What is a ‘story’ anyway?

Recently I was thinking about the essence of what a story was about, and what made the story good or bad from the reader’s perspective. My starting point was various dictionary definitions of story. The best I could find was ‘an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment’. Well it’s a starting point, but it doesn’t really explain the essence of story.

Another description I found was ‘a sequence of events in a work of fiction as we imagined them to have taken place, in the order which they would have occurred in life’. This is distinguished from ‘plot’, which is concerned with how events are related, how they are structured, and how they are designed to enact change in the main character. There may be just one story, but many different ways of telling it. For example, consider the story of an Robin Hood, an outlaw who stole from the rich to give to the poor. It would read quite differently if written from the perspective of the law enforcer (the Sheriff of Nottingham) rather than the outlaw (Robin Hood).

Delving a little deeper into the realms of structural analysis of English literature I found that that stories are part of the wider structural classification of ‘narrative’. Narrative can be analysed into what is told, namely the ‘story’ (events/actions and characters and setting); and how it is told namely ‘discourse’, which includes ‘plot’, ‘narrative voice’ (who speaks), ‘focalisation’ (who sees), ‘narrative mode’ and ‘style’ etc.

Looking at story this way, without considering how the story is told, leaves the definition of story as a cold and lifeless object: a sequence of events without causal relationships. Unless you’re and English graduate that wants to dissect English literature in this way, it’s not a very helpful definition of story. More importantly, it misses the magic or chemistry that brings so many good stories to life.

Some in the film world take a different view of ‘story’. Martin Scorsese defines ‘plot’ as the bare bones of what happens in a movie – the outline; while story includes lots of things: characters, cinematography choices and all the emotional content portrayed by the actors. Others have used the term ‘plot’ to describe the physical events of a film and the term ‘story’ to describe the emotional journey the hero/heroine makes during the course of the film. This seems a more about character arc of the main character –  important, but not story.

Yet again some confuse the meaning of ‘story’ with ‘theme’. For example, would you describe the film Rocky as a man’s journey to find self-respect, or is it a movie about boxer’s opportunity to box for the world championship? Was Schindler’s List a film about one man’s effort to make a difference, or a film about rescuing people from the threat of Nazi concentration camp? Don’t get me wrong. Theme is very important; it’s the subtext of what a story is about. But it’s not in my view ‘story’.

The more I looked, the more I realised that the term ‘story’ means different things to different people. For the purpose of this blog I would like to put forward the notion that story is what the reader or audience experiences from reading a novel or watching a movie. It’s the whole experience in its entirety. It is only after reading the story, or watching a movie that the reader or audience can relate what the story means to them. By focusing on the reader’s/audience’s reaction it’s easier to determine what makes a good story.

Why do some readers like certain stories and not others? We all have preferences for genre and story type. I don’t particularly like horror stories (sorry Stephen King); but that’s me. But even within genre, to be successful a story has to be interesting, different and capture the imagination of the reader. This is the most difficult challenge for any writer. In ‘Save the Cat’, Blake Snyder analyses movies into ten genres or story types which he claims covers almost every movie ever made. The trick is to make the story look different. He quoted a studio executive, during a development meeting saying, “Give me the same thing… only different.” Finding the difference is the challenge.

Most good stories are about a character (the hero or heroine) that the reader can empathise with, facing a crisis, problem or opportunity that disrupts their life, and which leads to relentless escalation of tension until it reaches a satisfactory climatic ending and resolution. Sounds simple, but of course it’s not.

At the heart of all good stories is conflict between the hero’s/heroine’s goal (what he wants, or wants to avoid as a result of the problem or opportunity they face) and the obstacles in his/her way. This raises the story question: will he/she succeed, fail, or abandon his/her goal. And what will be the consequences?

In his book, Story Physics, Larry Brooks, says the impending collision of the hero’s goal and those obstacles is what creates dramatic tension. In Brooks’ view, without conflict there is no story.

One of the great masters of dramatic tension was Alfred Hitchcock. One of the tricks he used was to let the audience know, or hint that something was about to happen, which the characters themselves did not know about. Do you remember the shower scene from ‘Psycho’? You knew something was going to happen before it happened, but it still makes you want to jump out of your chair. Another device that the movie makers use to build dramatic tension is a ticking time clock. Something dreadful is going to happen if the hero/heroine doesn’t get there in time. Remember those old black and white movies with the damsel tied to the rails and the train coming along. Well, perhaps you’re too young for that. Dramatic tension is an important quality that makes the reader want to find out what’s going to happen next. It’s a page-turner.

Another example of good dramatic tension is in the Hunger Games. After volunteering to take her sister’s place at the Hunger Games, Katniss is perpetually in fear that at some stage she will lose her life in the games. Only one contestant can survive. In one scene she is trapped up a tree with her would be killers on the ground below her with their spears and bow and arrows. What is she to do? If you’ve read the book you’ll know the answer. If you haven’t I won’t spoil it for you. Dramatic tension.

The other factor that makes a story enjoyable from the reader’s perspective is hero empathy. If the reader doesn’t empathise with the hero then he/she is unlikely to want to read on. Generating reader empathy is all about the writer’s characterisation skills. Brooks’ suggests that the most compelling way to suck the reader into the story and root for the hero is to show how he/she feels about and responds to the challenges you’ve set for them as those events happen by wring from the hero’s point of view. Thus we can see into the hero’s head and see what he is thinking and feeling at the time.

Another reason why the reader may find a story enjoyable is what Brooks describes as vicarious experience: taking the reader to a place, time or situation that they couldn’t otherwise experience in real life, that’s inherently exciting, dangerous, titillating, forbidden or impossible. Why else would vampire romance and historical romance novels be so popular, not to mention science fiction and fantasy?

