Why and How part 3: What’s a Story anyways?

The Storyteller, by Goivanni Tiépolo

I’ve got a lot of questions lately about Storytelling, so I was thinking that, with my usual lack of restraint I jumped into explaining Business Storytelling without addressing two major concerns: the first is that while I might have written that stories help to communicate, I have not written on the why. Why we tell stories? is going to be part 4. But before that, we need to establish my point #2: what’s a story, anyways? This will later morph onto part 5: Ok, what’s a Business Story? but first, let’s talk about story-story, just plain ol’ story. What is a story?

And this is not something as easily answered. In fact, Storytelling (or Narratology, as Mussachio Adorisio calls it on Storytelling in Organizations) is a very, very broad discipline. It involves psychology, sociology, literature, organizational disciplines like management, information theory, linguistics and a host of other approaches. For our purpose, let’s narrow the definition a little bit: let’s use a mixture of the Russia formalist approach mixed with the organizational approach. I find this mixture the proper because while we’re interested in the organizational dimension of the concept of Story (i.e. the Business Story) as Mussachio Adorisio wryly comments, every single author has a different definition and framework of terms for what constitutes a Story. So, a little help from our formalist friends will clarify the field.

Authors like Sklovskjj have popularized the main concept that we need to take from the Russian formalist approach: A story has two dimensions.

  • The Dimension of Fabula: this entails the content of the information that it is transmitted. If we were to cling to Shannon’s definition (see part 1 of the series), a Story would be just that: informational content. But since we’re using a more complex definition, we still lack…
  • The Dimension of Discourse: this is how the narrator of the story tells it and how it is perceived by the audience.

This sounds too conceptual, but think of it like this: Pulp Fiction, or Memento. Both those films benefit greatly from their nonlinear arrangement. So, the pure events (the stories of Vincent Vega /Marcellus Wallace or the story of Leonard and Natalie) are pretty much straightforward. This is the Fabula. But their editing makes them from a more exciting movie, something we remember when all other crime capers fade into oblivion. This is the Discourse.

So, we can glimpse already the art of Storytelling, even if it is Storytelling raw financial data. It is not just moving information from an Excel into the minds of the audience. It is the arranging of information in such an artful way that between the Storyteller and the Audience something memorable happens: an experience, like we discussed in part two.

So, having this in mind, can we approach a definition of Story? We need to take into account both the Fabula and the Discourse. But, as the saying goes: when there are fourteen standards and people say “we need an universal standard” you end up with fifteen standards. Rather that giving my definition (which would make me just as singular and boring as those other authors) let me do something else: let me give you the definition of an author which a) conforms to the formalist approach and b) can help us move later into Business Storytelling.

This is the definition from the great, great Barbara Herrstein Smith

Goddess of taking complex concepts and distilling them into wisdom

She defines stories and narratives as:

“Someone tells someone else that something happened”.

This phrase sums brilliantly the very basic level that we have gone over: it is both a report of Fabula information by someone to someone, in the level of Discourse. There’s a deeper level that has to do with Chronology and Time, which we will touch upon in part 5 with Callahan and Ricoeur, but for now, let’s stick with this: Stories are someone telling someone else that something happened.

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