Friday, January 15, 2010

Plot and Premise Are Not Story

First, here's a story for you.

"The Red King and the Mountain of Black Glass"

Two great armies were contesting a region of Asia around a solitary mountain where a highly-prized black glass could be found. The glass was sacred to the gods worshipped by the kings of both armies. The war went on for years and many brave soldiers met their deaths on the field, but neither army could defeat the other. Finally it was decided that the warrior-kings would battle face-to-face, one man against the other, for dominion over the mountain of black glass and the surrounding territory.

The kings met on the appointed day in the appointed spot and at the appointed hour they drew their swords and fell to battle. They fought recklessly, with joy and fearless violence and were evenly matched but at last the Red King wounded the White King, who called for mercy and withdrew his claim on the mountain of black glass. The Red King let the White King escape with his forces and then he took possession of the lands. His first task was to set up a great throne at the summit of the mountain of black glass, so that he might survey his conquered territory and all who looked at the mountain would see that it was his.

The Red King himself would drive the first iron piling into the head of the mountain; it was to be one of many long pins that would form the foundation of his great marble-and-gold throne. The king's best general held the piling and the Red King hefted a massive iron maul and brought it down upon the long iron pin, driving it into the top of the mountain.

Where the piling bit into the rock and split it, hot gasses vented out and the king and his generals stepped back. The ground began to shake and the rock of the mountain split wider and molten lava poured fourth. The king, who stood closest to the wound in the mountain's summit, was swallowed up by a fountain of lava and burned alive instantly. The whole of the Red King's army scattered and never returned, and the White King marched back and took possession of the sacred mountain, which soon quieted and returned to sleep.

I am prepared to say that the above narrative tells a story. I wrote it on Wednesday afternoon, and it's based on this Aesop's fable:

"The Fighting Cocks and the Eagle"

Two game cocks were fiercely fighting for the mastery of the farmyard. One at last put the other to flight. The vanquished Cock skulked away and hid himself in a quiet corner, while the conqueror, flying up to a high wall, flapped his wings and crowed exultingly with all his might. An Eagle sailing through the air pounced upon him and carried him off in his talons. The vanquished Cock immediately came out of his corner, and ruled henceforth with undisputed mastery.

My version is certainly longer than Aesop's, but I claim that both narratives relate practically the same story. You will notice that the plots--the events that transpire--are similar but not the same. You will notice that the characters and the settings are not the same. It also looks like my version of the story is not an allegory, but it's very clear that Aesop's story is nothing if not allegory. Both versions have at their core the idea that pride goes before a fall, that braggarts will have their comeuppance.

So what parts of these stories are, in fact, the stories?

"Pride goes before a fall" is not a story. It's a moral.

"What if there was a war to claim a volcano?" is not a story. It's a premise.

"What if two roosters fought to see who was alpha male of a farmyard?" is not a story. Is also a premise.

"Two cocks fight in a farmyard; one chases the other off; the winning bird jumps onto a wall; an eagle swoops down and grabs him; the losing bird takes over the farmyard" is also not a story. It's a plot.

"Two kings fight over a volcano; one king withdraws; the winning king opens a volcanic vent while digging the foundation for a throne; the volcano briefly erupts, killing the king; the dead king's army flees; the other king moves in and takes over" is also not a story. It's a plot.

So the plot is not the story. The premise is not the story. The moral, if you go in for those sorts of things, is not the story. The prose style is not the story. What then, is the story?

On Wednesday, Big D talked about the necessity of writers having a good idea in order for a story to be good. What is the main idea driving the above stories? Yesterday, in the comments to Michelle's post, I harangued Andrew about what parts of a narrative (though I had at that point not cleverly differentiated between "narrative" and "story"*) could be changed while retaining the same story.

Possibly, and I throw this out because it's the first thing that occurs to me, the image of the moment where the prideful character falls is the big idea in the above stories. The Red King with the great iron hammer splitting the stone of the mountain and the lava spewing out; the cock on the wall crowing and suddenly snatched up in the talons of a diving eagle. Is that the big idea? Because I was already writing my version before I had that "iron pin and hammer" image to write about. But then again, I already knew it ended with the Red King dead and the White King taking over, because I'd read the Aesop.

What do we mean by the central idea of a story, anyway? Do we mean theme? Do we mean the idea that sparks us and urges us on to write it, or do we mean the idea that the reader will take away from the reading experience? Are these the same ideas, even? I don't know, but I might doubt it. Antonia Byatt, in the second novel of the "Babel Tower" quartet, says that she wrote that book because she had an image in her imagination of a woman in a flower garden standing up and stretching her back. Everything flowed from that. Is that the central idea of the book, then? One doubts.

Anyone want to take a stab at any of these questions? There are no wrong answers, just individual experiences of writing, I think. Anyone?

I think that while the central idea is different in each story, the type of idea, the class of idea if you will, is the same. The function of the idea that makes it a story is the same across stories, because stories are, I think, types of things that are similar to one another in some ways. I am looking for the Platonic Story, the archetype of stories, the ur-story.

Why does this matter? I'm not sure. For several years after finishing my first (awful) novel, I thrashed around writing short stories, convinced that I didn't even know what a story was. It was a frightening place to be, actually, filled with cognitive dissonance and headaches. Now I don't think so much about what a story is; I just manage to write them and I think about the idea of storytelling rather than story. But still I wonder.

And, you know, likely all of this was covered in yesterday's comments, and nobody wants to rehash all of it. It's just that I have this intuition that, back of premise, setting, character and plot, there is an invisible thing that is the story itself, and I want to get at that thing. I become increasingly convinced that the way we discuss story is both complicatedly misguided (or misguidedly complicated) and an oversimplification. My headache, she returns.

*"Story" is the idea to be conveyed, which includes character, motivation, and the causality of the universe. Maybe. We still don't have a definition of "story." And "narrative" is the artwork which conveys the story. For example, "Lord of the Rings" is a narrative that tells the story of Frodo Baggins and the One Ring. "Camelot" is a narrative that tells the story of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. "The Once and Future King" is another narrative telling the same story, but without the songs.


  1. Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky draws an interesting distinction between story and plot. He basically argues that "story" is a rough sketch of linked events, while "plot" is the actual way the story gets told. "Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back" is a story; A Walk in the Clouds and Let the Right One In are two (very differently) plotted versions of that story.

  2. "Story" to me is the boiled-down essence of what the particular work is. Like Loren's comment, "Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back," is the essence of the tale your work is telling.

    In a similar vein, the "story" of Frodo in Lord of the Rings is the archetypal quest story -- the hero must depart safety to achieve some goal in a far-off place. The events that happen along the way to get to that goal is a plot.

  3. An idea or a theme or a moral -- not a story. But I think what Captain D was suggesting was not that a good idea *is* a story, but that that a story without a good idea is not a good story.

    Like a meal with coffee. ;)

  4. Wow, and here I was hoping that today's entry would get AWAY from yesterday's long drawn out discussion. Yes, I'm venting a little but to be honest, my brain got really tired after trying to read through all the comments yesterday.

    Having said that, I'll put my two cents in now before the battle gets too far along.

    The story (IMHO) is some amorphous idea that emerges from a premise, walks within the boundaries of a plot, and meanders according to the whims of the particular person telling it.

    This last part is important, because it is this that allows you to distinguish your particular story from Aesop's. In truth, you haven't told a "new" story but rather your own version of a similar story that followed a similar plotline. Is that necessarily a bad thing? No. Does it make your story have any less impact or be an less interesting? That depends on your skill as the orator/writer.

    It has been said more times than I can count that there really are a small and finite number of "original" stories. Now if this bothers you that technically there is no way possible to create a new story, you're in the wrong biz. To me, it's like arguing whether a lion and a housecat are the same. Technically, they are. But you won't catch me trying to convince the lion to meow. I'd rather just sit back and enjoy watching them both.

    Your story may roar louder than Aesop's, but it is still just a kitty.

  5. I'm going to agree with a lot of what has been said so far. And, I'll go on to expand that statement because I believe that "story" is different for each person who looks at it. To me trying to define a story is similar to creating a Utopian society or trying to find a nymph that looks the same to 99 different people (we each have a different ideal of perfect don't we). So in essence I believe that story is nebulous, and almost impossible to stick with a definition that every one is going to agree with.

    I'm also going to agree with Mr. King on a point he makes in On Writing. Mr. King states that story is the most important parts of writing, and he looks at story almost as if he's looking up to something above and beyond him. I agree with that plot, moral, theme, premises these aren't as important to me as what I view as the story.

    I'm sure I could drag this comment out into a much longer ordeal and feel like I'm preaching for the hour it will take me to write it, but I won't. So I do hope that what I've said helps you in some way. Later taters.

