The Narrative and the Story

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.


Stories are powerful ways to engage people, but they are usually a closed system, that is, they have a beginning, middle and end. This is part of a story’s appeal—the reader or viewer expects that whatever dilemmas the protagonist encounters will eventually be resolved physically or psychologically. Stories provide the reader with a sense of hope and completion—even if their own life feels like a tangled mess.

Stories have narrators, but a narrative is different than a story. A single series of events told by narrators with different perspectives makes each rendition of a story feel very different. The narrator’s perspective and motivations, the order in which events are told, and what events are included and excluded from the story shape the narrative and affect how we interpret the characters and events being described.

Narratives can also encompass multiple stories. Multi-story narratives can often be distilled into a single sentence or phrase, such as “The American Dream” or “Black Lives Matter.” Most importantly for our discussion here, multi-story narratives are often open ended—that is, they do not have a final resolution. 

In a story or story-bound narrative, the reader enters the story-world by identifying or empathizing with the characters or situation. However,  multi-story narratives often include an implicit or explicit invitation for the audience to become personally involved—e.g. to participate– in the narrative and to help determine the outcome of a story propelled by that narrative. For example, “Black Lives Matter” is a declaration about racial injustice, but it’s also a call for the listener to participate in social change.

As we’ve discussed in previous posts, narratives can operate at both personal and social/cultural levels. An example of a social narrative is the colonialist narrative that Indigenous peoples were better off being assimilated into the dominant European-derived culture because their native cultures were regarded as inferior. Another example of a social narrative is the American Dream’s promise that in the United States anyone can succeed if they just work hard enough.

Broad cultural narratives can be true, false, or true in some but not all situations, and they always contain a value-laden message designed to drive attitudes and/or behavior. Individual personal narratives include statements that you repeat to yourself to explain behavior and outcomes in multiple situations such as, “I just didn’t work hard enough,” “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” “I should have seen it coming,” or “So it goes.” 

Personal narratives that are generalized from incident to incident also contain prescriptive messages that can be helpful, harmful, or both. And, of course, personal narratives are influenced by social narratives, and personal stories and personal narratives can become part of group narratives and gradually alter broad social narratives.

In between social/cultural “master” narratives and individual personal narratives are what can be called “group” or “local” narratives. Local narratives interpret contemporary events in light of master narratives and encourage individuals to align their personal narratives with group and master narratives. Such alignment can be a powerful force for social change and/or extremist zealotry.

In Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism, Steven Corman of Arizona State University describes how Islamist extremists used narratives to interpret contemporary events as threats in order to enlist local participation. The extremist narrative was designed to entice Afghan civilians into seeing themselves as defenders of Islam against the international forces assisting the Afghan government, although the international forces were in fact there to provide security against terrorists. The Taliban portrayed international forces as modern-day Crusaders bent on subjugating and exploiting Muslims, and portrayed themselves as champions of ordinary Afghans, in order to encourage Afghans to take up the Taliban’s cause. By encouraging Afghan civilians to align their personal narratives with the Taliban master narrative the Taliban hoped to create the means to expel foreign forces and replace the democratic government with a pro-Taliban Islamic Emirate.

The recently-defeated American President Donald Trump has demonstrated a similar ability to lead a significant percentage of Americans to align their personal frustrations and anger with his narrative. Trump’s social narrative contends that those who disagree with him are “elitists” and socialists who are trying to destroy America. He also claims mainstream journalists who question his misleading statements or false claims are spreading “false news.”

In his narrative trope, the President simultaneously casts himself as the victim of those who challenge his view of himself and as the protector of true patriots. The fact that the President’s policies are often less favorable for his supporters than the policies of the Democrats, and that many of his claims are grounded on implausible or demonstrably false statements is a testament to the power that socially embedded narratives have to drive beliefs and belief systems. People of all political persuasions can interpret facts to fit their narratives rather than change their belief systems to accommodate inconsistent facts. When narratives operate independently of facts or when facts are treated as fuel for a narrative agenda rather than used to test its validity, then prejudice, rigidity of thought, and polarization inevitably follow.

None of us are immune to narratives that are nonsensical or overly simplistic, or not suited to the facts of the situation. What are your personal narratives—those slogans that you find yourself repeating aloud or to yourself?  Where did they come from?  Do these catch-phrases serve you?  Insult you? Or both? Only when narratives arise from a genuine open-minded inquiry into events rather than a pre-determined or pre-loaded interpretation of meaning and motive, do we have a chance to enlarge our understanding of humanity. How do you fight narratives that aren’t supported by facts?  We’d love to hear from you.

