All Worlds Are Story Worlds


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