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Answering The Age Old Question: What Is Story?

What is story? Going Beyond A Dictionary Definition By Michael Jaymes

If you're a fiction writer, there's a good chance you've Googled this before: "What is a story?"

In a recent podcast, I talk about the importance of defining story and realizing how we define story will ultimately impact the way we write.

You can listen to the podcast below, or keep scrolling down for the transcript.

I hope you enjoy.



(Note: this transcript is AI-generated and may not be 100% accurate. I have highlighted the main points for ease of skimming.)

What is going on, Goombas? This is Coffee Talk with Michael Jaymes. I hope you are all doing well and just having a fantastic day. And today we are going to talk about what is story. And I don't want to talk about, you know, just like from the dictionary definition, what is story. I want to go further than that. And we're just going to talk about what should a story be or what do we want a story to be for us?

So, yeah, without any further ado, grab yourself a coffee this morning—I am actually not drinking a coffee I made myself, surprisingly. I am drinking, an espresso triple shot can of coffee from Black Rifle Coffee Company, and it's not bad. It's called Rich Mocha. So shout out to them. I think they're a hundred percent American company and ran by veterans or something. Kind of cool. But yeah, grab yourself a coffee and let's have a great conversation together and dive right into this.

So what is story? Well, I am going to Google it right now to give you the dictionary definition, but we're going to go against that. So a dictionary definition of story. We have:

An account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment

Okay, that's not bad. Another one says:

A plot or storyline

That one's pretty bland, but it's there.

Report of an item of news in the newspaper\

Okay, yeah, so we're getting into a different world now of what the word story here means in this context.

But yeah, so these first two, an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment and a plot or storyline. I think that the first one's not too bad. There is a sense there that it's for more than just the basis of being a story. And that's kind of what I wanna get at—what is the purpose of a story—because there's a lot of people that wanna be storytellers. There's a lot of people that want to share, whether it's their story, share a story, they wanna write a book, they want to host a podcast like this, whatever it is. People want to have the spotlight sometimes and share something.

Why? What is the purpose, right? What is the goal behind a story? Why do we want to do that? 

Sometimes it's for selfish reasons, and that's why we wanna tell a story. I would say that is the wrong reason to tell a story, because if it's for selfish reasons, then you are not thinking of your audience. You're not thinking, what does my audience actually want to hear? What does my audience actually care about?

So in light of that, let's flip it around.

What if you were telling a story with a different goal in mind—you were telling a story with the goal in mind that: I am going to please the audience that receives this story. Whether it's a story that's going to be published in a magazine or a story that's going to be published in a book format or it's going to be a story that you read amongst a crowd, whatever it is, you are writing something for a specific audience. That's the first thing I want to point out is that storytelling or a story that is going to be written and going to be told has a purpose and it's purposeful for a set of people or a specific audience.

Now that audience can be more general depending on, you know, who's reading the story and what kind of story you're writing, but there is a purpose behind who that story is going to go to, okay? Keep that in mind when you're writing because if you think about who you're writing your story for, it can make a ton of difference on how you write that story and how you consider your words and the style you use and so much more.

So that's the first thing I want to point out. A story has a purpose. Just like this definition says, it's told for entertainment. There's a purpose that a story is written in the first place, okay? And there's a purpose for who's going to receive that story.

Now, I wanna go even further. It's not just about considering who's going to receive this story. It's about considering the emotion that this person that's going to receive the story wants to have and the emotion you as the writer want to give. Okay?

This is the part where I would disagree with this definition here that this is an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment. A story does NOT have to be told necessarily for entertainment. It can be told for a variety of reasons!

It can be told to warn an audience of something. It could be told to scare an audience away from something. It could be told to cause an audience to laugh. It could be told to enlighten the audience toward a new way of living or way of thinking.

Whatever it may be, a story has a goal for a set audience and the story has a goal to make that audience feel something. There has to be a feeling that comes with your story because if there's not a feeling, then your story breathes no life. It does not cause us to live differently.

And what I mean by breathes life is if your story doesn't cause my heart to pound, it doesn't cause flutters to fill my stomach, it doesn't cause me to scrunch my toes and fingers as I read each page because I'm freaking out and the tension is so thick, then I don't think that that's a story that's worth reading yet. It's not ready. That story needs to be polished. That story needs to be cleaned, because if your story doesn't cause an emotion on every single page, then there's a problem.

You want to evoke emotion into your reader, causing them to feel engaged, to keep wanting to read. And that will ultimately make your story feel alive because if it's causing your reader to react physically, then you know your story is breathing, all right? So the first thing is you wanna keep your audience in mind. And the second thing is that you want to evoke emotion with your story. Your story has to be living and breathing, okay?

And then the last thing I wanna say here—and I know this is kind of a shorter podcast. I actually plan on most of these being a little longer, but this one's just short and that's okay.

But the other thing your story is going to need is a purposeful beginning, a purposeful problem that is being solved, and a purposeful ending to the story, a conclusion of some sort. And that is what makes a story feel whole. If your story doesn't feel whole, then it doesn't matter all the emotions you make us feel because we're not going to feel whole after reading it. If you can't cause us to feel that we've come full circle, that the emotions that you made us feel paid off in the end—right? There's no payoff—then our reader is not gonna be happy with the story they heard.

