Composite stories combine told stories
This exercise is similar to twice-told stories except that instead of asking people to choose a story you ask them to build one. The story they will be building will have the timeless shape of a folk tale.
Why use a folk tale structure? Because folk tales have been used to convey complex truths around the world throughout history. Building one helps people explore what is needed to represent their (possibly quite complex) experiences with respect to the topic you want them to talk about. Most folk tales grew from the combination of many stories of personal experience. By giving people the shape of a folk tale and asking them to use that shape to build a larger story out of the stories they tell, you will help them to bring out the stories they need to tell.
The standard folk tale shape has these elements:
- Context -- introduction of the setting and characters, explanation of the state of affairs
- Turning point -- the dilemma or problem or initiating event that starts the story rolling
- Action -- how the people in the story respond to the dilemma or problem
- Reversal -- complications, further difficulties, challenges, things going wrong
- Resolution -- the outcome of the story and reactions to it
These are essentially Branigan's story elements from his book Narrative Comprehension and Film, but they also appear in other places, with variations. I like to abbreviate this basic form with the acronym ECTAERSE, with the Es marking points where there is often expository or explanatory content (that is, when nothing is happening but the audience is being told something). Note that the S in ECTAERSE is for reSolution, since R is used up for Reversal.
To start the exercise, give people a form to follow by telling them about the elements and writing the terms somewhere where they can see them. Next ask each group of three to six people to choose a central message for their story. It should be something related to the goals of the project (of which they should be aware), but people should put their own spin on the topic so that it resonates with them.
After people have selected a message, ask them to select from the stories that naturally come up in conversation and fit them into the slots in the form to build the folk tale. The different slots of the form will naturally select different types of stories based on their function in the larger story, thus:
- A Context story would be one that gives you an idea of what some kind of situation is like.
- A Turning point story would be one where a dilemma or problem is important.
- An Action story is one where what someone does is important.
- A Reversal story is like a Turning point story: something is challenging someone.
- A Resolution story is where an outcome is especially important.
The rest of the session (all of which you should be recording or having observers take notes on) will be a back-and-forth iteration of telling the story and improving it. It's best to have at least two tellings of the story, and three or even four are better if you have the time. Give people 20 to 30 minutes per building session, then ask them to choose someone from their group to tell the composite story -- to you if it's one group, to the other group if there are two, or to the group to the left or right if there are more than two groups. Limit the telling phases to ten minutes or less to keep people from building very long stories.
As the designated tellers perform the story they will be able to tell from their audience's reactions what works and what doesn't, and they will be able to go back to their group and report on what happened in order to improve the story. Trying to improve the story helps people to range farther in their recollections and also takes them away from feeling they are "filling in a form", so that they can talk more freely and even enjoy the opportunity to delve into their memories while learning about something interesting. The goal of the exercise is for each group to build a composite story that effectively and memorably communicates the message they have decided on conveying. Of course, when this exercise is used in generative mode, that goal is only important because it causes another goal to be accomplished: that you collect lots of diverse stories of real experience along the way.
Variations on the basic form
On a research project I did years ago, I took apart dozens of folk tales to find out what makes them tick, and I discovered these interesting things about variations on the canonical ECTAERSE story form:
- All elements but the turning point (T) and resolution (S) can drop out if the story is very short, making the shortest possible folk tale format TS.
- All expository (E) elements are optional, though they can also increase in number to several repetitions in any of the E spots in the formula.
- Each non-exposition element can expand to cover formulaic numbers of repetitive episodes. The typical number of repetitions varies from region to region; for example, European folk tales typically have repetitive units of three, Japanese tales have two, and Indian tales have four. Usually tension builds within the sequence of repetitive elements; each gets "bigger" than the last.
- Non-exposition elements can also recurse, meaning they can embed an entire folk tale in the spot allocated to that one element. Some of the great Arab tales (A Thousand and One Nights, for example) do this, sometimes to a dizzying extent.
What all this means to your use of the form in a composite story exercise is that you can vary the form you give people to use in an exercise, thus:
- If you have little time or an uncooperative group, use a simple three-element form like TAS.
- If you have more time, use the full ECTAERSE form, either leaving out the exposition elements (simplest), requiring them (more complex), or making them optional (even more complex).
- If you have a group for whom repetition and recursion might be interesting and exciting (perhaps programmers or writers), or if you have a lot of time or a very cooperative group, you can give them the more elaborate options (repetition, recursion) and let them play.
For further reading
This exercise is also described (with some differences) in the open source method document Story Construction located on the Cognitive Edge web site. It is also described in the Brambles in a Thicket book chapter (Kurtz and Snowden), available on the Cognitive Edge web site.
Reader comments, tips and advice can be found on the Composite stories Google Group page.