Narrative paradigm

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The Narrative Paradigm is a theory proposed by 20th century philosopher Walter Fisher that all meaningful communication is a form of storytelling or giving a report of events (see narrative), and that human beings experience and comprehend life as a series of ongoing narratives, each with its own conflicts, characters, beginning, middle, and end. Fisher believes that all forms of communication that appeal to our reason are best viewed as stories shaped by history, culture, and character, and all forms of human communication are to be seen fundamentally as stories.


The way in which people explain and/or justify their behavior, whether past or future, has more to do with telling a credible story than it does with producing evidence or constructing a logical argument. The traditional paradigm of the rational world is seen as a scientific or philosophical approach to knowledge that assumes people are logical and make decisions on the basis of evidence and lines of argument. This view claims that:

  • People are essentially thinking beings, basing their reasoned decisions on the merits of discussion and evidential reasoning.
  • What is judged rational is determined by the knowledge and understanding displayed and by how the case is argued. That is, the way in which the argument is made will determine the outcome so long as the form matches the forum, which might be scientific, legal, philosophical, etc.
  • The world is a set of logical puzzles that we can solve through rational analysis.

Fisher reacts against this model as too limited and suggests a new paradigm of narrative rationality, which views narrative as the basis of all human communication. He begins with the proposition that:

  • People are essentially storytellers.
  • The world is a set of stories from among which we must choose in order to live in a process of continual re-creation.[1] Each individual chooses the ones that match his or her values and beliefs.
  • Making decisions depends on judgments about these good reasons. Although people claim reasons for their decisions,[2] such as history, culture, and perceptions about the status and character of the other people involved, all of these may be subjective and incompletely understood.
  • The test of narrative rationality is based on the probability, coherence, and fidelity of the stories that underpin the immediate decisions to be made.

Narrative coherence asks if a story hangs together. We often determine whether the story has coherence by comparing it with another story that falls along the same lines. For example, a story line which presents the notion that a man loves his wife, depicts him abusing her, contrasts with one in which he is considerate. It does not make sense that a man who loves his wife will abuse her; thus, the narrative in question is not totally consistent or coherent. To Fisher, the ultimate test of narrative coherence is whether we can count on the characters to act in a reliable manner.[3] Because of this we seem to trust characters to show continuity throughout the thought, movie, and actions. Otherwise we become suspicious when the characters behave uncharacteristically. [4]

Narrative fidelity states that if a story matches our own beliefs and experiences, we will accept it. Fidelity determines how the story plugs into the background of the world as a person has known it. For example someone who does not believe in God and just believes in natural laws is listening to a story of someone being healed by a miracle. This person might not be persuaded because there is no fidelity for this story and his experiences do not fit to the story.[5] Fisher also believes that a story has fidelity when it can be seen as a guide for our own actions. We buy into those characters' values, and this sets narrative paradigm's logic of good reason apart from the rational-world paradigm's logic of reason.

The logic of good reason is centered around five issues. According to Fisher we are concerned with (1) the values within a message, (2) the relevance of those values to the decisions that are made, (3) the consequences of believing in those values, (4) the overlap of the world view of the audience, and (5) the conformity with what the audience believes is "an ideal basis for conduct".[6] When we decide a story has fidelity we are not just affirming our shared beliefs, but opening up ourselves to the thought that these values will ultimately influence our beliefs and values. (Griffin 304)

This does not deny that there is a system of formal logical reasoning. But, following Michel Foucault, such systems are formed through the savoir and pouvoir (knowledge and power) of the hierarchies that control access to the discourses. Hence, criteria for assessing the reliability and completeness of evidence, and whether the pattern of reasoning is sound are not absolutes, but defined diachronically by those in positions of authority. This will be particularly significant when the process of reasoning admits values and policy in addition to empirical data.

Fisher proposes narrative rationality and coherence (fidelity and probability) as an a priori basis upon which to decide which are good or bad stories. He argues that human communication is something more than its rational form; that its cultural context, and the values and experience of the audience are as important. Perhaps the most meritocratic, democratic or subversive implication of his ideas has to do with who is qualified to assess the quality of communication. In the traditional model, expertise as defined by the power hierarchies is required to present or judge the soundness of any formal arguments. Fisher maintains that, armed with common sense, almost any individual can see the point of a good story and judge its merits as the basis for belief and action.

Therefore, to Fisher, narration affects every aspect of each individual's life and the lives of others in every verbal and nonverbal bid for a person to believe or act in a certain way. Even when a message seems abstract, i.e. the language is literal and not figurative, it is narration because it is embedded in the speaker's ongoing story that has a beginning, middle, and end, and it invites listeners to interpret its meaning and assess its value for their own lives.

The psychology of Walter Fisher's narrative paradigm[edit]

The first pillar of Walter Fisher’s narrative paradigm theory claims that people are storytellers (5). Fisher also states that people interpret stories by using “good reasons”. According to the theory, good reasons are events of history, past events in one’s own life, culture, and characters involved.

Situation models[edit]

When people experience a story, the phase of comprehension is where people form a mental representation about the text(Zwaan 15)[7] The mental representation that is formed is called a situation model.

The situation models are mental representations of the state of affairs described in a text rather than of the text itself. Much of the research on situation models in narrative comprehension suggests that those who comprehend behave as though they are in the narrated situation rather than outside of it. This supports Fisher’s model where the components that Fisher states are valid by determining good reasons are related to those that are formed in the situation models.


People exist in, move about in, and interact with environments. Situation models should represent relevant aspects of these environments. Very often (but not necessarily), objects that are spatially close to us are more relevant than more distant objects. Therefore, one would expect the same for situation models. Consistent with this idea, those who comprehend are slower to recognize words denoting objects distant from a protagonist than those denoting objects close to the protagonist(Glenberg, Meyer, & Lindem, 1987).[8] When those who comprehend have extensive knowledge of the spatial layout of the setting of the story (e.g., a building), they update their representations according to the location and goals of the protagonist. They have the fastest mental access to the room that the protagonist is currently in or is heading to. For example, they can more readily say whether or not two objects are in the same room if the room mentioned is one of these rooms than if it is some other room in the building(e.g., Morrow, Greenspan, & Bower, 1987).[9] This makes perfect sense intuitively; these are the rooms that would be relevant to us if we were in the situation. People’s interpretation of the meaning of a verb denoting movement of people or objects in space, such as to approach, depends on their situation models. The interpretation of those who comprehend also depends on the size of the landmark and the speed of the figure(Morrow & Clark, 1988).[10] Those who comprehend behave as if they are actually standing in the situation, looking at the tractor or mouse approaching a fence.


We assume by default that events are narrated in their chronological order, with nothing left out. Presumably this assumption exists because this is how we experience events in everyday life. Events occur to us in a continuous flow, sometimes in close succession, sometimes in parallel, and often partially overlapping. Language allows us to deviate from chronological order, however. For example, we can say, “Before the psychologist submitted the manuscript, the journal changed its policy.” The psychologist submitting the manuscript is reported first, even though it was the last of the two events to occur. In real life, events follow each other seamlessly. However, narratives can have temporal discontinuities, when writers omit events not relevant to the plot. Such temporal gaps, typically signaled by phrases such as "a few days later," are quite common in narratives.

Nonetheless, they present a departure from everyday experience. Therefore, time shifts should lead to (minor) disruptions of the comprehension process. And they do. Reading times for sentences that introduce a time shift tend to be longer than those for sentences that do not(Zwaan, 1996).[11]

All other things being equal, events that happened just recently are more accessible to us than events that happened a while ago. Thus, in a situation model, enter should be less accessible after An hour ago, John entered the building than after A moment ago, John entered the building. Recent probe word recognition experiments support this prediction(e.g., Zwaan, 1996)[12]

Goals & Causation[edit]

