What Is Story?



  • Hoo boy. This one usually gets pretty messy.

    ZEN, people. Zen.
  • edited July 2008
    The million dollar question.

    The simple (simplistic?) answer: a narrative.

    But the thing is, when most people talk about "Story" they talk about "Meaningful Story", and that's even harder to explain, much harder.

    Edit. Meant as only one in a series of. Someone described it as "Story Later", and along "Story Now" we have the modes, if not the answer of what is.
  • For my take, which is relevant to the games I create and am interested in, story is:

    A series of fictional events that resolve.

    I didn't define it that way. To the best of my knowledge, Ron did. The emphasis is mine, and it's the part I think matters to the kinds of "story" I'm interested in.
  • This isn't just me trying to be cute or start a massive conversation/flamewar, BTW. I had a very frustrating real-life conversation about this recently, where I realized a couple of things, one of them being that I don't really know how to define Story.
  • A useful definition--not the only one, but the one I happen to use in Misspent Youth--is the three-act structure. Exposition > Inciting incident > Rising action + plot points > Climax > Denouement.
  • Are you asking in context to RPGs? Or just in general?

  • Posted By: WillowThis isn't just me trying to be cute or start a massive conversation/flamewar, BTW. I had a very frustrating real-life conversation about this recently, where I realized a couple of things, one of them being that I don't really know how to define Story.
    I believe it is very much akin to Games, the question of what is a game Wittgenstein addressed; it's a family. It's not one thing, with one set of traits. It's a series of things, with connections between them (some members may only connect directly to certain other members, not to all others).

    In the end, since we put a lot of opinion into this (someone might say about a story he finds stupid/shallow/whatever "That's not story"), it may be "You'll know it when you see it."
    Sure that's not satisfactory, but that's life. Though it may not be that. I think it's a family based on Narratives.
  • Paul, that some of us think that question needs to be asked speaks volumes already.

    (I go with the working definition from Keith Johnstone: story is interrupted routines, with closure through re-incorporation of elements).

  • edited July 2008
    In its most basic form, I've heard story defined as: "describing something happening"

    Some people go further with: "describing a chain of events" or "describing a chain of related events"

    I agree with Guy that when people often talk about Story, they talk about "Meaningful Story". Which is a tougher subject and can be fairly subjective.
  • We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. "The king died and then the queen died" is a story. "The king died, and then the queen died of grief" is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. [...] Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say "and then"? If it is in a plot we ask "why?"

    -- E. M. Forster, "Aspects of the Novel"
  • edited July 2008
    I would say something like, "People projecting a sense of purpose or meaning on a series of events" (some folks might call this a "teleology"). In roleplaying, this can happen before the events occur, while the events are occurring, or long after they have already occurred. It can even happen relative to events that might occur, as in stakes setting or Otherkind-style decision making between different possibilities.

    I think more specific definitions create strong biases towards the kinds of stories people are interested in (i.e. those that follow certain patterns). In reality, people will make up stories about mostly abstract games like Chess or Sorry. "Your knight is really slaughtering my army today."
  • Posted By: pete_darbyPaul, that some of us think that question needs to be asked speaks volumes already.(I go with the working definition from Keith Johnstone: story is interrupted routines, with closure through re-incorporation of elements).
    That's an interesting take, Pete.

    And re the question: Agreed. I have a gut feeling "story" is (yet another) co-opted word that has become code/jargon. So inevitably we must drill down to whether we're talking code-word "story" or "story" like how everyone else uses it.

  • I think a more productive question is, "What is story for?" or "What purpose does story serve?" Any other question and you just get into semantics and diatribes. On a certain level we all know what story is. It's one of those things that doesn't need to be defined, though, it always feels like it does. Sure you can define a story as a narrative... But then, can't you just describe a narrative as a story? What does that mean?

