What Do We Mean by “Story”?

Exploring the difference between story structure and story heart

One of my heroes, editor and writer Teresa Nielsen Hayden, once wrote: “Plot is a literary convention; story is a force of nature.”

It’s one of my favorite mantras having to do with story, and it feels almost contradictory, like a koan. Aren’t plot and story the same thing?

Separating Story from Plot

Well, not entirely. What we think of as “plot” is a carrier for story, the scaffolding where story is hung. That scaffolding, the literary convention, is important, because it speaks to our expectations and what we’re prepared to accept out of a storytelling work. But it’s important not to mistake it for story itself.

Conflating the two is responsible for a great deal of the strange pop-culture criticism we find ourselves inundated with — sites that promise to tell you “everything wrong with” some work or other, commentators who delight in point-scoring by spotting “plot holes” (and who may or may not understand what that term really means). The focus on plot and the so-called mistakes made by creators when building it can be paralyzing when you sit down to start your own work, terrified that only airtight perfectionism and unassailable logic are acceptable if you want to bring a new creation into the world.

Understanding Plot

Plot is the framework for the Story, not the story itself

We’ve developed a number of ways of understanding and analyzing plot; the three-act structure and the hero’s journey are examples of models you may have heard of. But when contemplating them, it’s good to remember another pithy quote, this one attributed to statistician George Box: “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” Plot models are useful because they identify patterns — they’re descriptive of common threads and shapes that many stories take. But they’re not prescriptive in telling you what stories must look like, how they ought to behave. They’re wrong as a straightjacket in which to bind every kind of narrative. Like the Pirate Code, they’re really more like guidelines.

And there’s a reason the tools Archivos gives you aren’t called “plot elements.” As Teresa Nielsen Hayden implies, story is bigger than that, older, wilder, more primal, more powerful. Literary conventions change; story remains.

Understanding Story

Story is what’s left when you strip away the medium and the mechanics of how it was delivered. It’s what you tell people when you want to get them excited about the book or movie you loved. It’s the beating heart of tales that get passed from teller to teller, even when the details change: the things we know about the lives of Hercules and Robin Hood and James Bond and Peter Parker, even though they’ve been reinterpreted and retold dozens or hundreds of times.

Storytelling… it’s kinda in our blood

Story is a powerful enough force that we’re willing to give the plots of some of those retellings a lot of room to be ridiculous, or inconsistent, or incompletely patched-together, or possessing a great many other flaws if what’s at the heart of the story is fun and cool and compelling enough to hold our interest. Don’t let anyone tell you that doing so is a failure on your part as the story’s audience. Humans are a storytelling species, which means we’re also a story-consuming species; our willingness to overlook the “plot holes” and “everything wrong with” is a feature, not a bug, because it allows us to build community through the stories we share with each other.  It’s a bargain we make: I’ll ignore the imperfections in your tale, and you’ll look past the ones in mine when it’s my turn in the center of the circle.

In Practice…

So what does that leave for hopeful storytellers as a guidepost for what to focus on when approaching the craft? That’s a complex question, but a partial, imperfect answer to what we mean by story is that it’s everything that makes you pay attention and ask, What’s next? You can feel confident that you’re keeping the heart of story in reach when the elements you introduce are the ones that suggest questions. Who’s that mysterious stranger? What does that weird event mean? Why would she do that? Oh my goodness, what happens next?

Not all of the answers to those questions are going to be interesting to everyone. That’s okay. Story is also, in a fundamental way, what excites you, and your audience is the people who share your excitement. Aim to delight yourself with your revelations, and you’ll delight your readers too. To quote Teresa Nielsen Hayden again: “If you ask 20 different readers why they read, they will all be right.” If you keep yourself interested first, the answers will be right for the people who sit up and pay attention for the same reasons you do.

As you sit down to sort out the elements in your first story setting in Archivos — or your fifth, or hundredth — give yourself room for imperfection. Understand that you’re not trying to engineer a plot. Note how the choices in the story element menu map to the most essential questions of tale-telling: who, what, where, when. Those are the pieces you’ll assemble to begin the crafting of your story, when you set them in motion and go on to answer why and how. And in doing so, you join one of the most ancient and important human traditions, of which matters of “plot” are upstart newcomers. Give them their time, but no more import than they truly merit.

It’s your turn in the circle. Tell us a story, won’t you?

Leave a comment