We think in story. It’s hardwired in our brain. It’s how we make strategic sense of the otherwise overwhelming world around us. Simply put, the brain constantly seeks meaning from all the input thrown at it, yanks out what’s important for our survival on a need-to-know basis, and tells us a story about it, based on what it knows of our past experience with it, how we feel about it, and how it might affect us. Rather than recording everything on a first-come, first-served basis, our brain casts us as “the protagonist” and then edits our experience with cinema-like precision, creating logical interrelations, mapping connections between memories, ideas, and events for future reference.
Story is the language of experience, whether it’s ours, someone else’s, or that of fictional characters. Other people’s stories are as important as the stories we tell ourselves. Because if all we ever had to go on was our own experience, we wouldn’t make it out of onesies.
So, What Is a Story?
Contrary to what many people think, a story is not just something that happens. If that were true, we could all cancel the cable, lug our Barcaloungers onto the front lawn, and be utterly entertained, 24/7, just watching the world go by. It would be idyllic for about ten minutes. Then we’d be climbing the walls, if only there were walls on the front lawn.
A story isn’t simply something that happens to someone, either. If it were, we’d be utterly enthralled reading a stranger’s earnestly rendered, heartfelt journal chronicling every trip she took to the grocery store, ever—and we’re not.
A story isn’t even something dramatic that happens to someone. Would you stay up all night reading about how bloodthirsty Gladiator A chased cutthroat Gladiator B around a dusty old arena for two hundred pages? I’m thinking no
A story is . . .
A story is how what happens affects someone who is trying to achieve what turns out to be a difficult goal, and how he or she changes as a result. Breaking it down in the soothingly familiar parlance of the writing world, this translates to
“What happens” is the plot.
“Someone” is the protagonist.
The “goal” is what’s known as the story question.
And “how he or she changes” is what the story itself is actually about.
As counterintuitive as it may sound, a story is not about the plot or even what happens in it. Stories are about how we, rather than the world around us, change. They grab us only when they allow us to experience how it would feel to navigate the plot. Thus story. . . is an internal journey, not an external one.
Articles by Lisa Cron: