My work is with story across a wide spectrum of projects. I write stories in the form of plays, musicals and librettos, co-create stories with communities, teach people how to write stories and plays, and also lead workshops and conduct research using story to support processes of transformational social change.

It sounds like I do a lot of different things, but really I do the same thing, just in different ways. I use the same set of skills, always working with story, to try and create positive change. This more polymathic approach reflects developments we’re seeing in the world – not just to the way we work, but to the ways we think, as we begin to move out of a period of intense individualisation and specialisation which, as David Sloan Wilson reminds us, is a key and recently intensifying paradigm: 

“Individualism, while having long historical roots, did not become the dominant intellectual tradition until the second half of the 20th century”.

In the 1990s, the visual art critic Suzi Gablik identified this same pattern in both artists and the art they create during the modernist period, when:

“The philosophies of the Cartesian era carried us away from a sense of wholeness by focussing only on individual experience. Ultimately, this individualistic focus narrowed our aesthetic perspectives as well, due to its noninteractive, nonrelational and nonparticipatory orientation. Most artists still see art as an arena in which to pursue individual freedom and expression. Under modernism this often meant freedom from community, freedom from obligation to the world and freedom from relatedness.”

While much art is still created and experienced in that more neoliberal and individualistic arena, over the last decade or two an increasing number of artists of all kinds, from writers to dancers to furniture makers, have been drawn to respond to the “growing need for the arts to help us find our way in the current cultural shift we are moving through”  in a movement variously called Transitional or Relational Art. How the arts, specifically the narrative arts, are well placed to help us to navigate this period of cultural evolution, and how we best make good use of them, is the subject of this essay.

In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin tells us that:

"The formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously parallel.”

This parallel pattern of language development reflecting species development also seems to be true of story, if not of all art, as the French curator, theoretician and writer Nicolas Bourriaud reminds us:   

“Artistic activity is a game, whose forms, patterns and functions develop and evolve according to periods and social contexts; it is not an immutable essence.”  

In this version of events, the evolution of language and the arts run alongside that of species and of social contexts, helping us locate ourselves, to articulate where we are. As Hamlet says, in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, the purpose of playing, or performing a play, is:

“To hold as 'twere the mirror up to Nature to show Virtue her feature, Scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”

Hamlet’s mirror makes the invisible visible, which the narrative arts – film, novels and short stories, plays, musicals and operas – do in their form, through the piece’s subtextual journey. When a play, book or film starts, the audience know nothing, or very little, about it. Gradually, over the course of the piece, the subtext is revealed and becomes the text. This is the essential movement of a work of narrative art: from knowing (almost) nothing to knowing (almost) everything.

This process of disseminating information is called exposition, which is the idea of ‘exposing’ or revealing things. Exposition is the stuff we need to know in order to make sense of what we’re reading or watching. As the writer of any good story, you don’t just explain everything, you hold back information, so that the audience is both left to do some of the work and kept on the edge of their seat, wanting to know more. It holds them in an active relationship with the work: too much information and the experience will be dull, too little and it’s confusing. This journey of information from subtext to text, from dramatic tension to dramatic action, is at the heart of any story. How we choose to reveal that information relates more to plot than to story, which we’ll look at next. 

The Russian formalists Vladimir Propp (a folklorist) and Viktor Shklovsky (writer and literary theorist) used the terms Fabula and Syuzet to define the two, Fabula being the story in its chronological order of events, and Syuzet the emplotment of that narrative. Shklovsky said that the Syuzhet (plot) is the Fabula (story) defamiliarized or ‘made strange’ – by the use of twists, omissions, and the postponement of important information. The effect of the making strange of a story is that it holds our attention and enables us to see the story in a fresh light. For Viktor Shklovsky, in his essay Art as Technique, this works against what he calls ‘habituation’:

“If we start to examine the general laws of perception, we see that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic. Thus, for example, all of our habits retreat into the area of the unconsciously automatic.”

Art has the ability to bring us back into an active relationship with a thing, so we no longer see it “as though it were enveloped in a sack”.  Shklovsky continues:

“Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.”

What happens when we “make the stone stony” is that we connect, we relate to the stone in front of us rather than the stone we assume is there. We move into relationship with it, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in his journal as a student at Oxford University: 

“What you look hard at seems to look hard at you.”

Stories are essentially relational: while we might read them alone, they move us in relation to each other and create relationship in us. One of the clearest ways in which many of us have experienced this is when we ‘feel with’ a character in a book or film and find ourselves responding to them emotionally, almost as if the event was happening to us. Psychologist Zanna Clay and neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni explain what’s happening to us in those moments:

“When we read about a fictional character experiencing a powerful emotion, neural mechanisms of mirroring may reevoke the neural representation of the facial gestures and bodily postures typically associated with that emotion, and trigger activity in emotional brain centres such that we end up experiencing the emotion associated with those facial gesture and bodily postures.”

Sometimes this experience of ‘feeling with’ is fleeting and mundane, but at others it enables us to make a journey towards and with people we are unlikely to meet and whose lived experiences would otherwise remain other to us. These journeys into other lives and worlds can offer us ways to transcend the limits of our worldview, the unseen paradigms we live in, and rehearse new ways of being in the world. 

These emotional engagements don’t just bring us close to a person or situation, they can affect our response, even powerfully lead our decisions and bring us to action, as the authors of an analysis of thirty five years of work on emotion and decision making concludes:

“Emotions constitute potent, pervasive, predictable, sometimes harmful and sometimes beneficial drivers of decision making. Across different types of decisions, important regularities appear in the underlying mechanisms through which emotions influence judgment and choice.”

Our emotions are related to our actions, they found, not just randomly, but through regularities in the “underlying mechanisms” of our lives, just as Bourriaud tells us that artistic activity is a flow, influenced and evolved by context, and as Darwin draws our attention to the parallel development of life and language. On a day to day basis, we can see story as a way in which we make emotional sense of incoming information and events. We might hold some of it as data and figures, but our beliefs about that information take the form of stories, beliefs that support, influence and even lead our actions. 

Just before the pandemic, I took a group of Danish Masters students to visit the Swedish Institute for Children’s Books in Stockholm. Each year, they review all the children’s and young adult fiction that has either been written in, or translated into, Swedish. I asked the librarian we met whether I was right in thinking that my children, who had grown up over the preceding twenty years, had had a diet of stories that were largely dystopian and apocalyptic. She said yes, that had been their findings – until the previous year, when a new theme started to emerge: that of a stranger arriving in a foreign land, and being cared for. There are two things that I think this long-term, comprehensive review reveals to us about the role and possibility for story in a time of seismic cultural evolutionary change. 

The first is our focus on dystopian narratives, even in the stories we create for our children and young adults. This focus has continued unabated and almost un-noticed for the last two decades or more, reflecting our lack of ability to imagine positive futures for ourselves as societies. This shows us that stories, as we saw with Hamlet’s mirror, are a guide to where we’re at. They show us ourselves and the deeper patterns of our lives, in time. The second, in the new theme of the welcomed stranger which rises in opposition to the nationalistic and hostile environment many of us live in, is that stories can also model and support processes of change, working to challenge, shift and evolve dominant cultural narratives. Given their relationship to empathy and to decision-making, the possibility of their role looks strong.

Of course, not all stories are good. They are both the solution and the problem, as David Sloan Wilson points out about evolution:

“Evolution is both the solution and the problem. The harmony and order that we associate with the word organism indeed has a moveable boundary, that can be expanded to include biological ecosystems, human societies and conceivably the entire earth. Special conditions are needed, however, and when these conditions are not met, evolution takes us where we don’t want to go… We must be the navigators, consciously evolving our collective future.”

My experience has taught me that story is one of the tools with which we can navigate. Challenging the stories we’re living can change the paradigm or pattern we’re in. We can start this by noticing the stories around us and inside us: day by day, story by story. Noticing them and asking:

Who’s telling this story?

Why are they telling it?

Does this story seek to divide or to connect? 

Does it want to make enemies – or friends? 

Where has it come from?

What does this story want me to think or do – and why?

Because one of the important ways to support, and even begin to put an ‘r’ into cultural evolution, is to challenge the stories we’re being told, to change the stories we’re telling, to create space for different stories about ourselves and our communities, about society and what’s possible, about our past, and certainly about the future, because that story is yet to be told.