Cain, Abel, and Jeff walk into a bar...

I'm trying to get insights into narrative from one of the greatest stories ever told, "Cain and Abel".


First I laid out the good and bad plot points in a graph. I had to do it by character or it didn't make any sense. Everything is going good for Abel, then it goes bad. The plotline goes up, and then down. Cain is similar, the down part is just longer and further down. I'm not convinced that is really that useful.

I marked when there was order and chaos along those plot lines. I'm not sure that's really that useful.

I divided it into seven main events and marked whether they were positive or negative.

- - - - - - -

Adam, Eve, sex, pregnant - positive
birth of Cain - positive
birth of Abel - positive
offering to Lord - positive/negative
Cain and God talk - negative
Cain kills Abel - negative
Cain and God talk 2 - negative

- - - - - - -

It is interesting that this directly marks where the change occurs in the story, the turning point. I also realized that that is unexpected. Abel's offering is accepted, that's expected. Cain's offering is rejected, that's unexpected. It's also where the conflict starts. This might be useful.

I used the 13 arcs of coherence that Steven Pinker lays out to go through the story sentence by sentence and didn't find that particularly insightful. It seems like it should be, but I don't see it.

I tried to figure out how to apply the sentence transformations from Todorov and Bruner, but it was beyond me.

I thought through the action and essence of the action of the characters and realized that that's probably too much of a focus on small events most of the time.

Then I realized that I could probably tell the entire story without any connecting words and it would still be interesting. I got the idea from writing notes of the events to myself earlier. So, here's what that looks like.

- - - - - - -

Adam, Eve, sex
Eve, pregnant
Cain, born
Abel, born
Cain, farmer
Abel, shepard
Cain, gift, God, crops
Abel, gift, God, lamb
God, accept, Abel
God, reject, Cain
Cain, angry
God, warning, Cain
Cain, kill, Abel
God, question, Cain
Cain, lie
God, banish, curse, Cain

- - - - - - -

Now that's interesting. I used the New Living Translation because it just happened to be closest to me. "Cain and Abel" is 371 words. The version I just wrote is 44 words. That's 12 percent. It allows us to look at what the writer emphasizes. For instance, the two talks God has with Cain include a decent amount of dialogue and are quite expanded. The writer wanted to make those sections pop out and be noticed in the story.

We can go one level more abstract and do the same thing for the whole story.

- - - - - - -

Cain, resentment, murder, lie, curse

- - - - - - -

If we take that basic pattern of motivation and action we can see that it is a fundamental truth of life. I've already written an article about "On Resentment as the Path to Destruction": http://www.jeffreyalexandermartin.com/2019/02/on-resentment-as-path-to-destruction.html
where I talk about how this plays out for individuals such as mass shooters.

It also applies to societies large and small. The Germans resented the successful Jews, they murdered them, lied about it, and then the entire country suffered under a terrible curse. The Soviets resented anyone with any success, they murdered them, they lied about it, and then that entire part of the world suffered under a terrible curse for many decades.

You can see this process working in the middle too. For instance, in the United States right now we have politicians like AOC and her squad that are resentful of anyone with more power, wealth, and fame than them. They encourage foreign and domestic terrorists. They lie about it. And there's no way for that story to turn out well.

Laying out the key image words like I've done reminds me of the theory of grammar that Eugene Schwartz proposed in his book "The Brilliance Breakthrough". Also, doing it at different levels from the bottom up reminds me of a technique for story evaluation that the writer Lawrence Block recommended, maybe in his book "Writing the Novel". Then, maybe, we can apply the scene analysis techniques from David Mamet detailed in "A Practical Handbook for the Actor". Let's try it.

I'm going to do two scenes. First, the one where God warns Cain.

- - - - - - -

What is God literally doing?
Advising Cain to master sin.

What is the essential action of what God is doing in this scene?
Warning a child to not act in anger.

What is that action like to me?
It's as if (not applicable to our current objective).

- - - - - - -

Next, the scene where Cain kills Abel.

- - - - - - -

What is Cain literally doing?
Killing Abel.

What is the essential action of what Cain is doing in this scene?
Taking a precious thing away from someone you resent.

What is that action like to me?
It's as if (not applicable to our current objective).

- - - - - - -

That's interesting. I'm not sure what exactly to make of all of that, but it seems good. Let's try the whole story.

- - - - - - -

What is Cain literally doing?
Making an offering, being rejected, killing Abel, being cursed.

What is the essential action of what Cain is doing in this scene?
Taking revenge on God for being rejected by killing an innocent.

What is that action like to me?
It's as if (not applicable to our current objective).

- - - - - - -

Maybe that's a good way forward. Break the story down into image words, do this at higher levels of abstraction, use the two questions to get to the essential action. On first try, I like it.

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Read more of what Jeff deems worthy of attention at: http://www.JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

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