Sojourn into Story, Part II: What is Story?

This is Part II of a series, Sojourn into Story. See Part I to find out why stories make the world go round.


It’s a Wonderful Life, one of the greatest stories ever told on film. This past Christmas, I had friends from Sweden visiting who had never seen it. When we came out of the theater they said, “I don’t know how I’ve lived this long without seeing this movie.”

What is Story? Now there is a dangerous question.

Stories surround us, but when we stop to think about it, Story is very difficult to define. It is like asking ‘What is love?’ We all know it when we experience it (at least I hope we do), but defining it gets tricky. Story, like Love, is a word we throw around casually, and in doing so it has lost much of its weight. Just as we say we “love going to the movies” and we “love our kids,” a “story” can refer to something minor or to something incredibly profound.

So how do we pursue such an elusive question? It might help to discuss what story is not. Stories are not merely a sequence of events. For example, I heard a talk given at a networking event in which the speaker shared about something from his life. In an attempt to inspire us to believe in the value of grit and hard work, he said, “I want to tell you a story. When I was in high school we had a really prestigious drum band and I wanted to be part of it, so I practiced a lot and got in.” Good for you, guy. When he gave this account, it rubbed me the wrong way, and I was definitely not inspired. Later that day I understood why: what he shared wasn’t a story. Stories are more powerful than that. They connect the storyteller to our empathy and to our curiosity. They do this through portrayal of conflict, specifically conflicts that inhibit the characters from getting what they desire. How the characters make their choices regarding this conflict, and how those choices change the outcome of events, is what makes a story. In the case of the successful drummer, his reference would have become a story if he had been injured, or if he had to choose between rehearsal and something else he wanted, or of his parents disapproved of drumming. He lacked something to overcome, and the result is a disconnect with his audience. As Robert McKee says in Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting, ‘True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.’

In other words, all stories are about something going wrong. Think about it: George Bailey is always stopped from leaving Bedford Falls. Snow White’s stepmother tries to kill her. Elizabeth Bennet is forced to endure the company of a man she hates. Harry Potter can’t live while Voldemort survives. Whether the conflict is within or without the character, Story is not Story without it. A Story, therefore, is a sequence of changes a character undergoes as a result of the choices he or she makes in the face of conflict. If the Evil Queen had been ambivalent about Snow White, we wouldn’t have a story, as there would be neither conflict nor choices nor change. If Voldemort hadn’t killed Harry’s parents or tried to kill him in every book, Harry would have grown up as a normal wizard boy, unscarred and, well, boring. As Patrick Moreau of Stillmotion Studios says in his Ted Talk:

Every story needs a person with a strong desire, as well as conflict. Good Conflict creates questions, and humans are naturally driven to find answers to questions we care about. We could preach facts all day, but in the end we need an emotional connection to the problem, which is much better provided by a story.

In short, conflicts, choices, and changes are the ingredients of Story that tap into our souls, that connect us with the characters in an empathetic bond, and that leave us desperately curious about how the story will end.


Stay tuned for the next installment of Sojourn into Story. 🙂




1 Comment

Filed under Inspiration and Creativity, Running Commentary on whatever tickles the fancy

One response to “Sojourn into Story, Part II: What is Story?

  1. Pingback: Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters Review! | Learning to Whistle

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