What is the crucial element of a story?

I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction short stories lately.  As an aspiring author, one of the things I’ve been trying to pay attention to are what the properties are of the stories I end up enjoying.  And, just as important, what are the properties of the stories I don’t enjoy, particularly the ones I end up abandoning.

After probably about a hundred or so of these stories, I think I’ve figured out a crucial element that is missing in many of the stinkers.  It’s one that is easier for a short story to omit since its absence in a longer work would be much starker.

It’s often said that a story requires a conflict, that without that conflict, there is in fact no story.  But I don’t think that’s quite right, particularly after having read many books on writing.  The required ingredient is more fundamental.  Rather than a conflict, what every story needs is a question.  Seeking the answer to the question is why the reader cares about what is happening.  Without it, the story is little more than just a chronicle of events rather than a cohesive story.

Often the question is, “Who will prevail in this conflict?” but not always.  For instance, in a romance, the main question might be something like, “Will these two characters get together?”  In a murder mystery the question is, “Who is the murderer?”  In science fiction, the central question can sometimes be, “What is the nature of the world?”

In a long work, there will likely be several questions, but there’s usually one overarching one that the the lion share of the story is about answering.  For instance, in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, the question is, “Will Frodo succeed in keeping the ring away from Sauron long enough to destroy it?”  In the original Star Wars movie, the question is, “Will the rebels get the Death Star plans and be able to exploit them?”  In the Lost TV series, the question is, “What is the nature of this crazy island?”  All of these works have lots of subsidiary and concomitant questions, but the main ones hang throughout.

In longer works, it’s often possible to ask a question, and answer it at some point in the story, but in a way that asks another burning question, so that the story can be a chain of related questions.  Indeed, even in a work with one overarching question, each scene is often a subsidiary question followed by an answer that implies another question, leading to the next scene.  (Which makes sense since scenes are essentially mini-stories in and of themselves.)

But in a short story, there’s usually only time to ask and answer one question.  And it needs to be asked, explicitly or implicitly, early in the story.  In a novel, the author might be able to take two or three chapters to get around to it.  In a novelette, it needs to happen in the first few pages.  But in a short story, it usually helps to have it happen in the opening paragraphs.

And here I think is where I see a difference between the shorts I’m enjoying and the ones I’m finding problematic.  The ones I enjoy ask their question early, and spend the rest of the story answering it, often in an unexpected way.  I know fairly early what the story is about, and it eventually comes to some definitive answer, albeit not always a happy one.

Many of the ones I don’t enjoy never get around to asking a question.  Often, the de facto question becomes, “What is going on?”  The whole purpose of the story is to leave the reader in a state of confusion until the end, where enough clues might have been dropped that we can deduce what is happening.  More often than not, I find the answer in the “What is going on?” stories to be lame.  And that’s when an answer is given; too often, no answer is offered, or the answer is so subtle that it’s easily missed.

This isn’t to say that a “What’s going on?” story can’t work.  But if that’s the sole question, at least for me, it has maybe 1000 words before I start to lose patience with it.  If it’s going to be longer than that, the writer has an extra burden to find another way to to keep me interested while I’m waiting for the big reveal.  (In other words, to ask and answer other interesting questions.)  And if there is no big reveal, if the story is only there to confuse me and make me feel unsettled and lost, I’ll feel robbed.

It also isn’t to say that a “What’s going on?” question in the early part of a story is bad.  Sometimes it just takes some setup for us to become aware of the story’s main question, although again, I think there’s a time limit on this, which for me is probably along the 1000 words I mentioned above, at least for short stories.

Of course, some stories ask a question and then never answer it.  I’m actually a bit surprised by how many of these there are.  But at least these stories are compelling while they’re being read, even if they never deliver.  (Although, again, I usually feel robbed when this happens.)

At least, this is what I think after a couple of months of intense story reading.  I might feel differently after another couple of months?  What do you think?  Is the question as crucial as I’m thinking it is?  Or am I completely on the wrong tract here?

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19 Responses to What is the crucial element of a story?

  1. john zande says:

    I think you’re spot on here. A question begins every good journey.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your posts are great, but this one really hit home. I’ve written a few crappy novels (more like novellas) for NaNoWriMo, and developed an interest in story structure as a result. I wondered what made a story great, I think your focus on “The Question” is dead-on.

