And then what happened?


Silk’s Post #58 — Once upon a time there was a … little girl who wore a red riding cloak … young prince imprisoned in a tower … big hungry brown bear … bearded dwarf whose axe had turned to rust … lonely maiden with hair that fell to her waist … wolf who could not howl … wizard who lived in a tree … writer who wandered the world in search of the perfect ending.

You’ve easily recognized each of these as a story waiting to be told. Just add “and then what happened?” and the narrative-generating triangle is complete: protagonist, problem, plot. The pattern is essentially the same for all stories, whether a simple nursery rhyme, an ancient mythical saga, a complex techno-thriller, or a modern murder mystery.

And that pattern is, apparently, imprinted in our DNA. Why?

That stories have always been with us since we became human beings – or maybe before that, if you ask me – is one of those truths we accept easily, like the sequence of day and night or the fact that we have two hands rather than three. Stories are understood as natural phenomena. Which makes storytelling fodder for science, which always abhors magical explanations.

In his online Wired article, “The Art of Immersion: Why Do We Tell Stories?”, Frank Rose sets out the de-romanticized case:

“Anthropologists tell us that storytelling is central to human existence. That it’s common to every known culture. That it involves a symbiotic exchange between teller and listener — an exchange we learn to negotiate in infancy.

Just as the brain detects patterns in the visual forms of nature — a face, a figure, a flower — and in sound, so too it detects patterns in information. Stories are recognizable patterns, and in those patterns we find meaning. We use stories to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others. They are the signal within the noise.

So powerful is our impulse to detect story patterns that we see them even when they’re not there.

In a landmark 1944 study, 34 humans — Massachusetts college students actually, though subsequent research suggests they could have been just about anyone — were shown a short film and asked what was happening in it. The film showed two triangles and a circle moving across a two-dimensional surface. The only other object onscreen was a stationary rectangle, partially open on one side.

Only one of the test subjects saw this scene for what it was: geometric shapes moving across a plane. Everyone else came up with elaborate narratives to explain what the movements were about. Typically, the participants viewed the triangles as two men fighting and the circle as a woman trying to escape the bigger, bullying triangle. Instead of registering inanimate shapes, they imagined humans with vivid inner lives. The circle was ‘worried’. The circle and the little triangle were ‘innocent young things’. The big triangle was ‘blinded by rage and frustration’.”

If you’ve ever doubted the power of story, or the fertility of human imagination, your mind should now be at rest.

You’ve probably done this yourself many times. It’s called people watching. You’re waiting in an airport, a restaurant, a park, and you find yourself in a daydream state. You watch passers-by and make up stories about them. Who they are, where they’re going, and why … What’s his story, the man in the raincoat that’s a little too big for him? Why is he walking so fast? Is he trying to catch a plane, or avoid someone? Yes, there, he just looked over his shoulder … and then you make up a narrative to explain what you see. It’s natural, and seductive. Maybe even compulsive.

Stories are serious instruments, capable of creating change, peace, fear, hatred, ease, love. Great minds that have thought deeply about the role of story in human affairs have even wondered whether the cause-and-effect relationship is circular rather than linear – with reality generating stories, and stories repaying the favour by creating reality.

But that’s getting a little deep for me, because this post is about clearing away all the noise in my brain – all the received wisdom about fiction writing that eloquently fills the thousands of pages of good-advice books on my shelf – and focusing only on the simplest, purest element: Story. That part of fiction writing that a child of three understands just as well as an elder of 93.

Amid all the complexities of the writing process – the genres, market segments, grammar, style, agents, queries, character development, setting, dialogue, tension-building, pace, plot points, hooks outs, blogging, three-act structure, heroes’ journeys and god knows what else – it’s easy to lose sight of the most important thing. And there can be only one most important thing.


Today I decided to take a break from writing book number two, and rewriting book number one – okay, I wasn’t doing both at the same time, in fact I wasn’t doing either one, but I was mentally obsessing about both of them – and think a little about the story for book number three. What a refreshing change – like escaping from a smelly, wet bog full of sucking mud to a fragrant forest rill with warm sunlight sparkling on the ripples.

