I've been thinking a lot about stories recently. I've just finished Lyra's Oxford, which — despite the fact that it's very short — is an archetypal story. I mentally differentiate between a story and other kinds of fiction which also have a plot and characters, but I can't precisely put my finger on what defines a story.
A story doesn't have to be written, of course; some of the best stories I have heard have been spoken or sung — in the best tradition of the story-tellers who would travel from village to village, entertaining people around their fires at night. One of the best modern story-tellers I know of is Laurie Anderson. I've seen her perform a few times, and both the songs and her explanations of them are invariably spell-binding. In fact, I have a story of my own to tell about Laurie's story-telling skills.
At one of her concerts in the Royal Festival Hall, she also had an installation in the main foyer. This was a walled-off area, with fragments of her songs playing, projections on the walls, and strange objects. It was all rather wonderful (in a way that installations rarely are), but the best feature was a tiny 10 cm tall model of a person on the floor, on to which was projected an image of Laurie telling a story. The story was a typically quirky affair, concerning Laurie trying to solve the riddle of the lip marks on the glass walls of her psychiatrist's office. What delighted me even more than the story itself was the unconscious reaction of the people listening to it. Everyone sat cross-legged on the floor in a circle around â€˜Laurie', as if we were giant children listening to a tiny adult tell us a story. And everyone was listening; you could have heard a pin drop.
So stories can be spoken, or sung or written, but they must be gripping. From the very start, a story should pull you in and take you prisoner, so that you have to be hauled back to reality. If the story is interrupted, you must burn to find out what happens.
The best stories have an element of mystery about them, and a feeling that the real story is larger than the one being presented to you. Loose ends and vague references should be left for your imagination to knit together. When I went to the audience with Philip Pullman, there was a question and answer session at the end. As you can probably imagine, there were hordes of people clamouring to ask their questions. Toward the end of the session, a South African woman couldn't restrain herself any longer and shouted out her question. In His Dark Materials, Pullman mentions in passing that the majority of people in Lyra's world have daemons of the opposite gender to themselves, but a few rare people have a same-sex daemon. These individuals are seen as special in some way, but there's no more explanation. This woman wanted to know _what this meant_, and she wasn't going to be silenced. Pullman's answer (in case you are also burning to know) was, "I'm not really sure what it means", which was exactly what I was hoping he would say.
Stories often have a message. Not a moral exactly, but some kind of message that informs you about yourself or about the world — the way things are, or the way they might be. Stories embody human nature, and show you courage, or folly or sacrifice. I think that there's a reason why the themes in myths and legends recur so often in different cultures and at different times. These themes resonate with something in our psyche. I'd be willing to bet that neolithic people had stories with a hero character (like King Arthur), a doomed love story (like Tristan and Isolde or Romeo and Juliet), or a dangerous journey (like The Odyssey). Actually, the King Arthur stories contain all three — no wonder they're so popular, that's story pay-dirt.