What Is Story?

Is that algebra? I didn't know algae wore bras

Is that algebra? I didn't know algae wore bras

What is story? According to Robert McKee, it's a quest. Whether the main character is looking for love, redemption, or the villain that will destroy the world, it's a quest for something. Like in the Karate Kid (1984), it's the search for enlightenment. Love that movie.



In the beginning of my own writing journey, I went to many different sources to learn what story was. The first big lesson came from a Japanese film maker named Akira Kurosawa, who made what many consider one of the best films, The Seven Samurai. Diving deep into the learning process, I decided to buy the Criterion version because it included about five hours of commentary from academics and experts of his work.

Excited to watch, I sat down, threw the DVD in, and said, "What tha hell?" On the surface, the story was about villagers who are threatened by raiders that steal their food every harvest, so they go to hire Ronin to defend them. Problem is that they have no way of paying. This is a good film?

After watching the commentary, I received a really good education of how Kurosawa told story, the layers he lathered in each scene, and how many of today's film makers take from him without even knowing it. Or maybe they do and I don't know it.

You smell somethin'?

You smell somethin'?

Continuing my education of what story is, I went to a writing conference in San Francisco, and one of the lecturers taught how to break down a large three act story into tiny parts, something that severely helped me complete my books. So following him on Facebook, I came across the following article that I will paste in completion. See the cliffnotes below for a summary:

"Gravity: REALLY good. But. Arguably, strictly speaking, by a VERY strict Aristotlean definition, not actually a "story". Please understand me -- I'm not going to spend a lot of time below responding to comments like "but it IS", or "but it's so GOOD"...I said that above, I refer u to the first sentence of this post...it's something REALLY good...and it IS a "story" by the layman's definition thereof, a relation of events via mimesis (that's one effete layman) but maybe not a "story" by strict Aristotlean standards...there is no personified antagonist...the forces against the heroine do not/cannot embody opposing values...and therefore the conflicting values of hero and villain cannot yield "theme" by synthesis, or at best only simplistic theme. What's the themeof Gravity? Survive!!! Basically, that to survive is worth fighting for? Also, most (3 of 4, look it up) revelations in stories are twists about the antagonist, and with gravity as your bad guy, we can't really learn your best friend is working with gravity to betray you, that gravity planned to betray U all along or that this whole thing was part of gravity's plan for world domination or to steal your husband, etc.

Therefore, all it has to wow us is ascendingly larger spectacle. And it does an incredible job with that. And is wise to only try to sustain 90 mts.

But this has always been the issue with your "man against nature" story (which arguably didn't exist when Aristotle wrote his Poetics). And most people still call them stories...so, tell me what a dope I am below, but I will cling to the hope that what I really am is a scholar drawing an obscure distinction that will matter only to Poindexters like me, or perhaps even only this Poindexter, me. And Aristotle. Again, it was a REALLY good thing, but maybe not a "story" thing. And I could write one of whatever it is."

I wanted to paste the whole thing so you could see that I wasn't bullshitting you. The basic gist is this: The bad guy is not a person, so there can't be any real twists, or the exchanging of opposing values or ideals.

Your hair is stickin' up

Your hair is stickin' up

Clearly, this guy has never heard of the phrase, "You are your own worst enemy."

The spectacle he talked about was the special effects director Alfonso Cuarón used. And it was pretty freakin' awesome, especially with 3D glasses. Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, who is trying to do some repairs on a space telescope when satellite debris from an explosion destroys the shuttle, complicating her trip back to Earth. Now, along with Mathew Kowalski, played by George Clooney, they must find a new way back.

Warning: Spoilers are comin'! Spoilers are comin'!

Kowalski asks Stone what kinda music she listens to. She states that it doesn't matter. She gets off of work, gets in her car, and drives so she doesn't have to think (about the daughter she'd lost through a freak accident of no fault of her own). And that is what the story is about. Letting go of the past. At this point, I knew that Stone would have to confront her own mortality, death, hitting rock bottom before she would let go of her past, and move on with her future, which required a really clever way of getting back home. The space that she created when letting go of her past, allowed the solution to appear, and as such she grows from this and becomes the woman she's meant to be.