  6. I second Eric's comment.
    Maybe "story" is the culmination of premise, plot, setting, moral, and style.
    In fact, your two examples are wildly different in some ways:
    In the first one you have cultural themes, armies at war, generations of dead. Eventually one army wins. What about the soldiers? How do they feel about all this? Finally at peace after years of brutal war, this peace is shattered by some unexpected calamity, and now they're ruled by their enemy. There's none of that in the cock example. The moral may be the same, but the story is different. The implications are different.

    You tell me--is it really the same story? Or are they just similar stories on one level?

    Digging deeper (sorry, can't help myself), I see a symbolism in the cock example that I don't see in the other. To me, the Eagle is the hand of god reaching down and striking those who dare usurp His authority.

    In the war example, the spewing lava is more of a curse, like a final test of the champion which the Red King fails. I would hope that the White King is the protagonist in the story, and learns the lesson to treat the mountain gently. Different lesson, different point even. Different story.

    Fascinating topic, thanks for continuing it!

  7. Whoa. Isn't a story just a story? Bared down to just the essence in the storyline or fleshed out into a complete/full novel. Well-done or poorly done, with great ideas or bad ones, it's still a story. Maybe that's very simplistic, but that's the way I have to look at it. I don't like headaches.

  8. Scott, this clarifies some issues for me. It doesn't exactly change my mind, but I now realize that yesterday's discussion was full of tangents.

    The title of your post, "Plot and Premise Are Not Story" I think really depends on how we write and also on how trapped we are in what has previously been written. I think that some of us, me for example, write from beginning to end, not knowing what that end will be. We start with a premise, and from that premise, the story grows. It's a forward progression, and the end (and thus the story) isn't yet knowable until we get there. The result can potentially be a new story, but I think more often than not, this type of writer ends up shaping it into one of the standard story types. I did that.

    For someone who works backwards, or for someone who outlines, this story type is already there when you start writing the rest of the story. Then, one really can place the setting and the premise, into that original story and make it fit. In your two examples, you started with the same story and adorned it differently. But, if I were to start with the two premises, I could have POTENTIALLY come up with two different stories--perhaps both less satisfying than the standard story types, but that doesn't matter for what I'm saying here.

    I think premise and story CAN be very dependent on each other, as can setting and story, but rarely can a writer free herself or himself enough to do that to the point of getting a new type of story. It's a very nice goal, though.

  9. Scott, I wonder whether your examples of plot aren't simply series of events. I've always understood that plot was wrapped up in causality. Like the classic:

    The king died, then the queen died. (Sequence of events.)
    The king died, then the queen died of grief. (Plot.)

    It's a minor quibble, and I know it's not what you were getting at in this post, though.

    As for story? The Platonic ideal of story? Perhaps, because human beings are the only being on earth (that we know of) that can communicate through stories, there's an aspect of human response tied to the idea of story.

    A sequence of events, no matter how harrowing those events are, won't produce an emotional response in the reader. So what if Romeo fell in love with Juliet, married her in secret, killed Tybalt, was exiled, came back from exile to find Juliet comatose, killed himself, and Juliet woke to find him dying? WHo cares? Unless the Bard made us feel their pain through dialogue and action, we wouldn't give two hoots, would we?

    I'm fumbling around here, but I feel that the archetypal story is comprised of plot, character, setting, action, and emotional or intellectual response in the reader. The story has to affect someone, or it's irrelevant.

  10. Scott, I missed yesterday, but I will go now and read the post and comments.

    But isn't story hard to define? Really? And isn't story anything that can be told? And like Eric says, the original stories were told and written long ago. Now, like your version of Aesop's Fable, we just tell them over and over in creative and new ways.

    Am I understanding this post? ARGH

    :-) My brain hurts.

  11. Introductory remarks: I don't pretend to have this figured out, but I think that we are, all of us, missing something important.

    Loren: While Shklovsky is looking in the right direction and properly distinguishes between "story" and "plot", there is certainly more to story than "boy meets girl etc." I really feel that a story is not just a sequence of events. There is something more, and more important than that.

    Matthew: Like I said to Loren, I think "boy meets girl etc" is more premise than story. I think a real story has, let's say, an emotional purpose. Maybe.

    Nevets: Certainly that's what Big Daddy meant. I derailed his post. Not deliberately, but that's what happened because I am an ass.

    Eric: Don't blame me; I wrote this post before Ivana wrote hers! Anyway, I am not trying to find a way to come up with "new" stories. I also don't think that premise comes before story. I think that story comes first, and we find premises and characters to serve those stories. Whether we know we're doing it or not.

