writing help: stories that aren't stories

What Makes A Real Story

What’s the difference between a story and an event?

Sometimes I see a manuscript for a short story (and a novel, sadly. More on that later.) that is not a real story. It’s an event. It’s a description of something that happened.

For example, Bob falls off a cliff into the water. John dives in and rescues him. Bob says, “Thanks, I knew I could count on you.”

Although I can imagine how to turn this into a story, as described, it’s just an event. Why?

A story needs a story arc and character arc. Imagine, for example, that Bob had been bragging about how great a swimmer he was, how invincible he was, how puny and useless John was. The accident occurs, and John saves him. Bob isn’t just grateful. His world view of himself has changed. He realizes that John is a worthy person, as or more capable that he (Bob) is himself.

Do you see the difference? Bob has changed. That’s his character arc. Perhaps John had been portrayed as a timid, self-doubting person. At the end, he realizes he can achieve more than he had realized. There’s a character arc for him, too.

Let’s look at a novel. Sometimes I’ve seen manuscripts—or outlines for them—that are only a series of events. For example, the protagonist, Bob, is a cop who sees a monster. He shoots it. The next day he’s called to another scene: two monsters, lots of civilians ripped to shreds. He shoots the monsters. There are a few more events like this and he wins the cop-of-the-year award.

Other than lack of character arc, what’s the problem here? 

As presented, there’s no story/plot arc. A few things happened to Bob and he got a pat on the back. One issue is likely to be no story goal for Bob. Change it to a villain who’d killed his friend. Bob’s chief wants him off the case because it’s too personal. Bob keeps investigating. The villain phones Bob to tell him of an upcoming murder, another of his friends. Bob gets there too late. Another phone call of a murder to take place the next day. It’s a trap, and Bob barely survives. The press is on Bob for incompetence; the chief takes his badge; another detective wonders whether Bob is really the killer. The phone rings: Bob’s son is the next target.

Bob is under tremendous personal pressure but wonders why the villain picked him. That gives him a clue and he figures out something that helps him catch the guy in the big climax.

Why is this a real story not a sequence of events?

There’s a story goal for the protagonist: catch the bad guy. The main thing, though, is that the protagonist is running into obstacles that mount. He’s losing, not winning. The stakes are getting higher and higher. When everything looks bleakest, something that he’s experienced, some clues that he picked up during all those failures, help him win.

That's a story arc:

  • something that happen (an "inciting incident" ) knocks the protagonist out of his "ordinary world"
  • protagonist makes a goal
  • obstacles mount that prevent him from achieving the goal. (Overcoming obstacles forms the story's "conflict")
  • protagonist fails but learns as he goals. The situation gets bleaker.
  • the stakes get higher
  • the action reaches a point of maximum threat (physical, emotional, or to a relationship)
  • protagonist puts it all together (everything he's learned, everything he's accumulated during the ordeal) and wins

BTW, the above standard story pattern works for romances, courtroom dramas, adventures, mysteries. Obstacles don’t have to be physical. A fear of small spaces is an obstacle; being unable to think of the right thing to say is an obstacle; not having enough money to take a girl to dinner is an obstacle; being savaged in the press is an obstacle; being unable to keep an appointment because of a snow storm is an obstacle.

In your short story or novel, don’t just string together a set of battles your protagonist has to win. Create a story arc and a character arc for a winning story.