    I believe that at it's deepest level story serves an audience best when it teaches. I think this is true whether we are talking about a story made purely for entertainment or not. For me some of the most profound stories I've experienced are the ones that left me with something, like the Iron Giant. Without trying to hijack this thread, can I ask, "What do you get out of the stories you enjoy?" Should I begin a new thread for that question?
  • I like Matt's "a series of fictional events that resolve" and, in a different way, Jonathan's "people projecting a sense of purpose or meaning on a series of events".

    Beyond that, I think it's very difficult to define. You can talk about ways to create stories (addressing premise, three acts, Joseph Campbell's story structure, Keith Johnstone's stuff), but definitions like that leave huge gaps.

    Oh! We could mention the audience, though. It's probably an integral part of a story that there's an audience: a story is a narrative told by one person, or group of people, to another.

  • Outside of specialized RPG applications, Forster's definition (quoted above) is how I learned to distinguish story from plot.

    Story is "and then this happened"
    Plot is "and that led to"
  • I love Forster's definition. Of course, when we ask about story in gaming, we mean Forster's "plot." The link between sequential events is important because the causality Forster talks about is, in our case, the result of exertion of the will of the players. If it's backstory, it's the will of the game master and presumably the causality is interesting or useful or meaningful in some way to the players. If it's in-game story, then it's the will of the players and the game master and it represents the product of group creativity.

    What none of this addresses is how we judge the value of a story. Is it good? Is it the story we want? Further, we are not asking at what time do we judge the story? As it is created or when play is over? Note that this is not (The Big Model's) Story Now vs. Story Later, which talk about when the story is constructed. That is another issue entirely. I am talking about when the story is judged.

    When a player is participating in a game, presumably she wants to help to tell a story. She probably doesn't want to tell it alone, but maybe she does. As she tells her story (or her part of it), what criteria does she use to create it? As her friends listen to her talk, what standards do they use to judge if the story is good? The military history buff might be primarily concerned with getting the guns and tactics right. The hardcore gamer might only care that her character wins the fight. The story teller might mostly want to make sure the story is about something meaningful.

    You know what I mean, right?
  • edited July 2008
    "Story" is an incredibly ambiguous word that should not be used undefined in technical writing (ie, game rules) because it will inevitably lead to this sort of confusion. ;)
  • Is it ok to use if it is defined, though, Josh?
  • edited July 2008
    It's not terribly useful to discuss "what we think story is" vs. "what the rest of the world thinks story is" because we're defining "the rest of the world" as people who don't play RPGs and we're trying to get at a definition of story that's useful to RPGs. I think. Can we grant it as a given that RPG-story is different than non-RPG-story but that they are linked in interesting ways and talk about it all from that viewpoint? I just see this turning into some kind of silly turf war and it doesn't have to go that way.

    Or do we want to talk about "story" from the point of view of people who don't know much about RPGs? To what end?
    Do we want to compare how "they" use the term vs. how "we" use the term? To what end? Can we do this without a lot of value judgments?

    I think "story" is one of those things that people -- gamers and non-gamers -- use all the time, know what it means, and can't define it. Not being able to define it isn't unique to gamers. It's like obscenity: people know it when they see it.* Or, more likely, they can point to something and tell you that a particular thing isn't a story. Or point out a bad story. Maybe without being able to explain why it's bad.

    My wife is a (budding) professional fiction writer and a Clarion graduate. She knows what a good story is and knows how to make one and fix a bad one. I don't know if she could define it any better than we can, though. I suspect the definition she'd ultimately compose would be similar to those here, written by gamers.

    I think it's a myth that gamers don't know what a good story is. Sure we do. It's human nature. I do agree that certain institutionalized gaming habits might be causing us to create stories that aren't that good but we're having fun, so big deal. I don't hear nerds at gaming conventions telling me about how their campaign produced Pulitzer-nominated stories. I hear enthusiasm and excitement about how much fun they had when their 17th level wizard blasted a dragon. Not much of a meaningful story there, but it sounds fun.

    I think it's also a myth that most gamers want a good story (and can we not define a "good" gaming story as a certain kind of theme-addressing play, thanks!). Most gamers want to have fun with their friends while kicking ass and taking names. Simple fantasy wish-fulfillment and a bit of the good, old-fashioned ultra-violence. We don't need thought-provoking story when we play Monopoly. Why do we have to have it when we play D&D or Vampire?

