What Is Story? A Journey of Understanding, Part 2

Like any evolving human, my perspective changes with time on some of the questions that preoccupy me. One of those that’s been changing (again) recently is my engagement with the question, “what is story?”

It’s been a long time since I fully subscribed to the Fichtean curve, or to a purely plot-based Aristotelian vision of conflict-complication-climax as the only (or even primary) definition of story. For years now, my foundation has been a concept called the Unity of Opposites, where a story is measured against three questions: What does the protagonist want? What’s in the way? And what happens as a result? (More on this next month in part 1 of this reverse series). But lately I find myself writing fictions (I consider them stories) that find even those loose constraints confining. And I have friends and students finding the same.

My current favorite definition, from friend and storyteller extraordinaire Sherrie Flick: “A story is something you tell in a bar and everyone listens.” I like that because there’s a lot of room in it, and because it focuses (not reduces) my obligation as storyteller on a central question: are people riveted?

When I’m creating new work, I’m in league with Gertrude Stein who, in her classic On Narration, quoted a roadside billboard and teased readers, “Let us make our meat and meal in Georgia: is this poetry or is this prose, and why?” Doesn’t matter what it is. Just tell it with everything you’ve got.

When I’m revising, at least when I’ve (finally) come to understand what story I’m telling, then Sherrie Flick’s mandate kicks in: does every moment in the story compel people to keep reading? But I’ve realized there’s one additional mandate for me: does it satisfy? Because it’s one thing to have everyone in the bar listen. It’s another to finish the story and leave people fulfilled. We’ve all had the experience where someone finishes a tale and we’re left feeling empty, or worse, as though a promise has been betrayed.

So whether I’m writing a conventional narrative or something un-, I have at least those two guideposts: first, is every moment worth listening to; and second, can I track some payoff to which the narrative builds.

Thoughts? Reactions? Conversation? Please.

Next month: the Unity of Opposites, and why it’s a more satisfying contemporary model than the story curve.

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About the Author

Ron MacLean is author of the story collections We Might as Well Light Something On Fire and Why the Long Face? and the novels Headlong and Blue Winnetka Skies. MacLean’s fiction has appeared widely in magazines including GQ, Narrative, Fiction International, and elsewhere. He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He holds a Doctor of Arts from the University at Albany, SUNY, and has been a proud member of team Grub since 2004.

See other articles by Ron MacLean
by Ron MacLean

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