A story is a distinct form of literature, different from a memoir, or an essay, or a descriptive piece. Essentially, a story is someone, somewhere, doing something. Without those three elements, it might be a wonderful piece of writing, but it isn’t a story.
“Someone” refers to the character or characters: the ones the story is about. The characters might not be human – several of the stories in the Fledglings anthology have a dog as their character. One even has a tree, which might seem odd but works very well. Conceivably, a clever writer might even use a rock as a character, although there might be a bit of a challenge when it comes to the “doing” part.
The thing is, whether the characters are human, animal, plant or mineral, this is their story. Ask yourself, why would anyone want to read this character’s story? Why do we ever want to hear someone else’s story? Unless we are doing so in a professional capacity, it is always because we like the person, find him interesting, or relate to what she is sharing. The more strongly those things apply, and the more of them apply, the more we are going to want to keep listening.
So, if we want readers who are keen to “hear” our character’s story – and to keep reading, and coming back for more – then we need to build these things into our characters. We need characters our readers will fall in love with (or maybe even love to hate); they need to be fascinating and relevant. In a future post I will talk more about building strong characters.
“Somewhere” is the setting. Where is the story happening? Is it set on a bleak Scottish moor? Let your reader feel the chill of the wind wrapping around him, and the squelch of the bog under his feet. Or let her smell the heather and exult in the freedom of the empty space. How about a tropical island? You might want the warmth of the sun to lovingly caress your reader’s skin, or you might want the oppressive heat and humidity to weigh him down and leave him drenched in sweat and exhausted.
How you use setting will not only enrich your writing, it will also call forth an emotional response from your reader that will see her becoming more immersed in the story.
Then there’s “doing something”: the plot. This is the tricky part. Fred sitting by the window watching the grass grow is “someone, somewhere, doing something”, but it is hardly a story. For a story, the “doing” must involve movement: the character must be going somewhere. It could be literal, physical movement, a journey from one place to another; or it could be metaphorical movement, a journey from one emotional place to another, or one idea to another, but whatever kind of movement there is, the character must move.
But just going from “point A” to “point B” is not enough. For an effective plot, there needs to be some hurdles along the way, some obstacles Fred has to overcome in order to reach his destination. There has to be conflict. In a flash fiction piece, there might be only one point of conflict; in a full-length novel, there will be many. Without conflict, no matter how interesting and empathetic “Fred” is, your reader will probably not engage with him. It is as he struggles, overcomes, struggles again and overcomes again, that your reader will be drawn in to want to stay with him till the end of the journey.