Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Stories of definition

A few weeks ago I realized a mistake I had been making and corrected it. You may be interested to hear about both the mistake and the correction.

If you have followed Kathy Hansen's wonderful series of interviews with people who work in the story area, you will have noticed the wildly varying answers to her question about what makes a story a story. I used to read some of these and get ... well, not upset, but perhaps self-righteous, or behaving like what my mother would call (in her gifted way of putting just the right words in the right place) "a little snot." As I read more and more of these definitions, I noticed that I would get predictably upset when people defined stories in either of two ways. The first group would say a story was characters acting in time and space in an arc of plot events and blah blah blah Hollywood blah blah. The other group would say a story was people in communities sharing their lives and rending their hearts and blah blah blah therapy blah blah.

My superior definition of story has always been this, as I wrote in my book:
The very simplest definition of a story is: a recounting of events where you wonder what is going to happen, and then you find out. In order for you to wonder what is going to happen there has to be a tension between two or more possibilities (it's why there needs to be a comma in that first sentence). Aristotle called it potentiality, development and result -- meaning, something could happen, something does happen, and what happens means something. There can be other recountings of events that are not stories -- for example, lists of things that happened on different dates, or places you stopped on your way to the coast -- but if there is no uncertainty there is no story. Uncertainty is the reason stories draw us in and engage us, because they tap into problem-solving instincts that have evolved over millions of years.
So there you go. That was the one right way to look at stories, and all other ways were wrong. Aristotle and I knew what we were talking about, and all the duffers out there didn't.

Then one day about a month ago I was asked for the millionth time during an interview: "What is a story?" As I prepared to give my practiced and perfectly correct response I suddenly realized I was completely wrong. Or rather, wrongly complete. And all of those interviews (thanks Kathy) fell perfectly into a story I had never understood until that moment.

Let me explain. My biggest gift in my own story work, other than the "we are all swimming in stories already" moment, was discovering that there are three fundamental dimensions or aspects of story, as follows (and excuse me for repeating this again and again):
Story form is the internal structure of a story: things like setting, characters, plot and point. A good story uses effective narrative form to deliver a message well. 
Story function is its utility to our thinking and learning: things like meaning, understanding and connection. A good story helps us learn what we need to learn, find out what we need to know, or remember what we need to remember. 
Story phenomenon is the story of the story: things that describe context, like where and when and why a story was told, who heard it, how it can and will be retold, and so on. A good story lives on because it sustains the health of the community.
The reason good people disagree on what a story is, contrary to my precious self-regard, isn't that some are right and some are wrong. It is that we are looking at different parts of the elephant.

Everyone gravitates to one or two of these dimensions of story more strongly than the others, and that gravitation colors the way they think about stories and what they think makes a story a story. I was trained in ethology, so I think about cognition (and mimicry and trickery and riots and things like that) a lot, so I gravitate to a definition based on story function. I have paid some attention to the other dimensions, and particularly like story phenomenon, but I still gravitate to what I know best. Other people come at story from other backgrounds and personalities, so they experience different things, so story takes on different shapes to them.

What I am saying is that your definition of story is a story about you and your life. This means that no definition of story can be truly complete without considering all of these dimensions in the same way that no story of humanity can be complete without including the story of every single human being.

Pluralistic nonsense? A story is everything, thus nothing? I have to accept an outpouring of emotion as a story even if nothing happens in it? The touchy-feely folks have to accept a surprising chain of events as a story even if nobody feels anything as a result? Not exactly. We don't need a melting pot of story definition, just some respect for multiple perspectives and maybe some interfaith dialogue. If you live and breathe cognitive science, read Theatre of the Oppressed. If you dream in community therapy, pick up a book on screenwriting. If you design perfect characters, read up on expert systems or indigenous knowledge. Traveling broadens the mind.

What does this mean in practice? Should everybody use every story definition in their work all the time? Not exactly. Different definitions of story have different practical utility in different contexts. That's a good thing. While we should all practice moving outside the story dimension we know best, it is not always the best course of action to include every story definition in the specific contexts in which we are working at any one time.

Reaching an audience? Sending a message? If your stories do not have strong arcs of story events and characters in conflict, they will not prove memorable or motivating. If you want to know what a story is and isn't in that context, read McKee and Bal.

