In her short book called The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick describes one of the most useful and important ideas about writing that I know:
“Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”
I just critiqued a novel where Gornick’s concept seemed particularly relevant. On the whole it’s an amazing novel, but I had a clear sense towards the end of where it went off the track, and why. It was because the writer lost track of the “story,” and just wrote “situation.” Without the “story,” the situation became merely material. Even though the material at that point was dramatic and even riveting, it lacked the real power that comes from the writer carrying through with the story under the situation.
It can be a little confusing because Gornick’s not using “story” here in the traditional narrative sense. The way I understand Gornick’s “story” is that it is like an interior narrative, the internal journey that the protagonist is experiencing or undertaking which the external action–the situation–the plot– dramatizes and plays out. This journey is psychological, emotional, spiritual or all three. It is what the reader is actually tracking, even as his or her attention is captured by the external situation and action. It’s what gives shape and meaning to the situation.
Gornick gives this example: