put it simply, all literature -- novels, short stories, poetry, drama (both plays and
movies), and even journalism -- is about people. The focus, then, of a story
is a person. Once that person enters writing, he or she is known as a "character."
A story begins when a CHARACTER
WANTS SOMETHING. Gatsby wants Daisy; Hamlet wants to avenge his father's death; Ahab
wants to avenge the loss of his leg and kill the white whale.
Think of the last movie you saw.
Certainly there were many characters in it, but there was one central character who was
going after something, whether it's to elude a killer and keep the money (No
Country for Old Men), to aid Afghan rebels (Charlie Wilson's War), or to
cook (Ratatouille), or... All stories begin with a character who
And the thing the main character
wants is not nearly as important as is the INTENSITY with which the character wants.
When you write a
story for an English assignment, whether it's for English 52 or English 102, you might wonder if you could write something
autobiographical. Yes, you certainly may. I would caution you, though:
when you try to tell a story from memory, the way it "really happened"
too often crowds out your imagination, your ability to tell a story with a beginning,
middle, and end. So, if you do try to write something autobiographical, always
remember that you're not trying to render Reality, which is a bad story-teller; you're
trying to render a good story.
What a narrative, in effect, does
is to describe the main character pursuing what he or she wants. This is called the
PLOT. A Plot, then, is a Description of a character
"not having something and showing a character going after his/her desires" that
creates drama. "Will she find the nerve to tell him that she likes him?" asks
your reader. "Will the Dodgers win the pennant?" (Note that this is the reason
all athletic events are inherently dramatic: you've got two tennis players who want the
Cup, two teams who want to win the game...)
Of course your character will be
large and rich, full of memories and things to say. However, for your narrative, all you
need to focus on are the things that matter to your character's pursuit of whatever it is
he or she wants --
a car, a date, a pat on the back from father...
Also, all stories must come to an
end. And I'll bet you've already figured out when a story ends: it's when the main
character either gets or fails to get what he/she has been after. The moment at which you,
the writer, reveal this to your readers is called the CLIMAX. Does Bruce Willis finally
rescue his wife? Does the cop finally get the killer? Does Hamlet finally avenge the
murder of his father? Does the character finally....?
Now that you know how to structure a story, you might wonder what makes a
story have "meaning," what lends a story "significance"?
Here's the key:
in meaningful stories the main character changes
somehow. And the change need not be from Catholic to Jew. No, it can be a subtle as
gaining some small but essential insight into life.
So, to write a story, you need to:
1. create a character who wants something;
2. describe, with concrete detail, how the character
pursues that desire;
3. end the story when your character either gets or doesn't get what's
4. show some change in the character.
Do all this well enough, and get yourself a job in Hollywood. Spielberg is always on
the look-out for a good story teller.