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NARRATIVE RATIONALITY: MAKING GOOD STORIES

What makes for a good story? Is it a page-turning plot? Engaging characters? Perhaps it is more experientialif the book makes me forget what time it is, then it must be a good story. To Walter Fisher this is a question worth asking. The creator of the narrative paradigm, Fisher believes that humans are story-telling creatures, and that nearly all forms of communication are best viewed as stories. While many can see the value of communication as a story, it is Fishers concept of narrative rationality that makes his theory stand out. While critics like William F. Woods declare Fishers theory to be little more than a trade of logical reasoning for rhetoric (1989, p. 238), narrative rationality is what allows us to determine what makes better stories. First, a definition of what a story is must be established. In the broadest sense, stories are all forms of symbolic action, or interpretations of things in sequences (Fisher, 1987, p. 24). Naturally, books like A Tale of Two Cities or films like Mission: Impossible come to mind when we think of stories. They have a beginning, middle, and end; characterization; and easy-to-spot conflict. But this definition of stories also encompasses scientific theories, legal arguments, and advertisements. This shift is of paramount importance to Fisherthe narrative paradigm is a change from strictly thinking in a rational-world model to one that has sequential and interpretive roots. The measure of what makes a story good, then, must be broad enough to reach the different ends of the spectrum for what a story is, while also being effective on a case-by-case basis. Enter narrative rationality. Just as logic is the standard for the rational worldview, narrative rationality is the standard for the narrative paradigm. There

NARRATIVE RATIONALITY: MAKING GOOD STORIES are two components that make up narrative rationality: coherence and fidelity. These are the measures by which all people are able to judge stories. Coherence

focuses on the details, characters, and structure of the story itself. In a broad stroke, coherence is the determination of whether the story makes sense. Fidelity is concerned with the truthfulness of a story (Fisher, 1987, p. 47). This is not truthfulness in relation to factual evidence; Fisher identifies this characteristic as the truthfulness of the values related to and undergirding the story. These concepts are quite involved; neither side is asking purely yes-no questions, but rather forces the audience to consider both the logical structure of a story as well as the its values. For those who are transitioning from the rational-world model to a narrative paradigm that Fisher desires, understanding coherence is the most natural place to start. A storys coherence takes a look at the story in its entirety, taking an aerial perspective of the forest, not just a single tree (Fisher, 1987, p. 105). It is this component that most resembles what a strictly rational logic would look like, mainly because rationality is one of the components of coherence. Narrative coherence can be broken down into three main categories: structure, material, and character (Fisher, 1995, p. 177). The structure of the story asks whether the logic of the story is consistent throughout. Do the laws of nature suddenly disappear for a scene or moment in time, and return without explanation or cause? This would violate a consistency in logic, and would make the story less coherent to the audience. Compared to structural coherence, material coherence takes a look at the actual content of the story in relation to other stories. Are there factual errors, distortions in the line of reasoning, or missing arguments in the story? Do other stories present

NARRATIVE RATIONALITY: MAKING GOOD STORIES important information that this story ignores? Fisher purports that there is no story that is not embedded in other stories (Fisher, 1995, p. 177); no story is an

island or a tabula rasa. Combined, these make up much of the rational worldview. It is Fishers third component of coherence, character, that separates the narrative coherence from the rest. Take for instance A Tale of Two Cities; the reason people deem it a classic is not just because it stays true to certain aspects of the French Revolution (which it does) or because it presents similar points of view compared to other books (which it also does). It is the reliability of character of both the actors and author that gives A Tale of Two Cities its classic status. Fisher describes character as an organized set of actional tendencies(1987, p. 47), where an actor in the story behaves in a way that shows the values they hold. Stories allow changes in a persons character; growth happens after struggles and experiences shape direction just like in real life. But if these actional tendencies contradict one another, the audience naturally questions the character of the actor and/or author. Structural and material soundness, with the addition of character analysis, leads to a full view of narrative coherence that is more than just a logical exercise. While analyzing the coherence of a story is an important aspect in judging good stories, it is only one side of narrative rationality. The other is narrative fidelity. Moving past surface level content and story structuration, fidelity is concerned primarily with values. Fisher contends that stories and the majority of human communication are, by nature, subjective (1987, p. 110). The values in stories are not always explicitly stated, however. Compared to religious works and opinion pieces, some stories, such as scientific journals and the like, have their

