The big story and the small story

Very few stories are only one story. The common writing exercise of encapsulating a story in a single sentence often shows this. Yes, Jack and the Beanstalk is the story of a boy who fights a giant. But it’s also the story of a giant pestered by tiny humans. And of a beanstalk forced  to early germination. And of what happened to a poor cow after it was sold to a swindling bean merchant. Much of the richness of storytelling comes from the many stories that are woven into one. It’s how the artifice of story comes to resemble the complexity of life. But amidst the infinite stories within every story are two that deserve special attention. The Big Story…and the Small Story.

The Small Story is, most commonly, the internal transformation of the story’s central character. In The Godfather we follow the transformation of Michael Corleone from a moral young hero to an ammoral old villain, all the more chilling as it’s a transformation driven by love of family.

The Big Story is the transformation of the world in which the story takes place. You have to pay attention to catch the Big Story in The Godfather, because it plays out in the narrative background. By the end of the second movie the Corleone family is no longer a gangster organisation. It and the rest of the Mafia families have become great powers in American society. You’re watching the story of how criminals become the government.

Weak stories tend to play out either the big or the small story without the counterbalance of the other. Genre fiction can spend ten books showing you the rise and fall of an empire without ever touching on a single real life. Literary fiction can immerse itself inside one human life while ignoring the very real world of politics and power that we all live in. Both end up failing in different ways.

The Big Story and the Small Story have to be deeply interrelated. Because this is how the world is. Sweeping arcs of history produce the circumstances that create dramatic lives and larger than life characters. Even the smallest life has some impact or consequence on the lives of those around it. It might be that your story’s Big Story reaches no further than a tiny village. Or that the Small Story has to play out between car chases and gunfights. But understanding the outer boundaries of the story in this way helps build a unified story. Any event that doesn’t belong either in the big or small story probably doesn’t belong in this story at all.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

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