Home > Strategies and Skill Development > Social Reasoning Strategy Families > Storytelling > Literature Note - Storytelling and Situation Models

The literature indicates that the kinds of elements that enter into storytelling, or more generally the comprehension of narrative, are essentially those needed to understand any social situation. We can motivate this conclusion by examining the view of situation models argued by Zwaan and colleagues (Zwaan, 1999, 2004; Zwaan, Langston, & Graesser, 1995; Zwaan & Radvansky, 1998). According to this view, the situation model constructed when a narrative is interpreted requires the reader to take the perspective of the protagonist and to follow events through time from the protagonist’s point of view. The implication is that the reader is not constructing simply a set of propositions, but an imagined, virtually simulated mental representation of the story from the protagonist’s point of view.[1] For our purposes, it is useful to divide the kinds of reasoning that happen in narrative text comprehension (and other forms of receptive social reasoning) into three broad categories: motivation, perspective, and attitude.[2]


As a general rule, the salient elements in a scene are the protagonist and other participants who play a critical causal role in the narrative, and the actions and events in which the protagonist is involved (Morrow, Bower, & Greenspan, 1989). A key focus is identifying participants’ reasons for actions and the causes for events. A narrative is perceived as coherent in large part to the extent that it is easily possible to infer a natural causal sequence for the events it describes, so that the actions of the protagonist and other characters immediately make sense.

Participants. Memory for events and facts in a narrative is organized around participants, particularly the protagonist (Sanford, Clegg, & Majid, 1998; Sanford & Garrod, 1981, 1998; Sanford, Moar, & Garrod, 1988).

Intentionality. Information about goals is more active during processing and is remembered better than other kinds of information in a story (Bower & Rinck, 1999; Fletcher & Bloom, 1988; Lynch & van der Broek, 2007; Myers & Duffy, 1990). Currently active goals are also more salient than completed goals during narrative comprehension (Lutz & Radvansky, 1996; Trabasso & Suh, 1993; Trabasso & Wiley, 2005). In general, the evidence is that narrative comprehension critically involves construction of high-level explanations for how the protagonist and other characters behave, and that this class of inference is automatically performed as part of basic narrative comprehension (Graesser, Singer, & Trabasso, 1994; Long & Golding, 1993; Singer & Halldorson, 1996).

Events and causation. Information about causal relations among events is critical in processing of narratives (Fletcher & Bloom, 1988; Trabasso, 2005; van den Broek, 1990), but also in the comprehension of spontaneous discourse (Cevasco & van den Broek, 2008). Causal relations also figure in more complex forms of reasoning (for instance, in theories that attempt to predict causal connections); our concern here, however, is primarily with causal relations that can be inferred using background knowledge of typical event sequences (Kintsch, 1988; Schank & Abelson, 1977).


The concept of perspective has obvious connections with various constructs from literary analysis, such as point of view, protagonist, character, narrator, author, and reader. Graesser and colleagues (Graesser, Olde, & Klettke, 2002) pointed out that the relationships among these can be quite complex; for instance, first and second person narration fuses the pragmatic agent (narrator or narratee) with the protagonist, which can have effects on the salience of events in memory, with first person being typically more vivid than third person (Graesser, Bowers, Olde, & Pomeroy, 1999). One critical element in the relation between perspective and text is the establishment of a deictic center that governs the interpretation of text elements (Glenberg, Meyer, & Lindem, 1987; Rapaport et al., 1994). Part of the comprehension of narrative involves a deictic shift in which the reader understands the text or a section of the text from a particular point of view, by default that of the protagonist, and interprets deictic elements such as pronouns and tenses accordingly. Choice of perspective has implications for the understanding of time, space, perception, and belief in a narrative.

Temporal sequence. As Kelter and colleagues (Kelter, Kaup, & Clause, 2004) noted, when people are reading a text describing a story, the accessibility of events depends upon whether the events describing the current time point in the narrative. Readers access events and details displaced in narrative time more slowly than they access information directly relevant to the narrative present (Black, Turner, & Bower, 1979; Zwaan, 1996).

Spatial arrangement and movement. As Tversky (1996) noted, the cognitive representation of spatial locations described in a narrative is centered on the protagonist. Locations the protagonist is in, or towards which the protagonist is moving, are more accessible (Morrow, Greenspan, & Bower, 1987). Locations nearer to the protagonist are more readily accessed than locations distant from the protagonist (Morrow & Clark, 1988). In general, spatial understanding of the narrative is best explained by assuming foregrounding of those aspects of the spatial scene perceptible from the viewpoint imputed to the protagonist (Bryant, Tversky, & Franklin, 1992; Rinck & Bower, 1995; Rinck, Williams, Bower, & Becker, 1996), including motion, in both children and adults (Rall & Harris, 2000).

Perception and beliefs. Given the foundation of the social model in theory of mind, one of the most obvious elements in perspective arises because different agents can have different perceptions and beliefs, and thus different understandings. The ability to set up multiple perspectives in a broad cognitive sense, and under some circumstances to fuse or superimpose them, underlies a range of interpretive phenomena studied in linguistics under the heading of mental spaces (Fauconnier, 1985, 1997; Fauconnier & Turner, 1998, 2002; Sanders & Redeker, 1996). Viewed more generally, it involves what in social psychology is termed perspective-taking (Decety & Jackson, 2004; Ford, 1979; Mead, 1934), in which humans infer how others see the world, typically in the first instance by imputing their own perceptions and beliefs to others, and then making adjustments to take differences in viewpoint into account. There is evidence that this process is under executive control that inhibits self-oriented cognition to enable perspective-taking (Carlson & Moses, 2001; Perner & Lang, 1999; Vorauer & Ross, 1999), and that it can be an extremely effortful and error-prone practice (Ickes, 1997). In narrative, the evidence is that well-constructed narrative has the effect of making it much easier to take the protagonist’s perspective, which in turn can have powerful effects on empathy and belief (Green & Brock, 2000; Mar, Djikic, & Oatley, 2008; Oatley, 1999; Peskin, Mar, & Bischoff, in press).


Given the general evidence that readers interpret stories from an internal perspective, it is not surprising that they appear to process emotional information from the standpoint of the protagonist. In particular, they respond more quickly to emotion terms that match the protagonist’s current emotional state at that point in a story (Bourg, 1996; Gernsbacher, Goldsmith, & Robertson, 1992; Gernsbacher, Hallada, & Robertson, 1998; Gernsbacher & Robertson, 1992; Rall & Harris, 2000), or to character traits attributed to a character (Rapp & Gerrig, 2001). This appears to be automatic, rather than effortful processing (Gernsbacher et al., 1998), although it may take more of the character of a general emotional response rather than one that distinguishes closely similar emotions from one another (Gygax, Oakhill, & Garnham, 2003).

Interestingly, there is evidence to suggest that children with language impairments have particular difficulty with comprehending emotions expressed in narrative text, compared to their aged-matched peers (Fujiki, Spackman, Brinton, & Illig, 2008). The difficulty in comprehending emotions was evident despite the fact the texts were read aloud to the children (i.e., eliminating the decoding disadvantage of the language impaired students) and that the children had additional cues from the narrator’s voice (i.e., prosody) to help them identify the correct emotion expressed in the text. The authors hypothesized that the children’s weak ability to distinguish emotions might explain why children with language impairments also have difficulty with social interactions with other people. In short, the ability to detect emotional cues in text is a fundamental component of skilled reading.

Black, J. B., Turner, T. J., & Bower, G. H. (1979). Point of view in narrative comprehension, memory and production. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 18, 187-198.

Bourg, T. (1996). The role of emotion, empathy, and text structure in children's and adults' narrative text comprehension. In R. G. Kreutz & M. S. Nealy (Eds.), Empirical approaches to literature and aesthetics (pp. 241-260). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Bower, G. H., & Rinck, M. (1999). Goals as generators of activation in narrative understanding. In S. R. Goldman, A. C. Graesser, & P. van den Broek (Eds.), Narrative comprehension, causality, and coherence (pp. 111-178). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bryant, D. J., Tversky, B., & Franklin, N. (1992). Internal and external spatial frameworks for representing described scenes. Journal of Memory and Language, 31, 74-98.

Carlson, S. M., & Moses, L. J. (2001). Individual differences in inhibitory control and children's theory of mind. Child Development, 72, 1032-1053.

Cevasco, J., & van den Broek, P. (2008). The importance of causal connections in the comprehension of spontaneous spoken conversation. Psicothema, 20(4), 801-806.

Decety, J., & Jackson, P. L. (2004). The functional architecture of human empathy. Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews, 3(2), 71-100.