    If that's what you do want -- and it's what I, personally, want most of the time -- hey, fantastic. I hear there are some game designers who are making games that help create a good story of the meaning-summoning, thought-provoking variety. Sweet.

    * Yes, I know the original, serious context in which this phrase was used. I am using it with tongue in cheek.

    Edit: Steph says, "Hmmm. I have no idea how I'd define story."
  • When I talk about the concept of story in the classroom, my lecture goes something like this: a story is an account with an introduction (comprising setting, situation, character), a complication, and a resolution. So this is a story:

    "So there I was, minding my own business, when this guy comes up and starts giving me a hard time. So I clocked him in the face."

    Note that by this definition character is an outcome of story--you know something about the guy in the story; he's different from the guy in this one:

    "So there I was, minding my own business, when this guy comes up and starts giving me a hard time. So I just walked away."

    That's in the context of talking about stories are more or less the coin of the realm of human communication: they are how we make sense of the world.

    This definition doesn't get at literary (or role-playing theoretic) questions of theme or premise, but I think those are second-order effects that pop out as one's narratives get more complex, nuanced, or layered. That is, theme is created when the characterizations that emerge from story are evaluated or given a valence (good, evil, e.g.) by being associated with heroes or villains, minimally, and with their fictional consequences.
  • Adam, even the "we" in your opening sentence raises all kinds of questions and problems with the issue of defining "story."

  • Bill makes an interesting point about second-order effects and layers of narrative.

    Take my model of role-playing gaming. It's a one-directional triangle. You have players constantly making decisions about what to input into the shared social space. The shared social space includes rules and agreements and techniques and stuff. Those are the pathways that get input into play, which is another idealized space. Once in play, other players see/hear it and can react to it. So Players --> Shared Social Space --> Play --> (back to) Players. More here.

    It's pretty clear that players have some kind of internal filter that helps them determine what to say during play. I call them goals for play. These can be low-level things like "I will say that my character swings his sword at the dragon because I want to kill the dragon" or higher-level things like "I will say that my character swings his sword at the dragon because I don't want my character to die" or even higher, like, "I will say that my character swings his sword at the dragon because the character hates dragons." That's decision-making based on an actor stance or something like that. Taking the author or director stance, though, one might think, "I will say that my character swings his sword at the dragon because I want the character to win this battle" or "...because I want the character to act bravely in the face of danger."

    Theme and premise arise when you step back one more layer and drive author/director stance with a particular thematic goal, e.g. "...because I want to tell a story about courage." Note that it's hard to talk about this layer without talking about story because you're talking about more than one decision. You're talking about a series of decisions linked together to create a series of causal events that form the narrative. You're talking about why you are putting together that particular narrative and not another one.

    Now, to judge these narratives we create as good or bad stories requires us to understand them in the context of their authors goals. If the author wanted to tell a story about something meaningful, we judge it on those merits. If the author wanted to tell a story that got a set of particular details right, we judge it on those merits. If the author wanted to tell a story that showcases the author's skill at play, we judge it on those merits.

    A story requires a beginning and an end -- a resolution. A useful measure of an instance of play is one of those stories. Sure, you could tell a couple stories during a game. Since you're playing with friends, you're sharing the story. (There are probably games where the different characters have separate stories, but not many. Most games have the characters' stories intertwine and become one story.) I believe this is a strong argument that the best stories get created when all the players have the same story goals.

    Can you have different high-level story goals for different parts of the story? Can you want most of all to get the details right at the beginning but want most of all to make a point in the middle? Sure, but those aren't story goals; they're play goals, perhaps scene goals. Story goals necessarily are about the story you want to tell, and I believe you get to pick one goal at most for that story. In the end, when the story is over, how do you judge its quality? By what criteria? You can pick multiple criteria, but which is most important?
  • Posted By: Paul BAdam, even the "we" in your opening sentence raises all kinds of questions and problems with the issue of defining "story."
    Oh, absolutely. Any time someone says "we," you have to question their political agenda.
  • I also really like Forster's definition.

