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). Because of this, 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.


The traditional paradigm of the rational world is 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 as rational is determined by the knowledge and understanding displayed and how the case is argued. 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. The ways 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. 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. 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,[1] 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.

Narration is one of the first language skills all children develop, and narrative seems to be universal across cultures and time.[2] 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.[3]

Narrative rationality[edit]

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 that contribute to judgements about good reasons.


Coherence is 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. Individuals determine whether a 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. Because of this, we trust characters to show continuity throughout the thought, movie, and actions. Otherwise, we become suspicious when characters behave uncharacteristically. [4]


Fidelity is concerned with whether or not the story is true. Narrative fidelity states that if a story matches our own beliefs and experiences, it will be accepted. Fidelity determines how the story fits into the background of the world as a person has known it. 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.

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.[5]

Fisher establishes five criteria that affect a story’s narrative fidelity:

  • 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[6]

Evaluation of Reasoning Systems[edit]

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.[7] Busselle and Bilandzic draw a distinction between narrative rationality and external realism: "It is remarkable that the power of narrative is not diminished by readers’ or viewers’ knowledge that the story is invented. On the contrary, successful stories—those that engage us most—often are both fictional and unrealistic."[8]

This belief in coherence and fidelity does not deny that there is a system of formal logical reasoning. However, following Michel Foucault, these 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 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.

Narrative rationality and 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.[9] Narrative emotion studies how "emoting by proxy" characterizes the experience of attending to a narrative.[10]

Situation models[edit]

When people experience a story, the phase of comprehension is where they form a mental representation of the text.[11] The mental representation is called a situation model. 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.[12] 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. This makes perfect sense intuitively; these are the rooms that would be relevant to us if we were in the situation. The 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. Those who comprehend behave as if they are actually standing in the situation, looking at the tractor or mouse approaching a fence.[13]


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 deviation from chronological order, but 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.

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. 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. 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."

When Keefe and McDaniel presented subjects with sentences like after standing through a 3 hour debate, the tired speaker walked over to his chair (and sat down) and then with probe words (e.g., sat, in this case).[14] 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.

Evaluation and Application[edit]

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. The Narrative Paradigm is generally considered to be a interpretative theory of communication.[15] It is an especially useful theory to teach qualitative research methods.[16]

Fisher’s theory can be applied to most fields, ranging from organizational communication, to family interaction, to racism, and advertising. Richard McNamara proposes that the Narrative Paradigm can be used with military storytelling towards the end goal of fostering the perception of the United States armed services.[17] Nancy Stutts and Randolph Barker propose that the Narrative Paradigm can be used to evaluate if a company's brand will be well-received by consumers, by determining if the created narrative has coherence and fidelity.[18] Other researchers have proposed using the Narrative Paradigm to evaluate ethical standards in advertising.[19] Kathleen Glenister Roberts uses the narrative paradigm as way to better understand the use of narrative in folklore.[20] Melissa Hobart proposes using narrative theory as a way to interpret urban legends and other kinds of hoaxes.[21]

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.[22]


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 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.[23]

The narrative paradigm also finds critics who believe that it is not useful to its conservative bias. William Kirkwood saw that Fisher's logic of good reasons only focus on prevailing issues,[24] but fails to see all the ways in which stories can promote social change.[25] 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, Scott R. Stroud 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.[26] In a later study, Stroud examines other Indian philosophical texts to further categorize the types of multivalent narratives that creatively use contradictory elements to enable judgments of narrative fidelity.[27]

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's values; they often challenge values.[25]

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.[28]


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