Understanding story construction

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This article is in support of the story construction methods and the Story construction standard fable in particular. The method takes a naturalistic approach to story construction, replicating the way that we create stories through telling and retelling over time. The natural process is structured and time-compressed. Aside from teaching a basic skill, this approach can also be used to determine what type of communication strategy is most likely to work as well as providing a method to integrate the material in a workshop.


A fable is a long and complex story whose message is memorable but whose details are not. People who hear a fable cannot retell it exactly from memory, which helps the storyteller to maintain control over it. Anyone who has heard a fairy tale or folk story has heard a fable. There are two messages in a fable. The obvious message is a memorable saying or moral, which is what the audience thinks the fable is about. The subtext message is more powerful yet hidden in the way things are described within the fable. For example, a fable about a rich man winning a business deal may be on the face of it "about" the virtues of ruthless competition, since the man may win his prize, but the underlying subtext may emphasize (through subtle glimpses of the man's empty emotional life) how worthless the prize turns out to be. Fables have been used to convey complex meanings like this for many thousands of years. In a fable, the message comes at the end of the story (the subtext message comes throughout). In non-narrative communications, the message usually comes first, and then people don't listen to the details. In this way, a fable keeps the attention of listeners until it has delivered its full message.

Fables and Sense-making

In the context of sense-making, we usually call fables purposeful stories. Story construction has two main uses. The act of creating a purposeful story can be a valuable integrator of anecdotes in order to discover patterns in them and to reveal larger truths. A purposeful story is a social construct rich with complex meaning, much like a family of archetypes or a Cynefin framework, and as such can be used to think about situations and questions. Constructing purposeful stories is a useful way to build communication narratives that can convey complex understandings in a form that is memorable, motivating and persuasive.

Standard Fable Form

When you help people construct purposeful stories, you lead them through using a fable form, which is a sort of recipe for story creation, using anecdotes as the ingredients. A fable form consists of a series of named slots into which anecdotes fit. The most basic form is this:

  • Context - making the audience familiar with the setting of the story, the state of affairs
  • Turning Point - starting the action going with a dilemma or problem
  • Action (or Message) - what the main character does in response to the dilemma or problem
  • Reversal - what happens because of what the main character did (usually some kind of jeopardy)
  • Resolution - the return of the state of affairs to a resting position where there are no dilemmas remaining

(There may also be expository elements before the context, after the action, and at the end.)

We usually use a standard fable form in the story construction exercise, but potentially there are many fable forms based on how many anecdotes of what type are used where. There are some cultural differences around the world in how many times elements of the fable form are repeated - for European stories the three holds special significance, for example. In other places, two or four repetitions are sometimes preferred.


The template is illustrated above, and is one of several developed by Cognitive Edge

After the turning point comes the action part of the story, represented in our standard form by another successive three anecdotes. This "action three" is a combination of the main character's response to the conditions presented by the turning point and the consequences of that response. Typically this is where the explicit message of the story comes out most strongly (stand by your friends, don't follow little green men, what goes around comes around, etc). The moral is an expository element told at the close of the action sequence.

After the action sequence is usually found a reversal, in which things go horribly wrong. This element, though optional, serves to heighten the feeling of urgency which will make the story and its messages more memorable. It also provides a strong contrast the storyteller can use to repeat the explicit and implicit messages in a more striking way.

The reversal is finally followed by the (required) resolution, in which the story comes to rest again. The resolution need not be positive (indeed the reversal need not be negative), but it is easiest to construct stories that way, so that is the method we use for the purpose of sense-making.

Using the Standard Fable Form

When building a purposeful story, one doesn't start at the beginning and build to the end, but rather uses a sequence that goes back and forth over the elements. The numbers in boxes on the diagram show the sequence of story construction:

  1. Decide on the objective of the purposeful story at an abstract level - what message will it get across?
  2. Find three anecdotes that get across the general context of the story, as a sort of introduction. The message of the story should not yet be clear in these anecdotes; they should only be about context. Arrange them so they seem to get "larger" or more significant in the order you intend to tell them.

Find three anecdotes that exemplify the explicit message of the purposeful story. Again arrange them so that they grow more significant so that they reveal the message in a progressive way.

  1. Find an anecdote for the turning point that links the context three with the action three.
  2. Only now should you refine the original message into a slogan or moral to be stated after it has been embodied in the action three. This will not involve the use of an anecdote.
  3. Find an anecdote that works as a reversal, where after the moral has been demonstrated and stated the stakes are raised and the audience is given something to wonder about.
  4. Resolve the reversal with another anecdote for the resolution, which emphasizes the message again while returning the tension created by the reversal to normal.

¢Only now should you create the expository element at the start of the story which provides the original context. It can be an anecdote or just a description of a situation that leads into the first set of three anecdotes.

Before you can guide a group of people in using this form, you should become familiar with it yourself. It is best to participate in a group story construction exercise so that you can see how the group dynamics contribute to the process. Sit in on a workshop, or see if you can get some colleagues to go through the process with you. If you can't go through the process in a group, then go through it yourself but get someone to listen to you to tell the story and improve it. After a while, you will get a feeling for how such a story works, and you will also get a feeling for when the process is working and when it isn't.