When I was a child I devoured the books of Adrian Plass (The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 37 /4, The Horizontal Epistles of Andromeda Veal, Stress Family Robinson, View From A Bouncy Castle, Cabbages for the King, The Theatrical Tapes of Leonard Thynn, to name a few). I haven’t read his later works, though not for lack of wanting.
What engaged me was the nature of his story telling. In his novels it was the humanity and humility of people that I engaged with, seeing the everyday flaws and faults, while coming to a greater understanding of people and their idiosyncracies. The people were real yet revealed to me an understanding of a greater truth or moral behind the story.
They were extended parables, stories that taught you something about yourself, about humanity as a greater whole. And I’ve come to realise lately that this parabolic structure has influenced and informed why I tell stories and my interest in writing, leading to defining my writing as “suburban realism.”
We are most familiar with parables from the Gospels as spoken by Jesus: The Prodigal Son, The Lost Sheep, The Mustard Seed. They often began, “The Kingdom of God is like…” and used images and illustrations familiar to the people as a way of explaining a greater moral principle or spiritual truth.
But should all stories be parables, demonstration lessons or didactic tools? I don’t think so.
We spruik modern parables today via social media; those feel good stories people post that go viral. For example, the Washington Post experiment featuring violin virtuoso Joshua Bell (I think the experiment has many flaws, but that’s for another time).
We watch it cycle through our feeds, read it story, understand the point it is making but are quick to click through and move on through our timelines.
We baulk when stories such as these, and by extension, a short story or novel, film or documentary, comes across as obvious preaching or didactic. However we understand in certain circumstances and settings, a parable is appropriate.
A parable helps us to understand something greater than the immediate world of the story. Yet it is a fallacy to see all stories as parables, as analogies of greater truths unless specifically intended by the author.
Parables serve a purpose but can be a limiting form and structure for a writer.
I also see stories as parallels. Within the form of a short story, a novella or a novel, we see the life of a character transcribed and transformed before us. As we read, we walk alongside the character and watch the emotional ebbs and flows. At times we want to reach out our hand and hold theirs, laugh with them, embrace them in their sorrow or hold them at arm’s length in disgust.
As we parallel the character, we turn a mirror onto ourselves and perhaps see traits of the character we wished we had, or wished we could hide from others.
One purpose of fiction is to tell an engaging story, connecting them with the reader, transporting them into another world, another reality, and to perhaps learn from the experience; to ask the hard questions, even if we end up with more questions and fewer answers; to extrapolate possibilities and infer consequences.
Is all writing an attempt to write a parable, to tell a greater truth or are we writing stories to parallel our existence? The idea that it can be simultaneously a parable and a parallel excites me.