Friday, October 23, 2009

Stories and Not-Stories

As most of you hopefully know, the Literary Lab is conducting a short story contest. We've been getting submissions and hope to get a lot more by the cut-off date. Some of you can write very well, and it's been interesting and satisfying to read the entries.

One thing I have noticed, though, is that some of the "stories" which have come to us are not storylike. They might have good writing, but they are more non-stories. I don't mean that they are experimental and do creative things with form and narrative structure, I mean that these pieces are not stories at all. So I'd like to talk about the very basic idea of a story.

In my opinion, a story has to tell about an event. Something has to happen in the story. Some of the contest entries have been essentially responses to events: journal entries about how the writer feels about something which happened. But nothing actually happens in what we're reading. There is, as Davin likes to say, no movement. Nothing is different at the end of the story than it was at the start.

Something has to change in a story. You don't need to supply all the formal elements of exposition, rising conflict, inciting incident and reaction, climax and the like, but something has to change or happen or you don't have a story. If there is no event in your story, you likely have a non-story. At least that's my take on it.

My minimum standards for a story are that you must have the following elements:

1. An actor
2. An action

One thing I don't consider a story is this:

1. A narrator
2. An emotional state

at least, not if that's all there is to the piece.

But I'm open to suggestion and correction of my stodgy old views. So I ask you, a gang of writers, What Is A Story? How do you know when you have one, and what are the minimum requirements for a story?


  1. I really like your succinct definition of story--actor, action, change. I think it would be a useful guide to anyone trying to write shorts.

  2. Deep from the recesses of my traditional Catholic school up-bringing I seem to remember a 'story' needs to have a
    1) beginning
    2) middle
    3) and end.

    See Dick and Jane. Dick and Jane play with a dog. Dick and Jane go home for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

    Characters, action, beginning, middle, end. Now of course this is extremely simplistic writing but you get my drift. I think the ending is the key to have a 'story'. Otherwise, as you say, you have non-stories, and all it becomes is words on a page. You can have all the action or angst you want, but if it isn't ended, if it isn't finished, as it were, there's no point to it.

  3. Excellent, Scott! I was thinking the same thing as I've read through the entries. I've read some really great non-stories, though. I just wrote one for Rick's Paint Drying contest, actually. Nothing happens. Nothing changes. The character is simply thinking about how she feels about something that's happened. I felt like it could be better, and now I know why.

    I'll just put it here as an example for everybody. It's short:



    White. Not a bright white, more cream than anything. Gran doesn’t like things too bright. Like the clouds, she always said. Those aren’t white – they’re ev’ry soft color you can imagin’ all shiftin' back and forth reflectin’ everything down below.

    I look up at the sky, at the clouds, at the colors shifting. She’s right.

    I look down at the fence, at the fresh coat of paint holding back the peeling wood and fifty other coats of paint from fifty other summers I’ve never known. It’s my turn to sit here on the grass watching creamy white color-filled drops congeal on my toes and ankles. It was my turn to paint the fence, and now that it’s finished I realize this is probably the first time anybody’s done it alone.

    Gran won’t see this white, this cream, these colors drying on her rotting wood surrounding the house she grew up in, married in, had my mom and dad in. The house where she made chocolate chip cookies gooey with sugar and too much salt, overly sweet lemonade chilled with freezer-burned ice, roast beef so dry it looked like strings of jerky.

    Gran, where are you? I’m here, I painted. Where are you now?

    It was never the cookies or the lemonade or her house filled with the smell of baking apples. It was never her floral couch that smelled like peppermint and dog hair. It was this fence holding us together, this paint reflecting color, this time spent waiting, laughing, holding hands as the others ran their brushes up, down, up, down, up down as the clouds drifted up above.

    You’re my fav’rite gran’baby, Gran would say as she patted my small hand with her soft, wilted fingers. I think you understand me the most, li’l girl.

    I look up at the sky, at the clouds, at the colors shifting. She’s right. The colors there dance across the sky. Soft yellows and purples, the colors of her couch, of lemonade, of vibrant life now fading to white.

    I put this example here to ask the question: Is this a non-story? Is there change going on? I have my own thoughts about it, but I'll leave it open for now. Nobody has to comment if they don't want. I'm mostly asking you, Scott.

    A non-story can be well-written and very interesting. I also think a non-story can have movement, but I think it's a different kind of movement than Davin's talking about, and doesn't always work for something that should be considered a story.