If we have a goal that is currently unsatisfied, it will be more prominent in our minds than a goal that has already been accomplished. For example, my goal to assist my wife in preparing for a party at our house tonight is currently more active in my mind than my goal to write a review of a manuscript if I finished the review this morning. Once a goal has been accomplished, there is no need for me to keep it on my mental desktop. Thus, if a protagonist has a goal that has not yet been accomplished, that goal should be more accessible to those who comprehend than a goal that was just accomplished by the protagonist. In line with this prediction, goals yet to be accomplished by the protagonist were recognized more quickly than goals that were just accomplished(Trabasso & Suh, 1993).[13] We are often able to predict people’s future actions by inferring their goals. For example, when we see a man walking over to a chair, we assume that he wants to sit, especially when he has been standing for a long time. Thus, we might generate the inference “He is going to sit.”Keefe and McDaniel (1993)[14] presented subjects with sentences like after standing through the 3-hr debate, the tired speaker walked over to his chair (and sat down) and then with probe words (e.g., sat, in this case). Subjects took about the same amount of time to name sat when the clause about the speaker sitting down was omitted and when it was included. Moreover, naming times were significantly faster in both of these conditions than in a control condition in which it was implied that the speaker remained standing. As we interact with the environment, we have a strong tendency to interpret event sequences as causal sequences. It is important to note that, just as we infer goals, we have to infer causality; we cannot perceive it directly. Singer and his colleagues(e.g., Singer, Halldorson, Lear, & Andrusiak, 1992)[15] have investigated how readers use their world knowledge to validate causal connections between narrated events. Subjects read sentence pairs, such as 1a and then 1b or 1a’ and then 1b, and were subsequently presented with a question like 1c:

(1a) Mark poured the bucket of water on the bonfire.

(1a’) Mark placed the bucket of water by the bonfire.

(1b) The bonfire went out.

(1c) Does water extinguish fire?

Subjects were faster in responding to 1c after the sequence 1a-1b than after 1a’-1b. According to Singer, the reason for this is that the knowledge that water extinguishes fire was activated to validate the events described in 1a-1b. However, because this knowledge cannot be used to validate 1a’-1b, it was not activated when subjects read that sentence pair.

Probability and fidelity[edit]

The second part of Fisher’s theory deals with how people determine the probability and fidelity of a story (5). Fisher claims that people have an inherent skill in determining probability. In a test done by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, which was related to Fisher’s claim, subjects were presented with a brief personality profile (496).

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

The subjects were then asked which one of the two statements they thought was more probable.

  • Statement A: Linda is a bank teller.
  • Statement B: Linda is a bank teller who is active in the feminist movement.

In the sample of undergraduate students who were given this problem, 86% had said that statement B was more probable. However, this result does not correspond with a model of probability that states the probability of A is always greater than the probability of A and B (Kahneman & Tversky 98). What Kahneman and Tversky concluded from this experiment is that with increased specificity in the text, the compound target, (X & Y, or Linda is a bank teller & who is active in the feminist movement) can be judged more probable than a single component (X or Linda is a bank teller) (97). The conclusion that was made from Kahneman and Tversky’s test also supports Fisher’s idea of narrative fidelity. Narrative fidelity is defined as whether or not the stories that people experience relate to what they know to be true in their own lives (Fisher 5). When people draw their conclusion that the compound target is more probable than the single component, they are putting what they know to be true from their own lives into determining the story’s fidelity.

Narrative and argumentation: Narration is one of the first language skills all children develop and narrative seems to be universal across cultures and time. In contrast argumentation must be taught and it is the basis for public discourse in our culture. However, after learning argumentation, people often resist using it and prefer to use narratives. Still, for example statistics can add new and more detailed information to the story.[16]

Works cited[edit]

  • Fisher, Walter R. Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.
  • Kahneman, Daniel, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky, eds. Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
  • Zwaan, Rolf A. "Situation Models: The Mental Leap into Imagined Worlds.” Current Directions in Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society 8.1 (1999): 15–18.

Narrative rationality[edit]

According to Fisher, the narrative paradigm is all-encompassing. Therefore, all communication can be looked at through a narrative lens, even though it may not meet the traditional literary requirements of a narrative. Individuals are able to distinguish what makes a story legitimate by using what Fisher refers to as narrative rationality. Rationality consists of two factors: coherence and fidelity. Coherence can be best defined as the degree to which a story makes sense structurally. Is the story consistent, with sufficient detail, reliable characters, and free of any major surprises? The ability to judge coherence is learned, and improves with experience. Narrative fidelity is concerned with whether or not the story is true. Fisher establishes five criteria that affect a story’s narrative fidelity (Fisher, 1987):

