Stories and narrative

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Even a cursory read of Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Communities by Joe Lambert (2013), one of the founding figures in the field, is enough to understand that the “digital” in digital storytelling is just a means to an end. The story is the primary goal that drives the use of the technology. It makes sense, then, to focus most attention on stories themselves.

We have been surrounded by stories in one form or another our whole lives but their ubiquity can make it hard to think critically about what actually makes a story. Bruner (1986) hints at this when he says:

“In contrast to our vast knowledge of how science and logical reasoning proceed, we know precious little in any formal sense about how to make good stories.” (1986:14)

One of the first to write critically about stories was Aristotle (quoted in McQuillan 2000) who described the notion of a unifying plot. Plot was the principle element of a “tragedy” that also included “character, diction, thought, spectacle and song” (McQuillan 2000:40). It is from Aristotle that we get the idea of a good story as having a beginning and middle and an end. He also described how the plot brought together various actions in the service of a single meaning.

Bruner also talks about Aristotle’s concept of perpiteia or “sudden reversal of circumstances” (1990:5). Bruner further describes this as a “breach in the expected state of things” and that the story “concerns efforts to cope or come to terms with the breach and its consequences.”

EM Forster (also quoted in McQuillan 2000) adds to the idea of a plot by differentiating it from simple “story”. A story for him is a “narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence.” A plot is the same but with the emphasis on causality, it looks at an event but seeks to understand “why?” rather than “what then?” (McQuillan 2000:46).

Bruner (1990) refers to the dramatistic pentad or grammar of storytelling developed by Kenneth Burke that is closely aligned to Aristotle’s peripeteia:

“…a story (fictional or actual) requires and Agent who performs an Action to achieve a Goal in a recognizable Setting by the use of Means…What drives a story is a misfit between the elements of the Pentad: Trouble.” (1990:34)

So, we can see story as a sequence of events related by time and meaning in which a settled state of affairs is subject to change. The story is about how that change is negotiated.

Gabriel (2000) observes that the definition of what makes a story has been greatly expanded by postmodernist writers. He says, with postmodernism:

“Virtually any piece of text, any sign, any object that has drawn a gaze onto itself, tells a story.” (2000:17)

In other words, anything that can be said to make sense of something is telling a story. This he argues means that we lose sight of some key qualities of stories, namely their ability to entertain and challenge. If storytelling is present in everything that bears information then it dilutes our understanding of what stories actually are. For the purposes of this dissertation, where we are looking at stories as deliberately created objects, this postmodern view is too general.

As another note of caution, some care has to be taken when looking at story in the terms as to some extent they refer to stories in literature when the subject of this dissertation is concerned with stories that are a less lofty art form. However, it is still helpful to think about stories in these terms even if they have more direct relevance to literature as they provide a recognisable vocabulary to talk about the nature of stories and narrative.

Function of stories

Bruner (1990), along with Garcia and Rossiter (2008) claim that there is something in human nature which predisposes use to narrative and storytelling. Garcia and Rossiter call it an innate “narrative impulse” (2008:1093). Bruner calls story the “currency and coin of culture” (1990:16).

If a feeling for story is innate and something that has been part of human discourse since the dawn of history, then it must be providing some useful function for society or individuals. In short, why do people tell stories? Gabriel (2000) perceives 6 main functions of stories:

  • To entertain
  • Stimulate imagination
  • Offer reassurance
  • Provide moral education
  • Justify and explain
  • Inform, advise and warn. (2000:9)

He sees the first, entertainment, as their primary function but also explores how stories in the form of morals or fables have strong didactic elements, passing on socially important lessons between teller and listener. Myths, for example, have “grand sacral meanings” (2000:10).

For Bruner (1986, 1990) the importance of story and narrative goes much deeper. He identifies two epistemological modes of thinking about the world. The first, which he calls “paradigmatic” thought, uses observation and reason in order to create “good theory, tight analysis, logical proof, sound argument, and empirical discovery guided by reasoned hypothesis”  (1986:13). It views the world in an abstract way. The other mode of thinking he calls “narrative” and is in contrast with the “heartlessness of logic”. Its aim is not to convey empirical truth but to convince people with verisimilitude, or lifelikeness (1986:11). Narratives are ways of understanding that ascribe believable meanings to events rather than stating the simple observable facts. This distinction between two modes of thought has particular implications for the study of narrative and storytelling within organisations as we’ll see later.

One of the advantages of using the narrative mode of thinking is that it gives us a tool for dealing with occurrences that fall outside of expected norms; “Trouble” as Burke would call it or Aristotle’s peripeteia.

“It is a way to domesticate human error and surprise. It conventionalizes the common forms of human mishap into genres – comedy, tragedy, romance, irony, or whatever format may lessen the sting of our fortuity. Stories reassert a kind of conventional wisdom about…what can be expected to go wrong and what might be done to restore or cope with the situation” (Bruner 1990:31)

Stories give us a mechanism for dealing with change in our circumstances. Related to this, Baumeister and Newman (1994) found that there are 4 drivers that lead people to tell stories about themselves and how they have dealt with situations. Stories, they say, help us to:

  • To interpret personal experience as linked to a wider sense of purpose or goals
  • To seek value and justification, to show actions taken or events as being morally right
  • To seek a sense of efficacy, stories showing the actor as exerting control over a situation
  • People seek a sense of self-worth by making stories that show them as attractive or competent to the listener.

By this, autobiographical stories are then not just a way of making sense of the world but also attempting to exert some level of control over it. Stories give people a way of establishing as sense of agency. Hull and Katz (2006) have used this aspect of storytelling with a view to helping marginalised people from deprived areas of San Francisco to develop a stronger sense of personal identity and an “agentive self” by creating digital stories interpreting their life experiences.

Bruner, in his 2004 paper Life as Narrative proposes in addition to being a way of establishing meaning of one’s life these autobiographical narratives also shape a person’s sense of self. Narrative, he argues is the only way we can understand life as it is lived:

“When somebody tells you his life… it is always a cognitive achievement rather than a through-the-clear-crystal recital of something univocally given. In the end, it is a narrative achievement. There is no such thing psychologically as “life itself” At very least, it is a selective achievement of memory recall; beyond that, recounting one’s life is an interpretive feat.” (2004:693)

But these narratives of self, given that they are the only way we interpret our experiences and actions inevitably shape our identity.

“In the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we “tell about” our lives.” (2004:694)

So our autobiographical stories are not just about us, they are us.

In summary, stories help us to create a structure to deal with experiences and shape an understanding of the world and ourselves through narrative. People create and tell stories to engage and endear themselves to audiences but also to develop a sense of agency, empowerment and moral rightness. Life stories, building blocks of autobiographical narratives, help individuals make sense of life but also come to form the identities of the people that created them.

Next page: Storytelling in organisations