Skip to content

Story: A Definition

What makes a story? What does a story do? In part one of this little series, I argued that stories and worlds are not opposites, but complements. In this part, I try to explain the differences between worlds and stories, and present a definition.

What Is a Story?

Lynn Cherny has written a great summary of some of the research about narrative, and in particular implied stories.

I will take the two very brief stories she quotes and use them to illustrate the difference between exploring a world and telling a story. Lynn starts with the well-known “shortest story ever” by Ernest Hemingway:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

It’s powerful stuff, and you can easily make up stories. Many of them may be sad, but I can actually think of positive stories too (the parents got too many shoes at a baby shower, they bought both boys and girls shoes and are selling the ones they don’t need, okay I’ll stop now).

But the point is: this is not a story. There is no narrative, no characters, no conflict, no inciting incident, no arc, nothing. It’s not a story. It’s a situation, a vignette. It’s very evocative, and that clouds people’s judgment. But look at it again and tell me where you see the story. There is none, you get to make up your own.

Now let’s look at an actual story that isn’t much longer. It’s not as exciting, but it is a story:

The baby cried. The mommy picked it up.

Now we have a story. There are characters (the baby and the mommy), there’s a narrative, there’s an inciting incident (the crying), there is action (the baby being picked up), etc. This is a story.

What is the difference? And what does this have to do with visualization?

Stories in Visualization

The Hemingway vignette is the typical way visualization works, and what Moritz Stefaner described in his posting a while ago: give people a world to explore rather than a path through it. They have to do the work themselves, but are also free to do whatever they want.

The actual story of the baby and the mommy is the equivalent of a story in visualization. It guides you. The author has done the work of building an actual narrative for you. It also means a particular point of view: the facts have been arranged to tell a particular story. You may not agree. But what you are told is not just a list of disconnected facts, but a path through them.

There are of course differences when looking at stories in journalism, for example. But that is beyond this posting, I will come back to this at some other time.

Two Definitions of Story

So here’s a definition. A  story consists of:

  • Facts. These are the atoms the story is made of. And they’re typically related and coherent, not just randomly thrown together.
  • Causal relationships. These tie the facts together. Now it’s important not to get hung up here on the exact causal mechanisms: causation can be implied, it can be hypothesized, it can be claimed. But causal relationships are crucial for a story to work – in other words: in a story, everything happens for a reason.
  • Narrative sequence. The actual telling of a story puts the facts and their interactions into some sequence. That sequence does not have to mirror the temporal ordering of the facts, in fact many stories are told out of order. But no matter the order the story is told in, the temporal and causal direction must always be clear.

Now that may seem very theoretic, but once you start looking at actual stories, you will find these elements everywhere. And they do apply to well-crafted stories about data just as they apply to traditional stories about people.

Here is another attempt, this time looking at what a story does, rather than what it is. A story

  • ties facts together. There is a reason why this particular collection of facts is in this story, and the story gives you that reason.
  • provides a narrative path through those facts. In other words, it guides the viewer/reader through the world, rather than just throwing them in there.
  • presents a particular interpretation of those facts. A story is always a particular path through a world, so it favors one way of seeing things over all others.

That last point will surely get people up in arms, but give it a moment: the point is not that the story misleads or is biased, but it’s simply one point of view. The strength of visualization is not just to give you a story, but also give you a world. If you don’t agree with the story, or if you want to explore further, you can. Take the visualization and the data and explore for yourself.

Teaser image by Bethany King, used under Creative Commons.

Posted by Robert Kosara on April 6, 2014.