Today, I and family, and millions of other Jews, will celebrate Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew. This holiday celebrates, or commemorates if you will, the emancipation of the Jewish people from slavery and their exodus from Egypt.
Whether you believe the Exodus really happened, or you’re of the opinion that the whole thing was made up by a crafty writer (or a number of them), there is no doubt that the story behind Passover (which can be found in the Torah) is one of the greatest stories ever told. Thus, it holds some valuable lessons for fiction writers.
Consider some of the elements that make this story great.
The background to the story of the Exodus is that the people of Israel (the Jewish people) find themselves enslaved in Egypt. This is racially based slavery, one from which there is no reprieve.
These are high enough stakes, but the Torah piles on another: The Pharaoh, fearing the rising number of Jews, decrees that all newborn Jewish males be killed. Now we’re not dealing with slavery alone, but with something approaching genocide.
Rags to Riches and Rags Again
The Pharaoh’s decree leads baby Moses’s mother to place him in a basket and send him adrift on the river Nile. He is found by one of the Pharaoh’s daughters, who takes him and raises him in the palace as an Egyptian prince.
So Moses, born to the lowest social caste, is whisked upward by providence to the highest.
But Moses cannot escape who he is. He is not an Egyptian. He is a Jew. This leads Moses, now a young man, to kill a slave master whom he sees whipping a slave. Fearing punishment for this killing, Moses flees Egypt, and thus loses his high status once more.
A Flawed Hero
God then comes to Moses, orders him back to Egypt and tells him he must liberate his fellow Jews. But Moses claims to be not up to the task, for he is not a good talker. He has a speech impediment. Still, God is adamant. Moses is to be his messenger of liberation.
When Moses returns to Egypt he comes as an emissary from the Hebrew God. He demands the Jews be liberated, and he must prove that his God is more powerful than those of the Egyptians.
Thus begin the Ten Plagues which fall upon Egypt. Most fantasy writers would be hard-put to come up with better and deadlier calamities, or any that evoke more visceral imagery than the Ten Plagues do. Consider the Nile growing thick with blood, or darkness befalling upon the land, or frogs becoming ubiquitous, or, the final plague, that of the death of each Egyptian first born (which sorts of parallels the Pharaoh’s decree which started Moses on his journey).
Finally convinced that the Jews must be allowed to leave, the Pharaoh grants them permission to depart his land. Thus begins the Exodus, in which thousands of Jewish men, women, and children begin marching toward the Holy Land, the land from which their ancestors had come to Egypt.
This is a hard and arduous journey, but one which has not truly begun until they had crossed the Red Sea. For the Pharaoh, having had a change of heart, has sent his army after them.
Caught between the approaching Egyptian army and the Red Sea, the Jews are in a hopeless position. Then God comes to their rescue. He opens a path between the waves and the Jews march through it to the other bank. The Egyptian army pursues them, but the sea closes on them and swallows them whole.
This is a highly suspenseful scene. You don’t know until the last minute whether the Egyptians would catch up to the Jews and slaughter them.
The Story Continues
This is not the end of the story. This is where, in modern fiction, Book 1 would end. The rest of the tale — the forty-year-long journey of the Jews through the Sinai, the delivery of the Ten Commandments, the Golden Calf episode, and later the conquest of the Holy Land by Joshua — would be told in later books.
My own novels are nowhere near as wide in scope as the epic of the Exodus. And there is no magic in my realistic books. Yet, in every good novel, there is a hero, often flawed, who is striving against odds, to find a solution to a high-stake problem.
Whether you’re writing a mystery novel, a romance, or an epic fantasy tale, the Exodus can teach you a lot about the crafting a plot and story. After all, stories don’t survive and continue to be told for millennia for no reason.
Happy Pesach, everyone.