What Makes a Story Feel Like a Story?

What’s the difference between a story and a narrative relating a series of events? Once upon a time, dear reader, I might have answered, “Causality.”Because it’s a basic truth I’ve discovered as a book coach and editor: if you have plot that’s basically episodic—this happens, then that, and then this thing over here—the single most effective thing you can do to make it feel like a real story is to introduce the element of causality in revision: this happened, and as a consequence, that happened, which then led to this. – (guest post by Susan DeFreitas.)

Source: What Makes a Story Feel Like a Story? | Jane Friedman

In a story, things happen for a reason. When they don’t, the narrative is often called a slice of life. Some writers specialize in relating a series of events that appear to have no relationship to each other. Some consider this avant-garde and sometimes it is and when it is the puzzle for the reader is finding the meaning in it.

I’ve never been a fan of an author’s random musings when they’re set down on a page and called fiction. DeFreitas suggests you really have a story, as opposed to doodling on a page, when the author includes “the protagonist’s internal issue or problem.” That’s basic, I think–what we learned in English 101 in college.

It’s worth bringing back into our conversations now because so many authors have run so far afield from the central parts of a story that they’ve lost the story. It may be cutting edge something or other, but it doesn’t answer the request, “Tell me a story.”


Why We Rise – Joseph Campbell’s View

“Most attribute the foundations of Western story structure to Aristotle. His simple idea that stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an end has long served as the template for how narratives have been communicated. Joseph Campbell, by contrast, wisely popularized the idea that the narrative journey was actually a cycle — that every ending brought forth new beginnings, that every death brought forth resurrection and new life.”

Source: MythBlast | Why We Rise – JCF: Home

I like this Joseph Campbell Foundation essay about the cyclical nature of stories and how they interact with the nature of our lives. You’ll find this in Campbell’s writings about The Hero’s Journey, the idea–as the author puts it–that the beginnings we discover in the new year don’t arise from a blank slate. As Frank Herbert mentioned in his novel Dune, the intuitive can look backward in time and see–like footprints across the sand–the steps one has taken to arrive where they are in life at any given moment.

Put this in a novel, and you call those steps “the plot” or “foreshadowing.” Story helps us identify these kinds of patterns in “real life” just as “real life” suggests to us the stories we tell, both fiction and memoir.