What’s a story? It helps to know what you’re looking for:

Helena Daily Herald, Sept. 30, 1870

Last week, I promised I would explain how I find the stories I post on this blog. The first step is defining what I look for.

Most of the stories I post come from the collection of first-person accounts of travel to Yellowstone Park that I assembled for my presentations under the auspices of the Humanities Montana Speakers Bureau.

In my promotional materials, I promised to bring travelers’ experiences to life using their own words. I soon figured out I could read four or five excerpts of three hundred to a thousand words in an hour presentation. That meant I had to be very selective as I went through my files.

At first I “just followed my nose,” that is, I read and noted things I found fun or exciting, then excerpted and edited selections for presentation.

My collection grew into dozens. There was just too much good stuff. How could I choose just four or five tales? My solution was to tailor each presentation to its audience. When I presented to women’s groups, I focused on stories by women. When I presented in Billings, I included stories by people who lived there. But, an account written by a person who lives in Billings, isn’t necessarily interesting to a Billings resident. It needs to be a story.

So, what is a story?  I found an answer in Jon Franklin’s wonderful book, Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction.

Franklin, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer and teacher, emphasizes the “complication-resolution” structure of stories.  He says a story is a description of what happens when a person encounters a situation that demands a response.

That situation can be the high adventure of life-threatening danger as in “Colter’s Run”.

Or the need for quick thinking to protect another person as in “Colonel Picket Gets His Bear”.

Or the humor evoked by the need to get even with a supercilious twit as in “Maud Gets Her Revenge”.

With the complication-resolution definition of a story, it’s not hard to recognize one when you see it. But that doesn’t mean finding stories is easy. In fact, most accounts of Yellowstone travel in my collection contain nothing but banal descriptions of one sight after another. But I slog through them anyway. You never can tell where you’re going to find a nugget.

I found one of my favorite stories, “A Million Billion Barrels of Hot Water” after slogging through more than 40 boring pages.


— Next topic: “Sometimes the best stories are the worst history: Differences between journals, articles and reminiscences.”

— Clipping adapted from the Yellowstone Digital Slide File.

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