Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology

Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology

by Arthur W. Frank


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Stories accompany us through life from birth to death. But they do not merely entertain, inform, or distress us—they show us what counts as right or wrong and teach us who we are and who we can imagine being. Stories connect people, but they can also disconnect, creating boundaries between people and justifying violence. In Letting Stories Breathe, Arthur W. Frank grapples with this fundamental aspect of our lives, offering both a theory of how stories shape us and a useful method for analyzing them. Along the way he also tells stories: from folktales to research interviews to remembrances.

Frank’s unique approach uses literary concepts to ask social scientific questions: how do stories make life good and when do they endanger it? Going beyond theory, he presents a thorough introduction to dialogical narrative analysis, analyzing modes of interpretation, providing specific questions to start analysis, and describing different forms analysis can take. Building on his renowned work exploring the relationship between narrative and illness, Letting Stories Breathe expands Frank’s horizons further, offering a compelling perspective on how stories affect human lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226004839
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/22/2012
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 426,163
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Arthur W. Frank is professor of sociology at the University of Calgary and the author of At the Will of the Body: Reflections on Illness; The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics; and The Renewal of Generosity: Illness, Medicine, and How to Live, the latter two also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Letting Stories Breathe

A Socio-Narratology
By Arthur W. Frank


Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-26013-6

Chapter One

The Capacities of Stories

The aim here is to look at the varieties of animation or vitality that are attributed to images, the agency, motivation, autonomy, aura, fecundity, or other symptoms that make pictures into "vital signs," by which I mean not merely signs for living things but signs as living things.-W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? Every narrative tale-from the Iliad to the latest Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper serial-has the same narrative structure ...: A central character encounters a problem, struggles with it, and, in the end, overcomes it or is defeated by it or is changed in some way. If the story ... lacks one of those elements, you should not write it as a narrative.-Bruce DeSilva, "Endings"

In the beginning is a story-if only because the idea of a beginning presupposes a sense of narrative. But what is a story, how do stories breathe, and what capacities enable stories to have the effects they do?

A response can begin with the question raised by this chapter's epigraph by W. J. T. Mitchell: in what sense are stories vital living things? I then turn to what stories are, an issue most usefully approached by describing the capacities of stories, because these capacities give stories their vitality. Stories' capacities begin as the familiar stuff of literary narratology: characters, plot, POINT OF VIEW, and so forth, but the interest is not in discovering some underlying structure of narrative; the question is, what enables stories to have their effects? By thinking about stories' capacities, socio-narratology focuses on how stories act to make life social. A story, I propose, exists when enough of the capacities of stories are at play. Or, to paraphrase Bruce DeSilva in the second epigraph, if the material does not sufficiently utilize these capacities, then that material is not appropriate for dialogical narrative analysis-however important it may be otherwise.

I make no attempt to define stories. The emphasis is on watching them act, not seeking their essence. In place of a definition, this chapter's final section does offer a descriptive phrase that I find most useful for keeping in mind what socio-narratology recognizes about stories.


Tolstoy's pathetic story of Mademoiselle Bourienne (introduction) has a curious effect, the longer it is contemplated. The story upsets the commonsense temporal relation between stories and experience. According to the conventional understanding, people have experiences-something happens-and then they tell stories that represent those experiences. This temporal sequence of event preceding narration understands stories as mimetic: stories imitate life that has already happened and now is being represented in the story. The anthropologist Cheryl Mattingly rejects the mimetic understanding of stories most clearly, reversing the temporality to put stories before experience: "There is no reality without narrative. Because we have stories, we believe we are having experiences. Experience is, at best, an enactment of pre-given stories."

Tolstoy places a story at the beginning; that story will shape the action that becomes the event. His authorial intrusion into Mademoiselle's processes of thought discovers a complex relation of mutual MIMESIS. Mademoiselle first knows a story-the story she has adapted from what her aunt told her-and then that story conducts her action. She sees the people and possibilities around her according to a story that she has received and adapted. The story sets her course of action and is her moral compass in this action. Mimesis happens, but as a reciprocal process. Life and story imitate each other, ceaselessly and seamlessly, but neither enjoys either temporal or causal precedence. Mademoiselle's story sets in motion a future course of action, which Tolstoy's story represents; and his story of Mademoiselle becomes someone else's companion, possibly reshaped as it is retold in that person's imagination.

Tolstoy is not alone in reversing the temporality between stories and experience. Brian Boyd, in his study of the evolutionary advantages conferred by art and especially by stories, suggests how stories refine the human capacity to simulate possible futures:

Stories employ words and conventions, but long before most narrative conventions emerged, we evolved a capacity not only for reexperiencing the past in memory but also for flexibly reconfiguring it to offer concrete simulations of future situations.

