Advanced Storytelling


Dramatic Story

Read the following excerpt from the book How to Write a Damn Good Novel, by James N. Frey. (p. 70–71)

What's a Story?

A story is a "narrative of events."

Little Red Riding Hood goes into the woods, meets the wolf, takes a short cut to grandma's, meets the wolf again, says "My, what big teeth you have," and the woodcutter comes and chops up the wolf. A narrative of events is a simple recounting or retelling of something that happened, either in the "real" world, or in a "fictional" world. The story of Little Red Riding Hood is clearly a narrative of events . . . but that's not all it is.

Consider this narrative of events:

Joe hops out of bed, dresses, packs a lunch, gets into his car. He drives a few block to his girlfriend's place and picks her up. Her name is Sally. They drive to the beach where they lie on the hot sand all day, then have a nice seafood dinner. On the way home they stop for ice cream. This is a narrative of events, but is it a story?

Most readers, instinctively, would sense that it is not.

The reason is that the events are not worth reading about. The events must be of interest. So what if Joe goes to the beach with his girlfriend? So what if they have dinner? The events of this narrative have no meaning because the events had no consequences. If we define a story as a "narrative of events," we have not gone far enough in our definition. We must add that it is a "narrative of consequential events."

The Dramatic Story

In a dramatic story, the only kind generally worth reading, the characters will struggle. You may write a story in which the characters suffer and are involved in events, but are generally passive, doing nothing to solve their problems. If the characters change as a result of the hardships inflicted on them, such a narrative of events will be a story, but it will not be a dramatic story. Characters must struggle if you are to have drama. A reader may sympathize with the plight of a suffering character, but true reader identification—where readers will forget themselves and be completely absorbed into the character's world—can only happen with a character who is struggling. Remember Joe and Sally? Let's present them a dilemma to struggle with and see what happens:

When Joe left the house that morning for Sally's, he noticed a beat-up van following him. Why would anyone be following him? he wondered. Must be his imagination, he told himself.

Interested? Of course. Something mysterious is occurring. We want to know what will happen. We might have also started the story this way:

Joe bought the half-carat ring at a discount jewelry store down by the waterfront. That night at the restaurant he was going to "pop the question." Sure he had only known her two weeks, but for him two weeks was plenty of time . . .

Are we interested? Of course. We want to know if she'll say yes and how it will affect him when she does. How about a spooky story?

Joe hadn't thought about it for months, but when he was getting his swim trunks out of his drawer, what the gypsy had said at the Christmas party the year before came back to him: "You are destined for a watery grave soon, my son . . ."

The dilemmas you present to your characters are called "story questions." Story questions make the reader want to read on to find the answers. They are the appetizers of the feast you are serving up.


Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.