What’s in a story?

To make sense of a spoken or a written text we firstly need to understand the facts in the story. For example, take this short text:

“Emilia and Noah were playing in the garden. It was getting dark.”

To understand what the story is about we need to know that Emilia and Noah are two proper names that refer to two people, we need to be familiar with the meaning of the words “playing”, “garden” and “dark”, as well as their relationship with the other words in the sentence.

When we read or hear a story, however, we also use our own knowledge to go beyond what is said or written literally, and make inferences. In other words, we make informed guesses and assumptions about the situation, given what we know about what we have heard/read so far, and about what we know about the world in general. From the previous text, for example, we could infer that Emilia and Noah are children (because they are playing) and that the story takes place in the late afternoon (it was getting dark). These kinds of inferences are called “global inferences”, and require making a connection between what one already knows of the world (for example knowledge of children’s activities and of the structure of the day), and the new information presented by the text.

Another kind of inference requires making a connection between two parts of the given text. Take this sentence:

“Noah caught Emilia because he was older and had long legs.”

To make sense of it, a reader needs to understand that “he” refers to “Noah”, as this type of word (a personal pronoun) can only be understood when we make the connection with another word (for example a proper name like Noah). This kind of inference is called an “internal inference” because it requires the linking of two elements inside the text.