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December 7th, 2009

What Is a Story?

Petrol Queen
In my recent interview with John Kessel I asked him:

You've taught at Clarion many times. Do you see one reoccurring problem that new writers face that seems the most difficult to overcome?

Learning what makes a story different from a collection of paragraphs, scenes, vigorous but not-meaningful action. You can write, even sell, a lot of fiction without grasping what makes a good story. It took me years before I began to grasp this. I suppose some might say I still haven’t.

Another way to cut it: Figuring out what it is you can write that is not completely derivative, that somehow expresses your individuality but also connects with an audience. It takes time to do this.


In the comments after the interview, John's answer to this question garnered some genuine interest. So I thought I'd tackle this important aspect of storytelling craft and give readers here a chance to voice their thoughts on what constitutes a story.

There are no absolutes in art, but there are guidelines and "rules" that can be broken when one understands what the rules are. Mainstream and/or literary fiction often breaks the conventions of traditional storytelling, as many modern mainstream stories are basically vignettes where there is no resolution at the story's conclusion, but I'll deal mostly with genre fiction and traditional storytelling here which usually strives for some kind of resolution. More importantly, one should at least understand (if not master) traditional storytelling first.

When I first tried my hand at writing fiction back in the 1980s, the first story I wrote was one where I drew from my musical experiences on the road. It wasn't very good since it was my first attempt, but I lucked out and actually wrote a real story with a beginning, middle and end, a story that arrived somewhere in the end with most of the needed plot and character arcs. I accomplished this because I had a personal story I wanted to tell and I had a basic gut-level instinct of what makes a real story. But I wanted to write science fiction, so after that I began coming up with ideas. And that's when I got into trouble. My problem was that I didn't know how to turn an idea into a story.

I remember my first personal rejection; it was from George Scithers who was editing Amazing Stories at the time. He'd obviously read my story (the third one I'd written) in its entirety because he told me I didn't have one, a story that is. He told me I was "touring a world." What he meant was that my protagonist was there mainly to walk around as a viewpoint character so I could show off this "cool" world I'd invented. I'm thankful to have learned this lesson early on, but it was still something I struggled with over the years. Occasionally I still have this problem, but I've become better at identifying it in the first draft, usually while plotting. Nowadays it's become second nature, but when a story isn't working it's usually because I wasn't keeping my eye on the ball.

One definition of story is where the protagonist goes up against impossible odds, wrestles with a problem or a dire situation, and in the end comes to a win, lose or draw outcome. More importantly it's where at the end the protagonist has a change. It doesn't have to be a great change, but for me I like a story to arrive somewhere important in the dénouement. Where for me as a reader, light is shed on the human experience.

As I said there are always exceptions. In James Joyce's collection Dubliners, many of his stories focus on what is called the Epiphany story. In this type of story the character has a special moment of self-understand or illumination. But it doesn't always have to be in the character. In an Epiphany story the character can go unchanged and only the reader can have an epiphany. A modernist technique, "The Lady and the Tiger" is an early example of this. Sometimes it's just where the change in the character is slight, but the reader is enlightened by the events in the narrative more so than the characters. An a ha! moment where the reader sees what the character couldn't.

Of course there is also metafiction, fiction where the fictional process itself is examined, but for the more traditional story most readers—or at least this reader—like it where the story comes to some sort of resolution. One where the journey through the fictional landscape produces some sort of emotional effect, and that effect usually has to do with the character (and thereby the reader) learning something of what it means to be human, of choices and their consequences.

In my recent interview with Angela Slatter, I asked her how she approaches a story from initial idea to finished product and she offered this choice nugget:

Whenever I get lost, I ground myself by coming back to the one question that leads your plot along: what does the character you’re writing about want? It’s all about the driving desire—sometimes you lose sight of that when you’re getting caught up in writing back story, descriptions, etc. Your guiding light has to be desire.

Why this is so important is that it seems that many beginning writers overlook that their protagonist has to want something in the story. Not that all protagonists are "good guys," but that is often the case, or at least a main character whom the reader can identify with and care about. And wanting something can be looked upon as self-serving, and a self-serving character is one who we as a reader can't feel an affinity for, right? Wrong. All human beings have wants and desires and to ignore this aspect of their personality is a good way to create a mere viewpoint character, to tour a world.

Because this is the field of speculative fiction, I do think that having a fresh idea (or a unique twist on an old one) is important. But the best stories begin with character, not idea, not research into building a world, not fancy technique to show off one's linguistic talent and erudition. If first the characters live and breathe on the page and are presented with an interesting problem to overcome, then a dramatic narrative can be built to show the protagonist struggling with the story's problem. When done well it will be a story that sheds light on what it means to be human, which to me is the most important aspect of good storytelling.

So, as a reader what makes a story, one that keeps you turning the pages and satisfies you at its conclusion? Or as a writer what constitutes a story that you want to tell? What difficulties have you strove to overcome along these lines with storytelling?

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