What Is a “Story”?

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.

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.

-TimK

About J. Timothy King
J. Timothy King

I'm the eldest of three siblings, a stay-at-home father of two daughters, the husband of a wonderful wife, and an indie author of life-expanding character fiction. When not writing, I read, watch old TV and movies, play bass guitar, and tend to my family in our Boston-area apartment.

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Comments

Excellent analysis, Tim.

J. Timothy King

Thanks, Jim. I appreciate it.

-TimK

Small Carnival Of Literature

Big or small, I am the now and future host of the Carnival of Literature. Click here to submit for the next edition. Here are the few entries we had.
Save the Ribble has a poem about the spiritual effects of a river (that needs to be saved).
Joe Kissel…

I like your definition of “story”. Have you heard of Dramatica: A New Theory of Story? Being an engineer, I like the detailed breakdown of the story in to it’s component parts.

Thanks for a great blog.

Peace,

Rob:-]

J. Timothy King

Hi, Rob. I hadn’t heard of Dramatica, but thanks for the tip. I’m checking it out. I’ve actually been developing a theory of story (much more elaborate than what I went into here), based how I believe the psychology of readers and characters interact. It’ll be nice to see in what ways this theory overlaps with mine.

-TimK

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