STORYLINGO Part 2 - What is a Story?

“Storytelling is about two things; it's about character and plot.”
George Lucas (American filmmaker)

By StoryPaul

Part 2. What is a Story? (click here for PART 1)

That’s a great question. As we continue our journey into the Storylingo cave, we will need to define some terms more than others. This one is essential to us. You see, story is a word that is used to describe different things. Yet in all of the meanings, there is common ground.

Filmmaker George Lucas tells us that the two key ingredients of a story are character and plot. Plot is what the story is about. Character is who the story is about. What and who. Two simple narrative elements.

In a story, those two elements interact. The way they do is what defines the type of story.

Types of Story

We can identify three basic types of stories. So since this blog series is for teachers and learners of English, think about how we deal with each type of story from the perspective of a language classroom or learning environment. We'll talk more about it in future posts.

  • Fictional. This is a story conjured up in the imagination of a writer. Novels, short stories, fairy tales, films and TV fiction are the most obvious examples of this kind of storytelling. The important thing to remember is that fictional storytelling is where we find story form in its natural form. In other words, the following two types of story borrow from this one.

  • Non-fictional. This is a real event that is told in the way of a story. This could range anywhere from personal experience, to something on the news, to a documentary. Of course, whether something is “real” or not will be debated at times, and rightly so. Just not on this post.

  • Transactional. This is when the principles of storytelling are applied to a communicational relationship. Two typical cases where this happens are in education and in business, especially in sales. In other words, when a teacher uses storytelling to teach or when a sales person uses storytelling to sell. Addtionally, many communication scholars agree that because storytelling is very powerful and influential, it is also used as a transactionally persuasive tool in politics and religion. I certainly have my opinion, but I'll leave yours up to you. Let's move on.

So we have three types of stories. However, keep in mind these are not fixed and there are gray areas in between. A real event may become fictionalized as a movie. Or we could use a well known story to teach a lesson or sell lemonade. In all cases, there will be some sort of character and plot.

CHARACTER in the thick of the PLOT in this classic scene 
from Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest

The Fictional Story

To understand the art of storytelling, we are better off learning and understanding how fictional stories are crafted and told. Especially since the other two use the fictional story as their model.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines fiction as a type of book or story that is written about imaginary characters and events and not based on real people and facts. Imagination is the key here because this kind of story ignites the imagination of its readers, listeners or viewers, especially if they are learners.

Best of all, fictional stories don't require us to believe them. We suspend our disbelief and enter another world with its own set of rules. Fictional stories have style, deal with all sorts of subjects and usually have an underlying theme that is not only very closely related to the main character, but to an issue or dilemma that the reader or audience can relate to.

Fictional stories are created by writers of fiction. These are usually writers who may have either something to say about the human condition or the need to ask it a question. What if? They may also just want to have fun with their art and with us. Or all of the above.

But here is the thing. Stories, regardless of what they are about, are about us, human beings. And all stories - one way or another - shed a light on the questions that we ask ourselves and on our very own existence.

Earlier we mentioned story form. This refers to the organizational logic and format that stories generally follow. And as we said, it is this story form that is emulated by those who tell other kinds of stories (non-fictional, transactional). We will go further into this in future posts.

So from this point forward in our journey, the Fictional Story is The Story. And with that, we've suddenly been teleported back to the original question at the beginning of this post.

At its simplest, a story is about change.

Once again... what is a story?

At its simplest, a story is about change. But not just any change. Change that comes as the result of challenge. There are two ways this can happen.

A story can tell the tale of someone doing something challenging, which results in change. Or it can be all about something challenging happening to someone, resulting in change. Think about the stories you know and love and you’ll see most follow this pattern.

So, yes, a story is change and challenge. But there’s a little more to it than that.

You see, change can only come about when the established order of things in a place, in a system or for an individual is altered. In fact, this alteration is the challenging part we were talking about before. It’s a complex process that involves opposing ideas, interests and forces. Opposing forces can only lead to one thing. Conflict.

The bigger the conflict, the more engaging the story.

However, that does not mean that in every story, a key character will be in conflict with another character. At least, not necessarily.

Types of Conflict

There are essentially four types of conflict. In the examples that follow, I'll explain each one and provide a story sample that includes character and plot and illustrates the differences.

Star Wars (film) 
by George Lucas
Character vs. Character
This is the classic story with a protagonist and an antagonist who battle until the bitter end. There can only be a single winner. This type could also include opposing groups, but there will usually be a protagonist or an antagonist that stands out in each group.

Star Wars by George Lucas is the saga of a simple farm boy from a distant planet who discovers he has great powers and is destined to fight and defeat the menacing dark lord of the galaxy Darth Vader, strong man of the evil Galactic Empire.

Moby Dick (novel) 
by Herman Melville
Character vs. Nature
This is the story a person or a group of persons who confront forces of nature, such as storms, earthquakes, wild animals or even asteroids from outer space. It is usually a story of survival and of the struggle and sacrifice this implies.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville is the story of Ahab, a 19th century whaling captain who was almost killed in an encounter with the "great white whale". He becomes obsessed with revenge, putting himself and his entire crew at risk by taking on the dreaded Moby Dick.

Hamlet (play)
by William Shakespeare
Character vs. Self
This is usually the story of a single person who is dealing with an serious internal conflict or dilemma and who ultimately has to make a choice. Of course, this dilemma will put this person at odds and in conflict with others, but the deep resolution of conflict lies within. 

Hamlet by William Shakespeare is the story of a brooding prince who - after learning his father was murdered - struggles with himself whether or not to kill the culprit, his uncle – the new king.

This is the story of a character whose convictions put him at odds with the society where he lives and all the doctrines and beliefs of that society. This is the story of the character that challenges the status quo and may or may not be made to pay the price, depending on how the author decides to end the story.

Thelma & Louise by Callie Khouri is the story of two female friends on a weekend road trip who get in trouble when one of them kills the would-be rapist of the other. As fugitives of the law in a male-dominated society with little room for equality,
they have no choice but to run. The question is for how long. 

And while we're on the subject of equality. Some of you reading this may have noticed that I use the word "character vs" replacing the traditional phrasing "man vs" used by literary scholars for centuries. I believe character is better because it refers to the leading character or characters. So it can refer to men, women, children, groups, individuals, talking animals, aliens, artificial intelligence or fantasy characters in a category of their own. Basically, we’re talking about the forces that are in conflict with one another.

Nevertheless, there are stories that do not fit exactly into these types of conflict. There are variations, such as stories whose main characters are in conflict with supernatural forces or with super powerful technology. Here it really depends how the conflict is presented.

So where does this leave comedies and drama which don’t always involve end of the world or catastrophic scenarios? Most comedies and dramas are either Character vs. Character or Character vs. Self. Many are a little of both as the character deals with those who oppose him or her as well as his or her own limitations.

The Hero's Journey

As we said when describing the types of conflict, stories have a main character or group of main characters who the story is about. They are the ones who experience the key events and take the main actions. And it is through such characters that we experience the story. For the sake of simplicity, we call our main character The Hero

For the time being, what we need to know is that in a story, the hero is in conflict with someone or something: another character, nature, society or even, him or herself. To resolve that conflict, the Hero will have to embark on a journey, real or metaphorical, and deal with great odds to restore or renew order. Or at least to try. This is called: The Hero's Journey.

In future posts, we will talk much more about the Hero's Journey.

What I can tell you now is that the result of this journey will vary. Still, one thing is certain. After the journey, after confronting adversity, the world of the Hero will never be the same. And in many cases, neither will ours.

And that is a story.

In our next post, we will answer the question: Why do stories matter?


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