    Ryan: King's statements are interestingly metaphysical and, sort of, get at what I mean. There is something behind premise, plot, character, etc that is the real story. "story" is different for each person who looks at it is a doubtful assertion. I believe the exact opposite. I think stories are powerful and make up the greatest part of our recorded history because, in fact, people see stories the same way in some basic way. If you read enough world mythology, you see that there are striking similarities across cultures and epochs in the way groups of humans talk about themselves. The earliest recorded personal narratives are not much different from the memoirs being written today. Our understanding of what a story is and its place in living culture doesn't change. Riddle me that.

    Andrew: Wow, we so disagree. Who is surprised by that?

    Maybe "story" is the culmination of premise, plot, setting, moral, and style.
    No, that's what I call "narrative," which is different. Story exists outside of that.

    I'll also point out that the themes and meanings you claim for the two stories don't exist in the stories; you're applying them from outside. I don't see the "hand of god" or "curse" but it's interesting that you filter the stories through those sorts of myths. Interpretation is an interesting, but separate, discussion, so I won't say more about that except to say that I don't think there's necessarily a lesson in either narrative and I maintain that they both tell the same story.

    Lois: Okay, here's the thing. I read blogs about writing. Most of these blogs are written by and commented on by writers who are pretty much just starting out. And I see a lot of people concentrating on the parts of storytelling that are the most fun and, really, the easy bits. While they do this, they ignore the difficult bits, which have to do with constructing solid stories that are about character and causation. They forget that a story is more like "this is the tale of how X happened to Y" than it is "sparkly vampires in love" or "intelligent alien snakes set up camp on Earth and infiltrate Buckingham Palace." Too many writers are looking through the telescope the wrong way. I despair of finding a way to tell people that they're playing with the wrong toys and that their books are going to suck unless they learn how to actually tell a real story. The whole logline "hook" is a fine tool for a query letter, but it's a crap way to think about storytelling. That idea of mine somehow got pushed into a discussion of what a story really is. Honestly, the whole thing's out of hand and very likely pointless. There, I said it.

  12. Davin: I think you are confusing "how we write stories" with "what a story is." Readers don't know what our process is, and we don't require "panster" readers or "outline" readers because in the end, a story is a story and nobody but the writer knows how it was written. You and I may approach the assembly of our narratives differently, but we've got to end up with novels that fundamentally operate in the same way for the reader, because we don't supply them user's guides with the books. For a reader, there are only two types of stories: well-written ones and poorly-written ones.

    We have to stop thinking that the way we write is the type of story we write. It isn't.

  13. I need a red flag to wave! Or a giant frog balloon, that almost always attracts attention.

    No, seriously, I'm okay with disagreeing, but I do believe that the process comes through in the final product. I believe that a good reader can tell how the story was built. I believe that when you look at a painting you can tell if the artist was inspired by a real life object or from a photograph.

    And, just as an example of the differences in our writing strategies, your line, "I also don't think that premise comes before story" is completely counterintuitive and unnatural to me. Even if we take a story type, one of the 7 plots or whatever--I don't know them all--if we trace this plot back to the first person to have "invented it" I'd assume that they started with premise. I'm not saying I'm right and you're wrong, but I think both possibilities are equally possible.

  14. So you're saying that driving the pin into the top of the mountain isn't symbolic of mankind's systematic rape of the environment with horrible consequences, and the White Army are the cockroaches who will inherit the Earth?

    What I'm saying is that you've written one thing, but I'm reading another. The story's in my head, not yours. The story's whatever I want it to be, because I'm the reader.

    I claim the themes I see in your story do exist, you just don't see them. Heck, words are a group of letters symbolic of some concept, so why can't I take your groups of words and see what I see with them? Everything is symbolism. Everything. Therefore I can interpret the symbolism any way I want to. Therefore what the "story" is depends on the interpretation of the symbols.

    That said, the question you pose is "what is story?" and I say it's a symbolic representation of an event that makes the reader think. Something happened to someone, and here's my take on it, and I might have made the whole thing up, and I hope you like it. That's story.

    But I'm sure we'll disagree :)

  15. Davin: "a good reader can tell how the story was built"

    I'd like to see you prove that one! I don't think that even the best readers consider the writing process much at all.

