When Duck Prints Press put out our call for applicants, we asked everyone to submit “a sample of their work (between 1,000 and 2,000 words)… [that] must function as a short story.” When we reviewed the 100+ samples we received, we noticed many areas where writers commonly struggled. Based on what we learned, we’ve planned a number of blog posts to discuss these challenging areas, and we’ve decided to tackle one of the most frequent issues first. Many otherwise strong submissions lost points on our rubric line regarding “plot and events,” and specifically, they scored a 1 or a 2 because “the story has no plot (for example, is a vignette).”
So, this begs the question, what is a story, and, of course, what isn’t a story?
(note that throughout this post, I use the word “narrative” to refer to any amount of text that may or may not be a story, and I use story only in a more narrow, specific sense.)
What is a story?
The answer is deceptively simple: a story is any narrative that has a plot. But…what is a plot? There are many ways to define a plot, but at its most basic, a plot has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and by the ending, something has changed. If, at the end of the story, nothing has changed, then it’s not a story. However, even if something has changed, it’s still not necessarily a story, because characters and time-frame also influence the definition. A narrative without at least one character is not a story. Likewise, a narrative time-frame, if it’s discussing events at a meta-level (“this happened, then this happened, then this happened”) may show that changes occur, but it’s still not a story – it’s an overview or an outline. The lines, of course, can be blurry – and where any given author, reader, or DPP reviewer draws the line between “this is a story” and “this isn’t a story” will vary.
How is a story communicated to the reader?
To function as a story, the narrative must include characters. Now, character doesn’t necessarily have to mean person, or even require sentience, but there must be some point of view being explored, and if the character is an animal or an inanimate object, writing it as a character will require a degree of anthropomorphizing. The key aspect is that the character has some form of agency – some ability to interact with and influence their surroundings. This character will have a point of view and a perspective that affects how they perceive the story’s setting, and by the end of the story this character should have either changed themselves, or changed their surroundings, or changed their relationships. The circumstances around this character must be different by the end of the story than they were at the beginning – or else it’s not a story.
What is change?
As part of the narrative, one or more characters in the story must engage in some form of activity that results in the world around them changing. Writing advice most oftenly calls this “conflict,” but honestly? I hate that word. The classic couching of “person vs. self, person vs. person, person vs. nature, person vs. society, person vs. fate” as the available types of conflict is tired. Defining the only kind of change as conflict and specifically describing it as “x versus y” is to automatically get a potential writer thinking in terms of antagonism. While antagonism is one available type of change, it’s not the only, and while many pieces of writing advice point out that these “versus” constructions don’t mean enmity by nature…why not simply choose a less confusing construction, one that doesn’t require addenda to explain the existence of narratives that clearly are stories but are less “versus” and more “and” – “person and self,” “person and person,” “person and nature,” “person and society,” “person and fate.” I’ve opted to use the word change, because one of the clearest ways to tell if a narrative is a story or not is to look at the nature of the character(s) are at the beginning, and look at the nature of them at the end, and say – what’s different? Maybe they’ve built something. Maybe they’ve reached a new understanding. Maybe they’ve conquered a challenge. Maybe they’ve altered their perspective. Maybe they’ve learned something. Maybe, they’ve changed the world, or maybe, they’ve just changed a light bulb – but something has changed.
Before some writing snob comes at me and says, “okay, fine, we dare you to come up with a plot that doesn’t fit into the classic five conflict types” …of course we can’t. That model functions because all stories can be shoehorned into it, as long as very loose definition of “conflict” and “versus” are used. But because it’s described in oppositional terms, a lot of writers get distracted by that terminology and think there has to be, well, a conflict, in the narrow definition of the word. And that’s clearly absurd – many of our favorite fanfiction tropes, for example, are fluffy and comforting and soft precisely because they’re not about conflict, they’re about harmony. Yes, “enemies to lovers” is wonderful, but so is “friends to lovers.” Two people going on a date that ends with a marriage proposal is a story: they started out as a couple and ended engaged. Something has changed – their relationship status. But to call that “person versus person,” while perhaps technically correct, is ludicrous. Now, to keep it interesting, there might be some “person versus self” – “I’m not worthy of this love, omg do they really care for me, oh will society give us problems if we say yes?” which is how it can be shoehorned into the “conflict” model. But be it ever so soft, and their love ever so accepted, and their faith in each other ever so steady – if there really is no conflict, just those two people meeting up and having a nice night and ending in a proposal…it’s still a story. To say it’s not a story because there was no conflict, only an advancement of their relationship…yes, a story like that is borderline to being a vignette or “slice of life” narrative. Certainly, if there’s zero sources of tension, it may not be a very interesting story, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a story.
