Sorry, Narrative, you’re not nearly as cool as you think you are…

We often use the terms “narrative” and “story” interchangeably.  Screenwriting guru Robert McKee (See, Five Reasons Every Lawyer Should Study The Art of Screenwriting) tells us these terms are NOT synonymous!  All stories are narratives, but not all narratives are stories.  So, what’s the difference?

Imagine us now hunkered down in our favorite local watering hole. The bartender serves up our respective drinks of choice (tequilla for me, please).  You look at me and ask me how my day was.  I reply, “Man, have I got a story for you!”  Your eyes get big.  You take a big sip, adjust your stool, lean in, and buckle up for what is sure to be an incredible ride.  I begin…

I went to the supermarket this morning.  I parked my car.  I got out.  I went inside.  Decided to go with the small cart because I had a pretty light grocery list.  First, I stopped at the produce section.  I got cucumbers.  Next, I rolled on down to aisle two for soup. Oh, my, I forgot the best part. They had a buy-one-get-one deal on my favorite cookies!  Anyway, I finished up and headed to the checkout. I said, “good day” to the cashier, loaded up the car, and drove home.

Is this a story?  Does it not have a well-defined beginning, a middle and an end?   My epic trip to the grocery store is not story; it is narrative.  Narrative masquerades as story, but to borrow a reference from my favorite show of all time, it’s an escalator to nowhere.  Narrative  does not move the needle at sentencing or any other stage of your case, civil or criminal.   In fact, it often achieves the opposite result.  The goal of story is to take your listener on an emotional journey into the world of your client.  You need your listener to feel connected when you are finished, and then act on that connection.

So, how did you feel reading my narrative?  Were you confused about why I was so darn excited to tell you about my shopping spree?  Were you bored silly?  Were you angry at me for wasting your time? Did you care one little bit?

Unfortunately, too many lawyers focus on their client’s narrative, not their story.  We often take a narrative approach at sentencing by ticking off a long list of our client’s tragic circumstances, failing to tie those directly to the offense or to paint a picture of hope for the future.  We think buzzwords like, “abuse”, “addiction” or “depression” are actually going to win the day.  We hope after hearing those things the judge feels sorry for your client and cuts him a break.  This all goes back to understanding the quintessential difference between “sympathy” and “empathy”.  See, What Penguins Can Teach Lawyers About “Minding the Gap”. 

Rote reliance on recitation of  what I call “pity points”  is not only unhelpful, it can be counterproductive.  This kind of sympathy play can unwittingly paint a picture of a client broken beyond repair.  Without making the ever-important connections of the client’s story to our own shared universal experience, the faulty narrative strategy can actually increase the ever-present empathetic divide. This kind of “otherization” rarely, if ever, translates into victory.

To be sure, this parade of horribles could be very important, but only if we shape all of this information into a story. See, The 3Rs of Sentencing Storytelling.  That means keeping us on the edge of our seat, weaving in turning points and rising tension. It means highlighting obstacles your client has overcome on his journey. It means presenting a full rich portrait of our client rather than a one-dimensional stereotypical cardboard cutout.  It means having a point – in other words, it means infusing our stories with deeper meaning that show the inescapable truth of our cause. Without these essential story elements, our good intentions will run our cases right off the cliff.

It may seem like semantics, but understanding this distinction will help you think differently about the great gift and responsibility we have to uncover the story each and every client has to tell – and then tell it well!  For more info on legal storytelling technique, visit to sign up for our newsletter, check out more articles on the “Story for Lawyers” blog, or schedule a free consultation!

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