NARRATIVE RATIONALITY: MAKING GOOD STORIES values in assumptions. Research papers have values like knowledge is power or understanding leads to growth, despite trying to stay objective and formal. Weighing these values is the flipside to analyzing coherence, and Fisher builds a system to do just that. Called the logic of good reasons, Fisher creates a framework to judge values presented in stories and their relation to the audience. But what are good reasons?

Fisher would describe them as elements in a story that are fostered and transmitted by rhetorical communication, which warrant acceptance (1987, p. 107). Often these are the underlying assumptions or the values that make a certain statement weighty in the mind of the audience. All good reasons are not equally good, however. The logic of good reasons is meant to be a scheme with which to determine values and allow them to be judged against others that are also presented or in consideration. There are five components that make up the logic of good (Fisher, 1987, pp. 108-9). A disclaimer: facts are not necessarily mathematical proofs like 2 +2 =4, but instead messages with attached value statements being presented as truth in the story. First, are the facts actually facts? Second, have relevant facts been left out or have presented facts been taken out of context? Third, what are the patterns of reasoning surrounding those facts? Fourth, are these the arguments that are relevant to the present case? And fifth, does the message deal with the question of the matter? These five questions are the criteria with which Fisher would judge the truthfulness of any given story. Whereas narrative coherence looks at the story from a broad perspective, narrative fidelity breaks the story into parts. Thinking through a storys fidelity is

NARRATIVE RATIONALITY: MAKING GOOD STORIES looking at each tree in the forest individually. Stories often present more than one

message, and testing for fidelity gets at each individual message while weighing the values it explicitly or implicitly conveys (Fisher, 1995, p. 178). In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens has multiple goals in his writing. Comparisons and contrasts are made between France and Britain, the aristocracy encounters judgment and punishment, and Sydney Carton epitomizes redemption of a fallen character. Each of these goals represents a different message with a different value statement. Nation comparisons are more about citizens values; punished aristocracy members imply responsibility for the marginalized; and Sydney Carton shows the audience that one choice can change a legacy. These are transcendent values that undergird each of Dickens decisions while writing the novel. The logic of good reasons helps us weigh these transcendent issues. They are ultimate values with fundamental commitments coming from the author, speaker, or actor presented (Fisher, 1987, p. 109). To identify these values is to understand the basis of the messages themselves. Similar to narrative coherence in that no story is in island unto itself, no message exists all by itself. Every message has a value that comes with it. Fisher argues that understanding these values can bring about a fuller picture of what is really being said. One of the key features expressed in a storys fidelity is the level of consistency that it holds. It is an important value to almost all audiences. As seen in the previous examples, audiences are attuned to sudden changes in direction or arguments in stories. Stories must have internal consistency to provide a full picture of rationality. Missteps in logical content or the structure of the story itself can end

NARRATIVE RATIONALITY: MAKING GOOD STORIES the forcefulness of an argument, and lead an audience to distrust what is being said and even the storyteller herself. Staying consistent is important in establishing credibility throughout the story. However, this desire for consistency causes

problems for narrative coherence. If stories are looking for consistency, doesnt that mean they should follow the audiences expectations? (McAdams, 2006, p. 111) Sounds like quite the boring story if this assumption holds true. An important consideration of internal consistency, however, is that it comes from the speakers point of view. The speaker can be internally consistent in their assumptions, logic, tendencies, and actions without matching up with the audience (Lucaites and Condit, 1985, p. 96). Nevertheless, identifying these values is not enough. The logic of good reasons allows the audience to judge and weigh each message, and determine if the story holds fidelity. Here Fisher turns from talking about the story itself and gives responsibility to the audience. Each message with its attached is valuable not because it is tied to a reason but because it makes a pragmatic difference in ones life and in ones community (Fisher, 1987, p. 111, emphasis authors). The audience is the final word on whether the story has value because the audience is who will be affected by the truths that are presented in the story. No audience desires to accept a reason/value that hurts itself or the community that it exists in. There is a certain amount of subjectivity involved in this process, which Fisher seems ready to admit. Though an undiscovered hierarchy of values might exist, Fisher does not believe it is absolutely necessary to maintain narrative rationality. Different stories in different cultures at different times might result in different judgment calls. The

