What Is Story?

what is story? Jun 14, 2020


'There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.' Somerset Maugham.

It's the same for story. Numerous books have been writing on the matter, none have proven definitive. Our philosophy at The Novelry is simple—tools, not rules. We don’t believe in a format, template or boilerplate novel, or grand definitive maxims.

A novel can offer one of the most intimate experiences of your life. Something like a beach blanket conversation with a dear friend. It can also be more like a movie in your head, like a funfair ride. Sure, you know this ride was designed for maximum impact, but you’re enjoying the thrills and spills. It is quite possible to enjoy novels of either kind and everything in between. There is no novel rule book. And if there were most writers are so wonderfully wilful they’d throw it out the window.

We believe in you, the writer, and your novel. We are here to breathe life into it and help you create it so that your vision becomes a reality. That’s why our very first session begins with what you the author want. In our courses, we give you tools. It's self-service, take those you like, try them, ditch them when they frustrate your vision. In the tutoring sessions, we work with you to co-create and scope out ideas and opportunities creatively.

A first draft is all about what’s right with the novel, and not so much about what’s wrong with it. There will be no inspection, interrogation, examination. No rote learning is required.

We don’t believe any first draft of a novel is perfect, nor should it meet the rigours of a formula. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It shouldn’t be perfect. It should be alive, and gently coaxed to grow to its full size.

As you write your novel, you’ll be delving into the heart of the matter, according to you, and asking questions, wondering whether others feel like you. Putting a light into the night. It’s a vulnerable time. You need cosseting. You need to grow your novel in a positive, constructive, environment. We work side by side, you the author and your tutor at The Novelry, as a tender gardening team. The pruning comes later. It’s in the later drafts, you’ll begin to consider what’s wrong with it in terms of its communication of the reader’s understanding and enjoyment of your vision. You'll be working most of all on the story.

So, let's take a good look at story, and what makes it tick. ;-)

Terms of Endearment

Here are some terms of endearment you'll come across when reading discussions on story and understanding why those terms are fairly commonplace and what stories and novels have in common in general can be helpful. You can deviate and break the conventions when you know what they are, and why, and how. Use those that help you grow your novel, discard those that choke it. 

The art of composition of a story may well be in the selection of these elements.

Protagonist or main character. The first actor, who plays the chief part. The leading character or one of the major characters in a play, film, novel, etc.

The chief character in a dramatic work. Hence, in extended use: the leading character, or one of the main characters, in any narrative work, as a poem, novel, film, etc. In weakened use (without connotations of prominence): a proponent, advocate, or defender of a cause, idea, etc. A leading player or competitor in a game or sport, or on a team. (Oxford English Dictionary/ OED)

The theme of the story is theirs, but not always the events. The events of the plot may belong to others. But history belongs to the writer and the protagonist gets to call it, to live how it went and drive it meant.

They are usually the causal agent of change, but sometimes by their mere presence. This story would not have been possible without (insert protagonist here.)

The Hero - often the subject of the story. Our beloved darling.

A person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. A man or woman distinguished by the performance of courageous or noble actions. Generally admired or acclaimed for great qualities or achievements in any field

 In a particular context: an individual or group lauded or admired by a specified person or group of people. The central character in a story, play, film, etc. whom the reader or audience is intended to support or admire. (OED)

In many famous novels the 'hero' remains elusive, scintillating and charismatic - 'flawless' because they are not brought into the sharp focus of realism. See my blog on this treatment 'Rumours of a Hero.'

‘No man,’ said the prince de Condé, ‘is a hero to his Valet de Chambre.’ 1753 David Hume.

The hero is not necessarily the protagonist in literary fiction, but often so in commercial fiction.

The Narrator.  A person who recounts the events of a novel or narrative poem.

A person who narrates or gives an account of something. The voice or persona (whether explicitly identified or merely implicit) by which are related the events in a plot, esp. that of a novel or narrative poem. A character in a play or film who relates part of the plot to the audience. (OED)

This person must be present for the events you wish to show, and an ear for those you choose to tell.

Build Your Own Story.

See how the authors of famous novels assigned roles below. Not all boxes need to be ticked, and they can be occupied all by the same person, left empty or occupied by more than one. Even the assignments I have made below are up for debate. But it might help you to consider your set up.






 Pride and Prejudice

Mrs Bennett

Lizzy Bennett


To Kill a Mockingbird

Atticus Finch

Atticus Finch


Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes


The Great Gatsby

Nick Carraway*


Nick Carraway


Humbert Humbert


Humbert Humbert

The Catcher in the Rye

Holden Caulfield

Holden Caulfield **

Holden Caulfield





Vanity Fair

Becky Sharp

Becky Sharp


The Good Soldier

The two couples

Ashburnham **


The Old Man and the Sea




The Outsider


Mersault **


Ham on Rye

Henry Chinaski

Henry Chinaski

Henry Chinaski

My Sister the Serial Killer





David Lurie

David Lurie **


When trying to determine the protagonist or main character, ask yourself who experiences the ground shifting beneath their feet, an altered state or world view, and who do we most empathise with as a friend and ally rather than as a distant icon. Who plays the chief part?

