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What Is a Story?

Happy November! How many of you are participating in this year's NaNoWriMo? With thousands of stories being written this month, it seems like a good time to take a step back and answer the question: What is a story?

Quote image: "I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one." Flannery O'Connor

In some sense, it's easiest to start with what a story is not. A story isn't simply plot. If "things happening" was sufficient for story, then anything and everything would make for a good one. Plot, of course, isn't merely a series of events—it's certain events with a specific purpose, moving pieces into place for the climax and then resolving any tension established.

But even a great plot isn't the core of what makes a good story. Recounting events, after all, is something most anyone can do. Weaving those events into a compelling story is a different skill entirely. Consider how some people at a dinner party will bore you to tears and others will have everyone on the edge of their seats listening, even if both are sharing something about their day in the office.

"Of course!" you may be thinking. "A story also needs characters."

Well, a sequence of events happening to a specific person (or character) still isn't enough. If it were, then anyone's diary of what they did that day would make for fascinating reading. Cultural anthropologists may disagree, but most of us wouldn't enjoy reading (most) random people's diaries. Let's be honest, many of us can't be bothered even when the person recounting the minutiae of their days is a friend. (Remember the early days of blogging?)

"But wait!" you may be thinking now. "The events have to be exciting."

Well, that's not quite it either. Exciting, dramatic events—even ones with inherently high stakes—still aren't enough to make a story. Every war that ever took place was filled with dramatic, important events with high stakes. But think back to your history classes. Did you always find learning history exciting or engaging? A lucky few may be thinking, "Yes, of course!" This means you had amazing teachers, and that's wonderful. Most of us probably experienced a range—some teachers wove stories out of historical events that captivated us, while others recounted events and made classes drag on. Even if they were teaching the same events, our experience as the audience was drastically different.

Writers with a little more experience will have encountered the advice (or critique) that in a story, we only need to see the events that matter. But matter to what? To whom?

"To the character's goal!" you may be tempted to respond. And yes, we are indeed getting closer. Your character's goal is what they want to achieve (or avoid). Obstacles in the way of that goal help make the sequence of events in your story more interesting. But the goal and even the obstacles your character faces still aren't the main thrust of the story. Or else a "good" story could be said to be one in which the goal is achieved, a "bad" story one in which it isn't. Readers know that this isn't the case. It's also not about how big the scope of the goal is (e.g., getting a promotion vs. saving the world—both can make for compelling stories).

    At its core, a story is how pursuing the goal impacts your character internally. 

While plot certainly matters, and the character does need to have a goal to pursue, a story is what allows us to experience the effect of the plot on the character. We invest emotionally in the journey not simply to find out what happens, but rather to vicariously navigate the obstacles alongside the character for the sake of learning how the consequences of the plot influence them as a human being. That is, how the character changes from the opening scene to the closing image.

The balance of plot (external goings-on) vs. story (internal change) can shift depending on the genre. Literary fiction will focus more on the internal, whereas a thriller will likely devote more space on the page to external events. But even an action-heavy story featuring a character who isn't in some significant way impacted by those events will end up as a disappointing read at best. Sure, she beat the bad guys and saved the world. But if she's the same person the day after the plot as she was the day before—if her internal status quo wasn't challenged in some way by the events—why should we care?

So as you're working on your NaNoWriMo (or any other) projects, don't forget to ask: How does your main character change from the first page to the last?

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