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Big Fish and the Coordinated Management of Meaning:

The Consequences of Storytelling

Natalie Dunn

Adrian College


This paper uses communication theory to analyze relationships between characters in the film

Big Fish and draws a conclusion based on that analysis to hypothetically improve the characters'

relationships. The LUUUUTT model, found within the Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM)

Theory of communication, is applied to the strained communications between Edward Bloom and his

son, Will. This analysis breaks down the different types of stories present in the two characters' lives,

and offers a possible answer to the question that CMM asks as a practical theory - “How can we make

better social worlds?”


Big Fish and the Coordinated Management of Meaning: The Consequences of Storytelling

Film Synopsis

The film Big Fish, released in 2003, tells the story of a son attempting to reconcile with his

father, who is on his deathbed. Edward Bloom, the father, is known for telling fantastical stories about

what his son, Will, assumes to be his made-up adventures. They often involved characters too

extraordinary to be believable, and plots too “happily ever after” to be true. As Will attempts to unravel

the yarns which are his only real image of his father's life, he finds that there is more truth to the tall

tales than he thought, and begins to understand the side of Edward Bloom that he never saw.

The film parallels two storylines: real time, in which Edward is sick in bed and Will is trying to

collect all of the fragments of truth that he can before it is too late; and Edward's young life, starting

with his birth and following him through some of his most memorable milestones. As film critic (give

first name) Scott of the Times describes it, “In his telling, the usual stations of the life cycle – departure

from home, courtship..., fatherhood, an accidental foray into crime – become wild episodes in a

sprawling picaresque adventure” (2003). Though he takes a large break in the middle to specifically tell

the story of how he met and pursued his wife, the beginning and end of the adventure are centered

around an idyllic town called Spectre. He first comes across this weird little utopia as he is leaving his

hometown of Ashton, Alabama, and tries to take the road less traveled. The people there insist that he

has come too early, but invite him to stay forever anyway. Later, after he is married and working as a

traveling salesman of novelty desk products, he comes across Spectre again, but this time as it is about

to be auctioned off because the whole town is bankrupt. He buys the town in order to preserve it in its

perfect, simplistic state. A review in Rolling Stone equates Spectre with complacency, and this idea

becomes clear as Edward “saves” the town, because the residents seem perfectly content to sit in their

homes and continue on as if nothing were wrong while Edward Bloom pays their bills (Travers 2003).

The Coordinated Management of Meaning

The theme of Big Fish, regardless of how one interprets the wild stories that Edward Bloom

tells his son, is storytelling itself, and the contrast of fact and fiction. The Times review argues this

movie chooses to ignore the heavy side of life and hides behind the whimsy of lying. Scott assesses “In

their eagerness to celebrate Edward's grand spirit, the filmmakers wind up diminishing it, declining to

explore the causes or the costs of his addiction to fantasy” (2003). On the other hand, Rolling Stone

believes that this conflict between reality and whimsy is what gives the movie its power. “The tension

inherent in this fable of a father with his head in the clouds and a son with his feet on the ground brings

out a bracing maturity in Burton and gives the film its haunting gravity” (Travers 2003).

The stories that Edward tells – whether the audience chooses to believe them or not – affect the

relationship that Edward has with his son. Scott refers to the “costs and causes” of his fantasy, and

Travers makes a direct comparison between the two characters' personas. This idea of the stories being

told and the world they have created for Edward Bloom and his son can be conceptualized by the

Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM), I will will illustrate in this paper.

Understanding CMM

CMM was first published as an interpretive theory of communication by W. Barnett Pearce and

Vernon Cronen in 1980. Since then, the theory has evolved into a practical theory, and now challenges

theorists to ask, “How can we make better social worlds?” (Pearce 2004, 45). Though there are many

models with which this theory analyzes acts of communication, the particular model which will help

here is called the LUUUUTT model – an acronym for the elements of communication which it

assesses: Lived stories, Unknown stories, Untold stories, Unheard stories, Untellable stories,

storyTelling, and stories Told. It is important to note, however, as Griffin states, that “the point of the

LUUUUTT model is not to 'find the correct story' or 'the correct interpretation' as much as enlarging

your awareness of how complex our social worlds are” (Griffin 2015, 70). While this model does

define a certain mold for every act of communication, it does not limit the possibility of other types of

stories to be considered – nor does it explicitly state that each of the letters which give it its name are

important to every act of communication.

Stories Told

It is no secret that Edward Bloom defines himself with the stories that he tells, whether they are

true or not. They are the stories and the identity that he chooses to present to everyone around him. For

sake of the readers' time as well as the writer's, this paper will take a closer look at only one of the

stories that Edward Bloom told: how he came upon Spectre, and the girl named Jenny who lived there.

When Bloom arrives in Spectre, he is greeted by Mayor Beaman and his wife. They insist that

he is early, but he is expected to be there. Their daughter Jenny peeks out from between their legs.

They coerce him into staying – “I agreed to spend the afternoon, if only to understand the mystery of

how a place could feel so strange, and yet so familiar” – and he joins the Beamans for apple pie (Big

Fish 0:34). While they're eating in somewhat awkward silence, Jenny unties Edward's shoes under the

table and takes off with them. He chases her, but she beats him to what appears to be a telephone line

on the edge of town, and tosses them up over the line to hang with dozens of other pairs of shoes.

Dumbfounded, he agrees to stay a little longer.

Later in the evening, he has a conversation with young Jenny as she walks with him in the

woods around town.

Jenny: How old are you?

Edward: Eighteen.

Jenny: I'm eight. That means when I'm eighteen, you'll be twenty-eight. And when I'm

twenty-eight, you'll only be thirty-eight.

Edward: You're pretty good at arithmetic.

Jenny: And when I'm thirty-eight, you'll be forty-eight. That's not much difference at all.

Edward: Sure is a lot now though, huh?

Jenny: [nods]. (Big Fish 0:36).

This conversation, along with a few various remarks from other characters in Spectre that indicate

Jenny's interest in Edward, sets up a story that is not finished until much later in the movie.

Unknown Stories

Though Edward Bloom insists that his stories are nothing but facts, their fantastic nature give

Will the impression that he is using them to hide the stories that are unknown to Will. He tries to

express this frustration to his father with a metaphor.

Will: Okay, the thing about icebergs is, you only see ten percent. The other ninety

percent is below the water where you can't see it. That's what it is with you, Dad. I'm

only seeing this little bit that sticks above the water.

Edward: Oh, you're only seeing down to my nose? My chin? My –

Will: Dad, I have no idea who you are, because you've never told me a single fact.

Edward: I've told you a thousand facts, Will, it's what I do. I tell stories.

Will: You tell lies, Dad. You tell amusing lies. Stories are what you tell a five year old

at bedtime. They're not elaborate mythologies that you maintain when your son is ten

and fifteen and twenty and thirty. And I believed you. I believed your stories so much

longer than I should have, and then when I realized of course that everything you said

was impossible, I felt like a fool to have trusted you. You're like Santa Clause and the

Easter Bunny combined. Just as charming and just as fake.

Edward: You think I'm fake?

Will: Only on the surface, Dad. But it's all I've ever seen (Big Fish 1:18).

The stories that Will does not know have created animosity between him and his father. More than that,

they left gaps for him to try and fill with his own speculations of what might be true. He tells his wife,

Josephine, about these unknowns as he lays in bed with her that morning.

Josephine: I talked with your father last night. You never told me how your parents met.

Will: They met at Auburn.

Josephine: What about the details? How they fell in love, the circus, the war. You never

told me any of that.

Will: That's because most of it never happened.

Josephine: But it's romantic.

Will: Mhm.

Josephine: 'Mhm' what?

Will: I know better than to argue romance with a French woman.

Josephine: Do you love your father?

Will: Everyone loves my father, he's a very likable guy.

Josephine: Do you love him?

Will: You have to understand. When I was growing up, he was gone more than he was

there. And I started thinking, maybe he's got this second life somewhere else. Another

family, another house, and he leaves us and goes to them. Or – or, maybe there is no

second family. Maybe he never wanted a family. Whatever it is, he likes his second life

better and the reasons he tells his stories is because he can't stand this boring place.

Josephine: But it's not true.

Will: What's “true”? He's never told me a single true thing (Big Fish 1:16).

The stories that he does not know have made it harder for Will to understand his father and harder for

him to trust his father. He's been given too much gray area to try and fill with what he does know,

which is very little.


Lived Stories

The story of Edward Bloom's encounters in Spectre is given a conclusion later in the movie.

However, Edward is not the one who tells it. As Will is trying to piece together the facts of his father's

life, he starts to go through his office. Among the stacks of papers and junk, he finds a deed to a house

in his father's name, but a woman is listed as the resident. Positive that he's discovered his father's

second life, he goes to see the woman. After some prodding, he finds out that she is, in fact, Jenny – the

little girl from Spectre. She finishes the story.

After Edward was married, he began working as a traveling salesman. On his travels, he ended

up in the mysterious little town once again, but only to find that it was run down and about to be

auctioned off because it had gone bankrupt. Determined to preserve the town, he began buying the

properties in and around it and finding investors to fund them so that the residents could continue their

lives just as they were before. The last piece of property that he does not own is a small, dilapidated

house on the edge of town – the audience can see that it is the same house that Will is sitting in as he

listens to the story. Edward soon learns as well that it is the same little girl that he knew before.

Jenny: You must be Edward Bloom.

Edward: How do you know?

Jenny: No one would come out here unless they had business. And no one would have

business with me except for you. You're buying the town.

Edward: Apparently I overlooked this one piece of it and I'd like to remedy that. You

see, for the town to be preserved, the trust must own it in its entirety.

Jenny: So I've heard.

Edward: Now I'll offer you more than it's worth, and of course you won't have to move.

Nothing will change except the name on the deed, you have my word.

Jenny: Now let me get this straight. You'll buy the swamp from me but I'll stay in it?

You'll own the house but it'll still be mine? I'll be here, and you'll come and go as you

please, from one place to another. Do I have that right?

Edward: In so many words, yes.

Jenny: Then I don't think so, Mr. Bloom. If nothing's gonna change, I'd just as soon it

not change, the way things haven't been changing all this time.

Edward: It's not like you'll lose anything. You can ask anyone in town.

Jenny: Why are you buying this land, Mr. Bloom? Some sort of midlife crisis? Instead

of buying a convertible, you buy a town?

Edward: Helping people makes me happy.

Jenny: I'm not convinced you should be happy.

Edward: I'm sorry, have I offended you?

Jenny: No. You did exactly what you promised. You came back. I was just expecting

you sooner.

Edward: You're Beaman's daughter. You're name's different. Did you get married?

Jenny: I was eighteen, he was twenty-eight. Turns out that was a big difference (Big

Fish 1:36).

In this story is now being told by Jenny, Will starts to see a piece of the story that Edward may have

lived, not just told. Jenny goes on to tell him that on his way out of her door, after accepting she would

not sell him the house, Edward accidentally breaks the door, and insists on coming back the next day to

repair it. Soon he keeps finding more and more things to repair, and keeps coming back. The scene

shows him telling her different parts of stories that we've already heard.

After he has finally fixed everything that he can, and puts the last nail in the hat hook next to the

door, he laughs and hangs his hat to test it. As he turns to leave and retrieve his hat, Jenny stops him

and tells him that he could leave it there. She hesitantly moves closer to him, and she almost meets his

lips before he stops her. He apologizes for giving her the wrong impression, and he leaves with his hat.

The story ends, and Jenny's narration becomes real time once again.

Jenny: See, to [Edward], there's only two women. Your mother, and everyone else. And

one day I realized I was in love with a man who could never love me back. I was living

in a fairy tale. Not sure I should have told you any of this.

Will: No, no, I wanted to know. I'm glad I know.

Jenny: I wanted to be as important to him as you were. And I was never gonna be. I was

make-believe, and his other life. You, you were real.

Will now has a large piece of the story that Edward actually lived, that he did not have before.

Applying CMM: Making Better Social Worlds

Griffin's text describes the purpose of the LUUUUTT model: “The focus of the model depicts

the tension between our stories lived and our stories told. That tension can be increased or decreased by

the manner in which the stories are presented. The four descriptions of non-obvious stories radiating

toward the corners [of the model itself] remind us that there's always more to the situation that we

haven't seen or heard” (Griffin 2015, 69).

Edward and Will's “situation”, to use Griffin's wording, is charged with tension at the beginning

of the film. It is seen in the conversation that begins on page five of this paper, as well as in Will's

conversation with Josephine. He knows that there are major discrepancies between Edward's stories

lived and stories told, and he does not understand them or understand why his father did not tell him the

true versions of his life. While it is never quite clear to the audience what exactly Burton meant to say

by creating this character who lived his life as a storybook, it is clear that Will only softens to his father

after eliminating some of the unknowns and learning more of the stories that his father lived.