What else does a story need?
Honestly – not much. Don’t get us wrong – a story is stronger if it has a setting so that it doesn’t just take place in endless blankness. A story with multiple characters but no form of dialog (verbal or non-verbal) may be a little flat. A story where something changes but some of the introduced plot elements aren’t resolved will feel incomplete to a reader. A story without any negativity could be boring. Stories lacking these elements may not be good stories…or they could be amazing, and innovative, showing how a tale can be told without elements we usually consider essential! As long as something or someone has changed, and the story is told in a narrative, descriptive format that includes a character – it’s a story.
What isn’t a story?
Things that aren’t stories fall into two broad categories:
- Narratives that have description, characters, dialogue, setting, and other story elements, but nothing changes. Examples of this are “slice of life” narratives and what, in fandom-parlance, would be called an episode coda or canon insert – a chunk of narrative deliberately meant to make a bridge between two established events but in which nothing can change because the surrounding events remain established. (A coda or insert might be a story, it varies.)
- Narratives that are either entirely “show” (for example, a vignette) or entirely “tell” (for example, a synopsis), These can also be seen as relating to time – either there’s little or no passage of time (usually the case in vignettes) or far too much passage of time (usually the case in synopses). Narratives like this may or may not include a character, but even if they do, they’re still not stories. Why not? Because any story that is entirely “show” and involves minimal passage of time is unlikely to result in change, and instead will be an extended description of a moment. And any story that is entirely “tell” and depicts a large swath are overviews – there’s no element to actually grab a reader and no reason the reader should care about this dry relationship of events. That’s not a story – it’s a history textbook.
Drawing the lines between these categories can be difficult, and to some extent will come down to taste. Anyone who says there’s a hard-and-fast rule in writing is a liar. Just because a synopsis or a “slice of life” narrative isn’t usually a story doesn’t mean they will never be one. But, in general, if you’re looking at a piece of work and you’re trying to determine if it’s a story or not, there are some signs that will strongly suggest it’s not a story:
- There are no characters.
- There is no setting.
- Nothing has changed between the beginning and ending of the narrative.
- The entire narrative is an extended description of a single person/object/setting.
- The entire narrative could easily be reworded into a sequence of, “thing one happened, then thing two happened, then thing three happened, then thing four happened.”
- The narrative feels like a “pause,” or a “bridge” that takes place between two events that aren’t depicted in the narrative.
- A central conflict or issue is introduced or described in details, but nothing is done to try to solve the issue.
Now, for the most important part of this discussion of what isn’t a story: writing something that isn’t a story isn’t a bad thing! Especially in fanfiction communities, we live for self-indulgent narratives that make us happy. We love to see those “moments between.” We live for a thought-out thousand-year history for some setting that didn’t originally have that much background. These kinds of narratives are fun to write, and especially when they’re part of an existing franchise, can be a delight to read. We are not saying that there is literally anything wrong with writing a narrative that isn’t a story.
That said, Duck Prints Press’s applicant call specifically asked authors to submit a writing sample that was a story, with the eventual goal of selecting authors to write short stories for an anthology. Which is to say: there’s nothing wrong at all with writing “slice of life” stories, codas, canon inserts, vignettes, or synopses – it’s simply not what we asked people to submit in this specific case, and we’ve come to see that a lot of people submitted non-stories without an apparent understanding of the difference, and we wanted to explain that difference.
But, to everyone reading this: write whatever brings you joy, in as much detail or vagueness as makes you happy, and share it with whoever you want. Just also understand, that for many types of narratives, if you’re asked “is that a story?” it’s not. That’s not to create a hierarchy – they’re all equal as art forms, they’re just not the same.
Okay I kinda understand this in theory but what do these differences actually look like in practice?
In long-form works, it’s usually relatively easy to recognize what is a story and what isn’t. Almost every novel ever published has a plot, and has things change, and is therefore a story. (though there are exceptions – Wikipedia lists a few longer vignettes and, when done thoughtfully, it can be astonishingly effective.) However, in shorter works, it can be difficult to tell the difference – and, as previously mentioned, the lines can blur.
In the interest of giving an idea of what the differences are, here are a few examples I quickly cooked up to try to show you all, since I’ve done a lot of “telling” so far (this blog post: also not a story, ha!) and very little demonstration. These are each around 150 words, to show that even in a tiny word count, any of these narrative structures is a viable choice. (Sorry these aren’t high literature – I just threw them together for this post, so I’d have something that suited.)
A story – a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, where something changes:
The door slammed open. Looking up from her embroidery, Victoria blinked as Margaret strode into the room.There was an air of expectancy that was inexplicable to Victoria; she grew more confused when Margaret approached and dropped to one knee.
“What are you doing?” Heart pounding, Victoria attempted self-restraint, but she couldn’t rein in her hope, because it almost looked like…it seemed like…but–
“Proposing,” announced Margaret, pulling a velvet-covered box from her pocket and opening to reveal an emerald set in a gold band.
“But you can’t!”
Margaret tilted her head to the side and frowned. “Why not?”
Objections occurred to Victoria, but examining them…she couldn’t think of a one that Margaret wouldn’t demolish with her usual brilliance. “You know what? You’re right. Who’s to stop us? And…I accept.”
And as Margaret slipped the ring onto Victoria’s finger, she knew: there could be no objection. Nothing had ever felt so right in her life.
“Slice of life” – a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, where nothing changes:
“What a day!” said James, dropping onto the couch with an exhausted sigh.
“I know what you mean,” Tom agreed. He fumbled a hand across the cushion separating them, and James delighted in the simple comfort of threading their fingers together.
A beep, beep, beep sounded in the kitchen, announcing that the microwave had finished nuking their leftovers.
“You getting that?” asked Tom.
“It’s your turn!” James countered.
“But I don’t want to let go of your hand.” Tom gave his hand a squeeze, and a pleased glow suffused James’s chest.
It was Tom’s turn to retrieve their dinner.
But Tom was right – holding hands was wonderful.
“Let’s get it together,” James suggested.
Hesitating, Tom remained still as James sit up and gave a tug on their joined arms, then he broke into a smile and rose at James’s side.
“I love the way you think.”
“I love you, too, darling”
And together – always together – they got their dinner.
“Bridge” scene, episode coda, or canon insert-style fic – a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, where nothing changes:
Arriving home after the battle, Sandy opened the rough-hewn door and shed her damaged armor. Her dented cuirass had left an aching bruise across her chest; she carried it to the smithy out back for repair in the morning. A gash on her thigh throbbed where an arrow had pierced the straps holding her greaves in places; she brought them to her leather-working station. Nicks and fissures marred her once-gleaming sword blade. All Sandy wanted was to collapse in bed, but resisted the pull of relaxation, because blood limned the damaged places red, and repair to the damaged weapon couldn’t wait. Taking a seat, placed her feet on the treadles that set her whet stone to spinning and set about polishing out every imperfection.
Yes, she was exhausted.
But her sword must be cleaned, and smoothed, and honed, and prepared.
Sandy must be prepared.
There would always be another battle to be fought.
Vignette, a narrative without a beginning, a middle, or an end, which may or may not have a character, and nothing changes and in which the emphasis is on showing, rather than telling (but, as in this example, a combination may be used):
The wind blew chill down the narrow mountain pass. All was silent, save for the rush of the breeze. All was still, save where gusts stirred the tall grasses and the branches of trees that reached, claw-like, toward the sky.
Once upon a time, a stream had carved this cut through the cliffs, forcing its way through soft chalk and hard shale, leaving jagged stones that emerged from the steep pass walls like teeth. The stream was long dry, now, only water-smoothed stones strewn across the ground to show where it had ever been.
Once upon a time, travellers had traversed the dried-up rill bed, pounding down the dirt, knocking the rocks aside, leaving scars where their fires burned. They’d lived, and laughed, and explored, and sought…and left, never to return.
Now, there was nothing: nothing but the storm.
And all was silent.
And all was still.
And the wind blew, chill, down the narrow mountain pass.
Synopsis, a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end, which may or may not have characters, and where something changes, and in which the emphasis is on telling rather showing:
Emperor Xiang Zhen was born in 9884 to Dowager Empress Luo Zexi and the warlord Xiang Yijun. After his birth, there was a long period of strife. Those who supported Xiang Yijun’s claim to the throne battled those who still supported the Dowager Empress’s deceased husband Peng Zhenya. Eventually, the factions found common ground when Xiang Zhen came of age, and he was enthroned in 9902.
With his reign came peace and prosperity. The arts flourished. Scholarship advanced, and many great Dao masters arose, using cultivation to rid the land of evil’s left by the long war. Xiang Zhen longed to join a Night Hunt himself, but he was trapped by his political position. He didn’t dare risk the fragile stability in the Empire. If something happened to him, the results could be catastrophic. So he studied, and ruled, and adjudicated, and endowed, and endured.
Xiang Zhen did as he must.
But, oh…he wished he weren’t alone.
I know this is long, so we’ll leave this discussion at this point. Hopefully you found it helpful, and please do let me know if you have any questions! Duck Prints Press is always here to offer support to writers, and we love getting writing asks!