In this section, you will discover the importance of the concept of story, discover that it is difficult to clearly define and learn that it is an essential part of a novel’s structure. Once you have completed the section you will be able to clearly define the story for any novel.

What is Story?

In its most simple form story is the overriding situation faced by your characters.

I get that this is a bit of a wishy-washy statement, but it is important that we are able to give a term to the overarching nature of your book. This way we are then able to further define key elements. The concept of story will become an umbrella under which the other elements shelter.

A good way to think about story is to think about what is not story.

For example, the setting of the novel is not the story. In the Harry Potter series, Hogwarts is not the story. In The Lord of The Rings, Middle Earth is not the story. In Wizard of Oz, Oz is not the story. In this same way, Harry Potter is not story, neither is Frodo or Dorothy.

So what about Harry learning to fly on a broomstick, is that story? What about Frodo’s fight with orcs or Dorothy’s journey down the Yellow brick Road. Story?

Well, no.

These are all important aspects but story is more. These are just elements of the story but not the story as a whole.

So if story is not the setting or the events, what is it?

Story Is Difficult To Define

Story can be a slippery beast and can be a little difficult to define at times. In fact, story is often one of those things that’s hard to describe but obvious when you see it. However, this said, it is essential that the story of any novel is defined. Only by defining a novel’s story are editors then able to consider the elements that go into making up that story. Defining story is the first step towards seeing your novel as a collection of essential elements, rather than a series of events. In fact, it is not unusual for an editor to be the first person to really define a book’s story.

The good news is that story can normally be defined into a few simple sentences.

How about this for Lord of The Rings:

‘Middle Earth faces an evil power, the only way to defeat the power is to destroy the one ring. Frodo and his friends must travel to Mount Doom and cast the ring into its fires.’

And Wizard of Oz?

‘Dorothy finds herself in a mystical world and must help her new found friends to find her way home.’

OK, perhaps not the greatest summaries but they certainly define the essence of story for each of these books.

There is a very simple tool you can use to create a story outline for any novel. It is a pretty blunt tool but is a good starting point. The story is the overriding description of what happens in the novel. The story description will include three key elements:

  1. The main character (X).
  2. The goals that they are trying to achieve (Y).
  3. The problem they must overcome (X).

Once you have these three things defined you can use this super simple formula to define your story description:

X must do Y to get Z

If we go back to Harry Potter we get:
  1. The main character – Harry Potter.
  2. The goals that they are trying to achieve – defeat an evil wizard.
  3. The problem they must overcome – the wizard is powerful.
Using the equation we get:

‘Harry Potter must defeat an evil wizard who is powerful.’

This is a bit clumsy, so we can rewrite to:

‘Harry Potter discovers he is a wizard and then must use magic to defeat a powerful evil wizard.’

As stated, this is a blunt tool but it is a great starting point. It will force you to start thinking about the wider story that is defining your novel. Once this has been considered, you can start to think about the individual elements that go into the story.

Exercise

  1. Define X, Y and Z for your own novel.
  2. Apply the newly defined X, Y, and Z to the formula.
  3. Use the formula to summarize your novel in a single paragraph. The aim is to cover the full story. A reader of your summary should have a sound understanding of the novel.
  4. Summarize your novel into one or two sentences. Use the summary from Step 4 and condense it down to its purest elements.