Which is exactly what Mademoiselle does with her story in the process of adapting it until the simulation could become reality. The historian Georges Duby describes how the stories known by medieval knights offered simulations of the futures they would enact: "Their ardor was focused entirely upon fulfilling the obligations of chivalry, upon respecting the rules of an ethic inculcated during adolescence and kept alive in their minds by all the stories and songs they listened to." In anthropology, Renato Rosaldo observes this process in his ethnographic work among the Ilongots: "Huntsmen in fact seek out experiences that can be told as stories. In other words, stories often shape, rather than simply reflect, human conduct." Rosaldo's conclusion-that stories often shape human conduct-is the core premise of socio-narratology.

An especially articulate testimonial of stories preceding the expression of experience is offered by the novelist Eric Ormsby, quoted by Alberto Manguel in his treatise on stories:

Sometimes I have a feeling that words lead a private existence of their own, apart from us, and that when we speak or write, especially in moments of strong emotion, we do little more than hitch a ride on some obliging syllable or accommodating phrase.

Mademoiselle Bourienne seems to hitch a ride less than she is taken for a ride, and that makes Ormsby's point all the more strongly. People not only "hitch a ride" when they tell stories. More pervasively, what people know as experience hitches a ride on stories those people know; the stories shape what becomes the experience.

Jerome Bruner tells an autobiographical story of hitching a ride on a story when he returned from Europe on the eve of World War II. On his ship, most of his fellow passengers were fleeing the Nazis:

The Book of Exodus shaped my way of telling myself the story of those fleeing souls on the Shawnee, and telling myself that story shaped my very experience of that transatlantic crossing. And so it is with classic narrative plights. They become templates for experience.

Mademoiselle's plight is that her story is not a very good template for her experience, serving her not nearly as well as the story from the Bible serves Bruner.

This reversal of event-experience-story temporality underpins Mitchell's epigraph and its proposal to understand images as "living things." But even Mitchell does not mean quite living. Posing to himself the question, "Do you really believe that images want things?" he responds: "My answer is, no, I don't believe it. But we cannot ignore that human beings (including myself) insist on talking and behaving as if they did believe it" (11). Do human beings actually talk and behave as if they believe that stories are living things, acting with a volition that seems to be their own? Tolstoy did, Cervantes did in Don Quixote, and the passage just quoted from Eric Ormsby speaks of words leading "a private existence of their own." The literary critic Wayne Booth states the case in its fullest version:

Even the life we think of as primary experience-that is, events like birth, copulation, death, plowing and planting, getting and spending-is rarely experienced without some sort of mediation in narrative; one of the chief arguments for an ethical criticism of narrative is that narratives make and remake what in realist views are considered more primary experiences-and thus make and remake ourselves. The transition from what we think of as more primary (because "real") to the experience of stories about it is so automatic and frequent that we risk losing our sense of just how astonishing our story worlds are, in their power to add "life" upon "life"-for good or ill.

Booth expresses little doubt that stories breathe, as he writes that "teachers should concern themselves with what a novel might do to a student" (4). Here are four other examples of people talking as if stories are living things. The examples are chosen because each writer-none is a writer of fiction-is a serious student of stories, and they offer a disparity of perspectives.

The linguist Charlotte Linde titles one of her articles "The Acquisition of a Speaker by a Story." The article, discussed in greater detail in chapter 2, is an ethnography of an American insurance company. The story of the company's founder, Mr. McBee, figures prominently not only in the training of new employees, but as an everyday reference in company talk. Certainly the story is a resource that speakers use. But Linde's title emphasizes how the living story acquires its speakers, making them its own, even when they define themselves in distinction from the story. Linde elaborates: "If a story can acquire new tellers, it can break free of the lifetime of its participants and witnesses and develop what is potentially an indefinitely long lifetime."

A second example is provided by Jo-ann Archibald, a Canadian Indigenous educator. Archibald describes her first experience giving a workshop for Native student teachers in which "the story took on a 'life' and became the teacher." Her phrasing-describing the story not as a teaching tool, but rather as the teacher-is more than a figure of speech. Archibald quotes from course journals that several students kept: "We didn't know what was going to happen," one student writes; "I remember [one of the participants] was hurting [emotionally, spiritually] and somehow it [the story] took care of her and [then] all of us ... I'd say [this story] had a life of its own" (97, all brackets in original).

Archibald then quotes a long story that one of her students tells about an encounter on a busy urban street. The writer, who might or might not have read Tolstoy, sounds remarkably like Mademoiselle Bourienne if she had offered an account of what it was like to be caught up in the story her aunt had once told her. "The bird story" refers to one of Archibald's teaching fables.

Both my friend and I were thinking of your story, totally. It was like we were inside the story ... It was like being an actor in the story ... all of a sudden [there] was silence ... It was like that same [story] space opened up. We could say to each other, it was exactly like Jo-ann's story ... I hadn't actually connected to that part of the bird story before ... I can't articulate it well, [but] it was like living out that story. (99, some ellipses and all brackets in original)

My third example of people talking as if stories are living things is from Rita Charon, physician and teacher of humanities in medicine, whose book Narrative Medicine presents a narratology appropriate to medical practice. Charon writes that the practitioner of narrative medicine "conceptualizes the narrative itself as a dynamic partner in their intercourse, able of its own to alter what happens between them" (108; compare with 110). Charon understands stories not as tools but as partners, with the story "able of its own" to have effects.

My fourth example is from the New York Times columnist David Brooks, editorializing on how people are "born into" a particular history and culture, yet individuals retain a responsibility for "selecting and constantly revising the master narrative we tell about ourselves." Brooks then speaks of the other side of the coin, the power of stories:

The stories we select help us, in turn, to interpret the world. They guide us to pay attention to certain things and ignore other things. They lead us to see certain things as sacred and other things as disgusting. They are the frameworks that shape our desires and goals.

If writers like Ormsby and critics like Booth are most inclined to talk about stories as living things, the quotations from Linde, Archibald, Charon, and Brooks show that this way of talking and thinking is not restricted to artists. The point, following Mitchell's qualification of the sense in which stories are living, is to take seriously that people seem unable to resist talking as if stories were living things, probably because people have fairly regular experiences of stories acting on their own. Claude Levi- Strauss acknowledges his contention that "myths get thought in man unbeknownst to him" is regarded by some critics as "utterly meaningless," yet this understanding of myths remains what Levi-Strauss calls "a lived experience." I do not believe that stories breathe because Tolstoy so clearly depicts it in his story of Mademoiselle Bourienne. Instead, I believe Tolstoy's story because it expresses what is already my own lived experience, and at the beginning of that experience as I can know it are stories.

A final objection might point out that people alone are able to tell stories; stories cannot tell on their own. Which is true, but the complexity of the relationship between story and teller is best expressed by Archibald, reporting her extensive work with Indigenous storytellers. "A synergistic action happens between the storyteller and the story," she writes, "but it is the storyteller who ultimately gives breath, or life, to the story." The storyteller gives breath to the story, but the story is already there, waiting. Archibald quotes a storyteller, Ellen White: "Storytellers have to be very responsible. They are setting the pace of breathing. A story is, and has, breath. Storytellers learn to let that happen" (112). People are responsible for telling stories, but as White says, the story has breath; telling is letting the story happen. Archibald's conclusion reiterates "the power of the story to 'be the teacher'" (ibid.). The storyteller speaks, but the story teaches-a complex synergy.

Thinking of the story as the teacher leads in the direction indicated by Pierre Bourdieu's descriptive phrase: "unchosen choices." The stories that people grow up on are unchosen, and as templates for experience-or, what we hitch a ride on-these stories lead people into choices that are unchosen. People choose stories, but they have less choice about the principles that set their choosing. The idea that people make unchosen choices is a core of modern social science-Marx, Freud, and Durkheim each built his theoretical edifice on a version of this idea. That destabilizing of the sovereignty of consciousness remains disturbing. Dialogical narrative analysis elaborates that disturbance. The stories that animate people are as often unchosen as they are chosen.


My working understanding-not a definition-of narrative is simply this: one thing happens in consequence of another. In one of the finest metaphors in literary narratology, Frank Kermode compared the structure of narration to the ticking of a clock: each tick creates an expectation for the corresponding tock to follow. Consider one of the world's shortest stories, exhaustively analyzed by the sociologist Harvey Sacks. A child says: "The baby cried. The mommy picked it up." The crying baby is the tick, and the mommy picking it up is the tock. In narratives, things happen tick tock.

If narratives begin as tick tock, they soon become more complicated. William Labov, originally in collaboration with Joshua Waletzky, proposes what is probably the most commonly cited narrative structure of stories. The telling of a story begins with an abstract, which puts listeners on notice that a story is about to be told and may suggest the story's genre: a joke, a news report, a personal confession, a family anecdote, and so forth. Next is the orientation, in which the time, place, and main characters of the story are specified. The plot begins with what Labov calls a complicating event. Stories are told because something out of the ordinary has happened. This out-of-the-ordinary complication may or may not be troublesome in the sense of presenting difficulties, but it requires some response. The story moves toward an ending when the complicating event has an eventual resolution, which is where the story will leave things, although the action described in the story may continue. The penultimate stage of the narration is its evaluation, in which the storyteller expresses some attitude toward what happened-it was funny, wonderful, inexcusable, disgusting. The evaluation may express a lesson learned-fables are the genre in which the evaluation is explicit as a moral principle-and the listeners are usually expected to share this evaluative stance. The narration ends with a coda, in which the turn-at-talk is returned to other speakers.


Excerpted from Letting Stories Breathe by Arthur W. Frank Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Six Stories about Stories                  

1  The Capacities of Stories                  

2  Stories at Work                  

3  Dialogical Narrative Analysis as a Method of Questioning               

4  Dialogical Interpretation and Stories’ Particular Truth                  

5  Exemplars of Dialogical Narrative Analyses                  

6  How Stories Can Be Good Companions                  




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