This week I’ve been having (or am going to be having) a conversation with a beginning writer about just what, exactly, a story is. He is ardent and trying very hard to grasp the “artistic” side of the whole gig. I get the impression his background is in engineering/math and he doesn’t really comprehend the stunned faces when he asked the rest of the writing group to explain poetry to him.
It’s not like the Pythagorean Theorem; it can’t really be adequately explained in a single sentence. Or paragraph. Or essay. Entire books (footnoted and everything) have been written about the subject; entire careers have been dedicated to the study of poetry.
And they still haven’t completely explained it.
“Story” is similar, except that it hasn’t been studied for nearly as long.
Okay. What is a “story?” A story is a form (usually prose, but not always) in which a narrative is told centered around a character and his/her mission to achieve a certain goal. The goal cannot be too easy, or the mission lacks interest or “drama.” The mission is often made more difficult by a series of obstacles the character must overcome along the way. These obstacles can be placed by an opposing character, the environment, or even be the main character’s own personal flaws. The harder the obstacles, the harder the mission, the greater the reward when the goal is reached.
Without the obstacles, the story descends into something more like a vignette.
For instance: a young woman steps onto the elevator in an office building, presses the button for the fifth floor. When the elevator arrives, she steps out and enters her office.
Realistic. A slice of life, done well. But it isn’t really much of a story, is it? There is no conflict. It’s meaningless.
So we ramp up the conflict a bit. We still have the young woman step onto the elevator and push the button for the fifth floor, but this time a man is already on the elevator and she can see that he’s headed for the seventh floor, two floors above her. As the elevator begins to move, she can feel his eyes on her, mentally undressing her. As the door opens on the fifth floor, she does everything in her power to keep from running into her office.
Now we have the beginnings of a story. There is conflict (can she get to her office without being attacked), a goal (the safety of her office) somewhat in question, and the goal achieved in the end.
Now there are some variations, tropes and rules pertaining to different genres of story. Realism is always a plus, but there limitations. Absolute realism is boring, mundane. “Story” is the illusion of reality; it is enhanced reality.
Consider a familiar horror trope: the young family moves into an old, historic house. Soon, they begin to see glowing red eyes in the mirrors and the faucets spill blood. In reality, you or I would be grabbing the family and staying in a motel—or the mission—until we could find a new house. But that wouldn’t be much of a story, would it? For the sake of story, we need to suspend our disbelief for a while. We need to believe that someone would walk into certain death and still manage to not only survive, but to defeat the bad guy. We need to believe that someone would open the attic door in that haunted house, something we’d never do in reality.
We like “story” because it allows us to have a taste of lives and decisions we would never dare to make in reality.
It is supercharged reality.