What is a Story?
Image from Dmitry Ratushny at
Sometimes people think a bunch of words on a page related to one idea or character is a story. It might be or it might not. As a recovering editor and writing contest judge, I have read conglomerations of words that had action, focus and grammatically competent sentences that did not rise to the level of "storyhood."
I remember a compilation of words that started with an explosion, the protagonist and his group had a shoot-out with police, then the protagonist was told to assassinate a wounded friend so the police could not question her, he refused and, finally, escaped through the chaos of the ongoing battle. That was pretty much the sequence of events that didn’t add up to an actual a plot. Although it may not sound like it, reading this particular set of words was boring. I finished feeling like I had just wasted time that could have been better spent staring out the window or cutting my toenails.
In another orderly and grammatical collection of words, a human confronted a polar bear on an iceberg. I truly don’t remember the outcome of the encounter, but I’m pretty sure I rooted for the bear, hoping something of interest might happen. It did not.
Stories, you see, have a structure. I remember Stephen King once commented that he had an idea but it did have enough moving parts to make a story. A story has to have an arc, that is a beginning, a middle and an end. You can start anywhere along the arc. Stories that go A to B to C are the most likely to bore the reader, but other structures require the more writing dexterity. And beyond the structure, stories need some point, some reason for their existence. At the end of the reading experience, the reader should laugh, cry or sigh.
Yes, readers should read your work because you are a person of absolute brilliance, a tremendous boon to the galaxy and sexy as all hell. However, since none of that matters to someone alone wondering if a nap would be more attractive than reading on a rainy Saturday afternoon, give your reader a reason to start and to continue reading.
How long should a story be? As long as it needs to be; not one word more.
One of my favorite short stories came in the form of a poem by a sixth-grade girl.
I can imagine the entire series of events without a needless explanatory backstory. And the ending really pops.