I've been meaning to write a blog post about story for ages.
Stories are probably my favourite thing in the whole world.
I've never read any books about how to write stories, or learned about it in school or college. I didn't even really learn anything about literature at school, though I did manage to get my O level. I learned about story exclusively from reading them, and I learned how to write stories through trying to a lot until I figured it out. I mean a LOT. It took a really long time, perhaps 15 years. I started out by writing 'stories' that replayed the same scene over and over again. I wrote versions of story fragments with different characters. I wrote stories that spiralled off into infinity - until I learned how to what I call 'turn' a story. That was a revelation.
Turning a story means setting up the threads, the things that happen to the characters, so that they interweave and affect each other, events bounce off events until there comes a point where the story turns - like, it gets to the place of maximum stretch, or tension, and then it can come back to you. Everything clicks together and settles into its right place in wave of immeasurable satisfaction. You have to have that turning point in mind when you begin - that's the trick. Once I'd figured all that out I was able to write stories, books, that I was happy with. I wrote quite a few.
It wasn't until I was in the process of writing book number eight that I decided to seek out other writers. I joined various writers' groups and communities and found, to my utter surprise, that everyone seemed to have a different idea of story to me. They used terms like antagonist, protagonist, love interest, story beats, inciting incident, stakes. I was kind of freaked out cos I didn't know what any of that meant.
I looked into it, though; I love to learn new things. It was interesting.
Protagonist is your main character, or hero - I think I probably knew that one.
Antagonist is the bad guy, or villain, but it needn't be a character - it can be anything that works against the protagonist.
The inciting incident is the event that kicks the story off - where the main conflict is revealed.
Stakes is what your protagonist stands to lose if they don't achieve their aim (hint: it has to be something big).
Love interest - a character solely constructed for your protagonist to crush on.
Story beats: I'll be honest; I still don't know what that is.
This was an interesting model, but it didn't fit with the books I had written, or any I was planning to write. It didn't fit with books I'd read either. I tried to talk to people about ideas of story, and that's where I hit a brick wall. Nobody seemed to want to think about there being any other idea of story. Like, this was it: The Unquestionable Truth of Story.
I think the protagonist/antagonist/inciting incident/stakes model is a perfectly reasonable description of a story, but it is a very simple story. I like fairy tales and Star Wars as much as anyone, but I want to write something more complex myself. I like complex stories, though I get that not everybody does.
I don't necessarily want to have ONE protagonist - I like multiple voice, and ensemble stories some of the time. I definitely don't want to have AN antagonist. I'm not keen on villain characters (in my books, cool in other people's), but even if the antagonist isn't a person, why would there only be one? I'm never going to have a love interest. I'm not interested in writing a character whose only purpose is to be someone's crush or someone's squeeze. I've been told ALL stories have an inciting incident, so mine must, but I couldn't tell you what it is. I don't think it matters. I don't think knowing who or what the antagonists are matters either - as long as there is conflict.
I heard someone say recently that you need an antagonist for there to be conflict in a story. I don't agree with this at all. I think stories are like rivers, kind of. Rivers flow down hill because of gravity. Stories flow from beginning to end because of conflict. A conflict between a protagonist and an antagonist isn't enough. There needs to be conflict in every paragraph to make the story flow - or it just sits there going nowhere. For me, conflict needs to come at the characters from all sides all the time, in all shapes and sizes.
Example: the beginning of The Hobbit, when Bilbo is expecting Gandalf to turn up for tea - there's already conflict, because Gandalf is scary, but then all these dwarves turn up instead. They demand food, and Bilbo has to be polite to them; they talk about exciting adventures that get more and more frightening, and eventually Bilbo realises that he is expected to go on an adventure with them. The conflict starts small, but it keeps on coming. There is a protagonist - Bilbo - but an antagonist? Not really. The dwarves and Gandalf cause the conflict, but they ain't the bad guy. The bad guy in the story is Smaug the dragon, but you could hardly say the story of The Hobbit is centred on a conflict between Bilbo and Smaug, or that Smaug stops Bilbo from getting what he wants. What are the stakes? Hmm, not sure. And The Hobbit is a simple story, for children.
The protagonist/antagonist/inciting incident/stakes model can describe any story, supposedly, or if you really want it to, but what I've noticed is that many writers seem to think of it as a recipe for stories, like a plan or a template. Like you have to have all these pieces before you can begin. I'm not sure this is a great idea. When I think of a story, I think of a story, not a set of ingredients to make a story.
I used to write fan fiction. In fact, I still do. I wrote fan fiction before there was such thing as the internet, let alone any fan fiction websites. I got back into fan fiction writing a couple of years ago, and that's when I found out how many other people write it. Blimey! I discovered online fan fiction and got kind of hooked for about six months. I read a lot of fan fiction.
I was surprised to find that most fan fiction doesn't actually have any story.
Most fan fiction involves 'ships'.
For the uninitiated, this means relationships between characters who are not in relationships in the original.
People notice or invent sexual tension between characters in their favourite show/movie/book and then write about these characters having an actual relationship.
They don't write stories about the characters; they write scenes where nothing much happens. These pieces of prose can be eloquent and beautifully written, but they are not stories because there is no conflict. Sexual tension (even imagined) is a form of conflict. Take that away and you've got nothing, storywise.
Lots of people who write fan fiction want to write original stories too, but what they tend to do is take their favourite ship and give them new names and a different context. Then they write about these people, but they don't write a story because they don't know how. Sometimes they don't even know that they don't know how.
Writing stories is really hard. I should know this. I am a teacher. I teach children how to write. The children I teach at the moment are very good at writing. They know how to employ a semi-colon correctly. They can use the passive voice for effect, I kid you not. They can punctuate dialogue, and use more than one tense fluently in the same sentence, but they can't write a story.
Some parts of writing are simple to get - there are rules. Like, full stop at the end of a sentence. There are conventions people like too - don't use adverbs - show, don't tell! You can use them or ignore them. It doesn't make much difference to the story. I mean, the story exists outside of and beyond the words and sentences you choose to use to tell it.
But what if you don't know how to turn a story? Well, here is The Unquestionable Truth of Story, step-by-step, easy as 1,2,3. You've got your characters you love, you've got your setting. Now you've got an antagonist and an inciting incident. There are stakes! Job done. But isn't it all just a little bit too simple? And isn't it exactly the same as everybody else's story?
Building stories is one of my favourite things to do. It's all about balancing the conflict, teasing, confusing, layering mystery, concocting intricate webs of plot, pulling at heartstrings, holding back, letting go, twisting and unravelling, surprising, raising questions. I haven't got the hang of it entirely yet, and perhaps I never will, but I know it can't be done by formula.
I'm sure it's possible to follow the protagonist/antagonist/inciting incident/stakes model and write a wonderful story, but I reckon you'd need to add some extra ingredients to make it so, and nobody seems to want to talk about those. Nobody seems to want to talk about any other ideas of story either. Sad face.
I have never read a book about how to write stories. I don't want to. I don't want to get a fixed idea in my head about what a story has to be. I want to decide for myself what a story is.
This is my latest book; it's far from perfect. It doesn't have an antagonist. If you can find the inciting incident, please let me know.