The test for what makes a story (coiling of a spring)

(You might also want to review a couple of outside references to the topic of "plot")

The cat sat on its mat (not a story)

"The king died, and then the queen." (From E.M. Forster)

The cat sat on the dog's mat. (This is the beginning of a story)

"The queen was in perfect health only last week, and no doubt she would be alive today if the King's mind had not been poisoned against her by Iago."  Or even "The king died, and then the Queen died of grief."  This too is the beginning of story and the outline of a plot.

How to get stories started. Train yourself always to be on the lookout for them)

Visual Episodic Set-up

An older man driving a polished, late model Cadillac, with two straw hats on the back rack, one field-battered, the other modest, nothing flashy

triggers the following questions:

1) Where does he wear them?

2) Why two?

3) Why does he display them on the back rack?

4) What do his peers think of the hats? (And what do they say about them when he is not around?

5) How does a man who values simple straw hats come to be driving a Cadillac?

The character begins to build, as does the plot, from the observed situation, even before we focus on the guy who is driving.

Possible dialogue on the cell phone: "I don't give a rat's ass what the goddamned Board of Estimate says, Howard, we've got concrete to get poured!"

" It's Monarch Day, Edgar. I told you it would come."

Motivational Episodic Setup

What does the character want?

What stands in the way?

What will the character have to do to get what he/she wants?

Can he/she do it?

Does it make sense to bother?

How will the character feel after success or failure?

Quirk Setup: A character does something unconventional, and the writer scampers to figure out why, and the story arises not so much from the deed as from the character being unleashed from having done it.

Conflict Setup

Two (or) more very different characters with differing motivations thrown together

What does the other character want that goes against what the protagonist wants? And how hard will the protagonist resist? And what will happen?

Story Definitions

"An apocalypse, served up in very small cups." Hortense Callisher

"An axe for the frozen sea within." Kafka

A story always answers the question: what did the character have to overcome in order to become what he/she is at the end?

Greek 3-act story form: Act 1 establishes the conflict. Act 2 complicates it. Act 3 resolves it.

"A question is asked, and a story answers it." Hallie Burnett

A story creates a challenge to overcome, then charts the character as he/she overcomes it - or doesn't. We watch to see what the character sees and feels as he/she confronts the challenge and how the character reacts to succeed or fail.

When is a story finished?

A story is finished when we can comfortably, if the author insists, survive the night without learnng more about the characters or the situation.

An ending can be a partial resolution without living happily ever after or without a distinct moral lesson being learned (so long as some moral or t\ethical dimensions have been directly or inferentially explored).

Possible Visual Episodic setups

- man with cane and balance problem boards a plane early and then, when airborne, makes his way to the center aisle without the cane, and hands in front of him, struggles to balance on two feet and carry on animated conversations

- husband, wife, overweight, son in late 20s returning from Vegas to NY on plane

- woman at concert hall balcony with the sweatered students, wearing evening gown

- security guard with oversized hat that covers an ear, and spit polished shoes

Of course a story setup doesnt have to be visual. You don't have to see it on the outside because you are free to open up the inside and see it there.

Sometimes the inside story reveals more of itself in a carefully observed gesture.

(Try to find inside stories by training yourselves to become keen on gestures and details)

Does there have to be conflict for there to be a story? Probably yes but the definition of conflict can be broad and the conflict can be subtle.

Set-up questions

Who is where?

What is happening?

What is expected?

What does it look like?

What do the characters look like?

Who comes in? Who goes out at pivotal moments?

How does the situation unfold as the story progresses?

Story includes


internal thought and monologue


external detail


Theme issues

Does the story prove an old truth?

Does it try to discover new truth?

Does it fail to reach any truth at all, but in the failing, send up the characters as they learn to cope in an aimless void?

Always as you finish a story, try to reflect on the truths it reveals, if any?