When is a story not a story?

This question comes up a lot in my line of work – honestly, all too often. Let’s start with a definition. A story is a description of a particular event or series of events with a focus on one or more problems and their resolution, over time. It’s coherent; all the information in the story is in some way relevant. And it has emotional resonance; reading or hearing a story leads you to feel some suspense, followed by its relief.

irisOne thing that isn’t a story is a description of sensations and impressions. It could be the wildflowers you saw on your walk through the woods, a strange cloud in the sky, the interesting melody that’s stuck in your head, the happiness you felt when your extra-shy kitten reached with his extra-big paws to grab at your hand. None of those are stories. This distinction points out a key difference between people with moderately advanced dementia and people with healthier brains, by the way: Once you’ve got dementia, your brain still has plenty of input of what’s going on around you – you still see and hear things – but you tend to lose your ability to connect your impressions coherently, which includes being able to tell a full-scale story about them.

Cultural scripts, which include what psychologists call “event schemas,” aren’t stories either. For example, when you got to the supermarket, there’s a cultural script you need to follow to do your shopping competently. You get a cart or basket if you need one, collect things off the shelves that you intend to buy, come to the checkstand, process each of the items for payment (scanning them or letting a cashier do it), and pay for them, then take them away. Here we have things happening over time, with a focused purpose, but it’s just a generic norm for what happens, not a story. (Needless to say, other cultural norms that don’t involve time and don’t have a focused purpose aren’t stories either.) However, a particular instance of buying groceries might be described using a story format – if there’s a point-of-view character who faces some sort of problem, challenge, or conflict that gets resolved, or fails to be resolved. (Our neighborhood Safeway valiantly opens for business in heavy snow, even when the power is out – it’s quite fun.)

Here’s something that’s almost, but not quite, a story: an account of things that happened in your day. It’s got the events happening, one after the other, and some linkage between them, but it doesn’t have the problem/resolution structure. Your account might be several stories, some resolved and some still ongoing, or it might just be more of a list.

This distinction is relevant in history, too. A “history” is often a story, because it’s organized within a single interpretive framework. Compare that with a “chronicle,” which describes everything of some importance that happened in a certain place over some interval of time, but without an interpretive framework (and an “annals” is a chronicle covering a single year).

Two individuals have helped clarify what is, and isn’t, a story. The first is psychologist Jerome Bruner, who made an important distinction between what he called paradigmatic and narrative thinking. Paradigmatic thinking is what’s done in pure science – it’s about categories, rules, and generalizations. If you’re one of the very few people who read my earlier post about Stephen Pepper, paradigmatic thinking fits his “mechanism” category. Bruner’s examples were focused on logic and universal truths, but social rules (norms) are also paradigmatic. Compare that with narrative thinking, which Bruner tells us is context-sensitive, particular, and relates to our actions and intentions as they unfold over time. Paradigmatic thinking tells us how things work. Narrative thinking… gives us a story.

The second person is philosopher Galen Strawson, who wrote a paper reacting against a trend toward believing that every person has a “life story.” Having a life story isn’t the same as being able to tell stories about things that have happened in your life, it’s seeing your life as a coherent narrative. Alongside all the philosophers who think that’s important is psychologist Dan McAdams, who’s promoted the idea that everyone’s life is a story. (I wrote a paper with Gerard Saucier detailing the types of people for which this may be true, and why although this may be great for some, for the rest of us it’s not necessarily best to think like that.  Should I write a post about that?)

Strawson makes the case that people can have perfectly happy and fulfilling lives if they take things day by day, or event by event, follow their understanding of how they should behave, and even set and work toward goals, without imposing an overall story framework.

When we combine all this together, we have three ways of encountering the world. One involves sensations and impressions, which we organize to the point of understanding them and having some idea of how we feel about them (Strawson’s “non-narrative”). One involves structure, rules, systems, processes, and generalizations (Bruner’s “paradigmatic” thinking). And one focuses on a particular series of events and makes them meaningful. That one is a story.

At this point, I’d like to introduce a new term, master narrative. Psychologists Kate McLean and Moin Syed have promoted this idea, which they say actually encompasses three concepts: biographical master narratives (cultural life scripts), structural master narratives, and episodic master narratives. In each of these cases, there’s a culturally shared understanding that’s authoritative, or normative – everyone is expected to share it. The third of these, the episodic master narrative, actually is a story. It’s a description and interpretation of an event that people are expected to agree with, like the 9/11 terrorist attack.

Cleaver_family_Leave_it_to_Beaver_1960_cropThe other two master narratives aren’t stories at all, though – they’re normative cultural scripts for how events are supposed to unfold and be interpreted over time. A biographical master narrative tells people how their life story is expected to go. Back in the early 1960s, for example, if you were a white American male, once you’d grown up and completed your education you were supposed to start your career, get married to someone who’d stay at home and take care of things, have children, and consider buying a house. If you deviated from that, you might get negative feedback from others. Structural master narratives don’t tell stories, but they set guidelines for how stories are supposed to be told – they might say that stories need to match one of what I call the Twelve Super-Stories. For example, Dan McAdams says Americans want stories with a positive arc, which he calls Redemption stories (although he lumps Progress stories fitting a rags-to-riches plotline and Restoration stories fitting a recovery after trauma plotline all in there together). Since biographical and structural “master narratives” are norms instead of stories, operating in the world of structure, rules, and expectations, that makes them paradigmatic ideas, not narratives; they just have some narrative features.

Finally, the meta-narratives I study, like Make America Great Again or our need to respond to climate change, usually aren’t stories either – they’re beliefs with story elements. There’s a group as the story protagonist; there might be other important “characters”; and the meta-narrative conveys the gist of what group members believe about where they’ve been and where they’re headed, over time, with an associated emotion – we should feel happy and proud if our group meets ambitious goals, for example, or frustrated if our group has been treated badly by powerful others.

A meta-narrative is a belief and an interpretation, not story per se, but they give their people a sense of meaning, like stories can. (And if our government or peer group is enforcing our belief in our society’s dominant meta-narratives, they’re also norms!) But meta-narratives can be an interpretive framework for stories. If I tell a story about a factory that closed down, its jobs moved overseas, and imply that this is a common occurrence, the lesson might be that America needs to be made “great again.” If I tell a story about a new scientific discovery, the lesson might be that progress is still possible.

And naturally, there’s an exception – a story about some formative event might also be a meta-narrative, if alluding to that particular story reminds us why some pattern was established and justified thereafter. One good example would be Bible stories, especially those from Genesis that have taken on a mythic significance. If you tell someone the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent and the fruit, and the consequences imposed by God, and they believe this story is true and fundamental, they may well take away the meta-narrative lesson that we humans are being punished, or that women deserve less authority than men. So the Fall from Eden is both a particular story and also a meta-narrative, a story-form belief about how the state of humanity came to be and maybe even ought to be. (Logically, they might also take away the simple moral, not a meta-narrative, that eating fruit is bad…)

That’s enough for now. Onward! By the way, fruit is good.


Main image photo source

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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3 Responses to When is a story not a story?

  1. Robin Turner says:

    The paper looks interesting – though I can’t read all of it at the moment as my universoty VPN isn’t working. It would certainly make a good blog post. I too am sceptical of the idea that you hould have a life-story, hence my TEDx talk which is somewhat misleadingly titled “A Hero’s Journey” when it was actually a debunking of the “life is a journey” metaphor.

  2. Pingback: The hidden danger of stories – and a friendly alternative | The Meta-Narrator

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