Narrative’ as a term originated in the 17th century and comes from the Latin word ‘narrat-‘ meaning ‘related, told’, which comes from the verb narrare (from gnarus ‘knowing’). It has come to be used as the technical word for ‘a told story’ (either real or imaginary). Stories have themselves come to be seen as one way in which we as human beings most enjoy hearing and learning about complex events in the world, but there is more to it than that. The interaction is two way: we tell stories which help us to ‘compute’ the world, but our experience of the world adds meaning and relevance to stories.
Certainly we enjoy telling each other about events we have experienced or have imagined in the form of a story and we enjoy hearing of events others have experienced or imagined in the form of a story. Common reasons given are that stories engage us, involve us – we can usually relate to one or more characters within them and give us the pleasure of learning something new; we are told that they allow us to simplify complex aspects of our existence by making an outcome appear to be part of a pattern of events. There’s a particular pleasure in being able to predict outcomes.
But no one seems to ask ‘Why?’
Stories are entertaining, they fascinate us, but the closest we come to answering a ‘Why?’ question has so far only taken us into psychology, where we are informed that from childhood, stories have been the best way we have of being able to shape and make sense of an experience that can appear disordered and hostile. Predictable, chronological ‘cause and effect’ patterns present the world as a coherent structure of narratives, we are told. A story is able to focus on a single idea or event; we ‘identify’ with a hero who always succeeds in overcoming problems; a clear-cut ending in which all loose ends are tied up.
Yes, hearing about how people overcome problems is one way of safely learning about the world, enabling us to vicariously experience new things in a safe and predictable way. Emotions involve us, a sense of expectation excites us. But the truth is a little different. We don’t invent or interact with stories purely in order for all these things to help us with the so-called ‘real world’; stories are not simply a practical tool, like a set of instructions for a washing machine.
A narrative is a simplified representation of a real or imagined event told to make the event more interesting, realistic and - strangely - more believable. Narratives are economical and coherent, we are told, because we only want to hear about details that seem to lead to a final outcome and because we want to believe that outcomes are the result of a sequence of connected events, but in fact narratives and the way the world work are parallels to each other. It would be closer to the truth to say that there is a system or a pattern which could be called ‘the way things work’ and that this has two branches - one is commonly known as ‘narrative’, while the other is usually called ‘reality’.
It’s not just that we like to hear narratives in a particular order: we like Life in a particular order. Order is the sense of pattern of structure. The same things that work on us in real life work on us in stories: our attention is directed and controlled in narratives by exactly the same forces that are at work in what we would usually try to call the ‘non-story world’ except that that name doesn’t work.
All worlds are ‘story worlds’.
That doesn’t mean that what we are used to calling ‘reality’ is fictional; nor does it mean that what we are used to calling ‘fiction‘ is real. It means that they are both part of the same larger world.
It’s not that we seem unable to stop believing in the idea of a ‘hero’ (i.e. ‘good’) overcoming a ‘villain’ (i.e. ‘evil’), or that we seem to want to think that results always arise from a series of previously connected events, or that we enjoyed hearing them as a child and love the comfort they bring even as adults, or that narratives provide a picture of a safe world in which problems are always resolved in a satisfying way. It’s that all of these things - heroes, villains, events, what we heard in childhood, the satisfaction we get from resolution and so on - play out in front of us every day.
Narratives form a kind of microcosm of reality.