Form function phenomenon

If you want to understand what stories mean to people, prepare yourself for a deluge to come. The problem you face is not finding definitions and explanations of story; it is making sense of the many thousands of definitions and explanations vying for your attention.

In my own exploration of the topic I have come upon a touchstone that has helped me make sense of the deluge. It is three independent, orthogonal dimensions of story as they impact human life and as they are approached and studied by people who consider it their work to do so. I call it form, function, phenomenon, or simply FFP. It may be useful to you as well.

FFP Basics

The form of a story is its internal structure. In the realm of form, a story "works" because it fits our expectations of what stories are like and uses that fit to deliver a message. Within those expectations of what stories are like, many nuances can be used to produce particular effects. The largest distinctions within story form are those of environment, character, plot, and narrative.

The function of a story is its use in our thinking and remembering. Function depends largely on relationships: between characters in the story; between characters and their plans, goals and actions; between the story and other stories; between characters and events in the story and people and events in our lives. In the realm of function, a story “works” when we find it in the right place at the right time, when we learn something useful from it, or when it reminds us of something we need to know. The largest distinctions within story function are those of meaning, understanding, and connection.

The phenomenon of a story is the story of its existence as it moves through time and society. A story’s phenomenon depends largely on context: when and where the story was first told, what effect it had, when and where it was heard and retold in different forms, how it changed over time. In the realm of story phenomenon, a story “works” when it survives through time and impacts the lives of people. The largest distinctions within story phenomenon are those of the story’s origin and development, its current variation and use, and details on individual storytelling events. For each storytelling event, story phenomenon details the interpretation of the story by the storyteller, the events surrounding the storytelling event, and the viewpoints of all participants on what took place.

A simple example

Consider this fable from Aesop:
An ant went to the bank of a river to quench its thirst, and being carried away by the rush of the stream, was on the point of drowning. A dove sitting on a tree overhanging the water plucked a leaf and let it fall into the stream close to her. The ant climbed onto it and floated in safety to the bank. Shortly afterwards a birdcatcher came and stood under the tree, and laid his lime-twigs [trap] for the dove, which sat in the branches. The ant, perceiving his design, stung him in the foot. In pain the birdcatcher threw down the twigs, and the noise made the dove take wing.
That's just the sort of story Aesop would tell, isn't it? The old rascal. It never comes right out and says anything, but we know what it means. That sort of understanding is what people do best. So, we apply the instrument.

We can describe story form in this fable as follows. The physical setting encompasses a river and a tree, in warm weather (no ice on the river), probably in the daytime. The story covers a time frame of perhaps an hour or two. The social setting is remarkable: it includes unrealistically intelligent animals, though the bird-catcher (who behaves as men normally do) does not seem aware of this, to his detriment. The protagonist of the story is the dove; the antagonist is the bird-catcher; the ant functions as a teacher or helper to the dove. Contrasts between characters are important in the story. The ant is helpless against the current but can bite the man. The dove cannot attack its enemy but can fly from danger. The plot begins with an initiating event (the ant is carried away), continues with a protagonist action (the dove saves the ant), encounters a complicating event (the man sets a trap for the dove), and ends with a helper action (the ant saves the dove) that is the story's resolution.

Change in this story appears as two characters who have no relationship form a bond of mutual salvation. The cause of this change is primarily the dove's (the protagonist's) choice to take on a risk to save the ant. The dove literally sticks out its neck to help the ant, and the ant reciprocates by taking another risk, as it could easily be stepped on by the man as it bites him. The story contains internal conflict (should I help or stay where it's safe?), inter-character conflict (the bird-catcher's attempt to trap the dove), and external conflict (the river's dangerous current). The symmetry of the two actions (response and outcome) makes reciprocity a strong theme; thus the controlling idea of the story is the same as that expressed by the proverb "what goes around comes around." Also notice the story's style, with each sentence describing an apparently unconnected event. It never actually says either animal saved the other, or even that they meant to; only that they took certain actions that had certain outcomes. This gives the story a secondary theme of the undercurrents of connection that go on beneath actions and events that seem unconnected.

We can describe story function in this fable as follows. The expectation in such a situation is that people (for this is a story about people) are usually not willing to take risks to help each other, especially if they are strangers, as seems to be the case here. The violation of expectation explored by the story is that sometimes taking a risk for no apparent gain results in greater safety in the long run. The animals in this story share similar goals, to survive, but the man has a different goal, and this difference binds the two animals together in a reciprocal relationship. Also important to this story is the detection of plans: the ant is able to discern both the dove's plan (dropping the leaf) and the man's (setting the lime twigs). This is why the ant is a helper in the story and not a co-protagonist. The dove, unlike the ant, discerns no plans, not even the man's after the ant has bit him (only the noise made the bird take wing, not any dawning awareness of the man's plans). It is critical to the story's function that the protagonist, who risked his (or her) life to help another without promise of return, be unaware of any plans being made. Why? Because that is the lesson of the story: helping without expectation of return is worthwhile. Imagine if the dove had known the man was coming to lay a trap: would its help of the ant constitute help without expectation of return? No; it would be calculating, not taking a leap of faith in unseen reciprocity.

