Elizabeth Moon, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer

What is Story?

Story is a particular kind of narrative that produces a particular kind of pleasure in the listener or reader. Aristotle listed its essential components over 2000 years ago: an interesting character with weaknesses and strengths confronts a problem that tests the character's ability to recognize and overcome his limitations, and his efforts to do so create new problems. If he fails, it's a tragedy; if he succeeds, it's a eucatastrophe. In either case, the ending feels "just" to the listener/reader, in terms of the character's own qualities or lack of them...it is the character and the character's actions (not mere coincidence or divine intervention) that brings about the final result.

The pleasure listeners/readers receive comes from the tickling of some of our hard-wiring in the brain. First, the "interesting character" engages our innate interest in people--most of us are endlessly curious about at least some of our acquaintances. We want to know what they're doing and why they're doing it. We make up our own narratives about them, about their motivations. In a story, we're allowed inside someone else's head, to see things from their perspective. Second, we have an innate sense of justice, and the intellectual capacity to connect action and consequence. The outcome of Story satisfies both the ethical sense of justice, and the intellectual grasp of causality. Third, we have an innate interest in the unexpected--in surprises--and a well-constructed Story provides them in both characterization and action, in order to produce that desirable combination of pleasures at the end.

Some people thinking Story is "mere entertainment" and that fiction, properly, should be "more than just entertainment." They don't think readers/listeners should be entertained. They devalue Story and would uncouple character and incident from the plot structure of Story. I think they're wrong...because Story contains more than "mere" entertainment along with a satisfaction that nothing else can provide. Because Story, by its nature (and our nature) is not boring--entertains the reader/listener--it can carry--does carry--other things along with it. It is a way of experiencing the other (place, time, person) and making sense of it; it is a way of asking questions and suggesting answers but leaving the reader/listener free to keep asking, keep thinking, keep feeling.


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Elizabeth Moon

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