Narrative, Stories, and the Gaps That Define Us

For more than 20 years, “narrative” has been used to describe the story people are trying to tell. That’s wrong, and it’s the primary culprit in the deep differences in society today. We’re looking at the world through many lenses, not one or two, because technology has given people a much broader view of the lives around them. But traditional narrative strategy often seeks to reduce everything to binary choices: “This is the way the world is. Accept it or get out.”

We can change that. By recognizing that our narratives must adapt through negotiation with our audience, we can create informed consensus. The modern dream of co-design of products and services, for instance, is one of blending narratives until the goals of the customer and company are aligned. And by recognizing conflicting narratives, humans can also learn to live together despite their differences. That’s why I helped start the Digital Narrative Alliance, to explore how narratives develop and grow, as well as how they can be destroyed by poor choices that ignore the audience’s perceived reality.

Narratives cannot easily be imposed on actively engaged people, instead they must adopt a narrative or moderate their own expectations, assumptions, and values to accept a narrative offered in an ad, a social posting, a novel, a movie, or a mission statement, to name just a few sources of daily narratives that compete for our acceptance. Without narrative fidelity, the simple agreement of narratives between teller and hearer, a story falls flat. People won’t believe it because it doesn’t fit with their expectations. Today’s riven Western political debates is the result of people talking at and past one another instead of building shared narratives.

Pepsi’s ill-begotten Kendall Jenner-resolves-the-race-issue ad, which drew resounding criticism and was retracted within hours, is an example of narrative infidelity: Celebrities aren’t the universal solvent, nor is Pepsi. The ad offended the narratives of Black Lives Matter, Millennials who see themselves as driven by values instead of stuff, and virtually everyone who doesn’t want to be a Jenner-Kardashian. It would also be a mistake to think no one wants to be Jenner-Kardashian famous, but their goals and values are illusory in the same way an auto mechanic who dreams of winning the Nobel Prize for physics but doesn’t want to study mathematics to do it. Narratives can actively deceive, too.

“Fake news,” a phrase that should live in quotes forever, seeks to mislead actively. It is in no way news. It is propaganda disguised as news that seeks to overwhelm the audience with a particular political, economic, and social agenda. “Fake news” doesn’t give a damn about your narrative, it seeks to displace it.

Stories relate events. Several stories contribute to a narrative, but no story stands alone. They invoke history, they rely on common knowledge, they add detail, but they do not establish a narrative that will last, with notable exceptions, based on one story. Narratives modulate that information and result in different interpretations of events. Most organizations, including many news organizations, ignore differing narratives when relating information. Instead, they talk at the world without making any connections with their audience. They increase the distance between themselves and potential supporters with their interpretation of events. The laziest storyteller hopes to convert the existing believers instead of expanding their narrative’s reach.

Narratives, which explain how and why the world works, are built by individuals and blended with narratives in the world to create social connections. Narratives, when shared, help people come to terms with differing perceptions of meaning. Narratives can be subtle or blunt. Adults who grew up being the cowboy in “Cowboys and Indians” have a very different narrative about who the good guys are than Native American adults. They share the same places, but have very different narratives about how each arrived there. Stories can break down some of those barriers by showing both communities the values they share. Willfully indifferent narratives, which abound in the United States and Europe today, can create armed camps.

There are three successful new approaches to using narrative to forge new coalitions, and we will certainly identify more over time.

1.) Narrative Interventions. Louie Psihoyos, a photographer, filmmaker and diver was appalled by stories of a Japanese cove where the fishing fleet slaughtered dolphins each year. An open secret ignored by everyone, Psihoyos and his collaborator used underwater cameras to record the annual Taiji cove dolphin slaughter. They released The Cove, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2009, igniting a global response against Japanese fishing practices. The public, in response to “dolphin-friendly” labeling on tuna, had come to believe conditions had improved, but Psihoyos blew up that established narrative with simple, horrible facts. Great stories can achieve this impact, but they don’t sustain a movement without a continuing flow of stories. Psihoyos has continued his work, adding Racing Extinction in 2015 and growing his network of collaborators through the Oceanic Preservation Society.

2.) Narrative by example. John Dewey, the American pragmatist and educational activist, argued that intelligent educated citizens can change the world by deciding together to make the change and starting to live as though it has been accomplished. Dewey’s narrative is one of engaged action. His work is being revived by Ann Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown, who explore Dewey’s approach to productive inquiry in Pragmatic Imagination, the prequel to their five-volume re-imagining of design in the digital era.

Modern narrative can be augmented by computation. It can become many different forms of media in many channels, as well as blending multiple stories to establish a nuanced view of events about which the audience can decide. Dewey’s inquiries accomplished something similar before computation, demanding comprehensive debate and discussion to arrive at its conclusions: “Deliberation is a dramatic rehearsal (in one’s imagination) of various competing possible lines of action… (It) is an experiment in finding out what the various lines of possible action are really like,” Dewey wrote in Human Nature and Conduct.

3.) Persistent Narrative. A double-edged sword, the persistent narrative seeks to outlast the competition with repeated and varying stories that reinforce the underlying values and assumptions of the audience. “Fake news” is the embodiment of this trend, which has taken hold in many corners of life because of the overwhelming volume of information available today. “Bubble” theories, in which people live in media echo chambers that reinforce even the most outlandish perspectives, describe the downside.

But there is a much greater opportunity for persistent narratives: They can meld many different kinds of stories into a coherent and complete picture of the world people can support enthusiastically.

Aaron Loeb, President of Studios and Live Services at Kabam!, a game development studio, has bridged experimental theater and game play to build “lore” that supports imaginary worlds filled with superheroes and to confront theater audiences’ conflicted relationship with technology as a playwright. Games, along with multi-volume book series, such as the Harry Potter books and The Lord of the Rings, are built on shared lore that backfills the story, provides the myths that rein in the world, and establish character motivations the gameplay does not have the capacity to cover.

Movie and television series are other artistic examples of persistent narrative. Cosplayers, Trekkies, and Americans (Republicans or Democrats) all have their lore that explains their decisions. The narrative maker can create worlds by sheer force, detailing in an engaging and relevant tales of George Washington’s honesty or the fall of Sauron, creating a sustaining myth that binds communities.

These three approaches to narrative work separately, like tools in the hands of a skilled artisan, and they can be combined in various ways to plot and pace the evolution of a community’s expectations and assumptions.

Persistent narratives have accrued over centuries. The earliest examples are epic poems that were shared verbally for centuries before they were committed to writing.

The poets known collectively as “Homer” built The Illiad and The Odyssey on the demands of their small fireside audiences, who must have demanded more Achilles and less Priam, because Achilles was an action hero. The resulting written stories captured everything the Homers may have said, but publishing erased the notion that some parts of these stories were more popular than others.  They also survive translations, adaptations, and reinterpretations. This is why it is essential that narrative makers recognize the give and take with their audiences that build global or local legends. Stories must change to win their audiences — new characters work their way in where they didn’t exist in early versions, and some, like Jar-Jar Binks, go the way of the dodo bird beneath the fire of Dutch arquebuses. Jar-Jar deserved it, the dodos didn’t.

Ultimately, narratives are stories that change. They expand, contract, reconfigure, and evolve. They jump languages and media. They are living communities that people genuinely engage with passion. Whether you are a marketer with a product to sell, a business leader building a mission that will endure, a filmmaker or poet or blogger seeking an audience, or the citizen thinking of launching a movement, narrative is the tool you need to understand.

Louie Psihoyos, Ann Pendleton-Jullian, and Aaron Loeb will be speaking at Narrative Summit 3: Stories That Change on June 20, 2017 at the UCSF Mission Bay Conference Center. Join us to learn: How stories can conflict with mission and goals; How to use stories to align mission and goals; To use stories to engage internally and externally; To use stories and narratives to develop co-designed products, services, and futures, based on proven film and marketing strategies represented by our speakers. Register today, seating is limited!

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