What Makes a Narrative a Story?

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Post March 11, 2007, 03:44:43 PM

What Makes a Narrative a Story?

This post is meant to discuss what constitutes a genre fiction story. There are other types of fiction, such as literary or flash, which obey different rules. They will not be discussed in this post.

First off, I think It's safe to say that every story is a narrative. That is, it's an account by someone, even if it's an invisible, omniscient narrator. That hardly distinguishes it from a newspaper article about cub scouts bringing cards to an old folks home at Christmas, so clearly the next distinction is that it is fictional.

A clever critic at his point will ask, What if I write a fictional newspaper article? Is that a story? The answer: no. Not to me, anyway. Sounds more literary, and that's not my bag.

What then, are the root parts of a story? At the bottom level, what does a tale need to be a story?

There are many opinions. One I quote a lot is Robert Silverberg, and his Generic Plot of all Stories:
  • A sympathetic and engaging character (or an unsympathetic one who is engaging nevertheless), faced with some immensely difficult problem that it is necessary for him to solve, makes a series of attempts to overcome that problem, frequently encountering challenging sub-problems and undergoing considerable hardship and anguish, and eventually, at the darkest moment of all, calls on some insight that was not accessible to him at the beginning of the story and either succeeds in his efforts or fails in a dramatically interesting and revelatory way, thereby arriving at new knowledge of some significant kind.
    Asimov’s SF Magazine, 2004.
Marion Zimmer Bradley's view, on the other hand, was more condensed:
There is an interesting page here: http://mzbworks.home.att.net/what.htm that explains her position on it, and discusses at length why amateurs who don't follow this, don't sell.

These are few big names, but how does this relate to Aphelion, and what we write here? I have a perfect example, one which picks on me for breaking this set of rules. In August 2004, I had a novella, a short, and a poem all in the same issue, and I felt pretty smug about it. That was, until pro Elizabeth Bear made an appearance and said one of them, a Mare story entitled "Just Another Day at the Office", wasn't a story at all:

  • When I say it's not a story, however, what I mean is that it doesn't establish and resolve a conflict. Based on the first line (where the conflict in a short story should begin to be established) the conflict should have had something to do with Jack, his job, and potentially some sort of moral qualms regarding it. The story needs to engage the reader, lead him into a conflict, and offer him a resolution for that conflict. Ideally, there should be paired conflicts, internal and external, which resonate with each other. For example, in Casablanca, Rick's internal conflict is that he wants Ilsa, but his honor and the injuries she's done him make it difficult to trust her, and furthermore, she's looking for his help despite having betrayed him. But the *external* conflict is all about will Rick, Ilsa, and Victor manage to survive their run-ins with the Nazis and get safely out of Casablanca.

    (There are other ways to structure a story, but this is the simplest one.)

    -Her complete review, posted with her permission, is in the lettercol for that month.

Needless to say, after being so puffed up, I felt about 3 inches tall, but I think she was right.

There are 3 examples above, and, as I see it, they have definite common elements: 1) Your fictional character has to be likeable or engaging in some way. 2) The character must be faced with a challenge, a really tough one. You may be able to write a story about your character needing to make a sandwich, but don't grumble if no one wants to read it. 3) The challenge has to be taken on by the main character and not someone else. That is, surviving an initial encounter to tell the king that the Huns are coming and then watching the amy depart isn't necessarily that great a tale. Fighting against the invaders after the kingdom has been warned is better. Face the foe. Finally, 4) The conflict must be resolved in a climax. This is the big danger moment where it's all on the line, and whatever you write has got to solve the big problem that started it all. The characters may die trying, but even then their deaths must help relieve the relevant conundrum. Avoid deus ex machina and have your characters do it by themselves.

There will be other opinions, but I think if you ever want to sell a genre story to a magazine, you'd be a lot safer to follow these rules.

Last edited by kailhofer on February 22, 2010, 03:51:42 PM, edited 1 time in total.
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Post March 11, 2007, 06:30:50 PM

Re: What Makes a Narrative a Story?

I saw the following, and couldn't resist:

"2) The character must be faced with a challenge, a really tough one. You may be able to write a story about your character needing to make a sandwich, but don't grumble if no one wants to read it."


In some parts of Hollywood, Directors employ aspiring interns called Runners to handle the menial chores. In the land where Ego is nearly a job requirement, some Directors have vented their petty frustrations upon their Runners. Typical example:

Director: "I will take lunch in an hour. I want a smoked salmon sandwich, or you will no longer work for me."

Runner James: "Uhh... Okay Sir."


Fortunately, the expense fund for such whims is generous. Price is not an issue. A couple of calls proved that the local outlets didn't have any smoked salmon. However, this time I got lucky. I got out my cell phone and made an emergency call suitable to the severity of the occasion.

"Ma. Director's playing demigod again. I'm gonna need your help."
"Sure, Jimmy. What is it?"
"Get this - the D. wants a ... *Smoked Salmon Sandwich*. You got any of that SeaBear stuff Uncle Eddie sent for Christmas?"
"Lemme look ... Yes. One left. Northwest Sockeye."
"I love you, Ma. Remind me to pay your electric bill on the D.'s expense for this one. I need you to turn that whole thing into one giant sandwich. Lettuce, light pepper-jack cheese, and a little honey mustard. I'll be there in 20 minutes to pick it up."

Total travel time was twenty five minutes each way. That cut it awfully close, but I still have a job. The director loved the sandwich and wants another one tomorrow. With a whole day this time, the show will go on.

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Post April 25, 2007, 10:25:32 PM

Re: What Makes a Narrative a Story?

Cary told me about Robert Heinlein's three basic stories.

1. The Brave Little Tailor

2. The Man Who Learned Better

3. Boy Meets Girl

I have analyzed a lot of stories--fiction, comics, films--over the years, in this culture, in other cultures, especially Japanese fiction which I read a lot, and I am forced to admit that Heinlein was correct. All stories worth telling can be broken down into these three basic building blocks.

After thinking about it some more, I have decided that the reason why we have these three stories is because we have three basic human emotions. The Brave Little Tailor is anger/agression/the adrenelin urge to assert oneself against all odds. This is a favorite in the US and in frontier countries. The Man Who Learned Better is grief/depression/lessons learned from loss. These are popular in places where people are not allowed to express their emotions. Boy Meets Girl (which does not have to be heterosexual romance, it can be any kind of bonding between two people, a boy and his dog, a scientist and his computer, whatever) is love or compassion, the natural human desire to reach beyond the limitations of being one person and become part of a community.

The very best stories always include all three of these basic stories or emotions, anger, sadness and love in some combination.

If you are not sure if you have a story check to see who is your brave little tailor, who learns better, and where does "boy meet girl". If none of these things is in your story, it is unlikely to satisfy a reader--unless it is supposed to be satire or comedy. It does not matter what genre you write, although some genres will emphasize some stories more than others. The Man Who Learned Better gets a lots of play in horror. The Brave Little Tailor is a classic in westerns. Boy meets girl is foremost in romance.

Almost any classic story you can think of has all three elements in it. The first thing that just came to my head--"Gone With the Wind"--Scarlet is a brave little tailor, a southern belle who suceeds in the business world after the Civil War, she is the (wo)man who learns better because by the end of the novel she realizes that she has she lost her most important relationship because of her own blindness and she is the girl who meets boy (and loses boy). "The Epic of Gilgamesh" which is a few thousand years old is basically boy meets girl (or in this case boy meets his best pal) and the man who learns better when he gets his best pal killed through his hubris.
Last edited by McCamy_Taylor on April 25, 2007, 10:30:17 PM, edited 1 time in total.

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