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In Search of the Novel

What’s the Story?

Many different ways of telling the story are discussed. What are the conflicts, the crises, and the resolutions? This workshop explores how an author spins a story and why it is the most important aspect of the novel.

Goals and Objectives

Upon completion of this workshop lesson teachers will be able to:

  1. Help students define “story” and explain the importance of story in his or her own culture and the culture of other groups.
  2. Help students articulate what makes a good story.
  3. Write a lesson plan that allows students to explore the elements of story.

Participants’ Comments and Observations

Katherine Paterson: We tell stories to make sense. The essence of fiction is a story that is making sense. I think it has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, because that’s how you make sense; you start it out, you set your problem, you complicate it, and then you resolve it. And our life doesn’t do that for us, but that’s why we have to have stories. Our early ancestors tried to make sense out of things they were afraid of or things they didn’t understand, so they told a story about it—to make sense.

Orson Scott Card: Most of the time stories are not about character at all, they’re just about stuff happening. And the only way character gets involved is in the human response to that. Think back to all the great revenge stories which [were] the mainstay of the system of justice that was depicted in the great epic romances, before the novel was invented. Character meant nothing. Characters were what they did in the story and that’s all. There was no attempt to explore motive. In fact it’s one of the key differences when you look at early French romances and then you watch how they’re transformed into the English romances. You know, a language that in that era was considered to be not that different because so many French words had been transferred just across the Channel. But the English had this obsession with causation that the French really didn’t have. So with the French, they’d be telling the story where there was a lot of spectacle and a lot of description of costumes, really quite formalistic. The second you move it across the Channel, all the fashion is gone. But now you have really deep speculation on motive because they cared more about character. Same events but…they were stories for both cultures but a completely different slant on it. I talked about this with a writing professor of mine…and he was saying, “No, no, the story is in the performance.” You know, it’s in the way it’s written, and I still think he’s wrong because you can write the same story a thousand different ways and it is the same story as long as things happen for the same reasons. The second you change the reason why something happens, the cause or the motive behind it, then you’ve transformed the story completely. For example, Huckleberry Finn, everybody knows this story. If I tell you that the real reason that Huckleberry Finn did not sell Jim, did not turn Jim in for being a runaway slave was because he was hoping to get a better price for him farther down the river, of course that’s absurd. Because in fiction the story is what the author said it was. But it’s also absurd in another sense. It’s a different novel then. If Huckleberry Finn is the kind of person who would have that motive, he’s not the person that we know in this book. That’s a complete transformation. As soon as you change motive or cause of something, then you’ve transformed the story completely. But until you change that, you can translate it into other languages, you can write it a simplified version, a long version, abridged, whatever. As long as the reasons are the same, the causation is the same, it’s the same story.

Leslie Marmon Silko: When I think of “story,” I think of narrative and narration. I believe that narration or story is a fundamental part of human consciousness. Part of our development as human beings includes this yearning to narrate who we are. The way that human experience and human consciousness is organized is a component of language that almost is a part of our whole being; our day-to-day activity is a story that we’re telling ourselves or that’s told to us. To me, story is being. If I tell you, “Okay, you’re a being and right at this minute you’re involved in a state of being, and could you verbalize, just begin to verbalize, this being, what you would begin to verbalize would come out in what we could see right away as a narrative. It would take on a narrative form of a story. So for me, story is consciousness.

Orson Scott Card: Plot is not story. Plot is moving the characters around on the stage, getting them into the right scene, out of the right scene. That’s mechanical and it’s done during the writing process. Story is completely different from that. Story is what happens and why. There always has to be a person in it. Events are interesting, but only in relation to people. There is a character involved because there must always be a human being present. But it’s not about character. Most of the time stories are not about character at all; they’re just about stuff happening. And the only way character gets involved is in the human response to that. You can write the same story a thousand different ways and it is the same story as long as things happen for the same reasons. The second you change the reason why something happens—the cause or the motive behind it—then you’ve transformed the story completely.

Daniel Keyes:
A good story is made first by good characters. Characters…people that the reader can care about, identify with, and want to spend some time with…If you have a character who has a conflict and the reader cares, then there has to be some kind of structure. And my personal preference in structure is that things change and build and grow so that each scene builds upon the scene before and the reader gets the feeling we’re going somewhere. We’re not just static. We’re going somewhere. Something’s happening. And a character that changes is important to me. Now I know that in short stories characters don’t have time to change because you need time to have convincing change. I was lucky with Flowers for Algernon. I had a way for Charlie to change because there was an artificial thing put in called a surgery that made him a genius. So even in a novelette, Charlie changes, he builds, he develops. And I think the reader is fascinated. I’m fascinated. So I assume the reader will be fascinated by this growth and change in development. So what makes a good story is a character you care about, a character that is unique, a character that has a conflict that sets him off on a quest of some kind an experience. And then has a satisfying conclusion – doesn’t have to be a happy ending. I tend not to [have] happy endings because my feeling is life doesn’t have a happy ending – we all die.

Ernest Gaines: Mark Twain once said that the purpose of “fiction should not be to preach and teach but the end result should do both.” I try to show strength and also to show weakness, bravery, cowardice. I just try to show people. And I try to describe a place as well as I can and my aim is to use the language as well as I possibly can—not dialect—but to use simple, plain, everyday spoken language as well as I can. I use authenticity to make you see, feel, hear, and believe in these people that I’m writing about.

Charles Taylor: You have to have an involving story, characters who you have an emotional investment in, and a progression of plot, and development of these characters. To me, the real sort of metaphor for what a terrific novel is—it’s a journey. You get to a point in the end and the pleasure’s being able to look back from where you came and see how much ground you’ve traveled.

Arthur Golden: I think the big issue with storytelling it seems to me is context and a good story is very simply one that puts everything in its proper context and I know that sounds like an evasive answer but I don’t mean it that way. In writing classes they’ll tell you show, don’t tell, they tell you that. That comes from an impulse to dramatize things and I can illustrate that very simply by the example of you’re at a dinner party and somebody tells you a story about a guy up the street who does something very strange, who is a very strange guy and it’s an amusing story, doesn’t have any effect on your life, on the other hand if there’s a banging on the door and your host goes to open it and in comes the guy from up the street and because he does these bizarre things right in front of you now it’s your story, it’s a much different kind of experience of the same events. That’s the power of dramatizing, that’s what fiction writers try to encourage their students to do.

Teacher: What’s the story? If you begin the class by suggesting action, you’re really looking at plot. And that seems to me to be on one level of “What’s the story?” And I think as readers, that’s sort of where we begin, too. I mean, what is the story? What is the action? What are the events? How did it take place? But as classroom teachers or even as parents, sometimes we ask the question, “What’s the story?” And when we ask the question, “What’s the story?” we’re asking a very different question from what just took place. We’re asking the questions, “What was going on behind that? What was motivating you? What did you think you were doing?” And so there are two totally different questions, but they really are directions that we’re going in with the kids. So on one level it’s going be as individual as the events of a different story and as linear as plot. On the other hand, the question is motivation, and then even beyond that, the question is, “Is there a single story?”

Teacher: The whole point of stories is not solutions or resolutions, but a broadening and even a heightening of our struggles. With new protagonists and antagonists introduced, with new sources of concern or apprehension or hope as one’s mental life accommodates itself to a series of arrivals, guests who have a way of staying but not necessarily staying put, we invite our students into literature as they are inviting Pip or Scout into their story—to be guests in the hotel of their lives.