* Sometimes the protagonist role is not straightforward and can be shared, or handed over. Similarly, for the narrator. It's rarely the case for the hero but of course quite feasible.

** Sometimes the hero is not a hero - but an antihero, they speak for the malaise of their era.

When composing your novel the art is in the apportionment and the possibilities. Change is experienced by one of these three.

The person who experiences or apprehends change to the greatest degree is usually the protagonist which brings me neatly to the crux of the matter of story.

What Is Story?

From the Oxford English Dictionary.

Origin: A borrowing from French. Etymon: French storie.

Etymology: < Anglo-Norman storie (early 12th cent.; also estorie , istorie ), variant of Anglo-Norman and Old French estoire tale, narrative, history, account, source, text, etc. 

Compare Italian storia (a1306; a1250 as †istoria ), post-classical Latin storia narrative account, story, legend (late 4th cent.; c1200 in a British source), pictorial representation of a historical episode (9th cent.; 1511 in a British source).

a. A short account of an amusing, interesting, or telling incident, whether real or fictitious; an anecdote.

b. A narrative of imaginary or (less commonly) real events composed for the entertainment of the listener or reader; a (short) work of fiction; a tale.

adventure storybedtime storydetective storyfairy storyghost-storyhorror storylove storymystery storynursery storysensation storyshaggy dog storyshort storyspy storyvampire story,

The series of incidents forming the basis of a novel, play, film, or other work; a plot, a storyline.

1897   Strand Mag. Dec. 634/2   As the life of the body is the blood, so the life of the novel is the ‘story’.

1998   Daily Tel. 10 Mar. 5/5   There is no story, no development, no conclusion.

I find the last citation most telling. No story, no development, no conclusion.

It's helpful to consider what we commonly deem to be a good story, but looking at what is held to spoil it. 

'The actions had no motive or background…there was no ambivalence or private pleading… no person (no ‘character’), no story (no ‘plot'), no conclusion, (no ‘moral.)'

Lucian Krukowski on his early efforts with film making. This Place of Prose and Poetry.

While you can comfort yourself with many reviews eviscerating published books for  bad writing, you will be hard pushed to find one that castigates a published work for having a bad story. Why? Simple. Bad stories don't get published.

So there has to be something that's essential for a story to work, doesn't there?

‘Story describes a series of actions and experiences made by a number of characters, whether real or imaginary. These characters are represented either in situations that change or as they relate to changes when they react. These changes in turn reveal hidden aspects of the situation and of the characters and engender a new predicament that calls for thinking, action, or both. The answer to this predicament advances the story to its conclusion.

Following a story, correlatively, is understanding the successive actions, thoughts and feelings in question insofar as they present a certain directedness. By this I mean that we are pushed ahead by this development and that we reply to its impetus with expectations concerning the outcome and the completion of the entire process. In this sense the story’s conclusion is the pole of attraction of the entire development. …rather than being predictable, a conclusion must be acceptable. Looking back from the conclusion to the episodes leading up to it, we have to be able to say that this ending required these sorts of events and this chain of actions…’

Paul Ricoeur.

A story is about change.

It describes changing circumstances. From here to there. It is commonly a fall from grace or a rise to position or power. Change is at the core of story. Either materially in the given world of the novel, politically, morally, or personally for the protagonist. One thing is for sure, at the end of a story  ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore.’

'A  story is a change from an old status quo to a new one, “old world” to “new world”, through action and conflict.' Pixar Rules of Storytelling.

Because change happens de facto over time, time is a big factor in storytelling. Once upon a time... and then... and then...

‘The heroes of stories reckon with time. They have or do not have time for this or that.’ Paul Ricoeur.

Time and dates so often feature in bold openings to novels. It’s what Dan Brown calls ‘the ticking clock’, the driving force of plot in a thriller, which is, after all, a story on Class A's.

"Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.” Brighton Rock by Graham Greene.

What Happens Next?

'We are all like Scheherzade's husband, in that we want to know what happens next. That is universal and that is why the backbone of a novel has to be a story.' 

'Qua story, it can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.' E.M Forster.

(Note to my writers - thank you, you make an old writer very happy, because when I read your work I want to know what happens next!)

The Narrative is the landscape of story. Generally described as the structural framework that underlies the order and manner in which a narrative is presented to a reader, listener, or viewer. The narrative text structures are the plot and the setting.

The Setting is the time and place.

Relationships form the emotional landscape, so crucial to our human stories that this is not plot, ie events which may be open to consideration (plotting as in conniving!)

