What is good narrative?

Definitions as to what constitutes a "good story" take us back to Aristotle's Poetics (1997), the starting point of dramatic and literary theory. According to him, the unifying element of all drama is the plot (mythos), with its plausible beginning, middle, and end. Actors, scenes, agency, and purpose are brought into meaningful connection through structured unities of time, and the point about a "good story" is not the absence of problems, but that it is the trouble, the unexpected (peripeteia) which makes the story interesting. Narratives require tellers, with Bruner (2002) making the important point that in etymology, "'to narrate' derives from both 'telling' (narrare) and 'knowing in some particular way' (gnarus)—the two tangled beyond sorting" (p. 27). Narratives assume significant others, audiences of some kind, who are recipients, although this group dimension has attracted relatively little theoretical elaboration compared to its other aspects (except the idea of "audience" or "reader"). Bahktin (1981), in his approach to dialogue, argues that all words ("utterances") are marked by both "addressivity" and "answer-ability", but does not bring in the group as such.

If these principles are broadly true of the literary, how do they apply to the personal? The following list summarises some of the assumed features of "good" personal stories (in part, based on Dimaggio & Semarari, 2001).

• A firm sense of authorship. In other words, the teller is centred and relatively confident in his narrating

• Good space-time consistency. Good stories have this expansive and elaborated quality, with past/present differentiation

• Reference to inner states. Good stories do not just refer to external happenings, but to motives, intentions, and a range of feelings

• Relevant to the relationship context. Adaptive narrative is appropriate to context and adaptive to the others who receive it

• Thematically coherent, relevant. Coherence is a hallmark of a "good account"

• Integrated. Good stories connect different elements and strands of experience, so as to link them well

• Good self-other differentiation. A good author is able to distinguish who is doing what and to whom.

In group terms, improved narrative capacity includes greater freedom of voice, a quality which I describe in Chapter Nine as one of "discursive democracy". This involves flexibility with respect to receptivity and expressivity, and the ability to "feel 'both' or 'many' sides to their story, without falling back into closing one side down" (Angus & McLeod, 2004, p. 82). If Foulkes and Anthony (1957), referring to psychoanalysis, regard treatment as "panorama", allowing the emergence of new "interpersonal subtleties" (p. 143), then group is equally panorama in which subtle narrative capacities are enhanced. This includes openess to matters being told differently and to letting others "in" on the revision of stories; in the language of Gadamer, expanded, more flexible horizons.

These are ideal qualities and it is important to acknowledge an ambiguity at the heart of the notion of story. On the one hand, story is elevated as a noble aspect of human life and in this light there has been a veritable cultural celebration around "telling one's story", "finding one's voice", "unique life stories", and the like. Everyone is said to have "a story", whether realised or not, whose expression, whether as individual or community, is a central part of identity and expression. The recovery movement in modern psychiatry is an example, replete as it is with reference to stories and "owning". Even politicians talk the language and accuse each other of that most embarrassing of modern sins, having "no narrative", for example, on the economy. And yet, at the same time that the nobility of story and desirability of coherence are emphasised, there is a whole other side to story that contains suspicion, a suspicion centred on seduction or deception. Nietzsche knew this, expressing it with characteristic sting in his observation of man as "clever animal" (as in "too clever for his own good"). It is expressed in countless everyday expressions—"cover story", "old wives' tale", "same old story", "or so the story goes .", etc., as well as in the denigrated language of "tale", "fiction", "anecdote", "spiel", and so forth. A story can be said to be "too good (coherent? smooth?) to be true" and "too subjective" to rely upon as evidence. Identical polarities arose within that ancient tradition of rhetoric, both a noble art of discourse and persuasion and a dangerous act of sophistry, which in modern versions is seen as an empty claim or exaggeration—"mere rhetoric"; even so, the older tradition of rhetoric has been revived. In a nutshell, story suffers from the very subjectivity which defines it.

What constitutes "good story", then, is seemingly characterised by this central ambiguity. In terms of therapy, part of the skill lies not only in helping clients to tell their stories, maybe for the first time, but in seeing the uses, misuses, and flexibility or otherwise of their stories. Some psychoanalysts have described psychoanalysis as tantamount to narrative therapy, such as Spence (1982), who viewed psychoanalytic discourse more as construction than as reconstruction, unlike Freud's archaeological metaphor (see Chapter One). Schaffer (1992), too, saw analysis as akin to a developing story—giving an account, articulating successive versions of oneself—the culmination of which is the retelling of the analysand's life history. Those narrative accounts containing the widest, most integrated coverage of the person's predicament are seen as being the most adaptive and helpful.

As regards group analysis, does narrative theory offer added value or something radically new? Is Foulkes' (1975, p. 11) ideal of groups "working towards an ever more articulate form of communication", one which lends itself to narrative theory? My answer is in the affirmative. Just as the individual mind can be seen as populated by a cast of "characters" or "voices" (e.g., Dimaggio, Salvatore & Azzara, 2003; Hermans, 2003; etc.), group life not only contains this dimension, but also that of a multiplicity of stories, exchanges, positions, harmonies, and dissonances between persons; in group we cannot but help be "in the thick of it".

 
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