    When I lose patience with a story, it’s because I don’t see the point or know where it’s headed, which seems to equate to not knowing the question. I generally dislike novels with the question of “What’s going on?”, as I don’t like jumping into a novel completely lost. I want some sort of structure so I have my bearings.

    Sometimes the question is “How”. For instance, in “Lord of the Rings”, I knew the heroes would succeed, so the question wasn’t whether it would be done, but how it would be done, given the huge odds.

    Stories that are compelling have a structure in which the question breaks up into sub-questions, and each of these sub-questions is answered in a chapter, but the end of the chapter throws a twist in which another, more compelling question is asked. This is the “spiral of conflict” (not sure what the technical name is) in many novels, and is what (for me at least) leads to page-turners.

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    • Thanks; you flatter me. I should have mentioned that a lot of my own stories written when I was younger also didn’t understand this. My own Nanowrimo novel a few years ago did have a question, but not because I consciously understood why it needed to be there, just because I lucked out and added the elements that composed it.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Good point about the “how”. I read a novel a while back in which you know what’s going to happen, but it’s the details of how it happens that keeps you going.

      Liked by 2 people

      • “How” is definitely the question in any prequel. In the Star Wars prequels, it was, “How does Anakin become Darth Vader?” In the Black Sails series, which is a prequel to Treasure Island, it’s, “How does the situation at the beginning of Treasure Island develop?”

        Some writers, such as George R. R. Martin, can succeed at making whether or not the heroes succeed into a question, although not everyone enjoys those kinds of stories.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Romeo and Juliette? 😉

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  3. Hariod Brawn says:

    I think there are stories for stories’ sake, and stories for literature’s sake, or philosophy’s sake, or humour’s sake, say. The idea of a ‘crucial element’ within a story is self-defined in the last three instances of course, and if we take a novella like Ian McEwan’s ‘On Chesil Beach’ for example, then we know in advance we’re dealing with high literature, and there is no ‘crucial element’ that needs superimposing upon the whole above and beyond the quality of the writing itself. There may be, and in that example are, instances of conflict and questioning, yet the interest is held in the quality of the narrative and its trajectory alone. One may well say that the de facto question of any story is “what is going on?”, and yet what you refer to as “the big reveal” may be unnecessary in my opinion Mike, and instead the reader is invited to, say, enter into a psychological world in which linear trajectories of questioning and answering are somewhat missing the point. Minds work differently of course, and your own seems to be unremittingly inquisitive, from what I can guess just here on your site, and yet others find interest in, say, the largely narrative-less creations of film-maker David Lynch, in which not only does any central question not matter, but the narrative itself also is more-or-less subordinated to the whole which instead becomes a subjective construct of the story-generating viewer. If the idea of a story without a coherent narrative makes no sense, then for some, Lynch proves the opposite, it could be argued.

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    • Hariod, we’re definitely talking about personal artistic preferences here. I personally don’t enjoy works that lean heavily on the quality of writing alone rather than having a compelling story. But these works get published all the time, and I suspect they wouldn’t if there weren’t a fairly large population of readers who enjoy them. To each their own.

      You might enjoy Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. I was intensely disappointed in it because I didn’t perceive a payoff from it, but it’s winning awards, primarily on the strength of the writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Very fascinating, I think your observation is well motivated — the notion of a question better captures the nuances of plot lines where ‘conflict’ really doesn’t seem to be the case.

    The only fiction writing I do is the existential project of giving my life meaning by constructing a narrative through reactive and backwards-looking rationalizations. In truth the only question I’m presented with is the one that you correctly note is boring, “what (the hell) is going on here?’ I wish for a better question as it would engender a better answer than a mere description of what has occurred.

    All this is to say that I appreciate you sharing this point — helped me see the Camusian existential dilemma from another angle.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. I should note that a “What is going on?” plot is also more workable if the viewpoint characters is sharing that question. It’s when the characters basically know what’s happening but the reader doesn’t that makes that limited approach unsatisfying, at least for me.

      Definitely, we’re all in our own “What’s going on?” story. I’m far less certain of the answer(s) today than I would have been 30 years ago, although I’ve learned to live with uncertainty.

