What makes a story… a story?

I’ve spent a great deal of time wondering about the difference between “a story” and, “a sequence of events that happen to a character.” Those might appear to be synonyms, but they are not. A story — a good one, anyway — is more than just a slice of someone’s life. It does more for the reader: it comes together, it builds, it is ultimately satisfying. Each step in the story matters, and only together, do they create the outcome. A story is made up of a series of events, but not all series of events rise to the level of a story. I have a growing sense of this, and yet, I have a terribly hard time understanding how to separate the two. I often stare at my freshly-scribbled chapters unsure if I’ve just built onto my story… or if I’ve merely extended some lifeless “sequence of events.”

Context

A lot of my writing (more so earlier, I like to think) suffers from what you might call, “outline steering.” I’m sure there is an actual industry term for this, but I don’t know it. What I mean is: my characters undergo a specific journey because the plot demands it, even if the character does not.

This is mainly a consequence of being an inexperienced writer. My intuition for how much a character can and will change through certain events is not perfect, so I often expect to be ready for these scenes, only to find I’m not (or rather, the character is not).

The solution I’ve found is to let my characters take more of a driver’s seat. Trust their nature. If I reach a fork in the road that doesn’t make sense for them (and isn’t a small matter of revision in the chapters leading up), I’ll go with the character and shift the outline.

This is how I first came across the problem of defining a story. Without my outline in charge, I was doing more pantsing, inventing scenes and events to move things forward… and more and more I would find that the result seemed to be missing something. Did this scene really need to happen that way? Is this just a scene for the sake of the next scene, or does this advance the story?

So what makes a story… a story?

In case you are hoping for an answer at the end of this, I’m afraid there isn’t one coming. I don’t know what makes a story, and this post is more of a rant than a guide. In any case, I do have some ideas and I’ve spotted some patterns, but there is still a mystery to all this. Here are the things I can offer:

Change

Each chapter should act on the character in such a way that something has changed. In other words, you can step back and say, “I needed this chapter because it changed X,” where X is either the stakes or the character. One of those two needs movement.

Maybe new information has made the situation more dire; thus, we have greater stakes. Maybe a romance took a step forward; thus, a character has moved along their arc. Such changes can be small, forward, or backward, but they must be enough to leave the character in a different state than they began.

Moving a character from one town to another doesn’t do this, unless (for example) they learn something along the way. Solving one problem only to face another doesn’t do this, unless (for example) the stakes have also changed.

When you start comparing your character’s state of mind on the first page of your chapter to the last page of your chapter, it should become clear if something actually happened within them, as opposed to merely happening to them. I’ve found this a very useful guide.

I think the dichotomy between a story and a mere sequence of events comes down to that. If every chapter causes a change, building on the previous change, you end up with a sequence you can’t really break or substitute. You end up with a sequence that is also telling the story of a character’s changes. This helps to create the ending that ties it all together, instead of just adding words or scenes that didn’t carry their weight.

The Ending

Endings are an important aspect in this as well. A story has a climax and a conclusion, and those two need to reward the reader (in one way or another) for the effort they’ve dedicated to reading. Without something to tie together what came before, you may well find your exciting and action-packed chapters fizzle into nothing when considered as a whole.

I’ve identified three items that have a place in almost all good endings, each for intuitive reasons. I speak in absolute terms below for simplicity, but obviously, exceptions to each point readily exist.

Inevitability

The plot needs to reach a point of no return, one that forces the ramp up into the climax and the inevitable fallout after.

This makes sense. You don’t want your characters to be able to walk away. If they can, why don’t they? Something about their nature, or about the situation, ought to lock them on their course. You are telling a story about something, after all, and as you approach that key essence, you want the tension to escalate and the stakes to escalate in order to do it justice. How can you do that if the entire sequence was optional to the invested characters?

This ties back to the idea of every chapter making some change. The changes are working towards a goal, and after a while, there is no turning back from slamming into that goal for better or worse. If you haven’t reached that sense of “no return,” then maybe your chapters aren’t changing enough or else they aren’t converging.  Which leads to…..

Convergence

At some point, your character arcs need to align with the plot arc to converge on a common cause (or on various sides of that common cause). This is the essence of the climax, the “it all comes down to this” moment. More than that, all this work to build your characters was in order to deliver a payoff scene at the end where they succeed (or fail), learn (or don’t) and ultimately face those consequences at the end of their arc. If nothing in the character’s personal journey relates to the overall motion of the story, then instead of complimenting each other, the two arcs miss.

What, then, was the point of all that building? How does your climax pay the reader for the struggles the character has faced? How can you possibly tie things together and justify their common inclusion in your story if they don’t mesh in any way? Without some sense of payoff for these subplots, the ending won’t be very satisfying. Which leads to…..

Satisfaction

Just as a story needs to start at the right place and make the right stops along the way, it has to end at the right place as well. When it does, the result is satisfying. A story leaves you with something, and every part of the story contributed to that resonance. What makes an ending satisfying? This is a broad topic on its own, and one I don’t claim any qualifications to answer in a satisfying way (see what I did there?).

For starters, you need to address the promises you laid out in the book. Close your arcs, address your themes, and resolve your conflicts (as appropriate). I suspect the really satisfying endings feel that way BECAUSE of the above attributes. Chapters moved the characters, the climax was part of an inevitable spiral, and the arcs converged for payoffs after the climax. If each chapter was an indispensable part of the journey of changes that brought about the ending, I expect it will hit with a lot more punch.

Final thoughts

If only there was a simple formula to create compelling stories, but alas, there is not. This is a topic that continues to fascinate me as I experiment with situations, twists, and complexities, only to find out after the fact what worked and what did not. In any case, the above bullets are quite helpful to keep in mind while plotting and have helped me spot opportunities for convergence and moments of change. It remains to be seen if the end results of this effort will reach the lofty goal of “satisfying” but we’ll see. In the meantime, I intend to just keep swimming.