Contingency: How We Situate Writing to Create Meaning
by Lisa Bickmore
Some people say that story is the basic way we understand everything. For instance, in a piece about reading the Harry Potter novels with his son Jamie (who lives with an intellectual disability), Michael Berube boldly states that “narratives are good to think with.” In other words, Berube argues that narrative is a cognitive structure—something we use to think, or even a kind of thinking in and of itself—that affords specific uses and opportunities for the reader and writer alike. Maybe, for instance, we use stories to explore ideas, or to play out the consequences of ideas. But we can also think of narrative as a type of text, or genre, and like all types of texts, narrative is a resource for communication.
If we think of story as underlying all understanding, we might consider the possibility that we should think of all writing as storytelling. Plenty of people who write about narrative and cognition have followed that line of inquiry, including some of the writers in our own OER project [see chapters such as “Story as Rhetorical,” “‘You Will Never Believe What Happened!'” or “What Is Story?”]. What we’re going to consider here, though, is how to think about a narrative as a type of text, or genre, one that, therefore, exhibits some reliable features, makes some typical moves, and fulfills some readerly expectations, as well as the reasons we might want to use narrative. A narrative text puts story first; it frames the reader’s experience of the text by forwarding, or emphasizing, story-telling strategies.
David Herman, in his book Basic Elements of Narrative, says that “narrative can be viewed under several profiles—as a cognitive structure or way of making sense of experience, as a type of text, and as a resource for communicative interaction” (ix-x). We might start, then, by thinking about what stories typically do. When we, as readers, sit down to read a story, we expect certain things. One is a timeline that we can follow. Some stories use complex timelines, flashing ahead or flashing back. Some stories keep the timeline simple, starting with the earliest event, and moving ahead deliberately to the end, or final event. But no matter how the writer manages the timeline, in a story, a reader expects to be anchored explicitly in time, and to be able to orient him or herself in time: when s/he comes upon an event or anecdote within the narrative, the reader wants to be able to say, “Okay, this happened before story-event X, but after story-event Z.” An explicit and decipherable timeline is key to the narrative effect—that is, key to understanding a text as a story.
Stories also help readers understand why and under what conditions the story matters. This, by the way, is true of most kinds of writing that matter to readers—either the situation is clearly understood by all those who receive the piece of writing, or the writer makes that situation clear. We see this in Berube’s piece about Harry Potter—Berube tells several anecdotes about reading Harry Potter with his son, including conversations they had about how Harry found himself and about how, from time to time, they empathized with Tom Riddle (aka Lord Voldemort), especially during his lonely childhood. Berube situates his telling of these stories within his argument and within our Harry Potter-fan-filled society. He wants to make an argument about how we use stories: how they help us reason morally and develop a sense of the world. That argument situation gives meaning to his anecdotes—and it shapes how the reader receives the anecdotes.
As readers, we also hope for an opportunity to see into a vivid story-world that has a sense of lived-in-ness, of detail and texture. This is what Herman refers to as the “qualia”—the “what it is like”–ness of a story. Writers create the worlds of their stories by using sensory detail, but also by evoking the narrator’s or other character’s states of mind. Generally, the characters are represented as having minds and motives of their own, and qualities of character and mind that help us understand them. A long story structure, such as a novel, has the room for highly elaborated characters; shorter story structures, such as essay-length memoirs or profiles, may have less room for expansive exploration, but even there, writers develop scenes, characters, and situations by using economical strokes that help the reader to see into a world, to imagine what that world is like, and even to be able to place themselves in that world, if only for a brief moment, and to move along with the writer as s/he unfolds the narrative.
When we read pieces of writing as stories, we look for these qualities: an explicit timeline or course of events, a sense of situation and occasion, and the animation of a story-world. Writers seeking to create the narrative effect work to realize these qualities for the reader. Similarly, writers choose to highlight narrative and narrative strategies—to create the narrative effect for a reader—when they want the reader to see into that story-world, to empathize or to feel with the characters, and to feel motivated by the circumstances or occasions of the story’s telling. The narrative effect can be used within other types of texts, such as within a text that is more informative or more persuasively oriented. That narrative effect, contained within a larger piece, can be a tool for a more complex rhetorical appeal.
Bérubé, Michael. “Harry Potter and the Power of Narrative.” The Common Review, Vol. 6 No. 1 (June 14, 2007).
Herman, David. The Basic Elements of Narrative. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.