There are many types of stories, and many different genres for stories to fit into… yet, as long-time readers of my blog know, I’m not a huge fan of writing for a genre. Genre writing can feel like a cage, and I want to write what I feel without worrying if the science fiction, fantasy or romance communities will accept my book when I’m done. That said, there are two distinctions among story types that I DO find immensely helpful. For those looking to begin a new work, simply knowing which of the two you want it to be can help guide your writing forward.
--The Idea Story--
An idea story, simply, is a story that is centered around a premise. It is the classic “what if” story.
What if a man who was raised in the jungle is brought into civilized society?
Tarzan/George of the Jungle
What if a travel journalist winds up on an island where every inhabitant is just an inch tall?
What if a man creates a living being from the parts of dead people?
What if a completely normal boy finds out that he is an important figure in another world, and is brought to a school of witchcraft and wizardry?
One can often begin these kinds of stories without a clear character in mind. The circumstances of the plot will drive the person forward - and that allows us to figure out their personalities based on how they respond to the various stimuli around them. As the story progresses, their individuality begins to shine through.
If we can identify something as an idea story, that doesn’t mean it can’t contain good characters. It only means that the scenario of the story is the thing that initially brings readers into the story. Wouldn’t you want to see how a military assassin might get on, completely out of place, in a small town in Mississippi? Why not?
--The Character Story--
Character stories are important because of their insight into human psychology. They thrive when we, the readers, see mirrors of our own inner joys and sorrows. They are also extremely hard to explain as “what if” stories.
If you were forced to describe Catcher in the Rye as a “what if” story, how might you go about it?
Perhaps: "What if, after being expelled, a boy decides that, instead of coming home, he would like to meander around a town, smoking and drinking as he ponders the complexities of human existence?"
It becomes painfully obvious when phrased like this, that this kind of story has no innate goal.
Tarzan must conquer his inner animal so he can conquer Jane’s heart. Harry Potter must survive in a completely different world, despite the fact that evil beings constantly seek his destruction. What must Holden Caulfield do? Really, he has two choices - both of them deceptively simple. The first is to remain away from his family. The second is to face his parents and his sister Phoebe.
The storyline of Catcher in the Rye doesn’t depend on any kind of action. It lies in Holden’s ability to come to terms with himself - to either fully convince himself that his way of living is just, or accept his failures as his own and move on.
Here are a few character stories for your consideration:
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Ulysses by James Joyce
There are, of course, events that happen in character stories that move the plot forward - but they are oftentimes more abstract. The Great Gatsby for example, really only has three direct plot points: when Gatsby and Daisy meet again for the first time, when Daisy hits someone with Gatsby’s car and when Gatsby is murdered.
Everything else is emotional drama - such as when we, the readers, find out that Daisy Buchanan lied about her relationship with Tom Buchanan, and that, despite everything she’s said, she still loves him. In this moment, the plot has not directly moved forward. Gatsby’s actions have not changed. He still stands by Daisy - and yet, our emotions HAVE changed. We feel for Gatsby when he hears this news. We weep for the beautiful man that, despite everything, still only wants to make Daisy’s life better.
--A Brief Note on Hybrids--
There are no hybrids. Yes, there are idea stories that have complex characters, but there is a fundamental difference between these two types of stories. They are opposites in a way. My novel, Tiny Instruments, takes place in a complex Sci-Fi world, but human weakness and strength is what moves the plot forward. There are occasionally driving forces in the plot (as there are in any plot), but the focus always returns to the mind of Timothy Cottard and his own inability to understand humanity (and whether or not he is a part of it). Lord of the Rings is an idea story. Despite complex characters, it is the need to stop Sauron and destroy the ring of power that gives value to everything the characters do.
--Why it Matters--
Knowing what kind of story you have allows you to figure out WHAT TO FOCUS ON in your writing.
If I were going to write the opening chapters of a book about Jamangi, the board game that forces people to play and risk their lives until it’s over, I would give only the most rudimentary character information. Just enough to get a sense of who this person is - and then I would go bring in the board game. Even if I only give 4 pages of setup before I introduce the game, that’s probably just fine. I would set up the events to bring out the different sides of the characters.
If I were going to write a book that focuses on the tendency of people to undervalue their family, I would create a character and put her in a situation that allows her to figure those tendencies out for herself, and hopefully, to overcome them.
So... which type is your story?