Essentially, Stone was her own worst enemy. Once she got out of her own way, she was able to think clearly enough for a solution to appear.

Now, if this expert in story doesn't think that the ability to move on from one's past, or that letting things go instead of holding on to things is worthy of story, then he's a freakin' idiot.

I used to have a life coaching business before giving it up to write. And the one thing I always tried to teach is let things go and don't argue for your own limitations.

Where highway 101 be at?

Where highway 101 be at?

One of the fundamental mistakes that traditional therapists make is the exploration of the past. I'm not belittling the past or saying that it isn't important. But why hold on to it? Here's an extreme example:

A woman was molested as a child and develops an inability to trust men and form intimate relationships. What's the problem? A little mistrust of men is healthy for a woman. No. The man who will love her is not the man who molested her as a child, but often, in her mind, he is.

Let's take that same situation and go to another extreme: this same woman gets in a car accident and forgets her past from amnesia. Will her past now haunt her and prevent her from forming intimate relationships? No.

The key difference is her letting go of the past, which must happen internally.

If we look at this from a general point of view, most of our hang ups in life were formed some time in our past, DUH, but the mistake is we carry it with us, baggage. If we were to truly let go of the baggage, we'd be a much happier people.

Just take the pill dammit!

Just take the pill dammit!

McKee also said that story must have change. Whether we exit a scene or end a story, something must have changed, good or bad. And, as storytellers, we know that the change in the character must happen inside. Yes, external circumstances may be the catalyst, but for the person to grow, become the person they're meant to be, that change must be realized from within, that the character finally sees the light. All change comes from within, or happens within. Therefore, you don't need an actual person to be the antagonist.

A great example of this is another Japanese movie called TWILIGHT SAMURAI. I absolutely love this movie. There is no bad guy. The samurai in question just thought so little of himself that he didn't think he deserved anything better than what he had. Things change when a woman he'd been in love with, still is, comes back into his life. Always about the women. And he decides that he does want more out of life and does something about it, becoming the person he should be.

I always caution people about experts, that experts don't know everything, and I count myself in that group, meaning take what I say with many grains of salt. And this guy makes his living by traveling the country and teaching writers what story is. That doesn't mean he knows everything about story, or is even open to what story can be. He even missed the title having layers of meaning. Gravity doesn't just pertain to the weightlessness of space, but can point to the gravity of carrying baggage, the gravity of losing someone special like a child, and the weightlessness of finally losing that baggage and being free to be who you really are. I'm sure the director had other layers of meaning, but that's for him to know and for us to discuss.

Aristotle? Come on, pal. There's got to be some evolution here.


In storytelling, there are many techniques to add depth to a character, a scene, or overall spine of a story. A lot of what is said in dialogue can hint to each character's main trait, a trait defined as affecting the world they see. A woman is going to see the world differently than a man. An assertive/aggressive man will see a world as his oyster, where an unconfident one will see himself a victim. So actions and dialogue must coincide with those traits.

The world is your oyster

The world is your oyster

A way to bring a certain level of depth into the spine of a story was illustrated well in a movie called SEVEN SAMURAI. All of the samurai were killed by firearm. Though, it wasn't indicated in the movie where someone said, "Hey, Bro. All our Samurai brothahs got whacked by firearms." It was shown and spoke to how times were changing and the need for samurai was dying. We see this capped off at the end when the samurai left the village they helped defend. The villagers paid little attention as the samurai walked off into the horizon. Most audience members, including myself, wouldn't have noticed. The effect is to play on a subconscious level.

Was that you?

Was that you?

I'd received a call from an old friend and was told that I had been blacklisted from my former martial arts school. That my name was removed from a list of honored. I wondered if that was a mistake and thought back.  And here is where storytelling came into play.

At the school, after each teacher reached a certain level, the master called them by their first name. Being a formal school, everyone bowed and went by Mr. This and Ms. That. Once I reached that level, I was still referred to as Mr. Ng. Along the front of the school hung a line of pictures of the most esteemed. In the center, the master.  If you know the game musical chairs, then you should be familiar with the game the master played. Those most loyal, most accomplished, most respected found their picture closest to the center. Those who thought outside of the box had left the school due to creative differences. Their pictures moved further away from the center, or removed. Can you guess where my picture went?

