The Heart of It All

Someone has started a thread on Forward Motion about what exactly story is. As I said before, I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking lately about my writing philosophy, and a lot of it centers on the absolute importance of story. But I hadn’t yet gone the further step and asked myself what story was.

This is what I came up with for my post. A bit rambling, but not nearly as bad as I expected.

Story is not plot. I’ve read plenty of fascinating books where, if you ask me to summarize what happened, I’d come up with something that doesn’t sound like it would support a short story, let alone a novel. Nevertheless, I find them wonderful stories. So story is something separate from a series of events that you could put into a sequential outline.

Story is not theme, either, or at least not to me. Theme is what the story says. Theme without story is preaching. Story without theme is basically cotton candy — briefly yummy, but in no way filling or nutritious, and I tend to get sick of it in fairly short order.

Some of my earlier musings had me thinking about entertainment, and how some people tend to look down on it. I’ve seen countless movie critics bash films for being “merely entertaining.” What, pray tell, is wrong with that? I can’t live on a diet of cotton candy alone, sure, but sometimes I really just do want something fun. Not everything has to be deep and meaningful, and I’ve enjoyed plenty of movies that did nothing more than take me on a ride for an hour or two.

But that got me thinking about the problems with the word “entertain” — for one thing, it seems wrong to say you were entertained by a tragedy. A friend of mine sometimes refers to the effect stories (good stories) have as “enchantment,” and since I’m a fantasy writer, I like that word.

So maybe that’s my definition of stories. Enchantment. A story, to me, is something that takes me on a ride. It takes me off the couch or out of the chair or the movie theatre or wherever and brings me to where it resides. For a few minutes or a few hours, it enchants me into living the lives of the characters, seeing their world, being there with them. Plot-driven movies or books that lack sufficient story fail to do this; they just present me with unengaging spectacle. Preaching beats me over the head with the theme club without bothering to take me anywhere. Lightweight pieces of entertaining fluff take me on the ride, but leave me feeling unsatisfied at the end. Good stories take me there, introduce me to the people, show me something worth seeing, and then bid me farewell at the end.

Structure, prose, metaphor, symbolism — all of these things are tools to make the ride smoother, more realistic. Theme turns what might be a sight-seeing trip into a journey. Good characters are, for me, integral to good story, because it’s a rare story that can enchant me when I don’t care about the people involved. But story isn’t synonymous with any of these things. It’s the vehicle they ride in.