What is a story?

From Janet Reid’s blog: What is “not a story”

Perhaps it’s too obvious to write about it and I just need to do more homework, but I think it would be helpful if you explained what makes one entry a story and another not, even though they’re both compelling. … in such short entries, there usually isn’t an ending necessarily, and yet this one counts as a story and that one doesn’t. Why? 

This question refers to the many flash fiction contests Janet offers, with a prompt and a very strict word limit. Lots of her regular commenters participate. I’m terrible at flash fiction, so I don’t. Many of the entries are evocative, effective, funny, or successful in some other way.

Here’s Janet’s response to this question:

This is actually a very good question. 
Let’s use last week’s contest for the examples. 

There were three entries that got “not quite a story”. 

For this particular contest, the requirements were: not over 100 words, and you must include the words space, between, fair, bank, and holt. No, I have no idea how Janet picks words to include. I know of exactly one example of “holt” in fiction: in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. I believe in Silver on the Tree. The word “holt” is used in one of the riddles or clues that Will and Bran use during their adventures. “I am the womb of every holt.” — remember that? Let me see, the whole riddle went like this:

I am the womb of every holt, I am the blaze on every hill, I am the queen of every hive, I am the shield for every head, I am the tomb of every hope.

I loved poetry and riddles in fantasy novels as a kid. In fact, I still do. All these poems and riddles from The Dark is Rising stuck in my head, or I’d have forgotten this word, probably.

Anyway, I’ll provide just one not-a-story example. Click through to check out the whole post and here are the results for the “holt” contest.

Not a story:

Colin Smith 

She was an Algerian/Syrian borderline psychopath. At least that’s how she introduced herself at the speed dating table. The space between us felt uncomfortably small. 

She picked up a pencil and asked what I did. 

“I’m a banker,” I said shuffling my chair, making the space bigger. “What about you?” 

“I hunt,” she said, fixing me with thirsty eyes, testing the pencil point on her thumb. “In the holts.” 

“Fair enou—” The pencil flashed by my face. I turned. An impaled roach fell to the floor. 

“Call me,” she said, sliding her card. 

I did. 

Twenty years ago today.

Hah! I like that a lot.

Janet says: This isn’t a story because the fact that she’s an Algerian/Syrian borderline psychopath (one of the great uses of prompt words) has no further reveal. There’s no twist of expectations or events. There is no gold standard on what makes a story good, but what makes something a story is a change, or a twist or a reveal.


What makes a story is a change or a reveal. That’s interesting right there. How about it? If you pick up a slice-of-life literary novel in which nothing much happens, nothing changes, the protagonist just drifts through the world, is that not a story? There was something of a fad for that kind of ennui story for a while, wasn’t there? Hermann Hesse’ Steppenwolf and so on? That was a book I absolutely hated, I can’t imagine why I read the whole thing, but at least the experience now allows me to say that perhaps some novels aren’t really stories, according to this criterion.

Okay, sure, I’ll agree with this definition, at least tentatively. If nothing changes, it’s not a story. In fact, if the protagonist doesn’t change, it’s probably not a story, even if the world changes around the protagonist.

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4 thoughts on “What is a story?”

  1. Hmm, where does the Gratuitous Epilogue fit in with this? I really liked it, but it’s more of a slice of life, with the big reveals and changes having already happened in the earlier books. People in this sequel continue to live their lives, and grow in the natural process of growing through living, but big reveals and changes are not what it’s about.

    On the other hand, if we hadn’t come to care about these people through the earlier story in the trilogy, the epilogue by itself might not be gripping enough as a story to get new readers invested in reading to the end, so it might not work as a complete story on its own. As I read it as an epilogue to the trilogy, I can’t assess how a new reader would react to it.

  2. Nah: there’s a major class of protagonists (Robin Laws calls them iconic) whose stories are fundamentally about them putting the world around them back in order while not themselves changing. Most serial-fiction heroes since Sherlock Holmes, for instance — not just detectives, although the “reveal” is unusually obvious in detective stories.

  3. AS someone remarked, maybe it was CS Lewis, this is not a story:
    The King died. The Queen died.

    And this is: The King died. The queen died of grief.
    There’s a cause and effect, not necessarily a change . I think story needs to because this, then that, or it’s just the small child rattling off the list of what happened today. No connections of one to the other, and certainly no cause and effect.

    Now I’m trying to come up with non detective examples of sort of story Craig mentioned. Maybe some Westerns?

  4. I think Westerns offer an excellent example of iconic-unchanging-hero protagonists.

    But I should point out that Janet Reid didn’t say “In order to be a story, the protagonist has to change.” She said, “in order to be a story, something has to change.” And something does change in all those stories, obviously, as the protagonist puts things back in order.

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