What is a “Story”?

Think of a favourite family story. You’ve heard that tale repeatedly but it never fails to bring a gasp or a laugh.

Place your characters in an impossible situation--like a freak storm (whether internal or external) and see what happens!

Place your characters in a difficult situation–like a freak storm (whether internal or external)–and see what happens!

Now—deconstruct that story. It’s not likely to be a memory of a picnic on a perfect  summer day, when everything went right. The gripper, the one everyone remembers and wants to hear again, hinges on a problem. In fact, it probably follows a series of escalating calamites–after which nothing is ever the same again for the people involved.

That’s a story. It revolves around people we’re interested in. The protagonist of the piece wants something, but everything goes awry. She loses the keys to her car and her family has to walk home in a sudden thunder shower, until they’re rescued by her old nemeses, the high school bully… The reader wants to know what happens next.

Thoughts to Inspire Fiction and Nonfiction

Novelist John Gardner, in his seminal writing guide The Art of Fiction, says there are only two stories: someone went on a journey; and a stranger came to town. Both serve as metaphors for any number of scenarios. Another way of looking at it, says writing instructor Janet Burroway, is a clash (of values, or views, or goals…) The story is the process of change forced upon (or embraced by) the character. “The story will always end in an altered state in at least the character whose point of view we share,” says Burroway.

Pose These Questions to Uncover the Story

Janet Burroway, in her book Writing Fiction, suggests you consider these questions at the ideas stage of a writing project:

  • Where does the protagonist want to go (what does she/he desire)?
  • What are the obstacles encountered (what discoveries are made, what conflicts arise)?
  • What does she/he do to overcome these obstacles (what decisions are made)?
  • Is the goal reached?
  • Is it as expected?

Writing instructors might disagree about the best way to plan a piece, but all agree the single-most important ingredient in a story are the characters. They don’t have to be loveable, but they must be intriguing. The minute a reader opens a book, whether she knows it or not, she wants to connect with a character.

The answers will lead to the development of a “story,” not just an anecdote or an account of an event.