Lost in an Uninspiring Muddle? Maybe You’ve Confused Story and Situation: Part 1

by Jeff Lyons

In this two part series, Jeff Lyons—author, screenwriter, editor, and story development consultant—helps us understand what the heck we’re writing. Is it a story? A situation? In part one, he goes into depth on the anatomy of story.

If I were to ask you, “Do you know what a story is,” you would probably feel a little put out. After all, you’ve probably been writing stories for a long time, in fact, you might even make your living from writing stories. Honestly, he’s asking me that? The cheek!

“Story” is a common term’d art in the world of creative writing—everyone knows what a story is, right? You would think so, but, alas, this is not the case. So don’t be offended by my question, because what we’re about to discuss is something that is not taught in writing classes, MFA programs, or written about in most writing-craft, how-to books. Knowing how to tell that you have a story, and that it can survive the long story development process from beginning to end, is not some random bit of knowledge you pick up off the grass. It is skill that can be learned, like riding a bike. And once learned, it can lift your storytelling craft to a level of mastery that will save you time, money, and months of frustration writing yourself into literary corners and blind alleys.

Two Questions

To appreciate the power of what I am about to describe, we must first begin with two obvious questions: what do I mean when I use the term “a story,” and if something is not a story, then what is that “something else”?

When I ask groups of writers (novelists or screenwriters) to define this most basic storytelling idea, “what is a story,” I get as many definitions as there are people in the room. The responses are always generic and canned:

  • A story is a narrative.
  • A story is the sequential beats of what happens in a story.
  • A story is your plot.
  • A story is what your characters do.
  • A story is a narration of events coming to some conclusion.

All of these (and there are many others) have some ring of truth to them, and for the most part suffice when it comes to answering the question “what is a story.” But, none of these definitions define the thing itself in a way that has meaning and significance for storytellers. So, here is a working definition of a story that captures the essence of the thing: A story is the combination and interplay of character and plot that is a metaphor for a human experience leading to emotional change.

Essentially, what this is saying is that if you are writing something that involves an individual carrying out actions on the page that combine to create a personal experience of emotional change, and that experience conveys some insight into the human condition, then you have a story. Given this definition, it then follows that a story possesses five identifiable components.

The Five Components of a Story

  • A story reveals something about the human condition, or makes a statement about what it means to be human.
  • A story tests personal character, over and over, to reveal deeper character.
  • A story has subplots that are dramatic and thematic reflections of the journey of the protagonist, and that open windows into character and motivation.
  • A story ends in a different emotional space than it began.
  • A story is driven by a strong moral component motivating the protagonist through the middle of the story, resulting in dramatically interconnected scene writing.

This list of bullets is not arbitrary, or pulled out of some hat, like a rabbit by a magician. No, these components derive from story structure itself, that’s why they are real and possess the full force of drama (or comedy).

Structure: Critical to Story

Every story has a structure. If it doesn’t, then it’s not a story, it’s something else. If you have these five components clearly identified in your writing, then you can have confidence you have a story, and not that “something else.” You can be confident that there is an underlying foundation supporting your writing that will emerge as you write, and that will support your entire writing process.

It is beyond the scope of this article to deal with the topic of story structure and its critical role in the story development process (see my book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, Focal Press), but knowing how to identify a story—before you start writing—is invaluable to writers struggling with any new story idea, or an old idea that is “going nowhere.”

This is the craft skill I alluded to earlier. This is that bit of story wisdom that for some comes automatically, elegantly, without thought—as talent—but that for the rest of us comes as learned craft. Regardless of how it comes, as a gift from the gods, or as hard-earned mastery, this knowledge can make all the difference between getting lost in the story woods, and writing reams of meandering pages, versus staying focused, directed, and intentional in your writing.

Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of Story vs Situation

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Jeff Lyons, Author

Jeff Lyons, Author / Screenwriter / Editor

Jeff Lyons is a published fiction/nonfiction author, screenwriter, editor, and story development consultant with more than 25 years’ experience in the film, television, and publishing industries. He has worked with literally thousands of novelists, nonfiction authors, and screenwriters helping them build and tell better stories. Jeff is an instructor through Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio, University of California at Riverside’s Extension Program, and is a regular guest lecturer through the UCLA Extension Writers Program. He is a regular presenter at leading writing and entertainment industry trade conferences, as well as a contributor and advisor to leading entertainment industry screenwriting and producing fellowship programs, such as the Producers Guild of American’s “Power of Diversity Producers Workshop,” and the Film Independent Screenwriting Lab. Jeff is also a regular guest blogger on major writing industry blog sites like Script Magazine and Stage32.com. Jeff has written on the craft of storytelling for Writer’s Digest Magazine, Script Magazine, The Writer Magazine, and Writing Magazine (UK). His book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, is the only book available devoted solely to the topic of story and premise development for novelists, screenwriters, and creative nonfiction authors. His new book, Rapid Story Development: How to Use the Enneagram-Story Connection to Become a Master Storyteller, will be published by Focal Press in summer 2017.

*O.C. Writers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. By clicking on the book links anywhere on this site, we earn a small commission from your purchase.

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