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What Is a Story, Anyway? [Writing]—12/24/2005 6:25:00 AM

by Bob Kruger

This will be the first of several articles sharing the best advice I’ve ever gotten on writing. I don’t expect that these articles will be comprehensive; they’ll just cover the stuff that’s been most meaningful to me. (Feel free to comment. I will update these articles now and then.)

In his book Creating Short Fiction, Damon Knight presents the following example of a well-known, complete short story (which Fredric Brown expanded in his story “Knock”):

“The last man on earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door . . .”

You might say that this is a story because it’s got a character, setting, a situation, and tension that keeps you reading till the end (all the way to that last ellipsis point). Maybe. I’ve had authors tell me that a story is the exploration of character. But there’s not much character here. Whether or not this is a story depends on whether the reader makes it one. The first time I read it, I added the following details without even thinking about them: the room is white and empty, some kind of austere cell; the chair is plain, hard wood; something wiped out the human race and that something is on the other side of the door. However, I could have read this another way. The man is in a comfortable, well-appointed room, his life complete except for lack of companionship. The last woman on earth has just decided to come over, and so he knows exactly what the knock means: he’s going to get lucky.

This example is arguably a richer story than many a hundred times its length because none of the elements get in the way of each other. It gives just enough hints that the reader can supply a character, a situation, a conflict—probably one that largely preceded the story—and the resolution of that conflict. The knock is that resolution. The human race has come to an end because the last man has been tracked to his hiding place, or the human race will get a new start because the last woman has made up her mind to see him, or some other conflict you supply has reached its end. How do you know it’s the end? Because there’s no more to read. That in itself has to limit the possibilities severely if this is to be considered a story. And if you read it as merely the beginning of another story, like Fredric Brown’s “Knock,” then it doesn’t work. A story must resolve something. When writing, I think about this quasi-story now and then to remind myself that the reader is participating and that I need to supply the necessary hints to guide that process without impeding it. The goal is an emotional hallucination of some sort, a conceit that takes the reader out of his physical context to experience an emotion based on the fiction context, and the sense that a situation has both been explicated and reached its end.

Next, the quest plot . . .