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14: Story

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    Story refers to the fundamental structuring principle underlying a narrative account or visual representation of events, ideas, or experience. Although the word “story” is often associated with fiction, writers and other types of content creators use other forms of storytelling in everything they do. In literature, history, marketing, advertising, politics, science, social science, news reporting, cultural commentary, and the arts, story organizes human experience, thought, knowledge, and communication in every field and sphere of human endeavor.  

    Whenever you entertain friends with an account of your latest adventure or explain during an argument why you hold certain positions, you are using story. When you write an essay about a novel, you tell a story about a story. When you explain why a historical event occurred, you tell a story about the past. When we try to understand animal behavior or anatomy, we tell stories about evolution and natural selection. We even understand human life and self  in terms of story: biographies and autobiographies often start with birth, narrate events chronologically, and end with death or a person’s posthumous legacy. Psychotherapy involves the telling of self-defining story to a clinician trained to hear and help interpret the story. Stories often have a beginning, middle, and end, but story forms also vary across cultures, and they can take a variety of shapes. Not all stories unfold in linear form chronologically, and storytellers frequently disrupt familiar story structures on purpose, to achieve desired rhetorical effects.    


    History of Story 

    The world’s oldest surviving human stories are visual representations of hunting, battle, worship, and birth. Cave drawings in France, Spain, Indonesia, Australia, Borneo, Russia, Romania, and other places that date back at least 30,000 years depict visual stories such as these with their imagery of humans and animals. Imagery was later used for storytelling in pictographs, one of the world’s earliest writing systems, which used drawings to represent symbols and sounds. Storytelling through image is still prevalent today in the huge variety of media now available to tell a story, whether used exclusively or in combination with other modes of communication.  

    As humans developed the ability to communicate with one another through language, the oral tradition joined visual representation as a mode of storytelling. It has been theorized that stories have been a fundamental part of human communication since the development of language, which led to oral traditions that could pass stories through word of mouth from one generation to another. Oral storytelling often used gestures prominently to heighten and emphasize different points throughout a story, and, as it developed, oral storytelling came to take many forms, including epic poems, songs, rhymes, chants, and more. Sometimes the storytelling was complemented with music or dance to further connect with the audience for the story.   

    Again, oral storytelling is a tradition that crosses cultures. The Griots of Africa are celebrated and respected for their important roles as storytellers and poets who also, through their storytelling, served as historians and genealogists. Native Americans, from the Seminole to the Inuit, used oral storytelling to impart lessons, such as the Choctaw animal fables, or to pass along creation myths or nature stories that honor life. The Skald (Norway and Iceland), Kathaker and Dastango (India), Ashik (Turkey, Iran, Armenia, and other places), and Asian storytellers from China, Korea, Japan, and other areas occupy similar roles of cultural importance. The oral tradition of storytelling encompassed a broad range of story types, including myths, histories, fables, legends, stories of worship, morality tales, proverbs, instructions, and more, whether the story was told by one person, several, or in performance like theater or puppetry.  

    Evidence of written symbols dates back about 9,000 years, with stories transcribed on paper, stone, or clay in a transition from pictures to text. Early stories from the oral tradition, like The Iliad, The Tale of Gilgamesh, and the fables of Aesop, are among the oldest oral stories to be written down. As more populations became literate, printing was introduced to share stories more broadly. Milestones in printing include a mechanism developed by Chinese monks that set ink to paper using wooden blocks, followed in the 15th century by the invention of the moveable-type printing press by Johannes Guttenberg. The variety of different types of stories continued through these advancements.  

    With such a long and rich history of storytelling, audiences can identify tropes, which are commonly used structures, themes, devices, character types, or other conventions, for thinking about story and narrative. This helps an audience engage with a story, even if they don’t consciously realize they are following a pattern. Just as importantly, it allows those who are writing or telling a story to find an organizing construct for it.  

    One example of this is Freytag’s Pyramid. Developed by German novelist, critic, and lecturer Gustav Freytag in the 19th century, and expanding upon earlier story analyses in Aristotle’s Poetics and “Ars Poetica” by Horace, the pyramid is a basic storytelling structure that progresses through an introduction or exposition, a rise in action, the climax, falling action, and a resolution (originally described as “catastrophe,” but now largely understood as a conclusion or denouement) (Freytag and MacEwan 106-07).  

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Freytag's Pyramid. (Copyright; Sinjora Foster via Wikimedia Commons)

    Other examples of the organizational principles of a story include The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, developed by Georges Polti in 1895, and the reference book Masterplots (Magill & Kohler). Understanding common storytelling structures and tropes helps people tell stories, whether they are looking to emulate what they have heard or read or to subvert common forms. 

