Category Archives: Social Narrative

Group Identity – A Society’s Sense of Self

Here’s a little essay on how narrative can determine whether a group, culture, or society will hang together or fall apart…

When you see a society as a group mind, you can see that it must have an identity, just as we do: “I think therefore I am.”  In stories, this identity is the main character – the sense of self of the story mind.  Think of “corporate identity” of being a fan of a television show who goes to a convention about the show and connects with all the other fans.  As individuals, we get a sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves, that reflects a part of who we are and binds us all together.

When we say we are Democrats or Republicans, we are not saying that is all we are, or that the group identity for our part is the totality of our being, but rather that a portion of ourselves as individuals is represented by that group identity and, in that regard “we are all alike” and at the same time, we are NOT like members of the other party.

Every tribe, every sports team, needs a corporate identity or there is no glue to hold it together as it is just a collection of individuals (This IS the United States used to be These ARE the United States).  Of late, we are struggling with our common identity as Americans because the gap between the two party’s agendas has become so wide that we no longer feel like Americans when the other party is in power, or perhaps better put: we feel they are not Americans and we are foreigners in our own country (“Dude, Where’s my Country?”)

Often what helps focus a grow a group identity is a figure head – an avatar for the sense of self of the group mind, such as Steve Jobs with Apple or a religious or ethnic martyr like William Wallace (“Braveheart”) or Jesus Christ himself.  In the case of Apple, the corporation chose to end the avatar of Jobs when he died and tried to have Apple itself become its own main character, with little success.  In contrast, Kentucky Friend Chicken maintains the avatar of Colonel Sanders, just as Disney did for may years, and still to a small extent today.

We took on a narrative consulting job for a sports team once that had all the most expensive and best players in terms of stats, but couldn’t win in the clutch.  We analyzed the narrative and discovered the problem was so simple it is hard to see:  The players were asking “What can I do for my team?” rather than asking “What can WE do AS a team?”  As long as they saw themselves as individuals contributing to the greater good, no team identity could form.  So our narrative prescription was to instill a sense of all being contributors, rather than each contributing his best ability.  This would lead individual members to accept being benched or put in a less important order of play for the good of the group, and they would then begin to click as a team and to win.

So, for a society – ANY society – to become cohesive and to stand strong, it must develop a group identity, and that “brand” must be personified by a personality, real or fictitious.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Narrative Structure and the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership)

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Narrative works in the real world as accurately and efficiently as it does in fiction.  Not surprising since fictional narrative is nothing more than our attempt to refine and understand how people are driven and how they behave in the real world.

At a most basic level, one can see real world narratives emerging in the news every day.  And, with only a little training, one can not only understand how things are, but even project where they will go from here.

A good example is the current news story that the United States will be pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

What follows is a non-political assessment of the narrative significance of that move, and where it will likely lead.

To understand this analysis, you need only know two tiny concepts out of the entire universe of narrative structure, and these are they:

  1.  Narrative is always structured in groups of four dramatic items.
  2. Of the four, three seem similar in nature and one seems not quite the same.

First, the narrative analysis of the TPP, followed by a more in-depth explanation of these two theory points so you might be better able to apply them to your own real world analyses and your story development as well.

Narrative Analysis of the TPP

There are four world players in the trade agreement narrative:

The EU, the Russian Economic Block, the TPP, and China.  As described above, three of these are trade partnerships and one is a single country, which satisfies both of the two theory points listed above.

The quick analysis is that with the United States pulling out of the TPP, there are now five players trying to fit into the world economic quad:  The EU, the Russian Block, the TPP (without the USA), China, and the United States.

The projection of where things will go from here is that the three trading partnerships will mostly hold fast (Brexit, notwithstanding), putting the United States and China in direct economic conflict with one another for the four place at the table.

Like a game of musical chairs, the USA and China will seek to push the other into economic decline through currency manipulations, tariffs, and individual deal-making.  In order to be economically strong enough to hold its own in this fight, the USA must pull back from its current economic and military commitments overseas.  We see this happening already in the stated plans of the current administration in Washington.

In the short run, we will be able to muster the wherewithal to stand toe to toe against China economically, but due to the pull back of United States influence in the world, China will step in to fill that vacuum and gradually form alliances with our allies, increasing their world influence at the expense of ours.  But, as they say, that is another narrative.

In short summary, by pulling out of the TPP we are effectively declaring a one-on-one economic war with China in the belief we can triumph on our own, rather than as a group of economically allied nations.

For the long view, here is more about this world economic quad, how and why it came to be, how it functions, and where it will likely go from here:

In our work using narrative analysis for all of the major United States intelligence organizations over the past five years, we learned a bit about the history of how these trade partnerships emerged, which informs this analysis.  (Knowing the back story always aids in understanding the current story).

