What IS a story? The dictionary isn’t particularly helpful. The Oxford English Dictionary says a story is “an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.”
Perhaps the key lies in the “for entertainment” part of the definition. Clearly anyone can give an account of a group of characters and what they do without actually telling a story.
For example, my neighbors across the street held a yard sale today, and the man down the block is mowing his lawn. Another set of neighbors is holding a party and playing loud music. Earlier today, my downstairs neighbor did her laundry in our new washer and drier.
I fulfilled the first two requirements–gave you characters and events. But entertain? Not unless you have some strange fascination with what happens in my neighborhood. 😉
The “for entertainment” part of the definition, then, is actually the place where story lives.
Perhaps the easiest way to examine a story is to take one apart. Here’s the shortest one I know:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again. (by Mother Goose)
In the first line we are introduced to the main character and we’re given an opening that shows us what “regular” life was like. This is critical to the success of any story.
Too many writers are in a hurry to write something blood-pumping, that will move readers to the edge of their chairs. But those scenes don’t happen unless the reader cares.
If I tell you Jeff drowned in the ocean, I doubt if anyone would think twice about the statement. We don’t know who Jeff is or why he was in the ocean. If, however, I say, A lifeguard named Jeff drowned in the ocean, now we might be a little intrigued. What if I changed it to say, A lifeguard named Jeff drowned in the ocean while trying to rescue a ten-year-old boy. Now there’s another level of intrigue, but not enough. We could think Jeff did something foolish or wasn’t skilled enough for the job. If we learned that a warning just went out about a riptide, that Jeff was putting up the red flag when the boy went into the water, the story begins to take shape.
The point is, first readers need to know who this person is so that they can care about him, all without boring them to death with a lot of backstory.
Line two of our example gives us the inciting incident–Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. Something happened that interrupted his regular routine, that set in motion a sequence of events.
In most stories, those events are put in motion by the protagonist as a way to solve the problem which the inciting incident created. In our example, however, Humpty Dumpty is in no shape to do anything about his predicament. Instead, enter the minor characters who work on his behalf. All the kings’ horses–not one or two, but all of them–and all the kings’ men worked to rescue Humpty Dumpty. Each action increases the tension, ups the conflict. At last there is only one more horse, one more man, and they fail.
This story resolves in a sad way. Nothing they did solved Humpty Dumpty’s problem. Most stories resolve in a more hopeful or positive way, but certainly not all. But “resolve” they must. At the end of the story, readers want to know “what happened.”
How detailed the resolution, of course, is up to the author. What did the kings’ men do with what was left of Humpty Dumpty? Some authors might write that as part of their resolution.
These then are the bare bones of a story. Yes, there are muscle and flesh and skin that need to be added, but without the bones, the story won’t hang together, so it’s a good place to start.