A narrative (or story) is any account of connected events, presented to a reader or listener in a sequence of written or spoken words, or in a sequence of (moving) pictures.[1]

Narratives can be organized in a number of thematic and/or formal/stylistic categories: non-fiction (e.g. New Journalism, creative non-fiction, biographies, and historiography); fictionalized accounts of historical events (e.g. anecdotes, myths, and legends); and fiction proper (i.e. literature in prose, such as short stories and novels, and sometimes in poetry and drama, although in drama the events are primarily being shown instead of told). Narrative is found in all forms of human creativity and art, including speech, writing, songs, film, television, games, photography, theatre, and visual arts such as painting (with the modern art movements refusing the narrative in favour of the abstract and conceptual) that describes a sequence of events. The word derives from the Latin verb narrare, "to tell", which is derived from the adjective gnarus, "knowing" or "skilled".[2]

The word "story" may be used as a synonym of "narrative". It can also be used to refer to the sequence of events described in a narrative. Narratives may also be nested within other narratives, such as narratives told by an unreliable narrator (a character) typically found in noir fiction genre. An important part of narration is the narrative mode, the set of methods used to communicate the narrative through a process narration (see also "Narrative Aesthetics" below).

Along with exposition, argumentation, and description, narration, broadly defined, is one of four rhetorical modes of discourse. More narrowly defined, it is the fiction-writing mode whereby the narrator communicates directly to the reader.

Narrative and human nature

Owen Flanagan of Duke University, a leading consciousness researcher, writes that "Evidence strongly suggests that humans in all cultures come to cast their own identity in some sort of narrative form. We are inveterate storytellers."[3] Stories are an important aspect of culture. Many works of art and most works of literature tell stories; indeed, most of the humanities involve stories.

Stories are of ancient origin, existing in ancient Egyptian, ancient Greek, Chinese and Indian cultures and their myths. Stories are also a ubiquitous component of human communication, used as parables and examples to illustrate points. Storytelling was probably one of the earliest forms of entertainment. As noted by Owen Flanagan, narrative may also refer to psychological processes in self-identity, memory and meaning-making.

Semiotics begins with the individual building blocks of meaning called signs; and semantics, the way in which signs are combined into codes to transmit messages. This is part of a general communication system using both verbal and non-verbal elements, and creating a discourse with different modalities and forms.

In On Realism in Art Roman Jakobson argues that literature does not exist as a separate entity. He and many other semioticians prefer the view that all texts, whether spoken or written, are the same, except that some authors encode their texts with distinctive literary qualities that distinguish them from other forms of discourse. Nevertheless, there is a clear trend to address literary narrative forms as separable from other forms. This is first seen in Russian Formalism through Victor Shklovsky's analysis of the relationship between composition and style, and in the work of Vladimir Propp, who analysed the plots used in traditional folk-tales and identified 31 distinct functional components.[4] This trend (or these trends) continued in the work of the Prague School and of French scholars such as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes. It leads to a structural analysis of narrative and an increasingly influential body of modern work that raises important epistemological questions:

  • What is text?
  • What is its role in the contextual culture?
  • How is it manifested as art, cinema, theatre, or literature?
  • Why is narrative divided into different genres, such as poetry, short stories, and novels?
  • Why are narratives put into literature?

Literary theory

In literary theoretic approach, narrative is being narrowly defined as fiction-writing mode in which the narrator is communicating directly to the reader. Until the late 19th century, literary criticism as an academic exercise dealt solely with poetry (including epic poems like the Iliad and Paradise Lost, and poetic drama like Shakespeare). Most poems did not have a narrator distinct from the author.

But novels, lending a number of voices to several characters in addition to narrator's, created a possibility of narrator's views differing significantly from the author's views. With the rise of the novel in the 18th century, the concept of the narrator (as opposed to "author") made the question of narrator a prominent one for literary theory. It has been proposed that perspective and interpretive knowledge are the essential characteristics, while focalization and structure are lateral characteristics of the narrator.[according to whom?]

Types of narrators and their narrative modes

A writer's choice in the narrator is crucial for the way a work of fiction is perceived by the reader. There is a distinction between first-person and third-person narrative, which Gérard Genette refers to as homodiegetic and heterodiegetic narrative, respectively. A homodiegetic narrator describes own personal experiences as a character in the story. Such a narrator cannot know more about other characters than what their actions reveal. A heterodiegetic narrator, in contrast, describes the experiences of the characters that appear in the story. A narrative wherein events are seen through the eyes of a third-person internal focaliser is said to be figural. In some stories, the author may be omniscient and employ multiple points of view as well and comment on events as they occur.

