Narratology – How Stories Work and Why They Matter

We live in a world of stories. Stories shape the way we think about reality. Stories are what we tell ourselves about ourselves. When the human brain wants to make sense of events and data in the environment, transform them into actionable insights, and share them with others, there is no way around stories. We humans are social creatures that need to find – or invent – meaning for ourselves and for the things that are happening to us. Through stories, we create shared meanings we can inhabit.

As such, stories are incredibly powerful tools. According to linguists (Longacre, Labov, Martin, and others), stories belong to the narrative genre of texts. Narratives are not the only arrow in the professional communicator’s quiver. We also have factual genres (expository texts – such as reports, discussions, essays or scholarly articles, whose aim is to explain or describe – and procedural texts, which teach us how to do things), persuasive or hortatory genres (i.e. sermons, sales pitches, pep talks, which aim to influence conduct and incite action), etc. But narratives are some of the most important communication tools to comprehend and master. Their main purpose is to entertain and inform, and – precisely because they entertain – stories can make us lower our defenses. Some claim to be merely expository, yet they are peppered with fictional content. Some claim to recount the past, but are used to prescribe the future.

Conventions of form – and how they can trick us

As is the case with every genre, all stories share some common elements of form, some “codified conventions about style of presentation, order of presentation, and rhetorical factors” (Dudley-Evans, 1994). So, what makes a “good” story?

For one, all stories have a temporal succession. They have beginnings, middles, and ends. They seem complete. It is important to realize, though, that a story is never a full account of reality: the events it depicts have been selected, ordered, and rearranged for narrative appeal. In other words, stories are simplified representations of reality. Sometimes too simplified.

A story also has tension, with a view of achieving climax and catharsis. Stories are, therefore, emotional. Good stories are immersive. They do not call on us to simply observe; they call on us to suspend disbelief, get involved, evaluate, and develop affinities – in other words, to experience. They have characters in a world (usually fraught with obstacles). Powerful stories have powerful characters that audiences can identify with. For tension to ensue and drive the narrative, a good story must have at least a hero and an antagonist (or, in the absence of the latter, some kind of crisis or threat).

And this is where more trouble looms. People tend to like simple stories, with clear-cut roles for each character. In narratology, these characters are called archetypes. In real life, there is no such thing as 100% immaculate or 100% evil. Which is why reality can be hard to deal with – it is complex, bewildering, and often arbitrary. People yearn for an environment that’s easier to navigate. Explaining the world in a simple, dogmatic fashion can be soothing for a person’s mental wellbeing. And people can get carried away by a story if it seems coherent enough. Unless something jarring happens, we accept the frame, the plot and the characters’ traits as true or credible, and few of us stop to question the foundations, function or purpose of a seductive story.

Take characters, for instance. Framing someone as the good guy creates an expectation in the reader that this character will prevail over others. Framing someone as the bad guy makes the reader want to see that character punished. Our brains find it easier to simulate simplistic representations, which have the added appeal of offering “orientation value”. According to Humanities professor and cognitive scientist Fritz Breithaupt (The Dark Sides of Empathy and The Narrative Brain), empathy is one of those elements of our psyche that can cause us to identify with the characters of a story the way they are described by the author. Empathizing with a perceived victim is an emotional attachment that can go so far as to generate repulsion or hatred for the perceived aggressor. Giving in to unreflecting empathy, therefore, can lead to polarization. But stories are not confined to the fiction shelf in bookstores; they are present everywhere: at home, online, and in the tabloids. And this kind of empathy can have deleterious consequences in real life where, often, attitudes lead to behavior. When we accept something as true and we begin to emotionally identify with it, it influences our thoughts and our conduct. A compelling narrative, like an old habit, can be hard to shake.

Problematic narratives

But it’s not just character roles that create expectations. The same is true for story genres, too. Epics train us to expect peripety and triumph. Love stories train us to expect butterflies and kissing. Conspiracy stories train us to expect revelations: evil interests at work against the clueless masses. According to Breithaupt, conspiracy theories work precisely because they are very adept at pointing out the villain. They identify the emotional need (lack of information, insecurity, sudden change, inferiority complexes, or other unresolved issues to which people aren’t able to find individual solutions) and offer a very simple and seemingly coherent explanation (yet one that is mysterious enough to have been revealed only to a select few). In other words, they bring “clarity”: they tell people what things mean, reinforce it all the time (which validates their followers’ feelings and can become addictive), and even suggest a way out. The explanation seems coherent because it uses the textual structure Problem – Agitate – Solution. This is where the narrative veers into persuasion: it aims to prove a point and convince. With conspiracy theories – as with other types of political discourse – the story eventually becomes hortatory. Some of its features are:

  • the use of “us versus them” rhetoric (where “they” remains vague);
  • the use of emotional appeals, fear-inducing anecdotic “evidence” (statistically irrelevant, out of context, or outdated information), hyperbolic language, verbs that propose, urge, or command;
  • reiteration (repetition);
  • the use of plausible elements and some (usually obscure) figure of authority to bolster veracity; a misleading mixture of facts and fiction;
  • sophisms (clever but spurious reasoning, such as conclusions that don’t logically follow from the arguments, causal linkages that don’t hold water), fallacies, false attributions etc.

The silver lining, also according to Breithaupt, is that – as with every story – even conspiracy theories eventually climax and then need to end. Usually, people will need a sense of closure. The bad news is that toxic stories can always be repurposed, fine-tuned and even changed along the way. Stories in general (whether media stories, “immutable” myths, or gossip among friends) undergo a constant process of change and adaptation. Some of it is legitimate (new information has come to light, the environment has changed and needs to be reflected, we need a new position/decision), some of it is self-serving. It is for us to pay attention and decode.

Another type of problematic narrative is self-victimization. Both individuals and entire nations can fall prey to this type of self-image as it is very tempting: the victim is always presented as morally superior, oppressed, devoid of agency and, as such, free of personal responsibility. It is a common form of exoneration and psychological relief – but one with with very complicated consequences.

Conclusion

In conclusion, narratives can bring people together and create a sense of shared reality, or they can fragment reality and drive a wedge between people, even within the same family, depending on which story a person chooses to pledge allegiance to. Stories are tempting. They appeal to us. Stories are crucial for human cognition, but giving them unconditional credence isn’t. We would probably be well-advised to approach them with a little less emotional involvement and analyze their purposes and their implications more thoroughly – especially when we’d really like them to be true. We need to understand what stories are and how they interact with our brains, so that we do not become hopelessly captive in toxic ones.

In Vogler’s words, stories take us on journeys. It is important where to. “Truth” and “meaning” – now as always – are very flexible categories, but people have been known to persecute and even kill in their name.

Really good stories are meant to raise issues and ask questions – not to answer them univocally. Really good stories offer alternatives.

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