There needs to be some sort of payoff. There needs to be something that's either learned, taken away from the story, that causes us to feel a certain way, that we feel that it came to an end. And in order to do that, you need to have a specific beginning, a specific problem that's going to be solved or going to be dealt with, and there's going to be a specific ending.

So to put all that together, when you're writing a story, consider your audience, consider who you are speaking to, consider the way you want to speak to that audience. And then you want to consider the emotions you want that audience to feel and the emotions that you want to proclaim through storytelling, through your story. And then lastly, you want to consider what is the specific introduction, the specific problem your story is solving and the specific conclusion that your story is going to have. And if you have those three things in mind when you write a story, you are going to write something that people want to read. You're going to write something that needs to be heard. You're going to write something that can change a life.

So yeah, I felt inspired to talk about this today because recently—if you follow me online, you may have seen me post on it on Threads—but I was recently talking to someone who said that writing is all luck and that most of the writers and authors out there aren't really that talented. They're just lucky to be where they are.

And I said, “Balogna!”

You know, that's just not true. Even the people that have made it to where they are that aren't as talented as others who haven't made it there have put in some sort of work to get there. They are talented in their own right. Even if they're not as great as writers of old, and you might read some writing today that you're like, “This is garbage writing. How did they get published?” They're better than most, okay? They're better than a lot of people, and they put in the work to get where they are. They wrote a story that publishers felt was worth publishing, and they paid for it. So who are we to say that it was lucky of them to get where they are because they don't deserve it or something like that?

I think saying that it's based on luck is just copium for the people that are lazy. I think that the people that don't want to put in the work, the people that don't want to believe in their craft and believe in themselves have this copium to say that, “Oh, well, it's luck anyway, so even if I never make it, it's okay, because it's based on luck anyway, so I don't have to fret. I don't have to dedicate my life to this, put my passion into it, pour my soul into it in order to try to get somewhere.”

And yeah, I just don't like that mentality. Personally, what I teach to my clients and how I write personally is if you are not writing something that's worth being heard, then you have a problem. 

Write something worth being told! Write something that's worth being heard by an audience and that you're passionate about and put in the dedication to learn how to make it the best story you possibly can and then take a leap of faith and try to get it out there. Put all your effort into whether you're entering contests, whether you're querying it, whether you're trying to connect with other authors that know agents that you can get connected to—whatever it is, find your way of getting it out to the world if you truly believe in your writing and your story.

And I'll be the first to admit that I jumped the gun. I thought I was a good writer three years ago when I published my first two books. And that's not to take away from the success of publishing those first two books. I'm very thankful I got the opportunity to publish two books already. But would I say that they're a representation of my best writing? Absolutely not!

And I'm sure if you ask Stephen King if his first book is a representation of his best writing, I'm sure he would disagree as well. He would not say it's his best. Most people are growing as they write.

And you know, it's kind of encouraging that people really liked my first two books and told me they loved my first two books, even though I wasn't a great writer, they enjoyed the storytelling. Because that means to me that if I could just polish up my writing, then it'll be the best of both worlds. And I think that my third book, You've Got the Wrong Guy, which is coming out any day now, is a representation of that. Not only is it an incredible story and the storyline is amazing and I can't wait to hook people with it, it's not only that, but it's also fantastically written in my own right. I think that, you know, after taking time to study writing a lot and to be teaching writing a lot, and especially picking up editing in the last year and editing millions of words in the last year, I have learned so much just from reading other people's mistakes. And I think it's made me a better writer and I'm just so much more confident now.

I would just encourage everyone to put in the time, put in the practice, put in the dedication to actually write something worth reading. Those are the writers that I hope will not just chalk it up to luck, but will actually persevere and try to make a career out of the writing, or at least, even if it's not a goal of a career, but you're trying to get your story out there, I hope you make it because that's a story that's worth being told. That's a story that's worth being read, versus people that say they want to write but don't really put a lot of effort into it and they don't create something that's worth necessarily reading.

And I don't say that to be rude to anyone. Writing is writing; writing is art. But I have a firm belief that George Orwell didn't just wake up and write his best works just because he just had a feeling and he was like, “Cool! It came out really good.” Like, it looks like he put in some dedication to that.

Same with J.K. Rowling. I read her story recently and she talked about how she was on a train and she had this spark of an idea for Harry Potter. She knew it was going to be seven books, she didn't have anything to write it down with, but she was just thinking about it in her mind while she was on the train, thinking about how she's going to write this story. And then it took her five years just to write the first book. Like, she put in the time, she put in the effort, she put in the dedication.

Read any interview or any author bio about any author and think about how much work they actually put in to write their stories. Because good writers, they don't just write something and put it out in the world and say, “Those other writers are just lucky because I wrote something good but it didn't work.” It's not about just putting in half the effort that's required. You need to be dedicated to the craft.

So I've banged it over your head enough. I hope this was beneficial. I hope you heard something that encourages you today. And I hope you enjoyed your coffee during this coffee talk.

So have a good rest of your day, guys. Thanks for tuning in today. I'll catch you in the next one.


I hope you enjoyed this podcast/transcript.

If you did and you want to further support me, I have some links below where you can further support me, along with some books on writing I would highly recommend. (The book links are affiliate links, and for no extra charge, I make a small commission if you use my link.)

Personal Links:

Books On Storytelling:

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