    The technology of the last 200 years has continued to influence the use and enjoyment of stories as well as the audience a story can reach. In addition to pictures, oral telling, print, and other traditional forms of storytelling such as music and dance, storytelling media now also includes photography, cinema, radio, television, news reporting (the story of how something happened), and advertising (the story of why one should buy something), as well as digital, mobile, and social media. This allows storytellers, be they an individual or an organization, the opportunity to tell a story to a wider audience than ever before.   

    Through all of these changes, the draw of storytelling has remained largely the same. Whether fiction or nonfiction, we have and continue to use stories to organize and understand the world we occupy together, to share information, to teach, to praise, to influence, to worship, to entertain, and to develop empathy with others.  


    Story Today 

    Culture-makers of all kinds recognize that stories structure communication in every human enterprise. Marketing professionals now work to help entrepreneurs and corporations “tell the story” of their brand. Web designers work to help companies “tell their story” visually. Our social media accounts give us opportunities to post to our “feed” or to our “story.” Social media companies encourage us to share Instagram and TikTok stories because story elicits engagement and conveys a sense of meaning and coherence. Savvy professionals curate their online profiles meticulously to “control the narrative” available about them on the internet. Medical schools now include training for physicians in the art of storytelling both because physicians listen to patient stories in order to make diagnoses and they must communicate information to patients effectively. Story is not only a structure of communication, however. 

    Story structures thought and culture as well. The French theorist Francois Lyotard describes knowledge and culture as a succession of “master narratives” (xix). A “master narrative” is a big explanatory idea like class struggle drives history (Karl Marx) or unconscious drives propel human behavior (Sigmund Freud) or people misbehave because original sin destroyed the perfect world God created (St. Augustine and the Catholic Church). Lyotard describes late twentieth century culture in Europe and the United States as a time characterized by the questioning of master narratives. We could also describe the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century in terms of important new narratives being developed: gender is performance rather than essence (Judith Butler); racism structures the American legal system (Kimberle Crenshaw); decolonization requires national sovereignty and the return of land to Native Americans (Elizabeth Cook-Lynn).  

    Stories structure culture even when people are not aware that story is operating. A story dominating white American middle-class culture in the 1950s was summarized in the title of a popular television show: Father Knows Best. Many of the most significant advances in culture occur when a thinker manages to identify a story that structures culture without a majority of people in the culture recognizing it. David Mura’s book The Stories Whiteness Tells Itself: Racial Myths and Our American Narratives  identifies the story patterns that together construct American white supremacy. Because story is critical to politics and national identity, political figures fight over how history gets narrated. 

    In 2019, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times Magazine  launched the “1619 Project,” a collaborative initiative developed to explore the role of enslavement in American history. Through a series of articles and essays, Hannah-Jones and her collaborators are building what Hannah-Jones calls “A New Origin Story,” by which she means a new story about the origin of the United States. The United States did not originate in 1776 with the creation of the constitution, the 1619 Project suggests: the United States began in 1619, with the arrival of the first Africans in North America. Of course, Native Americans and Native Studies scholars would start the origin story of the United States earlier than 1619. Every story gets told from a particular perspective, whether that story is pure fiction or an attempt to organize a collection of events, facts, or information. Since the launch of the project, Hannah-Jones and her collaborators have expanded their means of storytelling to a multimodal approach, including photo essays, a multi-episode podcast, a children’s picture book, and, eventually, a Hulu documentary series. The power of this story has led to attempts to ban the 1619 Project from public school education in a number of states because it changes a dominant, accepted narrative (Schwartz). 

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Nikole Hannah Jones. (Copyright; Alice Vergueiro/Abraji via Openverse)

    Cultivating awareness of narrative gives us power. When we can identify the stories that structure our communities, our cultures, our worldviews, and our very selves, we strengthen our powers of analysis and expression. Regardless of what you are composing, what form your composition will take, and in what field you are communicating, your powers of communication will benefit from getting clear about your own perspective, and about the story you want to tell.  


    Broadening the Concept 

    The uses of story are broad. Beyond entertainment, story can be used to document, explain, or advocate. 

    If you’re in the movie-making industry (or angling to get into it), you know that movies start with a storyboard–a series of panels that lay out the components of a story from start to finish. The storyboard establishes a pattern of development from beginning to middle to end and makes sure that the story stays on track. Stories do change and develop as people tell them, in which case, a creator would change the storyline to reflect unexpected developments in the creative process. The term storyline refers to the plot or sequence of events, like a roadmap for the story.  

