Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Thinking Thursdays: Story Believability

Ruth Anne Robbins, Distinguished Clinical Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School

Dr. J. Christopher Rideout, at Seattle School of Law wants lawyers to appreciate the elements of narrative plausibility (colloquially: story believability). The believability quotient is affected by whether the proffered story’s structure bears up in its consistency and completeness, and whether the story's substance jibes with the audience's experiences and lessons learned from those experiences. In his Journal of Legal Writing article Storytelling, Narrative Rationality, and Legal Persuasion, Rideout explains that his understanding of what persuades in law has shifted from one grounded primarily in rhetorical models of persuasion to now include narrative models as well.

To be persuasive, a narrative must possess narrative probability and narrative fidelity. Narrative probability is formalistic, in that it is structural. It involves two elements: coherence and correspondence. Narrative fidelity, in contrast, is substantive, focusing on the content. The bulk of rhetorician’s work on the persuasive structure of narratives has focused on the structural features. The way in which a story is told influences its credibility. “regardless of the actual truth status of the story.”[1]

Narrative coherence refers to the way the parts of the story fits together. The story structure should have a cause and effect flow. Having that cause and effect flow makes a story feel feasible—thus, the story that is presented most coherently will be the story that feels the most probable. To be coherent, a story must also be complete—that it contains all of the expected parts of a story. While the audience may be able to fill in some of the elements with inferences, a story that is too incomplete will appear to have logical gaps.

Narrative correspondence. the second formal (structural) requirement, lines up what the audience believes typically happens in the world. As story consumers we are always comparing the story being told with how we have experienced our world’s physical properties or within the audience’s mental storehouse of social knowledge. A story that contradicts the audience’s understandings of how things work will lack plausibility. While the story need not conform precisely to the most-common-flow in a given situation, it must be congruent to how humans react in given situations.

Dr. Rideout spends the second half of the article working through his suggestion that when competing legal narratives have equally compelling story probability, the substantive concept of narrative fidelity may tip the persuasion scales. Narrative fidelity may feel like narrative correspondence but is not structural in nature. The story must present good reasons for belief or action. It must fit with the social norms of the setting and moment in time. Fidelity goes beyond formal inferences to include what one rhetorician terms “communal validity.”[2] The story should have a “tug” to it because it appeals to our lived experiences and the values derived therefrom. Stories that win, do so for the logical construct but also for the substantive fit.   

 

[1] W. Lance Bennett & Martha S. Feldman, Reconstructing Reality in the Courtroom: Justice and Judgement in American Culture, 89 (Rutgers Univ. Press 1981).

[2] Robert Burns, A Theory of the Trial, 217 (Princeton Univ. Press 1999).

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/appellate_advocacy/2018/08/thinking-thursdays-story-believability.html

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