    Andrew: So, if the story is in your head, and the meaning is all yours and not the writer's, then how is all of your premise-making and character-creation and setting-selection important and significant? If you write about Victorian gentlemen riding steam-powered airships and I say it's a story about domestic repression because the steam-powered everything is just symbolic of harnessing the yin-force of the Earth's waters or whatever, then have you written a story, or have I? I used to believe in this sort of pomo deconstructionism, but not any more. If you're right, then any random string of words on a page is as good as any other, leaving the reader to assemble some "story" on his own.

  16. It can't be proven. But, I feel right.

    But, as a reader myself, I will say I consider the process a lot. And, I know of many others who do to. We are writer-readers, but readers all the same.

  17. I've made the "too" versus "to" mistake twice in two days now.

  18. I've read all three posts and like many others have a huge headache, but no one thus far, except for Davin and Matthew today, has touched on the beginning, middle and end.

    "Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back."

    Premise, plot, prose, setting, characters aside, isn't a story all of that within the guidelines of beginning, middle, end? Or have I oversimplified? Or do I not know of what you are speaking altogether?

    Even with fantastic characters, an interesting premise which turns into a fabulous plot with a terrific setting makes no sense if it begins, climax's and dies. If there is no ending, then what would it be? Prose, poetry, narrative, nothing?

    "Boy meets girl." Premise/Characters= nothing

    "Boy loses girl." Plot= nothing

    "Boy wins girl back." Climax/ending + premise/characters + plot = story. No?

  19. Davin: As writers, we tend to privilege the knowledge of how things are written. We are writer/readers, but almost every reader is not. I think we will draw parallels between our own works and the works of others and theorize similarities in methods, even if those methods aren't the same at all in real life. I have no idea if Aesop had a list of moral precepts he intended to illustrate, or if he had a list of stories that resonated with him and morals were applied post-facto. It doesn't matter, is my point. It doesn't matter at all. The story is there. We have to deal with it, not with Aesop and our ideas of his methods. When I read "War and Peace" I had no idea (and still have no idea) how Tolstoy went about writing. I don't think that matters, and I don't think Tolstoy would claim it matters, either.

    But as you say, I feel like I'm right but can't prove it.

  20. I write a story that I understand in my way. I know what goes in the blanks and spaces between scenes etc.
    The reader makes up his own mind on what's said and not said. So his story perception is different than mine, no matter how hard I try or how detailed I make the story.
    So there really is nothing stopping a reader from seeing my steamships as symbolic of the migration of geese. I'm simply providing a guide for the reader to explore his own imagination and interpretation, and every word I write has an influence on this. I hope he sees it like I do but he has a completely different background and can't.

    So I don't know.

  21. Scott, I don't think that the average reader can specify what methods were used in the construction of a story, but I agree with Davin's bigger point -- that the way a story is written has a noticeable impact on the final product.

    You may not know, "This guy is an outliner," but you may know, "This guy is way too into linear details." You may not say to yourself, "This lady is one of the idea-first school of authors," byt may say, "This lady's stories have a certain something in common with these others I like."

    I'm not sure how you write could possibly not impact the structure, flow, style, and takeaways. Different authors' stories are different, and that's not just because the ideas and characters are different; it's because how they write is different.

    That must surely include things like whether you start with an idea, shun an idea altogether, or let an idea develop out of the story, and other elements that we've been talking about here this week.

  22. Scott, it doesn't look like my post yesterday killed any discussion for today. Yay! I have no brain left for today due to some personal crises thanks to the stupid government and my husband's school. I am currently residing under a rock wondering if I really can start up my career as the infamous Ivana Fox who writes sultry, steamy romances.

    Excuse my lack of commenting about story and all that deep stuff.

  23. Nevets: I might believe that if I didn't know that Davin revised "Rooster" 50 times. How the first draft was written might be different, but I think the target is the same for most of us. I don't think that outlined first drafts necessarily result in a different kind of story than first drafts that are written freely and intuitively. I really don't. "Linear details" can be added (or cut) at any stage. An overarching idea can be added or removed in revisions. I think we writers are so wrapped up in the process and the needs of our own stories that we can't step away and see a novel as someone who isn't a writer. Yes, me too. But I am trying to. The experience of the reader is more important than the experience of the writer. A story will, hopefully, have a lot of readers but only the one writer. Most readers will no nothing about the writer. We can attempt the sort of analysis you and Davin discuss, but I'm certain that for most readers (yes, now I mean even we who are writers), that sort of analysis doesn't take place when we're reading an engaging story.

  24. Michelle: You go deal with your UVU issues. That's actually important, while this discussion about story isn't part of the real world. Don't forget to breathe.

