What’s the difference between a series of events and a story?

This post is for memoir writers. A slightly different version for storytellers is available here.

“If you’ve remembered something very well — a fight, a kiss, a plane ride, a certain stranger — there’s a reason. Keep writing until you figure out the significance of your most vivid memories.”

Kate Corrigan

We all intuitively know what a story is. If you watch a movie, you can tell pretty quick if the story is good or bad. But put pen to paper to write your own and questions like these nibble at your confidence:

  • “Is this a story, or is it just something that happened?”
  • “If it’s just something that happened, why does it matter?”
  • “Would anybody want to read about this?”
  • “I’m not a writer. I’m just crazy.”

When you do manage to push aside concerns long enough to string some words together, the first draft tends to be disappointing. Maybe you’re trying too hard, or it reads like a bunch of bullet points. Maybe you were right to doubt.

No. Stop that thought. Why? Because the value of a story rarely comes out in a first draft.

In this post I’ll discuss the most basic of story type, a news report, and then compare the difference with a more developed story. That should help you take your series of events and turn them into a proper story.

A report

There’s nothing wrong with reports. When I want to dress appropriately for the day, a weather report lets me know whether I need an umbrella or a jacket.

Most reports go like this:

  1. Something good/bad happened or is happening.
  2. Summary or call to action.

Reports usually end with a summary or a call to action.  

  • Summary: “So if you’re heading outside today, bundle up!”
  • Call to action: “People agree, the mayor needs to be held accountable!”

News reports are written fairly quickly and are meant to be consumed quickly. If there are people we meet in the story, it’s a fleeting mention, someone like a mayor who has a public profile, or a man-in-the-street quotation. There is drama but we rarely learn the ending.

Stories are about people

In a story, on the other hand, readers get to know the characters involved. They have relationships that are shifting or firm, roles they play at work or in their community.

They’re like friends we make but with no strings attached. We want authentic characters, people we can feel moving and breathing. They aren’t perfect in every way, because that’s both really boring and intimidating.

Readers are also looking for certain patterns of events in a story. That is:

  1. The main character  wants something. Or, something happens to make them  want something.
  2. Something stands in their way. They overcome it.
  3. They grow.

Let’s take a look at each in turn.

They want something.

The character doesn’t just want a sandwich. They want to win a contest, or a certain person’s love. They want to get out of one situation or into another. They want to change their life.

Sometimes this wanting is precipitated by an event. They receive some news, meet someone, lose something, find something, there’s an accident, or they receive a diagnosis.

Whatever it is, this event changes their life somehow and propels them to take action toward the goal. But this makes it sound like a mathematical formula, and it isn’t.

For argument sake, let’s say you’re diagnosed with a deadly disease. Wouldn’t you then be motivated to find a cure?

That’s how story works. One thing happens, which makes you strive for a response to what happened.

Something stands in your way. You overcome it.

In your quest to achieve your goal, the road cannot be easy. You need to have at least a couple of obstacles that block your progress. Readers want to watch as you size up the challenge, struggle to get over it then figure it out and get past it.

One of the biggest challenges in writing about your own life is to figure out what you were really struggling with. In some cases it’s easy.

If you enter a marathon, it’s a struggle to get yourself training, to develop your stamina. If you are performing a show, you need to get that act together. To win the attention of the person you want to love, you need to figure out what they want then see if you can give it.

But not all struggles are so clear cut. Life can be messy. By writing about it, you are defining what the struggle was. It requires considering the situation from all angles.

Potential obstacles include:

  • Yourself > If you’re trying to lose weight or handle a challenging relationship, you might be your own worst enemy.
  • One or more people > Everyone wants something from you. What they want might not be what you want. You also might not be able to give other people what they want when you need it.

A mother with a job, children and a husband has to juggle all of their needs. If one of them is more needy than the others, it can mean the other two miss out.

We all want and need things from each other. It is these conflicting needs that create the obstacles we need to get through. For more on this, see my 3-part posts on roles and relationships.

The past can haunt us until we decide on how to frame what we were struggling with. Through language, with our struggle defined, we are better equipped to deal with that struggle or let it go.

Pulling it all together

The first step is always to write a crummy first draft. Write a bullet list. Jot down your random thoughts. Get it down in chronological order. Kick that inner editor off your shoulder and just write.

Then look at it and ask yourself:

  • What am I really struggling with here?
  • What is it I really wanted? What did others want from me or for themselves?
  • What values does this experience speak to?
  • What did I learn from this experience?

Using your answers, your task as a writer is to contrast your perspective in that time with what you know now, then to share the lessons you learned. You don’t sugar-coat the moment, or paint yourself as wiser or more noble version of who you are.

This process helps you to better understand what happened, who you are and why this event matters.


My storytelling philosophy

The earth beneath our feet is always moving.

In life we desire stability while we also wait and wait and wait for what’s coming next. We want to be safe and secure, but we also want more than what we have, which means taking risks.

Stories are a means to find the stability we crave, and grow. To accept the moving nature of life events, to get past those obstacles that stand in our way and in the process, change and grow.

Stories allow each of us to consider what we’d do if placed in a certain situation. They are about how we survive the challenging changes of life.

Changing your life is hard. Whether you want to lose weight, or become something you’re not, it takes making concrete changes and sticking with them. Most of us aren’t great at doing that. It takes a few stabs. A few fights with ourselves or our relatives.

