Everyone thinks they know how to define story. It seems a very simple thing and I suppose whether or not you feel its worth digging beneath the surface of this one comes down to one question: how sophisticated does your understanding need to be?
Time and time again as writers we hear the phrase ‘Story is king’.
And you hear the protests.. oh but the words, the craft, the mastery of grammar..
Words are fun, words are playdoh, but
words are like the skin of a book. Wonderful at first blush but rarely weather well. Rather a beautiful soul even if it is wrapped in pimples.
For me, it always returns to story. That doesn’t make me want to read the Da Vinci Code – and that’s not a slur on those that do – it’s merely not my idea of great story. This is where I always seek to better myself. It’s the hill – as one fellow writer once put it – I’m willing to stand and fall upon. And there is ample suggestion (can suggestion be ample?) that most of us writers do, whether we wish it or not. Christopher Booker thought it so important he spent 34 years figuring it out.
So to the dictionary, bat-fans,
story n. narrative, a series of events, a tale of events – fictitious or true – designed to amuse, or instruct…
I’ve heard others. Many feel this is insufficient. Still others see ‘ a relation of events’ as plot, and plot and story as distinctly different. Some feel there must be a beginning, a middle and an end and everything else is writer’s choice. In fairness almost everything can fall under this definition, from a fart to an elevator ride, so as helpful and enlightening go, this one is in the figure it our for yourself bin.
Two definitions that crop up frequently are, the ‘What if?’ and the ‘Conflict/resolution’ crux. Many of the common story structures, especially those outlined by Quiller-Couch, seem to revolve around an inherent conflict, whether its man vs nature, man vs society or the more evocatively titled, Overcoming the Monster. Even the ‘What if’, I tend to find, very often revolves around a problem. Rarely is it, What if I had a lovely day with never ending rainbows and ice cream? Although why not, folks? And even if it were, the most common second step is – what are the problems this might cause? Still another conflict orientated story definition is the find out what your character really wants then put obstacles in her way.
As a basic definition I really don’t have a problem with this. And it would certainly be difficult to find a good story that doesn’t have some conflict at its core. Many consider conflict a driving part of why we are drawn to story in the first place. Lisa Cron believes that we developed our story telling skills as a tool to safely explore and overcome the unknown..
This is what the reader comes for – to find out what it would really feel like to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, you know, just in case…
In seven basic stories Christopher Booker outlines a series of forms he ascertains are not only the basic structures that form all stories but that they relate directly to Jungian archetypes. From Overcoming the monster to rags to riches, to Voyage and return, many of them certainly sound far more intriguing than Man vs nature, man vs man. Is the nature of the conflict as vital as the inclusion of conflict itself? The love-hate dynamic is a seemingly irremovable aspect of the modern romance, Hollywood has made a thousand forgettable rom-coms on the back of any old conflict will do, yet when we look at the success of Twilight or 50 Shades its not superior writing prose that has made them so popular. Something in what was presented spoke directly to a large proportion of the reading public, can even be held to have whetted their appetite and paved the way for many a romance writer to make their self-made fortunes, something that elevated it beyond the millions of other obstacle and conflict ridden romances.
We like big monsters and impossible odds, the indefatiguable hero and triumphs over disasters but is there more at play? Catharsis, empathy, understanding, exploration. Is conflict the central hook in these stories or a natural side effect? I mean, sometimes it feels like life is conflict, so how could story not incorporate it?
This article on Eastern storytelling traditions believes that the love of conflict has been trained into us by western – I suppose specifically they probably mean Hollywood – traditions and is not a necessary part of a story.
For countless centuries, Chinese and Japanese writers have used a plot structure that does not have conflict “built in”, so to speak. Rather, it relies on exposition and contrast to generate interest. This structure is known as kishōtenketsu.
Of course, you could argue he is interpreting conflict in a very narrow manner, that contrast itself is a conflict. A conflict of expectations, of understanding or experience. In my earlier piece I argued that one of the best uses of conflict is that between story and reader, what is given and what is desired. In this article, also looking at the differences between eastern and western traditions, it is the nature of the conflict that is highlighted.