  • questions of fact that examine the values embedded in the story, either explicitly or implicitly
  • questions of relevance that consider the connection between the story that is told and the values being espoused
  • questions of consequences that consider the possible outcomes that would accrue to people adhering to the espoused values
  • questions of consistency between the values of the narrative and the held values of the audience
  • questions of transcendence that consider the extent to which the story’s values represent the highest values possible in human experience

Narrative rationality versus narrative emotion[edit]

The narrative rationality and the narrative emotion are complementary within narrative theory. The rationality approach to narratives works through the lens of narrative effectiveness in conveying the story, as well as its consequent social implications. The narrative emotion otherwise puts under scrutiny the emotions stirred up in reaction to fiction and thus analyses the purpose of narrative through its very reception.[17] Narrative emotion studies how "emoting by proxy" characterizes the experience of attending to a narrative.[18]

Narrative emotion is a recent trend of narrative theory:[19]

"It is only with the advent of modern aesthetics that emotion could be valued as a proper object of study."


Narrative theory has been widely applied within the field of communication, although not specifically. Those who have used narrative theory within their research refer to it as a general way of looking at communication. Fisher’s theory has been applied to organizational communication, family interaction, racism, and advertising. One example of a study that used narrative theory more directly was conducted by L.D. Smith in 1984. Smith looked at the fidelity and coherence of narratives presented at Republican and Democratic Party platforms and found that despite obvious differences, each party was able to maintain coherence and fidelity by being consistent in both structure and overarching party values (Smith, 1989).


Fisher offers a humanistic model of communication in that individuals take sometimes complex information and transform it into narratives. This characterizes humans as "storytelling animals" exchanging messages with each other, and that each message is judged as credible in terms of its consistency and by reference to the values and beliefs of the audience. But, not all human discourse follows the story form and his reference to the subtext of the speaker's or writer's own narratives is less than compelling. Further, he fails to specify how critics are to make their choices between narrative probability or fidelity, and provides no criteria for testing narrative probability. It seems that the critic becomes "a standard unto himself", disposing of more traditional rationality without anything convincing to replace it, e.g. it is not acceptable in most formal contexts that a storyteller would be judged superior in credibility to an expert witness. Finally, the logic of good reasons is inadequately developed, as it fails to consider how values can be presented in argument and, once presented, how the "relative worth" of one value can be evaluated against that of another.


Critics of Fisher’s narrative theory contend mainly that it is not universally applicable as Fisher states. For example, Rowland (1989) believes that narrative theory should be applied strictly to communication that fits classic narrative patterns, because the generality with which Fisher applies narrative theory undermines its credibility.

William Kirkwood (1992) observes that Fisher's logic of good reasons focuses on prevailing values and fails to account for the ways in which stories can promote social change. In some ways, both Kirkwood and Fisher agree that this observation is more of an extension to the theory than a punishing critique.

Following Kirkwood (1992), Scott R. Stroud (2002) is particularly interested in "multivalent narratives," or narratives that include a variety of seemingly contradictory values or positions that force a reader to reconstruct their meaning, thereby enabling positive judgments of narrative fidelity and the adoption of new values for their own lives. In a later study, Stroud (2004) examines other Indian philosophical texts to further categorize the types of multivalent narratives that creatively use contradictory elements to enable judgments of narrative fidelity.

It can also be argued that some forms of communication are not narrative in the way that Fisher maintains. Science fiction and fantasy novels or movies do to conform to most people values, they often challenge values (Turner 2007).

Fisher's narrative paradigm offers a reworking of Aristotelian analysis, which has always dominated the field of rhetorical thinking. Fisher's approach is strongly democratic. Because Fisher's view of communication is shown as a narrative, people do not generally need training or expertise to decide if the story holds together or believe it to be true. When to comes to evaluating coherence and fidelity, ordinary people with common sense are competent rhetorical critics (Griffin 305).

The narrative paradigm also finds critics who believe that it is not useful to its conservative bias. William Kirkwood (1992) saw that Fisher's logic of good reasons only focus on prevailing issues, but fails to see all the ways in which stories can promote social change (Turner 2007).

The narrative paradigm has also been criticized for failing to be consistence with claims that Fisher has made about it. It has been found that the narrative approach does not provide a more democratic structure compared to the one imposed by the rational world paradigm. It also does not completely offer an alternative to that paradigm (Rowland 1989).


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