What’s a Story?

Like many good things, this one comes with a prize at the bottom :-)

I was reading through my contributor copy of Terribly Twisted Tales earlier this week.  I’m into the twisted fairy tales these days, and I’ve enjoyed a lot of the stories, but I also read some that left me thinking, “But that wasn’t a story!”  A clever idea, sure.  But not a story.

From there, of course, I started thinking about what defined a story.  Should be easy enough, right?  Especially for an author.  I’m supposed to be a professional storyteller, for crying out loud.  But the more I thought about it, the more complicated things got.

Are Hemingway’s six words “For sale: Baby shoes.  Never worn.” really a story?  What about jokes?  “A man walks into a bar…” sounds like the beginning of a story.  But is it a story if the only point is a quick punchline?  Is the outline of a story also a story, or does it have to be in a particular format?  What about a script, or the storyboards for a movie?  What about poetry?

Back at the Writers of the Future workshop in ’99, I was taught that a story is “Interesting people in interesting places solving interesting problems in interesting ways.”  I believe it was Tim Powers who told us that (though with my memory, I could be wrong).  While this has been incredibly useful for me as a writer, it doesn’t necessary work as a definition.  What qualifies as “interesting,” anyway?  Hemingway’s six-worder up there doesn’t necessarily have an interesting setting, and we never see any characters.

Algis Budrys taught us that the structure of a story should be a character trying and failing to solve an important problem, with the stakes rising each time s/he fails, until we reach the final attempt where the character either succeeds or fails for good.

But of course, both of these people were trying to teach young writers how to write a good story.  A bad story is still a story, right?

At this point I decided the heck with it.  I’m going to define what story means to me.  For me, a story has to have characters trying to accomplish a goal.  They have to work toward that goal.  (Protagonists must protag.)  Finally, and most nebulous, the story has to have a point.

That last bit is the most problematic, of course.  I’ll read a story where I think to myself, “This is a clever idea … but so what?”  I thought it would be clever to make Sleeping Beauty into a ninja, but the idea alone doesn’t make a story.  I’m not saying every story must have a Message at the end, a little G.I. Joe-style moral where Knowing is Half the Battle!  But I need to feel a connection to the characters and their struggle within the story.

It’s show vs. tell on a whole new level.  You can tell me about your clever idea, or you can write a story that shows me something new.

I’m sure there are flaws here, and maybe I’m trying too hard to be clever myself.  Like I said, this is the definition I’m using for me personally, and its’ a work in progress.  Think you can do better?  Give me your definition of what makes a story.  Next week I’ll pick my favorite and send the winner an autographed copy of The Stepsister Scheme.  (U.S. only for this one, I’m afraid — shipping is too dang expensive.)  Have fun!

Congrats to Erik de Bie!  I’ll be getting in touch with you about your prize.  And thanks to everyone who offered up their definitions.  You gave me a lot to think about.

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  1. 1. LJCohen

    Probably not at all clever or original, but for me a story is:

    A character in a setting with a problem and the impetus to resolve it.

  2. 2. Steve Buchheit

    A story is like pornography, you know it when you feel it.

    Also, when it’s not a story, it can fake you into believing it is, but then you feel cheated for spending the money on it.

    And now I must go karaoke “Satisfaction.”

  3. 3. kevin

    a story consists of action over time involving characters toward a goal or subjects toward an idea

  4. 4. Erik de Bie

    I’ll weigh in.

    A story is a snapshot of characters’ lives–a snapshot in which something unusual and compelling happens to the characters (or, in some cases, *nearly* happens to the characters).

    A story is a sequence of changes in a character’s life–or an exploration of how the character stubbornly sticks to the status quo and refuses to change.

    Basically, a story is a character making one or more choices . . . and facing the consequences.

    Cheers

  5. 5. Adam Heine

    I think story is character, conflict, and climax, with optional resolution and setting.

    Interestingly, the shorter the fiction, the more of this gets cut off. I think Hemingway’s six-worder is a story by implication. There is at least one character (the person who made the sign, presumably the wannabe parent(s)). There is conflict (they wanted a baby). There’s even an implied climax (the baby died). There’s no resolution, but not every story has a happy ending.

    I guess, if the six-worder isn’t a story, then it at least implies one. That’s a common tool in micro-fiction, I’m learning.

  6. 6. S. Megan Payne

    A story to me is a JOURNEY of CHARACTER(S) that incites FEELING.

    To me the Hemingway tale is a story. I see a journey, even if it’s just through looking at the picture at the end. A picture can be worth a thousand words.

  7. 7. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    For me, story is compelling (interesting) characters in conflict (where the conflict is meaningful to them) and a resolution to that conflict (and by that I mean a resolution of those character’s needs/problems/conflicts). It’s all about the characters and there should be plot. Stuff should happen.

