What a Story Is -- And Isn't
A lot of people get ideas for novels. A lot of people start writing novels. A lot of
people give up writing a novel before it is finished. Some of them talk to me about
it. I always ask the same question, "What does your character want?" I am
surprised at how many times a blank face stares back at me. Or there is a sort of
hemming and hawing which is complicated and tells me about the main character's
childhood, or how cool the magic in this world is, or the great villain or the
technology. All of those things are interesting parts of a story, but they are not a
story alone. If you do not know what your character wants, I think you don't know
what your story is. What your character wants drives the story even when there is
a strong villain or an impending doom framework. What your character wants will
help you to figure out where the story begins and how it ends and it will make the
events that happen between those two points have meaning.
I learned how difficult it is for people to figure out what a story is when I recently
taught my class on "How to Write Your Own Fairy Tale" to my son's sixth grade
class. In this workshop, I take a fairy tale suggested by one of the students, and
then show how it can be changed (I usually try to find a story they hate, because
then they tend to make bigger changes, which makes the story more original). I
write the elements of the fairy tale up on the white board then and tell the kids they
can change what they want, but that the elements have to remain in place. I do this
because then there is a framework to start with and some beginning writers can get
rid of their anxieties about what to write next this way. In this particular case, I did
the story of "The Gingerbread Man." I told these students they could choose any
creature they wanted to take the place of the gingerbread man, that they needed to
have their creature have three meetings, and then there had to be an ending. A
beginning, a middle with three parts, and an ending -- that's how they always
teach writing, isn't it?
Well, the stories I got were horrible. The worst stories I have ever had to read.
Really, really bad stories. A little of the sting was hopefully taken out of this
admission when I brought in some of my really, really bad stories written all the
way into grad school. And beyond. I admit it, sometimes I write really, really bad
things. Yes, even still. That's OK. The point is to fix the story and make it better.
Everyone writes a shitty first draft as Anne Lamott says, right?
Just as an example, I will make up a story that is like what I read from these
There once was a piece of licorice. He ran away from the factory where he was
made. He ran and ran. He met a truck driver who wanted to eat him. And he ran
away. He met a mouse with twitchy whiskers. And he ran away. He met a pair of
scissors. And he ran away. Finally he fell into a sewer and was dissolved in the
water. The End.
This is not a story. It might seem like it is a story, but it's not. It's a bunch of stuff
that happens to a character no one cares about, and then, thankfully, it ends swiftly.
(Most of the stories I read did not, unfortunately, end this swiftly. But they were
just as meaningless.)
So the next week I brought an explanation of what a story is to these students and
we read it together. I explained that hidden in the story of the gingerbread man is
something the main character wants. It is something that everyone wants, really.
He wants to be free. We are never told why he, of all the gingerbread cookies
made that day, is the one that become conscious, but we don't really know how
humans became conscious, either. So it is a human story, and one that every reader
can understand. There is no need to spell it out, is there? The gingerbread man is
awake, alive, and he is about to be eaten. So he runs away.
I talked to the students then about other books that they know well and what the
main character in those books wants. In Harry Potter, Harry wants a family. In
my book, Mira, Mirror, the mirror wants to be human again. In The Princess and
the Hound, George wants to be able to show his true self, including his magic. In
Twlight, Bella wants to be a vampire so she can be with Edward forever. In ELLA
Enchanted, Ella wants to break her fairy gift of being obedient. In The Hero and
the Crown, Aerin wants to do something heroic.
I will admit, there are some stories in which the main character's wants do not
propel the story. There are the stories in which the main character(s) are thrown
into a world and are merely observers in it. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
might count as one of these. But I would argue that if Susan, Peter, Edmund and
Lucy were to continue in the story as merely observers, it would be completely
uninteresting. They have to become invested in the new world, and become
convinced that there is something there they want. Notice that the thing they want
is not to get back to their own world, which is part of the reason that that ending
does not truly end the story. The series as a whole brings them back to Narnia
again and again because their story isn't over. They haven't gotten what they want
yet. What they want in Wardrobe is to be part of a world in which Aslan rules and
not the White Witch (and I think this is what readers of that story want, as well).
They get what they want for a time, but only a short time and then it is over and
they have to live in the real world and figure out how to get what they want there.
