Monday, March 4, 2013

Narrative, Story and Plot and Why We tell Stories

Trying to describes what narrative is and what it isn't is complex. It's Oxford dictionary definition is 'an account that presents connected events'. This implies a linear timeline of a series of happenings and that those occurrences are connected to each other. Author Jake Arnott believes narrative is a powerful force. In BBC Radio 4's 'Something Understood' (broadcast on 5 August 2012) he suggests that the instinct to create stories is innate within people and that it is essential to our understanding of both the world and our own life. Narrative enables a person to join everything together and make sense of the series of perhaps random and unconnected events that make up the life experience.

EM Forster furthers this in Aspects of the Novel and explains the distinction between story and plot. “We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. The point about causality is key here.

“The king died, and then the queen died” is a story. 

“The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. 

Or again: “The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.” This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time sequence, it moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow. 

However, Arnott takes issue with the notion of causality and argues that Forster's insistence that story, or more accurately plot, is 'mere' causality is wrong. He believes that story occurs without anything having had to happen and that it's not just an order of events. He cites Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot' as a play in which nothing much happens, and yet it resonates with a powerful sense of story.

Arnott proposes something that I haven't come across before - this idea that story or narrative can be independent of a series of events. In the programme he describes how a piece of music or works of art can have a narrative and that narrative may just be hinted at rather than formed.

I like this idea of narrative that isn't obvious and it's interesting to think about how narrative can exist without anything having happened.

Related to this, on a vicarious internet search, I found this lovely YouTube video of poet Phil Kaye. In it he talks about the first type of stories that he loved - doing impressions. He calls them 'immediate stories' that happen through changing the tone, pitch and timbre of your voice to give an entire context of belief or feeling. It occurred to me that this is not dissimilar to Arnott's idea of independent narrative.

Kaye goes on to explain his thoughts on the important question of why we tell stories. He describes the often simple intentions behind telling stories - to entertain or make some laugh, to warn, to scare or explain. This last one, to explain, is quite close to what I am researching which is the the telling of stories  in teaching.
Kaye suggests that we tell stories to feel alive and we do this because we like to believe our lives are a linear and predicatable set of events, which they can appear to be if looked at retrospectively. However, surrounding the narrative of events are a whole series of what-might-have-beens if, at any point, a different decision had been taken. People like to reasure themselves that they can plot out their lives and perhaps that they can control that causality mentioned earlier but there is whole area of chance surrounding the events that happen to us that makes us feel vulnerable. It is this vulnerability that is the impetus for storytelling, so we can connect with others and feel alive by marking an event.
So Kaye concludes that we tell stories to feel alive by making context of our past (events) whilst recognising the vulnerability that exists surrounding the narrative.

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