I often ask myself the question, What is a story? I ask it to understand why I love Winifred Gérin’s biography of Charlotte Brontë and not Gone Girl. I ask it when I’m watching Seinfeld and want to know how “a show about nothing” met with such wild success, or when raving over the greatness of Charles Dickens despite the horrible flaws in his novels, or when my roommate starts off a story with “Today my coworker . . .” and I just have to find out what happened next.
I have a bevy of New York relatives descended from recent Italian immigrants. Here’s what I’ve learned from them: anything can be a story. The New York accent exists to turn any sequence of events into a story, one that can be heard across a noisy room, amplified by hand gestures.
I’d like to offer a bare-bones definition of story. Note that I’m not trying to define a good story. What makes a story “good” quite often depends on cultural, historical, linguistic, and stylistic contexts. Those are important, but they can’t come before the boiled-down concept of story itself. What makes a story a story?
Here’s the definition I’m working with: A story is a sequence of events that is meaningful to the narrator or the audience.
The following sentence is not a story. In the deepening blue of the sunset sky, a waxing crescent moon shone behind a pink fan of cloud sweeping across it like a huge ostrich plume.
But this, a sequence of events from A to B, just might be: The editor turned away from her computer screen in search of inspiration. Glancing out her window at the sunset sky, she saw, in the deepening blue, the crescent moon shining behind a pink fan of cloud that swept across it like a huge ostrich plume.
It would take a bit more work to write those sentences just so, to communicate the breath-stopping image I saw a few moments ago when I looked out my bedroom window. But it has the basic elements of a story.
In his introduction to Stories: All-New Tales, Neil Gaiman says that a good story causes the reader to ask, “And then what happened?” which is illustrated in my sample story above. I would add that a story could also cause the reader to ask “How?” or “Why?” A mystery story takes us from point A (the discovery of the crime) to point B (the identification of the criminal) by uncovering how the crime happened. A tragedy such as Hamlet asks (and only partially answers) the question, “Why did an entire royal family die at a banquet?”
It’s those three questions—What next? How? Why?—that imbue a sequence of events with meaning. I’ll delve deeper into the question of meaning in my next post. Till then, why not keep an eye out for the strange and wonderful stories happening (or being told) all around you?