What’s a Story

Recently, I was asked, as I am occasionally, very occasionally, to judge a writing contest. It was an extremely painful experience. Now, in past years, one of the more agonizing aspects of going through manuscripts was dealing with the rather deplorable grammar and spelling. Clearly, spell-checkers and grammar checkers have had an impact, because the absolutely worst grammatical errors have largely vanished. The less obvious errors of grammatical and syntactical misuse remain, as do errors in referential pronouns, among others.

What struck me the most, however, was the almost total lack of story-telling. In years past, I read awfully-written and ungrammatical work, but a large percentage of the submissions were actual stories.

This, of course, leads to the question — what is a story? For most people, trying to define a story is like the reputed reply given by an elder statesman when he was asked to define pornography. “I can’t define it, but when I see it, I know it.” That sort of definition isn’t much help to a would-be writer. So I went back to my now-ancient Handbook to Literature and checked the definition:

…any narrative of events in a sequential arrangement. The one merit of a story is its ability to make us want to know what happened next… Plot takes a story, selects its materials not in terms of time but causality; gives it a beginning, a middle, and an end; and makes it serve to elucidate character, express an idea, or incite to an action.

Robert Heinlein once defined a story this way: “A story is an account which is not necessarily true but which is interesting to read.”

Put more directly, in a story, the writer has to express events so that they progress in a way that makes sense, while hanging together and making the reader want to continue reading.

Almost all of the stories I read were anything but interesting to read, and not just to me, but to a jury of first readers, none of whom could recommend any. So the first readers thought they weren’t seeing something and passed all of them on to me. Unhappily, they were right. But why?

In considering these stories, I realized they all shared several faults. First, while almost all had a series of events, there was no real rationale for those events, except that the writer had written them. In real life, there is, as the definition above notes, a certain causality. It may be the result of our actions or the actions of others, or even of nature, but events do follow causes, notwithstanding the views of some quantum physicists. A story, at least occasionally, should give a nod to causality, either through background or the words or actions of the characters. After a reader finishes the story, he or she should be able to say why things happened, or at least feel that how they happened was “right” for the story.

Second, all too many of the stories shifted viewpoints, even verb tenses, almost from sentence to sentence. This is a trend that has been growing with younger writers over the years, and I think it’s probably the result of our video culture, with its rapid camera cuts, and multiple plot lines, but what works, if imperfectly, on a video screen, doesn’t translate to the printed page because a reader doesn’t have all the visual and tonal cues provided by video. The words have to carry the action and the emotions, and when those words are absent or scattered among a number of characters, the reader is going to have trouble following and identifying with anyone.

Third, almost none of the stories showed any real understanding of human character and motivation, yet one of the unspoken reasons why most readers read is because of the characters or the glimpses of characters. Again, I suspect that this lack of understanding stems in large part from a video entertainment culture that focuses on action to the exclusion of character. I’ve noticed this change in other ways, as well, because many younger readers have great difficulty in picking up on subtle written clues to character in novels. I’ve seen more than a few comments about books, my own as well as that of other authors, decrying the lack of characterization, while older and more experienced readers often praise the same books for their depth of characterization. Because I’m not of the younger generation, I can only guess, but it appears to me that when they write, while they may imagine such characteristics, they neglect to write them down, believing that other readers will imagine as they do, even without any written clues. Needless to say, each of us imagines differently, and without cues, many readers may not imagine at all, which leads to a lack of interest.

In the end, a story has to contain all the words, phrases, description, and causality necessary to carry the reader along. Or, as one man put it years ago, “If it doesn’t say it in black and white, it doesn’t say it.”