Posted by: birdmaddgirl | 24 February 2010

What is a story?

this was something we talked about in my graduate research class recently: what is a story? the professor put something similar to this (although not precisely this) on the board:

  • 783             bad crops
  • 810             Hermanais dies
  • 816             wheat and barley

what’s your take – is this a story? for the moment, what i’ll say is that i had strong reaction to this question.

i will add that the context for this discussion involved other questions: what is history? what is historical truth?



  1. This has been on my mind in the past week or so too. Not sure why exactly, probably some of the swirling issues emanating from 2666, perhaps in the process of making sense of Wicked, shoot, it could even be from watching an episode of Lost.

    Your prof’s example reminds me of Hemingway’s famously brief story (maybe her intention?) Obviously, brevity is no obstacle for the sufficiently clever, nor is any need for rigid structure, like beginning, middle, end.

    But I don’t believe ‘story’ gets just to be an “I know it when I see it” cloud of subjectivity, so I’ll pick one commonly cited element as a necessary condition: conflict. Explicit or implied, drawn-out or sudden, imagined or universal, abstract or consequential, it doesn’t matter. But I think that’s what separates stories from imagery or declarations. Something about our initial premise has to change; aside from that, anything goes.

    Now, historical truth? Yowza, you go first.

  2. So do you think there’s conflict in this? (Not a bad measure, by the way, although I’m not sure if there’s much conflict in the Hemingway 6-worder. Struggle, perhaps?)

    The example comes from a book, but I didn’t manage to get the title down in class, so I can’t properly cite it here at the moment. When I wander in for office hours, I’ll have to ask the prof about it.

  3. Sure, I’d call it conflict – there’s a body count! And famine! Cereals! Okay, I admit the last line of that is sort of strange (shouldn’t it be first?) but it provides a narrative and leaves an impression, so I say story. Is struggle not conflict? There’s something opposing something else, and it’s either overcome, or not.

    (Maybe I’m being uncharitable with respect to narratives that depict nice things happening to nice people, without difficulty or struggle, but I can’t think of something like that that I’d regard as a story.)

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