Where the Story Begins

Written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.


In our last blog, we discussed the role of the ending of a journey story. In this post, we’ll show that where and how a journey story begins can be equally important.

A journey story does not always start at the beginning of the journey. Sometimes, as in Barbara Leckie’s short story, “Kicking the Stone,” the beginning of the journey is revealed later in the story through flashbacks or character narration.

The opening of a story must hook the reader, so many journey stories begin with a moment of conflict or danger. In a hero’s journey story, the first stage occurs in the “ordinary world,” yet the story often open right at the precipice of the call to the adventure. This is particularly true when the “ordinary world” is routine for the character but new and intriguing to the reader. For example, in The Hobbit, the reader or viewer has barely learned what hobbits are when Gandalf arrives to invite Bilbo on an adventure. In the opening of a hero’s journey, the hero is often portrayed as being like everyone else at the beginning of the story—a quiet hobbit smoking a pipe outside his home as he has done many an afternoon.

But there are almost immediately hints that something greater and unusual (and usually dangerous) is about to happen. The reader quickly understands that the hero will not remain ordinary for long.

In a heroine’s journey, the story may begin with the betrayal (which hooks the reader). Alternatively, the heroine may be presented in a world they are expected to belong in, but the heroine is internally or externally at odds  with this world. At the opening of the story the heroine may be at the point of trying new life strategies, and/or nearly ready to leave where they are. For example, the first act of the play, I Want to Go to Jail, opens with the main characters deciding to try a new picketing tactic because they are not satisfied with the results they have achieved thus far in their attempts to convince the country to grant women the right to vote. The fight for female suffrage in America did not begin where the play opens, but playwrights Pam Swing and Elizabeth Dabanka begin the journey of the play at a time when the suffragists are ready to separate from the more feminine tactics they have been using to try to win the vote.

Stories do not have a single “objective” place or moment where they must begin or end. We live in an interconnected world where actions lead to and impact multiple other actions, where every experience and event has multiple causes and consequences extending through time in different directions, involving ramifications we cannot fully see or appreciate. A storyteller’s task is not to tell the definitive story of a person or event, but a story that may increase the listener’s understanding or appreciation of some aspect of another person and/or of the world. The place where the storyteller chooses to begin the story shapes our understanding of the meaning of the narrative.

In the recently re-issued collection of essays on social movements, Hope in the Dark, by writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit, the author challenges us to re-envision where stories—even the stories of our own lives—begin. As the informal storytellers of our own world, we tend to see big, hard-to-miss, events such as the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, or the 2008 economic crash, as concrete moments that “changed everything” and started a new story or era. In Hope in the Dark, Solnit asks us to consider whether the “new era” really began with an explosion, or whether the beginning of this new way of life actually started quietly at an earlier time.

As informal storytellers, we live our history as we make it. We are constantly narrating our lives and our perception of the world to ourselves and those around us. Because of this, we tend to view the “end” or outcome of a story as the situation in which we currently find ourselves. Our current actions will shape the lives of those who come after us, but we can’t clearly look back from the future–we only know how the story “ends” now. We describe our current situation as the result of what has come before. Thus, we shape our narratives by look “backwards” towards “the beginning” and then telling it forward to the present moment.

Our understanding of ourselves and our reality changes if we simply consider that the story might begin somewhere other than where we assumes it does. Too often, history is written by and for the victors to glorify and validate their actions. A dominant person or group will start the story in a place that diminishes the experiences and achievements of “outsiders.” Dominant groups and people structure their narrative, consciously or unconsciously, to reaffirm their power.

Solnit suggests that if you feel trapped by lack of progress or by failure in the present moment, you should look back further for the “beginning” of the story.  “[I]ncremental changes have happened quietly, and many people don’t know they have begun, let alone exploded.” “The powerful would like you to believe [their story] is immutable, inevitable, and invulnerable,” writes Solnit.

“[A]nd lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view…. For a time, people liked to announce that feminism had failed, as though the project of overturning millennia of social arrangements should achieve its final victories in a few decades, or as though it had stopped. Feminism is just starting, and its manifestations matter in rural Himalayan villages, not just first world cities.”

What story might you understand differently by beginning in a new place?