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The Power of Narrative

A Time to Kill is an American courtroom drama whose climax carved itself into my memory twenty-five years ago. The story: Two white men raped a black girl. The police arrested them, but since the crime happened in Mississippi at a time when racism was still rampant, they were likely to walk free. This induced the girl’s father to shoot down the rapists in the county courthouse. The remaining part of the movie deals with the father’s trial. During the closing arguments, the father’s attorney didn’t tell the jury, “Please have pity with this man.”  Instead, he described (showed) in great detail how the girl was abducted, raped, beaten, unsuccessfully hung, and, at last, dumped in a river. And then, he asked the jury, “Now imagine she’s white.”

This is the undisputed power of narrative.

Narratives have the power to take us to places. And when we get to those places, we understand.

Narratives in Society

We are not really aware of this, but narratives are the driving forces of social change. For example, narratives drive politics, as George Monbiot explains in his TED talk A New Political Story.

The same is true for economies, as this TED talk demonstrates: The Anti-CEO Playbook.

Fascism, communism, and capitalism have their own narratives, with heroes and villains, and prophesies of happy endings.

Because of the power of narrative, the pen is mightier than the sword. Wars – violent and peaceful – are won with the heart, and stories conquer hearts. A narrative won the American Revolutionary War against all odds.

Susan Conley believes that the power of stories can transform the lives of students and change communities. Here is her TED talk:

The therapist Lori Gottlieb uses narrative tools to help people with their problems. She believes that if someone is stuck in a particular problem, he or she is actually stuck in a negative narrative. Life is what we tell ourselves to be. Here is her TED talk:

Why do narratives work? Because people are hardwired for stories.

A narrative gave birth to Christianity. At Jesus’ time, religion was a means to an end. People sacrificed to the gods – or God – to ensure divine support. Paul created a new, religious narrative, incidentally by turning religion upside down. In the Christian narrative, God sacrificed himself for his people.

Narratives Put Experiences on New Levels

We can experience on seven levels:

  1. Experience our planet (climb mountains and visit beaches)
  2. Experience nature (visit forests or go diving)
  3. Experience society (socialize and compete)
  4. Experience relationships
  5. Experience other people’s creations (things, stories, websites)
  6. Experience our own creations (build a career, start a family, invent, paint, write, fulfill our heart’s desire)
  7. Experience our inner world (emotions, thoughts, feelings, dreams, etc.)

Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself. – George Bernard Shaw

Creations require narratives. Are you conscious of the narrative of your relationship? It has two authors. Is your relationship a teamwork narrative or a battle of two competing narratives?

Companies and their products have (subtle) narratives.

A painting has a (hidden) narrative and so does a sculpture.

Last but not least, your life has a narrative. You author your life. You build the stage, you write the script, and you act it out.

The Psychology of Narrative

Non-fiction: Tell.
Narrative: Show.

Nonfiction (telling) is informative but doesn’t provide the mental activation energy needed to move our assemblage point. How do stories take us to new places? I like Carlos Castaneda’s mystical explanation:

He said that the seers see that infants have no fixed assemblage point at first. Their encased emanations are in a state of great turmoil, and their assemblage points shift everywhere in the band of man, giving children a great capacity to focus on emanations that later will be thoroughly disregarded. Then as they grow, the older humans around them, force the children’s assemblage points to become more steady by means of an increasingly complex internal dialogue. The internal dialogue is a process that constantly strengthens the position of the assemblage point, because that position is an arbitrary one and needs steady reinforcement.
…”But would it be possible to encourage children to keep their assemblage point more fluid?” I asked.
“Only if they live among the new seers,” he said. “Otherwise they would get entrapped, as the old seers did, in the intricacies of the silent side of man. And, believe me, that’s worse than being caught in the clutches of rationality.”

– Carlos Castaneda, The Fire from Within, page 13

The assemblage point restricts our perception to a particular area or layer of reality. Naturally, that is planetary experience. Family, society, and communities limit our field of experience further, for example, to a Christian experience, a meritocratic experience, or an atheistic experience.

What is the assemblage point? The assemblage point is our ego, our self-consciousness, the entity which perceives experiences and that reads stories. The assemblage point produces the internal dialogue, which is a self-narrative. We tell ourselves that we are like this and like that. And we tell ourselves that the world is like this and like that. The internal dialogue is the box in which we lounge on a sofa.

Luckily, narratives also have the power to take us out of our box.

Emotional responses impact and limit perception as well. When we’re hungry, our perception focuses on food. When we’re scared, perception focuses on a flight path. That’s why narrators, in particular, political narrators, are in the business of provoking emotions that serve their narrative’s purpose.

What is Narrative Actually?

We all know a story when we see one, but how to construct a narrative is a hard-learned skill.

If you asked me to sum it up in one short sentence, I’d say that a story is a heroic struggle with a particular form of adversity. No adversity, no story. A nice dinner, sunset, or vacation can make an anecdote, but not a story.

We know a story when we see one because we struggle with adversity on a daily basis. We know the pattern of that struggle by heart:

  1. Adversity makes itself felt through symptoms, for example, headache.
  2. We ignore the symptoms.
  3. The symptoms increase until we can’t ignore them anymore and we apply a workaround, for example, we pop a pain killer.
  4. Symptoms increase further until we are forced to analyze the cause of adversity, for example, lack of sleep.
  5. We fix the cause of adversity, for example, by going to sleep.

All stories are dramatizations of this basic pattern. For example, the Hero’s Journey or monomyth is but a dramatic elaboration of this pattern. The book Eight Crafts shows in detail how we get from real-life adversity to stories. Buy it now or read the free reduced version.


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