Understanding What a Story Is

by Bill Johnson edited by and consulting Lawrence Booth

From prehistoric times when our ancestors gathered around fires in caves, storytellers have been aware of how arranging events in a story-like way held the attention of an audience. This essay explores how a storyteller engages the interest of an audience.  Understanding that, writers can concentrate on how best to create dramatic, compelling stories.

What A Story Is

A Story is an arrangement of words and images that re-create life-like characters and events. By how a storyteller describes and arranges a description of a story’s events, issues and ideas, the storyteller gains the attention of an audience. To sustain that interest, the action of a story is often presented as revolving around resolving some human need: to feel loved, to be in control of one’s life and fate, to be able to avenge wrongs, overcome obstacles, discover and understand the meaning and purpose of life. To reward the interest of an audience, the storyteller arranges the elements of their story to fulfill the issues it raises.

Through experiencing a story’s arrangement of its events, a story’s audience has experiences of “life” more potent and “true” than real life. “Life” with meaning and purpose. Where people get what they want if they really believe. Wherein true love exists. Where inexplicable events are resolved. Where even pain and chaos can be ascribed meaning.

This makes a story unlike the real world, where experiences happen, events unfold, time passes, but not always in a way that offers resolution or is fulfilling. Every element in a story is chosen to create its story-like effect of a resolution that creates a quality of potent, dramatic fulfillment. 

To create a story’s fulfillment, the storyteller has an outer and inner focus. The outer focuses is on how and why the dramatic issues, events and characters of a story engages the interest of an audience. The inner focus is on the task of arranging the order of a story’s elements to create a purposeful effect of movement toward a fulfilling resolution.

This edited arrangement makes the events of a well-told story fundamentally unlike the vagaries of real life. The “true” facts of life generally don’t arrange themselves to create a story-like effect of fulfillment. If they did, a factual account of the suicides of two teenagers distraught that their parents kept them apart would create the effect of the story Romeo and Juliet. The two are not the same in mood, tone, or dramatic purpose.

Understanding what an audience desires from a story, the storyteller perceives that a story’s dramatic issue must be presented in a compelling manner, in need of resolution.
By taking issues in need of resolution from introduction to resolution, a story’s audience is offered fulfilling experience of courage, redemption, rebirth, renewal, overcoming
oppression, etc. A story that raises no issue of consequence offers its audience no reason to internalize its movement to fulfillment.

To understand how an event can be described in a story-like way, consider the concept of “time.” Real life is linear. We travel a certain direction through time, with no choice. In a story, however, the storyteller chooses a story’s moments in “time” based on how they dramatically act out the story. To understand this, consider a story set on a mountain. Four competing groups are climbing the mountain. The writer sets up the overall goals of the four groups and the goals of individual members. Furthermore, why it matters to both the story’s characters and to the story’s audience who reaches the top first. 

That gives the physical movement of the story’s characters a meaning that revolves around the story’s ultimate outcome. Because of that understanding, a reader can track and assign meaning to the actions of the story’s characters. Since the outcome of the actions of the story’s characters revolves around fulfilling some issue of human need — love, courage, etc. — the story’s audience experiences fulfillment around that issue based on the particular resolution a story’s characters create. A factual account of the climb would not have as its central purpose this creation of fulfillment of a clearly defined dramatic issue.

In addition to the story’s physical action, we have the emotional movement of different climbers. Just as these characters ascend the mountain, they ascend and pass through different states of feeling. As characters compete to shape the story’s outcome, they must engage and overcome, or ally themselves with, other characters similarly compelled. By acting on their feelings as a story’s events impact them, the story’s characters allow its audience to experience more concretely — to feel — the story’s journey toward resolution and fulfillment.

A story’s plot operates to ensure a story’s movement is dramatic and potent. It does this by generating obstacles that block the story’s movement toward resolution. That generates drama over a story’s course and outcome. Thus, the actions of characters driven to shape a story’s movement by overcoming plot obstacles deepens the dramatic effect of their actions. As the story’s plot escalates the obstacles to be overcome, the story’s characters are required to act with more determination. Thus, a well-designed plot ensures that a story’s conflict heightens the dramatic effect of a story’s movement. 

