What Is a Story?

My favorite definition of a story is:

“Someone wants something and has a hard time getting it.”

It’s simple, clear, and easy to remember.

No, it doesn’t cover everything, but it’s a great way to wrap our heads around what a story really is.

Let’s break it down.


Stories come from character.

In most stories, that character is a human being.

But a story could be about something personified:

•    an animal
•    an alien
•    a robot
•    a toaster
•    a toy

If a non-human character acts recognizably human, then we as an audience can relate to them.

As I discussed in Why We Need Great Characters, audiences go to stories to learn about:

•    themselves
•    other people
•    how to survive in the world

They do this by following a character who acts human.

Even gods, when they are the subjects of stories, act like human beings.

As Alexander Pope wrote:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is Man.

To write great characters, then, we must study human nature.

But people are unique, complex, and unpredictable.

To get a deeper understanding of people, we need a model of human personality that rings true.

In 9 Fundamental Fears That Motivate Your Characters, I introduced my favorite model of human personality types, the Enneagram.

The Enneagram classifies people into nine basic types, with various subtypes. Each type is dominated by a fear, and that fear creates a recognizable style of thinking, feeling, and acting.

It’s simple enough to understand, yet complex enough to be true-to-life.

You can grasp the basics in a few hours, and plumb the depths for a lifetime.

So if you want to write great characters, I recommend that you study the Enneagram.

Which we will continue to do in future posts.

Okay, moving on.

What’s next in our description of story?

“Someone wants something…”

The character has a goal.

The goal is what the character knows he wants. It drives the plot of the story.

But the truth is, the character doesn’t know what he really wants, because he doesn’t know himself. He’s been living a lie, wearing a mask, presenting a false self to the world.

His true self wants something that his false self has forgotten.

Let’s call it his need.

So his want is the outer goal, which he is aware of early in the story.

And his need is the inner goal, which he is not aware of until late the story:

“I thought what I wanted was X, but now I know that what I really wanted all along was Y.”

The character learns something about himself.

And so the audience learns something about themselves.

Let’s look at some examples:

1. She wants to win her case before the U.S. Supreme Court, but she needs prove she’s a good person.

2. He wants to finalize the corporate merger, but he needs love.

3. She wants to win the state championship game, but she needs to feel valued.

4. He wants to play in Carnegie Hall, but he needs to feel significant.

5. She wants to outwit the Russian hacker, but she needs to prove she hasn’t lost her skills.

6. He wants to find love, but he needs to feel secure.

7. She wants to find the lost treasure of the Incas, but she needs to escape her dull job at the bank.

8. He wants to launch a high-tech startup company, but he needs to feel in control.

9. She wants to stop her parents from divorcing, but she needs to feel like a whole person.

Is there a reason I gave nine examples?


Because there are 9 Character Types, and each is motivated by a different need.

What the character needs most is to overcome their fear.

And that’s what their story is about.

But it won’t be easy.

“Someone wants something and has a hard time…”

The story places a series of increasingly difficult obstacles in the path of the hero, making it almost impossible for them to achieve their goal.

They try and fail, try and fail, try and fail, but keep on trying.

Until they’ve run out of options, and only thing left to try is the one thing they’ve been avoiding all along.

They have to change.

This is what defines their character arc.

There are 9 Stages of a Compelling Character Arc, and the character must change from one stage to another, and possibly move through multiple stages of their arc to achieve their goal.

We’ll dive deeper into those in future posts, but for now let’s just say that the character cannot get what they want unless they change themselves in a deep and meaningful way.

“Someone wants something and has a hard time getting it.”

The character changes, and they get what they want.

“Yay! Happy ending!”

Or they refuse to change, and they don’t get what they want.

“Ah, bummer, dude. Sad ending.”

However, there is a way to end your story happily even if the main character doesn’t get what they want.

How do you do that?

Give them what they need.

Because as we learned from those famous British philosophers, The Rolling Stones: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

But if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.

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