So, when my friend first asked me this question, I was stumped. I mean, everyone knows what a story is, right? A bunch of events tied up together, sometimes in a specific order and sometimes not, to make sense? Or not, depending on how good of a writer the author is. But that is not all that there is to a story, is there? A story has characters, themes, plot devices and so much more. Is it that easy to dismiss a story as just a series of events written by a person?
Stories have existed since the dawn of time in various forms. From the drawings on cave walls made by prehistoric folk, to blockbuster films seen on the television today, stories are told in many different ways. My parents would tell me tales of myth to make me fall asleep (it never worked). Our history textbooks talk of times past and struggles faced by people — yet another form of storytelling.
So, there isn’t a singular answer. There are various aspects to storytelling. But in today’s world, a good story would be one with a realistic character(s) who overcomes seemingly impossible obstacles to reach a goal. This wasn’t always the definition though. As it is with many other things, the definition of a story has changed with the times. And that might be what keeps them as interesting as they are.
Lets see the converse, what is not a story?
Simply put, situations, ideas and even characters who do not have anything happen to them. We face situations like waking up (it is so hard) and going to school/college/work. While it is still a story, there is nothing there to hold the audience’s interest in it and that begs the question, is it worth telling a story that wouldn’t interest anyone? Probably not.
But throw in a terminal illness in the same story and it becomes more appealing to the audience. An illness in this situation, would be a conflict that the protagonist has to deal with.
Now that there is a conflict, we can look forward for a resolution, which in this case would be recovery. Or death if you’re not a fan of happy endings.
Foreshadowing is also a very popular element in stories. Things that may not seem like much in the beginning until you reach the end and find out their true significance. Or, reading the story again and realising that there were already certain elements that predicted the ending. Different instances of foreshadowing can be seen in many famous franchises. For instance, in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry destroys Tom Riddle’s diary. It isn’t until much later that we learn that the diary was the very first Horcrux that Harry destroyed. I don’t know about you, but I did not expect the diary to be a Horcrux, even after I learnt what Horcruxes are, because the diary happened a long time ago and I didn’t think it would still be relevant (but it was!).
Harry Potter is a story. It is a linear story. A linear story is a story that may contain temporal discontinuities like flashbacks, but is nevertheless conventionally told from the beginning to the end. This means that we see the events of the story unfold in the order they occur. It is the way stories usually go — one thing leads to another. Non-linear stories, however, do not follow the same pattern.
Non-linear stories do not tell the story in a straight timeline. Let us take the example of The Haunting of Bly Manor. The entire series is a story told by a woman; whose identity is revealed in the last episode. However, the story she tells does not appear to have a linear timeline. We switch from Dani being the au pair back to Rebecca, who in Dani’s timeline, is dead. We even have ghosts relive certain moments in their lives over and over again. There is no set order or sequence for how the timeline progresses.
So, here are two different ways of storytelling, both equally compelling, but having the possibility to flop as well. But what do they have in common? What is the definition of story we can gain from them?
Here is my take on it: A story is a journey.
Let us go back to Harry Potter again. In its essence, Harry Potter is a love story. Not in a romantic sense, but in a way where it means that love is the answer to your problems. Harry himself goes through a journey from being loved by no one to being loved by everyone. In the end, it is love that saves him multiple times. Everyone relates to Harry — from thinking they have nobody in this world to finally having somebody.
Most stories have this premise — a nobody becomes a somebody. Even in stories that do not have happy endings, they do have character growth and development. This also implies failures are not stories, which is not true. The characters which do not change throughout the story are called static characters. That does not mean the story is bad. In the Lion King, Scar is a static character. He remains exactly the way he is until the very end where he dies. No one can deny that the Lion King is a great story, right? And Scar was a major character.
And Scar was very interesting! No doubt about that. People hated him for what he did to Mufasa and Simba, but that is what his character was meant to make you feel. His purpose was achieved. He managed to make you hate him. He is one of the central conflicts of the story. He does not change at all. Yet, he is interesting.
How is it that you keep a story interesting?
I remember my mom telling me that when I was a child, I used to come back from school eager to tell her what happened during the day. While telling the story, I would set up everything carefully — the seating arrangements of the students, which class it was, what we were learning, etc. My mom would be eagerly anticipating what story I would say when I would say something like “-and then he asked me for my pencil and I gave it to him.” That’s it. I would just stop there. My entire story was that I’d given a pencil to someone. To this day, my mom keeps commenting that she would build it up in her head thinking something big was coming, only to be thrown off by what it actually was.
To me, back then, giving my pencil to someone was a big story. To my mom, who is years older than me, that was not a story at all. And if you asked me now, I would agree. That’s probably not a story worth sharing. But why did a kid find that more interesting than an adult? As a matter of fact, kids find a lot of things extremely interesting — things which adults consider normal. This is because of their lack of experience. What was a story to me was not a story to my mom because she had more than two decades of experience over me.
This gives another aspect of storytelling — experience. I can bet everyone has written stories as a kid. Go back. Look through those stories again and I can bet that you don’t think they are as good as you thought they were when you wrote them. Completely understandable.
Good storytellers have a great deal of life experience. This is why adults are better at telling stories than kids. You can try to teach kids the fundamentals of storytelling, but with the amount of life experience they’ve had, their storytelling skills would still fall short. Self-knowledge is the root of all storytelling.
So, here is my conclusion. A story is a journey the characters undertake to reach their destination. This destination may not be set in stone. After all, it is the journey that matters. Not the destination. However, this definition is not set in stone. You can define stories in any way you want, but this made the most sense to me.