Writing: What’s in a Story?

It might have been a month, or maybe only a minute since you appeared in the oak encircled hilltop clearing. You’re sitting in the cool grass, a warm breeze gently fingering your hair. Bright sunshine tingles on your skin beaming out of brilliant cloud-dappled sky. The chirp of birds and the stirring of leaves create a pleasant background hum. Somewhere within the trees, a harp is strummed and the bell-like strains of a mandolin join in. Straightening up and taking a deep breath, you catch the scent of wild flowers mingled with pine and the loamy redolence of old tree growth.

Glancing right and left, you wonder what the other students think of this locale for a writing seminar. You see men and women of different ages, colors, and cultures. All of them have the stylus and table that you yourself used to travel to this distant place. You’re not sure whether this pastoral out-of-the-way setting is relaxing or a distraction.

On the tree stump at the head of the ‘class’ the somewhat round instructor clears his throat. His open face is little flush, and he rubs at his bent nose. His smile is noticeably forced, and he shifts from foot to foot. He seems to marshal himself and focus on the task at hand.

“Story,” he begins in somewhat shaky voice that grows stronger. “In this section of our class, we will discuss the nature of narrative.” He looks around to the students with an inquiring expression. “Can anyone tell me what a story is..?”

storytelling

Writing: What’s in a Story?

Define the word ‘story’. Ask ten people and you are likely to get ten different answers. Is how you define ‘story’ important to your writing? Absolutely. Depending on your education and experience, your definition can range from vague to concrete. The most commonly taught paradigm is that a story has a ‘beginning, middle, and end’. While this definition is technically correct, it is actually too vague a model for judging whether an idea of yours is a story.

As a writer you need to think of a story like a house—a house you plan to live in. Would you start building your dream home with incomplete plans? Probably not.

At this point, some allowance has to be given to how certain people work. Some people can make up the plans as they go. In fact, the biggest wooden structure in the United States, the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego was built without a master plan. Seven floors, 680 rooms, and over 65,000 square feet of conference rooms and the designers just made it up as they went. Amazing.

Just because you’re capable of doing something doesn’t mean you should. I could skydive without a parachute, but I’m not going to. For myself, I do take risks, I write whole novels without an outline. Out of 15 tries, twice I’ve ended up with a 100,000 words that I simply had to round file. In the case of the third incident, I had to scrap half of the book and start over. That’s a 20 percent failure rate. I suspect others may experience a similar percentage of successes versus failures. Do you know when in your career that this technique is most likely to bite you? If you answered ‘the first time you try it’, put a gold star on your forehead. If you answered something else—think about it.

I digress into this outline versus no outline issue at this point for a reason. A goodly percentage of unfinished books come from the writer simply not knowing where they were going and how to the end the book. A lot of folks know the end but get stuck in the middle. The last group of folks know the middle and end, but can’t figure out how to start.

So, how can we get an idea down so we know if it will work and not leave us stuck at the beginning, middle or end? Let’s go through the process of building up a story idea and inserting the critical elements that should keep us from floundering for lack of direction.

As an example we’ll start with a story premise: the world is threatened by a bomb that will go off in 24 hours. The protagonist of our story will be the person who defuses the bomb and saves the world from certain doom. The antagonist will be the creator of the bomb who has it in for the planet.

That’s our basic idea, it took us three sentences to get it down. It’s not a story yet, we need more information. To get that information, we need to modify our understanding of what makes up a story. Remember that opening rather vague definition— ‘beginning, middle,and end’? Let’s say the same thing with different words. Your story must have a catalyst (a beginning), it must have a climax (a middle), and most importantly it needs a resolution (an end).

The words catalyst, climax, and resolution are chosen because they are more specific. A catalyst is defined as an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action. Stories are about events that change people’s lives. If your idea is a story—it WILL have a catalyst. You will be in sad storytelling shape if you don’t know what the catalyst is that activates the brew of your narrative.

There are actually two catalysts in any story that the writer should concern themselves with. The first is the PLOT catalyst. The plot catalyst for our extremely simple story is when the bomb’s timer starts counting down toward oblivion. The plot catalyst is the central unifying problem that marks the beginning and end of the narrative. When the plot problem is solved, the story is over.

The second catalyst is the NARRATIVE catalyst. The NARRATIVE catalyst is the event that ties the hero to the task of disarming the bomb. I break the catalysts in half like this because this goes to a critical aspect of storytelling. That aspect is MOTIVATION. Your story can have a problem, but if the protagonist isn’t realistically driven to resolve that problem, your story is going to be flat. In our example, unless the hero has something at stake in the situation, he’s just as likely to let the ‘bomb experts’ take care of the world shattering threat. However, the situation changes if our hero’s girlfriend (or boyfriend—it could be a heroine) has been adhered to the bomb with some liberally applied duct tape. Now that the protagonist has a personal interest, they’re far more motivated to take a hand in things.

