People have tried to define “story” since the dawn of time (probably), but is there really one agreed-upon definition? We have definitions, sure, but do they really do it justice?
- an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.
“an adventure story”
2. an account of past events in someone’s life or in the evolution of something.
“the story of modern farming”
These definitions may cover it in the most basic of terms but they still conjure images of long sagas with a beginning, middle, and end and plenty of characters and settings along the way. Then we get to all the narrative tools and plot devices that every English teacher tries to drill into our brains. Character, setting, cliffhanger, foreshadowing, satire, irony, the list goes on and on. Is that really what makes a story? Perhaps, but it all feels so clinical. If anything a hyper-focus on those tools might actually lead a writer to turn around a convoluted pile of garbage. Does it really need to be all that?
I myself have found myself incapacitated by these terms and the need to be intentional about each one. On one hand they are every writer’s friend. Provide a playbook to guide you through the writing process, a structure for you to build your story around. But they are (or should be) simply that. A structure. The bones of a story for you to take and add muscle, tissue, blood, and flesh to.
Just like stories we all have our definitions and there are some most basic definitions we can agree on. But real humanity is defined by context and is ever changing.
Most (many? all?) writers will tell you editing is where good writing comes from. First drafts are always trash. Editing, while arduous, is where the magic happens. When you refine your ideas, get rid of all the noise, you are hopefully left with exactly what is needed and nothing more. Well, at least in the ideal scenario. You are left with just the elements of the bones that serve your story, once you have quieted that aching need to cover all the narrative elements that “the greats” used. And just enough of the flesh to guide the reader while leaving the white space that allows them to fill in the blanks. Not everything has to be said explicitly to evoke an emotion or be relatable.
So, maybe the question we really should be asking is “what is the minimum we need for a story?”
In pursuit of the answer to this question, I found myself searching for the shortest story of all time. What I found was a six-word story generally (and likely falsely) attributed to Ernest Hemingway. The story goes that Hemingway once bet a group of men $10 dollars each that he could make them cry with a short story of no longer than six words, and he won. For a moment I felt very grounded in the question. The story, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” felt like an answer to the question. The words provided enough information to allow its audience to fill in the blanks. It introduced characters without saying their names. It conjured images of a setting and a grief stricken family. It was perfect and it was sad. But it was a story, in just six words.
Later, I shared my findings with my partner. This is the conversation that followed:
“I was looking up the shortest story ever today. It’s only six words and kind of sad. Do you want to hear it?”
“It should be ‘I won.’”
“That’s not a story.”
“Of course it is!”
“It’s too short, there’s not enough information. You could take that in any direction.”
“Sounds like art to me.”
“Do you want to hear the real one?”
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
“That suffers the same thing then.”
“No, it doesn’t! It has way more information. You know what happened.”
“No, you don’t. Maybe the baby just had bigger feet than expected.”
It seems a story really is what the viewer makes of it. As writers, all we can do is give them the room to take it there.