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What Makes a Story a Story?

The more I write, the more I value story over words.

I started dreaming of becoming a writer in grade school. What that meant escaped me for decades. I only knew that I loved to write and needed to write. I loved words, but not as a linguist. I loved them because of what they did in my head. They were tools for putting together a movie in my imagination, and great writers, to me, were not great wordsmiths but great storytellers. In a sense, words to me were merely words.

What Are Words?

Then I went to college and studied creative writing for eight years. There I learned that words are not just words. They are the focus of what writers do. They must be dissected and arranged into beautiful patterns that exist for the sake of existence. Great words, I learned, make great stories. Silly words make silly stories.

This, of course, is pure hog swill. Words are just words. They are powerful, yes, but only because they are the tools of creation. They are the building blocks, not the building.

The Love of Story

I should have realized the philosophy of writing at my university was wrong by the effect it had on me. Before I entered college I had written two novels. But in eight years of higher education I wrote only one, and only because I was required to. Once out of school, I started writing again for the love of it, and finished a novel in nine months.
I was back to valuing story over words. I didn’t think this through. I only knew that when I sat down to write a story I was interested in, the words came easier.

This experience eventually led me to create The One Year Adventure Novel curriculum. I designed it to teach young writers what I wish I had discovered back then: how story works.

After all, what do writers do when story itself is a mystery? No one taught me structure and fulfillment. No one taught the basics of conflict and meaning. People were either born with the “gift” or they weren’t. The muses, those traitorous old hags, either loved you or they didn’t. Since I had nothing to guide me, I settled for rearranging words into beautiful shapes. The professionals told me that beautiful sentences made beautiful paragraphs, and beautiful paragraphs made beautiful stories.

While I would not say my university education was a waste of time, I certainly wasted time on this wrongheaded approach to storytelling. Word arranging is not storytelling.

And yet so many writers—young and old—devote years to perfecting their technical writing ability or their writing voice, and wonder what their stories are missing.

The Essence of Story

Stories have a structure. Stories have an emotional logic. There are tried and true ways to say something meaningful without being cliché or preachy.

I don’t want young writers to learn Story the hard way. And I don’t think Story is beyond the ability of a teenage writer to grasp.

It takes hard work to be a good writer—no one succeeds without dedication—but I like to think that The One Year Adventure Novel offers students a way to make their hard work count. It is not a waste of a storyteller’s time.
There are programs to teach young writers how to write essays, and how to use grammar, and how to analyze the great stories of literature, but where will they learn how to put their own stories together? The One Year Adventure Novel can do that. That it’s worth one high school English credit doesn’t hurt either.

The One Year Adventure Novel, published by Clear Water Press, is a video-based high school curriculum designed for homeschool students.Students write an original, compelling adventure novel in one school year, earning 1 high school English credit. Clear Water Press also publishes Cover Story Writing, for grades 6–9.

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