What is a Story?

In the book Winning The Story Wars, author Jonah Sachs defines a story this way:

“Stories are a particular type of human communication designed to persuade an audience of a storyteller’s worldview.”

Normally when we talk about story, we think about character, plot, setting, dialogue — all the techniques we use to create a story, but taken on their own, don’t necessarily make a story.

A common criticism I’ve heard of books, movies, or TV shows is: “It had no story.” I’m sure I’ve said that a bunch of times about a particular movie I didn’t like. But looking more closely, all those media have characters, plots, settings, and dialogue. I might not like a particular character or plot, but I can’t deny their existence. So story must be something more. And Jonah Sachs’ definition gives us a little more to go on.

He uses three particular words that stick out to me as being vital to better understanding story: communication, persuade, and worldview.

A story is the author’s worldview — what he or she believes and values.

The author is trying to persuade the audience of his or her worldview. If an author doesn’t really believe in what they are trying to say, neither will the audience.

And the author’s argument needs to be clearly and honestly communicated.  He or she might have a great point to make, but if that point is muddled or hidden under layers of falseness, the audience will be unmoved by the story.

I think when these three things are in play, a story has a much better chance of succeeding. Is it a guarantee? Probably not. Even the most universal and honestly told stories of love, freedom, and justice sometimes flop. That’s part of the mystery of art and writing.

I thought I’d look at two of this year’s more successful movies (both commercially and critically) and see if I can break the stories down with these three categories.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, Life of Pi was my favorite film this year. And after seeing it, I read the book and was impressed by how the filmmakers faithfully adapted it. Here’s my interpretation.

The author’s (and filmmaker’s) worldview: “Life is a story. You can choose your story. A story with God is the better story.” From an interview with Yann Martel.

How they persuade us: Without giving anything away, there is a very persuasive scene in the book and movie that illustrates the author’s worldview very clearly and asks the audience the question — what kind of story do you prefer? One with God or one without. (And to be clear, I don’t interpret the author’s use of God as referring to any particular religion, but as a non-denominational synonym for spirituality or faith.)

How they communicate: The themes of spirituality and faith, as well as the hero’s search for meaning as he explores the mysteries of life permeate the entire story.

Now, on the other end of the spectrum is Skyfall. It’s on my mind because I just saw it a couple nights ago. Normally, we don’t associate action movies with having deep themes, but I was pleasantly surprised that this one did and it resonated with me. And I think it’s why Skyfall became the most successful Bond film in history.

The writer and director’s worldview: The world is a more dangerous place than ever, besieged by new enemies with no ties to governments and we must adapt in order to defeat those threats.

How they persuade us: They show the audience that a hero like James Bond is not a relic of the past. Through character development and dynamic action, the filmmakers persuaded me that, yes, in fact James Bond is still relevant (which I didn’t believe going into this movie).  Bond reinvented himself and adapted to meet whatever challenge came his way.

How they communicate: The theme “an old old dog can learn new tricks” was made clear at several points through the film. In fact, a character pretty much says a variation of this. A cliché phrase maybe, but an idea everyone understands.

You could try applying this to your favorite books, movies, and TV shows. It might shed some light on why some stories resonate for you and some don’t. I’d love to hear if it works for you.



42 thoughts on “What is a Story?

  1. This is a very interesting and concise way to think about stories. Now that I think about it, my favorite stories are the ones that get into my head for days after I finish them. Sometimes, I have to untangle the message–make an effort to analyze it before it reveals itself. I would love to see you discuss endings and their role in an effective story, because I think that’s relevant to this. Some very good books I have read (most recently, Life and Times of Michael K) seem to end unsatisfactorily in that nothing decisive happens to give the audience closure. And yet, that book has been sitting on my mind for a while now. On the other hand, Life of Pi has a definitive ending to the story arc. Do you think one method is more effective than the other? Thanks for the post!

  2. Hi Mike, one movie comes to mind, and I hope you do not take this the wrong way, but let me first begin by saying that maybe expectations can also affect the ability a movie has to communicate to the watcher and this persuade them. I have watched the last airbender series countless times and truly fell in love with it. Through the communication of the story I believed that separation leads to disharmony and problems. Not viewing the world as a whole and focusing on differences and not similarities led to conflicts. This occurred multiple times in most if not all the episodes. I did not perceive this world view as strongly in the movie adaptation and was not as convinced. It did not communicate to me as clearly as the animated version, but my close friend was blown away by the movie. It was his first experience with the avatar world and that leads me to believe that expectations can greatly alter how receptive we are to communication. At the same time though, the lack in connection I felt with the film did increase my appreciation of the animated series, and sometimes we cannot appreciate something without experiencing something that does not communicate with us I suppose. Thank you again Mike!

  3. As a young child I was rather lazy and had a difficult time learning to read, the written word somehow did not make sense to me, but I was facinated with what i could see in pictures; Tv shows, movies, paintings, photographs, books with a lot of pictures and illustrations, and, yes, comic books – I would spend hours poring over various issues and see complete stories (or at least interpret them as stories in my mind) just looking at each panel: the expressions on the character’s faces, their movements and actions, the settings, the artist’s style, and now as i READ comic books and graphic novels, I still see much of the narrative coming simply from the artwork.

  4. Life of Pi spoilers follow.

    I’m glad you brought this up, because Martel’s worldview (“There’s no way of knowing what’s true and what’s not, so believe whatever makes you feel good!”) is part of what I couldn’t stand about Life of Pi.

    But also, Life of Pi’s persuasiveness depends on the assumption that the survivor’s first story is better, and I disagree with Martel on that, too. What makes for a more interesting story: a delusion that you create to avoid dealing with unpleasant questions about human nature, or a real struggle–involving real, human feelings–that might actually teach you something? I’m not saying that fantastic stories are bad. But in this case, the survivor’s first story is less interesting because it’s disconnected from human experience. “Once upon a time, a hyena ate a zebra and an orangutan” just isn’t as compelling as “once upon a time, a ship’s cook ate a sailor and a passenger’s mother.” Not unless the animals are anthropomorphic, anyway. (“Once upon a time, Appa ate Momo!”)

    Life of Pi itself is “once upon a time, a guy who lived through something horrible created a delusion to protect himself,” which could certainly be a good story, but this brings us back to worldview. What’s the author trying to say about this situation? Is it okay for the survivor remain deluded forever, or should he confront the reality of his experience? Why? What are the consequences either way? Martel seems more than content to say, “believing the delusion is great because it makes him feel better for now,” but to me, that’s lazy.

    1. Hi Don–
      If you haven’t read the book, I would highly recommend it. It presents the message much more subtly, and I think the movie needed to make it clear for its own sake, hence the author spelling out who each character represented and Pi’s query of, “Which one do you like better?” which are not present in the book (I believe, but it’s been a few years). Additionally, I think the book and the movie both beautifully capture that the Richard Parker story is -totally- about human experience. The more thought you devote to the parallels between Richard Parker and Pi, the more you learn about Pi’s own struggles with survival, giving up, etc. And I personally see the worldview Martel creates as more “choose to see the world in a way that gives you something to live for, to believe in” rather than just “whichever story makes you feel better.” I do agree with you, though, that certain stories seem to shove a message down our throats, and there can be much more effective stories that don’t strive to “teach” us anything. Thanks for your thoughts!

    2. I don’t know if “lazy” would be the best word to use here. Seems to me it would take more effort to believe the delusion than what you actually saw.

      But then again, your division of the stories into “reality” and “delusion” is quite telling. The point of the narrative is that either one of the stories has an equal chance of being a delusion- either the boy is deluding himself so he doesn’t have to confront the true brutal nature of humanity, or the insurance claims adjusters are deluding themselves so they don’t have to confront the idea that their understanding of the world is less complete than they initially believed. We might be tempted to say that the less pleasant story is more plausible, but that strikes me as easy cynicism. There is no reason the more terrible answer should always be the most truthful one.

      1. ^ that was me, sorry n_nU
        Is not cynicism because accepting life with all the beautiful and ugly things is a great message.

