What makes a story?

Stories … life is all about the stories we tell


Well here I am refreshed after a lovely day off and ready for action. One of the things I love to do is visit budding young writers in schools and I am doing that this afternoon. I’m running a PAWS workshop with some gifted writers that are in a writing group at a secondary school and hopefully working with them on their first drafts that they plan to submit to the Paws Writing Competition.

One of the things I like to focus on is what makes a story. Now this might seem like a fundamental question, but since story arcs do not have prominence on school curricula, then often they are seeing it for the first time. So when children tell you, as they inevitably do: I don’t know what happens next in my story, I don’t know how it ends … the story arc is a useful tool. So I thought I would talk about it today (again) and see if you think the same.

What is a useful exercise for planning a story and then thinking in terms of the arc is to ask: what conflict drives your story? When I ask this I often see blank faces initially. But it’s quickly apparent they do know, they just never thought about it in those terms. What about you?

So when I then say what is this story about? and they say … an elephant who’s looking for water, I say then the conflict is: find water or die. Yes they say. So then we talk about how the story will be a series of incidents about seeking water, seeing mirages, finding dried up water holes etc, all building the tension and the sense of urgency, the elephant gets weaker so the need to solve the question gets stronger . In a nutshell that’s story, right? Once you know the conflict, you can build on character motivation, and its most primeval sense, and exemplified in this story, it really is live or die. You can add barriers to solving the problem, internal and external and so the story takes shape.

So then they say, but what is the climax? and I say, well what question are you trying to solve? The climax is: the will he solve it? moment. Ah they say. It’s really as simple as that.

And the dénouement? The reveal? The resolution? How it ends … answers the question … does he solve the problem and live, or not?

While, and I have said this many times, the  story arc is by no means formulaic, I find it a very helpful tool in teaching and dealing with the essence of what story is and prescriptive where stories are not quite working.

What I hope the children take home is a better understanding that no matter how convoluted and complex stories can become, bringing it back to its naked from, its skeletal key question (and often writing blurb poses this question) and how this is resolved, can simplify and it reality I think the best, often high concept novels are really the simplest. So how can you describe your story, what question are you asking in your latest creation?

So the children I hope also come to appreciate the arc (and I only show them the simplest three act form)  and how it works for just about any story, film, play, musical  game, book. And they seem to enjoy now applying that knowledge. I do often talk about soaps and the Duff Duff Duff EastEnders moment as the climax in overlapping serialised story lines and it also helps to emphasise the need for cliffhangers and foreshadowing in building other storylines towards that Duff Duff Duff.

So for me the story arc is really a getting back to basics useful tool and one it’s not a bad thing to remind ourselves about once in a while.

What do you think? 

Story arc 2




1 Comment

Filed under Back-story, being a successful writer, Conflict in fiction, Editing, formulas in writing, Learning to be a writer, Openings, Pace, Passion for writing, Paws Animal Writing Competition for Children, Paws n Claws Publishing, Plot, Publishing, Reading, Short Stories, Story Arcs, Structure, Subplots, Theme, Wild n Free Book, Writing workshops

One response to “What makes a story?

  1. I love that graph, I’m going to use it for my novel which is around the space between crisis 1 and 2. Useful post thanks.

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