June 8th, 2011 by Will Entrekin

What’s a Story?

One of the most interesting parts of this new job I’ve got (and believe me, there are many. I seriously can’t express how excited I am about this gig) is that I’m working on a special project that in many ways combines everything I’ve ever studied and written and challenges me to take it all up a notch. Writing? Better. Researching? Better. Reading? Better. Brainstorming? Better. Publishing? Better.

It’s totally exhilarating.

And it feels like every day for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been asked a very simple question:

“What’s a story?”

I love this question. It so totally and completely summarizes–at least for me–the entire dilemma of the internet and new publishing and new writing and web 7.6 and social networking and connection and etc.

Used to be, there were such clear delineations.

You write a short story, you sent it off to a magazine. You knew The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Playboy, and Esquire were the most desirable markets, so you sent cold queries to them before you slunk off, rejected, to try out one of those smaller magazines nobody ever heard of that paid you in a copy and the prestige of being published.

You write a novel, you sent it off to agents. Because publishers and editors, of course, wouldn’t accept unagented manuscripts. Mainly because they hoped to use their collegiate, unpaid interns for esoteric tasks unrelated to managing the slush. Agents were okay assigning slavesinterns to the slushpile. You hoped for a four figure advance you might see three of after everyone else had taken their shares.

You wrote private thoughts in your journal. If you had one. If not, you bored your friends.

I’m kidding.

Mostly.

Now, we tweet and update statuses. We guestblog. We post flash fiction and brief, personal essays on our websites. Sometimes, we let “literary websites” host our writings and pay us in “exposure,” which really just means, hopefully, more pageviews. More time in attention.

We Kindle. We nook.

There are no longer any barriers to connecting the stories we’ve written with new readers–so many of whom have some screen or other, or access to one, or can buy actual paper by way of one.

So what are they?

Do we let content dictate length and format? McLuhan said the medium is the message, a list to which I added the messenger in today’s society of Kardashians and Kutchers and The Jersey Shore, so with that in mind, do we allow the story to grow and then choose how best to present it? The short answer there seems to be positive, while the longer answer is obviously one that requires discussion and brainstorming and multiple ideas.

But let’s be honest: the more ideas there are, the better.

I don’t mean that in a sense of throwing noodles at the wall to see what sticks. I mean that in the sense that there are so many opportunities and so many formats available that very often there are no longer any restrictions to what can be recreated. Which of course can be both good and bad but most importantly is liberating.

Truthfully, what I love is that I’m discovering all over again my instincts for finding the story. For figuring out what can connect people to a topic. What makes something interesting to readers, and what makes them feel something? What might inspire people to . . .

Anything.

Not only are there no longer clear delineations between genres and formats, but there are no longer clear delineations between stories and subjects or readers and writers. Thomas Friedman might have written The World Is Flat a few years ahead of its actual flattening, but he might have been more prescient than he was incorrect-due-to-timing. “What’s a story” is a fascinating question because it could be so many different things, and indeed it might need to be for different people to whom it is told. The responsibility of a storyteller, now, is figuring out not only what the story is but also different ways to tell it. It’s a remarkable challenge, but also an exciting one.

Comments

One Response to “What’s a Story?”
  1. What I like about the multitude of options for distributing stories is that it opens the door for more stories. Something I may have thought that didn’t lend itself to a short story (your The New Yorker example in the best case scenario) or novel may be a perfect Kindle single novella or blog post fragment – Jonathan Carroll’s blog is a great example of the latter. I find as I expose myself to more formats, I have more ideas on how I can contribute to those formats and use them to entertain, communicate and, on occasion, annoy.

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