#65) The Dangers of “The Singular Narrative” Versus “The Single Narrative”

An important distinction.  The “singular” narrative is part of narrative structure.  The “single” narrative refers to limited exposure.

THE DANGER OF A SINGLE STORY.   Which is not the same as the importance of “a singular narrative.”  Let’s get clear on this.



Last month I was caught out by a grad student at our Demo Day at Yale Forestry School.  I was talking about the power and importance of “the singular narrative.”  He said, “But haven’t you seen that TED Talk about the dangers of the single narrative?”  I had not seen the presentation he was talking about (though should have).  I was left with little more of an answer than the standard Rick Perry, “duh, nope … whoops?”

I found the TED Talk. It’s very good. But it’s not about “the singular narrative.” It’s about “the single story.” The distinction is important.



This is a fundamental piece of “classical design” or archplot as I have presented in my books, citing Robert McKee’s landmark 1997 work, “Story.” It refers to the shape of the ideal form of narrative structure for the masses. He lists 8 characteristics, one of which is “the single protagonist.” This extends to the basic idea of presenting just a single central narrative. Not two.

Nicholas Kristof does a wonderful job of presenting this dynamic in the real world with his classic short, simple essay in Outside Magazine in November, 2009 titled, “Nicholas Kristof’s Advice for Saving the World.”  He cites the work of psychology professor Paul Slovic who shows how “storytelling needs to focus on one individual, not a group.” Not two individuals. Just one. That is the power of the singular narrative.

I read a very intellectual blogger last year saying, “I’d like to think people can keep two thoughts in their mind at once.” You’re welcome to wish for that, but it just doesn’t work that well for the masses. They prefer the singular narrative.

But there’s also a dark side which is the public’s insatiable desire for singular narratives. Last week there was a prime example of this reported in the NY Times as they told of how the story of the infamous “Patient Zero,” (who supposedly spread the AIDS epidemic throughout the United States in the 1980’s) actually wasn’t that clear, simple or singular of a story. There were earlier patients, but mentioning them dilutes the strength of the story, leaving you with the usual choice of story or truth.



In her wonderful TED Talk, Nigerian speaker Chimamanda Adichie tells of growing up in a culture where the only stories they were told were of affluent white explorers from Europe. In hearing only this “single story” she naturally grew to believe that was all there was to storytelling — it always had to be about these people. She eventually realized it was possible to tell stories about her own people.  Her talk is about the dangers of being raised this way.

It’s a great talk and very culturally important, but it’s not at all about narrative structure. Very important to see the distinction. And very important to understand that you don’t have to tell only singular narratives, but failing to do so comes at the expense of size of audience. This is a fundamental narrative principle, as old as Gilgamesh (and Enkidu!) himself.