cntl logo
mcmaster logo

Big 5 Issues

1. Narrative production

Storytelling. The process of storytelling involves the two essential elements of a story and its telling. Hence, it reflects both the properties of the story and the nature of the communication medium through which the story is conveyed. The properties of the story are contained in story grammars that outline the structure of the plot. The content of the story often relates to a re-creation of past events, as seen during the storytelling of everyday discourse. The “telling” process refers both to the creation of a narrative (as in playwriting) and to its presentation. The composition of a story is a creative process that can occur through improvisation (as in everyday conversation or in devised theatre) or through formalization by means of transcription and/or memorization. Presentation of the story can occur during a performance – by an actor, storyteller, dancer, mime, etc. – or it can be written down as a text to be read. When presented in a performance context, the material can either be improvised or produced from a fixed, rehearsed text.

Multimodality of storytelling. Stories are generally told using language, but they can be conveyed through movement (e.g., dance and gesture) and visual images as well. Hence, words, gestures, and pictures – either alone or in combination – comprise a "semantic triad" for storytelling. There are many situations where stories are told with gesture, as in pantomime, narrative dance (e.g., ballet), or the visual narratives of music videos. Likewise, stories can be conveyed using static visual images, as seen in figurative paintings, rock art, or comic strips. Overall, there is a distinction between modalities of storytelling that are dynamic (such as theatre and dance) versus those that are static (such as written stories or paintings). During performance-based storytelling, music is often used to enhance the emotional meaning of the narrative, something we can refer to as “musical narration”. This is seen, for example, in the underscore of films and television commercials, the musical scores of dance works, or the music in songs with words.


2. Narrative perception

This issue deals with the perception of narrative, with a focus on the plot.

Multiple sensory modalities. People understand stories in terms of the unfolding of a story grammar. They tend to rely on linguistic resources for this, even when the story is told non-linguistically. In the case of language-based narratives, this can involve speech perception for verbal performance, or reading in the case of literature. However, as mentioned above, stories can be conveyed  multimodally through language, gesture and images, and music often accompanies performance-based storytelling. Hence, multiple modalities of perception are necessary to process the elements of such narratives, including audition (for speech and music) and vision (for written text, gesture, and pictures).

Plot comprehension. Narratives unfold as plot structures based on a series of action sequences. Hence, perceivers of narratives, beyond engaging basic-level sensory processing, have to recruit cognitive processes for interpreting the unfolding of the story’s action sequences. These actions are goal-directed movements and are grounded in the motivations of protagonists, plans for goal attainment, obstacles for attainment, and resolutions. Resolutions can be as simple as the punch line of a joke and as complex as the moral of a multi-hour epic drama.


3. Character production: Acting

The study of character production deals with processes of acting and role playing during theatre performance, storytelling, and other contexts for role playing.

Acting as pretense. Acting is a form of pretense – a type of impersonation – that first occurs developmentally in the pretend play of children. Actors pretend to be people (or objects) that they are not. To some extent, all individuals engage in role playing in their daily life through the diverse personas that they present in social contexts. However, compared to these multiple variants of the self, acting involves a transformation to become some other individual. Because the actor assumes a first-person perspective of the character, acting can be thought of as the process of assuming a “fictional first-person” perspective.

Self, identity, personality. The idea that acting is a form of pretense touches on the cognitive nature of the self, personal identity, and consciousness. In addition, actors have to take on the personality characteristics of the characters that they portray. There is debate among acting theorists about the extent to which there is a “split consciousness” between the self and the character during acting.

Acting methods. There are numerous methods for getting into character, and these vary across theatre traditions cross-culturally. However, they tend to be polarized along the lines of being either “inside-out” or “outside-in” approaches, where inside-out approaches are mentalistic and tend to rely on perspective taking with the character, and outside-in approaches are gestural and emphasize the physical and expressive behaviours of the character. The latter methods touch on embodiment theories in psychology, which posit that gestures can influence cognition, especially at the interpretive and emotional levels.


4. Character perception: Perspective taking

Through processes of character perception, viewers of drama and readers of literature come to understand the thoughts, emotions, and intentions of characters in narratives. In addition, they develop a moral perspective on these characters in terms of their connection with perceived protagonists in the story.

Perspective taking. Perspective taking is a process of making inferences about the thoughts, beliefs, and desires of other people, and is a central process for character perception. It involves assuming a third-person perspective on a character, such as occurs with narration. This process is referred to variously in the psychology literature as mentalizing, theory-of-mind, and mindreading. It is the process of inferring the unobservable mental states of an agent.

Empathy. Beyond the mere process of inference that occurs during perspective taking, empathy refers to the process of contagiously sharing the emotions of another person. So, if perspective taking is about having knowledge of a person’s beliefs or emotions, empathy is about actually experiencing the emotions perceived to be felt by the character, e.g., feeling their pain.

Agency. We see characters as intentional beings having a sense of motivation and agency that characterizes all biological beings. We therefore interpret narratives in terms of the motivations of characters and their rational desires to attain goals and overcome obstacles so as to improve their well-being and maintain their survival. Such is seen for fictional agents, non-human agents, and even for inanimate agents that are made animate through inventive storytelling or religious belief.

Protagonists and antagonists. Stories are presented as moral conflicts between protagonists and antagonists. A central facet of character perception is assigning the characters of the narrative to these moral categories. Hence, perceivers of narratives have to make appraisals about the moral status of the motivations and behaviours of the characters in a story.


5. The functions of narrative

Storytelling functions. Stories serve important social functions for societies and individuals. They are an important tool for enculturation. Stories teach individuals not only about proper moral behaviours but also about their cultural identity, including their culture’s history and heroic figures. They also serve as playgrounds for mental simulation, allowing people to create and inhabit fictional worlds and contemplate how events might play out in hypothetical circumstances. Darwinian theories of literature emphasize the connection between literature and the mating game, and how stories often reflect sexual conflicts and sexual mores. Finally, in our entertainment-driven society, stories are a dominant form of entertainment, through movies, television shows, video games, and music videos.

The universal thematics of storytelling. There are numerous features of narrative that are universal, including prototypical plot structures and characters, as embodied in story grammars. This is seen in the study of folklore and mythology cross-culturally. In addition, stories assume a life of their own when they get transmitted across time and geography. They can undergo modifications through mechanisms of cultural evolution, thereby creating multiple variants of the same basic plot or character in different cultures.