Thursday, December 09, 2010

What Makes a Story?

Ever since my rebuttal post of "The Problem With Trilogies," back in September, mind you, I've been turning over the idea in my head at what makes a story.  The top two Google definitions of story are:
  • narrative: a message that tells the particulars of an act or occurrence or course of events; presented in writing or drama or cinema or as a radio or television program; "his narrative was interesting"; "Disney's stories entertain adults as well as children"
  • a piece of fiction that narrates a chain of related events; "he writes stories for the magazines" 
At first glance, this seems like a straightforward answer, but the more you look, the more confusing it gets.  For example, the "particulars" of a story will very likely be different between two different people.  That's why you may get a book with a lot of extraneous stuff, like Justin Cronin's The Passage or Jordan's Eye of the World.  There's plenty of things that didn't contribute much to the plot, but instead to an overall feel or tone of the book, yet these things are subjective to the reader. 

Of course, the other extreme is people who approach a story with a minimalistic eye.  Cormac McCarthy's writing is so bare that his stories omit most punctuation and offer only needed adjectives.  Needed, again, is subjective, but you get the point.

It's odd that both of these approaches can tell a story, and the only reason for one over the other is author's preference.  Still, my mind can't help but wonder how far a writer can go in one extreme and still tell a story.  Because really, what are adjectives and adverbs but extra words?  And how many prepositional phrases does a story really need?

So, since I enjoy flash fiction, I decided to take some of my ideas and put them to the test.  What particulars are really needed to tell a story?  How much can a writer omit and a reader still understand?  Essentially, how much interpretation does a writer want his reader to have, and how much does a reader want?

The first flash fic piece I wrote that played with the idea of story-telling was "Through the Rain: Or, Through a Season."  It's one of my favorite flash pieces I've written, and I feel like it succeeded in its purpose.  The next piece that played with the ideas of stories will appear tomorrow.  The goal: tell a story using only dialogue/monologue.

Now I realize that stripping down stories to their core may make for boring reading, but so would maximizing a story.  In fact, I'd argue that too much is more detrimental to a story than too little.  In an extreme case, you could tell a story like the supposed Hemingway story,
For sale.  Baby Shoes.  Never Worn. 
It's not really a good story, but it is a story.   Yet, in its simplicity, it tells so much.  It begs so many questions, but it's all we have.  On the other hand, spending extra words and tangential thoughts in a story does not block the narrative, as the story is still told, but it does leave the reader with similar questions.  Chiefly, why was all this extra stuff included?

There's really no definitive answer.  Everything is so opinionated and subjective that getting a definitive answer is impossible.  Instead, we have what's considered normal and fits the general audience of readers.  As long as they're comfortable, there's no reason to upset the system.  I guess I agree with this, but at the same time, I'm equally curious about all the other ways to tell a story, too.

It's like looking at a painting.  Fransisco Goya and Michelangelo painted amazing works of art, but so did Salvador Dalí or René Magritte.  There's no reason to compare the two styles, though many do.  Likewise, there's no reason to compare one story to another, though we inevitably do.  Who knows?  I'm curious to see how the story progresses over time, though.

Bits & Pieces
  • WIRED magazine has a great article on Six Word Masterpieces from plenty of famous authors.  I particularly love Joss Whedon's "Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so."  You can read all the others here.
  • There's so much more to say on this subject, but it's all ultimately moot.  I have my opinions, you have yours.
  • My Sunday School's Nativity Project is this Saturday.  Keisha and I will be spending all day tomorrow setting up, and then all morning Saturday at the Project.  Hopefully it's bigger & better than last years, which was awesome.
  • Should have The Desert Spear finished tonight.
  • My paycheck is now officially one week late, and likely won't be here until next Monday or Tuesday.  This sucks.


Jay Belt said...

Haha, Alan Moore's is awesome.

Machine. Unexpectedly, I’d invented a time
- Alan Moore

Took me a second. Then I laughed. Those are the best.

As for the discussion. I'd be interested to see your experiment in only dialogue.

Anonymous said...

your post has me thinking of Margaret Atwood's intro to 'The Best American Short Stories 1989' called "Reading Blind" where she says, "Once you start making lists or devising rules for stories, or for any other kind of writing, some writer will be sure to happen along and casually break every abstract rule you or anyone else has ever thought up, and take your breath away in the process. The word 'should' is a dangerous one to use when speaking of writing. It's a kind of challenge to the deviousness and inventiveness and audacity and perversity of the creative spirit.
[...] We judge [stories] by the way they strike us. And that will depend on a great many subjective imponderables, which we lump together under the general heading of taste..."

when you were talking about dialogue driven story, I thought immediately of Hemingway (and then saw you refer to him anyway).. I thought of his short story 'Hills Like White Elephants.' which is almost entirely dialogue. then there is 'Girl' by Jamaica Kincaid a story without conventional plot, character or dialogue.

i love the 6-word stories. Have you read much Sandra Cisneros? she quite frequently challenges ideas of stories (some of her short stories are 7 sentences..) One that may interest you is 'Little Miracles, Kept Promises.'

I could go, as this topic fascinates.

--the absent pay check does suck, hope things return to better in that department soon.
--and good luck on the Project, may it be spectacular!


logankstewart said...

@Jay: Yeah, the Alan Moore took me a second read, too, but then I laughed and thought 'how clever.'

@L: Wow, thanks for the quote from Atwood. That pretty much sums up a lot of how I feel, but more eloquently stated. At the same time, it also makes me very excited for the future of reading, too.

I'll have to look into Sandra Cisneros. Never heard of her, but that definitely piques my curiosity. Thanks for the recommendation.