Re-authoring conversations invite people to continue to develop and tell stories about their lives, but to do so in a way that includes some of the more neglected events and experiences – the unique outcomes or exceptions (White, 2005, 2007).
Re-authoring conversations may begin by focusing on a particular unique outcome that is significant, or which has potential for greater significance, and drawing out more information about this event or experience. This focus enables the client to imbue the event with meaning and significance, and this can trigger (Carey & Russell, 2003b).
A story-line is comprised of (i) events, (ii) in a sequence, (iii) across time, (iv) organised according to a plot or theme. Consideration of each of these elements is critical in re-authoring conversations (Carey & Russell, 2003b; p61).
The unique outcomes or exceptions provide a starting point for re-authoring conversations, a point of entry to an alternative storyline (White, 2007). But as isolated events they are not meaningful enough to challenge the dominant problem-saturated story.
Further inquiry explores if and how a unique outcome may be linked to other similar events and experiences, and establishes a history over time, or a sequence with a theme, and this can be the beginning of an alternative story-line. “… no matter how significant a single event might become, no matter how strongly it may contradict the dominant problematic story-line, one event on its own will always be vulnerable. It is vitally important to link the unique outcome to other events, to link these into an alternative story-line” (Carey & Russell, 2003b; p62).
Linking unique outcomes within a history of related events is widely recognised as central to authoring an alternative narrative that has power for the future. “Questions that historicise unique outcomes serve to ground the emerging, alternative narrative in aspects of the clients’ own past, establishing it as having a ‘memorable history’ and increasing the likelihood that it will be carried forward into the future” (Wolter, DiLollo, & Apel, 2006; p174).
At times some narrative therapists have referred to this process as generating ‘thick descriptions’ of storylines that have been neglected in the past.
The stance of the practitioner at this stage is to remain ‘de-centred’ and focus on helping clients attribute their own significance to the developments in their lives.
The task here is to ask questions in a way that provides ‘scaffolding’ upon which the alternative story can be developed.
There are two main types of questions that are used to provide this ‘scaffolding’ or to help ‘map’ out the alternative story: ‘Landscape of action’ questions and ‘Landscape of identity’ questions (Carey & Russell, 2003b; p62-63).
‘Landscape of action’ questions ask the client to provide more information about events and actions (e.g. ‘Can you tell me more about what happened there?’, ‘Where were you?’, ‘Who else was around?’, ‘What steps did you take to enable you to do that?’).
‘Landscape of identity’ questions explore the implications of the emerging alternative story for the person’s understanding of their identity (e.g. ‘That time you were able to overcome the problem, what do you think that says about you as a person?’, ‘When you described the time you [action], what does this say about what you value in life?’
Carey and Russell (2003) warn against expressing enthusiasm about the steps that people are taking in their lives, because this puts the practitioner’s experience and perspective at the centre of the conversation when what is required is questions that explore whether the steps are significant to the person and why. “If we inflate the significance of a certain event then we run the risk of inadvertently setting a context in which people might experience a sense of failure if they cannot match these hard-won achievements” .