When the old Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, it recognized it needed to shed many of its component republics, such as Chzechoslovia and the Ukraine.  In anticipation of this, it sought western assurances and received promises that the west would not move to exert any political or economic control over these republics.

However, once the Soviet Union dissolved, the Russian Federation discovered that the west was so tempted by the potential power and profits of eastern Europe that, gradually, both political and economic inroads were made.

The EU became the first of the world-size trading partnerships, and its formation clearly threatened the economic and political security of the Russian Federation.  In response, the Russian Federation began to sign up its former satellite republics into exclusive mutual trade agreements as part of a new Russian Economic Block.

Each of these became internally unified and emerged as major economic players on the world stage.  That left North America, South America and the Pacific Rim as of yet unorganized and trying to go it alone against these large trading partnerships.  It also left China on its own as well.

The TPP began as a result of the following reasoning – that China has virtually the same land area as the USA, as well as being almost identical in natural resources, economy, technological capability and trade.  They also have more than three times the population of the United States.  Further, our outreach through the financial and military support of other nations is a great drain on our economy, whereas the Chinese do not put nearly as much of their GDP into these kinds of endeavors and are growing faster that we are.  So, while we are near parity at the moment, the trend is for China to overtake us as the world leader in the next century, if not before.

In order to do economic battle with not only China but the two economic partnerships as well, we organized the TPP to gather all the remaining independent players into a third partnership that would, through its combined strength, be able to hold out against the growing Chinese power for the foreseeable future.

The problem is that in all of these partnerships, the economically stronger nations end up supporting the economically weaker nations in the hope that eventually, all the member nations will rise, even if the stronger nations have to carry the start-up costs for a while.  That makes the partnerships unpopular in the stronger nations leading to some defections from the ranks as with Brexit.

This brings us to the current situation – the fore story – in which three trading partnerships are strong enough to claim a place in the quad and do business with each other, while the USA and China do economic battle with each other, weakening them both so that in the long run, each may lose its position or potential position as a world leader with the economic partnerships becoming political partnerships that then determine the destinies of all remaining independent nations.

Naturally, for the independent nations, the most practical solution is to sew the seeds of disruption in the three trading partnerships so that they fracture and eventually fail, leaving both the USA and China as the defacto world leaders, albeit in their weakened condition from the ongoing economic conflict between them.

While these outlooks appear bleak, narrative structure provides much more positive potential outcomes, including win-win scenarios in which all players might prosper.  But, as alluded to earlier, that is another story.

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Dramatica Theory (Annotated) Part 8 “Communicating Through Symbols”

Excerpted from the book, Dramatica: A New Theory of Story

How can essential concepts be communicated? Certainly not in their pure, intuitive form directly from mind to mind. (Not yet, anyway!) To communicate a concept, an author must symbolize it, either in words, actions, juxtapositions, interactions — in some form or another. As soon as the concept is symbolized, however, it becomes culturally specific and therefore inaccessible to much of the rest of the world.

Even within a specific culture, the different experiences of each member of an audi- ence will lead to a slightly different interpretation of the complex patterns represented by intricate symbols. On the other hand, it is the acceptance of common symbols of com- munication that defines a culture. For example, when we see a child fall and cry, we do not need to know what language he speaks or what culture he comes from in order to understand what has happened. If we observe the same event in a story, however, it may be that in the author’s culture a child who succumbs to tears is held in low esteem. In that case, then the emotions of sadness we may feel in our culture are not at all what was intended by the author.


As I read this over, I think our intent was good, but we were a little off the mark.  Here we state in the opening paragraph that to communicate a thought, concept, feeling or experience you need to symbolize it first.  That’s not technically true.  For example, suppose you want your friend to feel terror.  Well, you could just throw him out of an airplane and I’ll bet he’d pretty much experience just what you had in mind.  Nothing symbolic about that!

More accurately, we can communicate by creating an environment that causes our reader or audience to arrive just where we want them.  In other words, we set up an experience that, by the end of the book or movie, positions our reader or audience into just the mindset we want them to have.

More sophisticated, or perhaps less end-product-oriented narratives are designed to position the reader or audience all along the way as well, so that the entire journey is an experience right along the logical and emotional path of discovery the author intended for his followers.

None of this requires symbols, however.  It can all be done simply by creating a series of artificial environments presented in a given sequence.  But, symbols can streamline the process.  If you don’t have to build the environment for the reader or audience but merely allude to it, then you can get your point and passion across simply by invoking an element of common understanding.  A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but a symbol is worth 1,000 experiences.