        I think The Chronicles of Narnia do the “a story with God” better, even if I don’t always agree with C.S Lewis

    1. It may not be of the whole show, but I think a lot of has to do with what Aang said in “The Avatar and the Firelord.”

      All people are capable of great evil and great good. Everyone deserves to be treated like they’re worth giving a chance.

      Zuko being the prime example of this. Aang spared his life countless times despite knowing that Zuko would never have done the same for him. Even Aang’s own friends wouldn’t have done the same.

      It’s really changed my own life and how I treat people.

  5. Agree with Don Laursen, we may get the message of Life of Pi but that doesn’t mean we have to agree with it.
    I don’t like stories that reinforces escapism and delusion, that is not the point of fiction.

  6. Thank you so much for posting this. I really enjoyed your analysis of the films and I definitely agree that a lot of the power of those films was that they had a strong, well-communicated worldview.

    Well I do think that a persuasive worldview/message is an excellent thing to have in a work, I’m not sure if I would say that it’s the best definition of having “story”, so I guess I disagree with Mr. Sachs on that one.

    I think a better way to explain “story” would be to view how well the elements of the story (i.e. plot, characters, even setting) interact with each other. To me, stronger, more present stories have characters whose conscious acts make up the plot rather than the plot merely acting upon them. Additionally, stronger stories mean that each event in the plot is interconnected and builds up to the next event. The tighter the plot, the more each individual event in the story builds towards the climax. For instance, while they are both great books, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets has a much “tighter” plot than Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. If NOTHING in the plot really builds towards the climax, then in my experience, that’s usually when people complain that there wasn’t much of a story. Waiting for Godot is a really good example of this phenomenon.

    Taken this way, you can still have a strong story that doesn’t have a very cohesive or persuasive worldview. A lot of the best crime novels and movies have great narratives for instance, but don’t sell much of a worldview.

    (For the record, one of the things I like some much about ATLA/Korra is that both shine – we get proactive characters who drive a forward an interconnected plot, as well as some well-communicated overall themes. So thanks!)

  7. One of my favorite movies of all time is “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” by Ang Lee.
    Worldview: We are part circumstance, part intention.
    Persuade: You can choose how to respond to circumstances.
    Communicate: With magic.

    The thing that struck me the most from this movie was that I had a very different response to the ending than even the director’s intention. My friend, who grew up in Japan, didn’t like the movie because she thought it had a sad ending. I choose to believe she made it to the bottom safely, like in the story they told before she jumped. My friend said that it wasn’t possible. I responded that it was possible, since they could fly. 😀 I recently saw an interview with Ang Lee talking about how sad it was that the heroine dies at the end. I still say, quite gently, that the ending is determined by the beholder.

  8. I think that it is an effective tool for giving a human perspective to media that some say is without meaning. I like the idea that stories have such a hidden part to them. The post was well written and inspired me to do some more application to my world of analytical and critical frameworks that bring about a greater connection to the human and spiritual side of art. Rama and the Ramayana are interesting to consider, as they show how one man can overcome obstacles with the guidance of the human and the Spiritual. The 1001 Arabian Nights have story into story into story, with each one leading to another and full of diverting questions. If the world had more guidance from thoughtful writers and creative minds who give their gifts for the purpose of teaching the important lessons, such as the bonds of friendship and the realization of the person in Avatar and Legend of Korra we can all benefit in myriad ways.

    Peace. Compassion. Thought.

  9. MIKE,

    This is emarressing but instinct (and logic) tell me i have nothing to lose. I have a very small, infant stage, idea that i MUST get you to take a small look into. I think its a great story to explore (but im sure everyone with an idea says that) so i would LOVE for you to be the judge of that. it may even be one you explored already because im sure you guys explore every option when creating. But PLEASE let me email you the idea! it will honestly take 45seconds to read and then i’ll be out of your hair and go back to being a crazed fan!


    P.S. im not sure i can quit untill i can get this out!

  10. Mike, this post was really interesting! Thank you for sharing it with us! I also loved Life of Pi, and that one scene when he asks “Which one do you like better?” is so resonating. Personally, I thought that choosing not to believe the “realistic” version of the shipwreck, is choosing to keep faith in the good of humanity alive. And it is, one of the most beautiful moments of the film, in my humble opinion. 🙂

    Also, as a Journalism student, I believe stories are what most of the world is made of. They’re just waiting to happen, for someone to listen to them and share. Keep up the inspiring posts!