Fauconnier, G. (1985). Mental spaces. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Fauconnier, G. (1997). Mappings in thought and language. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Fauconnier, G., & Turner, M. (1998). Conceptual integration networks. Cognitive Science, 22(2), 138-188.

Fauconnier, G., & Turner, M. (2002). The way we think. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Fletcher, C. R., & Bloom, C. P. (1988). Causal reasoning in the comprehension of simple narrative texts. Journal of Memory and Language, 27, 235-244.

Ford, M. E. (1979). The construct validity of egocentrism. Psychological Bulletin, 86, 1169-1188.

Fujiki, M., Spackman, M. P., Brinton, B., & Illig, T. (2008). Ability of children with language impairment to understand emotion conveyed by prosody in a narrative passage. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 43(3), 330-345.

Gernsbacher, M. A., Goldsmith, H. H., & Robertson, R. R. W. (1992). Do readers mentally represent characters' emotional states? Cognition and Emotion, 6, 89-111.

Gernsbacher, M. A., Hallada, B. M., & Robertson, R. R. W. (1998). How automatically do readers infer fictional characters' emotional states? Scientific Studies of Reading, 2(3), 271-300.

Gernsbacher, M. A., & Robertson, R. R. W. (1992). Knowledge activation versus sentence mapping when representing fictional characters' emotional states. Language and Cognitive Processes, 7, 353-371.

Glenberg, A., Meyer, M., & Lindem, K. (1987). Mental models contribute to foregrounding during text comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language, 26, 29-83.

Graesser, A. C., Bowers, C. A., Olde, B., & Pomeroy, V. (1999). Who said what? source memory for narrator and character agents in literary stories. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91, 284-300.

Graesser, A. C., Olde, B., & Klettke, B. (2002). How does the mind construct and represent stories? In M. Green, J. Strange, & T. Brock (Eds.), Narrative impact (pp. 229-262). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Graesser, A. C., Singer, M., & Trabasso, T. (1994). Constructing inferences during narrative text comprehension. Psychological Review, 101(3), 371-395.

Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2000). The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(5), 601-721.

Gygax, P., Oakhill, J. V., & Garnham, A. (2003). The representation of characters' emotional responses: Do readers infer specific emotions? Cognition and Emotion, 17(3), 413-428.

Ickes, W. J. (1997). Empathic accuracy. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Kelter, S., Kaup, B., & Clause, B. (2004). Representing a described sequence of events: A dynamic view of narrative comprehension. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 30(2), 451-464.

Kintsch, W. (1988). The role of knowledge in discourse comprehension: A construction-integration model. Psychological Review, 95(2), 163-182.

Long, D. L., & Golding, J. M. (1993). Superordinate goal inferences: Are they automatically generated during comprehension? Discourse Processes, 16, 55-73.

Lutz, M. F., & Radvansky, G. A. (1996). The fate of completed goal information in narrative comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language, 36(2), 293-310.

Lynch, J. S., & van der Broek, P. W. (2007). Understanding the glue of narrative structure: Children's on- and off-line inferences about character goals. Cognitive Development, 22(3), 323-340.

Mar, R. A., Djikic, M., & Oatley, K. (2008). Effects of reading on knowledge, social abilities and selfhood. In W. van Peer, S. Zyngier, M. Bortolussi & A. Chesnokova (Eds.), Directions in empirical literary studies (pp. 127-137). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins.

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self, and society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Morrow, D. G., Bower, G. H., & Greenspan, S. L. (1989). Updating situation models in narrative comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language, 28, 165-187.

Morrow, D. G., & Clark, H. H. (1988). Interpreting words in spatial descriptions. Language and Cognitive Processes, 3, 275-291.

Morrow, D. G., Greenspan, S. L., & Bower, G. H. (1987). Accessibility and situation models in narrative comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language, 26, 165-187.

Myers, J. L., & Duffy, S. A. (1990). Causal inferences and text memory. In A. C. Graesser & G. H. Bower (Eds.), Inferences and text comprehension (pp. 159-173). New York, NY: Academic Press.

Oatley, K. (1999). Why fiction may be twice as true as fact: Fiction as cognitive and emotional simulation. Review of General Psychology, 3(2), 101-117.

Perner, J., & Lang, B. (1999). Development of theory of mind and executive control. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3, 337-344.

Peskin, J., Mar, R. A., & Bischoff, T. (in press). Advanced social cognition in the literary arts. In C. Milbraith & C. Lightfoot (Eds.), The arts and human development. New York, NY: Routledge.