NARRATIVE RATIONALITY: MAKING GOOD STORIES logic of good reasons lines up with that belief. Fisher writes, The purpose is to offer a scheme that can generate a sense of what is good as well as what is reasonable, to ensure that people are conscious of values they adhere to and to

inform their consciousness without dictating what they should believe (1987, p. 113, emphasis authors). Disputes may occur, fighting may happen, doubts may arise. All good reasons are not created equal, nor should they be. But to Fisher, the effort to uncover fidelity through analyzing value statements is a major step in the right direction for audiences and communities. It forces audience members to view their lives and stories in relation to one another, as well as society at large (Fisher, 1995, p. 178). So what is an audience to do? It seems that a weight of responsibility has fallen upon the backs of the audience as they critique a storys coherence while working to find out whether the truths of the story are true and worthy to be clung to. Fisher would believe that this is a better outcome than leaving those decisions up to experts or a minority of decision makers. Some critics develop this point as a major objection to the theory (Warnick, 1987, p. 175). Fisher, in his effort to move away from the rational worldview and its logic only constraints, seems to have eliminated an opportunity for expert counsel so that the untrained masses can judge for themselves in community what to accept. However, Fisher claims that experts are to be counted out of the equation completely. He argues that what an expert claims is another story that the lay audience should test for narrative rationality, both the coherence and fidelity of the experts story (1987, p. 72). An experts story might have a higher amount of coherence to it as it critiques a separate story, since

NARRATIVE RATIONALITY: MAKING GOOD STORIES

the expert might have a broader range of other stories from which to judge from and from which to compare with. The principle of interdependence rings true throughout all of Fishers narrative paradigm; no story is isolated. Yes, a long string of stories is created, and yes, a web of tangles can be created; but Fisher isnt trying to make the world more complicated, just point out how the world is. That is the biggest draw of the narrative paradigm; stories are everywhere if you look for them. Fishers narrative rationality is a simple but involved framework meant to give an audience pause to revel, consider, and judge a story. Woods is right in saying that the narrative paradigm is a de-emphasis of logic (Woods, 1989, p. 238). But that could be just what is needed. The rational worldview has made a god of logic and reason, while ignoring the assumptions and presumptions behind it all. Narrative rationality is an effort to move the pendulum back, strive for the middle road, and balance the argument. So what makes for a good story? Coherence, fidelity, and an audience willing work, listening and analyzing the story in relation to others and its community. Or at least, that is the story Fisher is trying to share.

NARRATIVE RATIONALITY: MAKING GOOD STORIES References Dickens, C. (1942). A Tale of Two Cities. New York, NY: Dodd, Mead, & Co. Fisher, W. R. (1987). Human Communication as Narration: Toward a philosophy of reason, value, and action. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press. Fisher, W. R. (1995). Narration, knowledge, and the possibility of wisdom. In R. F.

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Goodman & W. R. Fisher (Eds.), Rethinking Knowledge: Reflection across the disciplines (pp. 169-192). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. Griffin, E. (2012). A first look at communication (8th ed.). New York, NY: McGrawHill. Lucaites, J. L., & Condit, C. M. (1985). Reconstructing narrative theory: A functional perspective. Journal of Communication, 35, (Autumn), 90-108 McAdams, D. P. (2006). The problem of narrative coherence. Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 19 (2), 109-125 Warnick, B. (1987). The narrative paradigm: Another story. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 73, 172-182. Woods, W. F. (1989). [Review of the book Human communication as narration: Toward a philosophy of reason, value, and action, by W. R Fisher]. College Composition and Communication, 40 (2), 236-238.

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