A plot, then, is an entirely different entity than a story. A story is about taking an audience on a journey to the resolution and fulfillment of some human need to matter, call it the “why” of the story. A story’s plot is about the method used to make a story advancing — moving — toward its resolution dramatic and potent, and thus fulfilling in a desirable way. 

On its story level, that ascent of a mountain might be about love, or wisdom, or compassion, or good defeating evil. And whoever reaches the mountain top “first” generates for the story’s audience a deeply felt experience of that fulfillment. Readers “share” in the story’s outcome and fulfillment to the degree the storyteller has led them to internalize the story’s dramatic, potent journey.

Thus, the storyteller recreates the sense of time that best heightens the dramatic effect of their story. Cliffhanger is an example of a story someone might say is “linear” or “true to life.” In actual fact, the storyteller creates the impression of a story being linear and true to life simply to make its movement accessible to an audience comfortable with time’s linearity.

In this case, Cliffhanger, because its actions move forward through time, doesn’t ask the story’s audience to be overly aware of the story’s time sense. Since it doesn’t challenge the viewer’s conception of what “time” is, that aspect of the story is comfortable and familiar. Tarrantino, in Pulp Fiction, plays with our expectation of linearity and “time.” Thus, Pulp Fiction creates a climax around a character who would be “dead” in a more straightforward, life-like interpretation of “time” linearity. Viewers enjoy a Pulp Fiction-like story for the very reason that it pleasurably points out that the effects of a story are more potent and dramatically “true” than life. Thus, the storyteller sees that “time” does not exist in their story in a literal, worldly sense. It is arranged for the effect it creates.

All the elements of a story, like “time,” are shaped around a particular dramatic purpose in a story. This is what makes the events of a story and its characters ring “true” in a potent, vivid way. It is not a matter of descriptive details, but details that make vivid a story’s movement toward resolution and fulfillment.

Because for many people, life is not something they can, or are able, to experience deeply, when a writer is able to create an experience of deep feeling, thought, or sense impressions through the details describing a story’s dramatic movement, such writing is innately satisfying. And by being available upon the demand and particular needs of a reader, a story is empowering and satisfying. The romantic can read novels that explore romance. The lover of action, heroic quests. The philosopher, stories that explore subtle nuances of thought and feeling. A story can thus create for its audience a quality of having a place where the reader “fits in.” Another experience many people enjoy, but don’t always get from real life.

Writing that is “life-like” in detail and design can lead to a story being rejected because a life-like retelling of an event doesn’t generate that powerful, story-like effect of resolution/fulfillment its audience desires/craves. It risks being a collection of inert details that fail to suggest a dramatic purpose or movement toward resolution.

Thus, a story takes life-like events and gives them a sense of meaning and purpose that touches us. Even a story about chaos and the meaninglessness of life, if well told, can ascribe a quality of meaning and purpose to those states. That’s why there’s such a relentless desire for stories that are uplifting. They allow readers to feel that the “weight” of life is bearable. That solutions can be found to any problem. That no amount of pain is unsurmountable, no obstacle unconquerable, if we have courage and persevere. That even the most painful sacrifice will be ultimately rewarded if we have faith.

What is a story? I say it is a vehicle that carries us on an engaging, dramatic journey to a destination of resolution we find satisfying and fulfilling. When we find a particular story/journey to be dramatically potent and pleasing — more “true” than life, or life as we would like it to be — we can desire to re-experience the same story/journey over and over.

The ability to craft such a story vehicle that takes its audience to such a desirable state is at the heart of the art of storytelling.

This essay was written and edited with the assistance of Lawrence Booth, Founder/Director of the internationally known Film School of Half Moon Bay.

Copyright 1995 Bill Johnson.  Reprinted with permission.

The ideas expressed in this essay are developed more comprehensively in my workbook, A Story is a Promise , and in my on-line classes. Each chapter of the workbook concludes with a series of questions designed to help writers integrate this story as promise concept of thinking about stories. Each class is designed to take students from a story idea, through creating a potent, dynamic plot, to deep into the nitty-gritty of writing evocative, potent sentences and visual images.


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