Understanding What A Story Is
by Bill Johnson
From prehistoric times when our ancestors gathered around fires in caves, storytellers have been aware of how arranging events in a story-like way held the attention of an audience. This essay explores how a storyteller engages the interest of an audience. Understanding that, writers can concentrate on how best to create dramatic, compelling stories.
What A Story Is
A Story is an arrangement of words and images that re-create life-like characters and events. By how a storyteller describes and arranges a description of a story's events, issues and ideas, the storyteller gains the attention of an audience. To sustain that interest, the action of a story is often presented as revolving around resolving some human need: to feel loved, to be in control of one's life and fate, to be able to avenge wrongs, overcome obstacles, discover and understand the meaning and purpose of life. To reward the interest of an audience, the storyteller arranges the elements of their story to fulfill the issues it raises.
Through experiencing a story's arrangement of its events, a story's audience has experiences of "life" more potent and "true" than real life. "Life" with meaning and purpose. Where people get what they want if they really believe. Wherein true love exists. Where inexplicable events are resolved. Where even pain and chaos can be ascribed meaning.
This makes a story unlike the real world, where experiences happen, events unfold, time passes, but not always in a way that offers resolution or is fulfilling. Every element in a story is chosen to create its story-like effect of a resolution that creates a quality of potent, dramatic fulfillment.
To create a story's fulfillment, the storyteller has an outer and inner focus. The outer focuses is on how and why the dramatic issues, events and characters of a story engages the interest of an audience. The inner focus is on the task of arranging the order of a story's elements to create a purposeful effect of movement toward a fulfilling resolution. This edited arrangement makes the events of a well-told story fundamentally unlike the vagaries of real life. The "true" facts of life generally don't arrange themselves to create a story-like effect of fulfillment. If they did, a factual account of the suicides of two teenagers distraught that their parents kept them apart would create the effect of the story Romeo and Juliet. The two are not the same in mood, tone, or dramatic purpose.
Understanding what an audience desires from a story, the storyteller perceives that a story's dramatic issue must be presented in a compelling manner, in need of resolution. By taking issues in need of resolution from introduction to resolution, a story's audience is offered fulfilling experience of courage, redemption, rebirth, renewal, overcoming oppression, etc. A story that raises no issue of consequence offers its audience no reason to internalize its movement to fulfillment.
To understand how an event can be described in a story-like way, consider the concept of "time." Real life is linear. We travel a certain direction through time, with no choice. In a story, however, the storyteller chooses a story's moments in "time" based on how they dramatically act out the story. To understand this, consider a story set on a mountain. Four competing groups are climbing the mountain. The writer sets up the overall goals of the four groups and the goals of individual members. Furthermore, why it matters to both the story's characters and to the story's audience who reaches the top first.
That gives the physical movement of the story's characters a meaning that revolves around the story's ultimate outcome. Because of that understanding, a reader can track and assign meaning to the actions of the story's characters. Since the outcome of the actions of the story's characters revolves around fulfilling some issue of human need -- love, courage, etc. -- the story's audience experiences fulfillment around that issue based on the particular resolution a story's characters create. A factual account of the climb would not have as its central purpose this creation of fulfillment of a clearly defined dramatic issue.
In addition to the story's physical action, we have the emotional movement of different climbers. Just as these characters ascend the mountain, they ascend and pass through different states of feeling. As characters compete to shape the story's outcome, they must engage and overcome, or ally themselves with, other characters similarly compelled. By acting on their feelings as a story's events impact them, the story's characters allow its audience to experience more concretely -- to feel -- the story's journey toward resolution and fulfillment.
A story's plot operates to ensure a story's movement is dramatic and potent. It does this by generating obstacles that block the story's movement toward resolution. That generates drama over a story's course and outcome. Thus, the actions of characters driven to shape a story's movement by overcoming plot obstacles deepens the dramatic effect of their actions. As the story's plot escalates the obstacles to be overcome, the story's characters are required to act with more determination. Thus, a well-designed plot ensures that a story's conflict heightens the dramatic effect of a story's movement.