My finger smells

My finger smells

As I logged into my site, I noticed that my one of my posts received a lot of comments.  I said to myself, "Wow. I haven't seen those names in a long time." People from the school. Those are the loyal, accomplished, esteemed.

Being purposefully blacklisted feels kinda cool. And their actions are very telling. They always talk about not having egos, taught that egos can get in the way.

But when a confident person is accused of something, something that they're not, they should remain silent. If you're confident that you're not a table, and someone accuses you of being a table, would you argue that you're not a table?

Now, I fully believe in what I said in that post. But I didn't name anyone or my formal school in anyway shape or form. So what does that say when students from that school come to argue against a post written about them? That what I said hit a nerve. And being blacklisted was done on purpose, which I totally accept as I had removed myself from that school many years ago.

Peel the Onion

Onions.  They give you bad breath but adds flavor to the food we eat.  Have you ever peeled one?  Peel the rough skin and reveal a fresh moist layer.  Peel that and there’s another silky layer.  On and on. In writing my book, I purposefully laid in layers to give it a sense of depth.  On the surface, it’s a fast-paced, action packed, page turner (damn, I’m conceited).  There’s sex.  There’s mayhem.  Want betrayal?  You got it.  Want love?  You got it.

Slice under that superficial layer and you’ll find a deeper understanding of the story.  Billowing clouds may reflect a character’s painful conflict within.  Heat from a fire reflecting off someone’s clothes may echo the character’s anger.  Wind may symbolize a character’s dominance over their lands.

In 1954 a renowned filmmaker released what’s considered one of the best films ever made:  Seven Samurai.  It's about a Japanese farming village, constantly beseiged and pillaged by an army of bandits, recruits seven independent samurai to defend it.

Akira Kurosawa’s films have influenced great directors such as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.  In fact, Star Wars was heavily influenced by The Hidden Fortress, a Kurosawa film.

I have to admit, when I watched Seven Samurai, I was like, “What da hell?”

I was caught off guard by the soundtrack, pacing and language (despite my slanty eyes, I don’t speak Japanese).  I did drag myself through the length of the film, all three hours and forty-five minutes.

Luckily, I had bought The Criterion Collection of the film.  There are tons of lectures on the DVD discs, and I listened to all of them, wanting to learn everything I could.  What I learned had a profound effect on me and my writing.  Or is it my writing and I?

Consolidating Kurosawa’s genius would be difficult and insulting.  But here I go.  He controlled everything because everything in his films had a purpose, a reason.  Every word, action, shadow, even the swipe or fading to the next scene meant something.  If someone broke wind, there was a purpose.  Unless it was silent but deadly.

The most interesting character is Kikuchiyo, played by Toshiro Mifune.  He doesn’t exactly look like a samurai, nor does he walk like one.  So is he a samurai?  He lugs his extra long sword on his shoulder instead of holstering it around his waist like the other six.  What does this say about Kikuchiyo?  Is he compensating for something?  Or is there a deeper story within the character?

In his dramatic scene, Kikuchiyo admits he was once a villager and somehow found his way to samuraism. (Is that even a word?)  This didn’t happen in those days of Japan.  It was difficult enough to move up the ranks of the samurai.  And admitting you were once a villager was like admitting you’re a woman, when you’re really a man, but without the operation.

The lectures in the special features stated Kikuchiyo symbolized the filmmaker, Kurosawa.  His views were somehow reminiscent of Kikuchiyo and his rise in society and that Japan had moved into the modern era.  This is further symbolized when each samurai is killed by a modern weapon:  the gun.  Once the villagers were saved, they continued their lives giving any thought to their saviors.  We see the surviving samurai walk from the cemetery where their comrades were buried and out to the horizon, never to return.

I rewatched the film many times, and I grew to love it. The story density is amazing.

It’s interesting to see how we clamor to the magazine stands to find out the latest on celebrities.  What atrocities have they committed?  But if we were truly curious about who they were, all we'd have to do is turn to their art.

For art is the language of the soul.