Ask an Editor: What IS Story?
Technically a story is just a narrative. Anything that is told in any medium. But, that is NOT how we use the term. When we say something like “Story is King” we mean something very different than just the narrative. But the easiest way to define Story is probably to describe what it is not:
The Story is not the hook.
The hook is a cool idea or story seed that will grab the audience's attention. It’s the storyteller leaping in front of them shouting “Hear ye, Hear ye” while juggling fire.
The hook for Harry Potter is the Hogwarts letter. It’s “Yer a wizard, Harry.” It’s the idea that a young outcast might discover that they are special and be invited into a magical world.
But the hook for Harry Potter is also: “A Dark Lord is threatening to take over the World and you are the prophesied savior.”
The hook is not the Story. The hook is why you will listen to the Story.
The Story is not the plot.
The plot is all the events that happen over the course of the narrative. You could list it easily in an outline or a timeline. The plot is: This happens, and then this happens, and then this… Although a GOOD plot is more: This happens, and because that happens, these things happen, which causes this to happen, which inspires the characters to do this other thing…
In Harry Potter, the plot usually goes something like this: The Dursleys are horrible to Harry, something magical happens on his birthday, he goes to Hogwarts, attends classes, makes friends, fights with Draco, is given detention (usually by Snape), plays Quidditch, solves some challenges and mysteries with the help of his friends, and stops Voldemort.
These elements happen over and over in Harry Potter, but the details change with each book. The Dark Arts Professor might be Quirrell or Lockhart, Mad-Eye Moody or Lupin; the classes might be Charms, Potions, Herbology, Divination, or Care of Magical Creatures. There are many fights with Draco, many games of Quidditch, and many different challenges and mysteries to solve. These details can change or shift as needed.
The plot is not the Story. The plot is the structure and movement of the Story.
The Story is not the theme.
The theme is the assertion the narrative makes about what the audience should pay attention to, or the way the world should be. The elements of the setting, choices the characters make, the outcome of the plot. All of these help illustrate the themes.
The theme of Harry Potter is courage coming from love and sacrifice. Gryffindors are brave and all of our main heroes are Gryffindors. Love is important. It requires sacrifice, but it will literally conquer everything up to and including death (in certain author-approved circumstances).
But the theme of Harry Potter is also family. Family is Important. It explores the loss of family, the lack of family, having to deal with a horrible family, feeling lost in a family you love, and finding a new, better family.
The theme is not the Story. The themes are things that are important and meaningful in the Story. The lessons, I guess (although that is a bit of a loaded term) or the takeaways. A Story can have many themes, and different readers might latch on to different themes in the same Story.
The Story is the heart of your novel.
The Story is what the narrative is actually about.
The story of Harry Potter is: A loner goes to a special school where he discovers a new better world filled with mentors, friends, enemies, love, and home (a place they truly belong) then uses that to defeat the darkness and save the day.
If you remove Hogwarts from Harry Potter, that element of going to school and discovering a new world filled with things that could only exist in that world, it becomes a different Story. Think about the first half of Book 7, when they aren’t at Hogwarts and how different that feels from the rest of the books, and how happy the majority of readers were when they went back to the school.
If Harry Potter wasn’t a loner, if he had been a popular kid with a ton of friends, would he have needed to come to Hogwarts in the first place or would he have been happy as a Muggle? I don’t think it would have been the same Story at all.
The Story is all the things you can’t change or lose.
I think that often, the first thing a writer discovers is the hook, or the characters, or the plot. And we need all of those things, but they aren’t enough by themselves. At some point in the process, hopefully before you dive into revisions, you need to find out what the Story is, and then let that help guide everything else.