Unit 1: The Power of the Narrative Form

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A Quick Review of Narrative Form

Before we begin, it is important that we clarify the difference between a narrative and a story, two terms which are frequently used interchangeably but which are subtly nuanced.

A story is a sequence of events, told in chronological order.

A narrative is a series of events, told from a perspective that is not dependent on chronology. When engaging in narrative, the narrator is free to accentuate some moments by adding details, minimize other moments by minimizing or eliminating details, skip forward in time, and engage in flashback -- all of which enhance the effect desired by the narrator.

This fluid nature of the narrative is what gives it its powerful ability to both provide and discover structure in experience and information, as explained in Szurmak & Thuna 2013:

While a story sets up the linear play-by-play “big picture” structure, the emplotted narrative, through contextualizing devices, can zoom into an event to focus on a detail, thus taking a learner in and out of the timeline of the story, and side-stepping the constraints of time and structure. This ability of a skillfully constructed narrative to zoom in and out of the events of the story mirrors the brain’s own uncanny ability to encode new learning in both minute detail and in broad emotional strokes. Moreover, a narrative can use plot devices to move back and forth along the arc of the story as easily as the brain itself can use the electrical signaling between neurons connected as part of the original learning experience....

The “aha moment” of an insight may arrive as the brain self-corrects and searches for a pattern....The brain is naturally self-reflective and self-correcting, engaged in both pattern-seeking and novelty-seeking....Narratives support the brain’s pattern-seeking needs by fitting a path to the actions of a story. The devices of the narrative, starting with the standardized tropes of a fairy tale (‘long ago, in a land far, far away…”) and ending with the balance between action and description, allow the brain to find the pattern, and the space for metacognitive reflection.

How Does the Narrative Form Help Us Learn?

As the preceding passage indicates, part of the purpose of narrative is to organize elements of the story, such that patterns may emerge. Also, since we have been exposed to narratives for much of our lives in the forms of storytelling, advertisement, and literature, we are comfortable with the predictable structure of narrative wherein we expect a beginning, a middle, and an end...which might also be labeled a context, a problem, and a resolution, respectively.

When our brains recognize this structure, we adopt a more receptive attitude towards the information being presented -- for while there might be a problem, surely a resolution cannot be far behind. Due to this anticipation of a satisfactory ending, narratives also help to engage an audience.

An Example: "How To Tie Your Shoes"

Please watch this famous (and brief) TEDTalk by Terry Moore:

How To Tie Your Shoes

Keep in mind that TEDTalks are attended by highly educated specialists. Had Moore merely gone up on stage and said, "You're all tying your shoes wrong; let me show you how to do it right," it's likely that much of his audience might have felt insulted.

Instead, he established a context (he is an educated adult who has learned an unexpected lesson), a problem (his expensive shoes will not stay tied), and a resolution (despite his inclination to blame the shoes, he realizes that there is a gap in his education -- specifically regarding shoe-tying). In this way, Moore at first connects with his audience, then puzzles his audience, and then provides them with a revelation which they are then ready to receive.

Practice What You've Learned So Far

Please watch the following TEDTalk from Ernesto Sirolli up to the 5 minute mark (of course, you may watch to the end if you wish):

Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!

Now please answer the following questions:

  1. What is the context of Sirolli's opening narrative?
  2. What is the problem (in this case more of a puzzle) he presents?
  3. How is the problem (puzzle) resolved? (In this case, what is the revelation?)
  4. In what ways might this narrative help Sirolli to connect with his audience?
  5. What signs indicate that the audience is engaged in what Sirolli is saying?
  6. What sign indicates that the audience is satisfied with the end of his narrative section (at 3:21)?
  7. How might the audience have responded differently if Sirolli had launched into his speech at the 4:06 mark, where he says, "We Western people are imperialist, colonialist missionaries, and there are only two ways we deal with people: We either patronize them, or we are paternalistic"? Would such a change have been a detriment or an improvement to his presentation?

Independent Practice

Think about a recent occasion where you briefly described a personal experience, or where you listened to somebody else briefly describe a personal experience. Chances are this happens numerous times each day; we talk about what happened on the way to work, about some funny thing that a family member did, or about examples of frustrating situations.

As you think about this experience, consider the narrative elements:

  1. What context was established, and how did that context relate to the audience of listeners?
  2. What problem or puzzle was introduced?
  3. In describing the resolution, what larger idea did you or the speaker seem to want the audience to understand about the situation?
  4. How did the intended audience respond to the narrative, and what can you infer from this response?
  5. How might the conversation have been different without the inclusion of any narrative element? Would it have had the same effect?


Moore, T. (2005, Feb). Terry Moore: How to tie your shoes [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/terry_moore_how_to_tie_your_shoes?language=en.

Sirolli, E. (2012, Nov). Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and listen! [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/ernesto_sirolli_want_to_help_someone_shut_up_and_listen/transcript?language=en

Szurmak, J., & Thuna, M. (2013, April). Tell me a story: The use of narrative as a tool for instruction. American library association, Indianapolis, IN.

Moving Ahead

In Unit 1 you have begun your journey by identifying elements of the narrative and examining their purpose. In Unit 2 you will take a closer look at the use of narrative in specific disciplines.

Are you ready? Well, then...let's continue on to Unit 2: Narrative in Instruction