Modern American stories are usually told from a single person’s point of view, and they’re about heroes taking charge and changing lives….
In East Asian fiction, protagonists are often victims of fate, rather than shapers of it…. They don’t assume that a single hero can fix a troubled world. Characters suffer, and suffer, and suffer some more, and then they die.
Most of the above speak very directly to structure. Another word commonly used for that is plot. And I don’t think story is plot. They overlap to such an extent they can sometimes sidestep in and play synonyms for one another but story goes deeper, incorporating the whole host of standard elements from character to theme, and somehow still ending up a nebulous number that is either more or less than the sum of its parts – depending on how well you pulled it off.
Is story defined only by its structure, something which can be reduced so easily to a few basic ingredients, like a fart, with a beginning a middle and an end?
For some story is something that has a point. This guy believes its one of the five necessary elements.
A good story has a point, or moral. It’s not always explicitly stated, but it often is. If you can’t clearly state it, then you haven’t thought enough about the story – why you’re telling it, what its structural logic is, and where it’s headed.
And our Eastern-ophile believes it to be one of the fundamental differences in how the west and the east approach story.
Western cultures are individualist and idealize victory. East Asian cultures are collectivist and idealize harmony.
Yet this could equally be argued to be a form of propaganda. The use of stories to impart a moral imperative is long standing in all traditions. We’ve often used fairytales such as Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel as dire warnings to children of what might happen if they wander too far from home. Fairy tales have had a reincarnation of late, offering proof of their enduring appeal, yet when we look at the recent remake of Little Red Riding hood, where our heroine ends up in love with a wolf, and willing to die to be with him, is it the moral, the overall point the original tale clearly set out to make, that has helped it survive?
Human brains tend to seek out meaning, I do believe that, but does it validate the point or moot it? Take the following..
A man walks into a bar, man orders three drinks. Man drinks three drinks. Man exits bar..
A series of events. No conflict, no overt point. A beginning, a middle, an end… but if someone tells you that story you want to find a meaning, you start guessing. Is is a riddle? Was he drinking for two who weren’t there? Was it a dare? You want to ask questions.. who was the man? What was his demeanour?
Present a human with a canvas covered in painted squiggles and you’ll receive this as an analysis.. ‘The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation from value—political, aesthetic, moral.”
We’ve grown accustomed to story providing all the answers, often before it occurs to us to ask them, but Hemingway believed that the best way to write was to leave much unsaid, that a great writer approached his craft as if it were an iceberg, revealing only a tiny fraction of the whole.
Much of the oft-quoted, oft-reviled show-don’t-tell technique is believed to revolve around this desire to make the reader draw their own conclusions, whether of a moment or the story as a whole. For me this raises the interesting notion that a story may not be defined by its structure or meaning, or any individual, visible component, but rather by the response it elicits in the reader.
We can all react differently to the same story. The writer may deliver a man in a bar ordering a few drinks, but one reader might see someone building up his courage for a difficult task. Another reader might see an alcoholic. Yet another might see someone engaged in a quiet nightly ritual. Three and then home. No more no less, a man of routine, a lonely man? Waiting for someone, just once, to speak to him.
Not one of those is explicit, barely implicit, given how little is there, but none implausible. I remember a teacher once telling us all very firmly, there is only what is on the page. And in matters of textual analysis she was probably on the money, but for a reader, a listener, like us, they fill in the blanks, they surmise and extrapolate and they do so to serve their own desires, and according to their own understanding.
The writer can influence this. We’re not redundant – although sometimes I feel that way. If for instance we were to change the story to..
a man walks into a bar, a man orders three shots. A man downs three shots. A man walks out.
The first interpretation seems suddenly almost a cert – surely a man looking for dutch courage.
Equally, as much as we can narrow down interpretations with our word choice we can open up the possibilities and the depth by increasing the detail given.
A man walks into a bar wearing a tuxedo. He orders three shots. One hand remains in his pocket. He downs three shots. Still, with one hand in his pocket he slides a note across the bar, then leaves.
