Story > noun.
- An account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.
- A plot or storyline: the novel has a good story.
- A report of an item of news in a newspaper, magazine, or news broadcast: stories in the local paper.
- A piece of gossip; a rumour: there have been lots of stories going around, as you can imagine.
- A false statement or explanation; a lie: Ellie never told stories – she had always believed in the truth.
- An account of past events in someone’s life or in the evolution of something: the story of modern farming.
The above definition of story is taken from the Oxford English Dictionary. Story is at the heart of all good writing.
A newspaper article conveys the story of what’s happened. Journalists are trained to use the Five W’s when writing their copy:
- Who did that?
- What happened?
- Where did it take place?
- When did it take place?
- Why did that happen?
These questions are used by both the press and police to gather basic information. Journalists then relay the answers on to readers, or radio and television audiences. Asking questions of your work is a great place to start for an author as well.
- Who is your protagonist?
- What happens to them?
- Where is it set?
- When did it happen?
- Why did it happen?
Story is about what happens, and yet all too often new writers make the mistake of having nothing happen in their books.
Many of us who want to write, are drawn by a love of reading. An adoration of beautifully constructed sentences which ring like tiny glittering bells as we read. At school we’re taught to dissect texts: breaking them down into: characters, themes, ideas. We use single sentences or paragraphs to support our arguments. The practice of turning quotes into memes to share across social media, shows the power we still give single sentences. To words that speak to us. To words that encapsulate and express the way we feel. We associate with them. We fetishize them. Which is great, but it has nothing to do with story.
Think back through your life to all those people who’ve told you stories. The people that come first to my mind are not those reading from a book, but the expressive engaging faces of those enthused by what they’re saying. Often, but not always, these people are in a pub or a bar, retelling something that happened to them, or to someone else. My dad making me and my brother laugh as he talks of the time I fell in the sea. A work colleague whose life seemed full of adventures. Raconteurs spinning a good old yarn, celebrity gossip, and tall tales. The tellers have me, and everyone else’s attention. We want to know what happened.
Recently I attended a Hen Do, where not everyone had met before. On the first morning we told stories about ourselves and our lives. The theme happened to be unfortunate body functions and various toilet ‘incidents’, but the subject was unimportant. We took it in turns to relay our anecdotes, some heart-wrenching, some making us cry with laughter. The ice was broken. We’d bonded.
Telling stories is part of our culture. Whether it’s relaying real life events, or imaginary ones, we do it to amuse. We hook our audience in with a set up, we keep them hanging on to find out more, and we give them a conclusion that elicits an emotional response. We entertain.
Something must happen in your book. Your protagonist, your character, must face some kind of test, whether literal, or figurative. They may rise to the challenge, or they may fail. And at the end of the story they should be changed by the events that took place.
Go back to the authors you love, and see that it’s not just witty one liners and pretty prose that makes them a writer, see the story they told. Don’t think of yourself as an artist, and obsess over your sparkling sentences, think of yourself as the woman in the bar who has the whole room waiting on her next word. You’re not a writer, you’re a storyteller.
(But don’t tell anyone: storyteller may be a more accurate description of what we do, but it does make you sound like a wanker.)
Catch up on How Do Writers…Come Up With Ideas? here. And check back for the next How Do Writers.. instalment.