Monday 27 November 2023

Events Vs Stories by Claire Fayers

 I was sorting through my old notebooks recently when I came across a question I'd scribbled down during a workshop:

When does a series of events become a story?

I hadn't written down an answer at the time so I've been trying to answer the question this week. I've read lots of stories - often written by children, but not always - where the main character wakes up, gets out of bed, goes out, talks to someone in the street, carries on to school or work, has lunch, fights a dragon, discovers a haunted mansion, comes home etc etc. The individual events may be exciting, but there's no sense of a story unfolding.

E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel wrote: "The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot."

I hate to disagree with E.M. Forster but I don't think his first example is a story. It's a pair of events. The second example feels far more like a story to me, although I'd really like to know who the main character is, given that both the characters mentioned so far are dead. Which makes me think I really need to reread Aspects of the Novel to find out exactly what Mr Forster was getting at.

For me, a story needs to have a main character I can identify with, a sense of causality from one event to the next, and a character arc where the main character becomes a different person through the events of the story. The king died in mysterious circumstances and then the furious and grief-stricken queen set out to discover the identity of the murderer. That sounds a bit more like a story.

But I'm already thinking of exceptions. What's the character arc in 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt'? 

(A good friend of mine, by the way, regards this book as the most terrible example of negligent parenting.)

Come to think of it, sometimes the point of the story is that the character is unable to change, and that becomes their tragedy. So a revised definition is in order. 

A story requires a main character the audience can identify with, a sense of causality from one event to the next, and the events challenge the character to grow and change.

Is that closer, do you think? Is there anything else a story needs?

Claire Fayers


Susan Price said...

Interesting and thought provoking blog! Thank you.

I think you're on the nail when you say 'a sense of causality' is at the heart of both story and plot. However interesting an event is in itself, it must seem to have been caused by what went before and to lead on to what happens next, to maintain interest. Otherwise, as you say, it just becomes an irritating string of things happening, with little connection between them.

I'm not sure how important 'character development' is to story. To novels, yes: they're a different kettle of fish. But in 'Jack and the Beanstalk', or any of the 300 Cinderella stories, how different are any of the characters at the end? They're exactly how they were at the start, but richer.

Thinking about it, most of these stories aren't about someone developing or changing. They're about being recognised. The protagonist wins because of who they are, not because they've learned anything or changed. -- In these old traditional stories, causality is everything. The whole plot unfolds because of something the main character did or failed to do.

Sue Purkiss said...

Hm... perhaps you could appraoach it from a different angle. A story is a story because it makes someone listen to it? Overly simplistic, no doubt! Interesting, Sue's suggestion that different criteria apply to the novel and the short story.

Susan Price said...

I like your angle, Sue! A story is something people listen to. If they wander away, start talking among themselves or fall asleep, it isn't a story.
But what makes them listen? -- I think we're back to casuality again. Listeners think, what's going to happen because of that? -- Ah, so that happened, as I half-thought it would -- but what's going to happen next?