  11. This is a bit unrelated, but do you think you could give me some information on the Nickelodeon Upfront that’s supposed to take place on the 26th?

    I don’t really know much about it, so do you think you could give me the time, location and an idea as to whether or not I can watch it VIA internet stream? Thank you so much!

    1. If you know it takes place on the 26th, then you know more than I do! I’m not involved with it at all. I remember last year there was a stream, or at least it was shown online at some point soon after the show.

      1. Sorry about that, once again. I just deleted the post that pinged back to this article.

        I still think we’ll get a stream, but I definitely don’t want to put it on your shoulders! 🙂

  12. I just wanted to apologize for misquoting you like that in my article. I hope you understand that I don’t just comment on here to get a quotes from you and write a story about it. It’s not like I’m playing the role of the media or anything like that. I write the blog because I love the show you and Bryan created and its just been a really fun experience writing about it and sharing my ideas with such as awesome community. I don’t make any money off of it, it’s just a way for me to bounce ideas and discussions about Avatar off of other fellow fans. I hope you were not offended and thanks for working so hard on the series! 🙂

  13. MIKE,

    This is emarressing but instinct (and logic) tell me i have nothing to lose. I have a very small, infant stage, idea that i MUST get you to take a small look into. I think its a great story to explore (but im sure everyone with an idea says that) so i would LOVE for you to be the judge of that. it may even be one you explored already because im sure you guys explore every option when creating. But PLEASE let me email you the idea! it will honestly take 45seconds to read and then i’ll be out of your hair and go back to being a crazed fan!


    P.S. im not sure i can quit untill i can get this out!

  14. I wonder if one’s enjoying a movie has anything to do with whether they agree with the purported worldview of the storyteller or not. I mention that because Cloud Atlas is one of my favorite books – I remember reading it, and feeling utterly bereft when I was done, but also like the top of my head had been lifted off – straight philosopher king level stuff. And then years later the movie comes out, and I…don’t love it. And thinking about it in this context, it seems obvious to me now that it’s because the book and the movie have entirely different worldviews. I’d say that the book’s worldview is basically the lesson from the swamp in ATLA – basically that everyone is connected, also something about love/hope being eternal, I think (it’s early, it’s Monday, I’m tired). Whereas in the book, it felt like a specific love story, following two or three different couples through time trying to connect with each other. Which is a very nice worldview, but the book had so perfectly depicted what I believe to be the reason we’re put on this earth, so you know – I was a little offended when I saw the movie. I was not even going to address the weird makeup choices made, but if they’d not cast the same actors in the all of the stories, and rather had different people playing these different characters, I think the movie might have conveyed a little more of what I took to be the book’s worldview.

    Either way, it’s definitely something I’ll be paying attention to from now on.

    1. I loved Cloud Atlas too. I haven’t seen the movie yet, though. I’m always curious to see how books get adapted into films because they often have to pare down the story to its essence. But yes, I do think that if your worldview matches up with a story/author’s worldview, that story is more likely to resonate with you.

      1. Well now I’m trying to think of stories where the worldview doesn’t match up with mine, but I still liked them. I was going to say, The Prestige, but really, I’d say that Christopher Nolan’s way of telling stories subverts expectations, among a million other things, so that most of the time, I feel like I need to watch the movie at least three more times to wrap my mind around it (or, watch it backwards – c.f. Memento). Other person who comes to mind is Quentin Tarantino. But really, this just makes me want to rewatch their movies to see if their worldviews are as pessimistic as I think they are.
        In any case, I would definitely be interested in hearing your thoughts on the cinematic Cloud Atlas v. the book – or do you think it’s unfair for a movie to be compared to to the book it’s based on?

  15. By any chance, have you seen the new video titled Harlem Shake – Korra Edition? Hilarious rendition of The Legend of Korra characters dancing made by a fan. If you haven’t seen it, it’s the latest post on my blog. All the fans seem to love it. Check it out and let me know what you think 🙂

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