As was stated before, CMM is a practical theory. It asks the question, “How do we make better

social worlds?” (Pearce 2004, 45). In this particular case, the “social world” that would be the object of

improvement is the relationship between Edward and his son, and the family that has been estranged

due to this canyon of unknowns between the two men.

The LUUUUTT model, specifically, can be used by trained practitioners to help facilitate better

acts of communication. They use the different types of stories to formulate questions that can help

create clarity of meaning. An example that Schnitman gives is to ask “What did you know and not say

at that moment?” to reveal more of the untold story (Schnitman 2004, 158). While this type of

facilitation is meant to be applied to specific acts of communication, it can also be expanded to be

applied to the way that Edward and his son communicate overall.

Schnitman discusses the first T of LUUUUTT, which is story telling. “If we take the role of a

practitioner seeking to enrich the conversation through the LUUUUTT model, we might begin with

stories told and the manner of storytelling. Stories can be told in many different ways and life is so rich

that different storylines may be available.” She goes on to say that a large inhibitor of communicating

effectively may be the storyteller and his or her unwillingness to consider alternatives stories or

perspectives. It is recommended to practitioners to consider several ways to encourage these types of

storytellers to broaden their method of telling their stories, so that others may understand them better.

“Practitioners learn a series of skills: to recognize what stories or parts of stories are relevant to the

situation; to consider other possible ways of narrating the story/stories; to assess what other features

could be important for the story and if they formed part of lived stories, untold stories, or unheard

stories; to consider what new possibilities could be offered by stories that might be incorporated”

(Schnitman 2004, 158).


Again, these questions and methods are intended to be applied to a specific and isolated act of

communication. However, for a character such as Edward Bloom, whose life is so interwoven in stories

and the idea of storytelling, there seems to be an application. He does have a problem with considering

alternative stories and perspectives – to reference the conversation cited earlier once again, he is

appalled at the idea of Will accusing him of telling lies, or of his stories being lies. To Edward Bloom,

his stories are scripture, and there is no altering or denying them. But in this mindset and this rigid

limitation of his communication with Will, he creates a situation, which requires Will to make

assumptions that affect his relationship with his father. Perhaps if Edward was to consider the

consequences of his storytelling method, and he was to be more aware of the complexity of stories, he

could have compromised a little in his communication with Will. Instead of repeating the same tall

tales over and over again, he might have acknowledged to Will that one or two parts were exaggerated

because he liked them better that way, and given him the boring but true version every once in a while.


Cohen, B. (Producer) & Burton, T. (Director). (2004, January 9). Big Fish [Motion Picture]. USA:

Columbia Pictures

Griffin, E., Ledbetter A. & Sparks, G. (2015). A First Look at Communication Theory (9th ed.). New

York: McGraw-Hill.

Pearce, W. B. (2004). The Coordinated Management of Meaning. In W. B. Gudykunst (Ed.),

Theorizing About Intercultural Communication (35-54). Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

Schnitman, D. F. (2004). Generative Instruments of CMM. The Journal of Therapy, Consulting and

Training, 15 (2), 153-164.

Scott, A. O. (2003, December 10). FILM REVIEW; Hook, Line and Sinker: A Life of Telling Tall

Tales. The New York Times. Retrieved from


Travers, P. (2003, November 20). Big Fish. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from

Part of Description Points

Rough Draft A completed 20 points/points
draft of the given
paper turned in
by the date
Attend Paper There will be 5 points/points
Feedback sign up sheets. If given
Session you miss your
w/professor appointment
there is no
guarantee you
will be given
another one.
Final Paper On Submitted via 3 points/3 points
Time Blackboard on
time. 10 points
off PER Day late
and only two
days late
APA Style Understanding 10 points/10
the basic points
elements of APA
style- title page,
in-text citations,
and reference
Narrative Used block 15 points/15
Analysis quotes and points
explanations of
the film’s
narrative and
characters to
Integration of At least two 15 points/15
Theory communication points

theories used
and used in
depth- certain
key terms and
concepts fleshed
out in the
narrative analysis
Length of Paper Meets minimum 10 points/10
requirements points
(Not including
title page)
Grammar, Paper has been 7 points/6
spelling proof read and is points- some
free of most minor
grammar wording/phrasing
(capitalization is issues I cleaned
a big one) and up
spelling errors
Total Points: Excellent job 60/65