A story is more than stuff that happens to a person. And yet, if a friend were to tell you something that happened to them at work or at school or wherever, you wouldn’t be uninterested.
In fact, if it was something amusing or surprising or touching in some way, it might even be quite compelling. This incident might involve coincidence, luck, randomness and have no real conclusion, but that won’t necessarily stop you hanging on every word.
However, put that same story down in print, and it doesn’t have quite the same effect. Now it’s contrived and pointless and banal.
Why? What makes fiction—whether it be a short story or a novel—different from real life? And how can we use this difference to help create more engaging and entertaining stories?
On a superficial level what books have that life doesn’t is a plot. Plot gives story structure. A good plot gives it dramatic structure.
Life, too, can sometimes have this kind of structure, but it tends to be more by luck than design. That person you liked whose number you lost turns up at your sister’s wedding. That football game you put a bet on seems to be a loss until the score flips in the last five minutes.
Moments like these can feel like they’re out of a movie, but once you start looking at how you got there and where you go next it soon falls apart as far as storytelling goes. Life rarely stays in story mode, there are just too many variables and too many factors in play.
What the dramatic structure of a fictional story gives you is more than one event after another; it gives focus. In a fictional story there is a goal and there are obstacles. Conflict and resolution and more conflict. So far, so like real life. But in fiction all these elements, the big moments of drama and small moments of quiet, all point towards the same objective.
This is not like real life.
If I were to tell you five interesting, cool or terrible things that happened to me over the last few weeks, you would react to those incidents individually. If all those things involved the same person form work, then a story starts to take shape. It’s the streamlining of ideas into a single narrative that forms what we consider to be a story.
But that isn’t enough to make it a good story. There’s still something missing.
To be clear though, the simple connecting of events in a cohesive and focused manner can be intriguing and stimulating. Consider a game of chess. A protagonist and an antagonist. Conflict, action and reaction, traps and gambits, misdirection and feints. All the elements of plot, none of story. And yet if you are a fan, as engaging as any book or movie.
In order to make this more than a simple battle between two opponents, you can take a closer look at the players, their background, the way they present themselves. I give you the self-taught genius from the ghetto versus the Harvard-educated fop and the chess board starts to take on a different dimension.
But it isn’t the characters that are bringing the story out of what was pure plot, although they are the vehicle for what I’m doing. What changes plot into story is the use of values. By that I mean emotions, ethics, morals, beliefs and any other quality that invites the reader to not just observe the action, as they would a game of chess, but to judge what’s happening. Is this right? Would I do this? Will she do what I want her to do in this situation? Why did she do that? Whose side am I on?
It doesn’t matter exactly what the question is or how the reader feels about it as long as they feel something. Because as soon as they start questioning the choices made in the story and themselves in relation to what’s happening, they are no longer treating those fictional events as words on a page, they’re treating them as things that actually happened. They’re treating them as real.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
I bump into someone I haven’t seen since my college days. I can’t remember his name, even though we were close friends. The conversation is a minefield for me as I try to have a friendly chat without giving away my faux pas.
The above is the kind of thing that might happen in real life and which you might go home and tell your significant other about.
Here’s a similar incident with plot:
Jack bumps into Dave who he hasn’t seen since college. Jack reminds Dave that he still owes him some money which Dave was supposed to mail him but never did. Dave apologises but has no cash on him right now. He asks for Jack’s address so he can send him the money. Jack suggests they go the bank on the corner. Dave would but he’s late for a meeting.
So lots of back and forth that might end up going somewhere, but so far quire mechanical and chess-like.
Okay, so now the value-added version:
Jack bumps into old college room-mate Dave and reminds him of the money he owes him. Dave doesn’t know what Jack’s talking about and after a heated discussion he makes his excuses and rushes off, leaving his coat behind. Jack picks up the coat to go after Dave and feels a wallet in the pocket. In it there’s enough cash to pay Jack back. He takes what’s owed him and hands the coat to the barman. He goes home and tells his wife what happened. She remembers the incident (she went to the same college), only it wasn’t Dave who owed him the money, it was his other room-mate Andy. Jack realises he just robbed his old pal.
Now, the reason this version is more of a story than the others isn’t simply because more happens (I could have padded out the other versions to be the same length), it’s because what Jack does and why he does it raises all sorts of ethical and moral questions, and also evokes particular emotions. The anger at someone who refuse to admit the truth, the self-righteous feeling of justice served, the shock and embarrassment of realising you were in the wrong—all these sorts of feelings invite you to judge your values against those of the characters in the story.
You may relate to the character’s behaviour, you may consider him to be a terrible person, or you may think it no big deal. It doesn’t really matter as long as you engage with the story. Your involvement is enough to push you into the story world, after that your involvement is the writer’s to lose.
How subtle or blatant these values come across can vary greatly. Some writers are very keen to make sure you know who’s in the right and who’s in the wrong. Other writers can be quite vague and it can be hard to tell whether someone was justified in their actions. But giving the story this added element can give you a better idea of what kind of person your character is and give readers a stronger connection to the story.
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