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What’s the Story?

When, a few years ago, I started writing a book, friends would ask me what it was about. I’d say it was about a lot of things – a world where no one believes in anything, conspiracy theory, drugs, the lost dreams of the Sixties and Seventies – but that wasn’t what they wanted to hear. They wanted to know what the story was. In truth, there wasn’t much of one. I thought I could write a novel based on ideas rather than character and story.

I may have been extraordinarily naïve, but it took me a while to come round to realising how crucial story was to fiction, and by then I had completely re-written the book (ditching ten characters and planting a bomb at the end of the first chapter). Isn’t all this obvious? It should be, but a surprising number of otherwise well written novels, full of good ideas, by fellow writers, especially those with aspirations to the literary, fall down on this one crucial feature: the story is weak.

One feature of writers’ groups, courses and peer review sites is that they tend to criticise paragraph by paragraph, sometimes line by line. It’s easy to get feedback on shifting point-of-view, telling-not-showing, the flatness of your descriptions, clumsy constructions, redundant phrases, repetition, weak characterisation, repetition, awkward dialogue, unnecessary adverbs and forced similes. What we miss out on is the development of story over the course of the book.

Story, for me, is inseparable from character. The story is what happens to the protagonist, the obstacles and temptations put in the protagonist’s way; character is defined by how the protagonist deals with them. Character doesn’t exist without story, and story doesn’t exist without character. Crucially, all your characters want or need something – that’s what powers the story.

I’ve had arguments with other writers over character. Some believe you create characters in some sort of virtual Frankenstein lab, and you don’t let them out until all the body and brain parts are in place. Some seem to think if make them well enough they’ll whisper in you ear and tell you their tales.

I believe we only learn what characters are like when we witness them behave, when they have desires, when they have to make decisions, when they have to interact with other people. The colour of their eyes and hair are unimportant, we need to see how they function in the world, what they want, how they set out to achieve it, how they survive. The story is the structure of events that reveals all that.

These are some of the flaws I’ve seen in others’ stories. Most of them I’ve been guilty of myself. More than once. They are the sort of things that only become apparent when you read the whole book. They all contribute to that awful disappointment when you get to the end of a book and say to yourself – now what was that all about?

- The protagonist witnesses a series of events but remains curiously unaffected by them. Or the character makes few decisions, and it’s decisions which reveal who they really are. (OK, there are precedents for passive central characters but successful ones are few and far between.)

-  The protagonist embarks on a journey or a quest, but we are never quite sure why he/she started it in the first place other than to bump into a variety of characters and situations the author’s put there.

-  Lots of things happen, but the protagonist responds in exactly the same way each time. There is no sense of progression in the story.

-  The protagonist is clearly identifiable with the writer, but isn’t actually the most interesting character, and not really the one the story is happening to.

-  There are multiple protagonists. It takes a very accomplished author to deal with more than two.

-  The protagonist has a strong need, but that need seems to shift from chapter to chapter, without that shift really being part of the story.

-  Too often a character does something and the expected happens. This is dull and no good for story. We don’t need to hear it. How a character deals with the unexpected is what moves a story along.

-  There are chapters or sections that seem peripheral to the story. Maybe they are legacies from a previous versions, or attempts at scene setting, or the author’s favourite anecdote. Ditch them.

-  The first half of the book sets up puzzles and enigmas that the author has never really worked out how to solve. Or the ending is a rush to tie up loose ends, like the detective walking on to the stage to explain everything at the end of a bad British whodunit.

You might say these aren’t flaws, that you want to write a book with a passive central character, with a fragmented narrative and no attempt at resolution. Of course, you can write whatever you like, and if you are a genius there probably aren’t any rules. But most readers of novels expect a story, and one way or other those who write them have to deliver.  If the whole idea of story is anathema to you, then the novel probably isn’t your form.

Someone once described the ideal story as one where the readers have no idea of how it is going to end until they get there, but when they reach the end they realise that no other ending was possible.

Endings are the hardest thing of all, and so often that’s what disappoints in a book which, page by page, seemed competently written. There are some successful authors claim they don’t know where the story is going when they start, but the majority of writers need to know that structure, need to have some sense of where it will end before they begin.

There are some minimum requirements for stories and, without them, they become weak stories, or not stories at all. There has to be conflict, there has to be a need or impulse driving the story forward, there has to be an attempt at resolution (if not resolution itself). There also needs to be some sort of twist or at least bend in the course of the journey if the reader is not going to be disappointed. Screenwriting theorists love to categorise these into three, five or even eleven act structures, enumerating all the points on the way necessary for movie success. We may scorn such formulaic approaches, but it surprising how stories that ‘work’ so often confirm these structures, even if the writer is an intuitive story teller who has no truck with such theories.

