What Makes a Story Feel Like a Story?

Image: young woman with a concerned expression, hold a telephone receiver.
Photo by Khoa Võ from Pexels

Today’s post is by regular contributor Susan DeFreitas (@manzanitafire), an award-winning author, editor, and book coach. She offers an online course, Story Medicine, designed to help writers use their power as storytellers to support a more just and verdant world.

What’s the difference between a story and a narrative relating a series of events? Once upon a time, dear reader, I might have answered, “Causality.”

Because it’s a basic truth I’ve discovered as a book coach and editor: if you have plot that’s basically episodic—this happens, then that, and then this thing over here—the single most effective thing you can do to make it feel like a real story is to introduce the element of causality in revision: this happened, and as a consequence, that happened, which then led to this.

But there’s an element of storytelling that operates at a deeper level than the plot, and in recent years, I’ve come to believe that this is the thing that signals to readers that they’re in the presence of a real story.

That’s the protagonist’s internal issue, or problem.

Sure, external trouble will get your reader’s attention: The protagonist wakes up to find that a tree has fallen on her car. Now she has no way to get to work, and if she’s late, she’ll get fired, because her boss is a jerk. And because her boss is a jerk, she hasn’t had a raise in the last five years, and she can barely afford to pay her rent.

There’s plenty of external trouble in that scenario—enough, given the right execution, to keep the reader turning the pages to see what happens next. But if there’s no hint of some internal trouble the protagonist is facing, within the first twenty-five pages or so, chances are, our attention as readers will flag.

Internal trouble might be something more like this: The protagonist wakes up to find that a tree has fallen on her car. Now she has no way to get to work, and if she’s late one more time, she’ll get fired. She hates her job, though it’s the professional one her working-class mother was so proud of her for getting, so she feels like she can’t leave it.

In this scenario, the external trouble isn’t just A Series of Unfortunate Events, to paraphrase Lemony Snicket—it’s a clear invitation from the universe for this protagonist to confront her internal issue, the one that’s kept her in this job she hates for so long, and change.

Which is another way of saying that it signals the beginning of a character arc.

According to the story coach Lisa Cron, early on in human history, the adaptive purpose stories served was to prepare us for threats and challenges we hadn’t faced yet. (Hence the perennial appeal of that campfire classic, “How I Managed to Escape That Saber-Toothed Tiger Who Lives in the Big Cave Over Yonder”).

But in the modern age, the adaptive purpose stories serve is to provide us with inside intel—insight into the minds of others, and insight into our minds, the better with which to achieve health, happiness, and better relationships with others.

It’s the presence of an internal problem, at the outset of the story, that whispers a promise to the reader’s subconscious mind: This story is going to reveal the solution to that problem. In other words, This is a real story.

You’ll find plenty of craft books that discuss the protagonist’s internal issue, sometimes known as the protagonist’s wound, or shadow—especially in the literature associated with screenwriting.

But even so, I’ve found, many fiction writers either don’t quite understand what their protagonist’s internal issue is, or how to reveal it in their novel.

What follows are some of the most effective strategies I’ve found for doing so.

1. Establish early

Whatever your protagonist’s internal issue is, you can’t reveal it later on in the story, because it’s a key part of what sucks the reader in, on both a conscious and unconscious level.

On a conscious level, the reader has a sense that this story has emotional and psychological depth—that it’s actually about something.

On an unconscious level, that internal issue causes us to identify with the protagonist. Because we’re all flawed people, who’ve gotten in our own way at times—people who’ve had to overcome our own internal issues.

Some writers think the protagonist’s “flaw” will cause the reader to turn away from the character and dismiss them, but in reality, the opposite is true: It’s what causes the reader to relate, and lean in.

2. Show it creating external trouble

One of the most important elements of the protagonist’s internal issue is that it’s something they are unaware of when the story opens. So how do you reveal what that issue is, when you’re in this character’s POV?

You reveal that issue by showing us the way, at the beginning of the novel, it’s creating trouble in the protagonist’s life.

In the scenario I’ve shared above, there’s a key phrase: “if she’s late one more time.” This shows us that, while this character is facing external trouble, at least part of it is trouble of her own making.

Same thing with the part about her hating her job. It’s not as if she’s in charge of what her duties are at this job, but the fact that she feels like she can’t quit is a big part of the problem here, and you can trust your readers to pick up on that.

3. Show how it’s getting in their way

One metaphor I use for the protagonist’s internal issue is a black hole: You can’t see it directly, but you can see the way it distorts the light and matter around it.

Translated into story, that means something like this: The protagonist isn’t aware of their internal issue; what they’re aware of is wanting to achieve a certain goal or outcome, and something keeps getting in their way and keeping them from achieving it.

That something is their internal issue.

In the scenario I’ve shared above, maybe the protagonist’s internal issue is this: She’s afraid of going for her real dream, which is to start her own bakery, because her mother impressed on her at an early age that the only way to succeed was to go to college and become a professional.

So let’s say she’s late, again, and really does get fired, and then goes on to apply for a series of other jobs in the same industry, none of which pan out. Why? Because she doesn’t really want any of them. She wants to start her own bakery.

But then, maybe, she meets a kid selling her baked goods at a little roadside stand, and she’s reminded of that early dream of hers. Our protagonist is out of work, so she decides, what the heck, she’ll take a part-time job in a local bakery, just to tide her over until her next professional job. Then the bakery owner offers to sell her the business, and she turns him down: She can’t possibly do that.

In this scenario, it’s clear that there’s something standing in between the protagonist and what she really wants, and that’s her internal issue. And you can bet that your reader will be leaning forward in her chair at this point, rooting for the protagonist to figure out how she’s been standing in her own way, confront her internal issue, and change—in time to keep that bakery business from being sold to someone else.

If you’re writing a novel, I’d love to hear from you on this. What is your protagonist’s internal issue? And how does this issue stand between them and their goal in the story?

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