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The Natural Story

I first heard about 'the natural story' from a good friend, who has studied storytelling in playacting intensively. I thought I'd share some thoughts on natural stories, because they say something about how to turn boring bits of a story into something new and exciting.

The natural story is something that happens every day: Standing in line at the supermarket, mowing the lawn, making a Latte for a customer and handing it over the counter. All very uneventful, and probably not very good story material, because your readers already know what happens. They've been there or done something similar, and they've no particular reason to revisit it. 

If you break a natural story down, you'll see that it consists of several separate actions. Let's say we have a man visiting a public restroom. He enters through the door, finds a booth, pulls down his pants, finishes nature's call, pulls up his pants, washes his hands, looks in the mirror, and leaves. This is a story that unfurls in public restrooms everywhere, one we all know, and as such not one we need to pass on to our readers.

However, it's worth knowing the natural story because subtle variations can make the story very interesting. Let's say the man enters the booth and starts singing opera. Suddenly we know something unusual about the man, and he becomes interesting. We can ask: Who sings opera in a public restroom? Is this the first time he has done this? Is he waiting for an agent to come discover him. Is he afraid to sing at home?

Change other parts of the story, and you have different questions. Let's say our man smashes the sink after washing his hands. What has he bottled up inside to make this show of aggression? What does he know of the evil of sinks that we don't? Does he believe it's the pinnacle of purity to use things only once?

I'd say et cetera, except not every variation of the natural story will result in something interesting. If our man leaves the restroom without washing his hands, he's doing something we've seen people do over and over again in stories and elsewhere. That variation merely makes this new natural story or cliché – he is a bad boy who's not afraid of germs and doesn't do what momma says. To make this interesting, we would need additional information. For instance that he is a cook on his way to prepare a royal banquet. And even in that case there might be better ways to deviate from the natural story.


In genre fiction, instead of changing the natural story, we can sometimes move it to a different world and make it interesting just by changing context. Let's say we have a man attending a decadent court ball in the Lesingimian Empire. The magic wielded by artists using Rainbow Gold, the wheeling and dealing for contracts and attention, the courtesans, and the golem waiters are all a natural story in his life. They'll be strange to us, however, and therefore it'll be interesting to follow this character and see 'life by default' through his eyes.

However, I only think you can take an otherworldly setting so far. I don't think it would be enough for this character to notice the variations from the other court balls he has attended (e.g. the battle going on in the streets outside the palace putting everyone on edge). To truly step away from the natural story, the character will have to do something unusual and out of place at the ball in order to make the party interesting.
In this case he has a certain message he needs to get to people, who are far, far up in the hierarchy. And he has a female companion who isn't used to court ball etiquette and who doesn't give a hoot about it anyway. That combination is more than enough to upset the natural flow of what would otherwise be a very linear, and very dull story, and hopefully avoid the clichés.

So, the story is carried forward by characters stepping out of line and doing something unusual.

As you may have guessed, the court ball example is from a work in progress, and I realize that pointing to my own work as a stellar example is rather pretentious. (I'm revising this scene right now, and that's what started me thinking about this, however).
If you'd rather read something by a professional, the deviation from the natural story is something that happens in nearly every novel. Nevertheless, I'll warmly recommend George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire. His characters attend court balls, tournaments, dinners at country inns, and many other social functions familiar to fantasy readers. That could make for as a very linear and familiar story, but fortunately Martin always manages to send everything to Hell in a handbasket.

And that, I think, makes for a good story.

(Photo source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:NOMG07HellHandbasketKidsWagon.jpg#filelinks - distributed under a GNU Free Documentation Licence).


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 1st, 2011 08:27 am (UTC)
Fascinating! The mind latches on to differences from the usual, deviations in the established pattern. Man enters the restroom by the door but leaves by the window--whoa! what's that? It gets our attention. Same with the opera singer and the sink smasher.

The unusual-to-us setting of a fantasy world makes us look at *all* the elements and wonder what it means for this unusual-to-us thing to be ordinary. What does it mean to have golem waiters? And so on.

But I agree with you: for plot to advance in such a setting, we can't just be absorbed in the differences between that world and ours; we need things to happen, and it has to be unusual in *their* world as well as ours.
Jul. 1st, 2011 05:45 pm (UTC)
leaves through the window...

I was going to say, "leaves through the wall," but that'd be entering cliché-land.

But it's funny how someone stepping out of line can create possibilities in stories and conflicts and mysteries. I wonder if that's why some people are such sticklers for etiquette and social rules--they've read what can come of thinking outside the box?
Jul. 1st, 2011 08:52 am (UTC)
Very useful way to think about those parts that can get boring! I tend to try to slip in some sort of subtlety that shows emotion or develops character, and often it feels too subtle (aka boring). Perhaps the problem is using the natural story for those - an oft-told tale with a subtle twist, when a more dramatic variation is needed. Breaking the sink instead of glaring into the mirror.

And good point about the setting. I suspect I get so interested in the world building that I forget that the new world now has its own natural story that needs shaking up.
Jul. 1st, 2011 05:51 pm (UTC)
Oh, I know all about thinking too much about the worldbuilding. But after reading a ton of stories, it's coming home to me that the world is not enough (...now where did I get that from...). Characters are the interesting people who shake the bag and mess things up.

A good alternative to the Natural Story with a twist is to think out scenes that are outrageously different. I don't know if that actually works in my stories, but I like figuring out how to write that kind of scenes.
Jul. 1st, 2011 11:09 am (UTC)
Ah, thank you for this post. I've been thinking on this lately, too. I do this timed flash challenges at a writing site and usually about halfway through, I panic and realize I'm just writing about an everyday occurrence (now I know, it's a "natural" story) and there's no tension or plot beyond a recounting of what's happening, but no one would want to read it. I usually just throw my hands up in frustration then and give up. Which is not the thing to do, I know, but....
Jul. 1st, 2011 05:39 pm (UTC)
Hands up -- I think I've tried that once or twice. A positive thought is: I still haven't had a job where frustration didn't enter into the equation from time to time, so in that respect writing isn't all that bad. Except when it's bad, of course :-)

Sometimes it's actually good to rethink an idea and make it seem less everyday, but it's good to keep in mind that the everyday can be used for great effect... with a little twist.
Jul. 1st, 2011 05:40 pm (UTC)
Hmm, did that even make sense? I guess there's something to be said for not posting comments before bedtime...
Jul. 1st, 2011 01:08 pm (UTC)
I think this is a great way to think about this - deliberately inspecting the ordinary and seeing where you can break the patern for effect.
Jul. 1st, 2011 05:34 pm (UTC)
It's a good tool to have in the box. Not the only one, of course, but I find it's good for making dull parts interesting. Other times, the dull bits just have to go :-)
Jul. 1st, 2011 03:52 pm (UTC)
One of the best compliments I got on Finder is that just when you think a story is going to go one way, it veers off in another one. I like sudden turns when riding a roller coaster; I suppose I like writing them too! :)

Fantastic post, Jakob. Thank you!
Jul. 1st, 2011 05:32 pm (UTC)
Thank you :-) I really enjoy that kind of stories, too. Unpredictable is good -- especially if the surprise is logical (as in 'hey, that actually COULD happen, but I never saw it coming'.)
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 2nd, 2011 07:00 am (UTC)
Glad you liked it. Thanks :)
Jul. 2nd, 2011 10:28 am (UTC)
Good points all. Using the natural story as a starting point makes for more powerful and believable fiction - but the deviation is what creates the "story".
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )


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