Lewis's religious beliefs make it impossible for him to write a story where anyone
gets what they truly want in this world, however, so of course they have to go
But back to the other kind of story, where the character's wants are going to drive
the plot. You have a character who wants something, what happens next? Harry
wants a family, but he's not going to get one. He's got the Dursley's, and they are
a terrible second best. Rowling spends a lot of time in every book showing why it
is that the Dursley's and their world cannot give Harry want he wants or even what
he needs. Every book is essentially written around giving Harry a little bit of what
he wants, in different ways. He gets to see his parents in magical ways, to get to
know them, though he has no memories of his own. Dumbledore stands in as a
father to him. The whole of Hogwarts is a kind of family, but in particular, Ron
and Hermione are his brother and sister, and the Weasley's his ersatz family. In
the end, his happy ending is making a family of his own with Ginny, and the story
cannot end until we see in that last controversial epilogue that Harry has at last
what he wanted. In the rest of the books, Rowling has ingenious ways to offer
Harry what he wants sometimes, ways which he must reject as untrue. Only then
does he earn the happy ending.
In The Princess and the Hound, the story begins with George's mother, the idyllic
life of his childhood where he is accepted for who he is and loved for that. But it is
shattered and the rest of the book is an attempt for him to get this back. Peter
offers it to him through friendship, but it turns out to be a sham. George has a
chance to proclaim himself when he is at judgment, but he is too afraid (and rightly
so). By the time he reaches adulthood, he is determined that he can never have
what he wants. He doesn't even try to reach for it anymore. He imagines his
marriage with Princess Beatrice will be utterly loveless. Ah, but as an author, I
give him back what I have taken away, in different ways. I suppose you might call
it the story of Job. George has a chance to protect someone with the magic on the
way to meet Beatrice. Then he discovers that she is perhaps the only person he can
share the truth of his life with. And he finds Henry. Until at last he is strong
enough to show his true self in his proclamation about animal magic to his people.
He isn't given what he wants by some outside force -- and no true character can be
given it or it feels like a cheat to the reader. He has to take it, to demand it, and to
accept the consequences of it.
A story may look like it is a character who wanders around doing this thing or that
thing. But there is always meaning behind what happens. Even in the story of the
gingerbread man. He meets different animals, but what order does he meet them
in? He goes from the least threatening to the most threatening (the fox). We get to
know his personality (annoying, perhaps, but energetic). And then when the
ending comes, we must be prepared for it by what has gone before. The
gingerbread man is eaten because in the end, all gingerbread men are eaten. In this
case, it's the wily fox who gets him. The gingerbread man is stupid, but he is
forced into stupidity by the exigency of his circumstances. He has nowhere else to
go. At that point, when he chooses the ride on the fox, we know that he is doomed.
We expect the end, though it is put off for a while.
Not every story has to end happily, with the main character getting what he wants.
I could argue that even the gingerbread man gets what he wants, though not for
very long. He is free for a little while, but it is that little while that is all that
matters in the story. It isn't as if he gets a different fate than the rest of the
gingerbread men on the tray. It's the same ending for all of them. It's the stuff
that goes on in the middle that matters, his joy in fleeing, the feel of the wind in his
air, his funny little song, the view of the trees. There are also stories where the
main character gets what he wants and then realizes he doesn't want it anymore.
The journey has changed him too much, or he was too naïve at first to know what
he really wanted, or he was deceived into thinking he wanted something that was
bad for him.
As an author, the trick of writing a story, and not just a bunch of events that are
unrelated, is to describe a character that wants a particular thing and then to make
sure that every other thing that happens is in some way or another a "yes" or "no"
answer to the question, does he get what he wants now? If he gets what he wants,
then maybe it turns out he wants more. Or what he wants is a trick, or it requires
something of him that he doesn't want to give. Mostly, authors say no to their
characters and refuse to give them what they want because, as I said above, it's the
middle part of the story readers are interested in, not the end where everything is
over. Readers want to see how the character reacts when he doesn't get what he
wants, maybe because that is what mirrors real life. We understand characters who
do not get what we want. We understand characters who have to work again and
again for that shiny thing, and are sometimes given a substitute that seems good at
first, but isn't enough. We understand getting what we want in small ways that
don't seem enough to us at first, but eventually fill us until we forget that we ever
The students rewrote their stories, by the way. I wouldn't give them back their
first stories. I told them they should start completely fresh and try again. The
second time, they were better. Not publishable, mind you. But better. And that,
too, is the way it is for all of us, in sixth grade or not.
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison