Friday, May 18, 2012

Begin at the Beginning: Or, What Exactly IS a Story?

First of all, in order to truly begin at the beginning, I suppose I should start by saying: Hello, and welcome to my blog!

All right, enough with the formalities. Time to write! Generally, a blog's historic first post tends to be a description of what's going to discussed on the blog, who the author is, and all that jazz. But if you've read the introduction (on the right side of the page), you already know what we're here to do. In case you missed it, or are too lazy to glance up and read it now, the gist of it is: this is a blog about stories and storytelling.

Sounds simple enough, no? (Not to mention broad enough that I shall never run out of post ideas... Muahaha.) So rather than go on and on about how stories (like friendship) are magic, and how a good yarn can change a person's life, or even the world... I'm going to start with the most basic question of them all: What, exactly, is a story?

Diverse Definitions

According to the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary, "story" can be a noun or, apparently, a transitive verb. ("See you later, Ma, I'm off to go storying!") Although verbing words weirds language in a fun way (thank you, Calvin and Hobbs), let's just focus on the noun.

The origin of the word seems to be linked to the Latin historia, and indeed, you can't spell "history" without "story" (or "hi," for that matter). However, stories aren't just about the past, and they aren't all true, either. A "story" is defined by the dictionary as both "a statement regarding the facts" (the term can be applied to history as well as news articles) and "a fictional narrative." Stories about the future float somewhere between the two categories until the future becomes the present. (Orwell's 1984, thank goodness, turned out to be just fiction. But Robertson's Futility, Or The Wreck of the Titan, written fourteen years prior to the wreck of the R.M.S. Titanic, resembled the incident so closely it bordered on prophetic.)

If you head over to Wikipedia and look up "story," you can be redirected to either the entry for Time or the entry for Narrative, along with many other slightly less relevant pages - including, interestingly, a tennis player and a doctor/astronaut. If you look up the word on Google... well, you'd probably get even more results. (Only a few billion or so, and at least one billion of them are probably useless.)

The point is this: there are a gazillion and three ways to look at the meaning of story, 99% of which are valid. (The other 1% come from people who write about sparkly vampires, and whoever is responsible for reality TV.) The real question is: which ones apply to this blog?

The Fruit of the Epipha-tree: Story as a Found Object

According to Stephen King (as interviewed by Neil Gaiman), stories aren't made, but rather found. A lot of writers probably disagree with this, but they are all wrong. (Just kidding; to each their own. After all, a lot of people also don't think Stephen King has any talent as a writer... of course, they actually are wrong. They're just jealous.) I personally couldn't agree with King more; I'm not saying that writing is a walk in the park, or that plagiarism is okay - that's a resounding NO - and neither is the master of horror. What it means is that a story, at least as I see it, is not something that is forced out of your brain, but rather something more like a small epiphany, an "A-ha!" moment which is born of external influence and inspiration as well as internal thought processes and creativity. The hard part, no matter what kind of story it is, is actually putting it together and making it work.

More than the Sum of its Parts: Story vs. Plot

Thomas Grip of Frictional Games offers up another interesting point on the subject. In this post, he discusses the common mistake of using "story" and "plot" interchangeably. According to Grip, the difference between the two is that plot refers purely to a sequence of events, whereas the essence of a story actually depends more on the feel of the story - such as the emotions a story conveys to or instills in the reader, or the locations (and, perhaps more importantly, the atmosphere of those locations). While I do think plot matters (especially if we're talking in terms of written narratives), it doesn't necessarily have to be complex to be intriguing, and I agree with Grip that story and plot are two very separate things, and the more vital of the two is the story. This is the reason why remakes work (or don't work); the idea with these isn't to perfectly replicate the original, but rather to retain the essence of the story while creating something new and different with it. It's like trying out different recipes for the same dish or drink; the chain of events (and even some of the ingredients) may be changed, but in the end you're still making butterbeer. (Or whatever else you want to make. I just picked butterbeer because I have seen about a hundred different recipes for it, and so far only one has come out decently for me. But that's another story for another day.)

So... What is a Story?

So what is a story? It is something which encompasses a moment, or many moments, in time, and is comprised of at least one event, one character, and one location. A story can be captured with words, images, sounds, or even textiles (remember Pat the Bunny?), scents, or tastes. Regardless of medium, a story is something which makes us feel, and think about our emotions and how we feel, whether those feelings are as simple as, "Hey, cool, I learned something different today!" or something as complex as la douleur exquise, the emotional agony of loving and longing for someone you cannot be with. Just as humans are often part of the stories they create, stories are also part of human nature; we cannot help but coexist, and either one would be lost without the other.

Stories are also almost always the product of some sort of collaboration, and so I will wrap up this post (and most likely many more) the way it began: with a query. (Only this time, you get to do the work of answering, and I get to sit back and read at my leisure.)

Do you agree? Do you disagree? (Violently? With the passion of a thousand flaming suns?) What do YOU think a story is?

Comments and commentary (not to mention back-links and sharing) are forever welcome, along with any questions you may have... I will do my best to reply when needed. Keep an eye out for poll questions on the right-hand side of the page; the plan is to have a new poll question every month. Blog updates should also be just about monthly; sometimes they will be more frequent, but once again the plan is to have at least one post up by the end of each month.