Telling Stories: There Is No Story Until There Are Two Stories

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Eudora Welty was a brilliant writer of short stories who also won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, The Optimist’s Daughter’s, and her autobiography, One Writer’s Beginning, was to her generation/fans what Stephen King’s On Writing was to his. One Writer’s Beginning is a brilliant combination of Welty’s life story combined with subtle, well-placed bits of writing advice, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is also very short, so now you have one fewer excuse not to read it than you did a sentence ago.

There’s a quote attributed to Ms. Welty–the title of this post, actually: “There is no story until there are two stories.” I don’t know if that quote comes from One Writer’s Beginning or from somewhere else, but maybe when one of you reads the book, you can keep your eyes open and let me know if you spot it (it’s been a few years since I last read OWB).

All of this is prologue, of course, an excuse to mention a book that you ought to read. The actual point of my post today is the quote itself, because it’s spot-on accurate. There is no story until there are two stories.

Say, for instance, that you’re telling a story about a young man who is working as a moisture farmer on his uncle’s farm but dreams of “bigger and better things.” In and of itself, you don’t have enough. It’s too vague. There are too many different ways the story could go; it has no inherent focal point.

Conversely, if you’re telling the story of a rebellion against an evil emperor reigning over a galaxy far, far away, that’s too broad, too sweeping. It’s like telling the story of the galaxy itself: what star do we look at? What planet? So many specks of light in the distance…

But what about that point where the young man and the rebellion intersect? The point where the young man meets an old man who used to serve the empire but will now teach him how to harness a great force against the emperor and his henchmen? Now one of the stars in that far, far away galaxy has gone super-nova. It calls to us, brightly and with no uncertainty. Look at me! Look at the mess I’m about to make! You want to know how this is going to turn out. You know you do.

All of the best stories are built around not one central idea or character, or even one conflict. They are built around the intersection of two stories.

Another example, one of my favorite books as well as one of my favorite movies (and different enough that if you’ve only ever experienced one, you should go and find the other): The Princess Bride.

Story #1: Young Wesley goes off to make his fortune and ends up falling afoul of the Dread Pirate Roberts, who never leaves survivors. Except Wesley does survive, and after several years makes his way back to his homeland to find and reclaim the hand of the woman he loves (the Princess Bride).

Story #2: Prince Humperdinck wants to start a war with the neighboring country and plans to kill his bride-to-be (the Princess Bride) so he can frame his neighbors, thus precipitating a war. “The people will be outraged. They’ll demand we go to war.”

The Princess Bride is not just the title, it’s the point where those two stories intersect and things get interesting.

In fact, the book and the movie are even structured in a way that doubly highlights the “two stories” maxim, because even the story about Wesley and Humperdinck is only one of two stories going on in the book and movie. The other story is the story about telling the story (which differ between the book and the movie, but essentially amount to the telling of the Wesley/Humperdinck story by reading it from a book by an elder parent/grandparent to a loved child). To be clear, I’m not suggesting you take it as far as The Princess Bride does by doubling up on the “two stories” maxim; I just think it’s a particularly good example of the point I’m trying to make.

So stop a minute and think about your WIP. How many stories are you actually telling? Do they sufficiently, inextricably, powerfully intersect?

Because in my opinion, all the best ones do.

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14 comments to Telling Stories: There Is No Story Until There Are Two Stories

  • This has been my problem for years but I never put 2 and 2 together. Now that you mention it, yeah, I have a major issue with this.

    In Altar of Heaven, my main premise is “Crazy girl chosen to save the world.” That’s it. I have another plotline but it is not strongly intersecting of the main story until near the end. So not only do you have to have two stories, you have to have two stories with strong connections.

    Thank you for posting this today helping me understand my writing flaw. Hopefully, I can do something to correct this now I know what to look for.

  • Glad it was helpful, Mark. I can only claim credit for being smart enough to recognize Eudora’s wisdom; the rest of it goes squarely to her for putting 2 and 2 together in the first place.

  • I think I can take Welty’s statement and merge it into Walter S Campbell’s view of book structure (which I’ve studied so often it’s pathetic) and get it. The plot conflict in the book (story number one) intersects with the character’s(s) weakness and personal situation (story number two) which forces the character(s) to enter the plot conflict and change and grow. Yes? Maybe?

    Taking that thought, then the Star Wars movie becomes: all the characters’ personal problems and weaknesses (multiple stories number two) intersect with the plot conflict (story number one) the war.

    I really like the clarity I just got here, Edmund! And clarity is something I don’t have a lot of. Very nice post!

  • Clarity is our friend. I love the fact your understanding of Campbell’s view of book structure intersected with Welty’s statement to bring you that clarity. There’s some kind of karma going on there.

  • I think I’ve got two stories–at least I’ve got two sets of folks with very opposite desires who are coming together to meet in a pretty violent conflict at the end. I’ve got Mary, who has demonic powers and wants to never use them again. She’s agreed to a “one last demon slaying job” kind of thing. Then there’s Sami, the demon whose powers Mary has. She wants the powers back, Mary dead, and to gather other powers to be able to, well, in classic evil villain fasion, rule the world. 🙂 Clearly (to my mind) the two can’t co-exist peacefully. Mary’s got enough guilt that she won’t just give the demon back her powers. There are other plot strands, and other characters (Sami isn’t a pov character, her human servant, Thomas, is–and he’s got a bone to pick with Mary, too) who make up the rest of the story and cause conflicts–but the two major stories driving in opposite directions belong to Mary and Sami.

  • I LOVED this post. It made me think of how I write in a very different way. The book that I’m revising now has this in spades, but I’m not sure about the rest of my drafts. Thanks for writing it!

  • I think it’s been said here before that even the “Antag” is the Protag in their own story… But the more I’ve thought about this, applying it to works that I enjoyed (both movies and films) I kept finding myself thinking in terms of clearly defined Protag vs Antag goals, which in a clearly definable “good vs evil” arc is easier to see, but isn’t as simple a process for others (like some Rom-Coms and “Family”)…

    And then there are the stories that are braided three, four or five stories across with the sub-stories (LOTR, anyone?) that don’t fit that idea as cleanly, but if done well can be some of the most rewarding reading experiences…

    As for my own longer projects, that’s the main wall I’ve run into – identifying a strong enough alternate story to keep the tension moving and my excitement up… just haven’t “elsed” the ideas enough yet…

    Thanks for the book suggestion, off to see where I can find it…

  • I have so many stories intersecting that I need to install traffic lights! Good thing I have three more books to sort it all out!

  • Excellent point, Ed. I hadn’t really thought about it that way until you mentioned it. But it’s absolutely true! Scribe is currently helping me work through some outlining exercises for my NaNo WIP, and one of the things I recently discovered (to my great relief) was that my plot happens because my protagonist’s goal and my antagonist’s goal run head-on into each other (and explode). It feels silly that I should be realizing something so basic now when I’ve been ruminating on the world and the scenes and the villain’s favorite necktie for months already.. but it’s pretty amazing what you can discover about your own story just by stepping back and looking at it through a detached lens–or in this case, another person’s MO.

    So maybe this will be a better approach for next time: Figure out character A’s storyline, figure out character B’s storyline, extrapolate to where the two lines intersect…and test for combustion.

  • I’ve noticed that often, at least in SFF, the stories consist of the personal story of the protagonist, the story of the antagonist, and a greater story of sorts.
    The story of a farm boy. The story of his father who’s gone to the dark side. And the battle for the galaxy by a freedom loving rebellion and a totalitarian empire. The greater story could perhaps be considered more of a ‘setting’, but when there’s a series, it seems the greater story becomes the primary story. (well, I think possibly the rise of Jar Jar might be the overlying story, as he’s the one pulling the strings of the Emperor)

  • Love this post. It makes so much sense on such a fundamental level, and yet it is something I never considered before. And thanks for the suggested reads.

  • Been out of the house all afternoon and evening and am just reading all your comments now. Very glad you all found it helpful. Do read her book, One Writer’s Beginning; I promise it’s worth it.

  • Vyton

    Great post. Thank you for this explanation and for providing the catalyst for this discussion. I’m definitely getting her book. I particularly liked Jeff Evans’ comment about the antagonist being the protagonist in his own story. That made me wonder if DV and the emperor would use the term “Dark Side,” or would they have used a more positive term? Like the “Strong Side?”

  • It depends on the context, Vyton. If “the Dark Side” was an old term long established in the culture, than yes, it would or at least might be what Vader and the emperor called it.