    Even documentary makers think of themselves as storytellers. Jeff Spitz, a documentary filmmaker, began a film entitled The Return of Navajo Boy by telling a story about the effects of uranium mining on the Navajo peoples who live near and work in the uranium mine. The story about uranium mining was intertwined with a story about how tourism and Hollywood cinema portray Navajo people. Halfway through the making of the documentary, a newspaper story about the filmmaking project caught the attention of a man who had been removed from his family as a child by Christian missionaries and placed for adoption by a Christian family. The man, named John Wayne by the movie star when that star visited the boy’s Monument Valley village during the filming of The Searchers, had been searching for his biological family without success. When he read the newspaper story that featured his relatives, he realized that they were his family, and contacted the filmmakers. Spitz’s film then became a story about the reunification of a family. Stories change and develop in the telling. Following this process leads to rich, compelling storylines.   

    Science also uses narrative. Near Eastern oral storytellers used to make observations about the natural world by telling poetic stories based on what they observed. According to the Hebrew creation story narrated in Genesis, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…” The pre-Socratic philosopher Thales asserted that the world began with an element, rather than a divine being; Thales and his fellow pre-Socratic philosophers imagined that the world began with a substance they called arche, an “original substance.” After the emergence of the scientific method during the eighteenth century, scientists in Europe and the United States began using experimentation, mathematics, and the systematic collection of data to make and test observations about the natural word, but they continued to use narrative as a strategy for explaining their findings. Currently, most educated people in the United States and Europe would say thatthe universe began with a Big Bang that dispersed all matter and triggered an expansion that continues. Scientific knowledge changes as researchers gather data and produce narratives that interpret that data and describe phenomena with ever-increasing precision.   

    Story can also be used to advocate. For its Cuentos: Stories of Immigrants series ( Stories of Immigrants series [], The National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago interviewed immigrants of different nationalities so that they could tell their stories in their own voices. The goals of the project included helping viewers better understand why people immigrate and what that experience is like, as well as highlighting the role of art in bridging cross-cultural dialogue. In videos that open with music and text, immigrants tell their own stories to the camera, some in English and some in Spanish with English subtitles.  


    Story and Other Concepts 

    The kind of story you tell will depend on the field and genre in which you’re working. If you’re producing fiction, you might tell a story about an orphan who overcomes enormous difficulties and rises to a position of prominence in their world, like Moses, Cinderella, or Harry Potter. If you’re reading a short story in a literature class and your professor asks you to write an essay, produce a podcast, or create a video in which you share an insight about the short story, then you’ll be telling a story about a story. In the field of commentary about literature, the genre expectations include an expectation that the writer will share an observation or insight about the short story, and then refer by direct quotation to specific parts of the short story that gave rise to the writer’s thoughts. In the genre of literary commentary, there is also an expectation that the writer will use Modern Language Association format to provide bibliographic information about the short story under consideration, and about any sources the writer uses in working with the short story. A reader experiencing Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” might tell a story about their reading experience this way: When I read “The Yellow Wallpaper” [SPOILER ALERT!] I understood the woman’s hallucinations about the wallpaper to be a picture of how she felt reduced and diminished by her “medical” treatment and her gender role. That would be the story of how the reader understood “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The reader would then develop that by talking about moments in Gilman’s story that led to this insight.      

    In the field of photography, genre expectations would require you to share an observation or insight about the photograph under discussion, and then refer to specific details in the photograph that support the story you are telling about the photograph. A writer discussing the photo below, entitled “Jubilee Singers,” might tell a story about the photograph this way: With their formal attire, consummate composure, and serene faces, posed artfully in a symmetrical composition arranged in a university space, the photograph celebrates Black artistic accomplishment and religious authority while establishing Fisk University as a significant contributor to American cultural life. The writer would then develop that storyline into an analysis of the photo by discussing details about the fashions, furniture, background, and genders of the persons portrayed. Depending on the length of the assignment, the writer might offer information about historically Black colleges and universities, and/or the mission of the Fisk Jubilee singers. If the writing prompt called for research, an essay, video, or podcast about this photograph might also offer information about the Black middle class, patriarchal family structures, gender identities, or the performance of class status through clothing, deportment, hairstyle, and educational achievement. Understanding the genre expectations of the field in which you’re writing enables you to produce strong writing. Story provides a backbone for the details that build your discussion. 

