Story. Something so simple that a child could give a simple definition when asked. Andyet, as writers we grapple to pin it down.
Literary novelists may argue story is character-driven.
Genre novelists may argue that plot is story and story is plot. Period.
And then there’s the importance of language and wordplay–prose that reads like poetry (White Oleander by Janet Finch comes to mind for this reader.)
So what is the story on story?
I started by gathering some input from master writers. I figured we could learn plenty from people who have been there, done that.
Here’s their story on story…
Thank you Captain Obvious aka Aristotle. And yet, what about those saggy middles we suffer? And no, I’m not referring to the pre-summer pudge we’ve picked up over the winter.
Gorgeous definition, Ms. Angelou, and yet what specific steps might one take to accomplish such a feat?
We are still good people? What about tragic heroes? Unreliable narrators? Seems a bit too Pollyanna for this writer…
Okay, I’m going to take your word for it that this is your process. But I’m going to go out on a limb here…I think most of us need to begin with an idea…
Plus, how does one go about writing a “gripping yarn?” How about “conveying credible characters.” Sounds lovely, but as helpful as a steering wheel is to a banana.
Okay, I like the inclusion of design and climax in this bit of instruction. Without design, one may end up with nonsense or an episodic string of wastepaper basket-filler.
And climax, well, every writer–er, story needs one.
But with all due respect, Mr. McKee’s definition of story doesn’t do much for the writer.
So how about this:
Ah yes, Mr. Lamb. Theme is important. But again, not much help for aspiring novelists…
Well now, Ms. Lamb. Bad decisions and human weakness, you say? Count me in. I’ve got a ton of experience in both of those things. (Still, not much help for the struggling writer.)
And then, there’s the manly-man definition of story. Kind of:
Sounds too simple to be spot-on, eh? Agreed… Plus, he can’t define something by using the term in his definition can he?
Probably not. But Clancy really isn’t too far off base here.
Many of us want to be full-time writers because we are in love with words, but we don’t really have storytelling know-how and mastery.
Take it from author and writing-mentor Lisa Cron:
The good news is that if you have talent with words, you’re on your way.
Storytelling is a process. A skill-set. It can be learned. Studied. Practiced. Perfected.
Lisa Cron also offers a killer definition of story in her fabulous writing reference book, STORY GENIUS:
“In a nutshell: A story is one single, unavoidable external problem that grows, escalates and complicates, forcing the protagonist to make an internal change in order to solve it.”
I like this definition so much, I have it taped to my computer. Like a mission statement.
To me, it seems simple, and yet in reality, so hard to achieve.
But props to the genre writers and the literary writers. Both are right when we put them together.
We need to know our characters–their backstory, their outlook, their disposition, and their motivations. What matters to them most? What are they afraid of? Why?
And we have to give them an unavoidable external problem–yes, a single problem that gets worse exponentially as the story builds through each setback and the stakes for the character are raised and raised again.
The chief exterior problem must be a snowball picking up speed and size as it runs down a collision course with the internal workings and newfound intestinal fortitude of the protagonist.
By the end of the story, the protagonist must change internally. He must rise to the occasion. He must be a hero in his own life.
You know, we can have all the car chases, explosions, and a red-hot hero in our story to rival a Chris Hemsworth movie, but without an essential external problem that grows and forces dear hunky Chris to change inside, we don’t have diddly-squat.
We can write with stylistic beauty like contemporary novelists Donna Tartt and Christopher Bohjalian, but fail if we do not tell the story of an every-man who deals with a big steaming problem and walks away a changed person.
As readers, we want to live vicariously through the protagonist. We want to see her face her demons, first as one reacting to the conflict with all kinds of distress and mess, but then as one rising to the occasion as the hero of her own life. The mistress of her own destiny.
So when you sit down to write a novel, tell a damn good story. Period. One in which a character changes internally by virtue of grappling with a seemingly insurmountable exterior problem.
And if you still have a need to pen gorgeous language and wordplay, write poetry on the side.
Susan J. Anderson
Foxy Writer Chick