Dramatic tension, hero empathy and vicarious experience are three of the six realms of story physics that Brooks identifies in his book. You might be wondering about the other three. The first is a compelling narrative premise, question or promise at the heart of the story. That is a big subject in its own right and best left to a later blog. The other two are: exposition/pacing, and narrative strategy, which are more to do with the way the story is told.

In conclusion, the term ‘story’ might mean different things to different people. But if we look at story as the experience of the reader or audience from reading a novel or watching a movie, it is possible to identify those aspects of story that make it more enjoyable to the reader. In this respect dramatic tension from potential conflict, hero empathy and vicarious experience are all important factors for a writer to consider.

Bad guys aren’t necessarily all bad

Unless you’re dealing with satanic supernatural characters, an easy mistake for new authors to make is to assume that the antagonist has to be the epitome of all evil. In practice, the bad guy may well think he’s his own hero. He just sees things differently from the good guy. Like the hero, he has a back-story that explains why he is what he is; and a goal – which usually brings him into direct conflict with the hero/heroine. The goal might be to:

• feel love, or be respected.
• control, or rule others around him.
• become wealthy.
• possess something, or someone
• satisfy his lust, or desire.
• extract revenge.
• satisfy some deep religious, or political conviction.

Some of these motives are not necessarily all bad. But, unlike the good guy, the bad guy may be prepared to go to extreme lengths to achieve their goal – well beyond the boundaries of the law, or acceptable behaviour. The point I am making is that once you understand the goals of the antagonist, his behaviour is quite logical. In the antagonist’s mind his behaviour is justified. They think it’s his victim’s fault for being weak, or for getting in his way, or failing him, or being different. Some antagonists may justify their behaviour by labelling their intended victims as being less than human: they are communists, or fascists, or some racial or religious group that doesn’t meet their standards. And this is seen as a reason to persecute, or destroy them.

This isn’t to say that the antagonist cannot have some redeeming qualities. Even Norman Bates (“Psycho”) loved his mother. And have you noticed that some of the Bond villains have pets; they may want world domination, but they love their pets. Some of the most despotic leaders from history may well have been family men at home, only to be monsters to others.

To fully understand the antagonist role in the story, his story needs to be told. He shouldn’t just turn up in the final scene to be destroyed by the hero. A good example is Anakin Skywalker’s path to the dark side in Star Wars Episode II and III. There are early hints in the movie where Anakin is talking to Pademe about the need for strong leadership that betray his political leaning. But it all starts when Anakin tries to rescue his mother from the Tuscan Raiders. When he gets to the campsite, he finds that the Tusken Raiders have tortured his mother to death. In revenge, he slaughters everyone at the campsite, including the women and children. He later confesses his actions to Pademe. Later, in episode III Palpatine places Anakin on the Jedi counsel, but the Council deny him the rank of Jedi Master. This makes him resentful of his Jedi masters. Then when Pademe becomes pregnant, Anakin has premonitions of Padme dying in child birth. Palpatine convinces him that the only way to save her is to turn to the dark side. Anakin becomes Palpatine’s apprentice, and is re-christened Darth Vader. After which he kills the Jedi children in the temple and his path to the dark side is complete.

It isn’t just movies that detail the antagonist’s story. Dan Brown is one of the experts at giving his evil antagonists a story of their own. Take Silas, the albino religious killer, from the Da Vinci Code. In Chapter ten, Silas experiences a flashback of his father beating his mother to death when he was seven. Silas blames himself for letting this happen, and stabs his drunken father repeatedly until dead. The boy flees to live in the basement of a dilapidated factory eating stolen food. When he was twelve a girl twice his age mocks him and he pummelled her within inches of her life. At eighteen he is caught by two crewmen steeling food. He kills one, and is caught by the police before he kills the other. He is sent to a prison in Andora. Twelve years later an earthquake destroys the prison and he escapes in a railcar. He is found beaten again and wanders to be taken in by a priest. He saves the priest from a thief’s beating. The priest names him Silas. From then on he sees his religious calling and will help the priest build his church and do his every bidding.

So what can we learn from the Dan Brown? If you’re going to have dangerous psychotic religious zealot, like Silas, you need to explain why they are like that. Silas first appears in the fourth paragraph of the prologue killing the curator of the Louvre. But this is not the place to explain Silas’s character. There is too much going on. We see him again in Chapter two phoning the ‘Teacher’ and telling him that he has killed four people; and later he is seen inflicting pain on himself as a religious cleansing ritual. We now know that he is a religious psychotic killer. But it is only in chapter ten that we learn about his background.

In between these chapters there is of the course the story of Robert Langdon, the protagonist, who is brought to the Louvre by Captain Fache and suspected of being the murderer of the curator. By the end of chapter 18, Langdon and Sophie (the grand-daughter of the dead curator) have escaped from Fache and are on the run. The protagonist story and the antagonist’s story have been brilliantly sandwiched together in the first 124 pages. Can anyone put the book down at this point? The Da Vinci code is also a great example of what an author needs to do in the first Act: introduce the characters, and set the story question of what the story is all about.

If your novels are going to have evil antagonists, then it’s important that you understand the antagonist’s back-story. How he/she became what they are today and what is driving them. You also need to think carefully about how the antagonist’s backstory will be revealed, and when it is best to reveal it. In the case of the Da Vinci code, it was the ‘stone towers of the Saint-Sulpice’ that triggered the memories of him in prison and how he got there. There is quite an art to doing flashback scenes and the best way to find out is to follow great fiction writers.

Not all stories have a human antagonist; but those that do need to develop the antagonist’s character and provide a glimpse of why he is what he is.