What is a Story? Do You Really Know?


What is a Story? Do You Really Know?

As a reader, you know instinctively. Because we understand so well as readers, writers sometimes don’t realize that understanding story from a writing point of view, is critical to avoid too long narratives, or worse, end by the reader thinking, “Well, that didn’t go anywhere.” And this post also refers to memoirs—they need to be stories, too.

An example

Let’s say you write this (note: I’m purposely using a lot of ‘tell’ to telescope the action):

Evelyne is a brilliant student who is sophisticated and well-travelled. Colin is also a brilliant student but he has never been farther than the next town.

Is this a story? I think most of us would reply, “Well, not yet.”


Is this a story?

What about if you added:

Evelyne moved to Thailand when she was five when her father was posted as a diplomat. The family then moved to Vietnam. Although she did most of her schooling in England, she often returned to the family as it moved to various postings in South East Asia.

Colin has worked on the family farm ever since he can remember. He’s very knowledgeable about animal husbandry, crop rotation, and feed crops. He has worked with many older farm hands and acquired a level of wisdom far beyond his years.

 I think some might waver here, especially if, as would probably be the case, there are quite a few pages and the events themselves are interesting. They might think, well, maybe it is.

Nope. Neither character is taking action in the present context. As presented, these are descriptors of the characters. Might still be useful but it’s not a story yet.

How about now?

Evelyne and Colin are in the same compulsory First Year English class and are fiercely competitive.

This is where it gets harder. The two characters are acting but is it a story? I think we are creeping up to it because there is a conflict. But not yet.

Say you fleshed out the bones of the idea and showed them competing in a no-holds-barred way to win top honors?

Sorry, no cigar.

Never-ending competition between the two would not be a story nor, ultimately, very interesting.

The requirements for a story

For this to be truly a story, there has to have a crisis, or discovery, or a transformation. How could we add that to our story?

  • A crisis might be that Colin’s father is badly injured in a farm accident and Colin has to drop out of school
  • A discovery might be that, for all her cool sophistication, Evelyne comes from an abusive family
  • A transformation might occur when either Colin or Evelyne learns how to cope with failure when one loses to the other.

So, what is a story?

Typically, there is a setting, some characters, a crisis/discovery/transformation, and a resolution. You can’t really drop any one of the components and still fulfill the reader’s expectation of a story, no matter how brilliant or touching the writing is.

This is where fiction diverges from life. As I have discussed before, fiction has conventions, often invisible to the reader, which nevertheless must be satisfied. Whereas in real life, Evelyne and Colin really might have engaged in nonstop competition, it’s not a story unless they move beyond that point. Similarly, in real life, we don’t always know the resolution of an issue or whether there even is one, but leaving readers hanging in that way will disgruntle your most loyal bookworm.