Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Story is Not a Story is Not a Story


In my intermediate narrative writing class, our professor asked us a very basic question this week, "What is a story?"

I of course went immediately to one of my favorite resources, my 1891 Webster dictionary; well first I went home then I pulled out the dinosaur of a dictionary. It's not exactly portable, taking a strong constitution and a hoyer lift to maneuver it, but it is a solid riot to page through.

Mr. Webster first defined story as it related to a building then he addresses the craft and wrote, "To tell in historical relation, a narration or recital of that which has occurred." He does not mention writing or specifically recording the events of a story, instead focusing on the telling, the "recital."  I have to wonder, was this definition speaking primarily of those who sat around the hearth in the midst of a small audience and recited their stories, accompanied by gestures, facial expressions, and voice variations? This definition reminded me of the stories my own father would tell us at bedtime or around the pile of burning leaves in the fall. He never read from a book or magazine; instead his stories were created as he went along, weaving us kids in and out of the paths woven spontaneously within his own head.

Fabulous ink drawings in Websters 1891 dictionary

We loved those stories, and although my father was probably not aware of the term, "seanachai" the ancient gaelic word for story teller, he certainly fit the description.

Webster's 124 year old definition was matter of fact. It mentions nothing about what the content of a story should include such as truth, fact or fiction; but instead, it focuses on the technique, "To tell in historical relation a narration or recital of that which has happened."

Apparently, in 1891, if someone told you a story, it was automatically deemed valid, accurate.

Compare that definition to Webster's revision as written in 1970. The book changes it's definition to, "The telling of a happening or connected series of happenings whether true or fictional. "Notice how part of the definition remains intact, "The telling..." focusing again on verbalization of events, but now it includes the possibility that the story may or may not be true. I remember last semester when the TA in my first narrative writing class told us that good liars make the best story tellers. I do agree with that statement but find it interesting that historically the two, liars and storytellers, were not always synonymous.

In 1993, Webster degrades (or is it elevates?) the craft further when story is defined as, "Account of events often fictitious, a lie." Take it one step further with todays internet description which defines story as: an account of incidents or events, a fictional narrative shorter than a novel, the intrigue or plot of a narrative work, a news article or broadcast, anecdote; especially an amusing one. They certainly want to cover all the bases don't they?

What is most interesting is that within that same definition they list the following words in bold capital letters: LIE, FALSEHOOD, LEGEND, ROMANCE.

My deduction from all of that is therefore all news reports, broadcasts and articles must therefore be purely fictional. Something I've suspected for years.

Taking all of that into consideration and reflecting upon the hundreds and hundreds of stories I've read, the handful of stories I've written, I say this. A story is a report of events wearing a pretty dress or an ugly suit or draped in torn blankets reeking of urine, age and garbage from the dumpster behind the apartment house on Ashland Avenue. A story must be better, (richer, sadder, happier, funnier, filthier) than a report, or why would we want to read it?

Thanks a million for reading. Now go write something. Comments are always appreciated.


  1. It is amazing that means of words can change when you think they have no life of their own. Maybe it is the way we use them that changes their meaning. So does this mean we are changing too. Great posting it got me thinking about words and how we give them life. If words are not used do their die?

  2. Good question Paula. I too spend time just thinking about words and their meanings, how they change within certain areas of the country, specific time periods, within particular socioeconomic groups. All of which made that word "Story" so very intriguing to me.

  3. Nice to see someone else appreciates these old dictionaries! I have a few myself, and they are treasures.

  4. I've long that that all news programs should carry the disclaimer, "For entertainment purposes only.)

    My favorite dictionary is a reprint of the 1828 edition of Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language. I think I like it 1) because I like to read a lot of historic reprints, and as you so aptly point out, words evolve in meaning. A la Mortimer J. Adler, if I want to understand what an author is saying, then I need to understand the terms they use, and 2) because I love classic literature and it comes in handy for that.

    You're learning a lot of interesting things at school!