    Alejandro, you're really putting your motives and values in everyone's soup. This is exactly what I pointed out above, you're not answering "What is Story?", you're telling us what you think is a "Good story".
  • edited July 2008
    Adam, what makes a "Good story" is probably an issue for another thread*. Also, I sometimes use Forster's Story when talking about Story, and not Plot.

    * Edit, it'll probably tie back to this thread, for example, the "excitement DnD players" seem to care mostly about Story, and not Plot, if they care about it at all.
    But the ties between the two threads should probably be one-direction.
    And yes, many would fall into the pit of defining "Story" as they'd define "Good story". It is a pit.
  • there's a good interview with Ron Edwards about that question on one of the Theory From The Closet podcasts
  • Posted By: WillowThis isn't just me trying to be cute or start a massive conversation/flamewar, BTW. I had a very frustrating real-life conversation about this recently, where I realized a couple of things, one of them being that I don't really know how to define Story.
    Willow, what was the conversation about? Because different conversations would need different definitions of "story"...
  • The Inuit may have 37 words for snow, but writers, for some reason, have only about three words for "Story."

    The word is a catchall, requiring strings of adjectives to define it for a specific subset.

    Here are some useful concepts I've learned that help differentiate some of the different types of story:

    - A recounting of a series of events. (No meaning or resolution, just "this happened, then this, etc.")

    - A procedure. (If you do this, this, and this, you get this result).

    - An escalating series of risks. (He did this. Then that happened and made things worse! Then he did this other thing! etc.)

    - Exploration of perspective. (This is the way he does it, this is the way she does it.)

    - Exploration of character. (She responded by doing this. He insisted on doing that, etc.)

    - A thematic judgement. (This is the way he does it, this is the way she does it, this is the right way to do it.)

    - The grand argument. (Events, procedure, escalation, perspective, character, theme, and judgement all together).

    Movies and stories and roleplaying sessions usually succeed in quite of few of these -- and most people don't require total success to find the experience rewarding and satisfying--but in general, for western audiences, the more the grand argument is realized, the more satisfied they feel.

    - Alan
  • edited July 2008
    Story as far as my roleplaying is concerned comes down to a specific quality of the SIS, much like realism or genre-fidelity. Story is the glue that holds random events together and gives them weight, regardless of how those events relate to "winning" or "getting what I want".

    That's about as tangible as I can make it. I find that forgetting what "story" means in literature and film is essential to make sense of "story" in roleplaying games.
  • edited July 2008
    Posted By: hoogthere's a good interview with Ron Edwards about that question on one of theTheory From The Closetpodcasts
    Direct link
  • For me, Jonathan's "people projecting a sense of purpose or meaning on a series of events" seems to work the best. It's not the events themselves (Plot), but the greater context.

    Actually, in my experience of stories and games right now, Story = Context. (At least in terms of the "Meaningful Story" usage of the word)

    I play a lot of different kinds of games that involve stories - trad RPGs, indie/story-games, story-heavy video games (CRPGs, "Action/Adventure", Point-and-Click Classic Adventure [experiencing something of a renaissance on the Wii right now], heck even Interactive-Fiction [what used to be called "Text Adventures"]), heavily themed or story-driven board games, etc. I'm not big on abstraction -- I'm not really a fan of Chess. Not enough for my imagination to grab hold on to story-wise. But give me something to work with and I can play pretty much any kind of game.

    For me, it's always about context. The deeper, the more (personally) meaningful the context, the better (and deeper) the experience.

    An old-skool non-story-game example: Doom versus Marathon.

    Both of them are first (second? does the gap between Wolfenstein 3D and Doom count?) generation First Person Shooters. You ran around, you shot stuff, you picked up little shiny color-coded keys. Both are set IN SPAAACE! Doom has Demons, Marathon has Aliens. One was on PCs, the other on Macs.

