18 April 2008

What is story?

While I was at work, beavering away at writing materials for one of our online subjects a few weeks ago, I got into a discussion with another teacher about the difference between plot and story. Both are interesting words because everyone seems to define them differently. Plot can be seen merely the sequence of events in a story, and so can story. EM Forster is often quoted as having said (or at least written in his Aspects of the novel) that "The kind died and then the queen died" is a story, but "The king died, and then the queen died of grief" is a plot. Plot, according to him, involves a causal sequence. Sometimes it is just defined as the storyline, or the order that events happen in the story (which can of course differ to the order in which they unfold!). Plot unfolds in sequential order (in causal order), but isn't always presented that way. It's all very interesting, and I could spend days (if I had them) researching the differences, but as a writer I feel that it's more important that I spend this time actually writing! It's so easy to get sidetracked into interesting, but essentially meaningless (in terms of how it will improve my novel) research!

So what is the point of this blog post then? Only that I had a minor epiphany last week about short stories. Not so much an epiphany because I had already gathered in the knowledge and consolidated it, but last week was the first time I related it back to something that happened to me in my early days of writing. So what is this piece of knowledge -- I'm sounding mysterious, I know, and I'm not consciously trying to do so.

In my early days of writing, we had a guest writer come into one of our writing groups and do a workshop with us. I submitted a story I had written that I really liked and thought worked well, and braced myself for the criticism I knew would follow. What I didn't expect was at the end of the criticism, the writer said something along the lines of: "This is a nice piece of writing, but of course it's not a short story."


It had a beginning, middle and end. It had conflict and rising tension, a climax. And it was short. How could it not be a short story? The criticism itself was fairly positive and constructive, but that one little worm of a comment dug into my psyche. Unfortunately, I was too shy then to ask for clarification -- his throwaway words "of course" made me feel like I must be stupid if I didn't know that, and so I came away full of doubt. And for the next year, I wrestled with that doubt and didn't write a thing, because I had decided that I didn't know what a story was. Of course I always get over such hiatuses -- what writer doesn't? And in the time I had been reading, and writing drabbles and things -- just no "formal" short stories.

So, the other day I was workshopping something in our writing group and said that I really liked it (which I did), but it wasn't a short story. Hang on a minute. I'd come full circle. So what did I mean?

What I want out of a short story is to see the main character changed by the events of the story, i.e. they have to grow. If the character isn't changed, then at least I want to come away with some new perspective, some new insight into the way the world works. In this particular story, the character came away with new insight, but it wasn't a new insight to me (and I didn't feel it would be for many people) and so, although the story was vividly written and evocative, it failed to satisfy me as a reader -- failed to satisfy my needs of what a short story should do. The character had new insight but hadn't grown because of it. It's almost like truncating a hero myth story before the character returns to the real world, so that we can see their growth. (Maybe Jane Campion should take heart, considering all the flack she copped for The piano where that is exactly what she did do! She showed the return, and from the return, we see the character's growth, in action.)

I'm not sure I quite have all the arguments sorted in my head yet to give an effective enough treatise (to the author) about why her short story wasn't a short story to me, but it's almost there, and then I'll have to do just that, because such comments need to be qualified, justified, so the author has something to work with and to learn from -- rather than just go into a fugue from. Workshopping is never meant to be a tool to sharpen writer's block, but to pierce and deflate it!


Sherryl said...

Um, I think you meant that last sentence to be the other way around?

Tracey said...

Nope. I meant it the way I wrote it, but maybe the metaphor didn't work. I meant it's not supposed to make the writer's block into a more acute thing (ie isn't meant to sharpen it, and make it more dangerous) but to break it, to dispel it (pierce and deflate). It probably was an odd-way of putting it, but I've been in an odd-kind of mood today. But there you go, everyone: workshopping in action. So my new end sentence becomes:

Workshopping is never meant to intensify writer's block, but to help alleviate it.