Advanced Storytelling


What's a Story?

Read the following excerpt from the book How to Write a Damn Good Novel, by James N. Frey. (pp. 68–70)

A story is a "narrative of events."

Little Red Riding Hood goes into the woods, meets the wolf, takes a shortcut to grandma's, meets the wolf again, says, "My, what big teeth you have," and the woodcuter 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. Any story is a narrative of events. But that is 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 blocks 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 a dinner? The events of this narrative have no meaning because the events have 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."

But is that all there is to it?

What if I told you the sufferings and travails of a rubber tree being pruned? Or the trials and tribulations of a motorboat as it makes its way up the Congo. Not interested? It would only be interesting if the rubber tree or the motorboat had human characteristics. Jonathan Livingston Seagull was a humanlike seagull. Jonathan Livingston Seagull and the little locomotive who said, "I think I can" are interesting characters not because they are a bird and a train, but because they are humans in odd shapes.

So a story involves not only consequential events, but consequential events involving human characters. And not only human characters, but human characters that are worthy of our attention. No one wants to read about characters who are just anybody. They want to read about interesting somebodies, characters capable of evoking in thereader some measure of emotional response.

An expanded definition of a story now would be: "A story is a narrative of events involving worthy human characters and consequential events."

This definition is good but still not complete. What is missing is that the characters must change as a result of conflict. If a character waltzes through a story unaffected by the events and sufferings he sees and endures, then the narrative of events is not a story at all, but merely an adventure. A complete defintition, then, is:

As story is a narrative of consequential events involving worthy human characters who change as a result of those events.


Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.