The Difference Between Story and Drama

By | 2015/11/23

In our data-driven age, we tend to give short shrift to story. Story tends to get herded off into the ghetto of drama. Story is for amusement; at work we stick to data.

When I wrote my last post, suggesting a switch of terminology from “content” to “story”, many people naturally interpreted story as meaning drama. As Larry Kunz put it, “In technical writing, the story’s hero is your reader, who’s trying to accomplish something or learn something.”

That may be a useful way to think about your tech writing, but it is a definition of story derived from the world of drama. When I talk about story in the world of tech comm (or marketing communication, for the most part) I am not talking about drama, I am talking about general human communication about everything. Because story is not a special preserve of entertainment. It is how we communicate about everything.

That so many readers understood my emphasis on story as referring to drama is my fault. Since I was using “story” in a broader sense than its common usage today, I should have spent more time defining it. That is what this post is about.

Some might suggest that my mistake was choosing the wrong word, rather than failing to define story adequately. The data-driven world has a strong faith in the mot juste: the idea the there is one perfect word for every concept. But that is not how words work. Words cleave to the concerns of the day. Even where our vocabulary provides multiple words, they all tend to cleave to the same dominant concerns, rather than making clear and fixed distinctions.

I could, for instance, have chosen the word “narrative” rather than “story”. One could argue that “narrative structure” would make a nice counterpoint to all the various forms of “data structure” that we encounter today. There’s something in that, and I may write a post about it one day. But I don’t for a minute think that most of my readers would automatically have understood the scope of what I was talking about better if I had said “narrative” rather than “story”.

This in itself is evidence of the importance of story in how we communicate. We don’t communicate by exchanging words but by referencing common stories. This is why words cleave to the concerns of the day. They cleave, specifically, to the dominant stories of the day.

Two stories dominate our associations of the word “story” today. One is the story of how our world today is data driven. Anything “anecdotal” is frowned upon. We need the numbers. Numbers are facts. Stories are fiction.

The other is modern Hollywood story theory, as expounded in books like McKee’s Story and Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. The essence of story is the hero’s journey — an idea derived from  Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which was famously the guiding pattern for the first Star Wars movie.

These two stories dominate what we think of when we hear the word story. Yet neither of them are fiction. Neither of them have a hero, or a journey. Neither of them are drama. Nor could either of them be reduced to entries in a database table. They are the kinds of stories that we communicate with every day.

A large part of why we tend to discount this meaning of story, despite it being the dominant form of communication about absolutely everything all the time, maybe that our expression and consumption of these kinds of stories is more or less tacit.

Take, for example, the word “Hollywood” as used in the paragraph above. It evokes not only a place, but an industry, a style, and a culture. There is a large and complex story behind that single word, and the entire structure of the paragraph depends on you recognizing it. But when you recognize it, the result is not that you are flooded with all of those association, that you pause, for perhaps hours, to recall all of your associations with that word, before you can apprehend my meaning. You hear “Hollywood” and you apprehend it instantly.

As I commented in an earlier post, this is remarkable, when you stop to think about it, and it is also essential for efficient communication. If we had to unpack all the stories tacitly present in every word we use, we would never get anything said, and never understand anything that was said to us.

At the same time, if I were to try to explain what that paragraph was about to someone who had never heard of Hollywood, saying something like “It’s a place in California where they make movies” would be utterly inadequate. To get the full flavor of what Hollywood is, and what its influence is on our language today, requires far more than this simple identifying fact.

In fact, the best strategy for making my point to that person would probably not be to explain to them what Hollywood meant, but to tell my story about the forces that shape the understanding of “story” in a different way, a way that invoked the stories that person already knew. (However, I might not be qualified to do that. I might not know the stories that person knows. Someone else, with a foot in both worlds, might be required retell my larger story for that audience.)

This tacit understanding of stories, which is the basis of our language, and which shapes the concerns to which our words cleave, is, I am convinced, the reason why the curse of knowledge exists. We forget that the words we use invoke stories, because we recognize their meanings instantly and tacitly. We cannot see that we need to tell a story because we are not conscious that we have invoked one.

And thus we grossly underestimate the role that story plays in all of our communication. In particular, we fail to recognize that all data is founded in stories.

The desire to remain fashionably in the realm of data is probably the reason we are more comfortable with the word content than story. Content reduces story to the role of storable and retrievable object: data.

But we are really in the story business. And if one thing should separate professional writers and communicators from the rest of the population, it should be their appreciation for the central and indispensable role of story in all communication, and their ability, in particular, to escape the curse of knowledge and recognize which stories need to be told.

At the organizational level, discovering which stories need to be told is probably the heart and soul of a successful story strategy.

2 thoughts on “The Difference Between Story and Drama

  1. Pingback: Living and Learning | Leading Technical Communication

  2. Ugur Akinci

    What a fascinating insight!

    Mark, I’m really impressed with the novelty of your approach as a former amateur screenwriter. Your example of the word “Hollywood” and the story is represents is so on spot. I know I’ll be thinking about this “content vs. story” issue for days and months to come.

    What probably needs to be done is putting meat on this framework by presenting specific cases of “content development” where the story was ignored or was not ignored (A/B splitting testing of sorts) and the respective outcome.

    For example, as a tech writer working in the software industry, should I write my User Guide with various “typical” stories in mind? A Troubleshooting Guide can be considered a collection of such stories with resolution in the end, isn’t it?

    Also: in those situations when we cannot compile stories (we do not always have full access to the customers), should we give up the documentation effort? Or is it a matter of balancing the story and “data” (like a detached and methodical description of how the GUI works) to the best we can?

    Thanks again for a very seminal and provocative post.


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