Narratological Creativity: Have you ever heard a child try to get its story straight? Or maybe you have dear friend who always blows the punch line of a good joke. Both are examples of how hard to tell a coherent, meaningful and compelling tale. Stories are a complex mash up of characters, actions, plots, description, grammar and sequence. Most importantly, they have a narrative voice – our voice - authentic or personified. How we tell the tale can either energize the most mundane anecdote or dampened even the most rousing spellbinder. The philosopher Plato understood the persuasive power of the storyteller and was so concerned that he banished them from his Republic and urged Athenians to restrict the teaching of rhetoric because it covers up an individual’s lack of knowledge. What would he think of political ads or commercials for beauty products?
Narrative is a story communicated in sequence. It is how the tale is told. Stories can be readily deconstructed and reconstructed to make different versions or new concoctions altogether. For example, many American’s first drank Dos Equis beer during their college years in the 1970’s while on winter break in California or Mexico. It wasn’t exactly a premium brand. Then the Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma Brewery, which had been in business since 1900, changed the story of the product with an advertising campaign about "The Most Interesting Man in the World.” This character is a combination of James Bond and Ernest Hemmingway as the commercial chronicles his manly feats of derring-do. Simply by changing the narrative, Dos Equis experienced explosive growth in a shrinking market. The Dos Equis brand, the story of the product, has now become synonymous with adventure.
Linguist Vladimir Propp collected thousands of Russian fairy tales to study the structure of stories much in the same way that professors Jacob Wilhelm Grimm preserved German folktales like Hansel and Gretel and Snow White. Propp divided each tale in actors, universal character roles such as the hero or the villain, and functions, plot elements such as a rescue or a punishment. He disassembled these stories to reveal their morphology, meaning the small linguist units and rules that make up a narrative, and noticed how other Russian fairytales had simply reassembled the parts of old tales in new ways. Given the endless combination characters and plot elements, storytelling thus becomes a method of generating creative possibilities. It’s no wonder that the military establishment and consumer electronics engineers often take their cue from science fiction writers who routinely deconstruct and reconstruct alternative realities. You may have even heard political hipsters ask “what’s your campaign’s narrative?’
Changing the voice of the narrator can also completely change the story. For example, in Franz Kafka’s idiosyncratic story The Metamorphosis, salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a giant vermin. Told from the point of view of a man, the tale and its insights would be relatively ordinary but by making the protagonist an insect the plot takes on new possibilities and significance and reader experiences the events as extraordinary.
Our personal stories are perhaps the ultimate use of narratological creativity as we invent and reinvent the story of our life. Mythologist Joseph Campbell suggested we all have a genesis story that he called the “hero’s journey” that connects our individual experiences to one universal monomyth – the human condition. In this way something that is deeply personal becomes allegorical or of mythic significance. This allows us to draw on this bigger story for inspiration and creative solutions to our own challenges.
How to Improve Your Narratological Creativity:
Storyboarding – For years Walt Disney came into our living rooms each Sunday evening from his animation studio. He would sit in front of a wall filled with drawings connected by small lengths of twine. Disney developed this storyboarding process of pre-visualizing a movie by representing the various characters and scenes on large note cards. This allowed his animation team to easily change the sequence of the action, add and subtract characters and get a real sense of what the motion picture would look like before production began. These days there are a number of software applications that eliminate the need for note cards and string but the power of telling and retelling a story in a group is still an incredibly effective ways to create new ideas.
Morphologies –Morphologies codify challenges into their most discrete elements. They are often used in biological sciences to understand what makes an organism tick. Think of it like building blocks that you can take apart and put back together in new ways. By breaking down a story into characters and actions a wide range of possible solutions can be reconstructed. Similarly, by looking at a product or experience as a collection of functions and attributes in a matrix, a series of new combinations can be assembled – uses, colors, size, flavors, etc. Some morphological design processes such as TRIZ use a defined set of inventive principles to develop a product much in the same way that you would advance the plot of a story through contradictions, conflict and other types of tension.
Scenario Making –There is no data on the future where breakthrough innovation happens. So how do you see the future first? You consider how underlying forces at work today may drive what happens in the future – politics, economics and social well being just to name just a few. Scenarios are just projected courses of action. They ask the “what if?” questions – good and bad – global prosperity or financial meltdown? Scenarios help you gauge the impact and probability of each possible story – What will be the outcome and how likely is it to happen? This technique is commonly used in strategic planning for large and complex organizations where the range of variability is great but it can also be used as a personal tool to help you speculate on a wide array of possible situations and develop potential courses of action for each.
Here are some resources to help you to get create a compelling story:
Storyboarding- Directing the Story: Professional Storytelling and Storyboarding Techniques for Live Action and Animation by Francis Glebas
Morphologies – Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee
Scenario Making – Scenario Planning: A Field Guide to the Future by Woody Wade
What narratological creativity methods and resources do you find most useful?
To learn more about how narratological creativity works you might want to read The Hero with a Thousand Faces (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell) by Joseph Campbell.
It’s time to start changing your story. Remember, a creative life means you make it up as you go along.