Monday, August 13, 2012

Onward Through the Fog: The Quest for "Story"

(Photo by Chris J. Fries - 2012: Morning Fog)

So in my last post, I wrote how a chance auditory tidbit from NPR had resonated with me. Hearing, "all that matters is that it's a good story" during an evening commute stuck with me, and it reminded me of the importance of story in the works I write.

Yes, a successful story still takes finely-honed skill to write, so I absolutely agree that every effort a writer makes to improve their prose is a needed one -- I am continuously working to refine my craft and I know that it is vital to do so.  To use a 'guy' analogy:  A story is like the design of a football play. The play is the blueprint for how each player is expected to perform his part, but it still takes skillful execution to bring that blueprint to life.  And just like there's a difference in how a play will turn out depending on whether you have Peyton Manning or your local high school's JV quarterback under center, there's a difference between how two writers will accomplish a story, depending on how well they have mastered their writing craft.

Still, not even Peyton Manning can save a poorly-designed play, and no writer can overcome a weak story, regardless of how well-written it is.

So as a writer, I always want to make sure my story is the focus, and that it is the best it can be?  Absolutely!

OK -- sounds great!  Make the story the centerpiece, and make it a good one.

But, ummm...  Just what is a "story", and how the hell do I know if it's a good one?

Is it like 'art' or 'pornography' in that it can't be defined, but that "you know it when you see it?"  Is it something shrouded in a subjective fog of perspective, and it's hopeless to even attempt to define it since it's different for every person?  Does it require a forage into the misty forest of aesthetics and philosophy to even begin to understand what makes a story and to tell if it is "good" or not?

Well, it's not like I'm an expert. After all, as a writer I'm still clunking away, striving to get my first story published -- good or otherwise.

However, I do think I can break through the fog at least a little, and perhaps shed some light on defining just what a story is. And I might even be able to at least highlight a few key elements a story needs in order for it to aspire to, you know, "goodishness".

But this will take way more than one post...

So I welcome you to join me in an upcoming series as I take my sledge-hammer of rookie-writer understanding and try to do delicate neurosurgery on just what makes a good story.  I have no set schedule -- this may take the next two posts, or it may take the next twenty.  I'll shoot for a new post every Monday and Thursday as we work  our way through it.

I'm looking forward to the journey, and I'd be extremely happy to have you travel with me.  Your thoughts, feedback, and comments are always welcome on each and every stage of the trip.




25 comments:

Simon Kewin said...

Sounds fascinating. I think, while you can certainly identify the elements of what makes a story good, and practise doing that, there will always be some indefinable something that either works or doesn't. Or maybe I just say that because I haven't got good enough at it yet.

As to Peyton - yeah. But I bet Eli could save a poorly-designed play ...

Tonja said...

I think a great story is more like series of plays carefully managed to look as if they weren't managed at all.

Nancy Thompson said...

That's so hard to say, what makes a good story. There are so many elements to that. But I think writing what interests you, the writer, the most is step one. No way you can write an interesting story if your not in it all the way, if you don't believe in it. Can't wait to see what you come up with, Chris!

Vero said...

"No writer can overcome a weak story, regardless of how well-written it is." - yup, exactly.

Story really is the backbone of any "piece" of fiction, and no amount of styling can make up for the lack of it. Polish a turd...

It's a grand quest, and one that's most definitely worth every bit of effort. :)

I believe all good stories are essentially about trouble. Trouble so urgent and disruptive of life that the characters must work hard to regain control, trouble so vicious it keeps expanding and mutating until everything seems lost -- and it's only through an unusual act of [insert preference] that the protagonist manages to overcome or solve it.

Milo James Fowler said...

Looking forward to it, Chris! Keep on keepin' on.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Wow, what an ambitious undertaking! (When ya finish with this series, are you gonna tackle "love" and "the meaning of life" next?) Seriously, I'm looking forward to seeing where you go with this. Should be interesting. Oh, and for the record, I'm more of a football fan than my husband.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Looking forward to it. And all I know is a good story often has traces of other stories within, just with a new spin.

Chris Fries said...

@Simon: I must confess that I also think there's a certain element of magic involved. I may be embarking on a fool's errand in trying to define a "good story", but if a fool is needed, then I'm definitely the man for the job! ;^) Oh, and tremendous kudos to the esteemed UK writer for the line about Eli and American Football!

@Tonja: Well, true that! Thanks for the comment!

@Nancy: Thanks, Nancy. And I agree -- regardless of the elements, they all have to come from within.

@Vero: Ah yes -- overcoming opposition. That will certainly be one of the stops on the quest. ;^) Thank you very much for your comment and follow! Loved your "non-apocalyptic" piece on your blog!

@Milo: Thanks -- I appreciate that!

@Susan: Thank you. I hope I don't wander off and get completely lost, lol. And sorry -- when I said 'guy' reference, I certainly didn't mean to imply that women didn't enjoy football, too! ;^)

@Alex: Thank you, oh Ninja Master! It's been said there are really only a few basic story archetypes. Huh... Maybe that should be worth a stop on the quest?

Mina Lobo said...

Rock on, Chris - I look forward to your exploration!
Some Dark Romantic

Liesel K Hill said...

Sounds awesome! I'll tune in whenever I can. As for "only" being an amateur writer, you have a great voice and an engaging style in your posts. Trust me, you know more than you think you do! Write on! :D

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Ah ... what makes a good story? A great theme for a series of blog posts. I'll be interested to see where you take this!

Donna Hole said...

Looking forward to your views Chris.

Love the morning fog pic.

......dhole

Martin Willoughby said...

The more you practice the better you get. Looking forward to seeing how you get on.

Chris Fries said...

@mina: Thank you! I hope it turns out to be worthwhile, or at least entertaining. ;^)

@Liesel: Well, thank you very much! I really appreciate your kind words of support, Liesel!

@Dianne: Thanks -- I hope it works out, lol!

@Donna: I appreciate that -- and I'm also glad you enjoyed the picture. That was a stop-the-car moment on a morning commute, pulling over to the side to get out onto a busy four-lane highway to capture it. ;^) Oops, sorry -- hopefully I didn't just spoil the illusion of it being off in some remote wilderness somewhere. lol!

@Martin: Thank you, and also thank you for the new follow!

Gina said...

Like you, I think crafting a good story takes practice. Keep going at it even when we think we're producing manure, eventually something shines, the effort comes forth, and our story shines. It may take us years, but like every goal attained through hard work, it will be so worth it!

I'm sure you can only get great 'cause I already know you have a lot of talent. I'll keep waiting for you to break to stardom and then I'll ask you to introduce me a TV producer. ;)

Chris Fries said...

@Gina: Why, thank you! I appreciate your words of encouragement, Gina.

KLo said...

Good points, all ... I am looking forward to following your journey.

I have a tendency to write VERY character-driven fiction, and sometimes I lose sight of "story". Writing is such a fascinating balancing act, isn't it :-)?

.jessica. said...

Ooh, yay! Series!

One of my favorite writing quotes (and I've lost the source now, unfortunately) is: "Stop writing and tell me a story." Sometimes I get so caught up in making sure everything sounds pretty that I forget to make sure that all my story elements are working together. And like you said, no amount of pretty writing is going to save a story that clunks. So I have to remind myself every once in a while to just stop WRITING and tell a story.

Can't wait to see what you have to say on the subject.

Jennee Thompson said...

great post! I'm always focusing on the story as well, and maybe someone might thing my story is weak but as long as there is one person that finds my story strong and worth sharing, that is a success. :)

Nicole said...

This sounds great! I love to dissect what makes a good story - it'll be interesting to see everyone else's perspectives, too.

Chris Fries said...

@KLo: Yes it is! Thank you very much for the comment and the follow!

@jessica: It's great to see you! That's a great quote, and I agree. I hope you like the rest of this series. ;^)

@Jennee: Thank you very much! And you're right -- if you're connecting with at least one reader, then your work is doing its job.

@Nicole: Thank you -- I hope you enjoy it!

Cherie Reich said...

I like your idea for the quest of "story" series. :D

Suze said...

I'm in!

Donna Hosie said...

It's like the question of the Universe! And is there one answer?

Happy to read about your quest.

Chris Fries said...

@Cherie: Thanks -- I hope you enjoy it. :^)

@Suze: Woot! Happy to have you aboard!

@Donna: For a writer, it most definitely is, lol! And definitely not. ;^)