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  5. James Pailly says:

    I think that’s a useful way to think about storytelling. Do you listen to the podcast “Writing Excuses”? It’s quickly become one of my favorite writing resources. They’ve said some interesting things about the kinds of questions your readers should be pondering at different stages of the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • An awesome podcast! I listen to Writing Excuses pretty religiously, so I’m sure I heard it and wouldn’t be surprised if their material wasn’t part of my realization. I’m subscribed to their new stuff on iTunes, and am currently working through their archives. Invaluable stuff.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wyrd Smythe says:

    To be clear, you are here defining your tastes and preferences, not objective criteria for judging a story’s quality, right? As a statement of taste I hear you and, at one time, might even have been pretty much on the same page as you about it. (My taste in everything, beer, stories, women, music, seems to drift over time. I think I just get bored easily.)

    A story answering a question is a good way to put it. It’s almost classic three-act structure: Introduction, Tension (question), Resolution (answer). These stories have a goal — a question to answer, a ring to destroy, a maltese falcon to find. I think they sometimes also engage us with character and mood.

    Hariod mentioned Lynch. That’s a good example. Surrealism is one kind of storytelling that departs (seriously!) from conventional narrative. “Slice of life” stories also often have no other goal than giving you an experience or evoking feelings. Frankly, I’ve never found surrealism very engaging (interesting, but not engaging), nor does “slice of life” interest me much — that’s my taste in operation. But I know many do find the latter very engaging; I suppose some might even find surrealism enthralling.

    You mentioned “slipstream” style fiction recently, and I mentioned I had Slipstream, a movie written, directed, and starring Anthony Hopkins, cued up. I’ve now watched it. I don’t think you’d like it. I’m not sure I did, although I did find it interesting and fairly engaging (for all that it was fairly surreal).

    Storytelling covers a lot of ground and has lots of modes. I suspect that, as with music, there is a “Conventional Narrative Valley” that attracts the most visitors. Usually only those who love storytelling for the art of storytelling itself have much appreciation for the less engaging forms of the art.

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    • Definitely this was about my own tastes. But I don’t think my tastes are too out of the mainstream (at least the science fiction mainstream). This was mostly about my realization about what makes a story work for me and, I suspect, many other people.

      I actually can find some slice of life stories satisfying, particularly if it’s a slice life I’ve never experienced. In the case of SF, if it evokes a sense of wonder, I could see it working. For example, I’d find a detailed story of an astronaut’s experience of a launch into orbit interesting. Although I’d find it more interesting if they were also worried about a major malfunction 🙂

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      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        “I actually can find some slice of life stories satisfying, particularly if it’s a slice life I’ve never experienced.”

        Yeah, I think that’s a big part of their value. They’re good for creating empathy and understanding for ways of life foreign to the reader, and they can be educational. So that’s what it’s like to live in ancient Greece…

        I wonder if a key division I see in music doesn’t apply to storytelling. There are songs that tell a story (e.g. Bob Dylan) and songs that basically celebrate (or commiserate) some aspect of life (e.g. most bands, actually). Stories, I’m thinking, can be about their narrative — like songs that have something to say — or they can be about their mood and tone.

        The movie 2001 offers an interesting case. There is a strong narrative story behind the movie (you find it in the book), but it’s lost in the movie’s mood and tone. 2001 (the movie) is more about making you feel than about telling you a story.

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        • I loved 2001 for being almost a documentary on space flight. But I loved the book a lot more. Especially since Clarke answered the central questions of that story: what was the monolith and who sent it? Of course, his explanation would have been difficult to get across in the movie.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            Heh, yeah, given your feelings about answers, I can see the book appealing a lot more! I, too, loved the accuracy of the movie. Even more I loved its sheer visual poetry — it remains a cinematic masterpiece to this day.

            Kubrick went a very different direction from Clarke, that’s for sure! I’m sure you know they both developed their works in parallel, both keying off Clarke’s short story. Did you know Kubrick had the Discover set destroyed after shooting so it could never be used again?

            Considering how often we saw Robbie the Robot again, I can see why he did it.

            Liked by 1 person

  7. I think you are absolutely correct. If you want feedback on a short story please contact me. I’d be happy to edit/critique/help.

    Liked by 1 person

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