Understanding Story

Understanding Story by Leslie Watts via writership.com

If your goal is to tell a story that works, one that satisfies your readers, then you know it involves a process to  translate the story within your mind into a form that others can understand and derive meaning from. That process will involve some level of planning or exploring, drafting, revising, and sharing. 

In every stage of this process, understanding why we tell stories and what they are will help you solve problems and make decisions. I explore these questions today by looking at how other writers, critics, and editors have weighed in. 

Why do we tell stories? 

We can’t know for certain why we tell stories, but we can make some educated guesses. Author Lisa Cron says, “humans are wired for story.” And that seems logical enough, but why might that be the case? One major reason is to transmit and receive understanding.

Author Ursula K. Le Guin says that “The story—from Rumplestiltskin to War and Peace—is one of the basic tools invented by the mind of man for the purpose of gaining understanding.”

That makes sense, but what are we trying to understand? Editor Shawn Coyne says we tell stories to pass along prescriptive and cautionary tales and to make sense of a world that is chaotic and uncertain. Through story, we rehearse challenging situations, from life-threatening moments to those where the stakes are internal, from the comfort of our reading chair, with no actual risk. 

But stories also entertain, and therein lies their unique power. We can pass along information, perspectives, and wisdom in a way is more fun than a straight recitation of facts and that we can more easily integrate and remember. 

Constellations provide a simple example. A night sky full of stars is beautiful, but it becomes useful when we use several stars to form a picture that we tie to a memorable tale. The appearance of the picture in a particular place in the sky invited people to tell a story, reminding them when to plant and harvest crops. 

Stories are patterns of meaning imposed upon a chaotic human experience that is always changing to help us make sense of events and circumstances that are beyond our control. From cave paintings in Lascaux to videos on the internet, we organize people, places, and events to convey knowledge. 

Stories serve other purposes as well, but I think this reason is most useful to writers because it points to what a story is and what it should contain.

What is a story?

There is no shortage of definitions when it comes to story. This is a simple one I’ve adapted from Coyne and McKee: Story is a series events that create change in the life or circumstances of a character as the result of action they take in response to conflict. Let’s take a look at what others have to say.

EM Forster’s explanation of the difference between story and plot is often quoted: 

“‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.” 

But not everyone defines plot and story this way. Lisa Cron says, “Story is not about the plot, or what happens. Story is about how the things that happen in the plot affect the protagonist, how he or she changes internally as a result.”  

That sounds a lot like what McKee and Coyne say about the connections between change, action, and conflict, except they both believe a story can be meaningful without a major internal change in the protagonist (see, for example, The Martian).

Dwight V. Swain, in Techniques of the Selling Writer, has a long list of what story is.

A story is so many things—

It’s experience translated into literary process.

It’s words strung onto paper.

It’s a succession of motivations and reactions.

It’s a chain of scenes and sequels.

It’s a double-barreled attack upon your readers.

It’s movement through the eternal now, from past to future.

It’s people given life on paper.

It’s the triumph of ego over fear of failure.

It’s merchandise that goes hunting for a buyer.

It’s new life, shared with readers by a writer.

And John Truby sees it this way: Stories “show the how and why of human life. You have to have a deep and precise understanding of the biggest, most complex subject there is. And then you have to be able to translate your understanding into a story. For most writers, that may be the biggest challenge of all.”

Who is right? 

In a way, the differences among these definitions don’t matter. I suggest reading what writers, critics, and editors think about story because it opens your mind to possibilities so you can develop your own understanding, one that resonates with and is useful to you.

There are objective truths about stories (and among these I include change, conflict, and action), but the subjective truths are just as important.

Again, you can start with what other people believe and learn from them, but you’ll gain the most if you translate what they say to your own understanding—much like you translate your thoughts and beliefs into a story form for your readers. Once you settle on your own reasons and definitions, you can leverage them to make decisions about exploring, drafting, revising, and sharing your story.

I’ll leave you with this thought from Swain: “A story, in the last analysis, is you, transferred to print and paper. You: unique and individual. You, writer, who through your talent range a larger world than others, and thus give life new meaning to all who choose to read.” 

Editorial Mission

To apply these ideas for the benefit of your work, consider the thoughts above and other things you’ve read about story and record your own current thoughts by answering the questions. Your answers will probably change over time, which is exactly what you want. As you study deeper levels of story, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of what it means to you and what you want to say.

Why do people tell stories? 

How do you define story?

What are the must-have elementsof a story?

What message(s) do you want to share about life in your stories? 

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