Breaking Down What a Story Actually Is…And What It Isn’t

[This blog was originally published in Night Owl Reviews]

No writing workshop is complete without a definition of a story explained to the audience of aspiring authors. They come in flavors from simple to complicated, though I prefer the simple ones.

A plot is not a story!A plot is a series of events that forms an overarching narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. A plot is stuff that happens. A story is stuff that happens for a reason,which is provided by the characters. At its very basic elements, a story is “plot plus characters.”

Here’s the definition of a story I’ve found most useful:

“A story is about someone who wants something and what they’re willing to go through to get it.”

Let’s break this down:

  • “A story is about someone…”
    • A story focuses on a person or small group of people whose conflict(s) provide the engine of the plot. It’s not any particular event that’s important, it’s the event’s impact on the characters that matters.
  • “…who wants something…”
    • In a story, characters don’t drift aimlessly with no goals or desires. They all want something, whether physical or ephemeral or both, and their desire drives the story. The conflict is whatever is keeping them from getting what they want. The stronger the desire, the more compelling the story.
  • “…and what they’re willing to go through to get it.”
    • Notice the phrase is “willing to go through” and not “stuff that happens to them.” They aren’t just given the thing they want; they have to work for it. Heroes don’t want things that are easy to attain; otherwise, it would be a pretty lame story. Nobody wants to read about a strong, confident guy who desires to go out on a date with his crush, so he spends a few minutes psyching himself up and asks her out, she says yes, they fall in love, and live happily ever after. That obstacle (his fear) is way too easily overcome. But suppose he had crippling social anxiety to the point where he couldn’t leave his house…now we’re getting closer to compelling territory. Even if a goal seems simple—find love, get home for the holidays, join the circus—it has to be hard to be compelling. Your characters have to struggle, which means you, as the author, need to torture them. They must walk through their own versions of Hell and come out the other end victorious…or not, depending on what kind of story you’re telling.

At the end of the day, ask yourself this: who is your main character, what does he or she want more than anything in the world, and why do they want it? That’s the core of your story!


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