Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 09/15/2023

Episode 37: What Makes a Story

By Ewing Cockrell

Originally published in the January, 1908 issue of "The Editor", now in the public domain.

The chief interest of a story is not the story itself. I am speaking not in riddles, but in plain truth. As a general rule, what makes a story ts the telling of it. No bare statement of a plot is interesting. It is the development of the plot, the presentation of it, that makes the story.

Let me illustrate. In the first century, a.p., a young Roman patrician loved a barbarian princess. He loved her almost entirely in a sensual way. She was a Christian, compelled by circumstances to live at Rome. At that time in Rome, licentiousness and corruption pervaded the whole government and nearly all society. Through the influence of the princess and the early Christian martyrs, and through the power of Christ's religion itself, the patrician’s love became entirely changed, and immeasurably ennobled. Meanwhile, to gratify a whim, the Emperor burns Rome and charges it upon the Christians; who are put to death. The young princess is saved by a Christian slave who kills the beast that was turned into the arena to kill them both. After this, she and her lover are married and live happily ever afterward.

Now I have told you the story of "Quo Vadis." How does it compare in interest with the original? Yet in substance, I have given the whole plot—I have told the whole story.

Now the great difference between Sienkewicz’ telling of the story and mine, is this: I tell it by stating facts. He tells it by depicting scenes and incidents. He lets you see what happens; I merely tell you the results of these happenings. I tell you that Vicinius' love becomes changed by the wonderful power of Christianity—Sienkewicz lets you see it change—he brings before you scenes and events which show you the power of Christianity. It is by no means enough, then, that a writer has a good plot—the outline of a good story. You cannot achieve success with a story that is a mere statement of your plot.

If your hero is bright, let him show it by the things he says and does. If his love for the heroine is high and noble, let his acts and speeches reveal this. If the heroine is charming and lovable, let the reader see this by the deeds she does. Whenever you want to bring out a point in your story, bring it out by some incident rather than simply by stating it to the reader. It is the succession of these incidents, the series of actual events and happenings that occur in your story, that really make it what it is.

If we work on this line, we may be successful. If we do not, we shall surely fail.