Most narrators present their story from one of the following perspectives (called narrative modes): first-person, or third-person limited or omniscient. Generally, a first-person narrator brings greater focus on the feelings, opinions, and perceptions of a particular character in a story, and on how the character views the world and the views of other characters. If the writer's intention is to get inside the world of a character, then it is a good choice, although a third-person limited narrator is an alternative that does not require the writer to reveal all that a first-person character would know. By contrast, a third-person omniscient narrator gives a panoramic view of the world of the story, looking into many characters and into the broader background of a story. A third-person omniscient narrator can be an animal or an object, or it can be a more abstract instance that does not refer to itself. For stories in which the context and the views of many characters are important, a third-person narrator is a better choice. However, a third-person narrator does not need to be an omnipresent guide, but instead may merely be the protagonist referring to himself in the third person (also known as third person limited narrator).

Multiple narrators

A writer may choose to let several narrators tell the story from different points of view. Then it is up to the reader to decide which narrator seems most reliable for each part of the story. It may refer to the style of the writer in which he/she expresses the paragraph written. See for instance the works of Louise Erdrich. William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying is a prime example of the use of multiple narrators. Faulkner employs stream of consciousness by narrating the story from various perspectives.

Aesthetics approach to narrative

The art of narrative is by definition a highly aesthetic enterprise. There are a number of aesthetic elements that typically interact in well-developed stories. Such elements include the essential idea of narrative structure, with identifiable beginnings, middles and ends, or exposition-development-climax-denouement, with important inciting incidents, normally constructed into coherent plot lines; a strong focus on temporality that includes retention of the past, attention to present action and protention/future anticipation; a substantial focus on characters and characterization which is "arguably the most important single component of the novel" (David Lodge The Art of Fiction 67); a given heterogloss of different voices dialogically at play, "the sound of the human voice, or many voices, speaking in a variety of accents, rhythms and registers" (Lodge The Art of Fiction 97; see also the theory of Mikhail Bakhtin for expansion of this idea); possesses a narrator or narrator-like voice, which by definition "addresses" and "interacts with" reading audiences (see Reader Response theory); communicates with a Wayne Booth-esque rhetorical thrust, a dialectic process of interpretation, which is at times beneath the surface, conditioning a plotted narrative, and at other times much more visible, "arguing" for and against various positions; relies substantially on now-standard aesthetic figuration, particularly including the use of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony (see Hayden White, Metahistory for expansion of this idea); is often enmeshed in intertextuality, with copious connections, references, allusions, similarities, parallels, etc. to other literatures; and commonly demonstrates an effort toward bildungsroman, a description of identity development with an effort to evince becoming in character and community.Template:Jargon-statement

Psychological approach to narrative

Within philosophy of mind, the social sciences and various clinical fields including medicine, narrative can refer to aspects of human psychology.[5] A personal narrative process is involved in a person's sense of personal or cultural identity, and in the creation and construction of memories; it is thought by some to be the fundamental nature of the self.[6][7] The breakdown of a coherent or positive narrative has been implicated in the development of psychosis and mental disorder, and its repair said to play an important role in journeys of recovery.[8] Narrative Therapy is a school of (family) psychotherapy.

Illness narratives are a way for a person affected by an illness to make sense of his or her experiences.[9] They typically follow one of several set patterns: restitution, chaos, or quest narratives. In the restitution narrative, the person sees the illness as a temporary detour. The primary goal is to return permanently to normal life and normal health. These may also be called cure narratives. In the chaos narrative, the person sees the illness as a permanent state that will inexorably get worse, with no redeeming virtues. This is typical of diseases like Alzheimer's disease: the patient gets worse and worse, and there is no hope of returning to normal life. The third major type, the quest narrative, positions the illness experience as an opportunity to transform oneself into a better person through overcoming adversity and re-learning what is most important in life; the physical outcome of the illness is less important than the spiritual and psychological transformation. This is typical of the triumphant view of cancer survivorship in the breast cancer culture.[9]

Personality traits, more specifically the Big Five personality traits, appear to be associated with the type of language or patterns of word use found in an individual's self-narrative.[10] In other words, language use in self-narratives accurately reflects human personality. The linguistic correlates of each Big Five trait are as follows:

  • Extraversion - positively correlated with words referring to humans, social processes and family;
  • Agreeableness - positively correlated with family, inclusiveness and certainty; negatively correlated with anger and body (i.e., few negative comments about health/body);
  • Conscientiousness - positively correlated with achievement and work; negatively related to body, death, anger and exclusiveness;
  • Neuroticism - positively correlated with sadness, negative emotion, body, anger, home and anxiety; negatively correlated with work;
  • Openness - positively correlated with perceptual processes, hearing and exclusiveness

Social sciences approaches to narratives

Human beings often claim to understand events when they manage to formulate a coherent story or narrative explaining how they believe the event was generated. Narratives, thus, lie at foundations of our cognitive procedures and also provide an explanatory framework for the social sciences, particularly when it is difficult to assemble enough cases to permit statistical analysis. Narrative is often used in case study research in the social sciences. Here it has been found that the dense, contextual, and interpenetrating nature of social forces uncovered by detailed narratives is often more interesting and useful for both social theory and social policy than other forms of social inquiry.