A plot, then, is an entirely different entity than a story. A story is about taking an audience on a journey to the resolution and fulfillment of some human need to matter, call it the "why" of the story. A story's plot is about the method used to make a story advancing -- moving -- toward its resolution dramatic and potent, and thus fulfilling in a desirable way.
On its story level, that ascent of a mountain might be about love, or wisdom, or compassion, or good defeating evil. And whoever reaches the mountain top "first" generates for the story's audience a deeply felt experience of that fulfillment. Readers "share" in the story's outcome and fulfillment to the degree the storyteller has led them to internalize the story's dramatic, potent journey.
Thus, the storyteller recreates the sense of time that best heightens the dramatic effect of their story. Cliffhanger is an example of a story someone might say is "linear" or "true to life." In actual fact, the storyteller creates the impression of a story being linear and true to life simply to make its movement accessible to an audience comfortable with time's linearity.
In this case, Cliffhanger, because its actions move forward through time, doesn't ask the story's audience to be overly aware of the story's time sense. Since it doesn't challenge the viewer's conception of what "time" is, that aspect of the story is comfortable and familiar. Tarantino , in Pulp Fiction, plays with our expectation of linearity and "time." Thus, Pulp Fiction creates a climax around a character who would be "dead" in a more straightforward, life-like interpretation of "time" linearity. Viewers enjoy a Pulp Fiction-like story for the very reason that it pleasurably points out that the effects of a story are more potent and dramatically "true" than life. Thus, the storyteller sees that "time" does not exist in their story in a literal, worldly sense. It is arranged for the effect it creates.
All the elements of a story, like "time," are shaped around a particular dramatic purpose in a story. This is what makes the events of a story and its characters ring "true" in a potent, vivid way. It is not a matter of descriptive details, but details that make vivid a story's movement toward resolution and fulfillment.
Because for many people, life is not something they can, or are able, to experience deeply, when a writer is able to create an experience of deep feeling, thought, or sense impressions through the details describing a story's dramatic movement, such writing is innately satisfying. And by being available upon the demand and particular needs of a reader, a story is empowering and satisfying. The romantic can read novels that explore romance. The lover of action, heroic quests. The philosopher, stories that explore subtle nuances of thought and feeling. A story can thus create for its audience a quality of having a place where the reader "fits in." Another experience many people enjoy, but don't always get from real life.
Writing that is "life-like" in detail and design can lead to a story being rejected because a life-like retelling of an event doesn't generate that powerful, story-like effect of resolution/fulfillment its audience desires/craves. It risks being a collection of inert details that fail to suggest a dramatic purpose or movement toward resolution.
Thus, a story takes life-like events and gives them a sense of meaning and purpose that touches us. Even a story about chaos and the meaninglessness of life, if well told, can ascribe a quality of meaning and purpose to those states.That's why there's such a relentless desire for stories that are uplifting. They allow readers to feel that the "weight" of life is bearable. That solutions can be found to any problem. That no amount of pain is insurmountable, no obstacle unconquerable, if we have courage and persevere. That even the most painful sacrifice will be ultimately rewarded if we have faith.
What is a story? I say it is a vehicle that carries us on an engaging, dramatic journey to a destination of resolution we find satisfying and fulfilling. When we find a particular story/journey to be dramatically potent and pleasing -- more "true" than life, or life as we would like it to be -- we can desire to re-experience the same story/journey over and over.
The ability to craft such a story vehicle that takes its audience to such a desirable state is at the heart of the art of storytelling.
This essay was written and edited with the assistance of Lawrence Booth, Founder/Director of the internationally known Film School of Half Moon Bay.
Copyright 1995 Bill Johnson
The ideas expressed in this essay are developed more comprehensively in my workbook, A Story is a Promise, which is being published by Blue Heron Press.Top of page
The Short Story Essay
by Owen Fourie
“Yes! A short story!”
I have found that most students react favorably to an assignment requiring them to write a short story. They sense that the straitjacket has been removed, and the creative juices begin to flow.