  25. There are some things in that first draft that can't be wiped away. Even when Jaroen was a time traveller, I had pieces there that have stayed into draft 50. I know this because I wanted to remove them, but I couldn't, not without totally throwing away everything before it. I actually think this is why Rooster was so hard for me. I started it six years ago, when I was a much weaker writer, and it took all these years to try to make those beginner writer elements work. It's that first draft that still weighs it down.

  26. Davin: I totally understand that. My first novel, which sits buried in a drawer as a first draft, would have to be completely rewritten--not just revised--in order for it to be a well-formed story. But I think now we're talking about experience and knowledge of craft rather than process, aren't we?

    My WIP "Cocke & Bull" is going to be a very different novel from "Horatio," but that's because I'm a better writer, not because of any difference is process. I've learned lessons about storytelling and am trying different ideas about what you can do in a narrative, but my way of working, of getting the words onto the page, are the same. It's the same way I wrote the second half of my first (bad) novel.

    I'm also going to loop back and (predictably at this stage) disagree with you about the first writers. I don't think at all that they began with a "what if" premise. I think they witnessed something and thought it worth remembering and telling to others, who told it to still others with embellishments and changes to give it more meaning to themselves and the new audiences. I think real stories are grounded in truth, in real life, no matter how we dress them up. We can write entertainments that have nothing to do with real life, but I hesitate to call those stories and I doubt any of them have cultural staying power.

  27. I'm sorry Scott, but I have to call you on that last part. Obviously the first writers couldn't have seen something and decided to relate it to someone else. Otherwise we'd be surrounded by dragons, elves, ghosts, and vampires (to name a few). So way back (however far you want to go), a human mind came up with a supposition, expanded on it, and the first fictional story was created. Someone HAD to start with a "what-if" premise in order to begin, since there wasn't anything "real" for them to observe. The stories you are referring to would be more akin to non-fictional retelling of an occurrence, as opposed to a "story".

  28. Your last point sounds very valid.

    As for the knowledge versus process idea, for me, I'll say that, while knowledge has much to do with it, I can't escape the process. I don't think this is necessarily the best example because you make good use of your outline and don't get locked into it, but if you wrote Cocke & Bull without the outline, starting instead with different ramblings and scenes the way I have started Bread, I think you would have a different finished version of your book than you will now. Little discoveries you make along the rambling way will reveal different things about the story that you might not find the outlining way. Just like I will not see things that I might see if I were to outline first.

  29. I would argue, Scott, that what makes something memorable enough for folks to retell is more idea than it is event.

    It's not, "Jacob stuck his head in a watermelon." It's, "It was funny when Jacob stuck his head in a watermelon," and maybe even, "It was funny when Jacbo stuck his head in a watermelon because his head already looks like one." That's what sticks and makes it worth telling.

  30. Regarding "Scott's last part", I think that the earliest story writers were probably writing non-fiction. I think that's okay, and they can still be stories--my view of stories anyway. But, there's also an interpretation step in there, right? There's a shaping that must take place. If something unexplainable happened, humans somehow tried to make sense of it. I think stories are a reflection of real life, but they are a synthesized reflection, which to me means that there can be a different synthesis and a different story.

    Anyway, not to stop this discussion, because it is still interesting to me, but I want to say thank you to everyone who has been willing to jump in to this over the last few days. It might all be a waste of time, I honestly don't know. But, I do feel like it's valuable, even if the value doesn't hit us until much later.

  31. Eric: You're right, but you're also wrong. Likely the first stories really really came by answering questions: "why does it get dark?" "what is lightning?" and some creative folks started making stuff up to answer those questions, and suddenly we have myths. I think "what is that bright disk in the sky?" came before "what if the sun were a god riding a chariot across the sky?"

    Davin: Maybe. The thing is, my "outlining" includes a whole lot of "making it up as I go along." Almost every word of the story is improvised; I just improvise in a certain direction and I constantly surprise myself. I know how the story ends and have some ideas about how things got that way. Remember this post? That's still my outline. I never really got much past the list of chapter titles stage. Before I write a chapter or a scene, if I'm stuck, I'll make some notes--maybe even a few pages of notes--but I've got very little knowledge of any story specifics or details until I'm sitting there with pen in hand, trying to imagine the next scene.