So, what we wrote above is not wrong per se, but rather is short speak that (though it communicates) is open to criticism because is skips over a number of steps to streamline communication.  And that, is exactly what symbols do – they get the content to the recipient in the quickest fashion possible yet open the message – the story argument – to rebuttal because wholesale parts of the communication are truncated, leaving gaps in the actual flow, though if the author is in tune with the audience’s symbolic vocabulary, the complete extent of the original concept may, in fact, be fully appreciated.

Bottom line – know your audience and you will be able to put far more logical and passionate density into the pipeline than if you had to spell everything out.

–Melanie Anne Phillips

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Dramatica Theory (Annotated) Part 7 “Symbolizing Concepts”

Excerpted from the book, Dramatica: A New Theory of Story

It has been argued that perhaps the symbols we use are what create concepts, and therefore no common understanding between cultures, races, or times is possible. Dramatica works because indeed there ARE common concepts: morality, for example. Morality, a common concept? Yes. Not everyone shares the same definition of morality, but every culture and individual understands some concept that means “morality” to them. In other words, the concept of “morality” may have many different meanings — depending on culture or experience — but they all qualify as different meanings of “morality.” Thus there can be universally shared essential concepts even though they drift apart through various interpretations. It is through this framework of essential concepts that communication is possible.


We wrote this section of the book right up front because we were getting a lot of “blow-back” from “artists” who felt that “story” was a magical, mystical thing that could  never be defined.  They believed that any attempt to do so was inherently flawed and, therefore, the whole Dramatica concept was wrong right out of the box.

And in regard to that box, you’ve hear people often say, “You need to think outside the box.”  What Dramatica is saying here is, “Inside or outside: either way you’re still thinking ABOUT the box.”  Which means, that the box is, in the above example, “morality.”  Every human mind has a little box called “morality.”  We can’t help it – its the way we’re built.  But what we put in that box  is guided by culture and unique to each individual.

Thinking outside the box really just means looking into somebody else’s box and seeing what they have in there.  If you consider it, see how that might be seen as, in our example, morality – they you are open-minded.  If you hold that only what you have put into your box is appropriate to be labelled “morality,” they you are close-minded.

Life (if we look outward) and, more accurately, we ourselves (if we look inward) are made of boxes.  Each with a different label and each filled with a whole assortment of things we’ve piled in there over the years through experience and a bunch of stuff that has been piled in out box by others, through personal influence or collectively through cultural indoctrination.

As long as we look at the contents, story structure (and narrative psychology) will make no sense because were are trying to compare what one person believes should go in that box in their life to what everyone else is putting in a box with the same label in their lives.

But if you just look to see if everyone has a box labelled “morality” or any of the other story points that are the conventions of story structure, you’ll see we all have the same boxes with the same labels, but what we put in them is different.

From that perspective, you begin to see that there is also a pattern to the way people stack up those mental boxes for storage.  The box labelled “Hope” is often stacked right next to the one labelled “Dreams.”

The boxes are what we documented as the structure of Dramatica, and how they are organized is described by the dynamics of the Dramatica model.  When people start to stack things in a way that seems out of kilter, such as putting Morality next to Dreams instead of Hope, then you know that something in their lives has caused them to arrange their collections of experiences and responses into an unusual pattern because it helped them deal with unique but ongoing situations they’ve encountered.

Moving boxes around like that, out of category and out of sub-category is like mixing up the periodic table of elements in physics to create molecular substances or like pulling items out of the well-organizerd pantry to add them to a recipe boiling on the stove.

Life requires that we do such things to move efficiently through the trials and tribulations we face and to maximize the results we’re after.  But when we get in the habit of re-organizing things in a particular manner and it sets in place so we never get back to the original, un-biased order…  well, that’s what we call (in Dramatica) “Justification,” and it is the process of being bent by experience to the point you think that crooked path is straight.

It IS kinda straight in a warped world.  But if the world warps some other way or you move to a new environment that isn’t warped or is warped differently, then that pattern you don’t even think about anymore is suddenly out of kilter.  That’s the moment the problem at the heart of a story is born.

The question then is, do you keep your labelled boxes in the same organization that has now worked so well for so many years, or do you rearrange them to adapt to the new situation.  And this is the argument that ensues between the Main Character and the Influence Character, resulting in a climax in which the Main Character will either change or remain steadfast.  Which way leads to success, is unsure.  Maybe sticking with your tried and true will change the immediate world around you.  Maybe you have to change because the world ain’t budging.  Either way, the choice is unavoidable.

This is what stories are all about.  So, if we put “morality” aside in terms of specific content and find the common ground that we all have a box with that label on it, just with different contents – if we stop thinking our way of stacking boxes is right for everyone else, even though our life experiences have been so different – if we just realize we all have the same bag of marbles but group them in different ways, then perhaps, just perhaps, we might have a little more tolerance for other people and other peoples and realize that we’re all the same, even though we’re nothing alike.

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