Saturday, March 30, 2013

What Is a Story?

Note: This week’s post is the first (short) chapter of a small book I’m writing about the pleasures and techniques of writing stories from our lives. In this chapter I begin with the basic definition of a story.

According to Rust Hills, the former fiction editor at Esquire and the author of the book Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, “a short story tells of something that happened to someone.” That’s it, and that’s enough. This simple statement has the two necessary ingredient of any story, true or false, of any length, in any medium: plot (something happened) and character (to someone). For extra credit you can add “somewhere,” so that the terse description of a story would be “something happens to somebody, somewhere.” But scene is optional. Plot and character are musts for a story.
When we talk about the stories we draw from our lives, that “somebody” is us: my memoirs will be about what happened to me. Your life stories will tell what happened to you.
And what it is that happened? What gives any story a plot? The character has to change. Our someone is, at the end of the story, a different person from the one who she or he was at the beginning. Your life stories will tell of the moments you changed somehow, in small, subtle ways or in giant steps.
How does that change come about? It could be because of chance (a trolley ran over your foot, so you were never able to tap dance again); but more often, and more interestingly, it’s because the character has made a choice. The choice you made was probably a response to some sort of conflict. Your story will be about how you changed because of an important choice you made to deal with a conflict, and the change you made had consequence of its own.
I realize this is getting technical and maybe boring, but you’ll be in good shape if you remember these Four C’s: Conflict, Choice, Change, and Consequence. A good story needs all four.
Speaking of consequence, here’s another tip about constructing your story. A good story isn’t just a sequence of events: A happens, then B happens, then C, and so forth till The End. Instead, a story is made up of a series of consequences. A, B, C, and the rest are lined up like dominoes: A causes B to happen; B causes C, C causes D, and so on until the story reaches its climax. The climax is where the choice is made, and the change happens as a result of that choice.
What I’ve just described is also called the “narrative arc.” As the story progresses, consequence by consequence, A forcing B, B causing C, and so on till the climax (let’s call it the G spot), the intensity of the story increases, and story becomes more compelling and exciting. The climax is the high point, and what happens after that is a relaxed resolution.
If this description of a story sounds like sex, don’t be surprised or embarrassed. After all, we’re describing the joy of creation here, the creation of a story. Your story. One of your many wonderful stories.
Now that you’ve learned the Four C’s, let me now foist on you four S-words: Structure, Selection, Significance, and Style.
Structure you already know: it’s the narrative arc and the line of toppling dominoes. Add to that the obvious, that the story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. And usually at the end of the middle, the structure of the story calls for a climax. Let your story start off strong, build to a high point, then taper off with the consequence implicit in the ending.
Selection is an important concept. You don’t want to tell your whole life story in each story you tell from your life. Confine your material to what matters to the particular tale you’re telling. Keep it within the time frame of what happened. You don’t need a weather report at the beginning, and you can leave out boring irrelevant details. Include only the characters and events that matter to the choice and the change and the consequence.
Significance is another way of saying importance. A story should matter. The plot will matter to you because it changed your life somehow. Your story should also be significant to the reader, because to some degree, large or small, you’re writing about the human condition.
Style. Ah, style. Style is what gives wings to your words. Your style is your own. It’s as much a part of you as your fingerprints. When you write your stories, you will be writing in a voice that’s all yours. Nobody else would construct or tell those stories in the same fine way you are writing. No one else would use the same words, in the same order.
What else is important about style? Style is fun. Putting down words in your own way is a creative act, and you have a right to enjoy your words, and the way they bring your memories back to life.
So as you recall and retell those conflicts, and the choices you made, and the changes you went through, and the consequences of those changes, construct your stories strongly, focus on what matters to the story when you select what to include, show why your experiences were significant, and make the words of your story sing with style.
That’s what a writer does, and that’s what a story is.


  1. Excellent summation of what a story is, and I particularly like what you had to say about Style. Fun post!
    Marja McGraw

  2. This was very cool. I liked it a bunch Great subtle tips about writing and just plain easy reading. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Chris. I realize that most readers of this blog don't need to hear all this stuff, because they already know how to write stories. My book will be aimed primarily at first-timers.

  3. Brilliant in its simplicity. Beautiful in its inspirational stimulus. I think all writers need gentle reminders; like a professional athlete needs a coach to point out basic skills that get so taken for granted they're left in the locker. Always grateful for your wisdom. Thanks John M.