On my lunch break at work, I watched a lecture by fantasy author Brandon Sanderson, in which he asked the question, “What is a story?” As he spent the rest of the lecture (so I assume) addressing that question, I ended up doing the same thing on my own.
Naturally, with no clear answer to the question, I decided to write an authoritative blog article about the definition a story.
So, let’s start simple: what are the ingredients of a story?
How about conflict? Whether it’s Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect about to die of asphyxiation in the vacuum of space or young lawyer Jake Brigance watching his Mississippi home burn to the ground at the hands of racists, we like reading about other people’s problems. Conflict captures our imagination.
While there is such a thing as a story without interesting characters, it’s hardly worth mentioning, since no one wants to read such a story. Why has Sherlock Holmes endured for over 100 years? Because the genius and madness of the central character continues to mesmerize readers. Characters compel us to keep going.
Finally, stories (satisfying ones) reach some kind of conclusion. One of my many viewings of the original Star Wars movie in the theater proved quite memorable. Red Leader dies in the final assault on the Death Star, leaving Luke in charge of the remaining team. As he turns his scanner off and decides to let himself be guided by the Force, the movie projector overheated, and the film melted on the screen before our eyes. It was an excruciating moment. Everyone had their money refunded, and everyone that night was denied the satisfaction of watching the Death Star explode. Without a conclusion, we had a story with no satisfaction. Conclusion comforts an audience.
I’m happy to call it there; a story has conflict, characters, and a conclusion.
After inventing stories of one sort or another for 40 years now, I feel confident in saying that without those three things, a writer is doomed from the outset. Of course, what most of us are trying to tell is not just A story, but rather a SUPER story. We don’t just want to offer readers vanilla-flavored stories; we want to pull out a couple of scoops of double-butter pistachio nut in a chocolate waffle cone with rainbow sprinkles on top!
So, if the first question is, “What are the ingredients of a story?” then the second question is “What are the ingredients of a SUPER story?”
While this question is easy to answer with a keyboard, you might not find the answer all that satisfying. First of all, a super story has only the same three ingredients that any story has. That’s right; Star Wars Episodes I and IV are exactly the same in that they are both stories. They both possess gripping conflict, they both possess dynamic characters, and they both deliver a definitive conclusion.
Why then do so many people love the original 1977 movie and despise the 1999 prequel? What makes one a story and one a SUPER story?
I think the answer is love.
Before you revolt, let me explain.
George Lucas crafted the original idea for Star Wars while he was a film student at USC in the late 60’s. He had years to contemplate his characters, tinker with the central conflict, and rewrite the conclusion multiple times over. In short, he nurtured his story by continually improving it–he poured love into it.
What happened with Episode I, you ask? I can only speculate that decades of Star Wars mania turned a labor of love into a simple labor.
So, what am I offering you here? Love your story. Pour your entire being into it. Don’t settle for even one mediocre sentence. That kind of patience, nurturing, and care will enthrall readers and audiences in the years to come.
Granted, at some point, you must set your child loose on the big, bad world. Otherwise, your story will become like the adult child who never leaves home. It’ll sit on the couch playing Warframe and eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. You’ll sneer at it occasionally and ask it when it’s going to get a job.
Yeah, I know, I killed the metaphor. Too much love, I guess.