What Is a Story?

Most answers to this question don't seem very good. What Is a story? I will try to do better than I have seen.


There are a few different categories that answers fall into. There are the dictionary answers. Here's one: an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment. It seems okay.

There is the classic idea of character, setting, and plot. That seems a bit better. Writer Brandon Sanderson expands on it a bit in the course he teaches at Brigham Young University. He includes conflict and the framework that the story is told through, e.g. tense, point of view. So, maybe we could sum this up with something like "the conflictual intersection of characters, setting, and plot told from a point of view in space and time." I've never heard anyone else say it like that, but that seems pretty good. I came up with a way to say four of these with a word that starts with A: agent, arena, agenda, antagonism. So that's cool.

There are a ton of these formulations based around lists of necessary things. Literary theorist Kenneth Burke lists agent, action, goal, setting, instrument, and trouble. Fair enough.

The screenwriter Aaron Sorkin focuses heavily on two things: intention and obstacle. To increase drama just increase the stakes. I like how simple his framework is.

There is the view that a story is when a character leaves a known world, is tested in an unknown world, and returns. That's a basic idea of the monomyth that was popularized by mythologist Joseph Campbell.

The study of something is different than the creation. Mega-bestselling author Dan Brown uses a few important concepts when he writes.

The contract: an implicit deal made with the reader, i.e. "If you read this you will find out X."
The clock: there is always a time crunch. (Brown writes thrillers.)
The crucible: don't let your characters run away. There is something they have to face, they can't escape it, there is one path and they have to go through it.
Sole dramatic question: the main thing that the story is revealing, i.e. "Will X be able to save Y? Will X find out if Y did Z? etc." Build your story starting with this one brick.
Moral grey area: write both sides. Let your characters represent each side of the issue.
Write what you want to know.

It's incredibly interesting to see how he formulates his writing. But, it doesn't really answer what a story is.

Any list that includes setting as necessary for a story seems odd to me. None of the lists include time, yet you have to have time to have a story. Humans are not capable of thinking of things outside of time and space. So, I don't think it's crucial to include those in a necessary list of what a story is. They will naturally be implied by whatever is truly crucial.

I think a lot of these things focus on the idea of a good story, which includes drama. I want to peal that away to reveal the solid center and then build back up with a new framework.

What can't I eliminate and still tell a story? Let's try to tell a story with no stakes, no obstacles, no intention. Let's eliminate characters too. Not just humans, any character of a human-like nature. Can I do it? Heck, I don't know. Let's try.

- - - - - - -

(1) The rock rolled down the hill. Picking up speed as it went. Faster and faster. When it hit the tree it rose along the trunk. Slower and slower. It hung in the air for a moment before plummeting back to earth, and coming to rest nestled in the exposed roots of the old oak.

- - - - - - -

I would say that's a story. It's not the most exciting story, but it's a story. Why? It doesn't have characters. I haven't personified the tree or the rock, they aren't feeling or thinking. There is no intention because there are no characters. There are no obstacles because there is no one that is trying to accomplish anything. There are no stakes. There is no trial and no test. There are no people, no goals, and no trouble. No leaving, no returning. So, what is there?

There is an event. There is action, something happens, things move. We could call it a scene. I'm doubting whether I can succeed in this endeavor of gaining new insights into stories. What if we think about this: why did I intuitively know to start where I did, and how did I intuitively know to stop when I did?

I didn't consciously think about it. I just thought, "Alright, I want to make a story that includes almost nothing that a story is supposed to have." Then, my mind threw up two basic ideas. One was of a rock falling apart and disintegrating. The other was of a rock rolling down a hill into a tree. Coming up with ideas is like dreaming, it happens and we don't really know why.

I started when there was a change. I started with movement. When the movement stopped I stopped. Okay... maybe the basic idea of a story is about movement. That's not quite it though because the rock falling apart would have less movement. Some movement though. Can I imagine a story with no movement? Whole stories could just be thoughts, but is there movement in the thought? There's the movement of neural impulses and such. But, that doesn't seem important, just a necessary means for logistical purposes. Alright, I don't think movement is right. I think change is better.

Change is better because I could have not had the tree. What if the rock just kept rolling down the hill? Would it still be a story? Let's see.

- - - - - - -

(2) The rock rolled down the hill. Picking up speed as it went. Faster and faster.

- - - - - - -

Nope, that's not a story. We are on to something. The first version is a story and the second is not. Let's see if I could conclude this in a way that would make it a story without stopping the rock.

(Don't worry. If we can resolve this basic level I will build on it to more advanced levels where we will have drama and such again. What's happening right now is that I'm trying to work out a new idea publicly. I think it's interesting. What you're seeing is a process of truth checking. I can feel what a story is, but I'm not sure why. I know what a story is, but I don't know how to tell you. I can't articulate or communicate it. This is possible because it's occurring at different levels of awareness and in different types of knowledge. We have explicit knowledge that we can tell others and represent in symbols. Then there is other knowledge that is implicit, or tacit. Often this includes things that we don't even realize that we know. This can be further broken down into enactive, symbolic, and semantic knowledge. What I'm doing here is trying to take my tacit knowledge about what a story is and turn it into explicit knowledge. To make the implicit explicit. It's difficult.)

- - - - - - -

(3) The rock rolled down the hill. Picking up speed as it went. Faster and faster. It kept going.

(4) The rock rolled down the hill. Picking up speed as it went. Faster and faster. It never came back.

(5) The rock rolled down the hill. Picking up speed as it went. Faster and faster. It hit a small bump of grass and tilted ever so slightly. Then it continued.

(6) The rock rolled down the hill. Picking up speed as it went. Faster and faster. Forever rolling.

- - - - - - -

Well, this seems confusing. Is the first one of this set a story? No, I don't think so. Is the second one? It seems like a story to me. Why?! What the heck?! Why would the first one not be and the second one is?

How am I checking this? It's a feeling, but what is that feeling checking for? Maybe it's something like, "Then what?" If "Then what?" seems like it's necessary at the end then it's not a story. I shouldn't need to ask "Then what?" at the end of a story. Okay, maybe that makes sense. I'm not sure this heuristic is fully satisfactory, but it does seem to work in this set between example 3 and example 4.

(I'm going to number all of these examples now through the whole article so I don't get lost myself. Yes, I'm writing this in stream of consciousness.)

I think there is a revelation of truth to be had in this set. 3 and 5 aren't stories. 4 and 6 are stories. Kind of sad, morose, and odd little stories with almost no excitement, but stories all the same. Our "Then what?" heuristic seems to work here. In 4 I ended with "It never came back." That could mean anything happened to it. When I think about it I think about it coming to a stop somewhere. Does that mean that this is still all about the beginning and end to a change of some sort? In 6 I ended with "Forever rolling." That means that the change hasn't concluded. I guess, maybe it's in a steady state of motion now which is a kind of lack of change.

(I've been thinking about this without writing for at least 5 minutes now. Frustrating.)

I think that might be it. Maybe that's the foundation stone. Change. In 3 when I read to the end I think, "Okay. Soooo.... what happens next? Does it hit something? Does it stop? Does a dog eat it? What?" My mind is asking for a conclusion to the story. It's asking for a conclusion to the change that we began when we opened the story. An opening can begin in the middle of a change or a steady state because the opening of a story will always be perceived as a change to the reader since they don't know what came before. Interesting. I think I'm on to something there.

Let's try to put this into words. A story is change concluding in a steady state. That seems anticlimactic, and maybe it could be worded a bit better, but I think it might work. Let me try again. A story is a representation of a change, or set of changes, resulting in a steady state. That makes sense. So, to turn 2, 3, and 5 into stories all I need to do is establish a steady state at the end. Let's try it.

- - - - - - -

(7) The rock rolled down the hill. Picking up speed as it went. Faster and faster. Then it stopped.

(8) The rock rolled down the hill. Picking up speed as it went. Faster and faster. It kept going. Until... it fell into a hole and got stuck.

(9) The rock rolled down the hill. Picking up speed as it went. Faster and faster. It hit a small bump of grass and tilted ever so slightly. Then it continued. Finally coming to rest at the edge of a lake glistening with the last rays of the setting sun.

- - - - - - -

That seems to work. Let's test some things and see if we can break this. If we eliminate change it kills the story in its tracks.

- - - - - - -

(10) The rock was sitting on the grass.

- - - - - - -

Not a story.

I don't think we can ruin the beginning of a story though. We could make a bad beginning, but nothing that would stop a story from being a story. If you start in the middle of a change that's fine. If you start in a steady state then you have to change something before you can conclude in another steady state. Let's check both.

- - - - - - -

(11) The rock had been rolling down the hill. It stopped when it encountered a bigger rock.

(12) The rock was sitting on a wall. Another rock hit it. Now it sits on the ground.

- - - - - - -

Ladies and gentlemen, I believe we have succeeded in finding the very foundation of what is minimally necessary for a story, and thus the definition of a story. A story is the representation of a change, or set of changes, resulting in a steady state.

Well, what's next? We can look at what adding in all of the other things does and how that works, but I don't think that's nearly as foundational as this. What about drama? Could we come to a new conclusion about drama?

Here's a dictionary definition: an exciting, emotional, or unexpected series of events or set of circumstances.

I've heard numerous writers talk about drama and it's almost universally depicted as conflict. This is almost always interpersonal conflict. I think those make for good stories, but we're not looking for what makes stories or drama good here. We are looking for what they are. That kernel of existential being at the center. Philosophically we could call this a phenomenological and existential exploration. What is essential?

Let's look at the examples I've already created and see if any of them are dramatic. I wasn't thinking about that at the time so I'm not sure.

Alright, that's some weird reading. Before we look at drama look at this one humorous one. It's not very humorous, but a little bit.

- - - - - - -

(8) The rock rolled down the hill. Picking up speed as it went. Faster and faster. It kept going. Until... it fell into a hole and got stuck.

- - - - - - -

That's because humor is a mix of surprise with a feeling of comfort. This surprised me a little when I read it, which is funny in itself. Surprise without comfort is shock, fear, disgust, and horror, depending on how it's done.

Back to drama. We're going to be feeling along the edges of what's possible to be dramatic. I'll list them and then explain.

- - - - - - -

(1) The rock rolled down the hill. Picking up speed as it went. Faster and faster. When it hit the tree it rose along the trunk. Slower and slower. It hung in the air for a moment before plummeting back to earth, and coming to rest nestled in the exposed roots of the old oak.

(4) The rock rolled down the hill. Picking up speed as it went. Faster and faster. It never came back.

(6) The rock rolled down the hill. Picking up speed as it went. Faster and faster. Forever rolling.

(8) The rock rolled down the hill. Picking up speed as it went. Faster and faster. It kept going. Until... it fell into a hole and got stuck.

(9) The rock rolled down the hill. Picking up speed as it went. Faster and faster. It hit a small bump of grass and tilted ever so slightly. Then it continued. Finally coming to rest at the edge of a lake glistening with the last rays of the setting sun.

(11) The rock had been rolling down the hill. It stopped when it encountered a bigger rock.

(12) The rock was sitting on a wall. Another rock hit it. Now it sits on the ground.

- - - - - - -

The others I don't care about. That's the key, the caring. Drama is caring.

Here's the drama that I experienced when I was reading them.

(1) It's hanging in the air. What's going to happen to this poor little rock. It's probably going to crack or something. Sad thing.

(4) It seems sad that it never came back. Gone forever.

(6) What a futile state of frustration forever rolling seems like. Moving but never really changing. Bummer.

(8) Sometimes you're going along so well and then you just fall into a hole and get stuck. That's life, lol.

(9) I thought maybe it had been tilted toward something not so good. I'm glad it was a happy ending.

(11) Those darn bigger rocks always getting in the way.

(12) It seems like a tragic fall in stature and status.

The caring is slight in all of these stories, but it's there. And it isn't overshadowed or muddled with anything else. That's how I can try to clearly discern my own experience. I think a lot of people would try to say that I'm identifying with the rock and that's why I care and that's why it's dramatic. To some extent I think that's correct, but I don't think that's the key piece. A lot of people would talk about empathy, and that's there too, but also not the foundation. There is a foundational level below identifying and empathy, it's the valuing.

Valuing is what caring is all about. If you care about something then it will be dramatic if something of importance happens to it. Look at 12. It's not really the rock that I care about. It's the fall in stature and status that's represented by the fall. I think stature and status are important, even though I currently have very little of either. The rock could be a variable. Anything that I didn't care about could take its place in this story and it would still be at the same level of drama, which is small but still existent.

The valuing, of whatever it is that is valued, is the key piece here. These things are so personal and symbolic that it's quite similar to dream interpretation, it feels similar. Let's see if I can articulate what we've discovered as well for drama as I have for story.

Drama is the potential or actual change of value. That seems okay. Not quite good enough though. Drama is the potential or actual change in value of a thing of value. Drama is the potential or actual change in a valued object. It doesn't have to be an object though. Drama is the potential or actual change in a valued thing. Drama is the potential or actual change to a thing of value. It's more than that though because there needs to be a change of value. Drama is the potential or actual change to a thing of value, in its value. That's pretty good.

Awesome! I'm pretty happy with the results of this exploration. Here's what we have.

A story is the representation of a change, or set of changes, resulting in a steady state.

Drama is the potential or actual change to a thing of value, in its value.

I am so happy with that. That seems solid and it seems important. I haven't seen someone else dig through the foundations of these two phenomena like this before. You can really build off of these. It brings some clarity to drama.

You can increase drama with either potential or actual change in value. Either works. Someone you love hanging from a cliff is dramatic because you value them. If they die it's dramatic. If nothing bad happens to them it was still dramatic.

To increase the drama you just need to increase the amount of change in value. If the thing we love most becomes the thing we hate most, or the thing we hate most becomes the thing we love most, then we have the most drama that we can have. That's why betrayal by romantic lovers is so powerful. The person goes from one of the highest values to one of the lowest values in a short amount of time. (Time preference is a human universal. Check out praxeology on that.) It's a dramatic revelation to have your value hierarchy turned upside down in a moment. You then have had values destroyed in the past, present, and future and have to try to reorient yourself in a completely new experiential world. To go from hating to loving seems like it has to take longer, usually. Maybe you could have deception there too and make it a sudden thing. I'll have to think about that more.

Anyway, I think we've accomplished something of worth today. If you made it this far then you are probably an obsessive researcher in the area of literature too. Let me know what you think.

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You can find more of what I'm doing at http://www.JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

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