Sociologists Jaber F. Gubrium and James A. Holstein have contributed to the formation of a constructionist approach to narrative in sociology. From their book The Self We Live By: Narrative Identity in a Postmodern World (2000), to more recent texts such as Analyzing Narrative Reality (2009)and Varieties of Narrative Analysis (2012), they have developed an analytic framework for researching stories and storytelling that is centered on the interplay of institutional discourses (big stories) on the one hand, and everyday accounts (little stories) on the other. The goal is the sociological understanding of formal and lived texts of experience, featuring the production, practices, and communication of accounts.

Narrative inquiry approach

In order to avoid "hardened stories," or "narratives that become context-free, portable and ready to be used anywhere and anytime for illustrative purposes" and are being used as conceptual metaphors as defined by linguist George Lakoff, an approach called narrative inquiry was proposed, resting on the epistemological assumption that human beings make sense of random or complex multicausal experience by the imposition of story structures."[11][12] Human propensity to simplify data through a predilection for narratives over complex data sets typically leads to narrative fallacy. It is easier for the human mind to remember and make decisions on the basis of stories with meaning, than to remember strings of data. This is one reason why narratives are so powerful and why many of the classics in the humanities and social sciences are written in the narrative format. But humans read meaning into data and compose stories, even where this is unwarranted. In narrative inquiry, the way to avoid the narrative fallacy is no different from the way to avoid other error in scholarly research, i.e., by applying the usual methodical checks for validity and reliability in how data are collected, analyzed, and presented. Several criteria for assessing the validity of narrative research was proposed, including the objective aspect, the emotional aspect, the social/moral aspect, and the clarity of the story.

Mathematical sociology approach

In mathematical sociology, the theory of comparative narratives was devised in order to describe and compare the structures (expressed as "and" in a directed graph where multiple causal links incident into a node are conjoined) of action-driven sequential events.[13][14][15]

Narratives so conceived comprise the following ingredients:

  • A finite set of state descriptions of the world S, the components of which are weakly ordered in time;
  • A finite set of actors/agents (individual or collective), P;
  • A finite set of actions A;
  • A mapping of P onto A;

The structure (directed graph) is generated by letting the nodes stand for the states and the directed edges represent how the states are changed by specified actions. The action skeleton can then be abstracted, comprising a further digraph where the actions are depicted as nodes and edges take the form "action a co-determined (in context of other actions) action b".

Narratives can be both abstracted and generalised by imposing an algebra upon their structures and thence defining homomorphism between the algebras. The insertion of action-driven causal links in a narrative can be achieved using the method of Bayesian narratives.

Bayesian narratives

The theory of Comparative Narratives conceives a narrative as a directed graph comprising multiple causal links (social interactions) of the general form: "action a causes action b in a specified context". In the absence of sufficient comparative cases to enable statistical treatment of the causal links, items of evidence in support and against a particular causal link are assembled and used to compute the Bayesian likelihood ratio of the link. Subjective causal statements of the form "I/she did b because of a" and subjective counterfactuals "if it had not been for a I/she would not have done b" are notable items of evidence.[15][16][17]

Narrative in music

Linearity is one of several narrative qualities that can be found in a musical composition.[18] As noted by American musicologist, Edward Cone, narrative terms are also present in the analytical language about music.[19] The different components of a fugue — subject, answer, exposition, discussion and summary — can be cited as an example.[20] However, there are several views on the concept of narrative in music and the role it plays. One theory is that of Theodore Adorno, who has suggested that ‘music recites itself, is its own context, narrates without narrative’.[20] Another, is that of Carolyn Abbate, who has suggested that ‘certain gestures experienced in music constitute a narrating voice’.[19] Still others have argued that narrative is a semiotic enterprise that can enrich musical analysis.[20] The French musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez contends that ‘the narrative, strictly speaking, is not in the music, but in the plot imagined and constructed by the listeners’.[21] He argues that discussing music in terms of narrativity is simply metaphorical and that the ‘imagined plot’ may be influenced by the works title or other programmatic information provided by the composer.[21] However, Abbate has revealed numerous examples of musical devices that function as narrative voices, by limiting music’s ability to narrate to rare ‘moments that can be identified by their bizarre and disruptive effect’.[21] Various theorists share this view of narrative appearing in disruptive rather than normative moments in music. The final word is yet to be said, regarding narratives in music, as there is still much to be determined.


