When is a story a STORY, anyway?
This takes me to a theory I’ve been wrestling with for a while now. The idea of trust that the audience has for the writer. Is it possible the writer submitting this question is facing rejection because he is “unknown”? Were he an established writer familiar to the magazine, is it possible his lack of “story” would be accepted as cutting edge and unique, rather than lacking and wrong?
This is the never-ending question: what is a story? Or, as the questioner puts it: “When is a story a story?” And I think the questioner may, in fact, know the answer. Because he writes: “I wrote a short piece I really love. It's not exactly "a story.” I’m guessing that what the questioner wrote was something more like a prose poem—he says his piece had detail, movement, and emotion, which all fall within the definition of something poem-like told in the form of a piece of prose. But it doesn’t sound as though his piece has what George is calling “complication.” And it doesn’t sound as though his piece follows the kinds of conventions most of us know of as “story conventions.”
The short pieces George has posted (one by Lydia Davis and the other by Daniil Kharms) also are not stories, per se. And by per se I mean, that although they do “complicate” and even “resonate,” they do not provide the conventions of storytelling as we here in the West define it. So a person can call them whatever they want—stories, vignettes, flash fictions, poems, prose poems, etc. And there are journals who will publish them. Complication plus resonation: many people love these sorts of pieces.
I know I’ve talked about my own history of writing stories before, so please ignore this if you’ve heard it before. In the beginning of learning how to write, I wrote stories that were not stories. Instead, they were my emotions more or less being barfed up on the page. They sounded often like beefed-up journal entries. And many came pretty much directly from my own life. They ended in completely unsatisfactory ways because I did not yet know how to carve stories from real life or how to write a story at all. At a certain point, a friend of mine sent some of my work to a well-known author and asked him if he wouldn’t mind giving me some advice. He did this because my writing was good, but my stories were not. The well-known author very kindly sent me the following advice, not in these words, but hopefully you’ll get the point. He said: A story ends in a win, lose or draw.
After much, much, much work and thousands of words, I finally understood what he meant. You can’t just write description and emotion within some sort of movement (as the questioner says he did, and as all of my early stories did) and expect readers to walk away thinking, “now there’s a story.” You need a character (define as you wish) who goes through something (define as you wish) that escalates, and at the end of the story, that character either wins (can be thought of as “changes”), loses (does not “change”) or draws (they were given an opportunity to “change” and did not take it).
Sometimes when writing, thinking in this way (“win, lose, draw”) can be unhelpful. I find it most helpful to first write something, and then think about the story in story terms later. Do I have a character? Does the character go through something—not just internally but also externally? Does the story escalate to a boiling point? Does the character have to decide what action to take right then? Does the character win? Lose? Draw?
I know many people do not like to think of stories this way as it seems too conventional. But the vast majority of stories we all love have these conventions in place in some fashion—sometimes they are buried in such a way as to not be so obvious; others are very clearly following conventions.
The questioner asks: How much plot is needed? And the answer is: As much as necessary to make your story succeed. In other words, you set up your story in the beginning with some sort of question. Your story succeeds if the plot takes us down a road that lets us see how that question will be answered. Remember that we do want to see it. On the page. We don’t want inferences or cloudiness.
Will I have more to say later? Probably. But I’ll post this for now. Thanks for reading!
I teach a class in scriptwriting, and at the start of the semester I always quote the Italian title to an American movie. The Italian title was: Qualcosa é Cambiato*. It means simply "Something Has Changed," but it's more fun to say in Italian. Sounds sexier. But that, I tell my students, is the definition of every story: something changes. Things are one way at the start of the story, and they are another way at the end. The change can be subtle, purely psychological, but one way or another, things are not as they were before.
* The American movie was "As Good as it Gets," which is about as generic as you're going to get. As a title, "Qualcosa ´e Cambiato" also says next to nothing. Maybe the phrase has more resonance in Italian. But it provides a good definition of a story.
It’s time the world looks anew at this form. After all, it’s not flash story. It’s flash fiction. I believe any art is worthwhile if thought so by the artist/writer. Art is rarely appreciated by everyone. But that’s not what’s important. What’s vital is that it was created and sent into the world. We can only hope it will affect its readers, change them in some tiny way because they’ve read it.
This got me thinking of Forster’s quote:
The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.
I had a very similar experience to the questioner (only the response I received was needlessly caustic, stuffed with assertions and assumptions and, after I'd recovered my shock, I was able to regard it is a work of unwitting comedy.)
It's true, some people have very strong opinions about what makes a story a story.
I think very short pieces that do not seem to follow conventional story telling "rules" are hard to pull off. And yet the reason I tend to write them is because they come much more naturally to me than any other kind of writing. I have struggled openly with this question here in Story Club from the beginning and perhaps made myself an unlikable person because of it.
I do not use the word "struggle" lightly.
I am glad to see this question being addressed.
