Narrative or Story – Know The Difference

I suspect that many if not most lawyers are unaware of “narratology,” defined as “the study of structure in narratives” (, last visited April 5, 2020) or “a humanities discipline dedicated to the study of the logic, principles, and practices of narrative representation…” (, last visited April 5, 2020).  Yet a definition that itself uses the root word is not that helpful; and for lawyers what we need to know is how this study can inform what we do, particularly in opening statements but also throughout our advocacy.

Porter Abbott’s THE CAMBRIDGE INTRODUCTION TO NARRATIVE, 2ND EDITION (Cambridge University Press, 2008) begins with the point that, next to language itself, narrative is the “distinctive” human trait. Porter then teaches the following:

  • A story is the series of events at issue, while narrative is the story “mediated” through how the teller presents it, e., through “narrative discourse. Abbott, 21.
  • Humans have the “tendency to insert narrative into static, immobile scenes…” Abbott, 7.  The lesson here is clear – a picture inspires the viewer to look backwards to the antecedent condition and forward to what it implies – and if lawyers don’t control that the jurors will.
  • Narrative involves time in two aspects – the time it takes to show/tell the story, and the time within the story. As well, the sequencing of the narrative can generate causal thinking,e., that what happened first caused the next event in the chain. Abbott, 42.
  • Three are “masterplots,” and the closer a story is to a “masterplot” that our culture imbues with values and “identity,” the more credibility is assigned to it. The lawyer who can “activate [a] cherished masterplot” can gain “rhetorical leverage…”  Abbott, 46, 48.
  • “Focalizing” is the point of view used to present information and detail. Selection of the right focalizer, at any point in the narrative, can convey thoughts and feelings to the audience.  Abbott, 74.
  • The character of an actor in the narrative is often imagined or reconfigured through “pre-existing types that ew have absorbed from our culture and out of which…we…synthesize” the character or something that stands for the character. Abbott, 117.
  • Narratives ultimately build a multi-dimensional world, one of time and space, one “inhabited by characters who have inner worlds of their own…” Narrative becomes the art of “making and understanding a world.” Abbott 164-165.

Abbott’s book is filled with more insight into narrative, and for lawyers has no better chapter than that titled “narrative contestation” where he dissects the trial of Lizzie Borden, tried in 1893 for the axe-murders of her parents. (last visited April 5, 2020).  Abbott details the competing narratives of doting and murderous daughter, and how they emerge and reemerge across the trial.

The upshot? Lawyers need to students of narratology so they can better narrate, and find narrators and narrations for, the stories they seek to tell.