  4. I've mentioned on my blog a few times that I think the story––imo a narrative that at the very least has a beginning, middle, and end––is making a comeback. Endings, especially, were not very much emphasized in literary short fiction over the past few decades, and it came to the point where stories in publications like The New Yorker would simply stop abruptly as though the author had run out of ideas or reached the word limit.

    Having said that I'm not certain I would agree that something has to "change." I find the most realistic stories those where nothing at all changes. Because in real life things, and especially people, rarely change in a short period of time.

    I've reviewed many stories for publication over the years, and for me a "story" can work in any number of ways that don't always require progression or change. The only thing that doesn't work for me is writers who think they can disguise lame story lines with pretty words.

  5. For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
    - Short story by Ernest Hemingway

    That's not an excerpt from the short story, it's the whole story. And it meets Scott's criteria...

    There are two characters in this short story: the one selling the shoes, and the baby. There is one explicit action: the sale of the shoes. There is one implied action: something happened to the baby so that the shoes were never needed.

    If the Hemingway piece - at any length - were nothing more than an emotional outpouring over the loss of a child without giving insight into the narrator or the child it would be a short piece of writing but not a short story.

    Trying to think deeper into it, I propose that there really should be a character and two actions to make a story. Cause and effect; action and reaction. Baby dies, shoes are sold. The second action is what gives that forward movement.

  6. Anne: I've read some good short stories that don't really have a beginning or an end.

    Michelle: I'll get back to you about "Colors" when I have a bit more time to read, honest.

    Nannette: I don't know if we're talking about "change" in the same way. I don't mean there must necessarily be a change in the character, but the world of the story can't be static. Something has to move or be moved by someone. Rick's Hemingway story below brings to mind all sorts of actions, all sorts of movement, all sorts of change.

    Rick: Excellent example and analysis. I'm not sure about the need for cause and effect so much, because I've read good stories where you see the action but the reaction is left to the imagination of the reader. But there is, at least, an action.

  7. I did this a few times back in college and when I first started writing. Oh, hell. I still do it sometimes. My 'stories' were simply a narrator espousing a provocative world view (pretend essay?). Or maybe the description of a scene with no real context (free floating excerpt!).

    Personally, I think it's OK to do if A) it's entertaining and B) it's short. Like, flash fiction short.

    But what's your max word count? Two or three thousand words? I think that's enough room for a character and an action. Maybe even some consequences, who knows?

  8. Dan: I think an essay (even a fictionalized one) is a good thing if it's entertaining! Word count? My personal definition of a short story is like 20,000 words or fewer. The Literary Lab contest's maximum word count is 2,000. Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" is 1,459 words and he gives us two characters, actions, reactions and consequences.

    I do think that some people mistake a fictionalized prose passage for a story. Every work of fiction isn't a "story."

  9. Michelle: I think you already know what I'm going to say, but I'll say it anyway. The writing is gorgeous and evocative, but this isn't a story. Probably.

  10. I agree with your minimum requirements for a story, Scott, with one additional thrown in.

    3. A conflict

    There is no story without conflict of some kind -- whether internal or external, it doesn't matter.

    Your two requirements (an actor and an action) can almost exist in a non-story. I'll use Michelle's piece as an example: there's an actor (the narrator) and an action (watching the paint drip) but there's no real conflict involved in it (the writing's beautiful, by the way. great emotional hit).

    If, for example, she included an argument the narrator had with someone else about the paint (conflict), then that would be a story.

  11. I've felt confused about "story" and after reading the post and discussion, I'll say that I'm more confused. My experiment on writing a novel using a standard three act structure has made me believe that there must be countless other forms out there, even though I haven't taken the time to dig up any yet.

    But, to me, this idea of what makes a story, deals with the idea of completeness, of feeling satisfied when the writing has stopped. And, that, I think will depend on the reader. If we look closely at "Baby Shoes" there aren't actually any characters or any action in it. All of that happens off stage, with gads of emotional stuff being implied. (Rick, I'd rather believe that the baby was just born with feet that were far too big!) But, Michelle's story also has stuff happening off stage. When I read it, I see a journey of acceptance and realization. The painter has one view of death in the beginning, and through the act of painting the fence, she gains a different view of death. So, for me, both "Baby Shoes" and "Colors" would fall into the category of story--but like I said I'm confused enough that I might change my mind in a few minutes.

