A System of Stories
We use the word “story” a lot, but there are several times when we actually mean something else: narrative. The classic definition of story is something with a beginning, a middle, and an end, but Ron Ploof’s definition is: “a thing that results from people pursuing what they want.” A narrative, on the other hand, Jeffry R. Halverson describes as “a system of stories that, taken altogether, paint a larger narrative with a beginning, a middle, but not an end.”
So, a narrative has a lot of things that stories have, like characters and motivations, but the difference is that it isn’t over. It has a hoped-for end, but it’s evolving, and there are any number of individual stories that support it. The thing to realize is that you have a system of stories, too.
When you’re trying to figure out your narrative, first look at the stories you like to tell in terms of the Red Thread: what was the Goal? What were the Problems getting in the way? What you’ll start to find is that there are consistencies in some places at the deeper level of principles. The other important thing is that the story is ongoing, so you need to use active, future-oriented language, and use your beliefs to talk about why you approach something a particular way or will be doing something about it.
- EP062: Why Telling a Complete Story Doesn’t Always Work
- Ron Ploof’s StoryHow
- Why Story is Not Narrative by Jeffry R. Halverson
– Story, we use that word a lot. And in the wise and enduring words of Inigo Montoya, “we keep using that word, and I don’t think it means what you think it means.” Here’s what I mean. We keep using story when we actually mean something else. Both are important and both are necessary to finding the Red Thread of your message and to making your ideas irresistible. I’m Tamsen Webster of TamsenWebster.com and that’s what we’re talking about this week on Find the Red Thread.
What do you mean we’ve been using the word story wrong? I know what a story is. Yeah, of course you do. And you haven’t necessarily been using it wrong, but we often use it interchangeably with another word that’s different and really important if we’re trying to figure out how to make our messages and our stories and our marketing and our brand make sense. And that word is narrative.
What’s the difference? Well, let’s start with story. A story is something with a beginning, a middle and end. That’s kind of the classic definition. And I think it’s a little silly because, I mean, a piece of string has a beginning, a middle and an end. So I really like Ron Ploof’s definition. Ron Ploof is a storyteller of many years who runs a wonderful blog at StoryHow.com, and he defines a story as the thing that results from people getting or pursuing what they want. In other words, that beginning and middle and end starts to take shape and take life when we’ve got characters who have motivations and influences that drive results and actions. And once you put all that together, then you can start to see how everything that you start to think of stories either does fit that or it doesn’t.
So if it doesn’t fit that, now it might be something else like an anecdote, which is just a little, tiny snip of a story or a quick retelling of events. But what is this narrative that I talk about? Well for that definition, I’m going to go to another author, Jeffry Halverson, who describes it as “a system of stories.” A system of stories, that taken all together paint a larger narrative with kind of a beginning, kind of a middle, but not an end. It’s a story that’s still in progress, a narrative that’s still in progress.
But it’s still driven by some of the things a story is. It still has characters, it still has motivations, it still has hoped-for results. But by and large, a narrative isn’t over. So, think for instance, classic example of a narrative is the American Dream, which can be summed up with if you come here, work hard enough, then you can achieve whatever you want. Now you can quibble with whether or not that’s accurate but again, that’s part of the idea of a narrative, that it’s evolving. But we can also within that narrative point to any number of individual stories that support it. And it’s that system of stories, those individual stories that come together over time and help create a narrative.
So, what does this have to do with you? Well, you have a system of stories, too. And sometimes it’s easier for some people to start with the system and some people to start with the stories, but either way, you can use the Red Thread to bridge the gap in between.
What do I mean? Well, first of all, look at the stories that you like to tell, in terms of the Red Thread. What were people trying to pursue? What was the Goal? What were the Problems of perspective that were getting in the way? What were those Ideas, those truths that drove either you or those people in the stories that you tell? And what Changes did they make? And what Actions did they take so that the Goal was achieved?
What you’ll start to find, at least I find this when I’m working with clients on this, is that you start to see consistency in a couple places. You start to see consistencies across those Goals, the Problems, Ideas and Changes. Maybe not at the detail level, but one step deeper, on the principle level that we’ve talked about before. And it’s in those principles and those places where those stories start to have some similarities at that deeper level that we start to get hints about the narrative.
Now if you’re trying to figure out a narrative, it’s the same pieces, but the language is a little bit different. Rather than a story that’s complete, we’re talking about a story that’s ongoing. Remember that episode where we talked about in medias res? Well, that’s connected to this.
Here’s what I mean. Instead of saying this is what we want-ed. This is, this is what we want. This is the Goal we help achieve. This is the Goal I help people pursue. Current, ongoing, or future-oriented.
This is the thing that we will be helping people to do. The Problems of perspective are the things that are currently in the way. The perspective, the way that you see the world, but also, potentially the way that, the thing that will get in the way in the future if we don’t think about it. So you can articulate your ongoing narrative from the things that you’re looking for that are coming down the pike.
Now, the Ideas, those values, beliefs, discoveries, those incontrovertible truths that sit in the middle of that Red Thread, those are key, because those are the places where you say, and I believe or we believe that this is why these Problems are so dire. Or this is why we can’t stand to see those Problems go forward. Or this is why we help people solve this Problem to achieve that Goal, because we believe these certain things to be true.
And that’s where, in a narrative, now you pivot the language from saying, “which is why we need to do X,” to something like, “this is why I approach or we approach this situation this way.” Again, ongoing, it’s current, it’s happening in the present. Or it can also be something that happens in the future, “which is why I will be doing X or why we will be pursuing this going forward.” And then the Actions are just what does that look like? The Actions are, and can be, some of the stories of things you’ve done in the past, but they can also be the specific products, services approaches, tasks, skill sets that you put into play.
And it all comes down to just how do you articulate those different pieces and how do you find the connections between narrative and story, because you have one narrative. That’s your Red Thread. But it’s supported by millions of stories. So, when you’re trying to be a powerful storyteller, find the narrative first. It’s like the rod in your closet. It’s the thing that holds the hangers, the stories, up and keeps them all together.
I’m Tamsen Webster of TamsenWebster.com and I am really excited to hear your narratives and your stories. If you want help putting those together, go to FindYourRedThread.com and download the Red Thread Worksheet. It will step you through those pieces of the Red Thread. And if you’re trying to figure out how to articulate the difference between a story and a narrative, well, contact me and let’s talk about how we can do that together, either for you personally or for your organization. You can do that with me at TamsenWebster.com/contact or read about some of the ways I do that at TamsenWebster.com/consulting. Thanks so much for listening and watching this week. I’ll see you next time.