WHAT'S A STORY?
A STORY is a "narrative of events."
Little Red Riding Hood goes into the woods, meets the wolf, takes a short cut to grandma's, meets the wolf again, says "My, what big teeth you have," and the woodcutter comes and chops up the wolf. A narrative of events is a simple recounting or retelling of something that happened, either in the "real" world, or in a "fictional" world. The story of Little Red Riding Hood is clearly a narrative of events. It is also a narrative of events when the old man goes out to catch the big fish, or when Michael Corleone goes out to kill his father's enemies, or when Leamas, the spy, goes out into the cold. Any story is a narrative of events. But that is not all it is.
Consider this narrative of events:
Joe hops out of bed, dresses, packs a lunch, gets into his car. He drives a few blocks to his girlfriend's place and picks her up. Her name is Sally. They drive to the beach where they lie on the hot sand all day, then have a nice seafood dinner. On the way home they stop for ice cream. This is a narrative of events, but is it a story?
Most readers, instinctively, would sense that it is not.
The reason is that the events are not worth reading about. The events must be of interest. So what if Joe goes to the beach with his girlfriend? So what if they have a dinner? The events of this narrative have no meaning because the events have no consequences. If we define a story as a "narrative of events," we have not gone far enough in our definition. We must add that it is a "narrative of consequential events."
But is that all there is to it?
What if I told you the sufferings and travails of a rubber tree being pruned? Or the trials and tribulations of a motorboat as it makes its way up the Congo. Not interested? It would only be interesting if the rubber tree or the motorboat had human characteristics. Jonathan Livingston Seagull was a humanlike seagull. Jonathan Livingston Seagull and the little locomotive who said, "I think I can" are interesting characters not because they are a bird and a train, but because they are humans in odd shapes.
So a story involves not only consequential events, but consequential events involving human characters. And not only human characters, but human characters that are worthy of our attention. No one wants to read about characters who are just anybody. They want to read about interesting somebodies, characters capable of evoking in the reader some measure of emotional response.
An expanded definition of story now would be: "A story is a narrative of events involving worthy human characters and consequential events."
This definition is good but still not complete. What is missing is that the characters must change as a result of conflict. If a character waltzes through a story unaffected by the events and sufferings he sees and endures, then the narrative of events is not a story at all, but merely an adventure. A complete definition, then, is:
A story is a narrative of consequential events involving worthy human characters who change as a result of those events.
In a dramatic story, the only kind generally worth reading, the characters will struggle. You may write a story in which the characters suffer and are involved in events, but are generally passive, doing nothing to solve their problems. If the characters change as a result of the hardships inflicted on them, such a narrative of events will be a story, but it will not be a dramatic story. Characters must struggle if you are to have drama. A reader may sympathize with the plight of a suffering character, but true reader identification—where readers will forget themselves and be completely absorbed into the character's world—can only happen with a character who is struggling. Remember Joe and Sally? Let's present them a dilemma to struggle with and see what happens:
When Joe left the house that morning for Sally's, he noticed a beat-up van following him. Why would anyone be following him? he wondered. Must be his imagination, he told himself.
Interested? Of course. Something mysterious is occurring. We want to know what will happen. We might have also started the story this way:
Joe bought the half-carat ring at a discount jewelry store down by the waterfront. That night at the restaurant he was going to "pop the question." Sure he had only known her two weeks, but for him two weeks was plenty of time . . .
Are we interested? Of course. We want to know if she'll say yes and how it will affect him when she does. How about a spooky story?
Joe hadn't thought about it for months, but when he was getting his swim trunks out of his drawer, what the gypsy had said at the Christmas party the year before came back to him: "You are destined for a watery grave soon, my son ..."
The dilemmas you present to your characters are called "story questions." Story questions make the reader want to read on to find the answers. They are the appetizers of the feast you are serving up.
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