    The difference in opinion might be that the writer is trying to put more things off stage and some readers will see it while some won't. That probably has to do with the skill of the writer and the imagination of the reader. Maybe the non-stories are failed attempts at stories rather than failed concepts of what a story should be.

    In my own definition of story, I guess I need change, but that change could happen off stage. I'd need a character, and an action, like Scott says. The whole "beginning, middle, end" thing is too vague for me to evaluate. What's a beginning? What's an end? Not to sound aggressive, but I really have no idea.

  12. Wow, this is an awesome discussion that's got me thinking today! In some ways I think my "Colors" story up above has OODLES of story in it, but in other ways it feels pretty darned static. It could be a story or it couldn't - depending on the reader and what they read between the lines.

    I think this whole "off-stage" thing that Davin is talking about might have to do with the elusive, slippery term of what "literary" means. Now that's something to think about...

    In the end, I really like the comments here that pointed to there being a sense of completion in the piece. If that's there, I think that "change" is really there - whether it happens in the character, the action, or off-stage.

  13. MattDel: I was waiting for someone to say "conflict," which is something I deliberately left out. I don't know if conflict is necessary. Take this old folk tale for example:

    There was a sickly young girl who always seemed to be at death’s door. Her neighbour was a widow, bent with age. Whenever she caught sight of the girl she would shake her head sadly and say: “Oh God, why do you torment that poor child...if you want a life take this old woman!”

    One evening a bull in the village, put its head into a large black pot to get at some grain at the bottom, and then couldn’t get its head out. Frightened and confused, it ran hither and thither, unable to see where it was going because its eyes were covered by the pot.
    Meanwhile, the old woman we mentioned, was visiting her neighbour. She came out and as usual began shaking her head and saying that if God wanted a life he should take hers. Suddenly she became aware that a powerfully-built beast, apparently headless, was rushing at her.

    “Yama has come for me!” she thought and was filled with terror.
    “Mercy, my Lord, mercy!” she screeched, falling to her knees in front of the advancing bull. “Spare me. There’s a sickly girl next door. Take her instead!”

    I think this is certainly a story, but I don't really think it's got conflict. I don't think it's got a character with a clear need, either.

    Davin: Yeah, I'm less sure as the day goes on what I think. Though I still feel that some of the things I've read lately are non-stories. I will say that maybe, at the very least, a story is the narration in prose of something happening.

    I remember when I began writing again after a long haitus in the late 90s/early 00s, I would wrack my brain for hours on end, trying to figure out what a story was. My original definition was "beginning/middle/end" but now, like you, I'm not so sure what those terms really mean.

    But I am sure that a piece of writing is not necessarily a story just because it's fiction.

  14. After reading the comments posted, I feel I should re-evaluate what I said about 'beginning, middle, end.'

    Scott, you're right, I too have read stories that have no beginning, middle or end; I guess I have the 'old school' way of writing still stuck in my brain, and with what I write, I do need to have a beginning, middle, and end.

    I think what I wanted to say, and what Davin has succinctly said, is that I need to feel the story is complete..."of feeling satisfied when the writing has stopped."

  15. Whoa, plenty to think about as I dive into the second phase of getting my short story ready for Genre Wars.

    Rough Draft done and critiqued. Second draft looming on the horizon for this weekend.

    Bookmark this post to have handy when doing the next draft! Done!

    Thanks for your insight.


  16. Anne or Scott,
    Okay, if you can claim that some stories don't have a beginning, middle, and end, then you must have a concept of what those things are. What are they? In your opinion? Is the start of any story a beginning?

  17. Davin: I don't pretend to speak for Anne, but for me, "beginning/middle/end" imply the traditional narrative arc of exposition, development and climax. Certainly you have something of that in short stories, but perhaps beginnings and ends are more implied than explicit. To continue with Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," the exposition and setup of the story (the backstory, that is) is not present. Things are already in motion (the woman is pregnant, and the man has been trying to convince her to have an abortion) at the start. We get an episode of the man attempting to sway the woman's opinion, his claims that things won't change, when in fact they have already changed before the reader comes into the story. At the end, we don't know what decision the woman will make and it's clear that their relationship is damaged and probably on its way to an end. So this story is all middle, with an implied beginning and an unclear resolution, though I think it feels complete when you get to the end of it.