Okay, we addressed the catalyst, what about the climax? The climax is the point of highest dramatic tension or a major turning point in the action. For you the writer, this means that you have a series of events that lead up to the resolution of the problem set forth in the plot catalyst. Simply put, you have to know how the problem gets solved. In the case of our bomb plot, perhaps the protagonist must recover the pin codes that when punched into the bomb cause the timer to stop. He or she can fight an army of goons, hack a computer network, or do any number of things to get those codes. In the end, it’s getting those codes in hand that is the climax of the story.

Now, we move on to the resolution. Notice, I didn’t include disarming the bomb in the climax? The resolution and climax are often so closely tied together that they are indistinguishable… but they are separate things. In the climax phase of your story, the action is rising, getting hotter, and more tense. At the resolution, all the tension is released. In the bomb story, our hero races to the bomb and punches in the numbers—usually with 2 seconds to spare—the world is saved. The significant other is painfully unstuck from the disarmed bomb, the two of them drive off into the sunset. Life is good. Roll the credits.

So, now that we’ve spent 600 words describing the critical aspects of a narrative, do you know if your idea will work as a story?

Maybe.

You certainly don’t have a story if you can’t identify your catalysts, climax, and resolution. If you CAN, then there’s a few more criteria. You must know who the protagonist of the narrative is. You should know this character WELL. You should have some idea of their motivations and personality. Most importantly you need to know what they value. What’s important to them is the thing that will likely tie this character to the solution of the problem. In the bomb scenario, the hero might not care if the world blows up, but damn it, they love the person taped to that bomb. If that bomb isn’t disarmed not only does the world go, but their love interest has been covered in duct-tape and will be saddle-side to the big blast. Duct-taping a human being—that’s just plain wrong and simply can’t be allowed to go on.

What else do you need to know? What’s a hero without a villain or antagonist? In our admittedly lame example, the bomb could be the villain. However, bombs aren’t much on conversation. Unless this is John Carpenter’s movie, Dark Star. The bomb solved the problem in that story. If you haven’t seen it—it’s a story that goes no-where and ends up where it started… but it DOES have a resolution—‘Let there be light…’. That exception aside, there is usually some more aggressive antagonistic force in the story.

In the bomb scenario, the antagonist is the bomb maker. For us he’ll be the rather cliché mad scientist who gloats to the protagonist about the brilliant design of his “World Shatterer 9000 TM ” that he plans to market to aliens in Alpha Centauri after its maiden blast here on Earth. Silly? It paints a picture though doesn’t it? It’s the little details that can instantly crystallize your narrative. It doesn’t take much. As dumb as this bomb plot is—the simple little detail of the mad scientist marketing the “World Shatterer 9000 TM ” is a farcical element that makes it more real (or unreal in this case). The trademark symbol is even a part of the gag.

To this point, what I’ve described can be comfortably fit within two pages for most stories. One paragraph to detail the story catalysts, another to describe the climax, and a third to describe the nature of the resolution. The forth and fifth paragraphs should be dedicated to the main protagonist, their motivation and values, and the villain’s goals and motivations.

If you can do justice to those five elements and feel confident in them, you can be fairly certain that you have at least the foundation of a story.

In summary, lets review the elements that we discussed. A story must have a catalyst, climax, and resolution, and you must be able to describe them in at least some level of general detail. The catalyst has two parts, the plot aspect and the narrative aspect. The plot aspect drives the story, the narrative aspect motivates and ties the protagonist to the plot. The narrative must have some defined protagonist(s) who have something at stake that gives them a reason to solve the story problem. Lastly, there should be some antagonistic force resisting the protagonist(s) attempts to reach the resolution.

In the next installment, we’ll deal with fleshing out the plot in more detail, and discuss making the story synopsis into an outline. We’ll also touch on plot threads, and complications in your narrative. See you next article—I have to go buy some duct tape…

2 thoughts on “Writing: What’s in a Story?

  1. I think that for some writers, they actually think they “pantsed” their first novel, but aren’t really aware that they spent years fooling around with an idea, a plot, characters and story arc in the back of their mind.

    So the first novel works out…and then a few months later, they try pantsing a second book, and can’t do it, because they have only six weeks of unconscious noodling, instead of six years.

    • I think the life-experience of the writer and their comfort level with story-telling in general have a great deal of affect on things. Some writers, sadly, only have one story in them. Others, can just keep exploring and creating because a whole universe of stuff lives in their heads.

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