    And yes, your narrative is what it is because of how you write on a day-to-day basis. But only to a point. Do you not also have an awareness of storytelling that exists even when you're not sitting at your computer? A sense that "this works, but this doesn't" that you can tap into when you're thinking about your novel in an abstract way, or when you're thinking about someone else's story? Is the way you think about other people's stories controlled by how you write without outlining? I am saying that this knowledge is what you write out of and it has more influence on you than process. Same with me.

  32. Nevets: Maybe the meaning of the event more than the idea of the event, if that's even a different thing?

  33. Scott: you are correct except that it isn't the question asked that provides the story. It's the answer. So asking why it got dark doesn't create the story. It is how the first person (who was asked that question) answered the story that created the first fictional account (assuming that our first people weren't omniscient, heh heh).

  34. I'm okay with the thought that knowledge has more influence and process, but process is still in there somewhere. I don't think it can be totally replaced from the start of a project to the finished product unless you really go back to zero and start with new everything.

  35. Eric: But the story would both ask and answer the question, yes? Which is what, I think, Anne said this morning. And I think someone said that yesterday. I think. Headache now.

    I also think there's a real and important difference between asking "how did X come to be?" and "what would happen if X were true?" Certainly the latter can be used to answer the former. And vice versa. So huh. Gets us nowhere.

    I don't mean to seem argumentative here these last couple of days. But I do find myself disagreeing strongly of late with a lot of common statements about storytelling. I'd like to believe that I feel this way because of a growing awareness of something real rather than a growing senility or middle-aged grumpiness.

  36. Oh boy. Are you sure you want to read/sample my sparkly-ish non-vampire drivel story or possibly not story?

  37. Davin: Yes, but the thing is, the narrative you produce isn't the same thing as the story. That's my point. Michelle threw away most of "Monarch" and rewrote it from scratch. She was still trying to tell the same story. The success or failure of her narrative is not the same thing as how well-formed her story is. The reception of the novel will be determined by both, of course. But Michelle hasn't changed the story; she's changed the way she presented it.

  38. Lois: Oh, me oh my. I'm not trying to discuss anything like values here. Somewhere in "Twilight," I assume, there's a real story that resonates with real people or it wouldn't be so successful. I don't think people are really caught up in the vampire trappings or the glories of Forks, WA. That's just frosting. I'm reading the Paddington Bear books, you know. I never read them as a child and they're really funny and true about humanity. It's not all Hemingway and Ovid at my house. I'm trying to be as precise in my language here as I can be, and I think that's contributing to the way I currently sound like an asshat. But really, I'm a harmless old man who has lately been sitting up and saying, "You know what? I think we're wrong when we talk about what a story is and we should think about that." I'm afraid people are construing my comments as "You don't know how to write and your stories must really suck." For some people that's likely true, but probably not for the fine folks who read this blog. I am also trying to find out if I know what I think I know, or if I'm simply unaware of my own foolishness. Hard to say. But I do wish I'd shut the hell up.

  39. Mr. Bailey, you've said it yourself, you're reading the Paddington Bear've been discussing story as an adult. I think you need to take a break and read more children's lit. to find the answer to your questions. Sometimes even the simplest things can explain the biggest issues.

  40. Scott, I'll say that your last comment befuddled me. Not as a criticism to you, but more to say that I'm getting lost. Somehow, though, I feel like the key word in what you said about Michelle's book is "trying." She was trying to keep the story the same. I'm able to tell my Rooster story in another locale other than the poverty-stricken southern Thailand fishing town that it is in. Instead of the elaborate cremation ceremony, I could have a standard American funeral. But, I did not have the story before I set it in Thailand. My story emerged because I put it in Thailand. In my view of the world, my character changed because of how he started and who he was. Now that I have the story, I can transplant it, but I did not have the story when I started writing. And, I would argue that if I started in a different place, I would have written a different story. If my character ran away from home and ended up in a hippie camp, he might have been surrounded by people who forced him to talk about his feelings. The conflict with his brother might have ended and the story could have been about him starting a shirt-dying business. And, I'm being totally serious that I am THAT clueless about where the story will end when I start to write it, at least with that story. Bread is a different matter. That story, beginning, middle and end was set before I started writing. Then, I ended up picking a location, and really any location would do. But with Rooster, I did not have a beginning, middle, and end, and the setting informed that. It was like a chain reaction of events all from that starting point, with no thought on my part about whether or not it was satisfying. The same thing with my story "Red Man, Blue Man," which I remember you liking. That story--I now believe there is one, formed as this same chain reaction, beginning to end.

  41. Scott: First off, don't be so hard on yourself. I seriously doubt anyone here is taking this personally, and if they are, they need to get a clue.