Now it’s not merely a man drinking for dutch courage, this could be said to be established, but we have enough to start speculating on what he might be preparing himself to face, a wedding? A speech? Is he groom or best man? Is there a ring in his pocket?
We can embellish though voice and tone, create a sense of place, time and personality.
This cat strolls into the bar, decked out in full tie and tails. He’s got one hand stuffed into his pocket, as if he don’t care. Flicks three fingers at the barkeep and says, ‘scotch’ like it mighta been years.
Then the question isn’t merely how much do we have to give to be a story and not merely a beginning or part of a story, but even if we offer a resolution – an answer – is it necessarily this that gives us satisfaction? The superficial conclusions, the ones offered up to us on a plate, that are easy to define, are not necessarily the ones that matter.
Is it even necessary to offer one up? Stephen King has become the King – so beautifully named – of the horror genre. Eclipsing all others and in fact he’s one of the most well recognised authors of all time. Yet he sucks at endings. Not always – Shawshank obviously worked. I don’t even remember ‘The Green Mile’. ‘The Dead Zone’ is hazy. ‘Pet Cemetery’ draws a blank. ‘The Stand’ I think I vaguely remember shaking my head at and thinking, eh? ‘Desperation’…?? I know I read these books. Was shaken to the quivery jellified core by aspects of them, depressed as hell by others, slightly queasy with some of the overt masculinity.. but the only endings I recall were the ones they made into films. And don’t ask me if they stayed true.. I don’t remember!
Take a look at ‘Game of Thrones’. The Never-ending story (with incest). On and on it rumbles and some don’t care, while others are starting to revolt at the clean lines of conclusion being drawn in the tv series. The neat tying up of Dany and Jon. Of War and succession, revelation and birth rights. A tale born not of right or destiny but machinations and consequences, the sweat and blood to make them, doesn’t really seem like it could ever truly resolve. Any more than life.
Then there are the stories with lacklustre ends. I’ll happily read any Poirot but the last, a dozen times over. The Mentalist is great in the early series but when the big bad monster was finally revealed it left only a sense of disappointment. Likewise Signs and the Happening both shot themselves in the tail – the resolution a reduction of the whole.
Orson Scott Card believes that story is determined by where you put your emphasis in terms of the four basic building blocks. These are: milieu, character, event and idea. Those who write milieu stories sell a world. Those readers who tend to play a lot of D&D and read exclusively Tolkeinesque fantasy novels are investing less in structure and more in the world itself. Structurally they may be overcoming the monster, or rags to riches (farm boy to saviour of the universe) even Voyage and Return to the Shire.. but what unites them? What draws them each and every time? The wonder of another time, simpler, clearer, the values of a bygone era, the comfort of magic and gods and beasts, something bigger than us, something worse than us.
Character stories tend to be about growth and transformation – and, although Nancy Kress holds that transformation itself is one of the seven basic plots, we could easily see sacrifice, another of the seven, as the means to transformation. Or revenge, or quest. So is it the structure or the character – their personality, struggles, inner demons – what makes the story work? He holds that works such as James Bond aren’t character driven, but are they? Is Pippy longstocking? Or Kinsey Milhone? Is it who they are, the life and possibilities, weaknesses, struggles and triumphs that drag us in each time.
Perhaps the most important part of Orson Scott Card’s theory is that of self-discovery –
Which one dominates? The one that the author cares about most. This is why the process of discovering the structure of a story is usually a process of self-discovery. Which aspect of the story matters most to you?
Because I think what a story is lies first with you. As a writer we’re often told write for yourself. Some hold it self- indulgent, but I don’t think that’s true. Discovery of the self is about the best way you’ll ever gain insight into humanity. We’re not that unique. We’re not that isolated. When we understand our own motivation, and needs we understand others. And we can better deliver the right story, with all the right parts moving in all the right ways. Some of us will always consider King the King, while some of us will be like, dude…ewww… And we’ll both be right.