Creating an narrative knowledge management system? Learning from your mistakes? If your stories do not present dilemmas, discoveries, surprises and solutions, they will not increase your understanding. If you want to know what a story is and isn't in that context, read Schank and Klein.

Bringing together a community? Writing to your grandchildren? If your stories do not resonate and connect in context, they will not achieve a lasting positive impact. If you want to know what a story is and isn't in that context, read Boal and Bauman.

And all combinations thereof and so forth and so on. The particular combination of goals in any story project will determine the particular combination of story definitions it can most fruitfully use to the best effect. The more we develop our agility at handling various combinations, the stronger our ability to create effective story projects. I have been as much at fault as anyone else in assuming that my strongest way of defining story was the only way and limiting my ability to build great story projects as a result; but I now see my way to a better place.

So, I'm thinking the next time somebody asks me, "What is a story?" I'm going to say, "What do you want to do?"


Mika Latokartano said...

An interesting blog entry, as always.

Prompted by Dave Snowden's tweet about this blog entry of yours, and by Shawn Callahan & Anecdote's Story Test (, I also paused to think what a story really is, what kind of elements is a story made of. It was easy to come up with the usual suspects:

Characters, context, a conflict, a turning point, an epihany, and change and/or growth.

I'm sure there are other definitions, probably more academically valid. But the more I thought about the definition of a story, the more I began to question the real need to even try and find one.

Most definitions seem to disregard one element of what a story is, that I feel is the most important one; the recipient. The meaning of a story is not defined by the one telling, writing or otherwise sharing it, but by the person who is reading or listening to it.

I think you're reflecting this when you say: "[...] your definition of story is a story about you and your life."

"What is a story" is a question that seems to defy an answer. It's almost Nietzschean, the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy, trying to find a balance between the ordered Apollonian definition, and the chaotic Dionysian personal experience of a story.

Stories are always personal, so I'm willing to side with the Dionysian interpretation of what a story is. They can be personal to the story creator, the story teller, but they're also personal to the recipient. There is no place in that relation for a proxy or an interpreter, saying what the story teller meant, what you should get out of the story, and how you should feel about it.

"What is a story?", ultimately, appears to be a question for dialectic discussion. I suppose that's why it's worthwhile to think about it.

John Caddell said...

Hi, Cynthia,

What a great and useful post. This has helped me understand, for example, why in trolling for stories for the Mistake Bank I have been drawn to some and have rejected others. The rejected ones, by and large, are not instructive. When things don't go our way, we can deal with them like Tom Chaney in "True Grit" and say, "Everything is against me!" or we can look back and see what we could do differently next time.

We all feel like Tom Chaney sometimes, but those stories aren't very useful. On the other hand I can imagine if someone like Tom Chaney was my uncle, the "everything is against me" stories would be retold by the bushelful.

regards, John

Cynthia Kurtz said...

Mika, thanks for the comment! I think there IS a real need to find definitions of story, but it is inseperable from the real need to find our own stories. When you said "what kind of elements is a story made of" you nodded your head towards story form and function. When you said "Characters, context, a conflict, a turning point, an epihany, and change and/or growth" that was primarily story form with a bit of function thrown in. And when you said "Stories are always personal" that was story phenomenon. (If you were thinking ONLY of story form, you might have said there IS a useful place for a proxy or interpreter; it's how Hollywood movies are made.) So if I was drawing a "portrait" of your story of story definition I'd peg you at medium form, low function and high phenomenon. At the moment. I'd be the last to set up a Myers-Briggs of story definition. I like MB as a tool but not as a cage.

What I'd love to see is some sort of sensemaking tool that does a whole bunch of things related to story definition.

- It could help us improve our self-awareness by giving us opportunities to tell ourselves our own stories of definition. Is this a story? Why did you say that? Ah, so that means you were thinking mainly of story in THIS way. Now is THIS a story? Why did you say THAT? And so on. And we end up with a three-dimensional portrait of how we are defining story right now.

- It could help us improve our ability to define stories from unfamiliar perspectives. Like, we might go through the exercise with the goal of defining story only as function and see how well we can do. I'd love to strengthen my weak points in that way.

- It could help us decide what definitions of story we need for a particular context, like building a KM system or running a community workshop. What boundaries will work best here?

- It could help us figure out how another group of people is defining story so we can understand them better. Say I've asked people to tell me two stories and two opinions. Then I look at them all against three possible definitions of story. By the standards of story form, how many were stories? By function? By phenomenon?

- It could help us translate between definitions of story. Say I tell you a story, and you say "THAT's not a story!" Instead of my saying "yes it is" I can say - but you see I am looking at the phenomenon aspect and you are looking at the form aspect, see here? And then we can stop arguing and do something useful together.

When you mention academic validity I have to ask: in which department? Every separate body of literature looks primarily at one or two dimensions of story and defines it based on that. I have yet to find any field that covers all three dimensions equally in its stories of definition. (Happy to be proven wrong - anybody?)


Cynthia Kurtz said...

John, I have not seen the new "True Grit" yet but the old version was one of my childhood favorites. The best part is, they are in the midst of a gun battle, men are screaming and falling all around, and John Wayne gets shot and shouts, "Dang! Third time in that arm!" I have always used that statement as a sort of anti-whining touchstone (you can sometimes hear me say it under my breath). Weirdly I cannot find that quote in the movie script. I wonder if it was another John Wayne movie. I was sure it was True Grit. How disappointing. Isn't it strange how we find in stories what we need and patch them in?

Let's pretend we have our magical story definition self-awareness machine right now and can use it on what you said. Input: "The rejected ones, by and large, are not instructive", "those stories aren't very useful", "would be retold by the bushelful". Click whirr ... ping: High function for specified contextual utility, medium (somewhat begrudging if you ask me) phenomenon. (Maybe the machine should have better manners.)

What I find so happy about this discovery is that it changes my view from one of discord to one of centrality. Yes it explains why people argue about what makes a story a story, but that's the boring part. It also shows just how deeply story is embedded in human life. It's like asking what makes a human being. If we all had the same answer to that question we wouldn't be human beings. So the fact that we define story in many ways means we are what Fisher said we were, Homo narrans. VERY cool.

By the way, anybody who is reading this, Shawn Callahan and I are hosting the 11 May conference call in the World-Wide Story Work group about ways to connect across the telling-listening boundary of story work. This topic is a great one to explore then!


Kate Hammer said...

Thank you, Cynthia. The triad is very useful as is the emphasis on tension in your starting definition.

My work with stories is about influence, and I share your impatience with definitions of story that weigh heavily on the typology of story form and forget function, or emphasise function at the expense of articulating how stories that work to eg build connection are actually constructed. So I read with joy your triad and look forward to referring to it not simply as a way of making stories-in-business clearer to people, but also as a way of interrogating our own practice as we find, form and share stories.

Yours is a blog on my blogroll but it was Dave Snowden's tweet that brought me directly to this post.

Cynthia Kurtz said...

Hey Kate, your comment got me so excited about "the triad" that I couldn't stop myself writing a blog post about it and its story. Thanks very much, unless it's a terrible post in which case it's her fault folks.

I'm working on not allowing myself to be impatient with definitions of story I don't like, and transferring that impatience to statements that there is only one reasonable definition of story. :) Which I am no longer going to make, else I raise my own ire.

Thanks for the blogroll thing! I need one of those.


Northstar Storytelling League said...

Excellent post,Cynthia. Not everyone can explore controversy while writing with precision and clarity... which is the difference between thought provoking and just provoking. I posted this for discussion on my storytelling group's Facebook page,, and will retweet it as well on my own feed @prnancarrow. Traveling does, indeed, broaden the mind. Thank you. Paula Reed Nancarrow

Tracy Lunquist said...

I love it when a single short blog post expands my thinking on a subject by an order of magnitude, and that's what this did for me today. Thanks!

Cynthia Kurtz said...

Paula: I love the way you said that about the difference between thought provoking and just provoking. Well put. Would like to hear what comes out of your discussion!

Tracy: Short! Did you hear that everybody, she called it a SHORT blog post! (I usually write embarassingly long ones ...) But seriously I'm glad this insight can be helpful to other people as well as myself.

Thanks to you both for your encouraging comments. I appreciate your taking the time to write. Praise revs the engine of writing but only encouragement makes it go :)


Cynthia Kurtz said...

A note to readers: Most of the contents of this post have been copied over to the "Form function phenomenon" page under the "Useful Things" heading.