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Narrative - The Structure Of Stories

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The key argument that experience comes to us by way of narrative suggests that experience can be viewed as structured along the same lines that stories are. For example, when we are asked about what may have happened to us over a particular span of time, we are likely to respond with an unfolding story, not just a list of events. A listing is simply a series of happenings, which may or may not be organized chronologically. A story, in contrast, can have myriad internal linkages and thus considerable overall organizational complexity. These linkages supply both the meaningful connections between events and the horizons of meaning that comprise the varied worlds of lived experience.

Stories and their events are narratively structured in at least three ways—through characterization, by formulating events into plots, and by discerning an overall theme or point. In responding to a question about what one has experienced, one can, respectively, describe who was involved and how, detail the temporal organization of events, and make a point, for example, of what it all led to or explain why things developed as they did. For instance, as far as characterization is concerned, the dramatis personae of the story of one's caregiving experience for a demented parent may be limited to the caregiver and the care receiver, with all events described as unfolding around them. The point being made about the experience might be that, overall, it was an important learning experience and strengthened the caregiver's resolve as a person. In contrast, such a story might be told in terms of a huge cast of characters, ranging from the caregiver and care receiver themselves, to professionals, neighbors, friends, and both close and distant relatives, and whose plot links up with the point that if it had not been for the help and support of others, the caregiver would not have survived the ordeal.

While the actual experience of caregiving might be similar in any two cases, their respective characterizations, the plots, and the points subsequently conveyed, can make for distinct forms of knowledge. In practice, we respond as much, if not more, to the stories told about experience as to the experience in its own right. The argument that experience comes to us in the form of stories is important because the organization of stories, separate from what actually happened, bears significantly on how we respond to the events in question. The relevance of studying stories follows directly from this, as their organization brings the researcher face-to-face with the experience's communicative realities.

Each of the three ways of structuring a story can be further divided into subcategories, into forms of characterization, kinds of plots, and types of themes. Vladimir Propp was an important pioneer in distinguishing the underlying plot structure of the folk tale, for example, an approach that other narrative researchers have since developed extensively into additional structures and categorizations (see Polkinghorne). Moreover, the three ways of structuring a story may be narratively related in different ways. For example, emphasis might be placed on characterization, with the plot and the point given relatively minor roles, or conversely the point and plot might be highlighted with little character development. This, too, affects how we respond to the experiences being described.

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