What is A Story?

We all love stories and the question, 'what is a story,' seems to have an obvious answer. A story is a story. It seems like a stupid question; like asking, what is the color orange?

But what makes a story, a story?

As a storyteller, it's important that I know this answer and so I've thought about it, read about it, and thought some more about it. And I think I have an answer.

In my last post, I talked about why humans tell stories and the answer was that we do it to share knowledge and information about how to act in this world of ours. Stories are an emotional way of sharing knowledge, which turns out to be a better way than a list of logical instructions of sharing this type of knowledge.

As we have evolved and our societies have become complex, so have our stories. So a story about a young boy wizard fighting off the worst wizard of all time, is told not so we know how to fight an evil wizard if we ever meet one. Instead, it tells us about how to face seemingly insurmountable obstacles in life. It's a hopeful story about an underdog winning against all odds. (A common theme among stories.) So stories not just share knowledge, they can also give us hope and help us feel better about our own life.

Keeping that in mind, we can come up with the most basic formula to make a story.

Let's say I write 300 pages describing a city. I describe all the people in the city, the architecture, the culture. I also throw in some philosophy about that culture and I even go as far as preaching about how that culture could be better. But, is that a story?

It's certainly a book but it's not a story.

Let's say if in this book, I introduce a character who does the describing of the city and the culture and preaches philosophy to the reader. Now it's slightly more like a story because now, there's a character in it.

So the first thing we need for a story is a character. A character is a must. The more the merrier. But at least one is required for it to be a story. Without a character, it's an essay, not a story.

But my book is still not a story because the character describing stuff and talking about stuff is not enough. The character needs a conflict.

Conflict is the essence of a story. We want a character so we can identify with it and put ourselves in its shoes. But then, we also need that character to face a conflict because that's why we want to read a story in the first place; to learn how to face conflicts and how to act when facing a conflict.

And that brings us to the third thing; action or choice. The character that's facing the conflict needs to choose to take some action. It might be the right choice of courageous action or the wrong choice of cowardly action. But we need choice of action.

A character facing a conflict, ignoring it and just letting the conflict take its toll is not a story, because it doesn't teach us anything.

After character, conflict and choice, we need resolution. Or conclusion, if you want to continue with the Cs.

The character faces a conflict, makes a choice and then the conflict resolves, for better or worse. That's a story. The four Cs of storytelling.

Let's prove this with an example.

Once upon a time, there was a man.

This isn't a story yet. We only have character.

Once upon a time, there was a man who hated his nagging wife.

Getting better. We have two characters and conflict between them. But still not a story.

Once upon a time, there was a man who hated his nagging wife and so he got in his car and drove away, vowing never to return.

So the character makes a choice about the conflict. That's great. But still not a story. It's starting to feel like a story but it feels incomplete. What happens next; we want to know.

Once upon a time, there was a man who hated his nagging wife and so he got in his car and drove away, vowing never to return. As soon as he turned the corner around his block, his heart felt lighter and a smile came to his face. He put on the radio and sang along to 'I will survive' as he drove into the sunset.

Now that, is a story. It's not a very good one but it's complete. Character, conflict, choice, conclusion.

To make the story better, and longer, we just need to add more conflicts, more choices, maybe more characters, and more conclusions. In a novel, the resolution of one conflict often leads to another conflict. As the character faces more and more conflicts and makes more and more choices, we start to understand them better. The character becomes deeper and the story becomes better.

So what can I do to this story of mine? I like to write weird stories so let me do something strange.

Once upon a time, there was a man who hated his nagging wife and so he got in his car and drove away, vowing never to return. As soon as he turned the corner around his block, his heart felt lighter and a smile came to his face. He put on the radio and sang along to 'I will survive' as he drove into the sunset.

Suddenly, an alien spaceship appeared in the sky and rained down red lightning bolts that destroyed everything they touched. The man slammed on the brakes and turned his car around just in time to escape a lightning bolt. He raced back home and hugged his wife.

alienattack.jpg

"What's gotten into you?" she said.

"I love you," he said and kissed her passionately.

"Your breath smells!" she nagged.

A lightning bolt hit the house and turned it to ash. Two wedding rings glinted in the ash as the sunlight peaked from behind the spaceship.