    Second, I still disagree that the question asked matters. Only the answer matters. You can have a story that consists of answering something all by itself, and it will still be a story. You cannot however, have just a question.

    For example, my 11 year old was recently telling me the story of his hand-drawn artwork. He explained that this supervillain was plaguing a town, and the people had magic defenses to keep him at bay. There's of course more to it, but the point is that he didn't ask the question and then answer it with a story. He just told the story. Now you might argue that the question is inherent, but I disagree. I don't think we have to ask the question "what if" or "why" in order to create a story. We can just create something that isn't necessarily intended to ask ANY questions. It's just a story. You might see questions (and answers) in the story, but that doesn't mean the story came out of asking those questions.

  42. Davin: Here's the real thing, I think. When you were working on "Rooster," no matter what your process, you were trying to come up with something that you thought was a story, right? Never mind how you got there; you kept working at finding a story until you found one, yes?

    How did you know when you had? How did you tell the difference between "not story" and "story" and was it simply a matter of having Nui steal a neighbor's grapefruit as opposed to stealing a neighbor's apple?

    And, once you got there, process aside, how is that story fundamentally different than any other story? How does it operate differently? Have you invented a new form of causation? Have you invented a new form of narrative? Or have you sculpted your narrative into a shape you recognize as a story? I argue that you have done this latter thing, and that there is a shape you may not be able to describe but you know it when you see it and you miss it when it's not there and that this shape, which maybe is invisible, is what a story is and it is a separate thing from setting. Finding the setting allowed you to find the shape, the story. Distinguish between "Rooster" and "a story."

    "Rooster" is an instance of Story.

    "Hamlet" is an instance of Story.

    Not all Story == "Rooster".

    Not all Story == "Hamlet".

    Define Story for all instance of Story. I think it's possible, and not in a "too vague to be meaningful" way.

    Or, don't. Go have lunch instead; it'll be better for you.

  43. Or, you know, it's just that really there are a bunch of different fundamental types of stories and a bunch of fundamentally different ways of understanding stories and I'm just now figuring out that I have a certain individual way of undertanding stories and I mistake that individual understanding for a universal. It's happened before when I've generalized from my own experience. Say, is it lunch time already? Gotta go!

  44. I had lunch!

    Scott, I think with your last comments we are on the same page. I don't think this entire discussion has been a difference in semantics, but I think it is now. Or at least different levels of generalization.

  45. Davin: Alas, we're not really on the same page. there are a bunch of different fundamental types of stories and a bunch of fundamentally different ways of understanding stories and I'm just now figuring out that I have a certain individual way of undertanding stories and I mistake that individual understanding for a universal is a possibility, yes. I don't believe it, though. But I've had lunch, and now I'm going to focus on my day job.

  46. Perhaps we should have this conversation again in ten years so that we can realize that both of us are wrong.

  47. Weighing in here to agree with those who feel that story is a combination of things. These are the things I think make up Story (with a capital S):


    (This is what I teach my elementary writing students.)

    I think that in the case of Story,
    the whole is greater that the sum of its parts. There is a magic that exists between the elements that, when combined correctly, create something intangible.

    As a Storyteller (and I am speaking here not as a writer, but as an actual professional oral storyteller), I tell the whole Story, not just the plot, the character, the setting...everything.

    So, that's what I think.

    Wish I could come by more often...but, alas, the day job...


  48. I wish I hadn't been working at work today and could've jumped in sooner.

    I wonder if "Story" could be the "meaning of life/ah ha!" moment that you take away from it. I don't mean theme or moral here. I just mean, when you read something really great, and it makes you stop reading and look up and think, "Holy crap."

    For example, after I've read an amazing book and am telling someone about it, I'll explain what the plot is, but what I really want to get across is, I guess, the "feeling" the book gave me. I don't know. Somehow I want to point out all the "life realizations" the book made me realize either again or for the first time.

    Oh, and I feel like I'm a pretty good reader who is also skilled as taking my writing brain out of the reading, but there is no way I could ever guess how a writer wrote a novel. In fact, I've read lots of books about novelists who talk about their stories, and I'm usually shocked when I hear how the story began.

    Anyway, I'm gonna gather up some of my writing books to see if they explain story. I'll report back later.

  49. Scott. Chill. I was just teasing. I'm sure you'll be glad when this discussion is over, eh? We still love you. I'll send my little sort of story in the next couple of days. No worries.


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