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A Story vs. Stuff That Happens

When we writers critique each others' queries or manuscripts, there's one piece of advice that's both the most common for us to dole out and the most infuriating for us to hear: "None of this is the story. Tell us the story!"

The problem with this advice is that few people who hear it truly understand what a story is—hence why they didn't write one—and few people who give it bother to explain what they mean. They assume it's obvious. You just, you know, tell the story.

Sometimes I suspect the people giving the advice don't understand what a story is either. They'll say, "There's no story," when they really mean, "I got bored." If you ask them to clarify, they'll fidget and say something like, "Nothing happens."

Then the poor writer gets confused and frustrated. "What do you mean nothing happens? I put fast-paced action in every chapter! I do tell the story!"

Here's the root of the misunderstanding: "a bunch of stuff happens" isn't a story. You can pack a book or movie with explosions and passionate love affairs and epic sword fights, and it won't necessarily have any story in it.

In a story, every plot point, every major scene, is related to the ones before and after it. The actions the characters take, and the big decisions they make, are driven by what they experienced, learned, or caused to happen earlier in the timeline. And their actions and decisions have consequences for the future; they determine the direction of the story.

Now every writer who reads the above will roll their eyes and say, "Duh, Captain Obvious. Everybody knows that." But do they? I've read too many published books that have no story in them to believe it's common knowledge.

Here's a "story" we've all read before.

  1. A heroine meets a hero. They're attracted to each other, but for some reason they can't be together. He's rich and she's poor. She can't get over her cheating ex. He's the son of the man who murdered her pet Pekingese. Et cetera.
  2. The two have heart-fluttering slow dances at parties. They go on dates at cute cafes and trendy bars, in which they talk about their hometowns and then make out. They frolic at the beach in swimsuits that reveal glistening pecs and mile-long legs. Et cetera.
  3. They decide the reasons keeping them apart are silly and fall into each others' arms. The End.

This is not a story. The resolution at the end doesn't grow out of the events in the middle. None of the characters' actions or decisions have more than superficial consequences. In fact, you could skip everything between "they meet" and "they marry" and you wouldn't miss anything important.

Now let's study a famous romance that does have a story: Romeo and Juliet.

  1. The Montague and Capulet families hate each other. Their young men brawl in the street.
  2. Romeo Montague and his friends crash a party held by the Capulets. There Romeo meets Juliet Capulet, and they steal kisses in the shadows.
  3. Romeo and Juliet marry secretly.
  4. When another fight breaks out between the Montague and Capulet gangs, Romeo tries to stop it. But when Juliet's cousin Tybalt kills Romeo's friend Mercutio, Romeo kills Tybalt in a rage.
  5. The prince banishes Romeo from the city. Juliet, heartbroken, formulates a plan in which she'll fake her death to escape her family, then run away with Romeo.
  6. Romeo doesn't get the memo and believes his wife is really dead. He kills himself.
  7. Juliet wakes up and finds her husband dead. She kills herself.
  8. The Montagues and Capulets realize that their selfish feud lead to this tragedy, and they resolve their differences.

Every plot point in this story is the direct result of a previous one.

Why do Romeo and his friends crash the Capulet party? Because of the long-standing family feud, as introduced through the brawl in the opening scene.

Why do Romeo and Juliet marry? Because he crashed the party, fell for her on sight, and wooed her.

Why does Romeo try to stop the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt? Because he married Juliet, so his former enemies are now his in-laws.

Why does Mercutio die? Because Romeo tried to stop the fight.

And so on. Every action the famous lovers take (1) results from their decisions in the past and (2) leads them closer to the tragedy in their future.

Here are two tests to see if your story is a story, or if it's just a bunch of stuff that happens.

Does the order of your chapters matter?

If Romeo were banished, then married Juliet, then killed Tybalt, the play wouldn't make any sense. The order in which events take place, or at least the order in which facts are revealed, is very important in a story.

But in many books, you can swap scenes around at random and it wouldn't make a bit of difference.

If you can easily move a chapter somewhere else, it might mean that chapter serves no purpose in the story. You wrote about your couple frolicking at the beach only because you like the beach, and it doesn't matter when they go because the trip isn't prompted by anything that happened before and doesn't result in any changes to their relationship.

Are all of your chapters necessary?

Imagine if Shakespeare deleted the part where Romeo rushes to Juliet's tomb and chugs poison. Juliet would wake up alone and, uh, I guess she decides to stab herself for no reason?

Or what if Shakespeare took out the part where Juliet decides to fake her death? Romeo would just be hanging out in exile, and then he'd suddenly decide he's going to come back and commit suicide because life sucks.

It's a good sign if you can say, for certain, that taking out a scene or chapter would require a sweeping rewrite of everything that comes afterwards, or that it would at least make the scenes that come later very confusing. It's not a good sign if you can completely delete a chapter and it would affect nothing.

Not every scene has to be indispensable to the story, like in Romeo and Juliet—you can have funny scenes, exciting scenes, and sexy scenes, if that's what you and your readers like. But I do believe that at least one part of every chapter should move things along, or the book starts to stall.


Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt (October 12, 2014, 9:43 pm)

Every sentence, every paragraph, every beat, every scene, every chapter, every part - has to do so many things at once that it makes you dizzy.

'No fluff' - it has to do all the things: move the plot, provide a background, show a setting, motivate a character, explain some backstory (without telling), reinforce a theme, give us physical action.

Readers have very short attention spans - fortunately, writers have lots and lots of tools.

If I don't put all that stuff in, I get bored - I don't imagine the reader is going to be less bored.

As for order: there is a 'best' order; as you said, only the true way through the valley makes sense. It may take some casting about and rewriting and thinking, but the one way has a feeling of being right.

Which is why it takes me so long to do things. When I don't make progress, it is the subconscious telling me something isn't in the right place, or there are layers that need excavating.

I never thought it would be quite as satisfying.

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