Story essence

Recently, I purchased “Story trumps structure”, by Steven James. I was attracted to the book by its provocative title and the foreward by Donald Maass, who I much admire. Although the book is mostly a manifesto for organic writing (‘pantsing’),
as opposed to plotting and outlining, it is still an excellent read for all types of writers. To me, the idea that story trumps structure is somewhat nonsensical, because structure is such an important component of any story. A story is limp without it. And the story pattern that James sets out — orientation, crisis/calling, escalation, discovery and change — is a pattern that is easily mappable into a three-act structure as others have done. Put simply, he has simply re-labelled the main elements of story structure. He also sets out eight things that are needed in the beginning of the story. These are the story beats that normally fall into the first act. To me, the idea that James is abandoning structure is a bit ridiculous; although he may have a point about not placing too much attention on formulaic plots.

There is a lot of good practical advice in Jame’s book. His emphasis on maintaining tension is spot on. He states:

“At the heart of story is tension, and at the heart of tension is unmet desire. So at its core a story is about a character who wants something but can’t get it. As soon as she gets it (or fails in her quest to do so), the story is over. If the reader doesn’t know what the character wants, they won’t know what the story is about.”

Good advice. Later in the book he says:

”When you focus on what lies at the heart of the story— tension, desire, crisis, escalation, struggle, discovery, transformation — you’ll intuitively understand what needs to happen in each scene to drive your story forward.”

Although he makes this statement to advance the cause of organic writing, the advice is just as relevant to those of us who are plotters and outliners. There is a lot of good advice in Jame’s book, although it won’t cause me to abandon using my scene cards just yet.

Reading Jame’s book got me thinking more about what the essence of a story is  really about. The Oxford English Dictionary defines story as:

“an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.”

It’s not very helpful. After some thought, I came up with an alternative definition for fiction writers, which I think  captures most of  the essence of a good story:

“ A story is a tale about a character or characters, set in a particular environment or time, who struggle to deal with an important problem or opportunity that comes into their live(s) and which sets in motion a sequence of events and actions that logically lead to a climatic ending consistent with the theme of the story.”

It may appear a little long-winded for a definition, but it seems to capture most of the important attributes of a story, which are:

  • It’s about a character or characters, not necessarily human, that the reader can empathise with or at least find curious.
  • It has a setting which will affect the characters’ behaviour. (For example, 16th Century aristocrats may behave quite differently from that of the crew of a 22nd Century starship. Setting will also influence the genre and the story’s appeal to readers.
  • It’s about a big problem/opportunity (the catalyst) that comes into their lives that they have to deal with, where the consequences of failing to deal with it are dire (the stakes). This provides the requisite character motivation (desire/goal).
  • It’s about an escalating struggle (conflict/tension) to overcome/exploit the problem/opportunity (the outer journey), and in the process overcome their own shortcomings (the inner journey/character arc).
  • The characters desire to overcome/exploit the problem/opportunity results in a logical causal chain of events (the plot line).
  • It has a satisfactory ending consistent with the theme of the story (the emotional pay-off). The reader might not be able to predict the ending, but the ending should be consistent with what the reader expects from the genre and story line.

Of course, much of the skill of a good writer is in how they get the reader to empathise with the main character, how they maintain and build tension, and how they deliver the emotional  pay-off that the reader wants in the ending. So no definition can fully capture the emotional experience of a good story. But it’s probably a reasonable starting point for the definition of a story.  Let me know if you agree.