So, I wanted to start a conversation about the definition of a story because I see a lot of posts here with common issues (too much exposition, fleshed out world/magic system but no strong characters or plot, plot struggles in general), and I see common issues with my own writing and my friends' writing that could be avoided with a better understanding of what the task is when we decide to create a story. It seems like people are hesitant to say that a story is any one thing because it's an artistic medium, which means there's an implication that it's whatever you want it to be. Also, a lot of people are inspired to write by novels, which allow for long passages describing settings, exposition, backstory, and elements in addition to the basic fundamentals of a story. Another also: we are in such a media-saturated time, that most of us are probably familiar with stories that "don't play by the rules," breaking the form, winking at the audience, etc. It is my contention that even these stories follow a few rules that are common to all good stories, which leads to my broader point, that every good story has a few foundational elements–character, action, and the anticipation of action–that make it function. Understanding these elements can improve your writing and make your work process more productive.
So, I'm going to talk about character and action at the same time because characters are defined by their actions. Sure, the setting and characters around a given character are relevant, but a character needs to have defining actions in a good story. Sure, they can have a backstory, but a backstory is not 100% necessary. Creating this is a matter of putting your character in a scene and having them do something. It's that simple. Yes, you can go into summary that describes what they look like and what they are like as a person, but the minimum requirement for a successful story is to put them in a scene with defining action. Let's take Austin Powers's character introduction in the first movie as an example, which I consider one of the strongest character introductions I have ever seen. If you recall, Austin is introduced dancing in the streets of London, and everyone starts dancing with him. He goes behind a building at one point and comes back out leading a marching band. At the end of this scene, there is zero confusion about what kind of person Austin Powers is. Watch that scene on youtube if you haven't seen it in a while or at all.
You can get a little deeper and more complex/artsy with this character action thing too. Something that I really love about good character actions is when they demonstrate the psychological state of the character. In Paul Thomas Anderson's first film Hard 8, the last scene in the movie is a truly beautiful example of this. (spoiler alert, but seriously, you should watch this movie). The main character spent the entire movie trying to help John C. Reily's character avoid the criminal life that the main character has led, and the last shot of the movie, the main character notices that he has a little blood on his shirt sleeve, so he adjusts his coat sleeve to cover the stain. In this one gesture, he encapsulates his entire character's issue in the movie–turning away from his violent criminal past. If you can think of any other good defining character actions, please post them in the comments.
Lastly, let's talk about the anticipation of action. This is what will drive your plot and also might demystify for you what a plot is. Sometime people refer to the anticipation of action as suspense, but I think "suspense" connotes a genre to most people, so it's more helpful for me to think of it as the anticipation of action. Basically, the anticipation of action is something that happens that means that more things are going to happen. Think of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when he gets a golden ticket. This is an occurence that makes you anticipate that he's going to go to the chocolate factory. But, it's also an exciting scene in itself, not just a plot device. You can create the anticipation of action through character actions but also through more abstract things like a character's realization or non-character related elements of your story like a random occurrence. The anticipation of action is especially important at the beginning of a story because it makes your audience look forward to what's going to happen, prevents your story from being a collection of disparate scene, and most importantly, creates a coherent plot that the audience can follow.
The anticipation of action is not always a super exciting or memorable moment in the story, but it is so important to making one scene lead smoothly into the next. Let's look at the fourth Harry Potter installment. If you recall, there's a goblet of fire that people put their names in, and it later spits out the names of the people who are chosen to participate in the triwizard tournament (please forgive me if these details aren't 100% correct, it's been ages since I've read the books or seen the movies) NOw, if you remember, Harry is too young to put his name in the goblet, but It spits his name out any way. This creates the anticipation of action. The most direct action that you anticipate is that Harry will participate in the Tri Wizard tournament. But, also it creates a mystery about who put his name in the goblet since harry was too young, and we anticipate that this mystery will be solved. It keeps us invested in the scenes to come.
I'll wrap things up by saying that I think investing time in working on these basic elements can improve your writing dramatically. I don't want anyone to stop making interesting settings or fun magic systems, but the aforementioned story fundamentals will make all of those extra things more meaningful and will make backstory and exposition either unnecessary or more worth the digression. These are good fundamentals to learn for when you're writing or when you're editing because they can clear up the common issues: too much exposition? give your character more defining character actions. Unclear or absent plot? create the anticipation of action. Interesting world with no dynamic characters? makes some more character actions and create the anticipation of more actions. This is by no means the final word on this, and I'm positive that there are fantastic stories that don't follow all of these rules to a T, but I think that most stories, especially ones that are not finished yet could benefit from these fundamentals. I'm eager to hear your thoughts, and thanks for reading.
TL;DR Common problems with your writing can be avoided and your writing can be improved by understanding character action and building plots through the anticipation of action.