Anton Chekhov answered that question this way:
You could write a story about this ashtray, and a man and a woman. The man and the woman are always the two poles of your story. The North Pole and the South. Every story has these two poles — a he and she.
The late Raymond Carver, who worshiped at the shrine of Anton Chekhov, undertook Chekhov’s challenge, and here’s what Ray Carver came up with:
They’re alone at the kitchen table in her friend’s
apartment. They’ll be alone for another hour, and then
her friend will be back. Outside, it’s raining -
the rain coming down like needles, melting last week’s
snow. They’re smoking and using the ashtray. . . Maybe
just one of them is smoking . . . He’s smoking! Never
mind. Anyway, the ashtray is filling up with
cigarettes and ashes.
She’s ready to break into tears at any minute.
To plead with him, in fact, though she’s proud
And has never asked for anything in her life.
He sees what’s coming, recognizes the signs -
a catch in her voice as she brings her fingers
to her locket, the one her mother left her.
He pushes back his chair, gets up, goes over to
the window . . . He wishes it were tomorrow and he
were at the races. He wishes he was out walking,
using his umbrella . . . He strokes his mustache
and wishes he were anywhere except here. But
he doesn’t have and choice in the matter. He’s got
to put a good face on this for everybody’s sake.
God knows, he never meant for things to come
to this. But it’s sink or swim now. A wrong
move and he stands to lose her friend, too.
Her breathing slows. She watches him but
doesn’t say anything. She knows, or thinks she
knows, where this is leading. She passes a hand
over her eyes, leans forward and puts her head
in her hands. She’s done this a few times
before, but has no idea it’s something
that drives him wild. He looks away and grinds
his teeth. He lights a cigarette, shakes out
the match, stands a minute longer at the window.
Then walks back to the table and sits
down with a sigh. He drops the match in the ashtray.
She reaches for his hand, and he lets her
take it. Why not? Where’s the harm?
Let her. His mind’s made up. She covers his
fingers with kisses, tears fall on to his wrist.
He draws on his cigarette and looks at her
as a man would look indifferently on
a cloud, a tree, or a field of oats at sunset.
He narrows his eyes against the smoke. From time
to time he uses the ashtray as he waits
for her to finish weeping.
The first thing you’ll no doubt have noticed about this piece is that it’s well written and poignant.
The second thing you’ll have noticed is that it’s not so much a story as it is a poem — specifically, a narrative poem. I chose it here, along with Chekhov’s semi-famous quote, because it illustrates an important point: namely, conflict is the crux of storytelling.
If you don’t have a sufficiently complicated conflict, you won’t have enough material for a story. That, I believe, is what happened here.
Chekhov’s suggestion — which is his version of what we call a Situation — isn’t complex enough to build a story upon. One would need more adversity — more obstacle — to launch a truly compelling story.
Plots derive from characters under adversity.
But it’s important to emphasize that adversity need not be expressed in terms of pure physical action. Adversity means conflict. That conflict can be psychological, emotional, physical, or all three.
Here is an example of how we might improve Chekhov’s situation:
You could write a story about this ashtray, which is heart-shaped and has a hairline crack down the center, and a man and a woman, who does not love the man, though she’s married to him, and though he loves her …