What Is a Story?

Figure 1.2: Telling stories.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels.

So, what exactly is a story, anyway? Giving a definition of the word might actually make it more obscure because the definition may appear to exclude some things that we definitely think are stories. But for our course, we’ll understand a story as any account of characters or events. Our definition includes characters and what they do in not only movies, books, and plays but also news reports, professional journal articles, and even commercials. Many pieces of communication across many forms of media contain elements of a story, and we want our definition to capture them all. Stories aren’t just limited to books and movies or other media we commonly associate with them. In fact, the opposite is true—stories are everywhere. They’re in sports, politics, science, history, families, the lives of individuals, and in many other places as well.

Humans Can’t Help but Tell Stories

Stories are so widespread because they allow us to make sense of people and events so effortlessly. Stories string together events that may seem disconnected from each other. We connect them through the actions of characters and the meaning of these events in the lives of those characters.

In fact, we really can’t help but tell stories about many aspects of our lives, whether to ourselves or to others. We use stories to understand where we’ve been as people, why we’re here now, and where we intend to go. We use narrative arcs to connect otherwise disparate parts of our lives across time, knitting together a coherent picture of who we are and what we’re about. All these explanations that we tell ourselves are stories.

Understanding the World through Stories

We do the same for the lives of other people and their interactions with us. We might tell ourselves that our partner or our spouse was meant for us by analyzing the many seemingly improbable occurrences that led to our meeting. That tale is a story. On a larger scale, we might understand the rise of social movements in terms of stories as well when certain groups of people show us the importance of certain causes or ideas. We can use stories to explain what other people are doing and why.

Figure 1.3: Stories are everywhere.

Photo by Alexandr Podvalny via Pexels.

In short, stories are everywhere, and humans can’t help but tell them. We have a natural inclination to understand chains of events as connected through their meaning for each other and for people. This inclination gives stories their power: we readily accept stories and are interested in them, even when we believe that they might be false. Effectively using stories, then, is a powerful tool for communication and a way to share messages that may not be able to be shared in any other way.

Stories Aren’t Necessarily True or False

Sometimes people use the term “story” in a derogatory way, to imply that someone is just making up a report about what happened to them. “Some story,” we might say with skepticism when a friend tells us something that we find unbelievable.

But that’s not how we’ll use the term “story” in our course. For us, a story will just be any account of characters and events—without any prejudgment about whether or not that account is true. It could be true, or it could be false; parts of it could be true and other parts false. Judging the truth or falsity of stories is not a significant concern in this course.

This course is about understanding how stories work and how to present them in a compelling way. Whatever stories we’re presenting, whether about ourselves, our work, our relationships, our goals, or something else, the same storytelling principles will apply. Those principles function independently of whether our stories accurately depict the world.