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\):Jubilee Singers, Fisk University, Nashville, Tenn. (Copyright; James Wallace Black via American Missionary Association)


    Looking Ahead 

    Academically, socially, and professionally, story is a concept that can help you to think about, understand, frame, and accomplish virtually any task or goal that involves communication. As mentioned earlier, story is how we organize information for ourselves as we learn, and our audience’s understanding of story helps us to organize information we wish to communicate with others. We have been exposed to so many examples of stories in our lives that the very concept of story feels innate, inseparable from who we are; indeed, one might argue that every day is another page in the story of this world and our role in it, individually, socially, and commercially. Ultimately, however, we control the stories we tell—how we tell them and what they are telling—which demonstrates the power of story as an organizing construct.  

    Because of this, story is a concept that can serve you in future courses, ones that focus on writing and, often, ones that don’t. Consider the earlier example of the photograph “The Bronzeville Middle Class.” In the context of a photography class, the questions suggested can lead to identification of the story that the photograph is telling, and possibly the story of the social constructs that that led to the taking of the photograph and its importance. If the assignment for the photograph is more technical in nature, then the story to be told, including research, may be the advancement of film development and the camera up to the point when the photo was taken, and how those elements allowed for the final image to be created. If the assignment is more focused on the photograph’s importance in the history of photography, then the photo itself will be one part of the story, with photos taken before and after possibly completing the beginning, middle, and end arc of the larger historical story. 

    If you take a course that requires research, you might use the concept of story by using narrative inquiry as a research method. Narrative inquiry is a form of research that employs some combination of stories, surveys, journals, field observations, focus groups, letters, photos and other artifacts, or, often, interviews, for analysis and understanding. It has been used in ethnography, sociology, psychology, cognitive science, linguistics, and other fields focused on transferring knowledge and experience. For instance, in the field of psychology, Sigmund Freud used narrative case studies from his patients to develop his theories for psychoanalysis. In ethnography, the study of individual cultures, research conducted through narrative inquiry can allow participants' voices and stories to be heard as they are, potentially opening deeper understanding, unique points of view, and the exposure of historically significant information that may not have been recorded elsewhere. Narrative inquiry also gives voice to marginalized communities to share their stories. 

    Were you to take a creative writing class focused on the writing of fiction, you would know immediately that the concept of story will play a central role, as you would be writing one or more of these stories throughout the semester as a part of the workshop. How to identify the story that you want to tell? You might begin by imagining characters, those who are similar to you or those who are your complete opposite. What do they want, or what challenges do they face? Or you might begin with places you know—family places, community places, workplaces, and others—that hold stories you can observe or imagine. How do you see those characters and those places in your mind? What are the characters’ habits, or how do things usually go in this place? What’s different about this time, the instance that will be this story, and what is the reaction to this change?  

    Questions like these already begin to follow common story structures that have been articulated over time, such as Freytag’s Pyramid. Indeed, some of these questions are not that different than what may have led to the stories told in the cave drawings in France. Once you have these basic building blocks, you can begin to consider what it is about the emerging story that speaks to you, that you feel must be included. Then the story starts to become your story, and the workshop teaches you craft so that you have the tools you need to tell it. 

    Beyond this basic utility, stories, the ones we consume and the ones we create alone or collaboratively, allow us to expand our understanding of the world and the others with whom we share it. Story offers us a means to connect with and better understand others, those with whom we may disagree as well as people who share our views, making clear similarities that may not have been apparent and opening avenues to build empathy with others. We are in a period where voices that have been traditionally marginalized are gaining more opportunity to share their stories through publishing, cinema, television, theatre, art galleries, cultural commentary, and other applications of the arts and humanities, which furthers the value of story. Story shapes who we are and how we relate to one another, and this is why story allows us to author the culture of our time. 


    Story in AI-Assisted Writing 

    When we think of writing as the development of thought and when we use story to structure it, chatbots can be helpful or harmful. As AI writing assistance grows more sophisticated, writers may or may not seek to make use of technologies that support the generation of prose. Human writers will find that bots can generate correct sentences but may be unable to produce compelling insights or a distinctive, engaging voice. Chatbots cannot produce story on their own. Human writers have to prompt chatbots to generate sentences as the human writer decides on a starting point and moves in a particular direction. At best, AI provides human writers with an opportunity for a collaboration in which the human retains control over the ideas, shape, and direction of the writing.   

    In his article “My A.I. Writing Robot,” New Yorker writer Kyle Chayka reports on his investigation of the helpfulness and harmfulness of AI writing assistance. After several chatbot providers programmed a bot to imitate his writing, Chayka examined the results and found that while the bot could imitate his style, it also produced sentences that barely made sense, or produced science fiction when asked to produce nonfiction. Chayka concludes, “Putting a verb after a subject or padding out a sentence with adjectives is a task that machines can accomplish, because such grammatical probabilities can be calculated. Insight isn’t as easy to automate, because it’s something that deepens with time, through the process of getting words down on the page.”  

