DOG-EARED CORNER - 1.1: What is a Story?
(And What's it Made of?)
Story writing is such a big subject. There’s so, so much to talk about. So much to think about. I expect in future posts we’ll be doing some pretty deep dives. I’ve found one of the easiest mistakes to make, however, is taking stuff granted. Assuming I know what I know. Assuming that I’m right. So let’s start this off putting first things first.
What is a story?
Do you know?
My best definition goes:
Given that ART is a willful communication of experience, STORY is art in which the experience comes with context. Essentially, it communicates a series of life events. Story may be true-to-life, modified in the telling, or completely made up.
The key word here is experience, and that’s SUPER important. But this is a pretty dry definition, wouldn’t you say? And even if it wasn’t, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before we go on, let’s brake STORY down into its most basic parts and see if we can piece it back together.
THE COMPONENTS OF A STORY
1. STATE (of existence)
States are a stories smallest, indivisible building blocks. They are no more than qualities something possesses. Sleepy is a state. Orange is a state. So is windy, broken-hearted, bright and picking your toes. Basically, anything that describes someone or something at a particular moment. That’s it.
As we’ll see every story (EVERY SINGLE ONE!) is made up of nothing but linked successions of states.
(Sometimes I’ll refer to states as story values, which means the exact same thing.)
An event is simply a shift between incompatible states. The rabbit goes from fast to slow. Your cat goes from happy to angry. I go from alive to dead—or more interestingly, dead to alive. Such changes can be small or big. It could be a flea waking from its nap or the obliteration of a whole galaxy cluster. As long as there’s a change you can call it an event.
So that’s just going to be a series of events then, right? Well … kind of. It is a series of events but it’s not just that. A plot’s most important distinction is cause and effect. Event 2 doesn’t just happen after Event 1, but BECAUSE of it. Or despite it. Or maybe Event 3 happens because of how 1 and 2 interact with each other. In essence, a plot is a conversation (often an argument) between events in your story.
There’s a lot of overlap between an arc and a plot. An arc is also a series of linked events. The cause and effect may be a little looser with an arc (may be wholly thematic, for example), but most often it’s no different than we’d expect in a plot. Most arcs are plots, in fact.
What’s important about an arc is that it culminates into a meaningful change for the story. What makes a change meaningful? The reader. A meaningful change is one in which your reader has invested time, energy and, hopefully, strong emotions.
Arcs come in many forms. They can be centred around a particular character, or location. They can be clumped into a certain part of the story or strung through its duration.
EXAMPLE: In The Empire Strikes Back, the assault on Hoth is an arc. It consists of a number of events, each with their own change of state, all culminating into one meaningful change: Going from IMMINENT PERIL to RELATIVE SAFETY.
We can also say Luke’s story in Empire, is an arc. In this case, a character arc. He starts out searching for something that will connect him to the Force, and to the Jedi. By the end, not only has he discovered that connection, he learns it’s the last thing he ever wanted. A fairly meaningful change.
People often use the term narrative interchangeably with story. This makes sense. Like the story itself, a narrative includes every event, all the plot points, and every arc in the telling. Essentially, it’s the shape of the events that unfold.
If two characters begin a journey together, live through the same events and share the same experiences as they go, they would exist in the same plot. But when events separate them and they go off on their own adventures, the plot has become two different plotlines. Stepping back, we see a simple progression of events, followed by a split. This shape is the narrative. It could be immensely complex filled with hundreds of plots and arcs or it could be single individual plotline, start to finish.
As I said at the top, story is an experience. Specifically, it’s the experience you get from a given narrative. It’s not just the events, the things that happen and order they happen in. It’s also the telling. It’s depth of character, poetry of language, themes and meaning. It can be meta-narrative (which we’ll get to).
The same plot, the same narrative could be told infinite different ways, each a different a different experience.
THAT is what we mean when we use the word STORY.