    Some of Mary Miller's stories in Big World seem to be both all middle and complete. By "complete" I don't mean the reader gets some sort of sense of closure of the story, but that the story contains all the elements you require to interpret it in some manner.

    Is that all vague? I'm not so much making declarations today as I'm trying to open the discussion.

  18. Interesting discussion. Very good ideas. I struggle with writing short stories for the very reason this post discusses; I can't exactly figure out what constitutes a short story. A lot of literary short stories I have read over the years don't seen to have movement at all. But, it all depends on the reader, I suppose.

  19. Thanks, Scott, that does make sense to me. So, having a beginning and starting a story in medias res are two distinct strategies then?

  20. Davin: Maybe! I don't usually think about this stuff at this level of detail, and it makes my head ache. Of course, that may just be hunger, so I'll go eat and think about this some.

  21. I think my definition of story is more expansive than that of most people here. All I think is required is the depiction or suggestion of one or more events. I don't think you need change (except to the extent the universe has changed merely from the fact of the event having occurred). I don't think you need causality. I don't think you even need an actor -- for example, an atheist's story of the creation of the solar system is, to me, a story, even though it doesn't have an actor, or at least not a volitional actor. Particles move and accrete under the forces of gravity and the other three fundamental forces, but no one is making it happen. But something does happen -- worlds form. So it's a story.

    This distinguishes story from things that are not story -- positive and normative statements, bare description of persons or objects, discussion of concepts.

    So, I believe "Colors" is a story -- there's clouds passing, there's paint drying, etc. It's minimal. Arguably it's non-progressive or non-transformative. But it's still a story.

    I think that often times pieces of fiction that lack the traditional ingredients of a story are unsatisfying, but I don't think it's necessarily because they're not a story. (NOTE: I'm no longer talking about "Colors" here. I actually did find it satisfying.) It seems that it might be more helpful, instead of discussing whether something meets some possibly arbitrary definition of "story," that we focus on in what way the story seems lacking or unsatisfying, and why that is.

  22. Jabez: "it might be more helpful, instead of discussing whether something meets some possibly arbitrary definition of "story," that we focus on in what way the story seems lacking or unsatisfying, and why that is"

    Maybe so. But sometimes I like to discuss things in the abstract. For example, when I was walking to lunch about an hour ago, a wind came up and blew a cloud of leaves from a 50' maple tree. The leaves swirled, spinned and descended slowly to the ground and I thought, "I'd like to write a story that was shaped like that cloud of leaves." I have no idea what such a story would be like, or if I'd recognize something shaped like that as a story.

  23. Scott: Fair enough. And I'd be curious to see that piece of prose if you ever write it. Or even what you mean by the "shape" of the story in this context.

  24. Jabez: I'm not quite sure what I mean by "shape" in this context, but I guess I mean narrative structure and laying out of the story elements, how they interact and in what order and how the temporal relationships of the elements are juxtaposed. Possibly I think of something like the "cut ups" of Brion Gyson, or some modern poetry, or the last chapter of "Ulysses." I'll think about it some more.

  25. I'd tend to say that the better the writer, the more likely it is that the "non-story" will work. And to be clear, "better writer" (for me) doesn't mean "constructs wonderful prose." Hemingway's Hills Like White Elephants is a great example, 'cause he leaves so much unsaid, but still creates two characters and a tense situation without actually mentioning what the argument's about. Everything is implied.

    Sometimes, in the hands of the best writers, implication can be enough.

  26. I have no idea.

    Though I generally like something to happen. ;)


  27. Nice, Merc. I think most of our intended audience feels that way. Funny how that works! :)

  28. This comment has been removed by the author.

  29. O:)

    *stealthily removes the mind-reader cap and walks causally away, whistling*

  30. An illuminating discussion. Thanks.

    Must just comment on Rick Daley's post. That short story by Eernest Hemingway was sheer genius. It said everything that had to be said in one line and grabbed me by the heart as well. And I'm now thoroughly depressed because there is simply no way on God's good earth that I could ever write like that. Sigh.

  31. This is a fascinating discussion, and I doubt that there will be a definitive outcome. But I do have a thought to contribute, based in part on some of the preceding comments:

    I think the reader’s imagination brings as much to the story as the writer, perhaps more. When there is no overt plot, my mind makes one up, connects the dots of description into a narrative of the events that caused them. I have read pieces composed entirely of description, that tell me wonderful stories in hints and clues between the lines. I think Lady Glamis’ story falls into this category, although my between the lines story probably is not the one she intended. In the same way, I have read work composed entirely of actions and events that are so random, to me, that there is no story at all and I can only assume they made sense to the writer.

