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The Narrative Hierarchy—Stories and Storytelling on all Scales

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Stories of all kinds—news, fiction, memoirs, scientific theories—have the potential to be told at many scales, filling out what I've come to call the Narrative Hierarchy.

I'll lay out some possible levels of scalable stories (let's have ten), and then discuss a few simple observations about complete, partial, and broken hierarchies.

A. The Ten Scales of Stories with a few examples:

  1. One to three word encapsulation.
    • Soundbites, buzzframes*, slogans, catchphrases, mottos, some maxims; e.g., "Coke is it", "Learned helplessness", "The Big Bang", and "Narrative Hierarchy".
  2. One sentence.
    • Title, headline, a well crafted tweet, proverbs, aphorisms, epigrams. One-liners live here too. Good territory for Dorothy Parker and Mark Twain and that fellow who said there was only one thing worse than being talked about.
  3. A few sentences.
  4. One paragraph.
    • An abstract, the lede, the slightly buried nut graph, the elevator pitch, a thirty second television ad, modern movie trailers (which tend to lay out the whole story).
  5. One page.
    • Standard news article, short magazine article, jokes requiring a very long walk.
  6. Short paper.
    • Essay, blog post, political speech, the pamphlet, medium magazine article, television news report.
  7. Long paper.
    • book chapter, long magazine article, a movie, episode of a television series.
  8. Book.
    • Something that looks like a book when made physical and placed on a shelf, PhD thesis, a season of a television series.
  9. Series of books.
  10. A large coherent body of work, potentially involving many authors

*Buzzframe. Defn (noun) Buzzwords that coherently frame a way of thinking in the listener.

We could go further up in scale (whole research fields, all romance novels), but it's meaningful to take the limit of what might plausibly be read by an individual.

B. Partial and Broken Narrative Hierarchies:

The framing of the Narrative Hierarchy obliges us to ask when a story truly exists at all scales, when a story should be told at all scales, and when a narrative's scaling is broken, either by misjudgment or intent (see: marketing, politics). Three possible kinds of Narrative Hierarchies help with addressing these questions.

i. The foundation waiting for a building:

Sometimes we only have the base of a Narrative Hierarchy, and the rest remains a puzzle:

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Living in the weeds of story and knowledge production is entirely natural. The graduate student working on a thesis may well be unable to distill their work clearly, dealing in chapters of explanation and routinely destroying social gatherings.

Finding a great (faithful) title and abstract often comes from hard-earned understanding gained over a long period of time. There will always be crucial adjustments made at the end of the writing process, and the effort involved in crafting a title might well exceed that of any other sentence in a work.

The deep stories of some fields may not scale—a kind of narrative irreducibility. Some realms of pure mathematics are hard to convey simply and philosophy can be herioc in its obscurity.

ii. Beautiful lines, resting on a froth of nothing:

There are stories that are small and don't scale, either because there's no more to say, or because they are not built on a larger, more fine-grained truth.

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By definition, one-liners are supposed to work only as small pieces. Expanding on "Golf is a good walk spoiled" won't make it funnier. Virus-like, they capitalize on the apparatus existing in the reader's mind, a different kind of expansion. And the world is full of books that would have been fine as short magazine pieces.

For failure-to-scale because of logical deficiency, aphorisms provide many examples—formed to sound complete, they may well be annihilated by their anti-aphorism. "Look before you leap" and "The one who hesitates is lost" cannot both be the essence of a larger, consistent story.

Many simplified health wisdoms find themselves here. The practice of drinking eight glasses of water a day, for example, lacks any scientific foundation.

Some nutshells are only partially true, and we can't build out a larger story without finding strong inconsistencies. So much of scientific research works like this. Solitary birds would be disappointed with "birds of a feather flock together." (People really can be sold on one liners involving rhyming.)

iii. Broken Narrative Hierarchies—Branding and buzzframes:

And there are many examples where the hierarchy is broken or separated, and things go wrong, through contrivance or confusion:

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There's an endless supply of examples from marketing. Take the beautifully unfounded assertions that cigarettes were health-giving—"More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette". Or the claim that "Coke adds life" (problematic namespace collision aside).

