What’s the story?

by Michael

On occasions when I give workshops on science writing, I generally at some point ask the participants what makes a story. I imagine this feels like a trick question: “He wants us to say, ‘Something with a beginning, middle and end’, but then he’ll say that we’ve forgotten the lede or the nub or the kicker or something.”

But I ask the question in a fairly true spirit of open enquiry. It’s probably the part of the writer’s job in which I have the lowest self-confidence, identifying the story. Or what makes a good story for other people. I know what I like, but I fear sometimes that my tastes are rather esoteric, and not in an interesting polymath way, but in a more niche, potentially closed, and ephemeral way.

So in a bid to understand more about stories and what defines them, I went along to The Story, an event about stories, in which people tell stories, tell stories about stories, and tell stories about story-telling. This was my first time at The Story but the Conway Hall felt like a comfortable(ish) space in which to reflect on my own practice and to enjoy other people’s at the same time.

The programme is just a sequence of stories, interrupted by coffee breaks and lunch, from 10 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon. I was with several colleagues, which was nice, although I think I could just as easily have sat anonymous in the hall without collegiate accompaniment. As it was, I deserted the social opportunities at lunchtime, preferring to wander in the light snow that was falling and eat my packed lunch on a park bench in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, reading Granta, and reliving hundreds of previous lunchtimes from when I worked there.

To thine own self be true

This is what I wrote at lunchtime, in response to the motto above the stage at Conway Hall….

Lunchbreak during a meeting of lovely, sociable, welcoming people and I have run away at walking pace down memory lane to a park I used to sit in and write so that I can sit and write. These sentiments others would Tweet, perhaps, but I do not want to share them; I am too certain they are confusion.

The exhortation to be true to yourself implies knowledge of both truth and self. I feel certain of neither but I know I am more comfortable sitting on a park bench in the snow than navigating the sociable bustle of a lunchbreak. This is not pitiable; it is true and it is to mine own self.

Am I missing opportunities to ‘network’ or extend my limited network of acquaintances and catalysts? Certainly, but there are opportunities here on this cold park bench, too.

My skin is breaking; I am ageing. Now so cold I can’t count how many of my fingertips are screaming with pain.

But what did I learn about stories at The Story? I learned that stories are not easily defined; that many of us who are trying to tell interesting stories struggle to define them if we care to try. I am not a journalist, which means I have not trained in identifying the news media’s definition of a story but this is not a negative because media stories are pretty generic, even if the genre changes over time. So this leaves a myriad of other story types to explore. Some of them are fairly definable – the quest, perhaps, or the journey; the hero’s goal achieved after a set number of setbacks….

Others are not, and this is not a weakness of the story, except in how to sell it – which is not unimportant, of course. But a good story is not necessarily able to be summed up in a sentence, or in an ‘elevator pitch’. Stories that can be so summed are attractive because they can be more easily sold to editors or prospective readers, but there are others that will reward the faithful reader more through their richness, complexity and even their lack of resolution to the narrative, if that is what serves the point of the story better.

Last week, we had a session at work in which we had to present ideas for feature stories. We were pitching, to all intents and purposes I suppose, except that I have never really had to pitch stories before, so perhaps this wasn’t exactly how it works elsewhere. I do not know.

We each had to present two ideas. We had written a one-page summary, which was invaluable for me to work out what the point of the stories were and how what I had researched thus far was most relevant. However, I was not looking forward to any sort of verbal pitch.

In the end, though, I had a bit of time in the meeting – while others were pitching – to essentially script the pitch, deciding how to start, what to focus on and, in the process, coming up with a couple of additional points to shore up the ideas.

Something must have clicked, as both my ideas were deemed acceptable. Maybe I’m starting to get the hang of what makes a story after all….