[WRITING IS A RESOURCE]—Writing is a resource people use to do things, be things, and make things in the world.
After reading “What Is Story?” and “You’ll Never Believe What Happened” , answer all of the following in a post of 300 or more words.
Respond and reflect upon “What Is Story?” by answering the following:
Respond and reflect upon “You’ll Never Believe What Happened” by answering the following:
Add any other thoughts or questions you have on the piece.
What Is Story?
You know what a story is, right? That’s easy. Movies, television, video games, novels, plays,
even unstructured games as children. The hero defeats the villain; the girl gets her boy; people
rise to great heights and experience tragic falls. Stories are entertainment.
They are. And…?
Where humans are we tell stories. Everywhere in the world at every time in human history in
every known culture. Influential literary theorist Roland Barthes puts it this way: “Like life itself,
[story] is there, international, transhistorical, transcultural” (237) Some archaeologists even
believe a “cultural revolution” took place 40,000 years ago, catalyzed by development of
language then used to tell stories.
Storytelling may have created us.
[Examples of ancient stories from the Aborigines of Australia, one of the oldest cultures on
Story, or narrative as it is called in academics, is so interwoven with the experience of being
human we hardly recognize all the powerful ways it shapes us. Consider some of the most
A Mechanism for Making Meaning
It was rock bottom for me. No job. Just lost my scholarship. Even my dad was starting to agree
with my wife about moving into her folks’ place, despite my protests I’d rather be shot in the face
with a crossbow. Then it was like a miracle happened. I mean, it wasn’t a miracle, but it was like
a miracle—I got appendicitis.
How do we know what something means, why it matters? By integrating it into a story. This
typically isn’t an intentional, reasoned choice. It’s automatic and, likely, unavoidable.
Jonathon Adler, a professor of psychology at Olin College of Engineering, says, “The default
mode of human cognition is a narrative mode” (qtd. in Beck). Stories are the predominant way in
which humans think. They allow us to create meaning out of sensory perceptions, memories,
information, conversations, symbols, and emotions that continually bombard us.
Consider if your friend just told you they were in a car accident. What questions would you ask?
What happened? (Plot)
Where did it happen? (Setting)
Whose fault was it? (Point of view and conflict)
Who was in the car? (Character)
Were you hurt? (Resolution)
Is your car going to be okay? (Stakes)
You ask questions that help you structure the event as a story so you know how to make sense of
it. Without doing so, you simply don’t know what it means. Is your friend feeling foolish and
guilty and looking for forgiveness, or are they furious and asking for validation that they’ve been
wronged? I’d want to know the answer to this question before I responded with a friendship on
A Genre and a Mode
The body was a body. So what? Splayed out, lithe looking and stiff, like many before, a pale
imprint on asphalt. I was hungry and turned to leave. I immediately turned back, drawn by the
body. Not the whole body, just the open eyes, blue as showroom tile.
Now that was interesting.
We traffic in story genres constantly. Nothing could be easier than telling the difference between
a romantic comedy and a tragic drama at the movie theatre. Yet as different as story genres are,
in important ways they are all the same. Those similarities make story a mode of thinking and
Mode means a particular method or way of doing something. Similar to how a computer has
different modes, such as administrator, airplane, and safe, the brain has different modes of
thinking. Likewise, language can be used in different modes to achieve different outcomes.
Because story is about meaning, not all sequences of events make a story. Take my six-year-old
nephew, for example, who can spend an hour reciting everything he did last week on Minecraft.
“…and then I cut down another tree but then a creeper was there! This creeper starts chasing me,
and I’m like, ‘Oh no!’ So I get away from the creeper and I’m walking all around and I find this
lava flow. So, I’m like, ‘Cool!’ So then I go back home but on the way I see this cow so I start
mining, and I go as deep as I can go, and then I find a diamond but when I get out the cow is
gone. Then I see this big tree, so…”
At the end I dizzily realize I have no idea if any of that meant anything.
Young children often create “stories” that are really sequences without any greater meaning,
such as kittens playing with a ball of string in cute and repetitious ways. This is a product of their
developmental stage. Such sequences become functional stories in adolescence as the child’s
brain develops the capacity to connect events in more complex and meaningful ways.
