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.