What is a story? That’s a good question. For a good answer, let’s look at the traditional short story. It follows a standard pattern, because the pattern works. And it works not only in short stories, but in stories of all types and lengths, and even in some forms we don’t usually consider to be stories.
It’s like “The Monkey’s Paw.” This is a classic short story by W. W. Jacobs in 1902. (You can read it at amlit.com.) In the story, the mummified paw of a monkey has magic that grants the owner three wishes. When Herbert White got the paw, he was warned that it was dangerous. Still, he figured he’d try it out. He wished for £200, and he got his wish… in the form of a settlement on the death of his only son. He decided right there to destroy the paw. But his wife pleaded with him to use it to bring their son back. So he wished for the resurrection of his son. We can only surmise that this second wish was granted, because whatever came banging at their door that night could not possibly have been human. In desperation, he made his third and final wish, and all was quiet again.
It’s a pattern you’ll see in every great story. It’s what makes timeless myths work. And it persists across media, genres, and cultures. Writing guides based on mythic structure go into much more detail than I’m going into here, like Christopher Vogler’s classic The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, revered especially by filmmakers. At the same time, he covers less than I do here. He explains clearly the hero’s journey that Joseph Campbell identified in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but gives us few hints as to why it works or what we might do to break it.
But I digress. Let’s look at the basic pattern. First, introduce the protagonist. He is someone we identify with, and he faces some problem. The problem can be with another person. Or it could be that he must battle the elements of nature. Or it could even be a psychological conflict within himself. Or it could be some combination of the three. In “The Monkey’s Paw,” Mr. White wants for adventure, and perhaps a little money. Whatever it is, in every story is a conflict, a dissonance, that demands to be resolved.
At first, it’s a small conflict. It may be hardly enough to get worked up about. Our hero tries to resolve the conflict. He proceeds in the way that seems most natural and sensible to him. But this attempt backfires. It only serves to make things worse. The plot thickens. He ends up in a worse situation than he was before. In “The Monkey’s Paw,” Mr. White wished for £200, but this money came at the expense of his son’s life. What’s more, he’s locked into this new situation. He can’t go back. He can’t undo his failed attempt. This is important to keep the story moving forward. He must press on. He must go forward.
So he does. He tries to solve his new problem, which only serves to make things even worse. Don’t call it melodrama. It’s storytelling. Then just when our hero is facing rock-bottom, he makes one final attempt and succeeds. Or fails. Whichever, there’s no more conflict, and the story is over.
A story, at root, is anything with a story arc. That is, establish a conflict, thicken the plot, and resolve the conflict. The precise conflicts and resolutions vary, as does how the plot thickens. Some stories replace one problem with a different, bigger problem. Others just make the existing problem worse. Some stories thicken the plot only once. Others draw out the suspense until you feel your head is going to explode. Some stories allow the hero to win. In others, the hero loses. In yet others, the hero wins one thing at the expense of another, a bittersweet resolution.
And when I say “anything with a story arc,” I do mean anything.
- News stories grab, summarize, and detail an event or an issue, playing off of a conflict in the audience: your desire for information.
- Editorials incite, enrage, and persuade by leveraging opinions and emotions.
- Essays and speeches engage, involve, and educate. The best ones keep you interested through your thirst for knowledge.
- Advertisements describe a problem, irritate you regarding that problem, and then pose a solution.
- Even music is made up of phrases of dissonance and consonance. The chords go from stability to instability and back again. The more dissonant the chords become, the greater the emotional effect when the music returns.
The same conflict-thickening-resolution pattern is everywhere. It permeates human nature. Stories are universal. As Christopher Vogler wrote in the preface to the second edition of The Writer’s Journey:
The Hero’s Journey is not an invention, but an observation. It is a recognition of a beautiful design, a set of principles that govern the conduct of life and the world of storytelling the way physics and chemistry govern the physical world. It’s difficult to avoid the sensation that the Hero’s Journey exists somewhere, somehow, as an eternal reality, a Platonic ideal form, a divine model. From this model, infinite and highly varied copies can be produced, each resonating with the essential spirit of the form.
Amen. Long live the story. It will never die.