  8. 8. Violet Hilton

    It might be a fairly boring way of putting it, but I’ve seen a story defined several times as something that has a distinct beginning, middle and end plus characters working towards a goal (or a few goals, I mean you gotta love sub plots, right?). This definition works for me :)

    Sometimes I read a short story or book and say the same thing you did “that was cool but…?” I think those are the ones that are missing a real ending. They’re not a fully formed tale, just a slice of the characters lives. Not that there’s anything wrong with those little peeks, but they do tend to leave a reader wanting more.

  9. 9. Steve Buchheit

    There’s this character, and then something happens.

  10. 10. Jim C. Hines

    Steve – that sounds like the first draft of some of mine!

  11. 11. Adele

    For me a story should be like witnessing part of someone else’s life, but it’s fictional rather than genuinely anecdotal. It can be a complete episode or period, even a complete life, or it can be part of one incident (as is often the case in short story form). It doesn’t have to have a begining, middle and end, nothing even has to happen but I should feel that I am witnessing something in someone else’s reality.

  12. 12. Paula Richey

    A story is an epiphany between a person, event, and a world that happens in the mind of the reader (or listener).

    A person changes as a result of the events and the world, and the events change as a result of the people and the world, and at last the world changes as a result of the people driving the events. At the end everything clicks together like a sort of combination lock and is complete in the reader’s mind– that’s the story in action.

    (This also handily explains why different people can read a book and have completely different ideas about what the book was about – and how I can read a story several times and come away with a different experience every time.)

    In the Hemingway example, it’s a story, because there is just enough there to make a story happen in the mind of the reader.

  13. 13. Jonathan Rock

    A story-
    Someone you care about struggles with a problem that matters.

  14. 14. Toni Smathers

    For me a story is more than just the telling or narration of events happening to a character.
    The key is feeling compelled to know more about the character. Whether the character is actively resolving the plot or being swept away by the tide of events happening around them it becomes a story when I can relate to or become invested in the well being of the character.

  15. 15. Anakin Michele

    A story is a series of events driven by a character or characters.

    Every plot line has been done before. Every created world will overlap with other created worlds and our own. It is the characters that give the story depth, flavor and uniqueness. If you can’t connect with your characters–more importantly, if your audience can’t connect with your characters–then it isn’t a story.

  16. 16. mrchrstn

    I’m going to weigh in with Steve on this one.

    “This is what happened…” = story

    Although I’m 3-act structure OCD boy when trying to write, the above is the heart of it.

  17. 17. Joe Iriarte

    Character has a problem. Character takes action to solve his or her problem. Character reaps the consequences of that action.

  18. 18. Trey Palmer

    A story is a bit like an adventure, but with a few modifications.

    An adventure is being in deep shit, far from home with little or no help.

    A story is characters you give a flip about, far from their home, typically in trouble (or trying to resolve it) with only what they have as their resources. Add in opposition to compound the trouble and you have a story.

  19. 19. Jim C. Hines

    Way to make this difficult for me, folks. After reading through the comments, I’m struggling a bit. From a writing standpoint, I read a lot of your ideas and think, “Yes! This is what I think a GOOD story should have/do.” So I went through them again trying to figure out what best encompassed STORY as a whole. A unified theory of story, if you will.

    I was tempted to go with Steve’s pornography definition. “I know it when I see it” isn’t the most useful definition, but it matches my gut response to some of the things I read. (Not to mention opening up the possibility of all sorts of obnoxious jokes.)

    I think I’ve got to go with Erik’s suggestion, though. A story is a snapshot, a sequence of changes (or refusal to change), and the effects of those choices and changes. It’s broad, but also hits some of the elements I think are important.

    In the end, of course, what matters is the definition that works for you as a reader or writer. Don’t let me tell you you’re wrong about what makes a story. The only reason my opinion matters here is because I’m the one giving away the prize ;-)

    So congrats, Erik! I’ll get in touch with you about your prize. And thanks to everyone who commented. You all gave me a lot to think about.

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Author Information

Jim C. Hines

Jim C. Hines' latest book is THE SNOW QUEEN'S SHADOW, the fourth of his fantasy adventures that retell the old fairy tales with a Charlie's Angels twist. He's also the author of the humorous GOBLIN QUEST trilogy. Jim's short fiction has appeared in more than 40 magazines and anthologies, including Realms of Fantasy, Turn the Other Chick, and Sword & Sorceress XXI. Jim lives in Michigan with his wife and two children. He's currently hard at work on LIBRIOMANCER, the first book in a new fantasy series. Visit site.

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