Biographies and autobiographies provide rich opportunities to rearrange and reinvent history, and the list is long. The digital age has made arguably catching such fabulations easier, leading to various levels of disgrace. Those who make up many little and some big things sometimes have to apologize to Oprah.

The glorious narratives of so many great sportspeople have been uncovered as broken with a dark foundation of doping. Oprah has had to talk with some of them too.

The best scientific fraud produces results that are at least within reason, and, even better, ones that are considered favorable for opening up new opportunities or for confirming widely held beliefs. Again, the list is long. The amazing Schön scandal, which led to the retraction of around 30 high profile papers on semiconductor physics including 9 in Science and 7 in Nature, worked because the breakthrough findings fulfilled expectations and hopes for the field. What peer-review had found to be solid scale 6 or 7 pieces resting on scale 10 bedrock science turned out to a complete fabrication.

Science is always filling in the hierarchies of theories, throwing out hypotheses for the upper scales and digging into the details, searching for consistency. Much honest work has produced what would eventually be seen as broken theoretical hierarchies (geocentric model, aether, phlogiston, and teeny tiny strings*). Science is hard.

*People still believe in this one.

C. Deceptive Narrative Hierarchies:

We can be perhaps most strongly mislead when the story alignment across scales has many strengths, and the departures—the cognitive negative spaces—are harder to see.

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These plausible but not obviously broken hierarchies connect with the concept of adjacent narratives (which I'll talk about elsewhere). Many of the examples given above for broken hierarchies have necessarily spent some time in this category, as their early fame has been based on widespread acceptance.

Drifts in word meaning can lead to problems. "Survival of the Fittest"—an ironically successful meme*—misframes the story of evolution. Meaning most well adapted, the word "fit" elicits supremely healthy lions and tigers and bears, but not cockroaches and rats and and bacteria.

*Meme is itself an outstanding meme, even if it's a mess scientifically.

D. Story scales matter:

Some stories most powerfully deliver at the smallest scales, with a broad foundation of science or experience underneath them, while others are best enjoyed in their fullest realization, the smaller scales serving as (honest and meaningful) invitations.

The top of the Narrative Hierarchy is vital for a story's ability to spread through a population and persist. Fame is the fact of being talked about. People live on stories—we are homo narrativus—and if a story fails to pass and be reinforced by word-of-mouth, it cannot flourish.

And there is great peril in leaving the top of the Narrative Hierarchy unconsidered and unbuilt. If a story becomes important, someone else may generate the top scales, and they may well corrupt the narrative, potentially through honest effort (journalism, the good kind), for money-based purposes (marketing), or for the traditional pastime of manipulating large populations (politics). So: Lift out of the chapter trenches, and work on the soundbites.

And none of this is to say that all stories should be boiled down to a soundbite and consumed. Nor which scale will be the most rewarding or enjoyable or important. Moby Dick* can be told at all scales ("The Whale did it") but is meant to be read in full (the experience of reading Moby Dick itself invoking the struggle as a vestibule is described intricately for three pages). Anna Karenina can be profitably read again and again throughout life, learning Russian if need be.

(*Moby Dick first appeared with the title "The Whale". But the actual title of a book does not have to represent a story for it to be scalable, just that a title-length version of the story can be produced.)

E. Possibility: The most socially powerful and meaningful stories—meaning the most shared and enduring ones—are stories that can be told well at all scales. Even ones that are ultimately found to be broken or directly conflict with others (see religion and science, both within themselves and against each other) can persist for a (very) long time.

And F for finally: On the truthful side of stories, the Narrative Hierarchy is about communicating knowledge clearly and accurately. Does a truth scale?

Change log:
  • 2015-06-09: Added reasons for taking care to work at the top of the narrative hierarchy to D.