What Makes a Story Feel Like a Story?

Susan DeFcraft, fiction, UncategorizedLeave a Comment

young woman with bangs holding a red phone up to her ear

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.

But there’s an element of storytelling that operates at a deeper level than the plot, and in recent years, I’ve come to believe that this is the thing that signals to readers that they’re in the presence of a real story.

That’s the protagonist’s internal issue, or problem.

Sure, external trouble will get your reader’s attention: The protagonist wakes up to find that a tree has fallen on her car. Now she has no way to get to work, and if she’s late, she’ll get fired, because her boss is a jerk. And because her boss is a jerk, she hasn’t had a raise in the last five years, and she can barely afford to pay her rent.

There’s plenty of external trouble in that scenario—enough, given the right execution, to keep the reader turning the pages to see what happens next. But if there’s no hint of some internal trouble the protagonist is facing, within the first twenty-five pages or so, chances are, our attention as readers will flag.

Internal trouble might be something more like this: The protagonist wakes up to find that a tree has fallen on her car. Now she has no way to get to work, and if she’s late one more time, she’ll get fired. She hates her job, though it’s the professional one her working-class mother was so proud of her for getting, so she feels like she can’t leave it.

In this scenario, the external trouble isn’t just A Series of Unfortunate Events, to paraphrase Lemony Snicket—it’s a clear invitation from the universe for this protagonist to confront her internal issue, the one that’s kept her in this job she hates for so long, and change.

Which is another way of saying that it signals the beginning of a character arc.

Read the rest of the post on Jane Friedman’s blog here.

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