What is a story? What is narrative?

“Good story” means something worth telling that the world wants to hear. Finding this is your lonely task. It begins with talent… But the love of a good story, of terrific characters and a world driven by your passion, courage, and creative gifts is still not enough. Your goal must be a good story well told.

says McKee.

What is a story?  What makes something a story?  It’s a question of personal and professional interest here at Helytimes.  The dictionary gives me this for narrative:

a spoken or written account of connected events; a story.

boldface mine.

The human brain is wired to look for patterns and connections.  Humans think in stories and seem to prefer a story, even a troubling story, to random or unrelated events.  This can trick us as well as bring us wisdom and pleasure.

Nicholas Nassem Taleb discusses this in The Black Swan:

Narrative is a way to compress and store information.

From some investing site or Twitter or something, I came across this paper:

“Cracking the enigma of asset bubbles with narratives,” by Preston Teeter and Jörgen Sandberg in Strategic Organization.  You can download a PDF for free.

Teeter and Sandberg suggest that “mathematical deductivist models and tightly controlled, reductionist experiments” only get you so far in understanding asset bubbles.  What really drives a bubble is the narrative that infects and influences investors.

Clearly, under such circumstances, individuals are not making rational, cool-headed decisions based upon careful and cautious fundamental analysis, nor are their decisions isolated from the communities in which they live or the institutions that govern their lives.  As such, only by incorporating the role of narratives into our research efforts and theoretical constructs will we be able to make substantial progress toward better understanding, predicting, and preventing asset bubbles.

Cool!  But, of course, we need a definition of narrative:

But first, in order to develop a more structured view of how bubbles form, we also need a means of identifying the structural features of the narratives that emerge before, during, and after asset bubbles. The most widely used method of evaluating the structural characteristics of a narrative is that based on Formalist theories (see Fiol, 1989Hartz and Steger, 2010Pentland, 1999Propp, 1958). From a structural point of view, a narrative contains three essential elements: a “narrative subject,” which is in search of or destined for a certain object; a “destinator” or source of the subject’s ideology; and a set of “enabling and impeding forces.” As an example of how to operationalize these elements, consider the following excerpt from another Greenspan (1988) speech:

More adequate capital, risk-based capital, and increased securities powers for bank holding companies would provide a solid beginning for our efforts to ensure financial stability. (p. 11)

OK great.  Let’s get to the source here.  Fiol, Hartz and Steger, and Pentland are all articles about “narrative” in business settings.  Propp is the source here.  Propp is this man:

Vladimir Propp, a Soviet analyst of folktales, and his book is this:

I’ve now examined this book, and find it mostly incomprehensible:

Propp’s 31 functions (summarized here on Wikipedia) are pretty interesting.  How a Soviet theorist would feel about his work on Russian folktales being used by Australian economists to assess asset bubbles in capitalist markets is a fun question.  Maybe he’d be horrified, maybe he’d be delighted.  Perhaps he’d file it under Function 6:

TRICKERY: The villain attempts to deceive the victim to acquire something valuable. They press further, aiming to con the protagonists and earn their trust. Sometimes the villain make little or no deception and instead ransoms one valuable thing for another.

There’s some connection here to Dan Harmon’s story circles.

But when it comes to the definition of what makes a story go, I like the blunter version, expressed by David Mamet in this legendary memo to the writers of The Unit::

QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, *ACUTE* GOAL.

SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES *OF EVERY SCENE* THESE THREE QUESTIONS.

1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?

Cracking the enigma of narrative is a fun project.

ps don’t talk to me about Aristotle unless you’ve REALLY read The Poetics. 



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