So, what is a story?
I’ve been thinking over this question for awhile now. I have many fellow authors who’ve tried to define it for me in their blogs, or in coffee fuel conversations. I’ve read all the books, listened to the pod casts, and stalked all the youtube channels. I’ve not really come across a satisfying explanation for what makes a story, a story.
Then I stumbled upon a poorly written short story by a high school student. The two-thousand word piece could be summed up as follows: some scullery maid works in a castle during a time period after the former king had died and the queen was stepping up to fill his crown. In the story the maid attended a joust, made bread, watched a party she didn’t get to attend, and watched birds from her kitchen window.
After reading this short piece I thought to myself that I wasn’t sure what a story was (at least strictly), but I was pretty damn sure this short wasn’t one. The short story was less a story and more of a happening. A bunch of junk happened, but there was no story being told. The young author extolled the importance of this, because it is a look in the day of a common person, thus there in lies its value–normal, ordinary people walking in their ordinariness…so deep, so meaningful.
Now, I’m going to say something that might not be agreed with by many: I don’t read fiction to read ordinary. I live ordinary. The ordinary world is filled with ordinary happenings, where crimes go unpunished, where the good guys are incompetent, and the bad guys aren’t even sexy! (They are kind of creepy, actually.) Ordinary is just a series of stuff that happens, with no rhyme or reason–no justice or purpose–just like everyday life. A journal, or chronological account, it might make, but not a story.
So, I pinned what a story is not, but it really doesn’t bring me much closer to what it is. After reading this young writer’s short I asked them a series of questions, because frankly it left me feeling like something was missing. There were so many events, unexplained, without any apparent connecting tissue, all lined up in it. My eye went immediately to a little piece of back-history: all the happenings took place in a setting where a king had just died. There was a deep-buried conflict in that piece of seemingly trivial information to me.
So I asked: How did the king died?
The writer said they weren’t sure: It really is just a side note, and the story really is about the maid going about her day.
So, for the sake of my own curiosity, I asked another question: Your best guess, how do you supposed he died?
The writer replied: I guess some one might have killed him.
Who? I asked.
Maybe some one who wanted to take the throne? they guessed.
The queen took the crown in the backstory, did she kill him? I prodded.
Maybe, they said. Or maybe she is too likely a suspect, and you are just framing her. Either way the story is about the maid, not the queen.
At that point I ended the conversation, gave my best feedback, and wished them all the luck writing their next tale.
By the end of that exchange I got REALLY thinking about what a story is, and is not. I’m not sure if I came out with a textbook definition of what a story truly is, but I know one thing, abstractly, for certain:
The king is dead, is not a story.
The king is dead, and the queen is being tried for murder, is.