Is this a story or is it just a scenario?
Updated: Nov 14
So you've had an idea, and you think it could be a novel (or a short story, play or film script). But is there enough in it to sustain a reader's interest – and, for that matter, your own interest as a writer? Let's run some tests.
What's the difference between a scenario and a story?
I am sure other critics and teachers of writing have a better way of defining these two things, but these are the terms I've come up with. A scenario is a single frame: a snapshot, maybe even an opening scene. It's an introduction to a world, an initial flash of inspiration, maybe. The "what if..."
A story is a fully realised arc: there's movement, action and change within it, leading to a satisfying conclusion for the reader.
How can you tell the difference? Here's an example:
In a repressive society, most women are infertile. Those few who can bear children are enslaved and given to powerful families as "handmaids".
This is, of course, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. She came up with an extraordinary idea: a country where women were summarily robbed of their rights. She decided that everything she represented in the story would come from the lived experiences of women around the world. Still: that's not a story. That's just the beginning – the world-building. Stuff has to HAPPEN. The characters have to pursue goals and face challenges. Stakes need to be raised. So ...
A handmaid who is enslaved and forced to bear children for a Commander in a repressive regime rebels against her situation. Despite many challenges, she manages to escape.
Let's look at another example:
Children in wartime England are living in an old house. A magical portal in a wardrobe leads them to a mythical kingdom.
CS Lewis' The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe has some unparalleled world-building. But the world is not enough in itself, nor is the introduction of interesting characters We have to see the characters seek goals, face challenges, grow and change.
Children in wartime England pass through a magical portal into a mythical kingdom, which is embroiled in a war between good and evil. The children must discover their strengths and skills and fight to save the kingdom.
Something has to happen
There are any number of essays, books and videos which will tell you how stories have to be built. They will teach you about the three-act structure, about inciting incidents, rising action, climax and resolution. So many of these manuals look to film writing, specifically to the arc of story we see in Hollywood films. John Yorke's Into the Woods, is of course one of the most famous of these.
But the truth is, while stories mush involve change and challenge, that doesn't have to mean conflict, battle, protagonists and antagonists. Ursula Le Guin, in her beautiful and useful book of writing craft, Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, puts it best:
"Climax is one kind of pleasure; plot is one kind of story. A strong, shapely plot is a pleasure in itself. It can be reused generation after generation. It provides an armature for narrative that beginning writers may find invaluable. “But most serious modern fictions can’t be reduced to a plot, or retold without fatal loss except in their own words. The story is not in the plot but in the telling. It is the telling that moves. “Modernist manuals of writing often conflate story with conflict. This reductionism reflects a culture that inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioural options. No narrative of any complexity can be built on or reduced to a single element. Conflict is one kind of behaviour. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing. “Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.”
Questions to ask yourself about your story idea
Where does it begin? What is the world the reader enters at the start?
What causes things to change in this world (sometimes we call this an inciting incident)?
Do your characters change?
Does the world around them change?
Where does it end? (before you begin, you might not know the exact answer to this, but you should have a rough idea)
Whatever you're writing, from the most plot-driven mystery to gentle, lyrical literary fiction, your readers will expect an arc − a sense of change. As Le Guin says, something moving. If you have that, you have a story rather than a scenario. Now flex your fingers, take a deep breath, and begin.