Story Basics 101: What Story Isn’t

Contents

Introduction
Vignettes
Journals/Diaries/Letters/Documents
Descriptions
Timeline of Events
Conclusion
Exercise

Introduction

For a decade, I have facilitated local writing groups. I’ve read and heard a lot of “stories” over the years. Most people know on some level what a story is but can’t identify what story isn’t. Their writing reflects this. The same mistakes are repeated time and time again. Sometimes they will argue “but it’s a story!” and don’t understand when it’s not (confession: I struggled too, even as a seasonal writer with a writing degree). Prose does not guarantee the writing is a story. The piece could be a vignette, description, timeline of events, or a potential story that is missing story elements. 

For detailed information, see;
Story Basics 101: Beginning, Middle, and End
Story Basics 101: The Elements Every Story Needs

Vignettes  

A vignette portrays a “slice of life” moment and is more concerned with vivid imagery and words to convey a message or feeling to the reader rather than adhering to a narrative story structure (beginning, middle, and end). Often a vignette is a part of a larger piece of work and makes little sense on their own. Popular TV shows such as “Lost” and “Orange Is the New Black” use vignettes as flashbacks to explore the past life and motives of featured characters adding richness to the main storyline. On the other end of the spectrum, sketch comedy and skits are humourous vignettes, poking fun at day-to-day life, society, history, pop culture, and so on.  

Journals/Diaries/Letters/Documents

Journals, diaries, letters, and other documents are a fantastic way to convey information to the reader, especially in longer stories. However, typically such writing, especially if dealing with the odd entry, is more in tune with a vignette than a story, because the writing acts as a companion to a larger story and makes little sense on its own. An entry can shed light on a story situation, explore character thoughts and feelings, and offer a different point of view. Even as a vignette, journals, diaries, letters, and documents can offer a fascinating read.

There are exceptions. A diary or journal, fiction or non-fiction, are stories in their own right if they contain the elements that make a story; structure, protagonists, antagonist, conflict, setting, purpose and meaning, and change. There are also short stories and novels written in letter form. 

Description 

Every story needs description to paint a mental picture for the reader. However, if the writing skips the elements that make a story, then the writing is just descriptive language (prose poetry, maybe) or a vignette. Description to story crafters is the equivalent to paint to an artist. On its own paint is only paint, on its own description is only description. In story terms, the description should only describe what is relevant to the plot. If a kettle is described as “shiny, black and sexy as it lets off steam”, the kettle better play a role in the story, for example, be a murder weapon, or there is no point to the description (as sexy as it may be). 

Years ago, I read The Witching Hour by Anne Rice. Fantastic story, but a tome to read. This door stopper is over 1000 pages and could have been slimed with a tighter edit. Rice spent pages describing the streets of New Orleans and I couldn’t give a flying hoot. I wanted drama, more Lasher. I skim read chunks; description is not a story and bogs the reader down. Some readers won’t mind and others will. Tolerance varies between readers. 

Remember, a story is action. Beginner writer exercises focusing on description; describe a ball, describe a house… teach bad habits. Writers learn to write descriptions via writing stories. Description supports the action. Most readers want to dive into character actions or reactions and have low endurance for lengthy descriptions. 

Timeline of Events

It’s easy to assume that stories are nothing more than “this happened and then this happened”. In other words, a timeline of events. However, stories need; structure and conflict, something has to change for the protagonist. A character waking up and showering isn’t a story. There is no conflict and nothing changes. The mundane morning routine is nothing more than a timeline of events. However, if the protagonist slips and cracks their head open in the shower, we have a story. The character’s ordinary life has changed and there is conflict. 

A story is about the protagonist going through positive events and negative events. Characters rolling along with their ordinary life in a monotone fashion is words. A story requires ups and downs. 

In the fairytale, Hansel and Gretel, the siblings go through several wins (+) and losses (-) throughout the fairytale. Here’s what a condensed summary looks like. 

Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in the Black Forest (-) but leave a trail of breadcrumbs to find their way home (+). Animals eat the breadcrumbs, leaving the children lost and hungry (-). Hansel and Gretel find a house made from gingerbread and gnaw away at the foundation (+). A cannibal witch lives in the house and captures the children to eat them (-). Gretel bakes the witch alive, freeing herself and her brother from becoming lunch, and the pair return home (+).

Imagine if Hansel and Gretel had their dreams handed to them on silver a platter; they follow the breadcrumbs home, mum and dad cry for joy, the family receives welfare and they live happily ever after. This is a timeline of events — no losses, and therefore no conflict. #Notastory

Conclusion

Knowing what doesn’t constitute a story is just as important as understanding the elements that make a story. There is a time and place for all types of writing. Understanding the differences is the key.

Story Basics 101: Beginning, Middle, and End
Story Basics 101: The Elements Every Story Needs

EXERCISE

Pick a couple of fairytales and identify the wins (+) and losses (-) the protagonist faces. Alternatively, you can pick a movie you know well or apply the exercise to your own writing and discover how your story holds up.



Categories: Writers' Tool Box, Writing

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  1. Story Basics 101: Show Don’t Tell – THE WRITING ASYLUM

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