What Is a Story?

When trying to define something, one is categorizing it, taking a set of elements which are present in one or more things and grouping them with a label. So in order to define what a story is, I must uncover the set of elements which are present in all stories, from the daily stories we tell ourselves and others to professional stories.

Like songs, stories are easier to recognize than to define. They are such a common part of our lives that we have learned to identify them without being consciously aware of how this identification happens.

My task today is to begin to make conscious that which is unconscious, to become aware of how I recognize story by investigating its requisite elements.

To start, I will utilize the same divergent thinking technique I did when trying to uncover the “why?” behind story. I’m going to do this a little differently. Instead of trying to list all the elements I see in story and then going into each one to see if it is essential or not, I will try and list all the questions I might ask about a story if I knew I was about to experience one, and I will do so by asking basic questions: who, what, where, why, when, and how?

What are some questions I ask about story?

  • Is it a happy story or sad story?
  • Is it good?
  • Is it entertaining?
  • Is it boring?
  • Is it worth it?
  • Is it funny?
  • Is it tragic?
  • Is it long?
  • Who is it about?
  • Who is in it?
  • Who is telling it?
  • Who wrote it?
  • Who is the main character?
  • Who is the villain?
  • What is it about?
  • What happens?
  • What kind of story is it?
  • Where does it take place?
  • Why is it being told?
  • When does it take place?
  • When was it written?
  • How is it told?
  • How does it end?

Why did I start with these questions? Because I don’t need to understand the definition of story to know what I might ask about a story, any story, before I experience it. These questions arise from my unconscious definition of story; they reveal the elements that my mind expects to be present in any story. Whether these expectations are founded or not is yet to be investigated.

Looking at this list, I can group these questions into elements which pertain to them:

  • Duration
  • Emotion
  • Purpose
  • Topic
  • Character
  • Storyteller
  • Composer
  • Audience
  • Event
  • Setting
  • Context
  • Structure
  • Unity

Now I will take this list of elements and construct several general statements about stories to see if any strike me as questionable:

  • Every story has duration, there is an element of time.
  • Every story evokes emotion.
  • Every story has a topic.
  • Every story has a purpose.
  • Every story has a character.
  • Every story has a storyteller.
  • Every story has a writer/composer.
  • Every story has an audience.
  • Every story has event.
  • Every story has a setting.
  • Every story has context.
  • Every story has structure.
  • Every story has unity.

Let’s start with the statements that do not strike me as questionable (I might revise this list in the future):

  • Every story has a storyteller: A story cannot be communicated without a presenter or multiple presenters.
  • Every story has an audience: A story must have an audience. That audience can be the storyteller or others, but there must be someone to experience the story.
  • Every story has a writer/composer: The storyteller is not necessarily the composer of the story, and a story must have a composer or multiple composers to exist.
  • Every story has structure: I mean structure as the arrangement in which a story is presented. In order for a story to exist, it must be put together in some way, whether that structure is chronological or based on some other relationship between ideas.
  • Every story has unity: In order for a story to make sense as a whole, it must have unity of some kind. I’m not sure what this unity is, but without it, reading one sentence after another from different books, or hearing soundbites from different stories in sequence, would qualify as a story, and this cannot be true except in cases where it was intentionally composed to make sense — and then it would have unity! I have a feeling unity is connected to structure, topic, and purpose.

So which statements seem questionable to me?

  • Every story has duration: The reason I kept this off the previous list is because I thought about paintings, sculptures, and photographs. Are not these forms of storytelling as well? Maybe I am wrong to be so inclusive — and perhaps even in still images, there is an element of duration — but for now, this requires investigation.
  • Every story evokes emotion: This seems like it should be true; do I not feel something when experiencing any given story? but there is a nagging doubt in my mind that I must investigate.
  • Every story has a topic: this also seems true and may be the essential element behind the unity of story, but is it possible to have a story about nothing?
  • Every story has a purpose: Thinking back to my investigation into the “why?” behind story, I feel strongly that every story must have a purpose, because without a purpose, even if that purpose is simply to express oneself, then why tell a story at all?
  • Every story has a character: I was going to include this in the obvious list, grouping storyteller and composer under this more general element, but I want to investigate to see if this grouping is founded, and if not, if a story can be told with no characters at all.
  • Every story has event: This seems true to me, because if a story has duration, then something happens during that time, and that something is event. Also, without something happening, what is there to tell a story about?
  • Every story has a setting: Can a story take place nowhere? If a story takes place only in thought, does the mind become the setting? I will have to investigate this.

So far I can observe that every story has a storyteller, a composer, an audience, unity, and structure. That might not seem like a lot, but when one starts from the beginning, getting this far is an accomplishment. Keep in mind, these findings are subject to change as I continue my investigation.

You might be wondering, “What practical use does all this investigation have for me?” There is a real danger in taking what other people say as truth, of blindly accepting the definitions of others, especially when it comes to art. I believe a thorough understanding of what a story is and why we tell stories is the most important understanding a storyteller can achieve. Without an understanding of what a story is, how can one begin to create one? Without this understanding, one is simply going through the motions, putting into practice the techniques of others, without knowing why one is doing it. We all know how to tell a story, but we don’t all know how to craft quality stories that do what we want them to do. This is the practical use of these investigations.

The next step is to go into the questionable statements about story, one at a time, and try to determine which are essential elements and which can be left out. This will be the more interesting part of this investigation, so I hope you check back for my next entry on this topic when I will do just that.

As always, if you have something to add or want to leave a comment, please use the form below or post it on my Facebook page.

Thank you for reading, and keep writing.






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