Some writers are natural storytellers. Their minds effortlessly wander in a narrative pattern. These are the bards – the ones who share a gift with the traditional troubadour, griot, seanchai, poet, teller of folk tales. The rest of us have to work at it. Work at getting back to the joyful basics of pure story.

Writing is what I already know how to do. Storytelling is what I’m learning. One epiphany that’s finally dawning on me (oh so slowly, and so late) is that story is not plot. Story flows organically. It’s the natural answer to the question “and then what happened?” Plot advances mechanically from one strategic point to the next, like a military campaign. Maybe this is a faulty distinction, but that’s how I see it.

Story for me is a noun – a kind of magical place we try to evoke. Plot is a verb – an effort to  create an interesting route map to get us there, and lure our readers to come with us. It seems to me that, while plot keeps readers turning the pages, it is story that lingers in their memories afterward.

Every writer wishes to find that secret route map: the plot that will unerringly deliver us to the perfect story with the perfect ending. All the writing gurus, god love ’em, try their very best to give us the directions. Oh, you’re looking for Story? Just keep heading up Tension Drive, cross Conflict Avenue, and when you get to Crisis Square, take a left …

Of course, there is no secret route map, and writers who try to follow some off-the-shelf, sure-fire formula usually produce a book that can boast fully-checked-off ‘to do’ lists … but little story magic. Sometimes they can even sell the book. Perhaps you’ve read some of these plots, and quickly forgotten the story – and maybe the title and the author too.

I’m hoping for something more ambitious. A novel that harnesses plot to reach that indescribable, elusive haven called Story. 

No better way to get inspired than listen to master storytellers tell us about Story in their own words:

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” — Rudyard Kipling

“Love is the answer to everything. It’s the only reason to do anything. If you don’t write stories you love, you’ll never make it. If you don’t write stories that other people love, you’ll never make it.” — Ray Bradbury

“People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don’t have a middle or an end anymore. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.” — Steven Spielberg

“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” — Willa Cather

“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 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?’ This is the fundamental difference between these two aspects of a novel.” — E. M. Forster

“Storytelling is storytelling. Good stories need compelling characters and interesting conflicts. That’s the bottom line no matter what medium you’re writing for.” — D. J. MacHale

“Know the story – the whole story, if possible – before you fall in love with your first sentence, not to mention your first chapter. If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of a storyteller are you? Just an ordinary kind, just a mediocre kind – making it up as you go along, like a common liar.” — John Irving

“I am always at a loss at how much to believe of my own stories.” — Washington Irving

“Don’t forget – no one else sees the world the way you do, so no one else can tell the stories that you have to tell.” — Charles de Lint

“All stories interest me, and some haunt me until I end up writing them. Certain themes keep coming up: justice, loyalty, violence, death, political and social issues, freedom.” — Isabel Allende

“You should do what you enjoy doing, what brings you passion. As kids, we spontaneously sing and dance and tell stories, and along the way, someone comes and says, ‘No. You shouldn’t be doing that.’ And we slowly begin to unlearn our passions. I think you have to hold on to those things.” — J. Michael Straczynski

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” — Muriel Rukeyser

“Memory is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories – and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories.” — Alice Munro

“To hell with facts! We need stories!” — Ken Kesey

6 thoughts on “And then what happened?

  1. You have so eloquently described what I have been struggling to do most of this year—get back to the simply joy of The Story. I’ve struggled mightily with character flaws, tension, conflict, upping the stakes as the writing gurus tell us we must do—and feeling like I’ve lost my voice and the stories I want to tell. I’m only now trying again with a version that I think will resonate with both me and readers.

    Thank you for this post!

    • So glad you enjoyed this JM! We “emerging” novelists (especially the second career types) have such a steep learning curve, and we’re often trying to follow a recipe (or, more confusing, several recipes at once). We just have to remember to also trust our senses of smell and taste!

  2. You really nailed that topic, Silk. It’s so easy for us newbie writers to get lost in the jargon, the almighty plot and miscellany.In fact, I am sure that all this advice is putting the brakes on my creativity and progress. Story is where it should start and end. If we don’t have story, the best plot will fall flat, regardless of how much conflict and suspense we manage to add. Well done!

    • Thanks for your kind words, Helga! I was thinking of you in my response to JM above. I think if we get the soul of the story right, the rest can be fixed.

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