Of course, the conflicts in stories can be subtle, dealing with delicate psychological dilemmas rather than the threat of alien invasion. Some of the best moments in fiction occur when the author plays with narrative expectations and pushes the form to its limits, but there seems to be something amazingly resilient about story structure. It is a form we intuitively recognise, it carries a heavy burden of expectations; ignore them at your peril.

Of course, good writing is not just about story. It’s also about giving depth and nuance to the characters’ desires and responses, making the world they inhabit come alive. But I believe story comes first.

Some writers have a deeper problem with story; deciding the shape of your story seems to carry with it a moral imperative, an attitude to how things are; is the anarchist/ philanderer/ slut/ drunk/ cop/ doctor/ cynic/ miracle worker/ mercenary going to be condemned or be redeemed? What am I saying about the world if my bad character is exulted or my good character suffers? If I kill off a character who breaks the rules, am I endorsing society’s mores, or just showing things as they are? Are happy endings hopelessly romantic, are unhappy endings an expression of my own personal pain? Is the book’s uncertainty, my uncertainty?

Is there a moral in your tale? Even if you don’t think there is, readers are often very keen to find one. Once upon a time in fiction, crime never paid. Bad men never got away with it, and if they did, they would suffer eventually, in the next world if not this one. Even now the truly-evil-one-getting-away-with-it is rare, but moral ambiguity is commonplace. Shades of grey have replaced the black and white, often part of a statement that there are no good guys or bad guys any more in a post-hero universe.

Look through reviews on Amazon and you’ll find many readers want uplifting stories, happy endings, good overcoming evil, achievement in the face of adversity. Books that set out to challenge rather than reassure, that suggest the world is chaotic or corrupt, that power rather than justice wins through, that motivations are confused and people make the same mistakes again and again appeal to a minority. Yes, I admit it, I’m part of that minority too, and sometimes it can feel lonely here. But the story has to be told nevertheless.

Roland Denning’s novel, The Beach Beneath The Pavement, about a world where no one believes in anything, conspiracy theory, drugs, the lost dreams of the Sixties and Seventies is available in new 2011 austerity edition exclusively on Kindle, and in the original quaint paperback edition. There’s a story in it too. Somewhere.

And in the final episode of his epic animated series, On Meeting An Agent, you can watch what happens when Roland the Robot publishes his book.

  • http://www.selfpublishingreview.com/members/arthurgraham/ Arthur Graham

    Well, Roland, I must say that my own book Editorial is probably suffering from a major deficiency of at least half the criteria you’ve outlined, and believe me, I’ve heard as much from readers! Some odd ones find my lack of attention to basics such as plot and character development quite refreshing, yes, but many of them seem to yearn for more old-school, actual storytelling in even the most glowing of reviews….

    William S. Burroughs – the man who gave us Naked Lunch and so many other great works eschewing traditional novel form – he could probably get away with it. Then again, Burroughs is the sort of writer that readers usually either love or hate, which puts him much closer to me than most other measures would indicate. What I’m getting at here should be obvious, and pretty much echoes what Roland is saying above: If your stuff is pure genius (or you’re at least able to convince enough people of this), then yes, by all means, to Hell with even basic coherence! If not, then….

    I’ve read through the first dozen so chapters of Roland’s novel already (I’m saving the rest for my trans-Pacific flight tomorrow), and let me be the first to tell you all that he is being very modest when he says there’s a story in there “Somewhere.” The Beach Beneath the Pavement is the kind of book I wouldn’t mind writing myself, if I could only get the hang of novel form…. Balancing such outlandish material with believable characters and a well-paced plot is a tough act to follow, but this book manages to pull it off. On the basis of that alone, I’d recommend it.

    • http://www.selfpublishingreview.com/members/rolod/ Roland Denning

      Well thanks for those kind words, Arthur. I must say once I started really getting to grips with story I started to love it. It’s what makes the reader turn the page (and hopefully read what’s on the next one).

      Certainly I’m not arguing against experimentation, but the current era seems not to have much appetite for the avant-garde novel. Whether this is because we just live in conservative times with short attention-spans or the experiments have been done and found wanting or that cutting-edge artists have moved away from the novel – well, you decide. Joyce was writing 100 years ago and he still seems daring. But look at what people are reading and watching now and the traditional narrative seems stronger than ever.

      Burroughs characters, of course, have no shortage of desires and needs. Those cravings always seem to be driving Burroughs’s stories forward.

