This month the Quill is running a head to head article series. Josh asked his professor Drama professor, Alyssa Bradac, to write an article titled “what is a story?” And, without reading Alyssa’s response, Josh wrote an article of the same title. Read both articles below.

What is a story?

by Alyssa Bradac

My short answer is simple: a story is everything – it’s life. My long answer is what follows.

What is a story? A story is birthed out of an event or an action. On a macro level, the story of the Big Bang and the creation of our universe is the biggest story we (sort of) know. Or it might be the story of how God created the world in seven days, if you prefer that story, or any of the others in the creation mythology pantheon. We have many great creation stories in human existence.

On a micro level, however, it’s the story of you. There’s a story, no doubt, about your birth – and even before that – your conception. You may not know it. You may not want to know it. You may have spent your formative life avoiding that topic because the story of your parents having sex to make you just grosses you out. Maybe you know you were a surprise. They didn’t plan you at all, but there’s a story related to the decisions and consequential actions that led to your eventual birth, and how your people felt about it. There’s a story of your mother’s pregnancy. There’s stories about you and your temperament told to you by those who were there. Maybe you were a fussy baby who only slept for a couple hours at a time, or maybe you were a good sleeper. Maybe you talked early or skipped crawling or couldn’t get enough of mashed peas, which you now hate as an adult. These stories are told to you by (presumably) trusted family. The people who love you.

Then there’s stories from toddler years and preschool and kindergarten. Things that you may have vague recollections about, but still need someone to narrate for you from their experience. During kindergarten and all the stops afterward, however, you have a much better narration of your own story and who you were, and all of the stories of the actions and events that have made you who you are today.

And those are only your stories. What about the stories of your guardians and caretakers, the story of your siblings or close family, or friends. Those stories are part of you as well. And every single one of them has left a road map of an emotional memory for you, either yellow caution tape or green proceed signals or flashing red lights when you enter into similar corresponding situations. Stories of your life events instruct you how to keep yourself alive.

Stories are how you remember, how you enable yourself to take action to achieve a goal or win at life, or avoid disaster and/or death.

But what happens when we face the unknown? What happens when we are confronted with a new story? That’s when vulnerability threatens to appear. And if there’s one emotion humans struggle to avoid above all it’s vulnerability.

But let’s talk about the esthetics of stories for a second, that is the outward sensory details that set a scene. The esthetics of stories add to our sense of memory and experience. The weather is often an esthetic. Smells, textures of clothing or surrounding surfaces, colors, scenery.

Imagine all the details of the face of your first kiss, the feel and quality of skin, the build up to that moment, the air inside was too warm or the wind sent chills up your spine outside while you were sitting on a bench. Or maybe you remember the first time you felt shame. Maybe you were caught taking money out of your mom’s purse after hearing the ice cream truck drive by, or you hit someone you loved and instantly regretted it when you saw how you had hurt them and made them cry. The ice cream song, the money, the physical sensation of a hit, the tears; our stories are chalk-full of esthetics.

When we consume stories, whether printed media, digital media, small screens, big screens, or no screens – our brain releases chemicals. More often than not, these chemicals make us feel good – excited, hopeful, joy. Those of you who experience fear as a thrill, who watch horror movies and psychological thrillers – that fear, when done well, elevates your adrenaline levels to make you feel good. However, this is not a universal sensation. Some of us just feel terrified and terrorized, like me.

The kinds of stories you consume speak to your preferences. Librarian Extraordinaire Nancy Pearl has a system she uses to help with something called Reader’s Advisory. RA is essentially what employees in the library and bookstore industry use to help you find your next great read, based upon your reading preferences. She calls them “doorways”. The doorways boil down to plot (think James Patterson), character (Mrs. Dalloway or Sherlock Holmes), setting (essentially world building, like The Lord of the Rings), and prose (any literary award winner you can name, ever). The more gateways a book has, the better the book. The Harry Potter series contains all four gateways, which might explain the series as the phenomenon it is – it has reached billions of people through every doorway.

But the stories we consume become just as much a part of us as the stories that make up the fabric of our lives. Think about the first time you read your favorite book or graphic novel, or saw your favorite movie. The experience of consuming that media created an emotional mark on your road map that you can point to and remember the sensation of your feelings, the sense of identity that was clarified for you, and you may even remember some of the surrounding esthetics as you read or watched it.

When we consume stories, our empathy increases. Whether fiction or nonfiction, our understanding and awareness of the human condition expands. Just because an experience has happened to someone else doesn’t mean we can’t imagine the same situation happening to us. And that empathy is powerful; so powerful it can feel overwhelming. Because empathy also requires vulnerability. It requires us to walk in another’s shoes, to try on someone else’s experience in a way that might be completely foreign to our own. Vulnerability requires an absence of boundary, to proceed despite those red flashing lights or that yellow caution tape with the warning of potential pain. Vulnerability requires humility, and not knowing all the answers and not being able to make it better. Vulnerability requires your whole self.

