One love. One story

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A friend of mine who now teaches creative writing in a central London adult education institute – started her career as a well paid and successful actor, theatre director and writer. On one of our regular caffeination sessions sitting in what we fondly referred to as our college annexe, we talked in detail about workplace micro-politics. We called it analysis rather than gossip. The details varied from week to week but the situation was nearly always the same. We would discuss: in this particular set of circumstances what should we do, think or feel? On one of our many occasions, my writerly friend suggested that each of us only ever have one story to tell. Each of us tell our one story again and again and again. The trick, she says – is telling that story in as many different ways as is possible. I like that idea. Not least of all because it reminds me of one my favourite books. I’d like to suggest this book is a deeply influential complex paradigm shifting academic text, but it isn’t. It’s a graphic novel: 99 exercises in style.

This book takes a single story –

a man is sitting at his computer when he decides he wants to go down stairs to get something from the fridge. On his way downstairs someone (off screen) asks him the time. He looks at his watch and says it’s 1.15. He gets to the fridge, opens the door and forgets what he is looking for.

The template for this story is illustrated above.

Is it possible to tell that story 99 times? Below are two (of the 99) versions of it.

1) In one  telling  he focusses on only the important bits of the story – the hands and the punctuation:

2) In another the story is deconstructed and presented as an inventory of its constituent parts: 

In academic writing – empirical or theoretical – we are telling one story.

It really doesn’t matter what we are writing or why. We tell, one autobiographical story. That is: I have come to understand something in a particular way. And this is why. We tell that story again and again and again in everything and anything we write. Because it is autobiographical, I can’t assume my reader knows what I know. If they do, they may not know it in the same way. I have to tell them the story of what and why I think this or that or something else.

The style may differ – that is I might choose to extract and focus on specific details. I may present the details in several different ways. I may even have distinct sub-plots that run through this story.

My colleague Claire Aitchison talks about writing the story of your research in terms of a generic Mills and Boon storyline.

That follows a pattern with its own acronym: IMRAD, introduction-methods-results-and-discussion

But of course this is just one of the 99 possiblities. The template remains the same. I now hold this view of the world and this is why. This is an autobiographical narrative that takes time as the central protagonist. Time is conceptualised as moving forward in a uniform, linear direction. One logical thing after another.

There are there ways to tell your research story – sub plots if you like, or supporting detail and perhaps a change of direction. My colleague Pat Thomson suggests a number of these based on what you feel makes your story worth telling. You have come to understand something in a particular way – but why should we believe you and if we believe you why should we care?

She suggests we may draw on a narrative that follows a slightly different structure:

Thesis to ‘proof’ – you begin with a proposition and then demonstrate its veracity by considering evidence and counter evidence.

Problem to solution – a problem or problematisation is outlined and then the steps to a ‘solution’ – or a different problematisation – are laid out. Alternative solutions are considered and reasons for rejecting them given.

Question to answer – a question is posed at the start, and justified – and the answer built up. Alternative answers are considered and dealt with along the way.

Compare and contrast – the topic is presented and the need for a comparison is given. Material which compares and contrasts is presented and lessons drawn from the exercise.

Cause and effect, or effect and cause – either the cause or effect is presented and justified. The connections are traced and evidenced. The implications of knowing the now apparent causal relationship are elaborated.

Known to unknown or unknown to known – the initial state of knowing or unknowing is outlined and a rationale given for why it is important to un/know it. The reader is led through a set of steps to the opposite condition and the So What – why we needed to do this – is explained.

Simple to complex – a simple or commonsense understanding is presented, and then a set of issues which complicate the initial situation are outlined. Reasons are offered for the importance of these more nuanced understandings.

All of these are of course different ways to tell the same story. Your story about what you now know that you didn’t know before.


Madden, Matt (2006) 99 ways to tell a story: exercises in style, London: Jonathan Cape