owner of the signet, bracelets, and staff. Judah admitted that “she had been more righteous than I” for following the Law. She was free to go, and eventually gave birth to twins.

How You Can Adapt It:
There are numerous characters to play off of in this story. Your protagonist can start off as a disenfranchised character, subject to the manipulations of those who are more powerful. However, when the protag finally figures out that those in power are only going to do what’s in their best interest, your protag can take action. Such actions should not be able to be interpreted as vengeance, but as “making things right,” or as adhering to a certain code of conduct you have established in your universe.
The villains in your story can take on a minor role, as Er and Onan, or a larger role as the main antagonist, such as Judah, or even, one might argue, Hebrew Law and patriarchal attitudes. You protag may have to fight both the antagonist and the “system,” or whatever rule of government you establish that hinders your protag from accomplishing her goal. Rules may not hinder her, per se, but the way your villains manipulate the rules can. In this case, your protag has to use her wits and unfailing knowledge of the rules in order to beat the antags at their own game.

Original Story—King Nebuchadnezzar sent his general, Holofernes, to fight Israel, and all the people of Israel in the city of Bethulia were afraid, distressed at seeing the great number of the Assyrian army, and at the drying up of the cisterns, leaving them without water. The city’s leaders had declared that they would hand over the city after five days if the Lord did not deliver them. This proclamation reached the ears of Judith, who is described as a wise widow, who was also beautiful. She told the leaders that she would deliver the city and they should not tempt God by placing a time limit on Him. The leaders acknowledged her wisdom and told her to go in peace with God to deliver the city.

Judith puts on her finery and goes to Holofernes’ camp, along with her maid. There, she tells the Assyrians that she is fleeing the city because they will eventually surrender and that she knows of a secret passage that they can use to attack the city. Happy at this news, they bring her to Holofernes, who is taken with her beauty and eloquence of speech. He tells her she is safe in the camp and will not be harmed. She agrees to stay, but asks that she be given permission to go into the valley at night to pray. He acquiesces and she stays in the camp for three days.

On the fourth night, Holofernes throws a banquet and Judith attends. She feasts in his presence, and he is driven to drink more wine than usual. When the party finally ends, Holofernes lies passed out in his tent. Judith takes a sword and chops off his head. She gives it to her maid, who places it in a basket, and the two walk out of the camp to pray, as they had done on the previous nights. But instead of going to the valley, they return to Bethulia and tell the men to place Holofernes’ head on the wall and take up arms to fight the Assyrians. Once morning comes and the Assyrians are in disarray at knowing their general is dead, the Israelites win.

How You Can Adapt It:
Your protag can be someone who is minding her own business, doing what she loves in her own little protag world, when the antag suddenly breaks in upon her universe and forces her to react. The antag can be a person(s) with her own agenda, or agent(s) of a system that is opposed to the protag. In either case, they force the protag to take action in order to help preserve or maintain her current way of life. In other words, she has to deal with the issues at hand before she can continue to do what she loves, be it racing cars, writing novels, sculpting statues, or running a corporation. I use this scenario in my book, Cog. My protag, Nicholle, is a curator at a holographic art museum who is recreating the Prado in a disadvantaged section of the city. She loves exposing the public to fine art. Her father and brother, however, work at the family wireless hologram provider company and have a falling out. She is dragged into the situation, but then has to leave town to save her life. If she wants to quit living on the run and regain her former way of life, she knows she is going to have to deal with the mess her family wrought.

The villain(s) can be part of a large group, as Holofernes’ army, or a single individual with the power and arrogance of Holofernes himself. However, as with the Israelites, you can use one person, armed only with cunning, to take down an entire army or powerful group of persons. But make sure your characters’ actions easily arise from their backstory. Don’t write them acting in a manner that would seem false to the reader.

If you really want a character to react in a way that would seem alien, then trap her in an impossible situation with only one way out. Bonus points if you can craft the action to result in a good outcome for the society at large, which will not only help to soften the blow for your protag, but will also give her hours of soul-searching, angst-filled guilt in the sequel.

These are only two stories from the Bible, which contains a vast array of protagonists and villains; tales of war, sexual conquests, and romantic love; as well as tales of sacrificial love and acts of bravery. So the next time you’re stuck for a plot, just crack open the Old Testament and bring its contents forward a few thousand years. Who’ll be in your story?

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