By Mike Klaassen
If written fiction is to be engaging, it must be about something interesting—a story. Like so many terms used in the craft of writing, story means different things to different people. I believe that any term may be better understood if it is clearly defined, and by that I mean an explanation that boils the concept down to its essence. Dictionary definitions of story are so generic that they provide little practical guidance. Many how-to books about writing fiction stress the importance of story, but they don’t provide a useful definition. E. M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel (1927), defined story as “. . . a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence . . .” Forster deserves credit for his pioneering attempt at clarification, but his often-quoted definition sheds little light on what the hallmarks of a story are.
Much has been learned about the craft of writing fiction since Forster’s time. For example, there are five fundamental elements that comprise all fiction: character, plot, setting, theme, and style. Each has its own specific function:
- Plot is what happens.
- Character is the who.
- Setting is the where and when.
- Theme is the why.
- Style is the how.
If fiction consists of five fundamental elements, shouldn’t the definition of a story include those elements? My definition of story is as follows: A work of writing that dramatizes a character’s attempts to achieve a goal.
Let’s dissect that definition and examine the parts. A work of writing clarifies what is being defined, as opposed to stage plays and screenplays and verbal storytelling. Dramatizes addresses the style of the writing by suggesting that the intent is to create reader interest, to entertain, to generate an emotional reaction. A character reflects the concept that without a character, there is no story. Attempts to achieve a goal reflects plot, in which the character must have a goal and must make multiple attempts to achieve that goal.
This definition of story includes reference to style, character, and plot, but it doesn’t include setting and theme. The definition could certainly be expanded to include those elements but doing so isn’t necessary. A story cannot exist without a setting (a place and time), so by default it’s there, with no need to include it in the definition. Likewise, the telling of a story automatically generates a theme as the character strives to attain his goal, so including theme in the definition of a story is also unnecessary. Every story, by its nature, has a built-in setting and theme.
A story is a lot like a cake. The process of baking a cake causes a chemical reaction that melds flour, eggs, sugar, etc., into something new (cake) in which the ingredients are no longer easily distinguishable or separable. Similarly, the process of developing a story creates a product in which plot, character, setting, theme, and style become difficult to distinguish and separate. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald is credited with saying “Character is plot, plot is character.” In the same way, setting might become an integral part of plot: In some stories the setting thwarts a character’s attempts to achieve his goal, thus assuming the role of the antagonist, almost becoming an additional character. As we have already seen, theme grows naturally out of the plot, and style permeates all written fiction. In effect, plot, character, setting, theme, and style get “baked into the cake” of a story.
In addition to providing a definition of a story in Aspects of the Novel, Forster included an example: “The king died and then the queen died.” Once again, Forster deserves credit for an early attempt at a definition, but his example is of little use in understanding the concept of a story.
Using my definition of a story and the example offered by Forster as a starting point, let’s consider the following example.
In the kingdom of Greenwald, King Archibald dies of poisoning. Queen Sophia’s efforts to find her husband’s murderer are cut short when King Gustav of a neighboring kingdom invades Greenwald, captures the castle, and kidnaps Sophia. She discovers that Gustav had ordered King Archibald murdered, so Sophie kills Gustav.
This simple example is by no means fully developed, so its ingredients are still easily identifiable. The setting of the story is the Kingdom of Greenwald. The focal character is Sophia, supported by King Archibald and King Gustav. The main character has a goal (identify and punish Archibald’s killer). Sophia makes attempts to achieve her goal. The themes of the story could include such concepts as “crime doesn’t pay,” “justice prevails,” and “persistence leads to success.” The style of this example could be described as straightforward.
A clear, precise definition of story and a simple example pave the way for greater understanding of how written fiction works.
Mike Klaassen is the author of Third-Person Possessed, which is available for order at traditional and online bookstores. You may “Look Inside” the book at BookBaby BookShop.
This article was adapted from an excerpt of Third-Person Possessed by Mike Klaassen. Copyright 2020 and 2022. Michael John Klaassen. All rights reserved. You are welcome to share this article with others.