What is a story?
In attempt to find an answer, I looked up several definitions of the word story in various dictionaries: all mentioned prose, verse, or narrative; none accurately conveyed the nature of a story. So instead of listing definitions for you, I will present three aspects of story, particularly the written form (which I am most familiar with), for your consideration.
1. The written story is a form of entertainment. This is not the same entertainment found in TV or in movies, that kind of entertainment is amusement. (In other words, no musing required.) When we watch TV we are not using our minds to think or to imagine. The visual images needed to construct a story is presented on the screen, not within our minds. One could say this is a kind of mindless entertainment.
In the written story, one must use his mind in order to comprehend the words he reads, and he must use his imagination to create the world. The entertainment written stories provide is possibly more rewarding than television and films, yet it requires work. It is this work that distances many people from reading, that renders it a chore, not something to be appreciated or enjoyed.
Reading requires time spent alone in a place free from distractions, in quiet. In most public spaces in America, music is always piped through. Few places are quiet. Even at home there is TV, or computers, or phones, or video games, and in vehicles there is radio. Media is everywhere. Living constantly in this environment, we become alienated to being quiet and being alone. Particularly now in a culture dominated by computers and internet, everything is so fast. Slowing down requires effort. Many people—intelligent people—don’t have a desire to read, not just because they get bored, but because they dread slowing down, they dread the quiet and aloneness that is unavoidable.
2. The written story is an experience. I don’t mean an experience of reading words. The experience the written story offers takes place in a world completely different from (though not unlike) our own. This world could be described as a fictive world, but I prefer to call it a secondary world. It is a place that exists only in the mind: it cannot be seen, it cannot be found, in any place but the mind.
This secondary world can only be entered into when the reader has forgotten completely about himself, and about the world he lives in. Once inside the world, he does not doubt its reality; he does not consider it as fiction, as nonexistent. It does exist.
It is this world where the experience takes place. The entertainment the reader derives from stories comes from his exploration, or discovery, of the world. It is one he hasn’t seen before, one he does not fully understand. He doesn’t witness the events of the story, he experiences them.
This experience is also a form of escape. Our mind cannot co-exist, cannot live within a secondary world and also live within our own. So we escape from the banal torments of everyday life, and enter into something more magical. And it is not just an escape from our world. It is also an escape from the limitations of our own personality. We couldn’t normally have these adventures, or we’d be too frightened. When we enter into a secondary world, we leave all that we are behind us.
We also, for the moment, take on the personality of the writer. Everything we see in this secondary world, though made vivid with our imagination, is seen through the writer’s eyes, through his worldview, since every detail was written in his perception. In this respect, it is very possible that, in subtle ways gone unnoticed, our own perception, our own worldview, can be altered.
Unlike other forms of story telling—television and films, for example—the written story is an experience that lingers. (Particularly in novel form.) A very long movie might last three hours, then its over. A novel, especially a long one, can last for days, for weeks. This is something unique to the written story: no other form of entertainment (that I can think of) can be drawn out for so long.
3. The written story is an art form. Many have forgotten this. An “old classic,” or any modern or contemporary work of serious fiction, is art. But this alone will not persuade a man who doesn’t read to read. First he must discover an appreciation for art, and be willing to work for it. (Few have the patience, or the desire, to study a piece of artwork for half an hour or longer. Even those who explore art museums rarely spend more than a few minutes with each painting or sculpture, never reaching a point of true appreciation, never finding satisfaction.)
Maybe it is because people consider fiction merely as entertainment that they have forgotten its artistic value. Popular and commercial fiction is somewhat accountable for this. The books popular today are merely fads that come and go. These books can be thought of as disposable experiences: they are read, experienced, then tossed away, and the reader is ready for whatever popular book comes along next. The qualities found in great art are not found here. There is nothing worth studying for very long, and the satisfaction got out of the story is not sustaining. It can be equated with a candy bar: it is temporarily satisfying, but it leaves little substance.
Great books are ones that can be read, read, and read again. Coming back to the world of an exceptional novel the reader finds he has more appreciation for it than he did before. He discovers a world that can be preserved, that can never tarnish or pale. He finds, in the absence of himself, a lasting experience brimming with mystery.