Charlotte Green: What is a story?

Sunday, May 29th, 2016

What is a story?

To tell a story, American short story writer Flannery O’Connor once wrote, is “to create life with words”. It takes a supreme talent to write a story that can recreate life, but is that really the goal of any story? Do people not immerse themselves in fiction for the sole purpose of escaping real life? And if that is the case, then what is a story?


If you ask anyone, writer or no, to tell you what a story is, they will know. Most people have been reading and telling stories since childhood. But if you ask someone to actually sit down and write one, the task can prove somewhat challenging. People become obsessed with plot and structure, characterization, and meaning. Do those things make up a story? Or are they the art of telling a story? If they are the techniques, then what is a story? And what differentiates a good story from its mediocre counterparts?


For the novice writer, early stories are often mongrel things. Combinations of sketch and essay, editorial and character study, case history and parable. They are often about problems rather than people. Abstract issues rather than concrete situations. Beginning writers are somehow possessed less by the story than by what O’Connor calls “unfleshed ideas and emotions”. They are so desperate to pass on to the world an idea or feeling – or even what they see as their own wisdom – that they fail to tell a story in the process.


So what is a story? Put simply, in a story something happens. There is a character and he is driven towards an action, usually by outside forces. The story is the showing of that action. It can be told through different mediums (short story, flash fiction, novel, novella, screenplay, or script) but the essence is always the same: there is a character or characters and they are forced to act. In other words, a story is a dramatic unit of literary art.


At their core, stories are about human existence, about real life, what Raymond Carver called “common place things”. In order to write about human experience, the writer must begin with the human element: the protagonists, in particular their senses. Fiction deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched and it often takes at least three of these to make an object come to life. Take this sentence from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary where Emma plays the piano and Charles sits watching:


She struck the notes with aplomb and ran from top to bottom of the keyboard without a break. Thus shaken up, the old instrument, whose strings buzzed, could be heard at the other end of the village when the window was open, and often the bailiff’s clerk, passing along the highroad, bareheaded and in list slippers, stopped to listen, his sheet of paper in his hand.


At the start of this sentence we are with Emma at the piano “whose strings buzzed”. At the end we are across the village with a clerk in his list slippers. Given what happens to Emma by the end of the novel, the reader would be forgiven for wondering why these details are important. But Flaubert had to create a realistic and believable village for Emma to live in. For if the reader didn’t believe her surroundings, why would he believe her outcome? It is this level of detail that makes the village and thereafter her outcome believable. It is what makes the story believable.


Detail is essential. Ford Maddox Ford famously taught his students that a writer should not include a man in a story long enough to sell a newspaper, unless he appears with enough detail to make the reader see him. How does a writer achieve that? By writing what he sees. Learn to see – not just look – but really see the world. Writing fiction is not a matter of saying things to the reader, but of showing them the world as it really is.


That said, art is selective. A story should not be a piling up of details. Every detail must work hard to be there. It must be essential to the action of the story. Otherwise that story becomes cumbersome and suddenly the reader no longer believes.


It is this level of detail that turns a mediocre story into a good story. A truly excellent story, however, is one where the reader discovers something new each time he reads it. In order to achieve this, the story must operate on several levels. A meaning or several meanings must be incorporated into the story. They are not tagged onto the end, but embedded into the very heart of the story. By doing that morality and drama are combined. The characters illustrate the story’s meaning through their actions.


And so we have come full circle. If a story is a character driven to action and that action illustrates a moral or meaning. Then through that story the author has offered up the original idea they wished to impart on their reader. And if beliefs are the lights by which we see, then by simply detailing the world as it appears, the writer will be incorporating his morals into his writing. It is through the human eye that writers make judgements and by using his vision, a writer not only details the world as it appears to him, but makes moral judgements on what he sees. Those judgements become the morals embedded in any story.


It takes true talent to “create life with words”. But by writing only what we see and by practicing each and every day – that is to make art a habit – we can almost certainly come close.

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