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Your Elearning Needs Meaningful Narrative

Frank McCabe, Playwright and LEO Learning learning designer, combines his learning design expertise with insights from the world of film in the final installment of his blog. The first part, on the power of empathy, can be found here.

Legend and Archetype

It is said, famously, that there are only seven plots, and that these form the basis of every story ever told. If this is true, it’s hardly surprising we’re able to recognise them all immediately. We can easily access layers of meaning associated with these ubiquitous narratives, too – most of the time, we know what’s going to happen in a particular movie we’re seeing for the first time, because it’s ‘that’ story.

From the opening scenes of Jaws, we know Brody will eventually dispose of the shark. Superman will overcome the kryptonite. Cinderella will go to the ball. Rather than this predictability being irritating or dull, it works as a comfort blanket. It just feels ‘right’. Affirmative and unconfusing.

There is a similarly small number of commonly accepted archetypes within story. Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey outlines and explains them brilliantly.

We see certain of these archetypes in elearning already. ‘The hero’ is, of course, the learner – in other words, the individual embarking on a journey of discovery – though normally without the need for Argonauts as hired muscle. A pop-up ‘guide’ could easily be re-defined as ‘The Sage’, and a compliance quiz ‘The Gatekeeper’.

In elearning scenarios, we often neglect to think about the function of a character. And that’s what archetypes are – functionary constructions with a specific role that helps the narrative move forward in different ways.

Let’s face it, the fictional line manager in your elearning photo-story is probably ‘The Mentor’. That makes most sense as a default choice. But what happens if, instead, he’s ‘The Shape-shifter’? Or ‘The Shadow’? Consciously changing an archetype will change your story too, in fundamental ways – and sometimes that switch might serve to illuminate key e-learning points more clearly than what you had before.

Narrative Non-Completion

Not finishing a narrative may sound counter-intuitive to its success – aren’t stories supposed to have and end as well as a beginning and a middle? Well, not always. Open endings, in which the fate of a featured character remains unspecified, can help promote creative thought in an audience. We have a desire for completeness in stories, so where none exists our impulse is to fill in that final blank ourselves. A quick visit to the various blogs devoted to the ambiguous ending of Blade Runner will testify to the leaps of imagination an incomplete story can promote.

In elearning terms, narrative non-completion is a ‘call to action’. It precludes passivity in the learner, as it demands they engage their imaginative powers to satisfy an innate desire for things to be rounded off neatly.

Soft skills elearning can often benefit most powerfully from this technique – what happens to Character A after she was left frustrated and confused by Character B? What impact might Character C’s lack of interpersonal skills have on Character D? Consider not always providing answers to these kinds of questions, and learners will start to do that thinking for themselves.

To learn more about our fresh approach to elearning and how you can take advantage of innovative ways of engaging learners, download our free resource, a new future for learning.

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