So I noticed something SUPER WEIRD about the way people describe stories, especially the really good ones. I’ll give some examples and you tell me the CRAZY WEIRD thing that’s going on:
We’ll start with something everyone knows:
Harry Potter? Never heard of it! What’s that?
Oh, well it’s this story about a boy who goes to a wizardry school!
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
Which one is that again?
It’s this movie about this legendary sword called the Green Destiny that’s like this SUPER AWESOME PERFECT sword everyone’s after!
It’s about TIME TRAVEL! And it has this wacky time machine that’s a phone box that’s bigger on the inside than the outside!
It’s all about going into other people’s dreams!
It’s about these reality-show-esque competitions where children have to kill each other!
Ouran High School Host Club?
It’s about a host club that’s run by high school students!
It’s about these sci fi knights called Jedi that fight with laser swords and the Force which is kinda like this zen thing…!
Lord of the Who?
It’s about this Ring that represents human desire or something and you get all crazy-eyed about it and turn into Andy Serkis if you wear it too much.
TRAINS OMG TRAINS!
So what’s weird about all this? Did you guess it?
Story essentials, ie the things that EVERY STORY NEEDS, are the following:
This list is debatable, and there are definitely stories without a real theme and I’m pretty even possible to have a story without a setting depending on how you define setting. But that’s the basic list.
The SUPER WEIRD thing I noticed is that people often don’t describe their favorite stories with ANY of these elements. They don’t talk about the plot OR the characters OR the setting OR the themes!
Talking about the plot of Star Wars would mean talking about the group of rebels trying to overthrow an oppressive government. The things people always mention, Jedi and the Force etc, are not plots, specific characters, settings, or themes! Harry Potter is ABOUT boy going to a wizard school, but that’s not strictly speaking the plot. The PLOT is about defeating Voldemort. Atlas Shrugged concerns the subject matter of trains but its really more of a big fat theme with characters sticking out the side. Go back and look at the rest and you’ll see more clearly how the things that stick out to people are NOT any of the story essentials. Sometimes the plot or characters are mentioned, but very often you find yourself having an entire conversation about a movie or book where NOT ONCE do you talk about the plot or the characters or any of that. You talk about… what exactly?
What’s going on here? Why are people talking about the Tardis and the One Ring and not the Doctor or Middle Earth or the plots of these stories?
In response to this quandry, the Schneeblog officially issues forth a Proclamation:
HEREWITH THERE SHALL NO LONGER BE FOUR BUT FIVE STORY ESSENTIALS!
AND THIS NEW ONE SHALL BE DUBBED:
Yeah… prreetttttyy awful name there. There’s a more normal-sounding one which I shall reveal later, but I think “Things” actually better captures the concept here. Let me explain.
The experience of life is RICH and FASCINATING and ENJOYABLE. And it doesn’t get these qualities merely from what happens to us and the people we encounter and the places we find ourselves and the ideas we come to etc. Often times, the most fascinating and rich parts of life are merely contemplating all the wonderful THINGS in life. And by THINGS I mean pretty much EVERYTHING!
Things like AIRPLANES and GOVERNMENTS and RELATIVITY and FOODIE CULTURE and PIANOS and MOUNT EVEREST and HOWLER MONKEYS and SPY TECHNOLOGY and BEEKEEPING and BULLYING and OBESITY and CHESS and MARTIAL ARTS and BLACK HOLES and WATER POLO and ANTIQUES and IRRIGATION and NUTRITION and SHARKS and FASHION and NORTH KOREA and GOLD RUSHES and THE TITANIC and THE GULF WAR and CANCER and DEATH ROW and EARTHQUAKES and START UPS and THE SUPERBOWL and INSOMNIA and MUSTACHES and DEATH METAL and YOGA and TECTONIC PLATES and OIL DRILLING and ELEMENTARY SCHOOL and THE MAFIA and BRONIES and GEOMETRY and EXTERMINATORS.
There are ALL THESE things in life that are really interesting and enjoyable to think about which, in turn, make life really interesting and enjoyable.
Stories are like super-charged little snippets of reality. They are like life in a concentrated form: all the drama, personalities, ideas, etc magnified and structured in the way that impacts people the most.
In life, there are series of events that happen to us and in stories we have plots. In life, we have people with all sorts of personalities all around us and in stories we have characters. And so on.
So just like in life we enjoy thinking about THINGS, in stories we like our plots and characters to revolve around the same kinds of THINGS that we find interesting to think about in real life. Often times, these THINGS are supercharged in just the same way as the other elements. There are stories about “everyday things” like chemists and advertising and high school, but a lot of our favorite stories feature super-chargedly fascinating THINGS like:
Self Aware Robots
NYC Bike Messengers
Yeah. So. THINGS, the fifth story essential.
Important to note that I do not think it’s actually essential, in the same way that Theme isn’t really essential. All stories have some sort of theme if you really break your head thinking about it, but stories don’t NEED a really hashed-out clear cut theme. Similarly, all stories technically feature “things” but not all stories make their THINGS a centerpiece. There are many great stories that aren’t about interesting THINGS.
However, featuring interesting THINGS in a story not only makes it feel more like life, but it makes the experience deeper as well. What I mean is this: There’s not only a world in which the story is taking place, but there’s this THING I can take and think about it on its own, divorced from the story entirely! Then, when I’m done, I can put it back and WHOA, there’s a whole STORY around it that i can ALSO think about!
One of the reasons Harry Potter became so popular, in my opinion, is because there are just SO MANY THINGS in it! Quidditch, wands, owl post, the four houses, the Ministry of Magic, muggles, the pureblood supremacy thing, not to mention all the subjects: potions, defense against the dark arts, divination, transfiguration, herbology, magical creatures, etc, etc. ANY one of those THINGS can be explored in your head for HOURS or DAYS on its own just like real THINGS in life and beyond that, there’s the plot, the characters, the themes, etc ALL of which is ALSO great and interesting. This makes for an exceedingly deep and rich story experience.
It is now pertinent to mention the more common name for THINGS, which I don’t think describes it precisely enough, and that is “Worldbuilding.” It’s an important term for other stuff, but I think it’s too narrow for what I’m talking about. While it does adequately cover elements like wizarding schools and the matrix and even could apply to the Force, a concept like the Green Destiny is just too small to be called “Worldbuilding”. And using the word to characterize the “trains” subject matter in Atlas Shrugged seems flat-out inaccurate.
Yes, so THINGS is definitely the better term.
And because I don’t want to end this post without giving a definition to the idea I’m talking about, I’ll define it like this:
THINGS – elements of a story that exist either actually or conceptually independently from the plot and characters
Oof, that was an awkward double adverb there.
Anyway, yeah. Make stories good with THINGS. That is all.