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.

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.