Monday, 3 November 2014

What is a Story?

When I first started my research degree in story theory, the thing that surprised me most was that there is no single definition for the term 'story'. At least, not one that all the authorities agree, and certainly not one which would cover all the examples that you and I would intuitively agree are 'stories'. 2,300 years since Aristotle and even the dictionary isn't right. 

Of course, like every other narratologist, I have come up with my own definition, but for this blog post, I won't be trying to sell you that. I thought I would use this space to capture the top lines that most story boffins DO agree. The common elements that comprise the mainstream and which are useful to know if you are a writer of fiction. Please note the scope I'm setting. I'm not trying to include 'the story of medicine' or a poem or a recipe or an argument or the story of 'last summer' or Japanese Kishotenketsu conflict free narratives, or
all the myriad other things that may or may not be stories. I'm talking about a definition that will help an aspiring writer do good things for their story telling by understanding where the centre of the mainstream flows. 

So, let's look at the simple contents of a generally 'good' story: 

1) The vast majority of fine stories feature a protagonist trying to achieve a goal. His/her world is thrown out of balance, and this has given the protagonist clear aims. By the end of the story we know whether the protagonist achieved his or her aims or not. This is usually the main plot; the spine of the story. Everything in a story is linked to this spine and contributes to it.  

2) To make the protagonist's journey interesting, s/he is faced by obstacles that must be overcome in order to achieve this aim or aims. By 'obstacles' I don't simply mean a 'bad guy', I mean any forces of antagonism that directly oppose the protagonist's progress towards those aims. Antagonistic forces basically come in four flavours: internal (mental self-doubt, delusion, cowardice...); relationship (conflict with other people); institutional (conflict with, for example, police, hospitals, schools, councils, bookmakers...); and external (conflict with uncontrollable factors, such as the weather, acts of God, the actions of random strangers...). For more on antagonism see my blog Conflict and the Word Count.  

Also note that the forces of antagonism are fundamental to the power of your story. The good guys can only be as impressive as the forces they have to overcome, so building strong, believable, clever, powerful antagonism is a very important part of a fine story. It should appear absolutely impossible that the protagonist can find a way to win. Often writers are lovely people; gentle pacifists who greatly empower their good guys and unconsciously limit their baddies from the get-go, because they love their hero and hate their bad guy. See my blog post on Antagonism here.  

Now, I could stop here. Strictly speaking, that is it. Those are the two points that define the substance of a story. Protagonist with a clear aim; antagonism standing firmly in his way; an irresistible force firmly set in direct conflict with an immovable object.

However, let's add a few more points that raise a basic 'story' to a 'much better' story. 

3) Generally, a fine story will depict the protagonist changing and learning and growing across the course of his or her story experiences. By the end of the story, the protagonist's 'life values' would have significantly changed - for better or for worse - when compared to their starting position. The poor village boy decides to take on the dragon that terrorises the community. He slays the dragon, and ends up with a princess, a castle and a shed load of money. 

This is known as character growth, and characterises most fine stories. Better still, the very finest stories have a protagonist who learns a lesson about morality (see 4, below) and applies this moral learning to overcome the antagonistic forces and thereby achieve the character growth. More on Character Growth here

4) A good story is usually a moral argument. The story broadly addresses the questions: how should a person lead their life? And how should a person treat others? The moral issue provides the theme of the story, and the 'bad guy', if there is one, is often not simply out-and-out evil. He is adopting an understandable (but self-centred, misguided or disagreeable) stance on the moral issue. In Juno, for example, the moral issue is 'teenage pregnancy'. The eponymous teenage protagonist must take responsibility for her pregnancy; the conflict comes from the moral position adopted by the other characters, and the tension comes from the decisions Juno has no choice but to make. Often the protagonist, in their desperation to find answers, becomes immoral themselves. For more on this, see my blog post on Morality in Stories

5) Last, but by no means least, the finest stories are delivered in subtext. What is written by the author is a minimalist set of cues and triggers that cause the whole story to be imagined in the mind of the receiver of that story. The gaps between the minimalist cues and the imagined story generated in mind are the solid gold of brilliant story telling. It's the subtext that provides the resonance with a human mind and gives a story the implicit grip and engagement that fascinates. More on my favourite topic of Subtext can be found here

In evolutionary terms, in the real world, it is gaps in our knowledge that ring alarm bells and make us emotional. A knowledge gap is a sign of risk or opportunity and arouses us until the knowledge gap is filled. Gaps in stories trigger these same emotions, and this is where the absolute substance of story power resides. A knowledge gap in your writing generates subtext for your reader. Read my book Story Theory for more on these deep waters!

What does this mean to you?

And that's it! Check in with these basics in your own writing. It's not rocket science, and there's a lot to be said for keeping it simple. If you keep the protagonist and his aims to the fore, ensure everything is relevant to these aims; and set them head on against conflicts provided by the forces of antagonism, then show us how the protagonist overcomes the forces of antagonism and how s/he grows in achieving those aims by the end, you will probably have a fine story in front of you.

Try this with your story: Fill in the bits between the chevrons: 

My story is about <name of protagonist>. His/her goal is to <insert aims here>. However, s/he is blocked in achieving these goals by <insert forces of antagonism here>. Only one of the protagonist or forces of antagonism can win; their aims are mutually exclusive. At climax, <insert key conflict event> happens, leading to <resolution for protagonist happy or tragic ending>, depicting a significant <positive or negative> change in life values and moral understanding for the protagonist.

These are the basics. If you cannot easily fill in the gaps, it is more than likely that your story has problems you need to solve before heading into first draft. A common example would be if you aren't sure who your protagonist is. In this case, you don't know whose story you are telling and you aren't ready to write it. 

For more on all of this, see my book The Story Book; available the world over on Kindle, published in hard copy in the UK and in Chinese shortly in China!  

Best of luck!