An Atheist Goes for a Walk in the Woods

Inua Ellams on plot and style

Writer and poet Inua Ellams examines the connection between plot and style in this episode of The Writing Life.

This is part of our free Early Career Writers’ Resource pack on Plot. Inside the pack you’ll find more advice on designing plots from Nicola Upson, Okechukwu Nzelu and Simon K Jones – take a look!

Inua is an internationally touring poet, playwright, performer, graphic artist & designer. He is an ambassador for the Ministry of Stories and his published books of poetry include Candy Coated Unicorns and Converse All StarsThirteen Fairy Negro TalesThe Wire-Headed Heathen, #Afterhours and The Half-God of Rainfall – an epic story in verse. His first play The 14th Tale was awarded a Fringe First at the Edinburgh International Theatre Festival and his fourth Barber Shop Chronicles sold out two runs at England’s National Theatre.

A story is the telling of a series of connected happenings, and the main events in a story, gathered together, is what we know as plot. The plot typically includes the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution, the bare bones of a story, and every story has a plot. 

There’s a story I like to perform; a narrative joke. This is the plot: An atheist goes for a walk in the woods and is attacked by a hungry bear. Desperate, the atheist calls to God for mercy. God answers the atheist’s prayer to make the bear a Christian. The bear thanks God for his meal and eats the atheist. 

That’s it, the bare bones. The plot. In a good story, all events in the plot have strong dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance for its characters. Sometimes the plot unfolds chronologically. Other times rearranging its events increases their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance. Other times, the style in which the story is told is all that’s needed to lift a mundane plot. 

I come from an ancient, West African oral storytelling tradition where nomadic storytellers, griots, would teach the plot of stories to their apprentices, but encourage them to find their own styles. I’m primarily a poet so I’m interested in precision, detail, beauty and economic uses of language. As a theatre-maker, I’m invested in how physicality contributes to communication, what my body, posture, face can do. As an artist, I’m interested in creating work that is as current and specific as possible, yet speaks to the broadest audience. All this creates a style and aesthetic that lifts the mundane atheist-in-the-woods story. 

Before I begin performing the story, I try to suss-out the audience’s demographics: class, faith and broad cultural tastes. This has implications on how I voice God, the atheist, how intensely I use imagery and what pop culture references I use. This means I never tell the story the same way twice. Last time I performed it, this is roughly what I said: 

So, once upon a time, gorgeous summer’s day, beneath a cloudless sky, an atheist goes for a walk in the woods. He’s like: ‘I’m a pretty atheist, doing my thing, skipping through these trees like a badass. Look how I left my iPhone at home and I’ve got my ceramic high performance extreme camping mug.’ It’s just him, the mug, the woods, checking out hummingbirds supping sweet nectar, rare butterflies fluttering by, hovering over flowers. The dude is chill. Suddenly, he hears a twig crack, turns round and there is a big bad grizzly, saliva dripping from its jaws. GGGRROAR! Bear starts bounding towards him. Atheist drops his high performance mug, starts dashing through the woods, screaming. Branches of trees are crashing into his face, draggin’ at his lips, globs of saliva are whipping past, flapping into leaves, and the bear is right behind him, claws out, swiping through his backpack, jacket, t-shirts, skin, bits of blood and bone are flying everywhere, and the atheist is screaming: ‘Help me! Help me! Somebody please!’ They get to a clearing in the woods, the bear trips the atheist over, he falls on his back, bear is right on top of him slashing through his legs. ‘Somebody help! Please! God help me! God help me!’ 

The bear rises to its hind legs, about to chomp on this chump, when everything stops. The hummingbird is frozen mid-sup. The butterflies are still, as if sellotaped to the air. Darkness swamps the sky, save a pinprick of light that beams down and encircles the atheist, and it’s God. And God says: ‘WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU WANT?!’ The atheist is like: ‘Whoa, you swear?’ God’s like: ‘Ain’t got time for this, I’m watching the Sopranos, peace out!’  Atheist screams: ‘No No NO! This bear is about to eat me! Help!’ God says: ‘You’ve spent your whole life denying my existence, why should I help you?’ Atheist: ‘Cause… cause.. you’re merciful God!’ God laughs: ‘Have you read the Old Testament??! Idiot! Leave me alone!’ Atheist pleads: ’No no no! If YOU won’t be merciful, then.. make the bear a Christian!’ God’s like: ‘FUCK!… Fine Okay. Whatever! See you on judgment day.’ God vanishes. The beam of light is sucked back into the skies. Darkness clears. Motion returns to the world. The hummingbird sups again, the butterfly flutters by and the bear growls: ‘GRRRRRrrreee… er.. rrlrr?’ Bear looks at its paws, looks at the atheist on the ground. Paws. Atheist. Paws. Atheist. Looks at the sky, shakes its head, brings its paws together and says: ‘Dear God, thank you for this meal you have just provided for me…’

Now, when I’m telling this to a really involved audience, the conversation gets longer, I go off on tangents and it is easy to get lost in the telling. But because of the plot, because of those bones, which I know very well, I always find myself again. Knowing them allows for room to roam, for the writer to go wild with style and for the performer to mine the story for nuance, suspense, humour and emotional wealth.