Cognitive storytelling requires that we pose questions about events either consciously or
When does an incident begin, what is its generation amidst other unconnected events that
What is its resolution?
How do events in the interim relate to each other in relevant ways or, pointedly, not
What is at stake or, said another way, why does any of it matter?
Storytelling requires that we constantly analyze, synthesize, and evaluate our world, all while
constructing ever-evolving patterns of meaning.
So what is the formula that makes a story? That’s a tricky question, one that theorists from a host
of fields have debated for millennia and continue to do so to this day.
It’s a question complicated by how fluid and dynamic story structure is. For example, the
structure adapts to the medium used to communicate it. A medium is something used to transmit
to the human senses; it is often technological in nature, such as radio, television, the Internet, or
even letters carved in stone (once the iPhone of its day).
Influential media theorist Marshal MacLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” to
convey how media affect the structure, and thus the meaning, of communication. An example is
how texting encourages use of emojis to balance how short messages can feel curt or even angry.
Story structure changes from episodic television to two-hour films to dozens or even hundreds of
still images in a comic book. Consider how different a television script for The Walking Dead is
from a graphic novel version of the story.
Despite these many structural differences—how words function with or in the absence of images,
how time and place is established, the difference between a television scene or a comic cell or
page—all story genres in all media use that storytelling mode we all recognize so well and
understand so little. It’s what saves us from hours upon hours of Minecraft description.
Before Kristen was born, I wasn’t me. I mean, I was me, but I wasn’t this better version of me.
My baby girl made me a good person.
Modern psychology considers that at least some, and perhaps all, of human identity is a story. I
am the story I tell myself about what happens to me, so to speak. “The very idea of human
identity—perhaps we can even say, the very possibility of human identity—is tied to the very
notion of narrative and narrativity” (Brockmeier and Carbaugh 15).
Why is it that people who face the same traumas, such as combat, often respond in completely
different ways? Science suggests that one reason, likely among many others, is because people
respond differently to the same kind of event in their story of the self. A person who positions
the event as a challenge to overcome in the story of a victorious life is far more likely to move
beyond the trauma, or even use it as motivation for positive change. A spectrum of narrative
therapies for trauma are now in common use for this reason.
[Learn about Narrative Exposure Therapy]
The stories we hear, whether in video games or history books or gossip over the neighbor’s
fence, thus become a kind of menu where we can select stories to make meaning out of our
experiences, giving us a sense of self.
[How Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird Helped One Woman Become Herself]
As we now understand it, “People take the stories that surround them—fictional tales, news
articles, apocryphal family anecdotes—then identify with them and borrow from them while
fashioning their own self-conceptions. It’s a Mobius strip: Stories are life, life is stories” (Beck).
A Rhetorical Act
Khuma is seven, and he weighs thirty-seven pounds, roughly the weight of the average four year
old. He looks bigger, but only in the middle, where his bloated belly is nearly round; his arms
and legs are so spindly I find myself looking away whenever he walks the three and a half miles
to the mission school. I doubt he can physically make the journey, every day, and every day he
returns, weak from hunger but whole. Yet as he walks away the next day, I find I cannot watch,
believing this is the day he will not return.
In one way or another, 3.1 million children like Khuma do not return home each year.
Stories don’t only shape how we see ourselves; they give us, every human, the power to shape
each other, both individually and collectively. In effect, communicating a story to someone is a
powerful act with the potential to produce change.
But not every story is powerful. Take my nephew’s Minecraft epic, for example. To have a
legitimate chance of creating change, a story must be built with a specific audience in mind. The
story must be rhetorical, meaning deliberately crafted by the storyteller in order to achieve a
desired effect with a particular audience.
There is a misguided popular notion that stories, as expressive or emotionally rather than
logically predicated, can never be either “wrong” or “right.” That to suggest a story may be
ineffective is to tell the storyteller their feelings are invalid. In truth, shared stories are effective
or not depending on an audience’s response to them, just as is true of an argument, or an
evaluation, or a text sent to remind your significant other not to get that last brand of
mayonnaise, which was disgusting.