But in overcoming the obstacle, you learn something. You as a person change and grow. You gain wisdom about yourself, others or the world in general.

The change you go through in a story doesn’t have to be huge. The difference can be as small as a change in your mindset. How one day you learned the value of… kindness, generosity, friends, birthdays… or something else.

Stories are places where we struggle to understand what it means to be human. What matters and what doesn’t.

“The world is not a collection of things, it is a collection of events. The difference between things and events is that things persist in time; events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical “thing”: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. Conversely, a kiss is an “event.” It makes no sense to ask where the kiss will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not of stones.”

The Order of Time, by Carlo Rovelli. A concise, elegant exploration of time.

What’s the difference between a series of a events and a story?

You’re writing away, trying to create a roller coaster of a story and you think you’ve got it. Brilliant, funny things happen! Great characters! Stimulating dialogue! Thrills! Chills! Oh my! 

Then you read it and… it doesn’t feel like a story.

Why?

One possible answer: You haven’t found your story engine.

As audience members, we all know when the rumble of a story begins. It’s the point where you sit back, reach for the popcorn and settle in for the ride. But what does a writer do to engage us?

The engine that drives a story is a question the audience holds in their mind as they watch. It’s what keeps them there until they get the answer (the end). The events fall into place like dominoes, one after another, leading naturally to conflicts. Those conflicts explore an aspect of the original question.

Gosh it all sounds so academic doesn’t it? And it’s not. Okay then. Let’s try some examples.

By the end of the story, will the main character…

  • Destroy the evil force that threatens the land?
  • Claw their way out of poverty and be discovered for the wunderkind they are?
  • Win the prize?
  • Find love / get married / divorced / have a baby?
  • Arrive at their destination without killing someone?
  • Get back to where they belong?
  • Learn what it means to…?

In murder mystery, it’s when a body is found and the question becomes whodunnit? It’s like the point in the roller coaster ride when something grabs onto the bottom of the cars and you’re pulled up the first hill with a jerk. There’s no getting off now. You’re in for the ride. Hang on and enjoy it.

Now, one nit to point out: This question I’m talking about is not one the character is asking. It’s the question the audience is asking. They may be the same thing, but they may not.

Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz asks if she can fly over the rainbow to a perfect place where there are no evil neighbours who steal dogs. The audience question could be, Is there really a perfect world somewhere?

Your job is to find out what question your story poses for your audience. One questions that can help you is to ask, Well, what’s at stake here? If your character loses, what do they lose? If they’re not losing much, there isn’t much of a story, so go back to the drawing board.

How the heck does this help?

Once you have a question, consider if it’s a question you’re interested in exploring. If you were to see that question on the back cover of a book, would you buy it? Refine until you would.

To do that consider:

  • What other questions arise from your original question?
  • What actions does that lead to?

In The Bourne Identity, Jason is found in the ocean with a bullet in his back and no memory. He finds himself in beautiful European landscapes chased by people determined to kill him. As he tries to find out who he is, he discovers innate knowledge and terrifying skills.

So for this story I’d say the question is How do you know if you’re good or evil? Leading to more questions. Does a good guy…

  • Run from the authorities?
  • Have a stash of passports, cash and guns?
  • Kill people quickly and quietly with nothing but a pen?

Am I a monster or a well trained angel? What a terrifying question to ask yourself.

The questions will lead you to situations that show off the questions you’re asking. Which leads to another point…

Don’t ask Who? or What? ask How?

The question in genre fiction is inherent. In a romance, will s/he get the man/woman? Yes. In an overcoming the monster story, is the world saved? Yes. In a mystery, will the detective find the killer? It’s the butler.

In such stories, the ending isn’t in question. The question is the how.

  • Romance: How will she be convinced that he’s the one? How will she win him over?
  • Overcoming the monster: How will she kill that thing?
  • Mystery: How does the detective figure it out?

I argue that all story questions are how questions. Some stories can start with mystery shrouding the action. What is going on? But there is a point when we figure out where the story is heading. We can see the roller coaster rising and falling ahead. But we haven’t ridden the thing yet.

In Sol Stein’s book The Childkeeper, there is an early discussion with a real estate agent that ends like this:

"Could you come up Sunday, say at two?"

"Of course."

"You'll bring the children?"

"Yes."

Stickney was pleased. Children were part of his strategy.

As audience, we’re asking, What is he planning? But the tension created by that question can only last so long. Eventually we have to learn what he’s planning. Once we know, the questions becomes how.

In a murder mystery the body is found and we ask who did it, how they did it, what’s their motivation? But the overarching question is, How will the detective figure it out? 

The roller coaster is an excellent metaphor for a story’s plot. It is a ride that is constructed to give your audience an experience. You, as writer, decide what that experience will be. And if, at any time, the roller coaster stalls (when the question goes missing), your riders will jump off. You need to design those highs, spin them upside down and turn them around. That’s where the thrill is.

The biggest highs and dives of the coaster are confrontations with the antagonist. The question you select opens doors of conflict possibilities. Which means, you need to get in bed with your bad guy.

But that’s for next time…


TRY THIS:

  • As you read or watch other works, try to figure out the question they pose.
  • Fun alternative theories for The Wizard of Oz.