What writer wants obscurity? To spend weeks, months, crafting a work of fiction only to have it become an afterthought in the minds of an audience mere moments after its conclusion? Devastating.
But to craft something with power, something with emotion, something that lives and breathes within the hearts and minds of audiences for years to come? Writers everywhere nod their heads in concert, That’s what I want for my work. The key to achieving this lasting effect rests in the understanding of the differences between a tale and a story.
A tale is a STATEMENT—a simple linear progression from one point to another. This happened, then this happened, then there was an outcome. A tale exists with no greater sense of its self, no greater purpose beyond a simple rehashing of events. Thoughtful explorations of thematic issues find little sanctuary within this form of fiction.
But perhaps the most startling aspect of the tale, particularly within the context of motion pictures, is that it does not beg multiple viewings. Any screenings beyond the first become a painful process endured only by those with an affinity for the subject matter. 127 Hours captures audiences with its harrowing tale of mountain climber Aron Ralston (James Franco), but does anyone make the effort to watch it more than once? One could argue this apathy exists because of the film’s biographical nature, but then what about Amadeus or Hotel: Rwanda?
The lack of motivation to watch a second time exists because 127 Hours doesn’t try to say anything. It doesn’t argue a position. The tale of what happened and how it happened becomes more important than the sum total of what happened. Entertainment supplants purpose. In short, it’s a tale.
And 127 Hours isn’t the only one—Taken, Coraline, Battle: LA, True Grit, Inglorious Basterds, 2012, Where the Wild Things Are, The Informant, Public Enemies—all tales with little to say. All works of fiction that are easily forgotten.
A story is an ARGUMENT—a carefully crafted exploration of thematic elements designed to argue that a particular approach solving problems is more or less appropriate than others. There is Purpose. There is Author’s Intent. There is something the writer is trying to say. Now, there are a whole host of obstacles and barriers that can lessen the effectiveness of this argument (well-meaning studio executives, faulty sound systems, distracted audience members), but the overriding difference between the two is that sense of purpose.
In sharp contrast to the tale, a story compels subsequent viewings. This desire to see a film again and again exists because a story offers us something we can’t find in real life: meaning. As depressing as it may be to consider, real life has no meaning without some greater context within which to appreciate it. Stories—complete stories—provide that greater context.
By offering an objective view into a story’s events and at the same time offering a subjective view (through the Main Character), a story gives audience members an experience they can’t have on their own. This experience is why audience members return to a film over and over again. Star Wars, The Shawshank Redemption, The Lives of Others, The Godfather, The Apartment, The Sound of Music, Toy Story, Toy Story 2 (pretty much anything Pixar), The King’s Speech, The Dark Knight, Good Will Hunting, Chinatown—all stories with much to say. All works of fiction that are not so easy to forget.
Short Stories and Short Tales
Even a short story can be a “story.” While they can’t enjoy the luxury of time and space that their full two-hour cousin can, short stories can employ the same purpose of providing some greater meaning for their audience.
Scuffy the Tugboat
In this classic Golden Book, Scuffy dreams of a bigger life far away from his little toy shelf and far away from the man in the polka dot tie who owns him. Recognizing the toy’s need to stretch his sea legs, the man deposits the helpless toy in his bathtub. This isn’t enough for the tugboat and the man gives in, taking Scuffy out to the local river.
Scuffy takes the opportunity to break free of his oppressive master and sails down the babbling brook. Life, it turns out, presents more than simple adventure: there’s an owl, a scary rabbit, bridges, rain, sandbags and finally the open sea. Faced with the anxiety of the limitless wild blue before him, Scuffy wishes for some savior—and gets it. The man in the polka dot tie scoops him up and takes him back home. Safe and sound, Scuffy cheerfully gives up his big dreams for the comfort of the old man’s bathtub.
Sam and the Firefly
Sam the Owl needs a friend. Every night he searches and every night he comes up empty-handed. Difficult to make a friend, especially when your status as a “night owl” finds you awake while others sleep.
In steps Gus, the firefly with a flair for mischief. Finally! Sam thinks and together the two flit through the night air, darting this way and that. Sam teaches Gus to write “Sam and Gus” in the air, solidifying their relationship while at the same time providing the potential for trouble.
Gus, driven by the desire to have fun no matter what the cost, takes his newfound skills and begins wreaking havoc on his community’s infrastructure. He tells cars to “Go Left” and “Go Right”, smashing them into each other. He tells planes to “Go Up” and “Go Down”, crashing them into each other. In a strange reverse of progressive complications, he tells crowds they have access to a “Free Show”. And even stranger he changes a vendor’s sign to read “Cold Dogs” instead of “Hot”.
Sam fights him every step of the way, but Gus is one stubborn firefly. The further Gus goes in his maniacal jaunts, the further he drives a wedge between their floundering friendship.
The hot dog vendor snags Gus, secures him in a glass jar, and drives him out to the country, ostensibly to end his life. Sam follows closely behind, distraught at the prospect of losing his only friend. Alone in the jar, Gus experiences a moment of self-awareness, promising to change if he gets out of this. Fortunately for him, the vendor’s truck stalls out on a pair of train tracks.
Sam grabs the glass jar and smashes it, freeing Gus. Sam begs his little friend to do the right thing. Without hesitation, the firefly writes “Stop! Stop!” in front of train, saving the vendor and preventing any further destruction.
The two return home safely. Their community returns to a state of normalcy, but more importantly, their relationship survives intact. Sam goes to sleep that morning content with the knowledge that when the sun sets once again, his friend will be there waiting for him.
One of these books is a tale, the other a story. Can you tell which is which? The tale simply strings together a series of events that ends because there aren’t any more events to tell. The story argues there is a certain way to go about solving problems, one approach purposefully gives way for another.
Scuffy has a dream, follows it, gets scared shitless, yet before he can have the moment of self-awareness (that Leap of Faith moment everyone looks for), the old man steps in and makes the decision for him. A despicable deus ex machina that makes the statement Hang around long enough and someone will come along and save you. Sounds like Tangled, doesn’t it? For that matter, it sounds like Saving Private Ryan, Toy Story 3, War of the Worlds or any other work of fiction that weakens any purposeful intent it had with mere happenstance.
Contrast this with Sam and his buddy Gus. Two approaches: one driven by doing what is right, the other driven by doing what is most fun. The two approaches battle it out until eventually, one gives way to the other. Gus changes his approach and the outcome that ensues happens because of that change. The events and choices made mean something.
Honoring the Audience
Successful authors use characters, plot, theme and genre to argue an approach to solving problems. Sam and the Firefly is no masterpiece, yet it works far better than the insidious Scuffy the Tugboat because it endeavors to say something meaningful. It doesn’t rely on chance to save the day. It doesn’t disrespect the audience.
By crafting an argument, authors respect the time and attention granted to them by an audience. Viewers and readers alike want that experience they can’t find on their own. Stories satisfy that need. Tales do not.
Writers who crave everlasting life for their work would do well to follow through on that promise to deliver something special. Deliver a story and the audience will respond in kind.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
The Dramatica theory of story was specifically designed to help Authors write meaningful stories. Beyond simply providing templates of cultural beats, the program encourages writers to think deeply about their work and make the effort to fully explore the thematic issues they wish to cover.