    Doom was fun. Doom was shooty fun that I (and my entire college) got sucked into during my undergrad days. Whee.

    Marathon was an experience. Marathon (the entire series really) hung with me long after I'd finished the game in a way that Doom never could have.

    Why? It was the same thing, wasn't it? It was running around narrow corridors fighting pixelated beasties with guns and rockets, right?

    But Marathon had context out the wahzoo. I wasn't just some guy shooting stuff to shoot it. I was one of the few survivors on the Marathon, being directed via text messages from increasingly-erratic AIs. Every step you took - every little color-coded door you opened had CONTEXT. You were trying to get the generators back online, you were trying to save the science team so they could take apart some of the aliens and help you understand what the hell was going on, you were trying to figure out a way onto the attacker's ship.

    Durandal's slow descent into madness, the moment when I realized what his concept of "godhood" embodied, all of it just fit so well with the level design and connecting what you as a player were doing moment-to-moment to a greater context. It made a series of shooty battles into something much larger, much more important in my imagination.

    Another (more recent) example. Persona 3, a CRPG from Atlus for the PS2. Looks like every other JRPG you've ever played. Lots and lots of random encounters (in a randomly generated dungeon!), lots of turn-based combat (based on opposing elements, even!).

    But the story wasn't really about whacking Shadows. It was about the LONG school year you spent with the other characters. It was about your shared experiences. Your wins and losses, your successes and failures.

    In the end, when I had to look back over that year and the people I'd spent it with and then make a decision that would affect them all, it really hit home. Yeah, the "days" were just a little calendar that flipped when you hit a certain point in the game, over and over. But the context of it really just worked, somehow.

    For me, Context changes Plot into Story. It changes a mere series events into something more. If you watched the near-end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy without the context of what went before -- just Sam and Frodo and Gollum heading up Mount Doom, would it have any real effect? Just a trio of tiny figures trudging up a volcano. But when you know what went before, of every step, every setback involved in getting there and what's at stake, doesn't it change what you're experiencing?

    OK, I'll stop babbling now. :)

  • edited July 2008
    Forster nails it, pretty much.

    My 'normal' reference to story is McKee's book "Story". He actually doesn't define story on its own, but writes:
    "A story is a series of acts that build to a last act climax or story climax which brings about absolute and irreversible change". McKee's story structure is made up of Story, acts, scenes, sequences and beats, with a beat being the smallest element. Beats build sequences, sequences build scenes, scenes build acts, and acts build a story: "A story is simply one huge master event." (P. 41)

    And later about plot:
    "To PLOT means to navigate through the dangerous terrain of story...[snip]. Plot is the writer's choice of events and their design in time."
  • It's an attempt at understanding something.
    All this other stuff is just attempting to describe form, which doesn't really hold up under alot of scrutiny.
    Is a dream a story?
    If not, then how come?
    You can clearly have story without resolution.
    Asking what is story is like asking what is music.
    It's hopefully changing a bit.
  • Hi Nathan,

    Like I wrote earlier, "story" means a lot of things. Yes, it can mean a dream that has no sense or resolution.

    I think the useful question is not "what is story?" but "what structure and elements do I want in the stories I play?"

    And yes, these are elements of form, because form is what gives meaning. Just ask a film editor -- he chooses to arrange clips in particular ways to produce particular impacts on the audience. That's all form. Form applied to content brings meaning.
  • I don't think form has to give meaning, or a clear meaning.
    Form is not always a clarifier, it's often times very contrary or unclear.
    I'm not sure if there's a clear answer to your question.
    I think that it'd be boring if there were.
    Answers are usually just one perspective given a bit more thought.
  • okay, to look at it as distinct from "plot":

    “Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature.” (Teresa Nielsen Hayden)

    Which doesn't help a great deal; plot is what happens. Story is the whole why and wherefore and what did that mean and "woah, you're kidding!" around it as well as the plot. Story is how you now whether the plot feels right, or whether you care about the plot. Plots don't need characters, stories do.

    I think it's also why writers hate writing synopses: all plot, minimum story.

