A lot of people use "narrative" and "story" interchangeably. They shouldn't.

So what exactly is a story? And why should you make a distinction between the two words?

My online Merriman-Webster’s Dictionary says a story is an account of incidents or events, or secondarily and even vaguer, it’s a “statement regarding the facts pertinent to a situation.”

By that definition, this is a story: It rained. The sun came out. Then it got dark. Or this: He fell asleep. Then he woke up and got something to drink.

Those are not stories, at least not yet. Yet they meet the dictionary’s definition of a series of events. So what’s missing?

This is a story: “In January 1996, I pulled the career equivalent of driving off a cliff: Trading a salary for a dream, I left my corporate communications job to return to my first love of writing. It was the craziest, best decision I ever made.”

That’s the copy I wrote in the “My Story” section of my website. Since I wanted to make a point about my storytelling skills, I wanted to show what I meant. It had to be short but it had to tell a story.

Why is that a story? Let’s break it down. “In January 1996 (setting in time or place), I (character) pulled the equivalent of driving off a cliff (challenge or problem or conflict): Trading a salary for a dream (a worthwhile goal with stakes), I left my corporate communications job (action to achieve goal) to return to my first love of writing (motive). It was the craziest, best decision I ever made (outcome of action).”

So in its skeletal form we have the elements of a story: A motivated character struggles against obstacles to achieve a worthwhile goal.

Story starts with character

There are other factors, such as setting, details and dialog to give a sense of verisimilitude, and high stakes if the character doesn’t get what he or she wants. But the most important thing in this definition is that it’s character-based. There’s a plot, of course. But it starts with a character who wants something.

On the wall near my desk, I have tacked up Kurt Vonnegut’s Creative Writing 101. There are just eight items. No. 2 is, “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.” It’s only when a character enters the picture that we begin to engage with a story. And even if we don’t like the character, we need to identify with him or her.

Vonnegut’s No. 3 is, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” Especially if that glass of water is locked behind a door and the character is dying of thirst. That raises the stakes. Now we care. Is he going to survive? What happens if he doesn’t? Now we empathize with the character. We want him to win. And that tension keeps us reading.

That’s why “narrative” is not a great synonym for story. Because narrative can simply be plot: this happened, that happened and then that happened. A story can be a narrative, but a narrative doesn’t have to be a story.

Your message is not your story

Another thing that often gets called a story in the communications world is “message.” But a message is not a story. A message can be anything. “I specialize in telling stories that move people to think, to feel and to act” is something I say about what I do. It’s a message, and, I hope, a pretty good one. But it’s not a story.

Keep this definition of story in mind as you think about how to inspire people to act or change. Connect your product or service or idea to a story, and you’ll be more likely to have your audience cheering for you and wanting to be a part of the story themselves.