This is where conflict is located, the ally and the antagonist, and our teams are assigned, those for or against the protagonist’s path to achieving a goal which can be overt ( see in my blog here 'Thing One') and present itself before the revelation of the true goal which may be covert and unknown, ill-comprehended (see the same blog - 'Thing Two.)

Contrary to convention, an antagonist while undoubtedly a useful tool is not always ‘the other’. The antagonist can be interior as in Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.

The Plot - comprises the events, incidents which assist or hinder the course of the change. Obstacles and aids. Brakes and Accelerators. Road. blocks. No entry. The precipitating incident that commences 'change. The problem. Ticking clock. Other characters needs and desires.

These are often contrived to challenge the protagonist or hero at their weak spot, blind spot, flaw or failing as strong medicine for certain change.

 Plot plays a role as the spine of the story. The vertebrae which conduct motion.

Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

This template is called “the story spine”. Created by Kenn Adams, it comes from the world of improv theatre.

The events of the plot are ordered by the author, usually sequentially, not necessarily time-wise (as in psychological thrillers where the author gives us correlations and results which we apprehend as we apprehend life in real-time, a simulated experience, in which as in life we are privy to the offscreen events in other lives.) 

'Let us define plot.  We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence.  A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality.  “The king died, and then the queen died” is a story.  “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.  The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.  Or again: “The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.”  This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development.  It suspends the time-sequence, it moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow.  Consider the death of the queen.  If it is in a story we say “and then?”  If it is in a plot we ask “why?”  That is the fundamental difference between these two aspects of the novel....and then—and then—. ' E.M Forster.

The theme is what the author wishes to prove. In here is their tentative approach to ‘make friends' with the world and see if anyone else feels this way too. Usually, this will be worked out through the protagonist's development or made real by their fictional experience.

Perspective or point of view is a key part of the treatment.

'The action of looking into or through something.' OED.

Through whose eyes do we see the actions which unfold? Who needs to be present? Who is carrying the camera? The camera may be passed back and forth, or the author may pass invisibly among the cast. Or one person will tell the events as the narrator and it's their reliability, unreliability, outlook which informs 'what matters', what's shown, as the novel is concerned with what matters to this person. 

Moving Forwards. Or not?

Keep your eyes on the moving object when composing your story; simply ask yourself - what's changed? A singular change can make a story, or multiple changes, every chapter can promote change. But it seems that while there are no rules, most readers will expect that whatever the status quo is at the beginning of the story, things will have changed by the end of it, for better or for worse.

All of life is problem-solving, said Karl Popper, and we read to take a break from it and let the problems solve themselves by the simplest turning of pages. It's a funny thing about humans, you don't see so much in dogs, cats and goats, this conviction that things need to change, that change is good, even when it's bad.

A novel is more than a story of course, novels sometimes thumb their noses at them or subjugate them entirely. We must always leave the door open for invention and rule-breaking; therein lies progress, and sometimes beauty and genius.

It is of course quite possible to conceive of a novel in which nothing changes. Cometh the hour, cometh the novel. It is hard to imagine, but not impossible. Nobody move!

Here are some of the few novels without stories or apparent change.

Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker (1988). Covering the time it takes a man to walk across a mezzanine and take an escalator. Instead of anything resembling a plot, Baker dives deep into the thoughts of his character, from his observations of the objects around him on the escalator to musings about everything from paper towels to life. Not much happens. And yet! When his shoelace snaps, it sets Howie thinking about the other seemingly unimportant elements of daily life: why straws float; which queue to stand in at a convenience store; and, most amusingly, the correct office lavatory etiquette. The change is minor, but it's there.

The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson (1969). The 'First' and 'Last' chapters are designated as such. The intervening 25, ranging from 12 pages to a single paragraph, are to be read in any order we choose. The unnamed narrator arrives in a Midlands city for a weekend’s match, attends to his lunch, makes his way to the playing grounds, files his copy and takes the train back to London — not, necessarily, in that order. Johnson famously hated fiction, and produced a 'slice of life' plotless novel.

How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti (2013) is a mashup of memoir, fiction, self-help and philosophy. According to the Guardian Review, Heti  'added a bit of story, quite a few blow jobs and some cheeky exclamation marks.'

Hoorah for all of them!

Of course, such novels are hard to get published, but we are here to support you in the novel you want to write, which is why your first session with your tutor begins with the question 'What do you want?'

After that, as Mr Raymond Carver said, it's all gravy. What happens next?

Thank you to all of you for reading The Novelry blog and wishing you happy writing always. Don't hesitate to contact me and I'll certainly reply at [email protected].

(The music video is Something Changed by Pulp. There are certain songs which press exactly the right button to drop you into the right mood for a sentence or two of your novel, that may not make sense to anyone but you. Those are the ones I love most. They're a luxury. Just one, or two.)

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