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"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

Discerning the rules of life in storyworlds
     Teaching narrative intelligence

I like students to practice seeing the way every story asserts a moral theory of the universe. It’s possible to think about moral issues in an objective way simply by asking what virtues characters employ to reach their telos and what sort of world results from the deployment of those virtues. I invite students to figure out, from the stories we read, what the rules of life appear to be.

Here are basic questions that help gain entry to storyworlds.

1. What is the main character’s telos at the beginning of the story? What’s her life about--what purpose or goals organize her action, her thinking?

2. As the character acts in response to conflict, what virtues does he exhibit? I’m using “virtue” here to refer to a strength from the character’s point of view. For a Spartan, ferocity might be a virtue. For Odysseus, skillful lying was a virtue. The reader’s judgments about such things can come later, but during the reading, try to understand the character’s view of what is good.

3. What consequences follow? How successful is the character at resolving the conflict in a way that fulfills his telos?

4. What turning points occur in the story--key moments where the character needs to rethink either his telos, or the virtues he is employing, or both?

5. Summarize the plot in no more than three sentences, focusing on the major events and the key actions by the main character. Then state a “rule of life” based on that plot. If the story is true to life, then what rule about the way things work is illustrated by it?


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

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