Good storytelling requires apt rhetorical choices in creating the story. A storyteller “connects
events into a sequence that is consequential for later action and for the meaning the [storyteller]
wants [the audience] to take away from the story. Events perceived by the [storyteller] are
selected, organized, connected, and evaluated as meaningful for a particular audience”
(Reissman 3). Well-crafted, rhetorically-aware story provides unique ways to evoke feelings,
sway thoughts, and motivate action.
Yes, stories are entertainment. But, like the story of Khuma above, they are also so much more
that is much more important than a source of fun. Learning about stories—how to recognize
them, different ways to read them, and how to write them—not only changes how you see the
world, but who sees the world.
It changes others, and it changes you.
Barthes, Roland and Lionel Duisit. “An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative.”
New Literary History 6.2 (Winter, 2008): 237-272. JSTOR. Web. 2
Beck, Julie. “Life’s Stories.” The Atlantic, The Atlantic Monthly Group. 10 Aug. 2015. Web. 3
Brockmeier, Jens and Donal Carbaugh. “Introduction.” In Jens Brockmeier and Donal Carbaugh
(eds), Narrative and Identity: Studies in Autobiography, Self and Culture. Amsterdam: John
Benjamins, 2001. Print. 1-22.
Riessman, C.K. Narrative Methods for the Human Sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008.
You will never believe what happened!— Stories we tell
By Ron Christiansen
We all tell stories. For humor. For clarifying our view of the world. For asserting our identity. As Thomas
Newkirk, a composition scholar, argues in Minds Made For Stories story is an “embodied and instinctive
mode of understanding” (23). Telling stories is one way we use language as a resource to create and
build relationships. When we use language to recount events in our life, we are deliberately utilizing
strategies in order to enact a particular type of response to our words. In effect, again relying on
Newkirk, “Narrative is there to help us ‘compose’ ourselves when we meet difficulty or loss.” Literally
we compose (write) ourselves into being while also composing (calming or settling) ourselves into a
particular view of the world.
After a long day at work or school, my family informally tells stories about their day–my wife and I
chatting before our kids emerge to be fed or a teenager at the kitchen counter hanging out while we
finish up dinner preparation.
I commute most days 30 minutes from Davis County to the SLCC Redwood Campus. One evening several
years ago, I couldn’t wait to get home so I could tell my wife about an experience I was still trying to
“I was driving on the freeway and a guy started riding my bumper for no reason. I was in the middle lane
going 5 over the speed limit. Can you believe that? What an ass! He wouldn’t back off so finally I moved
over to the right.”
“You should be careful out there,” my wife interjected.
“But guess what? The jerk moved over and continued to ride my bumper. I tapped on the brakes. Then—
and by this time I was fuming—he pulled alongside me. In my mind I interpreted this as an aggressive
Can you imagine what happened next? He starts pointing at the car not me. I’m still thinking he is being
aggressive but then I can tell he is probably pointing at my tire and looks concerned. I pull over and sure
enough my back tire is almost completely flat.”
“Are you serious?” said my wife.
“Yeah. Man, I was so stupid.”
As the storyteller here, I subconsciously attempt to engage the listener by a variety of means. It seems
these techniques are learned at an early age and often employed without much reflection. In fact I
wasn’t fully aware of the techniques I’d used until I stepped back and analyzed the story for this essay.
For example, I ask questions to amp up the emotional quality, inviting the listener to come along for the
ride: “Can you believe that?…Guess what?….But can you imagine what happened?” I also play with
genre by starting off with one kind of story, a “can you believe what a jerk other people are,” a victim
story, but then switch to an ironic tale of misunderstanding where I, the storyteller, turn out to be the
We are naturally rhetorical beings who attempt to engage those around us through narrative–we shape
the events in our life so they have a plot, characters, conflict and some sort of resolution. If this is true
then each of you as students already have a deep rhetorical understanding of how to engage an
audience even if you have never heard the word rhetoric nor ever imagined you were using moves or
strategies (see Clint Johnson’s “What is Story” for more on this).
Recently standing in the line with two loaves of bread, some milk, and a carton of eggs, I overheard this
conversation between what I assume was a young couple–they had a child with them, probably around
two. The young woman led off with this question,
“Do you remember Diane from my work?”
“Yeah, the one who had two babies in two years, right?”
“Yes. So guess what?”
“She’s giving them up for adoption?”