I think the answer George gives is very spot on. No matter how short the piece something in it has to move and it has to take the reader somewhere. Otherwise you are likely to be accused of things like "withholding information from the reader" and other anger-inducing, noxious moves.
I sometimes think short pieces have more in common with poetry than they do with longer prose pieces. The moves one tries to make when trying to write a poem, including the awareness of heightened imagery, can be useful in a shorter piece.
You can see it in Davis's story that George uses as an example. The arc of an argument that goes on between two people (I think) is boiled down to the essentials in a kind of list. It could potentially be boiled down even further, to just the nouns: "An outburst, a refusal, a silence, a silence, an attempt, a refusal, a cry, a weeping." Is that a story? Maybe, but the locations add an essential visual (imagistic) dimension and the reader's mind kicks in with its own resources of memory and experience. At least I think that's what happens to me when I read it.
In fact I think a lot of us could sit down and write a story about this story, just from what Davis gives us.
Davis focuses on the experience of the argument itself and not whether there is a resolution or not. Which a longer story would start demanding, I think.
Agree with George here.
If one's goal is to be published in mainstream venues, one will probably have to muck about with "conventional" notions of what a story is. Mold your work to fit expectations. If on the other hand, one writes from the heart, damn the torpedoes, there are no definitions.
I want writing to make unexpected connections, tweak my reality, startle me with brave syntax, make me read it twice, make me grow as a person and a writer.
Yes, that's what many of us want, the convergence of publishable, and from the heart.
I like that collection by Sam Shepard too, I like just about everything Shepard writes. I’m not sure I agree his stories don’t have a beginning, middle and end. Was it Frank O’Connor or Mary Latin who wrote that a short story is “an arrow in flight” ... not the picking up of the arrow or even the landing and the aftermath, the flight.
I want a story to help me see the world with more compassion, especially for those whom I may not have understood. For example, when reading The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese, I learned so much about lepers and came away with a new respect for them. Verghese made me see how being exiled from one’s family and country is more painful than their leprosy.
I don’t need bells and whistles. Simple metaphors will do. Sometimes it is the music of the language that captures my heart. From The Covenant of Water: “Dust motes twirl inside like acrobats in a spotlight, freed from gravity, a sightso beautiful, he feels a catch in his chest.” As for Sam Shepard, he writes like a jazz player. I read him to listen to how he plays with words. His riffs spin. I believe the voice of the narrator carries a story, not the plot.
I've always loved that Lydia Davis story because it seems to poke a little fun at the reader as though saying, you want plot in a story? I'll give you all the plot you want. All you have to do is add the characters and fill in some details.
This is a critical question and I'm so glad someone asked. I've been wrestling with this question myself. Sometimes, I go with the "wired for story" idea of Lisa Cron, the 7 steps from ordinary world through to new ordinary world, where the character changes through the arc of the story. But there are times when I rebel against this because I'm tired of reading stories that follow the same pattern all the time. Like a Hollywood movie, there's a "sameness" about them. And I don't want that "sameness." It reminds me of the automobile (I lived in the Detroit-Windsor Metro area for 40 years). Back in the 1950s and into the 1960s, automobiles were distinct. They had fins or they had a unique shape, a T-bird, a Lotus, a Chevy Bel Air, a Ford Maverick. Then the engineering world learned about aerodynamics and now, they're all the same shape. I thought we'd lost something, although we gained fuel efficiency, which isn't to be sneezed at. So it is with stories. If we follow the 7 steps in all our stories, what makes them unique? And I don't buy the answer that it's the "characters." That's one element. There are many more. So I've picked up Sam Shepard's stories (recommended in the question) to reread in search of some answers. Thanks.
So many different readers, and that's a good thing. When I begin a work of short fiction, I don't have any expectations...unless a friend gave me a brief "You gotta read this because..." A short story either moves me, or it doesn't. The characters can change, or as Mary G pointed out, refuse to change. Both can be interesting. The only thing that thrills me is a surprise of some kind, could be even the fact that the writer thought about such a specific thing and brought it to life to build a character, or written from a point of view that's brand new to me.
I have an optimistic answer and a pessimistic one. The optimistic answer is that the piece was missing something that, for *that* editor, would qualify it as a "story." No one editor has a monopoly on that definition. And I think it's encouraging that the advice included "Make it one"--though unfortunate that no criteria were included. :) But since the OP acknowledges that the piece is missing some slices, that's a good instinct with which to move forward on a rewrite. Best of luck on that!
The pessimistic answer is that Shepard's pieces got published because . . . he was Sam Shepard. :/
Can I read it?
Can I believe it?
Do I care?
Do I still care when I've finished?
If yes, it's a story, and likely a very good one. Poet Philip Larkin's criteria as judge of the 1977 Booker Prize. No diagnostics, just common sense.
Well, since it was my question, I can say, first: thanks! And second that it was really helpful, and I damn well agree with everything you said! I will revise (or not) according to your concise list.
This is a question that is ever-present for me. I’ve always loved Lydia Davis’ writing precisely because it seems to say « this too, is a story. »