    In non-fiction, there is a distinction between story and essay. There does not seem to be this distinction in fiction. Story is the combination of characters, setting and plot, the proportions of each are at the discretion of the writer. The story resides at the cross-section of the author’s skill and the reader’s understanding.

  32. Brenda, what an excellent comment! Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I agree that I've read stories where there's so much plot and action that it seems like story should not be missing - there's so much going on. How could there not be a story in all those events? But you're right. Sometimes things are strung together so randomly that there's no stable surface on which the plot can settle.

    I'd be interested in your depiction of the story that happens between the lines of "Colors." :)

  33. Lady G -

    For what it's worth, this is what I saw in 'Colors':

    It’s a coming of age story in the modern world. Gran, with her too sweet, too salty, overcooked life within the overpainted boundaries of the fence, was the glue that held the family together. Because no one else in the family has joined in the fence painting, there is a strong suggestion that the end of Gran’s life was also the end of an era, that Gran’s descendants have moved away from their roots. The narrator, as the only person who is willing to continue the tradition, to celebrate and honor the values and boundaries within which Gran raised her family, mourns the loss of the special relationship with Gran, and faces, perhaps for the first time, the essential loneliness of being human.

  34. All stories have a beginning, middle, and end. But the terms themselves have multiple meanings which and lead to confusion so I think it helps to add qualifiers.

    For me the beginning is where the author has decided to start the story. In this case beginning is more synonymous with start than origin. We could, for example, argue that the actions of character y were precipitated her parents who were also abused. How many generations do we go back to find the origin of abuse? Clearly this is not the beginning of the story, it's backstory.

    The end is where the author chooses to stop writing. This does not mean there is no more to tell. Personally I love books and stories that leave something more to be imagined. Just how much is up to the Author.

    The middle is simply a word used to describe the "stuff" between the beginning and end.(These three terms are important when talking about arc, pacing, climax... its how we talk about where these things happen)

    I think we use other words such as arc, conflict, climax, and resolution to define what happens throughout the story; Beginning, middle, and end are inadequate in this regard.

    Lady Glamis, you mentioned that you wrote a story where nothing happens. Remember thinking is a verb. A story about reflection may not have action in the sense of run, jump, or swim, but its still there. In your story, the action occurs via "coming to terms." The character has changed (nothing big or obvious like appearance or personality) in that she both feels more connected to her gran and has dealt with grief in her own way. The conflict comes from within the character. I think you've left a that up to the reader a little too much. If the character cried, or had a headache from crying, or the fence made her sad this would register the conflict on an unconscious level.

    Take Scots example. The old woman's conflict isn't with a person or an object. It's with God. The writer then twists her conflict with God into conflict with herself. The story ends with the woman pleading for her life. But that's not the end.

    For me, I imagined the old woman having to live with herself- the tears, the anger and this all occurred in three seconds. The author could have done this for us but by truncating it before, the author has created resonance.

    I'd like to add another qualifier to "the end": I don't believe a story should end, instead it should resonate. Ending a story too soon or too late can ruin the entire thing.

    I'm not really sure how non-story is being defined, I'd have to see a few examples, but I suspect it has to do with arc and pacing.

  35. Brenda: I'm impressed. Very close to what I intended! Perhaps, though, The Zuccini's comment above, I should have explained the character's reaction just a bit more. Not sure I need that though. I'll have to think about it.

    Zuccini: Thank you for some great thoughts here! I love your remark on how an end should resonate more than end. That's one of the best explanations I've heard. It's exactly how I like to end my stories.

  36. Even though I've had several courses on post-modern literature, I've never really liked most of it because so many post-modernists either avoid the concept of plot entirely (James Kelman's stories do this a lot) or else twist it beyond all recognition until there's no way to have any kind of ending (Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook comes to mind). Yes, I know; they're TRYING to do this. But I teach junior high school, and I tend to agree with the kids: a story has a plot -- a real plot with a conflict and some kind of resolution.
    Okay, so I'm a traditionalist. But that's what I'm going to read -- unless I get stuck in another class wherein I'm forced to read more post modernism.


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