Dec 16, 2007

What is a story?

In her essay "Art and Sense of Life," Ayn Rand differentiates "a real-life news story and a fiction story."[1] Her comments and my own interest in history lead me to wonder about stories in general, regardless of type. Following is my personal--not philosophical--definition. What I seek is (1) improvement on the basic approach of understanding a commonly-used but often ill-defined concept, and (2) comments on the basic nature of stories.

EXAMPLES. Stories may be short or long; fictional or factual; vast or minute in scope; and fast or slow in pace. Stories may be told from memory to a single listener, read aloud to a large audience, or read silently alone. Excluding borderline cases, a range of examples from my experience includes: (1) Short stories like the Br'er Rabbit tales, written for children, about imaginary, anthropomorphized animal heroes and villains. (2) Lloyd A. Brown's The Story of Maps (with 86 illustrations and hundreds of endnotes), describing 2000 years of the art and science of map-making. (3) Stories, true or false, that a person tells to explain a fading scar or why he was late for work this morning. (4) Stephen Ambrose's D-Day, a story of the causes and effects of the events happening on one day in one place: the Allied invasion of Normandy in World War II. (5) Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, an 1168-page novel that has the widest of all possible themes, a metaphysical one: the relationship between consciousness and reality.

DEFINITION. What essential, distinguishing characteristics do all these stories have in common? In other words, what makes a story--a story? I don't yet have a completely satisfactory definition. I can suggest an approach. After collecting a range of examples from personal experience, an early step in defining an idea is deciding what kind of thing it refers to. This is the genus in the definition.

A story is a kind of accounting for things, that is, a story combines (1) identification, (2) explanation, and (3) evaluation of events. A story identifies a series of human events (or natural events important to people, such as a story of the rise and fall of dinosaurs); explains their relation to each other; and evaluates their significance, within the context set by a certain purpose valuable to the storyteller and listener. For example, if a man and his young son are walking through their neighborhood, and the young boy asks why a certain house they pass is decrepit and abandoned, the father might tell a story of how the house came to be that way.

The storyteller chooses which events will be the beginning and end of the story, based on the story's purpose, which may be implicit or explicit. The coherence resulting from an essential purpose distinguishes a story from a mere chronology or random collection of events.

Stories tell a sequence of events that lead causally to an end. The storyteller selects the events. A novelist creates from his imagination the events which will concretize his theme. A historian, as storyteller, picks those events which show the essentials of what happened, why it happened, and why it is important.

USES OF STORIES. I have seen people of all ages -- from toddlers to elders -- enthralled by stories. Why is there nearly universal interest in stories, in one form or another? A storyteller chooses a few events from a multitude of events, ties them together, and offers them as an explanation of something. For example, Leonard Peikoff's Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America, tells two stories from history, in parallel: the philosophical slide from the age of enlightenment to the age of nihilism, first in Germany and then, increasingly, in the United States.

For the reader, Ominous Parallels will, says Ayn Rand, "bring order into the chaos of today's events."[2] I think that stories serve a function analogous to the unit-economy function of concepts.[3] In daily life we encounter a myriad of events. They may be large or small, nearby or distant, known through our own experiences or described by distant reporters. Stories help us make sense of those events.

The function of stories is both epistemological (in connecting disparate events) and psychological (in confirming that the world is intelligible). That is true of all stories. Certain stories--the "stand up and cheer" stories, whether they are fact or fiction--can be refueling as well.

SUMMARY. A story is a selective account of logically connected events, told for some purpose that offers values to the storyteller and audience. Stories confirm that events are causally connected, that we can make sense of them, and that--like all facts--they have value implications.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

Notes: [1] The essay "Art and Sense of Life" appears in The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature, and the quote comes from the hardback edition, pp. 47-48. [2] Ayn Rand's comment about a use of Ominous Parallels comes from her Introduction to Leonard Peikoff, Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America, p. ix (hb). [3] See Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Ch. 7, for unit economy of concepts.


Jason said...

I think your essay is well written and you do a good job of bringing disparate types of stories under a common definition.

I wonder though whether your third criterion of evaluation is, in fact, an aspect of all stories. For example, I can imagine someone relating a story to me of why they were late to work, but leaving aside any evaluation; that is, they might not say whether this was good or bad, but merely relate what happened. Clearly, in this case you could answer this question by saying that this is not a "story" by naming it a chronology or even an explanation. However, there are many stories, things which we could agree upon as stories, even lacking a definition, that seem to lack evaluation. For example, what is the evaluative aspect of "Little Red Riding-hood"?

Frankly, I think that stories should contain an evaluative aspect to make them more valuable, but I do not see that this is a necessary component.

Burgess Laughlin said...

I see that I need to think more about this subject. For example, I am wondering if I have been equivocating on the idea of "evaluation." It might refer to: (1) the values which guided the original creator of the story; (2) the listener's or teller's evaluation of the story; or (3) the theme of the story as a value (inspiration, for example).

I am also concerned that I might have been conflating the process of creating the story with the nature of the story once it has been created. A storyteller's values can guide him in the creation of the story; and the story may have some special value to him or the listener; but the two things are not the same.

Burgess Laughlin said...

"Little Red Riding Hood," as I have read it and as it was read to me, is a stock fairy tale. A person reading it aloud to an audience typically adds his own, personalized evaluation of elements of the story--or the story as a whole, in the form of its theme--as he reads the story aloud. (For example, parents often ad lib as they read, if they are trying to make a certain point to their children.) The addition might be explicit or implicit (e.g., conveyed by facial gestures). For a stock fairy tale, the evaluation might differ from storyteller to storyteller.

An example evaluation might be: "How sad that she was eaten up."

The lesson (theme statement) which the storyteller (logically or not) draws from the story might be one of these:
- Don't associate with people who don't look like us.
- Nothing is ever what it seems.
- The world is full of hidden dangers.
- Be suspicious, not naive.
- Little girls should not talk to strangers.
- Things have identity, and grandmothers do not have the teeth of carnivores, so be cautious when you see things that don't make sense.

A theme is a statement of the abstraction which subsumes the concretes of the story; however, a reader may draw a lesson about part of a story as well as the whole.

A moral (not esthetic) evaluation of a story as a whole is a statement of whether the theme abstraction implies something good or bad for the audience.

Burgess Laughlin said...

Here is another question: In what way or to what extent do the four essential characteristics of a fictional story--characters, plot, theme, and style--apply or not apply to all stories?

Are the two types--fictional and factual--essentially the same in nature, but different in the process of creating them?