Saturday, April 1, 2017

What is a Story?

Writers tell stories. And it’s not just those who write fiction. No matter whether you’re writing an article, a short story, or book, you are, in fact, telling a story. But you’d be surprised just how many writers, both novice and professional, really don’t know what a story is.

The classic rule is that a story should have a beginning, middle, and an end. Everything you write pretty much follows that format. But do these three things make whatever you’re writing a story?

Centuries ago, Aristotle noted in his book Poetics that while a story does have a beginning, a middle and an end, the beginning isn’t simply the first event in a series of three, but rather the emotionally engaging originating event. The middle is the natural and causally related consequence, and the end is the inevitable conclusive event. In other words, stories have an origination, an escalation of conflict, and a resolution.

Your story needs a vulnerable character, a setting that’s interwoven with the narrative, meaningful choices that determine the outcome of the story, and, most importantly, reader empathy. Basically, a story is a transformation—either the transformation of a character or sometimes of a situation. But above all, you must have some sort of conflict.

At its heart, a story is about a person or persons dealing with tension. Without obstacles and without a crisis event that initiates the action, you have no story. The secret to writing a story that draws readers in and keeps them there isn’t to make more things happen to a character but to create more tension as your story unfolds.

The beginning of a story must grab your readers’ attention, orient them to the setting, mood and tone of the story, and introduce them to your main character, whom they will grow to care about. If readers don’t care about your main character, they won’t care about your story.

So how do you introduce your main character to your readers? Begin by having your character perform some sort of action as your first scene opens. Remember, your story is part of a larger whole—a life that has been ongoing way before the story that your telling has even begun. So you must jump into the storyline as it passes you by. You want your readers to grab your main character and hold on tight. Your readers will be propelled through the story until they get to the point where they will let go—the point at which the story ends. But even though the story ends, life goes on.

The crisis that tips your character’s world upside down must be one that your protagonist cannot immediately solve. It’s an unavoidable, irrevocable challenge that sets the movement of the story into motion.

You can introduce this crisis into your story in one of two ways. Either you can begin your story by letting your character have what he or she desires most and then ripping it away, or by denying what he or she desires most, then taunting them with it. So, your character will either lose something vital and spend the rest of the story trying to regain it or see something desirable and spend the rest of the story trying to obtain it.

Two types of characters inhabit every story—a rigid one and a flexible one. The rigid one remains stubbornly unchanged while the flexible one will change as the story progresses. Your main character should always be the flexible one. The crisis in the story will forever your main character who will take whatever steps to try and solve the struggle.

Unfortunately, your protagonist will fail because he or she will always be a different person at the end of the story. If this doesn’t happen, your readers won’t be satisfied. By the time of your story’s climax, your main character will have made a discovery that changes his or her life forever.

Your character will make this discovery by being clever enough to piece together clues or will show extraordinary perseverance or tenacity to overcome the crisis.

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