Of course, for some students who have a long tale to tell, the shackles are still there in the form of a restriction to a certain number of words. If you find yourself in such a position, take it as a challenge that will serve to heighten your creativity as you teach yourself to write a complete short story in 1,000 words or 1,500 words. Occasionally, you could also feel restricted if your instructor rules out a certain genre, such as romance.
Bear in mind that writing a short story is a measure not only of your ability to write but also of your appreciation of how literature works. Good storytelling always has a structure, which we call a plot or a plotline, and this is what you need to demonstrate in your essay. Before dealing specifically with the development of the plot, you must choose your topic for a short story.
Hatching the plot
When you receive your assignment, make a list of your ideas taking into account the required length and the permitted genres. Ask yourself these questions:
- What are my interests? Skiing? Ice skating? Coin collecting? Egyptology? Ballet? Skateboarding?
- Which of these interests will serve as a good vehicle for a short story?
- What will be the problem or the conflict to be resolved?
- Who will be the hero, the heroine, the protagonist?
- Who will be the villain, the antagonist?
- Where will the story take place? Choose a setting familiar to you.
- When will it take place? Is it historical, contemporary, futuristic, science fiction? Remember that it is easier and better to keep the time frame of a short story spanning only a matter of a few days, perhaps an hour, but generally not less than that.
By asking these questions, your answers to some of them will already prepare the way for the development of the plot. At this point you need to work on your outline. To do so, you need to take the elements of the plotline into account. Simply stated, the plotline reveals the following stages:
- The exposition giving the time, the place, and the characters involved;
- The rising action revealing the problem, the conflict;
- The climax: the high point of the story where the action will take the characters one way or the other;
- The falling action telling of events leading from the climax to the resolution;
- The resolution telling how all the tensions and complications of the problem or the conflict have been resolved.
As you work on your outline, you need to work according to the plotline. The simplest form for the shortest of stories will devote one paragraph to each of these stages, perhaps two or three paragraphs for the rising action. With your outline complete, you are ready to write your story.
Getting down to writing … and a twist
Your writing should proceed through several drafts. In the first draft, you simply write without hesitation or much care about grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Your objective is to get the story down on paper without being troubled by any thoughts of whether this is correct, although you must keep to your outline.
As you come to your second draft, you take more care, you edit, and you correct obvious errors. With each draft, you improve your story, and the more drafts you make, the better your story should be. Once you have typed what you hope will be the final copy, leave it for a day or two–more, if possible–before returning to it and proofreading it. That proofreading will probably reveal more errors that have to be corrected before you print out the real final copy.
There are two more important points that you need to bear in mind as you write your story:
- Description versus dialog: When you write a short story, you should focus on narration rather than dialog. While some dialog is permissible–dialog that is essential to move the story forward–remember that you are not writing a play. Your narration can be in the first person as one of the characters telling the story or in the third person (or third person omniscient) as an outside observer. If you write in the first person, avoid telling a story that amounts to an autobiographical narrative.
- The best short stories contain a twist that comes at the very end to catch the reader off guard. Throughout the story, the writer gives hints of what will be revealed in the end, but they are subtle hints that will still leave the reader saying, “Of course! I should have seen that,” as the twist in the tale is given.
An excellent example of this is seen in O. Henry’s “After Twenty Years.” It is a little under 1,300 words in length and is easily and quickly read. Interestingly, the writer makes good use of dialog that moves the story forward–not one-word lines of exclamations, or only a few words in a series of single-line exchanges, but paragraphs of several lines spoken by each character. That is proper use of dialog in a short story. You will find the link to “After Twenty Years” at the end of this post.
If you follow all that I have told you here, you should be able to write a good short story and enjoy doing it too.
What is your experience with writing short stories? Do you have any useful insights? What are your particular struggles? What are your thoughts about O. Henry’s “After Twenty Years” as a model for short story writing? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.
Link to O. Henry’s short story “After Twenty Years”:http://www.enotes.com/best-o-henry-text/after-twenty-years
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