The best stories are vulnerable.

I said at the start of this article that a story is life. Specifically, it’s your life. And while you can, and probably do, make comparisons between your life and the lives of others, no one else is your unique collection of stories. No one else has the same esthetics. No one else has the same emotional road map. So share it, speak it, write it, draw it, dance it, photograph it, play it. Because in the end, as in the beginning, stories are everything.

What is a Story?

by Josh Harkema

The term story is incredibly broad. Shall I include the news? What about stories passed off as truth—like dad’s fishing expedition or your friend’s unverifiable late-night rendezvous with a someone well outside their league?

Obviously, I must include things like movies and books, but what about other, less obvious kinds of stories? Do I include 140-character flash-fiction from Twitter? What about photographic stories? Can I exclude collaborative works of fiction like those on http://www.scp-wiki.net?

Let’s spend some time examining the SCP site linked above. There is nothing here that I would call a traditional story. The site consists of a bunch of fictional “protocols” used to contain fictional “events/objects/mysteries.” You really need to read some of them to understand what’s happening. I recommend:

The “Ethics Committee Orientation,” is a brilliant little piece of fiction. But, is it a story?

Let’s take a closer look at this article. It’s the transcript of a fictional orientation given to new doctors joining the “SCP Foundation’s Ethics Committee.” If you don’t know anything about the SCP—spoiler alert—ethics isn’t very high on their list of priorities.

There is a lot of underlying knowledge needed to read and/or write an SCP. Lines like “you thought that ‘transferred to the Ethics Committee’ is a euphemism for ‘killed’” allude to elements from many other SCP posts. Pick any SCP article and there’s a 90% chance one of the guidelines will read:

  • “If at any time personnel come into contact with SCP-006 or liquid from SCP-006, they are to be confined and terminated after sufficient studies are done.” (source: http://www.scp-wiki.net/scp-006 )

In fact, level three personnel (really any personnel) are terminated for innocuous violations of protocols they are unaware of in the majority of SCP’s “protocols.”

Thus, there is a story here. It’s just not in the article itself; it’s hidden in the things left unsaid. Does this constitute a story? I think so.

So, lets get back to my point, what is a story?

Do stories need narratives? No. As we’ve seen with the SCP example above, stories don’t need narratives. A story can exist within a bland—even clinical—statement of fictional (or true; read the news lately?) fact.

Do stories need a plot? No. Again, see the SCP examples.

Do stories need a setting? Yes and no. Stories always-already (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Always_already ) have a setting. A writer doesn’t need to spell out the setting, a setting can be implied. The SCP stories above sometimes spell out their setting in intimate, seemingly pointless detail. Sometimes the story is about the setting, but stories don’t need a custom-built setting, in many cases the setting exists ad hoc without any intervention from an creator.

Do stories need characters? Well, let’s take a look.

If I stretch the definition of what makes a character to include otherwise inanimate articles capable of miraculous feats, all the SCP articles I’ve looked at contained at least one character. How about the news? Are there any news articles that don’t involve at least one person—even if the person is the author themself? I can’t remember ever reading one.

Let’s narrow this down a bit, do all stories need to be about some thing? Be it a person, place, or object? As demonstrated above, one can have a story about some thing without a plot, but can one have a story about some thing without a character?

No, but I need to make a minor lexical adjustment before I proceed. Rather than continuing to use the word character (or thing), I will use the word subject. As I’ve shown in the examples above, subjects, characters, and things are—in the world of fiction—for all intents and purposes, the same kind of thing. And, I feel subject better suits my expanded definition for character’s inclusion of miraculous inanimate objects and settings as the sole subject of a story.

Thus, to answer my central question, a story must always be about a subject. Furthermore, a story is any production (picture, movie, book, Tweet, etc.) about something. A photo tells a story about its subject. A Twitter post tells a story about its subject. Without a subject there can be no story.

A story is not a narrative.

A story is not a setting.

A story is not a plot.

A story is a subject.

Is an essay a story? Yes, a story about the essay’s topic.

Is a tweet a story? Yes, a story about the tweet’s subject—be it a hashtag or food pic.

At then end of this particular story, I’m not sure I’ve really answered the question “what is a story.” I feel like I’ve just further complicated the subject with my definition. But, maybe this complication is the answer. Maybe stories are simply too complicated to capture in 1000 words of sardonic prose?

That’s it.

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