Narrative: it’s a buzzword these days. But not for the first time. At a point in the past the word “narrative” got a lot of use in discussions about the “end/death of the narrative” (which was a popular concept among pomo enthusiasts at the turn of the century, along with discussions about the “end/death of the author.”) Interestingly, even as the death of the narrative was announced, the “death of the narrative” was itself a narrative. But back in those days narratives were part of fiction writing. The narrative’s death was a matter of writers abandoning story in their work. Think William S. Burroughs and a handful of other writers who applied “experimental” methods to making fiction, often ignoring the application of plot, story… narrative, in their work.

That’s all past us now. Writers are telling stories again. As are filmmakers, TV producers and so on. After all those years of experimentation it turns out that you can’t tell a story without telling a story.

And so now story telling is back with a vengeance. “Narrative” is no longer confined with the rarified activities of the fiction author but has become a tool of P.R. hacks, or “message makers” as they are presenting themselves these days. But the more things change, and what’s old is new again. Remember that fascinating story about how women who smoked in public were rebels against male domination? No? Because Edward Bernays’ “Torches of Freedom” campaign occured almost a hundred years ago. (But come to think of it, the very phrase “Torches of Freedom” might have some juice in this era of the ever-creeping smoking ban.)

Every marketing man, P.R. technician, campaign manager, brand developer… anyone who manipulates public opinion for a living, they’re all talking about narrative. As a buzzword, it’s annoying. But let’s not lose sight of the important information: all around you are people consciously working to tell stories that serve their own purposes. They are doing this because it works. The reasons that storytelling works so well in influencing public opinion is complicated. I don’t understand it completely myself, though I suspect it has something to do with creating stereotypes (aka “archetypes” in Jungian psychobabble) and a sort of informational legerdemain that distracts and fascinates with the one hand while secretly tweaking your prejudices with the other.

So, be aware and avoid manipulation. Here’s a story for you: once upon a time an organism came to life for a short time on a small planet in a vast universe. It lived its fleeting life, making the most of it as it could. That organism was you.