A story is about a person or a thing that is in the wrong place.
Personally, because this story definition of mine is so basic, I can’t come up with any exceptions to it. (Maybe you can. If so, let me know.) However, I find it quite easy to think how it applies to both big and small stories with which most of us are familiar.
Let’s start with the beginning of European storytelling – Homer’s Odyssey. And let’s begin at the beginning – Odysseus is a long way from his home, which is where he desires to be. The story of the Odyssey, with all its adventures and mishaps, is the story of a person trying to return themselves to their right place. As soon as Odysseus returns home, and then returns his home to its right order, the story finishes. The next day, the day that Odysseus sits around, drinking wine and relaxing, that isn’t worth telling. It isn’t a story.
Now let’s think of one of the most successful big stories of our time, J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. What is in the wrong place? Not, this time, a person but a thing. The one Ring to bind them all is too vulnerable in Frodo Baggins’ comfortable Hobbit hole. For Middle Earth to be safe, the Ring must be destroyed completely – and the only place capable of destroying the Ring is the molten rock within the volcano Mount Doom. Every word of the trilogy is about the transportation of the Ring to its right and final place. This necessitates the journey of Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, Peregrin Took and Meriadoc Brandybuck through many places that are – for them – wrong places. Once the Ring is destroyed, Frodo and Sam are still in the wrong place, and the story does not end until Frodo (like Odysseus) returns to his home and returns his home to its right order.
Okay, so my definition works for big stories. What about smaller ones? Here examples become more problematic as we are all more familiar with big stories than small ones – I mean ones in which, you would challenge me, everything is in its right place and everyone is in their right place.
We need a story in which there is no journey, no epic quest. We need a story in which, unless you look closely, nothing happens.
Because most stories are stories, and do involve things or people that are obviously in the wrong place, it is very difficult to point to examples which enough people will know. So, instead of trying to find one that most people are likely to be familiar with, I am going to make one up.
A woman who lives alone and works in a supermarket, stacking shelves, gets up one day, showers, has breakfast, puts on her work clothes, drives the usual route to work, parks, clocks on, does her shift, takes her break, clocks out, drives the usual way home, takes off her work clothes, showers, has her dinner, looks at a screen, goes to bed.
Is this a story? Does this make it to the level of interest that makes a story?
I would say, in the neutral way that I’ve written it, that it doesn’t.
Why? Because what I have done is describe a routine rather than tell or make a story.
Here is an absolute law for you, from now on.
Take the pledge:
I swear that, from now on, I will never simply describe a routine.
Routines are not stories because, essentially, they have already happened – happened many times – and they will happen again. If there is to be no break from the routine then, even though we may not know what the routine is, it doesn’t deviate from what it’s been before or what it will be again.
Stories, put simply, are very often about people doing things for the first time.
(Make a note: When writing a story, it’s a good idea to have people visiting a new place, seeing new things. They see them more clearly. Did you look at your toothbrush this morning? Really look at it?)
We could turn our routine into a story by having the woman’s car not start, because something is in the wrong place in the engine. The woman then has to find some way of resuming her routine as soon as possible. She might get out her bike, or ask a neighbour to give her a lift, or catch the bus. And if she manages to get in to work on time, she will then be in her usual place. The story could then die, everything could be put back in the box, or the initial cause of the break from routine might cause the story to escalate. Because one major thing is still in the wrong place, the car. During one of her breaks, the woman phones the garage to arrange to have her car collected and repaired. When, that evening, the mechanic arrives with his tow truck, the woman recognises him as a boy she used to be in love with when she was at school. And now we have a story – because, for the woman, whatever she may be feeling, she is not in her usual place (in front of the screen) and she is not by herself (aloneness leads to routines).
However, let’s switch the point of view and see if we still have a story. We are now with the mechanic. We have been with him all day, through shower, breakfast, breaks, other pickups, other routines.
Say that when the mechanic comes to pick up the woman’s car, he does not recognise her as a girl he used to know, and he does not notice that she has recognised him – because he is unobservant and she says nothing. He simply gets the car up attached to the back of his tow truck and drives away.
Although something is in the wrong place – he is now, unawares, driving away with the car of the person in the world who loves him most profoundly – it isn’t a story when seen or told from his point of view, because he has experienced nothing but a routine day. Nothing, for him, has been out of place.
THINK OF YOUR OWN STORY
What I’ve just mentioned may be an answer for some of the Starters – why have lots of your wannabe stories gone for a couple of pages then stopped?
I suspect it is because you either simply described a routine or you opened the box, had something or someone in the wrong place, but then you got a bit scared it was running beyond your control or beyond what you’d foreseen, and you quickly put the lid back on.
For the Middlers, this may address why you’ve had problems with bringing alive some parts of your book-you-have-to-write.
If it’s based on real events that happened to real people, you may be understandably (if they or their relatives are still alive) reluctant to change the facts.
But let’s say that in the middle of your book, where in most novels things would be getting more complicated and happening faster, that you have a couple who lived a quiet life and brought up two children, then you have gone from story to routine – and your book will never recover.
The answer is simple: if a period is routine, refer to it as briefly as possible or leave it out entirely.
Enders, I’ll talk to you later…
Routines are not stories, and stories can do with implying routines rather than describing them.
Mr But: But I’ve read lots of stories that begin by describing a character’s normal day and then it’s the next day that something unusual happens.
There are exceptions to this. The main one, I would say, is the story in which the events that occur are routine but the language in which they are described is itself the event.
This is a more Modernist approach to what a story is or can be. By Modernists, I mean writers like Virginia Woolf or James Joyce. Stretches of her Mrs Dalloway or his Ulysses detail routines. The event, for the reader, is the new way in which the world is brought to us by sentences. However, in both cases, the day on which the action in Mrs Dalloway or Ulysses takes place is – for the main characters – a significant, non-routine day. For the reader, the implication is, this is the day – of all days in these characters lives – that most poignantly gives them to us.
Literary aside: An even more routine bit of a day, that relies even more on the language itself being the event, is Nicholson Baker’s short novel The Mezzanine.
WHY THIS DAY?
It is a question that each storyteller should be able to answer about each of their stories.
If what you are writing could quite equally have been written about the day before or the same day last week, you are probably writing a routine and should probably stop and make something happen.
Look at your story. Are you able to answer this question about it?
A brief aside now. I have a new novel out – Patience. In lots of ways, I think it’s the best thing I’ve written. If you’re enjoying these posts, or have found other ones here useful, then please consider clicking on the cover and buying the book.
And now on to the next chapter.