February 21, 2017

"Narratives" vs "Stories"

Many narratives are built to convey themes or concepts, but the central Unity conveyed by a story is the dynamic coherence that only comes from focusing on change over time. That is the difference. The word narrative can describe anyone's stream of consciousness, voiced or unvoiced, but a story must bring together some collection of moving parts that make sense as a whole.

Poems and speeches convey patterned information, but writers choose the form of a story-based-narrative when they need to embed their prefered ideology or theme within a vehicle of representation. Some biased agendas come across more effectively when they're threaded into a sequence of actions, but poems and speeches are as much discourse as narratives. Story is something more pure, at the core. Narrative is story plus discourse, and words can be used to embellish, persuade, hypnotize, or deceive, but a story itself is the chronological development of progressive or regressive change over time. The coherence of my special reasoning is a dogma or a mantra or a sales pitch or perhaps simply a set of observations and questions, but the coherence of depicted action must always take the form of a story

That's not a categorical assertion. That's simply the nature of human cognition. 

When you finish reading Goldilocks and the Three Bears, you might remember all sorts of details that aren't necessarily the core of the plot line. Maybe you think about cold porridge and lumpy beds, or angry fathers and little blonde curls. There is no accounting for what individual readers focus on and retain and then cognitively reassemble (and that's not even accounting for conflation or distortion). Often, however, it so happens that many people remember a basic plot line: Goldilocks comes in the house, goes in the kitchen, tries the food, goes in the living room, sits in their chairs, goes to the bedroom, and sleeps in the beds. Before all this, obviously, the Bears must have departed, and because it is their home, of course, the Bears eventually return. 

The "Story" of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is the basic plot, start to finish. 

But how does a reader remember that plot?

In any traditional retelling of 'Goldilocks', the repetition of key phrases usually helps you remember an event sequence which could otherwise seem random, but that's not the only advantage available. For instance, you could also associate porridge with breakfast (the beginning) and bedrooms with going to sleep (the end), or you might imagine she entered the house by the kitchen and had to pass through the living room before she could go upstairs. These kinds of logical associations (or "contingencies") provide a natural reinforcement to the structure of the sequence, making it seem less arbitrary and more connected to the remembering mind. Nevertheless, whether by rote or because of contingencies within a chain of associations, the story sequence that is successfully reconstructed in memory has become a coherent unit of thought... but of course this is a paradox. That coherence is dynamic. That "unit" shouldn't really be unified. It's a set of changes, a collection of differences, a group of disruptions, a wholeness of chaos. It's a four-dimensional cascade of development that's somehow compressed in our minds to the semblance of a single point.

In other words, it's a "story".

Now, a narrative is not merely that unified chunk of related events. A "narrative" is that story in the form of particular discourse. A talented writer could craft several types of narrative around of the bare bones of the Goldilocks story, and find ways to make it convey all kinds of biases, lessons, or perspectives, but the story itself is still just that basic event sequence. Furthermore, that event sequence is only a unit on the inside of a good reader's mind.

The story is not the outline we might write down on paper; the story is all of the plotline as you remember it, all together, as a unity. The story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears only exists in our mind when we receive it as narrative and imagine its represented events as if they were actual ongoing activities, which by their very nature contributes to a unified recollection in memory. Mieke Bal said it first, but I'm trying to detail the whole process.

Story *IS* what memory makes from paying attention to ongoing change.

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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton