Three essential ingredients of a story

The first essential is that every story must have its own DNA. Everything that happens in the narrative – every incident, every character, every plot twist, every reversal, every surprise – must be contained within, and must arise naturally from, the initial premise of the story as stated in the first chapter or scene – preferably in the first paragraph and even in the first sentence.

In this way, everything in the narrative belongs to itself, the story is an integral whole that is cut from a single piece of cloth, rather than being a patchwork quilt of pieces added on an ad hoc basis.

One might say that narrative texts have a genetic structure, resembling that of living things. Just as an organism can only contain structures that are expressed by its genetic material or DNA, so a proper narrative text should contain only structures expressed by its initial premise – the ‘DNA’ of the story.

If a writer imagines that he or she has complete freedom to introduce any character, or any event they wish into their narrative, then they are committing an undisciplined indiscretion that will cost them the integrity of their story. Readers may not consciously analyse the text in this way, but they will notice it, even if only unconsciously.

Raymond Chandler said that when his story got dull he would introduce a character with a gun. This is an amusing remark but there is a great danger that some writers might take it literally, not realising that Chandler was very careful to arrange his narratives so that nothing happened in this spontaneous way but, on the contrary everything that happened was carefully structured from the outset. It is also important to remember that Chandler’s stories were about men with guns, to begin with.

Another way of expressing the same idea is to say the text must possess dramatic unity. Here’s an example from Robert Louis Stevenson.

Dr Jekyll is an idealistic doctor who believes he can use chemical science to concoct a drug that will separate the higher cortex of the human brain from the primitive stem and thus free man from his lower self to live a higher existence. The drug works but it is the primitive brain that proves the stronger and takes control.

Not only does the premise of the experiment go wrong, but it also contains the seed of everything that follows because, once Mr Hyde gains the upper hand, he insists on becoming the sole tenant of the body he shares with the idealistic but weaker Dr Jekyll.

Moreover, not only does Hyde take possession because of his dominant nature, but he also uses this tenancy to commit more and more bestial acts, because he is uninhibited by the modern brain.

These issues usually seem to us indistinguishable and all part of a single plot idea. In fact they are several separate strands that Stevenson has cleverly woven into a single fabric, but ensuring they all arise from the same cause.

Stories consist of a series of causes and effects. The second essential ingredient is that the consequences must be moral as well as physical. The consequences that flow from the initial premise or inciting incident must not only be physical consequences, they must also have a moral value.

If a careless aircraft maintenance engineer neglects crucial checks on an aircraft which later crashes, killing the pilot and passengers, that is a narrative text but it is not a dramatic story because it is difficult to empathise with death in the abstract. If his wife and children are passengers on the plane that crashes, that is a dramatic story because his neglect has moral consequences with which we can empathise.

Instead of a remorseful maintenance engineer, we have a human being who has tragically killed his own wife and family. Even more compelling, only he knows that it was manslaughter because only he knows he skipped the engine checks and signed off the aircraft as fit to fly.

We now have a man who is compelled to come to terms with his secret guilty knowledge, and who is desperate to atone for his mistake. What will he do? How will he react in future situations? It is questions like this that give the story its dramatic power.

As with story ‘DNA’, the writer does not have complete freedom to create any incident or character at will, because the moral consequences of the plot make some consequences much more plausible and credible than others. Certain outcomes are over-determined by the story’s ‘moral DNA’.

Just as in a properly constructed story, every later incident arises naturally from the inciting incident, so the dramatic tension of later events arises from the moral value placed on the inciting incident.

For example, when Dr Jekyll’s initial experiment goes the wrong way, it is not just physically the wrong outcome but also morally the wrong outcome. Mr Hyde is not merely primitive and antisocial, characteristics for which he could not strictly speaking be blamed, but he is also evil. He chooses to plunge into a life of drinking, prostitutes and gambling.

Jekyll’s decision to experiment, taken with the best of intentions, turns out to have had the worst of results – and it is his responsibility and his alone. He is now compelled to take further actions to redress the wrong his initial action caused to come into being.

The unexpected and morally wrong consequence is also a mirror image of Jekyll’s behaviour: Mister Hyde, too, experiments with his own nature, but his experiments have evil aims rather than honourable ones.

As each twist of the plot arises from the consequences of the initial experimental failure, so the dramatic tension is increased because the moral consequences also get worse each time. Mr Hyde’s behaviour degenerates with each appearance until inevitably it ends up in sexual murder.

Each turn of the screw places the honest and idealistic Jekyll in greater and greater torment of mind and raises the stakes as he battles to free himself from Hyde and undo the harm his foolish decision has caused.

Once again, Stevenson’s genius makes this descent into the moral abyss appear natural and obvious but it is most cleverly constructed and controlled in these separate stages.

The third ingredient is that a story must prove itself. Every story is a kind of theory advanced by its writer. That is why so many stories can be summed up in a single sentence which sounds like a proposition intended for debate: Love conquers all, Man proposes but god disposes, People believe what they want to believe.

The theory may not be explicitly stated, but may simply be revealed through the dramatic premises of the story. However, it is essential that the writer makes sure that the story does in fact prove the point they want to make, otherwise their writing is simply a narrative text with dramatic content, rather than a story which will satisfy the audience.

Another example from Stevenson. In Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, he puts forward the theory that science leads men to think they can play god, but that this is an illusion. We can affect nature, but we cannot control nature. Man proposes: Nature disposes.

He proves this point in a number of ways, but most conclusively by the fact that even the intelligent, highly educated, idealistically motivated Jekyll, is unable to withstand the elemental natural force that Mr Hyde represents. Jekyll may know the chemical formula for a drug that separates men from the animals, but he doesn’t know how to control the chaotic results. Ultimately Jekyll is in the position of King Canute, trying to hold back the tide.

The price of this arrogance is that Jekyll is finally left with no alternative to suicide as the outcome of his own actions. To kill off Hyde, he must kill himself. Put another way: Jekyll committed suicide the moment the irresistible idea entered his mind that he could perfect man through science.

A common mistake made not only by beginners but also by many experienced and successful writers, is to construct a series of episodes, often dramatic in themselves, and linked by a theme or philosophical ideas, but not arising from the initial premise, and hence lacking dramatic unity, not containing moral consequences, and so failing to engage, or not proving the writer’s point, and hence leaving behind a sense of being unresolved.

For example: Stevenson could have ended his story by Jekyll heroically screwing up his courage to face down Mr Hyde, returning to normal, vowing never to touch the drug again, faking the suicide of Hyde, and returning to normal life as a famous scientist. But this happy ending would have failed to prove Stevenson’s point – everything that went before would have been rendered pointless. There would be an adventure with ups and downs, but no story – because the ending would not be consonant with the theory or point of the story. Nothing would have been demonstrated. It is this proof that lifts a narrative text above the common level and makes it a true story of the Homeric kind.



Share this post

submit to reddit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

scroll to top
%d bloggers like this: