Haven, Hendall. 2007. Story proof: the science behind the startling power of story. Westport, CN: Libraries Unlimited.

“Story consultant Kendall Haven is a nationally recognized expert on the structure of stories and on the Eight Essential Elements that form the foundation of all successful narratives. Haven’s acclaimed book, STORY PROOF: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story presents the first–ever proof that “story structure” is an information delivery system powerhouse, evolutionarily hardwired into human brains.The book is divided into two parts: Story Smarts (7 chapters) and Story Proof (3 chapters), followed by an extensive bibliography” (from http://www.kendallhaven.com/).

Haven’s work claims that studies from cognitive scientists and developmental psychologists confirm that “human minds do rely on stories and on story architecture as the primary roadmap for understanding…” and that “Lives are like stories because we think in story terms, make sense out of experiences in story terms, and plan our lives in story terms” (p. vii). The thesis of the book is that “stories are more effective and powerful than any other narrative structure” such that they “belong as the bedrock of management, leadership, education, outreach, and general communication efforts” (p. viii). The basis for the book is research and anecdotal examples that demonstrate the concepts.

Haven believes that humans are “evolutionally hardwired” to think in terms of stories. This is because every culture has created stories (myths, fables, legends, folk tales), but not all have created written language. However, experiences not framed in stories suffer memory loss. Further, learning story structure helps to develop math and analytical abilities. He quotes Denning, who “time and time again” in trying to persuade managers, storytelling was the only thing that worked – they were much more effective than academic and technical articles.

What constitutes a story? Not everything, but there are a common set of attributes that are discussed throughout the book and lead to this definition: “A detailed, character–based narration of a character’s struggles to overcome obstacles and reach an important goal” (pp. 79–80). Dictionary definitions of story and plot are virtually the same because we “have no other word than story for the subcategories of story” (p. 19) such as tale, fable, parable, legend, epic and so on.

Research demonstrates clear links between story and these factors: narrative comprehension, writing, logical/critical thinking, motivation, memory/learning, and mastering language.

“People are eager for stories. Not dissertations. Not lectures. Not informative essays” (p. 8). Story is not the content of a narrative structure, but it is the “scaffolding” to hold the content. “Essays, letters, diaries, articles, textbooks, directives, encyclopedia entries, briefs, and lectures, among others, qualify as narrative, but not necessarily as story” (p. 9). Brunner (2003) comments that “Life is a story because we force ourselves to view it and plan it as story” (p.10).

Examples of the word “story” used with different meanings are given on p. 12. But, in general, “Stories are our universal storehouse of knowledge, beliefs, values, attitudes, passions, dreams, imagination, and vision” (p.13). Creating a story is a creative process, so everything is not a story. With a story we structure the information, but the information is not the story.

[We can use a bucket to hold water, but the bucket is not the water; A dream my hold a story, or only bits of a story, but the dream itself is not the story – it is involved in processing the story.]

Chapter 3 is a general overview of the functions of the brain and its part, drawing on biological evolutionary research, such as by Pinker. It is highly speculative, attributing everything to evolutionary processes that a Christian would to creation and design. For example, the author claims “a Darwinian weeding process” in a child’s brain, such that there is an evolutionary “predisposition” to “create meaning” and further, by a wild analogy, “our brains were designed by evolution”. This is a surprise – would or could evolution “want to” design anything. So with the great help of the evolutionary process (which we should remember is random and without “purpose”), babies know voices, after one year they understand sequences, they master concepts of goals and motives, and so on. It turns out, of course, that the evolutionary process has all of the attributes of God.

We can accept the author’s conclusion, without accepting his reasoning to get there: “We master stories first because they arrive already loaded into the childhood brain” (p. 27). God does not create someone with an empty brain, although we may have certain acquaintances that seem to the contrary.

Chapter 4 discusses what the brain (or mind) does:

  • Accesses memories based on what is being said
  • Comprehends a stream of speech and forms it into a sentence [utterance]
  • Assigns grammatical rules to define a structure
  • Assigns meanings to words and groups of words
  • Makes semantic and pragmatic sense out of what is said
  • Makes what is said relevant to the conversation
  • Evaluates the conversation in terms of goals and objectives
  • Constructs mental images
  • Fills in gaps with stored experience and story maps
  • Noting and interpreting body language
  • Anticipating where the conversation is leading
  • Planning what to say in response

[Note the false claim p.31 that “cultures who do not read do not use abstract thought.”]

The mind processes incoming and experiential information by these theme governing processes:

  1. Determining repetition, such that experience builds expectation.
  2. Determining order, by cause and effect and temporal sequencing, by theme and by character
  3. Determining meaning by assumptions, implications, inferences and presuppositions
  4. Determining intent and actions according to purpose, beliefs and desires
  5. Determining what is missing in a conversation or story
  6. Determining character, based on archetypes and viewpoints to assess and evaluate them
  7. Determining struggle because it unlocks the story structure

The author discusses eleven mental tools that are foundational to the processing of narrative information in an effort to create meaning, context and relevance:

  1. Assumptions: things make sense; people think like me; what people say is important; people act rationally; people agree on certain norms of behavior; temporal sequencing is appropriate and natural; the past explains the future; a person’s face reveals values and attitudes; cause and effect defines how things really happen.
  2. Cheat sheets: stereotypes; time organization; cause and effect; goal driven; characters act; actions are toward goals; future actions can be known by past ones.
  3. Expectations: “The more unexpected the information, the more processing space and time it is given” (p.51) e.g infants perk up when something happens they did not expect.
  4. Inference: taken for granted and not necessarily based on logical reasoning.
  5. Pattern matching: in a story the mind “constructs” a story domain with an image of the place, events, situations and characters.
  6. Prior knowledge: based on prior learning and development and of two general types: topical and structural.
  7. Binary opposition: extremes and mediating the spaces between them.
  8. Blending: parable and proverb, where parable is the root of thinking, acting, creating, and so on. A parable is said to have symbolic meaning through some analogy, while metaphor combines domains to extract appropriate characteristics of all possible domains (p.60).
  9. Language and syntax rules.
  10. Emotions rule: Seeking meaning through feelings.
  11. Details: provide specific inferences to create mental images.

Chapter 6 is on memories

By linking content information into stories the information is lodged into the mind and memory of the listener. (p.68) “Human memory circuits don’t seem to distinguish between real and false memories. That job is left to the reasoning power of the conscious mind” (p, 68).

Vivid memories have four characteristics:

  1. They break a script expectation
  2. They are consequential, i.e. have impact
  3. They involve emotional charge
  4. They have value or meaning

So what do we remember? We remember the gist of something and our interpretation of it. “Experiences not framed into story suffer loss in memory” because story structure enhances and improves memory of content. (p.69) People never capture anything literally because it is filtered through their experiences.

“Memory champions remember by creating a story that provides context and relevance for meaningless information” (p. 71). The greater the emotion associated with an event, the better it will be remembered. In all instances, using stories will enhance the memory and facilitate recall. However “there are many instances where it is either not feasible or not appropriate to create and present stories. Not everything either can be or should be delivered in story form. But it is always worth checking. When you can, the benefits are staggering” (p. 73).

There are five informational elements that define a story:

  1. Character: someone to provide perspective and viewpoint and you need enough detail about the character to determine emotional state, beliefs and attitudes.
  2. Intent: determine the goal and intent of the story characters.
  3. Actions: the plot, i.e. what enables the character to reach his or her goals.
  4. Struggles: what the characters do in the face of danger and the risks that are involved.
  5. Details: about the character, settings, actions and events.

Researchers do not agree on what constitutes a story. Some (Turner, 1996) say that it is just an agent and an action, so “The ball rolled” is a story. Others feel that the character and his or her intentions must come into the action, so Taylor (1996) incorporates the idea of a “significant action” of the character over a period of time. Burke (1969) says that stories are composed of the elements of actor, action, goal, scene, and instrument, as well as trouble (an imbalance between any of the elements).

Ricceur (1984) presented seven features to distinguish a story from a mere event:

  1. Goals: resulting from actions
  2. Motives: reasons why the actions are performed
  3. Agents: goals are adopted by some character in the story
  4. Contextual circumstances: actions are embedded in a morally significant context to define the character
  5. Interactions with others: a protagonist interacts with others
  6. Meaningful existence: attempt for some fulfilled life
  7. Responsibility: agents are responsible for their actions

Narratives, as opposed to story are information based articles, reports, data sets, etc. Any narrative can be converted into a story b reorganization of the material around a character such that meaning results.

In part two of the book the author presents a series of anecdotal evidence to highlight the power of stories over against lectures. Stories improved student behavior and language arts achievement. “Want to develop a sense of belonging and buy–in in your organization? Collect and refine the stories of your group members that best embody the attitudes and outlook you want to promote” (p.86), then create and share the stories.

Research has shown (p. 89) that stories improve narrative comprehension in these ways:

  • Comprehension: literal, inferential and critical; poor readers become more active
  • Logical thinking: good readers strategize
  • Creating meaning: by provoking prior knowledge, providing details and improving comprehension
  • Motivation to learn: becoming aware of why they are reading a text
  • Building a sense of community: e.g. with “springboard stories” that provide connectedness, strangeness and comprehensibility (context)
  • Literacy and language mastery: the development of encoding, recall and reproduction
  • Writing: because story is the root form of all narratives
  • Memory: “If information is not remembered in such a way that it can be readily recalled, thre is little point incomprehending it and creating meaning from it” (p. 118)

Stories provide (p. 121):

  • A greater density of details (especially sensory)
  • More expansive and detailed mental imagery
  • Better match of information to create comprehension and meaning
  • Activation of banks of prior knowledge

“Story is an incredibly versatile and malleable form… You can shape a story for any audience to fit into any niche, culture, language, or genre” (p. 123).

Character is the universal space for children to translate story into real life, so include charcter goal, motive and struggles in your story. (p. 125)

Karl Franklin

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