So, You Think You Know What a Story Is

Reading a storyIf you do know, for God’s sake, tell me.

I’m teaching a course in the fine art of blitzing a 1st draft and it occurred to me that I ought to know what a story is.

A definition of story, I’ll start with that. A writer who knows exactly what a story is will write more efficiently and won’t waste time unnecessarily. Here for instance, a definition from a respected source.

Once upon a time, in such and such a place, something happened.”

Okay, true enough, sure, fine, as far as it goes. Next?

“A story is the journey someone goes on to sort out a problem.”

The experts have been arguing over story for a long, long time and this is the best they can come up with? Next.

“Stories are the flight simulators of human life.”

Stories, a practice for living? This is the conventional wisdom on this subject, and that’s reason enough to be suspicious. But no student of story should be caught dead buying into such a utilitarian rationale. How can anyone, much less a story-academic reduce the fiction experience to a training session? Training us to do what—navigate politely through a culture that’s underpinned largely by lies?

The same expert goes on to say:

The main virtue of fiction is that we have a rich experience and don’t die at the end.”

Wait a minute. I consume good fiction so I will die at the end. Don’t die at the end is just dead wrong. That the hero “dies,” and the reader, too—that’s the virtue of fiction. Who are these people who say, Don’t die? Fiction has been telling us since forever that no one grows up who doesn’t die and die and keep on dying to old and outmoded versions of themselves.

Stand by—I feel my own definition coming on—but first more from my research vault:

“A narrative deals with the vicissitudes of intention.”

I like this one, first of all because I know what vicissitudes means. Secondly, it suggests that what we want is going to backfire. “Desire—it carries us and crucifies us,” says author-philosopher, Muriel Barbery. There’s a gutsy definition of story. Next.

A story transforms the monster into a lover.

I found this as a reader’s comment to an online article about Scheherazade. “Monster to lover” defines the dynamic at the heart of most good stories. It’s the radical change of heart. Heroes leave their monstrous narcissisms behind. And the upshot looks for all the world like love.

Addicted to stories—why, why, why?

My 25-year study of fiction leaves me convinced that the conventional wisdom about story overlooks its essence. The same blind spot characterizes discussions of Why We Read.

For example: We read to escape a world of troubles. Excuse me? Since when are stories about anything but trouble? “Trouble is the universal grammar of stories,” says story aficionado, Jonathan Gottschall.

Ditto for Why We Write.” Here’s Gloria Steinem: “Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.” I love that, but—why is that so? What is it about stories that has hooked us since the dawn of time?

What is it about us—our human condition—that is so addicted to stories? Perhaps I should begin the course with a definition of the human condition:

The human condition

A marvellously workable matrix of mental constructs, beliefs, delusions and lies—that’s the mind, that’s our culture, that’s us, that’s your average protagonist. In other words, the status quo of a fictional hero is a house of cards. We’re a precarious situation, and readers instinctively know it.

If you were to write a novel called The Valley of the Happy Nice People, readers would anticipate disaster. Probably be a best seller. Because the status quo is untenable, stories naturally depict characters on a journey toward something more real. Along the way, the blessed disillusionment occurs.

So, what is a story?

I’m working on it.

But it concerns characters trapped within the prison of their belief systems. And they escape the monstrosity of it. Or it’s tragic, and they don’t. Or they come to terms with their imprisonment, armed with a new and more all-embracing point of view.

In every case, the reader of the story is compelled by the hero’s trajectory toward the death of the false.

Not infrequently a protagonist will actually die in the aftermath of their awakening, and despite the death, audiences swoon.

Don’t die at the end? Who are these people who say don’t die?

They better come to my class. It starts tomorrow.

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  1. says

    Wonderful research. I loved how you sort of were hatching your own definition of “story” as you quoted others, and then— voila—the egg appears. And now the bird is out and flying! Of course, the story will have a protagonist who needs something, conflict with an antagonist, setting and a twist, and that need or desire is the spirit that drives everything (like you said). And I believe that “story” is continuing education (my definition) and like the children sat before the elders to hear wisdom taught through fanciful tales, I think it is a way into our deepest minds.

  2. Sarah says

    Have fun with that class PJ. My story definition: an original take on how one might resolve a particular human dilemma.

  3. says

    Susan… “A way into our deeper minds,’ yes, stories seem to serve us unconsciously. That is, we’re not aware of how much they nourish us. And would it even be possible to live a single day without calling upon stories to… to even think? Saludos amiga.

  4. says

    Sarah… Yes, ‘fun’ has to be the operative word now that all the prep is done. In fact, I want this to be as much an ‘entertainment’ for writers as a lesson. And I should tape it and listen later because I’m speaking to myself as much as anyone. I think we’re all trapped within codes of ‘how we think it should be done.’ I look around and see that few have escaped. Buena suerte.

  5. anele says

    A story is imagination at work. The imagination re-tells us what affects or moves us. Something or somebody makes an impression on our psyche and we keep it alive by weaving a story around them/it. With people, it’s almost like we’re telling their story which otherwise would not be told. Once it gets started it seems to tell its own story but we give it a structure and use it to explore the ‘human story’ in all its shapes and sizes. Well, that’s how it is for me. My stories never come from an idea in my head. They are invariably inspired by people I’ve met – perhaps even once.

  6. Yvette Carol says

    This subject is utterly inexhaustible, isn’t it? When I waited to go up and deliver my speech, ‘What is a Story?2’ I said to a fellow Toastmaster, ‘I can see ‘What is a Story?3’ ‘What is a Story?4’ and so on, ad infinitum. And that’s what I love about it, PJ, is that it is ever-unfolding, an ever-deepening mystery the further we release into it, the more we evolve.
    Thank you, thank you, for continuing the conversation.

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