Understanding Story

What is a Story?

You probably know the basic elements of a story: a story needs a setting, a character, a conflict and a resolution. Knowing these elements tell us what a story is made of, but it doesn’t tell us why these elements matter.  And it doesn’t tell us why all these elements together create the most powerful and enduring human artifacts, the story.

Why do stories need a character, conflict and resolution? What do those elements create that is so magical? Why do we crave this combination so much? 

When we ask these questions we can learn more than just what a story is made of, we begin to understand what a story actually is. 

A Story is What Happens When Desire Encounters Resistance

I propose that stories, at their most basic level, are really an examination of what happens when desire encounters resistance. Every story is ultimately about desires confronting conflict. Looking at story this way helps us understand the true nature of story.

Before dissecting stories through this lens, however, we need to first look at the nature of desire.

What Are Desires?

A desire is an urge. It is motivation. It is a need for something not yet attained. All animals, including us humans, are born with basic desires. Humans develop more complicated desires as we grow. These desires flow through us like a spring flowing through the earth. They give us energy like blood in our muscles.

Like animals we desire food, hunger, sleep, order and companionship. Unlike animals we desire to navigate complicated social relationships, we desire to understand ourselves, we desire meaning in our work, we desire to subdue the earth and rule over it.

Human desire is powerful and mysterious. Some desires are so familiar we don’t think about them, like breathing. Other desires are surprising and strange and feel foreign to us.  Some desires are overwhelmingly powerful, like the desire for revenge. Other desires hum quietly in the background making tiny, unnoticed adjustments to every decision we make.

Desires meet a lot of different type of resistance.  Your circumstances can keep you from your desires. Other people can keep you from your desires. Even more confusingly, you can have contradictory desires waging war in your own psyche.

It is frustrating when our desires encounter resistance. But imagine a world where you get everything you desire. Is it paradise? Surprisingly, it isn't. We are fortunate to live in a world where our desires encounter resistance.  We are shaped by this resistance just as much as we are shaped by our desires.

But how do we navigate all of this? We are born into this world with a web of nuanced, vibrant, often contradictory desires that confront a matrix of resistance, and despite the complexity that this creates we long for a roadmap for what to do with all of it. If there was a a instruction manual to human desire it would be bigger than any library could hold and longer than any human could read. 

This is where stories are uniquely useful. Every story is a thought experiment about what happens when desire encounters resistance.  Stories don’t pretend to be comprehensive instruction manuals. Instead, stories are a virtual reality, an immersive way to become more familiar with the terrain of our own worlds.

Is this an oversimplification? Surely stories do more than just explore what happens when desire encounters resistance. Yes. Stories do a lot more. But every other function of a story is optional. This function is mandatory. Let’s take a look:

Every Story Needs Desire

First of all, we know one basic element of a story is a character. But why do stories need characters? Characters are in stories because characters have desires. A character could be a person, an animal, or even a toaster. Whatever it is, if it has a desire it is a character. Without a character who desires something we don't have a story.  

Every Story Needs Resistance to Desire

A character with a desire is not enough to make a story. The story needs to have resistance to that desire. Conflict in a story is simply resistance to a character’s desire.

    “Kristi was happy.”

Does this sentence feel like a story? Not really. It just feels like information. Kristi has a desire but no resistance to that desire. 

    “Kristi was happy until she met Mark”

Ah, there we go. We are now in the world of a story. Do you feel the difference? Now you want to know more. Why is Kristi’s desire finding resistance in Mark? And what is going to happen because of the resistance? 

Resistance to desire doesn’t have to come from a character. It can come from anything: the environment, circumstances, or even other internal desires. 

    “Kristi was happy until she put on her lipstick.”

That sentence is the beginning of a potentially interesting story.  We don’t know why the act of putting on lipstick has become a form of resistance to Kristi, but we want to know why. And we want to know what will happen. 

A Story Needs a ‘What Happens’

We have desire, always embodied by a character, and we have resistance to the desire, also known as conflict. But we don’t have a completed story until we learn what happens. What happens when desire encounters resistance? This is what we are ultimately concerned with.

A character in a story is generally driven by one main desire that will eventually come to some sort of resolution. This is the story arch that holds the entire story together. However, every beat of a story is driven forward by the same formula in big and small ways, pushing every character forward through a myriad of unanticipated situations.

When we see what happens to these characters we get a deeper understanding of the world desire and resistance. Every story is like a fragment of a map. We will never get a completed map, and so we will never get tired of stories.

Desire, Resistance, and Resolution. These are the building blocks of story. When we view story this way we don’t just learn what a story is composed of, we also discover why a story matters. A story is a the lab results of desire encountering resistance in new ways.

Your Life is Desire Encountering Resistance. 

You are here living on this planet, and you have desires.  A lot of them. You don’t understand all of your desires. You are not even consciously aware of all of them. You constantly experience resistance to many of your desires. You even experience conflict between your own competing desires. Experiencing desire and encountering resistance is not just the basic building blocks of story, it is also the basic building blocks of our own realities. Your life can be described as the series of results from a web of desires encountering a matrix of resistance.  

We relish the opportunity to hear stories of what happens when others are confronted with this same reality that we encounter. Stories helps us feel connected to others, seeing this common thread of existence that runs through all of us. 

Stories are also fun. They are scratching a primal itch. They are guiding us into new worlds.

But most importantly, stories are a virtual reality. Stories help us think about our experiences in new ways. Stories allow us to troubleshoot ourselves. Stories are a harvest of budded perspectives ready to be conscripted into our own story.


Jonathan Collins

I resides in Portland, OR with my wife and two sons. I'm a co-founder of The Bible Project and Epipheo. My mission is to Explore and Explain

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