Rall, J., & Harris, P. L. (2000). In Cinderella's slippers? Story comprehension from the protagonist's point of view. Developmental Psychology, 36(2), 202-208.

Rapaport, W. J., Segal, E. M., Shapiro, S. C., Zubin, D. A., Bruder, G. A., Duchan, J. F.,…Yuhan, A.H. (1994). Deictic centers and the cognitive structure of narrative comprehension. Buffalo, NY: SUNY-Buffalo Deptartment of Computer Science.

Rapp, D. N., & Gerrig, R. (2001). Readers' trait-based models of characters in narrative comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language, 45, 737-750.

Rinck, M., & Bower, G. H. (1995). Anaphora resolution and the focus of attention in situation models. Journal of Memory and Language, 34, 110-131.

Rinck, M., Williams, P., Bower, G. H., & Becker, E. S. (1996). Spatial situation models and narrative understanding: Some generalizations and extensions. Discourse Processes, 21, 23-55.

Sanders, J., & Redeker, G. (1996). Perspective and representation of speech and thought in narrative discourse. In G. Fauconnier & E. Sweetser (Eds.), Spaces, worlds, and grammar (pp. 290-317). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Sanford, A. J., Clegg, M., & Majid, A. (1998). The influence of type of character on processing background in formation in narrative discourse. Memory & Cognition, 26, 1323-1329.

Sanford, A. J., & Garrod, S. C. (1981). Understanding written language: Explorations in comprehension beyond the sentence. Chichester, England: Wiley.

Sanford, A. J., & Garrod, S. C. (1998). The role of scenario mapping in text comprehension. Discourse Processes, 26, 159-190.

Sanford, A. J., Moar, K., & Garrod, S. C. (1988). Proper names as controllers of discourse focus. Language and Speech 31(1), 43-56.

Schank, R. C., & Abelson, R. (1977). Scripts, plans, goals and udnerstanding: An inquirry into human knowledge structures. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Singer, M., & Halldorson, M. (1996). Constructing and validating motive bridging inferences. Cognitive Psychology, 30, 1-38.

Trabasso, T. (2005). The role of causal reasoning in understanding narratives. In R. L.Venezky, T. Trabasso, & D. W. Massaro (Eds.), From orthography to pedagogy: Essays in honor of Richard L. Venezky (pp. 81-106). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates.

Trabasso, T., & Suh, S. Y. (1993). Understanding text: Achieving explanatory coherence through on-line inferences and mental operations in working memory. Discourse Processes, 16, 3-34.

Trabasso, T., & Wiley, J. (2005). Goal plans of action and inferences during comprehension of narratives. Discourse Processes, 39(2/3), 129-164.

Tversky, B. (1996). Spatial perspective in descriptions. In P. Bloom, M. F. Garrett, M. A. Peterson, & L. Nadel (Eds.), Language and space (pp. 463-492). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

van den Broek, P. (1990). Causal inferences and the comprehension of narrative texts. In A. C. Graesser & G. H. Bower (Eds.), The psychology of learning and motivation: Inferences and text comprehension (pp. 175-194). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Vorauer, J. D., & Ross, M. (1999). Self-awareness and feeling transparent: failing to supprss one's self. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 415-440.

Zwaan, R. A. (1996). Processing narrative time shifts. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 22, 1196-1207.

Zwaan, R. A. (1999). Five dimensions of narrative comprehension: The event-indexing model. In S. R. Goldman, T. Trabasso, A. C. Graesser, & P. W. van der Broek (Eds.), Narrative comprehension, causality, and coherence (pp. 77-110). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Zwaan, R. A. (2004). The immersed experiencer: Toward an embodied theory of language comprehension. In B. H. Ross (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 44, pp. 35-62). New York, NY: Academic Press.

Zwaan, R. A., Langston, M. C., & Graesser, A. C. (1995). The construction of situation models in narrative: An event-indexing model. Psychological Science, 6(5), 292-297.

Zwaan, R. A., & Radvansky, G. A. (1998). Situation models in language comprehension and memory. Psychological Bulletin, 123(2), 162-185.

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  1. ^ Graesser, Olde, and Klettke (2002) presented a fairly recent summary of this literature from a slightly different point of view, but that covers many of the points noted below.
  2. ^ The elements discussed below are framed in terms of the relevant psychological concepts; it is, however, a fairly simple matter to translate from the discussion below into terminology more typical in a literary context (e.g., character, plot, setting, point of view).