What Does ‘Story’ Mean?

Speaking about the merits of a writer recently, I said to a colleague, “He understands story.” The colleague nodded, though he eyed me with an expression that made me believe he didn’t understand what I meant.

The exchange left me to ponder: what did I mean? When we discuss the term ‘story,’ we must make a distinction with the term ‘plot.’ Story and plot are not synonymous. Plot is the sequence and organization of the events that happen in a story. Plot can be linear (chronological) or non-linear (out of sequence). Plot devices can slow down or speed up the pacing of a story.  Think of plot as the ‘what’ of a novel. Story gets to the ‘why’ of the novel.

Story has the following elements: plot, structure, characters, setting, style, and theme. The elements of a story are clear enough, but I struggle to come up with a definition of story that gets to the heart of what it is. One of the best books on ‘story’ is Lisa Cron’s “Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence.” Citing recent research that reveals our brain is hardwired to respond to story, Cron concludes people turn to story to teach them about the world. People can experience what it is like to be in a war or to navigate through a life and death conflict without having to go through it. Story is the framework that allows people to make sense out of life.

In a recent blog post on Writer Unboxed, Cron expanded on the meaning of story. “Story isn’t what happens externally; story is how we make sense of what happens internally.” Stories center on external events, but what they are really about are the internal struggles of the main character. The most satisfying stories are the ones in which the main character starts out with weaknesses or obstacles that prevent her from reaching her goals and  then faces mounting challenges. In the process of overcoming these challenges, she experiences transformative growth.

Using an example we all know, Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is ostensibly a story about the struggle for justice and the fight against prejudice, as demonstrated through the trial of Tom Robinson. On the surface it is the story of Atticus Finch, a lawyer of rare courage who stands up for justice in the face of contempt from his community. Beneath the surface, it is the story of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her loss of innocence as a child who witnesses the harsh realities of racial prejudice, poverty, and ignorance in Depression-era rural Alabama. It is about Scout’s internal struggle and her acute need to make sense of her world where her friends and neighbors  are decent people who are capable of doing terrible things.

As a story, To Kill a Mockingbord works on multiple levels. And perhaps that example embodies the true definition of story.  

How would you define story? Give an example of a story that works on an external and internal level?


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