  • http://www.selfpublishingreview.com/members/ronfritsch/ Ron Fritsch

    Roland, you’ve included a number of good points in this post. I’m especially drawn to this one: “Character doesn’t exist without story, and story doesn’t exist without character. Crucially, all your characters want or need something – that’s what powers the story.”

    I decided to publish my novel, Promised Valley Rebellion, after I received a surprisingly favorable review from Kirkus Discoveries, which included the following: “Fritsch . . . grant[s] his characters an easy, unforced humanity that is instantly inviting. His people . . . sound like individuals, and that makes all the difference. . . . [T]hey make the story memorable.”

    A blogger asked me to comment on those remarks. I wrote: “Creating characters who are individuals isn’t easy to do. Fictional characters often seem to be types: jealous, greedy, selfish, pessimistic, optimistic, oppressed, oppressive, lovelorn, beloved, smug, haughty, sharing, benevolent—the list could go on forever. But a type isn’t, without more, an individual.

    “I believe the secret is this: characters are individuals only if they move the story forward—only if they add something meaningful to the conflict or conflicts the story exposes.”

    Thank you, Roland, for another stimulating post.

    • http://www.selfpublishingreview.com/members/rolod/ Roland Denning

      Hi Ron. Yes, let’s forget types. To find out who a character is, put something in his or her way. How they deal with that shows who they are. So, indeed, they move the story forward and, at the same time, the story shapes them.

      Let others then stick the ‘type’ labels on them.

  • Mark

    “Screenwriting theorists love to categorise these into three, five or even eleven act structures, enumerating all the points on the way necessary for movie success. We may scorn such formulaic approaches, but it surprising how stories that ‘work’ so often confirm these structures, even if the writer is an intuitive story teller who has no truck with such theories.”

    These act structures are only good for analysis after the story is written, and not good at all for a story in the process of being written. The structure will naturally evolve from character and story, and later when it’s all finished you’ll find a three act or four act structure in it.

    Writing with these structures in mind before the author has a firm grasp of the story and characters will most often kill the writing process right then and there.

    • http://www.selfpublishingreview.com/members/rolod/ Roland Denning

      Mark – I totally agree.

  • http://www.chrismeeks.com Christopher Meeks

    Roland, I happened to give a link to this article for my students in my UCLA Extension class, “Fiction for Absolute Beginners.” People in the class brought up your piece last night, and we ended up having a fabulous discussion on what story is. Two areas in particular were cited.

    One person read your piece gaining insight on how important it is to have a story–that’s it’s not just a slice of life, but that the main character has a need or strong desire and things stand in the way. He also read aloud your line, “Someone once described the ideal story as one where the readers have no idea of how it is going to end until they get there, but when they reach the end they realise that no other ending was possible.” He said that stories that he has loved often surprised him at the ending, but in thinking about what happened, he realized it’s exactly the right ending.

    I happen to emphasize in the class that the writer needs to make a few things clear to the reader if the aim is to write a story with a single protagonist:

    1) Is it clear who is the protagonist? (New writers sometimes have many characters, and it’s not clear whose story it is.)

    2) Is it clear what the protagonist needs or deeply desires?

    3) Is it clear who or what is standing in the way of the need or desire?

    4) What’s at stake?

    One writer felt a story need not have any entertainment value, and perhaps shouldn’t be concerned what the reader wants and why a reader might read. “Be true to yourself, and the readers may follow.” I happen to think stories are part of a cultural discussion and having a reader in mind can help clarify a story. Stories are a form of communication.

    She brought up one of your points near the end: “Is there a moral in your tale? Even if you don’t think there is, readers are often very keen to find one…. Shades of grey have replaced the black and white, often part of a statement that there are no good guys or bad guys any more in a post-hero universe.”

    She seemed to admire the dark story. We then fell into talking about writers being philosophers. My sense is that even if a writer isn’t conscious about a theme or espouses a philosophy, readers will pay particular attention to the ending and read into it a meaning, intended or not. I often sense my subconscious mind slips in images and actions that surprise me. I like the surprise, yet I then question what it might mean. Once I have a deeper sense of meaning to my own story–a meaning that came about organically–I’ll then hone the story so that it unspools to the exactly right ending.

    Thank you for writing a clear and interesting piece. You’ve created a strong foundation for fiction writers.

    • http://www.selfpublishingreview.com/members/rolod/ Roland Denning

      Christopher, I am flattered and very glad you found my thoughts useful

      You are right also in that we often don’t know what we are saying until we say it. We like to think writing is a totally conscious process, under our control. It isn’t. Sometimes I don’t know where the hell it comes from.

      http://beachbeneathpavement.co.uk