    Most writers already make use of AI-assisted writing in the form of spellcheck and/or grammar checkers. Chatbots and AI may well also have value to “brainstorm” for a story or essay, whether the piece is meant to be conveyed in alphabetic text or another mode, and to create early drafts. Ultimately, however, at this point in time, it seems that to develop deeper insight and meaningful connection with an audience, those things that make storytelling fundamental to any sort of communication, AI does not have the life experience to do this independent of humans. 


    Writing with Story 

    Story is an excellent tool for discovering what you want to say. Whether you are writing or recording autobiographical material, creating an ad campaign, writing about literature, a movie, or a painting, communicating results from a scientific experiment, or building your online profile, it is rare to have the most compelling angle of the story from first conception. But you can start by asking, What story do I want to tell? What’s the main storyline here? and then develop the story from there. 

    In any medium, you can imagine yourself telling a story about whatever it is you wish to explore. Later in the composition process, you can use your main storyline to guide your decisions about what to include or add and what to reduce or leave out. Trust your sense of the story as you include elements that you think will enhance your main storyline in ways that are interesting to you. Consider your audience as you begin to more firmly identify the story you want to tell. For example, if you want your online profile to tell prospective employers a story about you as a powerful professional, you might decide to leave out your Spring Break pictures and post only photos of you in professional spaces. 

    As you practice using the concept of story to help you think about and organize what you need to say to meet the needs of your audience, you will likely find that it can be valuable to you in virtually any situation that involves communication. Term papers, social media posts, sales pitches, political speeches, grant writing, gathering community support, connecting with a stranger, dispute resolution, salary negotiation, a job interview, even just impressing a date—all of these are situations where the concept of story can strengthen your ability to communicate effectively. 

    Ask yourself questions to discover what you want to say: 

    • What stories do you tell yourself about yourself? What stories do other people tell about you? What storyline would you want in the minds of potential future employers?  

    • Whose stories fascinate you—what public figures or people in your private life have amazing stories that hold meaning for you? 

    • What cultural narratives interest you? How might you want to change the story we collectively tell about gender, race, class, or nation? 

    • What stories occupy the people in your field? Which of those stories would you like to retell or participate in building? What stories are not yet being told? 


    Story Activity 

    View Episode 1 from Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. Think of another “origin story” that might need an overhaul. In determining what origin story you will choose, consider the following questions to help you decide: 

    • How is the history of your field presently narrated? How might you retell that story?  

    • How do people in your family tell the history of your family? How might someone else tell it? How would you prefer that your family’s story (or your story) be told?  

    • How is the history of a certain technological innovation being told? How else might the history of that invention be narrated?  

    Identify a story that you’d like to see reinvented. This could be a story you have been taught, read, watched, listened to, participated in as part of a game, or even be the story of something you experienced that you wished had gone another way. Summarize the storyline as it’s presently being told in five sentences, and then tell your new story in five sentences. If the story compels you, develop it further. If you prefer image to text, try to do it visually with a storyboard: Storyboard That [] 

    Choose a story from your life, but when you tell it with text, image, or oral telling, substitute yourself with a character who is an opposite of you. The character could be an opposite from in as many or as few ways as you choose. How does the story change?





    Works Cited 

    Augustine and John K. Ryan. The Confessions of St. Augustine. Doubleday, 1960. 

    Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 1999.   

    Chayka, Kyle. “My A.I. Writing Robot.” The New Yorker, 11 July 2023, My AI Writing robot []

    Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth. A Separate Country: Postcoloniality and American Indian Nations. Texas Tech University Press, 2012. 

    Crenshaw, Kimberle. Critical Race Theory : The Key Writings That Formed the Movement. New Press, 1995. 

    Cuentos: Stories of Immigrants. National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago. Video Series, Stories of immigrants []

    Foster, Sinjoro. “Freytag’s Pyramid.” Wikimedia Commons, 17 October 2019, Freytag's pyramid []. Licensed under CC1.0. (Figure 13.1) 

    Freud, Sigmund. The Unconscious. Penguin Classics, 2004. 

    Freytag, Gustav, and Elias J. MacEwan. Freytag’s Technique of the Drama, an Exposition of Dramatic Composition and Art. S.C. Griggs & Company, 1895. 

    Hannah-Jones, Nikole, et al. The 1619 Project: New York Times Magazine, New York Times, 18 August 2019, The 1619 Project []

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    14: Story is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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