In terms of cognitive play and life-event simulation, the utility of this story lies in considering the relative merits of risk-taking in a world in which intentions and motivations vary and may be difficult to discern. Many folk tales explore related lessons, including some where the hero unselfishly helps others and is rewarded in return, as well as opposing stories where unselfish actions result not in aid but in vulnerability to attack by deceptive antagonists. Little Red Riding Hood and other cautionary tales stand in contrast to stories of reciprocity like this one in a multi-faceted exploration of help, hindrance, trust and deceit.

We can describe story phenomenon in this fable as follows. Aesop may or may not have been an actual person. Some claim he lived in ancient Greece, though it is also possible he is an amalgam of several or even many famed storytellers of the time. Thus it is not clear that anyone named Aesop, or any one person, created Aesop's hundreds of moralistic fables. It is much more likely that they were handed down in oral traditions for many hundreds of years before some number of persons began writing them down. Over the past few thousand years, many sets of "Aesop's" fables have been printed and reprinted many times in many languages, and they have developed variations through these printings. Today they are read to and by children, referred to in conversation, and performed in person, in writing and in film. In the many tellings of this fable the reciprocal relationship between the two main characters remains stable, but details of what each did to save the other may vary, as may the identity and actions of the antagonist. People have told this and others of Aesop's fables to teach children about human social realities; to reference truisms in summarized proverbs; to entertain with witty performances; to pursue arguments in subtle, oblique ways; and for many other social purposes.

In the particular storytelling event in which I read this story, I reflected on times when I have helped others, times when others have helped me, and times when neither of these things has happened. I reflected on times when, like the dove in the story, I helped a struggling ant -- only to find the ant climbing a tree intent on stinging me!

Next I wondered about the people who have told this story over the past several thousand years. I wondered what they thought of it and how its meaning and reception has changed, as it has cast its ripples into the millions of lives into which it has entered. I started reading and listening to versions of the story on the internet. I was surprised to discover a variety of interpretations of the story's essential meaning. Many versions gave its moral as "One good turn deserves another." This interpretation presents the ant as a protagonist who receives an obligation to help the dove. Other versions give the story's moral as "A kindness is never wasted," matching my interpretation. These two interpretations seem to have been waging a war for dominance. One portrays a tit-for-tat world in which people rightly help only those who have helped them, and the other portrays a world of unselfish aid in which people do good for the sake of good and are rewarded because of the natural balance of the cosmos.

Interestingly, many contemporary tellings of this story do away with the surface-level disconnectedness of the older story, instead having the ant and dove form a close bond of friendship for "many days" before the ant is called upon to to help the dove (or even making them friends from the start!). This is again a lesson -- help your friends, never mind strangers -- that favors the tit-for-tat worldview. Does the rise of the friendship-first interpretation say something about isolationism and xenophobia in the modern world?

FFP as a whole

The way I see these three dimensions coming together is in a metaphor about cells. A story is sort of like a cell in our bodies. Internally a cell has all sorts of complex-complicated structure (including possibly other organisms-that-were such as mitochondria living their lives inside of ours). This is like story form. The cell membrane is not simply the border of the cell; it is almost like a brain in its detailed control of transport and communication. This like story function. If we zoom out our microscopes and look at the larger tissues of the organism, we see cells embedded in the contexts of their tiny destinies, some never moving and some traveling vast distances. We see them come together, form things, move apart, die. This is story phenomenon. What is life? It is all of this. What is story? It is all of this.

Form-function-phenomenon is an aspective distinction, not a partitive one. The dimensions do not divide and exclude but interpenetrate and augment. They cannot and should not argue. They should only present and represent. This is wonderful because it's exactly what stories do, and it's why they have such a central place in human life. Stories are among our most aspective elements of thought and conversation. They deserve an aspective framework of understanding, don't you think?

FFP and differences of worldview

You are likely to have encountered some forms of FFP already as you have explored the meaning of story. You are most likely to have encountered people saying that story is defined by only one or two of the three dimensions. This is not because they are blinkered, wrong or malicious; it is because they are people. The reason good people disagree on what makes a story isn't that some are right and some are wrong. It is that they 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. You most likely find one of these three dimensions most "true" when it comes to your own person experiences with stories.

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 dimension  in their work all the time? Not exactly. Different dimensions 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 dimension in the specific contexts in which we are working at any one time.
  1. 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 approach stories in that context, read McKee and Bal.
  2. Creating a 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 approach stories in that context, read Schank and Klein.
  3. 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 approach stories 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 work will determine the particular combination of story dimensions it can most fruitfully use to the best effect. The more we develop our agility at handling various combinations, the stronger our ability to carry out effective story work.

