If you have followed Kathy Hansen's wonderful series of interviews with people who work in the story area, you will have noticed the wildly varying answers to her question about what makes a story a story. I used to read some of these and get ... well, not upset, but perhaps self-righteous, or behaving like what my mother would call (in her gifted way of putting just the right words in the right place) "a little snot." As I read more and more of these definitions, I noticed that I would get predictably upset when people defined stories in either of two ways. The first group would say a story was characters acting in time and space in an arc of plot events and blah blah blah Hollywood blah blah. The other group would say a story was people in communities sharing their lives and rending their hearts and blah blah blah therapy blah blah.
My superior definition of story has always been this, as I wrote in my book:
The very simplest definition of a story is: a recounting of events where you wonder what is going to happen, and then you find out. In order for you to wonder what is going to happen there has to be a tension between two or more possibilities (it's why there needs to be a comma in that first sentence). Aristotle called it potentiality, development and result -- meaning, something could happen, something does happen, and what happens means something. There can be other recountings of events that are not stories -- for example, lists of things that happened on different dates, or places you stopped on your way to the coast -- but if there is no uncertainty there is no story. Uncertainty is the reason stories draw us in and engage us, because they tap into problem-solving instincts that have evolved over millions of years.So there you go. That was the one right way to look at stories, and all other ways were wrong. Aristotle and I knew what we were talking about, and all the duffers out there didn't.
Then one day about a month ago I was asked for the millionth time during an interview: "What is a story?" As I prepared to give my practiced and perfectly correct response I suddenly realized I was completely wrong. Or rather, wrongly complete. And all of those interviews (thanks Kathy) fell perfectly into a story I had never understood until that moment.
Let me explain. My biggest gift in my own story work, other than the "we are all swimming in stories already" moment, was discovering that there are three fundamental dimensions or aspects of story, as follows (and excuse me for repeating this again and again):
Story form is the internal structure of a story: things like setting, characters, plot and point. A good story uses effective narrative form to deliver a message well.
Story function is its utility to our thinking and learning: things like meaning, understanding and connection. A good story helps us learn what we need to learn, find out what we need to know, or remember what we need to remember.
Story phenomenon is the story of the story: things that describe context, like where and when and why a story was told, who heard it, how it can and will be retold, and so on. A good story lives on because it sustains the health of the community.The reason good people disagree on what a story is, contrary to my precious self-regard, isn't that some are right and some are wrong. It is that we are looking at different parts of the elephant.
Everyone gravitates to one or two of these dimensions of story more strongly than the others, and that gravitation colors the way they think about stories and what they think makes a story a story. I was trained in ethology, so I think about cognition (and mimicry and trickery and riots and things like that) a lot, so I gravitate to a definition based on story function. I have paid some attention to the other dimensions, and particularly like story phenomenon, but I still gravitate to what I know best. Other people come at story from other backgrounds and personalities, so they experience different things, so story takes on different shapes to them.
What I am saying is that your definition of story is a story about you and your life. This means that no definition of story can be truly complete without considering all of these dimensions in the same way that no story of humanity can be complete without including the story of every single human being.
Pluralistic nonsense? A story is everything, thus nothing? I have to accept an outpouring of emotion as a story even if nothing happens in it? The touchy-feely folks have to accept a surprising chain of events as a story even if nobody feels anything as a result? Not exactly. We don't need a melting pot of story definition, just some respect for multiple perspectives and maybe some interfaith dialogue. If you live and breathe cognitive science, read Theatre of the Oppressed. If you dream in community therapy, pick up a book on screenwriting. If you design perfect characters, read up on expert systems or indigenous knowledge. Traveling broadens the mind.
What does this mean in practice? Should everybody use every story definition in their work all the time? Not exactly. Different definitions of story have different practical utility in different contexts. That's a good thing. While we should all practice moving outside the story dimension we know best, it is not always the best course of action to include every story definition in the specific contexts in which we are working at any one time.
Reaching an audience? Sending a message? If your stories do not have strong arcs of story events and characters in conflict, they will not prove memorable or motivating. If you want to know what a story is and isn't in that context, read McKee and Bal.
Creating an narrative knowledge management system? Learning from your mistakes? If your stories do not present dilemmas, discoveries, surprises and solutions, they will not increase your understanding. If you want to know what a story is and isn't in that context, read Schank and Klein.
Bringing together a community? Writing to your grandchildren? If your stories do not resonate and connect in context, they will not achieve a lasting positive impact. If you want to know what a story is and isn't in that context, read Boal and Bauman.
And all combinations thereof and so forth and so on. The particular combination of goals in any story project will determine the particular combination of story definitions it can most fruitfully use to the best effect. The more we develop our agility at handling various combinations, the stronger our ability to create effective story projects. I have been as much at fault as anyone else in assuming that my strongest way of defining story was the only way and limiting my ability to build great story projects as a result; but I now see my way to a better place.
So, I'm thinking the next time somebody asks me, "What is a story?" I'm going to say, "What do you want to do?"