    I have to confess I'm a bit of a heretic when it comes to some elements of story: I do not give a damn whether the main character is changed, or goes on a personal journey, for what I'd term a satisfactory story. And you can take any theory that comes out of the hero's journey and throw on the fire as far as I'm concerned, because fetishisation of that particular story has impoverished the well of popular story telling since the 1970's.
  • edited July 2008
    Story is "I have something important to tell you!"
    "But that's not a story!"
    "Well, i doesn't matter what it's called, what matters is that this important thing I have to tell you!"

    Probably the hardest thing in roleplay though, is to say the damn important thing but also have room for something else to be said after. Railroading occurs when the GM just wants to say his important thing and thats it. What might be called wasteland play occurs when the GM gives up on saying anything important because he's been told that's bad (since its usually connected with railroading), so he just throws up his hands and says "It's up to you guys to make story!" which is pointless. New stories are made on the backbone of an existing story/important thing, and that's absent - no ones come to the table for the sake of an important thing.

    In big model terms, the important things origin would be outside social contract even - someone finds an important thing completely by themselves, engages social contract to get a discussion on the important thing, and so on. That's what bugs me about the big model - the creative agenda arrow just magically appears from somewhere within the social contract. Shared agenda would, but a shared agenda can't exist without an initiator (doesn't have to be the GM). Or to be more poetic, there is no avalanche without that first lose rock.
  • edited July 2008
    Harold Scheub's book, simply titled Story, has some very interesting thoughts on this. In direct contradiction to the idea that story means a narrative, he writes:
    Story is never simply a cause-and-effect organization of events. It is that, necessarily, but that is not the reason for its existence. We have seen that the narrative is not even the first aspect of storytelling that a child learns: patterning is. To stop with an analysis simply of narrative, and thereby to ignore the more critical aspects of storytelling--emotion, rhythm and pattern, trope--is to dwell on only the most obvious and the simplest aspect of the tradition. It is true, narrative is inviting because it can be studied in an almost mechanical way. It is possible, as Propp has demonstrated, to anticipate the organization of events in a story. The reason for the attractiveness of this one aspect of story is that it can be scientifically analyzed, charted, and graphed. But in the end, it tells little about story. (p. 47)
    Reading Scheub reminded me of something Paul Shepard wrote in Nature and Madness:"[Music's] physiological effect is to reduce inner tensions by first making them symbolically manifest, then resolving and unifying them." Melodies played together harmonize; according to this view, music brings us into harmony. It allows us first to create a theme for our own divisions, dancing, singing and playing out a specific pattern of our own. We harmonize to that melody, and as they harmonize with one another, so do we. It synchronizes players, singers and dancers, creating harmony from discord in more than just the metaphorical sense. Scheub's understanding of story seems similar. We take images instead of notes, using tropes instead of songs, and begin to layer those images one on top of the other, until discordant images harmonize. Stories thus exist to unify the separate, to bring together what we find divided. Like music, the necessary steps of that give us a set pattern--the three act structure. We must first introduce the images we mean to reconcile, then the main point of the story of weaving those images together takes place, and then we must finish the work with the final, climatic unity. Just like music must first introduce the themes, then play with the themes, and finally bring those themes together into a conclusion. But this pattern shows you more a by-product of story than the actual function of story--like studying a footprint without regard to how the leg lifts up and the foot settles on the ground to allow a person to walk.

    In The Fifth World, I needed to dig deeper than the usual assumptions about story, in order to disentangle the assumptions of literacy from what story really means in an oral context. I pretty much came up with that, so my game rewards players for re-using introduced images. I'll finish the playtest draft in the next few days, so we'll soon see if that actually works the way I hope it does!
  • Posted By: Robert BohlPosted By: Josh Roby"Story" is an incredibly ambiguous word that should not be used undefined in technical writing (ie, game rules) because it will inevitably lead to this sort of confusion. ;)
    Is it ok to use if it is defined, though, Josh?

    Probably, although at that point, might as well use a different term that's less likely to drag in other connotations from outside.
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