Where FFP came from

A word about how these dimensions arose. The Knowledge Socialization group at IBM Research, of which I was a part, was formed in 1999 to address issues of organizational narrative in ways that would help IBM and its clients and customers (external and internal). In the first few months we spent a lot of time talking about what sorts of projects would be most useful and doing mini-projects to explore possibilities. I was also reading everything I could get my hands on about narrative so that I could become more useful. XML was just beginning to take off at the time, and the group's manager suggested building an XML specification to describe stories for use in organizational story bases. I'm a natural organizer and am never happier than when I have hundreds of similar-but-not-quite-identical things to put into little piles. So I set to work.

How to begin deciding what metadata people might want to collect about stories? The idea of classifying and deconstructing stories is not new. Aristotle proposed three fundamental elements of which all stories are composed. In 1916 Georges Polti proposed that all stories could be classified into thirty-six dramatic situations (including such categories as "The Slaying Of A Kinsman Unrecognized" and "An Enemy Loved"). People generate and exchange metadata about stories every day, in discourse, memory and anticipation. In fact, people telling stories often include explicit metadata ("metanarration") about the story or the storytelling situation to prove that the story is worth listening to—"I’ll never do that again" or "That was an incredible experience." [That last is from the seminal 1967 paper by Labov and Waletzsky, now available online.]

So I came up with this question: What are all the questions anyone could possibly ask about a story? From that I landed on: What are all the questions anyone has ever asked, or recommended asking, about stories? The idea was to arrive at a global list, a narrative Key to All Mythologies if you will, from which one could draw set of questions for particular contexts of use. (The Key to all Mythologies was the lifelong endeavor of James Casaubon in George Eliot's novel Middlemarch, an endeavor that ended badly when he died without having found a suitable successor to take over his work.)

This was my original list of fields to consider, in rough order of the degree of attention paid:  narratology, folklore study (comparative and contextual), professional fiction writing, professional storytelling, case-based reasoning, narrative organizational study, narrative inquiry and analysis, narrative psychology, narrative philosophy, knowledge management, knowledge representation, artificial intelligence, information retrieval, literary theory, journalism.

Having decided on this list of fields, I found out (by asking and by following webs of citation) what were considered the seminal books and papers in each field. And then I looked for instances of metadata—questions, categories, segmentations, classifications, analyses. There were many of these, and many of them overlapped in scope and meaning, both within and between fields. Everything that didn't start out as a question I reframed as a question. I found that looking for story metadata is like breathing: it’s everywhere. Story touches so many fields that finding new pockets of academic and popular literature with something to say about story became nearly a monthly occurrence. The problem was not to find story metadata; the problem was to make sense of the huge mass of it and reduce it to something tractable.


This was all done by hand on sheets of yellow notepaper. After I felt I had reached a feeling of satiation in every field I had intended to cover—this took nearly three months—I stopped writing things down and started cutting things apart. I snipped the sheets of paper up into smaller pieces, usually with one question apiece but sometimes with a few very closely related. Then I played with the slips of paper. I began to assemble a composite sketch of possible metadata through a sort of implicit consensus. I allowed the structure to emerge slowly, continually checking and adjusting to take account of new perspectives. At a few points I reiterated the design by taking apart the whole structure and putting it back together again.

The number of questions topped out around 400, and they formed slowly into three large groupings at the top level of a hierarchy several levels deep: form, function and phenomenon. 

Exploring story work using FFP

I have used FFP many times over the years to make sense of the many explanations, opinions, definitions and arguments to be found about stories and storytelling in human societies. So my advice is, if you want to confront the deluge of information that awaits you when you consider stories, try understanding it in this way.

Here are some fields you may want to explore in your search.
  • primarily story form
    • narratology - Meike Bal's book Narratology is good
    • professional fiction writing
    • professional screenwriting - of course Robert McKee's Story is the authority here
    • professional live storytelling
  • primarily story function
    • narrative in knowledge management
    • scenario planning
    • case-based reasoning
    • knowledge representation / information retrieval
  • primarily story phenomenon
    • folklore study
    • oral history
    • narrative in cultural anthropology
    • narrative community therapy - for example the Dulwich Centre
    • narrative in community activism - for example the Theatre of the Oppressed 
  • mostly story form and function, less so phenomenon
    • literary theory
    • narrative analysis
  • mostly story function and phenomenon, less so story form
    • narrative inquiry (participatory and otherwise)
    • organizational storytelling / business narrative
    • narrative medicine
    • narrative therapy / counseling
    • narrative psychology 
    • narrative journalism 
    • narrative in law - some universities have started programs in this area; see the book Minding the Law
    • narrative policy analysis - see Policy Paradox and other books
    • narrative in foreign policy - see Thinking in Time and other books
Best of luck on your journey! Send me a postcard and tell me what you've seen. I am interested in every traveler's view.