NaNoWriMo Prepapalooza: What makes a story?

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There are a million different articles and texts written about each component of a story and what they mean, and I’m sure MFAs could rattle them off in their sleep. But this is my blog dammit, so I’ll be explaining it my own way. Who knows? Maybe this explanation will be the one to click for you.

Most of these sections will be the focus of future articles, so don’t worry if I seem to be glossing over them. I only want to point out the basic building blocks. This gives you something to start with for NaNoWriMo, and the rest of the “Prepapalooza” series. Not to mention any other time to start to write a story.

So what makes up a story? My oversimplified version is: It’s something that happens to someone, somewhere, while making a point

A funny thing happened on the way to the theater…

First up, the something/someone/somewhere: your plot, your characters and your setting. Nothing can happen without these. If we were building a building, these would be the bricks in the walls.

Something that happens 

This is the plot, the sequence of events, in your story. If your story was about someone who went to a store, then the plot would be all about encountering traffic, fighting for a parking spot, and so on. 

I say “something that happens to someone,” but there are some options here. If things keep happening to someone regardless of what they do, this would be a plot-driven story: the characters don’t have much influence over what happens, it just kinda…happens. If you have someone who goes out and does things on their own, however, this is a character-driven story. 

There might be perfectly valid reasons for having a plot-driven story, but it is generally considered more interesting to have a character with agency over their destiny.

Side note: this is also something to keep in mind about your own life.

Somewhere 

This is your setting: where and when the story takes place. This can be as broad as the entire universe since the dawn of time stretching all the way until the end of time, or you could have a story happen within a single place, during a fraction of a second. Setting is also a great place to get started with worldbuilding, but that’s another post.

Someone

This is your main character (MC). Besides the MC, you also have supporting characters, villains, disposable characters, etc. They need not only be people, either. There are many stories where there are animals and even cities as characters. 

An important thing to think about when it comes to your characters is their arc – who is this person before the beginning of the story and who will they become over the course of it? It’s rare that a compelling story is told without the transformation of at least one central character, and in fact, you can base your entire story on how they change and why. 

How You Tell the Story

photo of old church building under cloudy sky
The best bricks mean nothing if you can’t hold them together.
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If the previous section described different types of bricks you put together to create a building, then this section is the mortar that holds them together. Without the glue that binds your characters, setting, and plot, you won’t know what any of it looks or sounds like, and you wouldn’t understand what’s going on.

What it looks like

This is description, where you talk about how the light reflects off of someone’s hair or the motion a person makes as they swipe with their knife. It’s the way we communicate plot and setting, otherwise it’s just a list of action words and place names. 

There’s a bit of a problem with description: a lot of writers tend to overdo it. Some want you to see every inch of their world how they see it. While that’s not a bad thing in itself, it gets boring fast. I have a tendency to skip over large descriptive paragraphs when reading unless masterfully written (like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods). Too little description, however, and it becomes confusing: “Where are they again? What’s happening? Which guy is talking?” It’s like trying to watch a movie mid Twitter argument. 

What it sounds like 

This is dialogue – what your characters are saying. Many writers struggle with this part, especially when it comes to characters from a different demographic.

Dialogue is not a way to pad your word count, by the way. What your characters say and how they say it can be clues to their backstory, ideals, and morality, especially when coupled with what they do. If someone is always gently reassuring your main character then turns around and stabs them, then you get a better idea of who they are. 

What’s Going on 

This is not plot exactly, but a way to explain the plot or the world, exposition being the technical term. Exposition is outright saying exactly what’s happening. Instead of painting a picture of a military force destroying a castle and killing the inhabitants, you would simply state that a military coup is underway. This is a mechanic of storytelling that has a time and a place and should be used sparingly. It’s usually written as dialogue, in fact, and comes in the form of one character explaining something to another. 

For example, there’s a Sci-fi trope of what I call the uninitiated observer: in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for example, you had the completely ignorant Arthur Dent. He is accompanied by Ford Prefect, who is there to explain how life in the rest of the galaxy works. Arthur also has access to the actual guide mentioned in the title, which does more of the same. 

It feels natural in this scenario, because we’re starting with the same knowledge that Arthur has, learning with him. However, this is easily overdone. “Expositional dumping” is just having paragraphs of information about your world, a character, or the plot, and comes off dry as all hell. “Show don’t tell” is the adage, and for good reason.

The point of it all

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If the first two sections were bricks and mortar, this next bit is the reason why everything was built in the first place. You don’t typically start with this why, however. Many writers write an entire story, then on the first editorial pass, they decide which incidental pieces to develop. These inform the first of many rewrites. These last pieces of your story are theme, moral, allegory, and metaphor.

Theme 

The theme is a recurring thought or idea in a story. For example, you can have the theme of loss throughout your entire piece, physical and emotional. 

Moral

The lesson behind the story. If you start writing a story with a moral in mind, you will most likely end up writing something very preachy. Think of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” for example. I mean, do whatever you want, I’m not a cop.

Metaphor 

I had to do quite a bit of reading on this topic to grasp the difference between a metaphor and an allegory. Metaphors are a way to illustrate something else in a simpler way. For example, if you wanted to use a rose as a metaphor for a couple’s relationship, it could slowly die as their marriage falls apart. It doesn’t add any extra information, just simplifies what you already have.

Allegory 

I had to look this up just to make sure I understood it. Allegories are like a metaphor that explains a concept in ways you are more likely to understand. For example, while the rose might be a metaphor for the couple’s marriage, the decline of their relationship might be written in just such a way as to describe, I don’t know, the decline of the millennial’s relationship with capitalism. 

Note: you do not need to have a metaphor linked to an allegory, this was just a way to contrast the two. 

Next Steps

Every one of these pieces has a lot of information to read up on, but I hope this is enough to get you started for now. Please take the ideas you come up with and have fun trying to work some of these in there. The last section you can definitely use as a way to stretch yourself if you are already comfortable with the rest of them. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re still not sure how to incorporate them in your writing. We’ll work on all of these concepts together later.


Do you know you struggle with any of these story parts? Which one and why? Check back in next week when we’ll be talking about where to get ideas.