“No, silly…she’s pregnant again. But this time she is carrying a baby for some 40 something year old
woman in California who couldn’t get pregnant. She’s crazy. That’s all I can say. Wacko.”
“Yes way. And, get this, I found out that the woman from California stopped by the office last week. Barb
said you could see her thong when she bent down to pick up her bag. She was wearing designer jeans
and carrying some sort of Gucci or whatever purse. I mean can you imagine that? She’s just buying a
child. It’s like going to the supermarket down the baby aisle and picking one off the shelf.”
Can you see how this story was shaped by the values of the storyteller and assumptions about the
audience’s values? Can you imagine how someone with different values or beliefs might have told a very
different story about this same surrogate? Note how the word surrogate could itself shift the point of
view: a surrogate mother indicates a formalized role created to serve rather than a crazy woman simply
trying to make money.
Your turn for further analysis
1. How does the storyteller attempt to engage the audience?
2. What details are mentioned and why?
3. What’s left out?
4. What values are communicated by the story?
These stories are our attempts to make sense of the world. We narrate our experience in order to
connect with others and validate our own experience and self-worth. We shape our identity through
these stories. As Julie Beck, senior associate editor at The Atlantic, explains, “A life story is written in
chalk, not ink, and it can be changed.” Beck then uses Jonathon Adler, a psychologist, to expand on this
idea, “You’re both the narrator and the main character of your story… That can sometimes be a
revelation—‘Oh, I’m not just living out this story, I am actually in charge of this story.’” From this
perspective, stories allow us to be actors or agents, constructing our story to fit our sense of how the
world works…there’s now even a discipline called narrative psychology.
Therefore, when we tell stories to family or friends after a long day, absolute accuracy is not what is
valued–see Ron Christiansen’s “Is that a true story” for more on memoirs and truth. Instead we pick out
particular details which highlight how we have constructed the event. In the telling, our own identities
are solidified as we re-experience the event, carving out a space for it in our psyche and, hopefully, the
psyche of friends and family whom we want to see us in particular ways. We already are rhetorical
beings long before we enter a writing class.
Your turn to create
1. Describe two or three stories you have told to someone in the last few days.
2. Why did you tell the story?
3. How did you attempt to engage the audience?
4. What values were communicated through the story?
Finally, if story serves these vital social and identity functions in our everyday lives, then it is only natural
that story would play a significant role in all kinds of writing, engaging our readers, communicating and
shaping values, and illustrating how we see the world working. Stories are important at every level of
writing and rhetoric. In position arguments like Atul Gawande’s “Letting Go” where he frames his entire
argument about how health institutions do not know how to negotiate patients’ last days around the
story of a young pregnant woman, Sara Monopoli. In political debates where John McCain’s political
campaign in 2008 shaped a brief encounter Barrack Obama had with a plumber into a narrative about
the little business guy who would be hurt by Obama’s tax policies–see a fuller description here: Joe the
plumber stories). In reports such as Jonothan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities/excerpt where the systemic
poverty of East St. Louis is primarily explored through the stories and words of the people living there.
These uses of story are not simply incidental or options; instead they are the foundation on which the
appeals of these rhetorical encounters are built. See Clint Johnson’s “Writing Stories: Adding Tools to
the Problem Solver’s Writing Toolbox” for specific examples of how to use stories in other genres.
Yet claiming that stories are used in all kinds of writing almost goes without say, right? I mean we all
know, if we pause to think about it, that different genres use stories. A more compelling claim, the
strong version, as Newkirk argues, is that “narrative is the deep structure for all good sustained writing.”
So, yes, we all tell stories with a purpose. They are a form of action, of entering and living in the world.
Possibly you’ve never thought about story in quite this way but we assume it’s not too surprising. What
might be more surprising is that this deep structure of story in our lives can also be found in traditional
academic writing, researched arguments, and even scientific studies when there is no obvious “story” or
vignette present. For more on this see “Rhetorical Stories.” Finally, maybe “academic” writing is not as
different as we might imagine from the stories we tell each day to the people we love.
Beck, Julie. “Life’s Stories.” The Atlantic, The Atlantic Monthly Group. 10 Aug. 2015. Web. 3 Feb. 2016.
Newkirk, Thomas. Mind Made For Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive
Texts. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2014. Text.
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