The levels of a story

Many writers worry about how long a piece is without first considering what they want to do. Just because a story is long doesn’t make it good; and just because it is short doesn’t make it bad. However, sometimes an author will find later—after the passion for the idea has passed—that something went wrong. I would like to take a moment to give my theory about the levels of a story, and what each one needs.

1. The thought

Many authors do not consider this minute aspect as a part of the story. Nonetheless, all stories start from a thought. Some would say that all fiction starts with real life. We may imagine outlandish stories, but we cannot pull them from thin air. Thomas Hobbs in Leviathan says that we can only imagine things we have seen in real life—either in part or as a whole. Imagination is therefore memory, and he give the example of remembering a man and remembering a horse to imagine a centaur. What does this mean for writers?

This means that we, as writers, must remember that even the most fanciful of ideas must be drawn from, and relate to, reality. If a writer forgets to ground his story in his concrete thoughts, the reader will not be able to follow. If the story is too unreal, then why should we care? The author may lose the reader. Mark Twain (in his largely libelous essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses“) said that, “[P]ersonages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.”

2. The premise

So what exactly is the difference between a thought and a premise? Simply put: direction. Thoughts are fluid and may be logical, fanciful, or clearly ridiculous. A premise adds to the basic thought. A recent thought came to my head, “What would it be like if we discovered reincarnation?” This is a thought, and you cannot write a story off of a thought. (Well, you shouldn’t anyhow.) The premise—which is the subject of a novel I am working on—is more specific. “A man discovers that reincarnation is real, but when the ability to tap into this power goes public, social disorder bordering on total disintegration ensues.” (Regular readers may recognize this as a single-sentence synopsis.) It gives us an idea, but does not tell us how we will get there.

A compass is not a destination.

3. The Anecdote

Often, these involve the words “hold my beer” at some point. We tell anecdotes to amuse our friends, but there is little back story. In all honesty, who wants to hear an anecdote or a joke that starts with you waking up on a Wednesday and writing “beer” on your shopping list for the weekend? No one does; we want to know why you were trying to do a backflip off the trampoline into a kiddie pool while wearing a lampshade as a tutu.

We understand this distinction in real life, but our stories often fall into this trap. To be fair, most flash fiction is mostly anecdotal, and it can be powerful if done correctly. The problem is that when we are only sure of the action, but not the character we write that. It is not a story because there are no people. Instead of talking about BillyRob’s battle with alcoholism we get lost in facts without plot. Most journalism is little better than anecdotes with the Associated Press (recently at least) as a marked exception—most of their recent stuff seems to be proofread by humans, but written by monkeys who get the most bananas if they write mindless drivel.

4. The tale

Don’t we all remember Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe? It is such an interesting piece of early American folklore. Do you remember the point of the stories? No? That’s because there wasn’t a point. A tale has a beginning, a middle, and sometimes an end unlike an anecdote that only has a fire extinguisher and a flaming squirrel.

Unlike an anecdote, a tale is almost a story. We have all the parts, but no objective. There often isn’t an end even though there is a premise and a beginning. Babe’s hooves made the holes for the great lakes…. Stories like these leave the reader saying, “Neat… So what?”

To get to a story, we have to have an end that justifies getting where we ended up. Even if your story is hundreds of pages of rambling nonsense, and strings of tales with no point, if the end is incredible, logical, or dynamic, the reader will forgive you for putting them through everything (Cloud Atlas, I’m looking at you.)

5. The story

Which brings us to the story. We know the parts of a story, and that conflict must build to a climax. There also must be some sort of resolution. Conflict and climax are noting but anecdotes. So often, the writer gets lost in novelty of these aspects, but forgets to end the story. Has your character changed? Has your character learned nothing, but the world changed? Do you want to make a social statement? Whatever your conflicts that build the story, don’t forget the resolution.

The best stories are not those that change the character, but the ones that change the reader.

NEXT WEEK: How long should I make this?

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