In historiography, according to Lawrence Stone, narrative has traditionally been the main rhetorical device used by historians. In 1979, at a time when the new Social History was demanding a social-science model of analysis, Stone detected a move back toward the narrative. Stone defined narrative as organized chronologically; focused on a single coherent story; descriptive rather than analytical; concerned with people not abstract circumstances; and dealing with the particular and specific rather than the collective and statistical. He reported that, "More and more of the 'new historians' are now trying to discover what was going on inside people's heads in the past, and what it was like to live in the past, questions which inevitably lead back to the use of narrative."[22]

Some philosophers identify narratives with a type of explanation. Mark Bevir argues, for example, that narratives explain actions by appealing to the beliefs and desires of actors and by locating webs of beliefs in the context of historical traditions. Narrative is an alternative form of explanation to that associated with natural science.

Historians committed to a social science approach, however, have criticized the narrowness of narrative and its preference for anecdote over analysis, and clever examples rather than statistical regularities.[23]

Other specific applications

  • A narrative case study is a case study that tells a story.
  • Narrative environment is a contested term that has been used for techniques of architectural or exhibition design in which 'stories are told in space' and also for the virtual environments in which computer games are played and which are invented by the computer game authors.
  • Narrative film usually uses images and sounds on film (or, more recently, on analogue or digital video media) to convey a story. Narrative film is usually thought of in terms of fiction but it may also assemble stories from filmed reality, as in some documentary film, but narrative film may also use animation.
  • Narrative history is a genre of factual historical writing that uses chronology as its framework (as opposed to a thematic treatment of a historical subject).
  • Narrative poetry is poetry that tells a story.
  • A narrative verdict is a verdict available to coroners in England and Wales following an inquest.
  • Metanarrative, sometimes also known as master- or grand narrative, is a higher-level cultural narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience you've had in life.

See also



  • Kelley, Stephanie R, Rumors in Iraq: A Guide to Winning Hearts and Minds. Storming Media, 2004. ISBN 1-4235-2249-4
  • Asimov, Nanette. "Researchers help U.S. Military track, defuse rumors." San Francisco Chronicle. October 14, 2011.
  • Hardin, Jayson. The Rumor Bomb: Theorizing the convergence of New and Old Trends in Mediated U.S. Politics, Southern Review: Communication, Politics & Culture 39, no. I (2006): 84–110

Further reading

  • Bal, Mieke. (1985). Narratology. Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Toronto: Toronto University Press.
  • Clandinin, D. J. & Connelly, F. M. (2000). Narrative inquiry: Experience and story in qualitative research. Jossey-Bass.
  • Genette, Gérard. (1980 [1972]). Narrative Discourse. An Essay in Method. (Translated by Jane E. Lewin). Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Gubrium, Jaber F. & James A. Holstein. (2009). Analyzing Narrative Reality. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Holstein, James A. & Jaber F. Gubrium. (2000). The Self We Live By: Narrative Identity in a Postmodern World. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Holstein, James A. & Jaber F. Gubrium, eds. (2012). Varieties of Narrative Analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Hunter, Kathryn Montgomery (1991). Doctors' Stories: The Narrative Structure of Medical Knowledge. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Jakobson, Roman. (1921). "On Realism in Art" in Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist. (Edited by Ladislav Matejka & Krystyna Pomorska). The MIT Press.
  • Labov, William. (1972). Chapter 9: The Transformation of Experience in Narrative Syntax. In: "Language in the Inner City." Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. (1958 [1963]). Anthropologie Structurale/Structural Anthropology. (Translated by Claire Jacobson & Brooke Grundfest Schoepf). New York: Basic Books.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. (1962 [1966]). La Pensée Sauvage/The Savage Mind (Nature of Human Society). London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Mythologiques I-IV (Translated by John Weightman & Doreen Weightman)
  • Linde, Charlotte (2001). Chapter 26: Narrative in Institutions. In: Deborah Schiffrin, Deborah Tannen & Heidi E. Hamilton (ed.s) "The Handbook of Discourse Analysis." Oxford & Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Norrick, Neal R. (2000). "Conversational Narrative: Storytelling in Everyday Talk." Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Ranjbar Vahid. (2011) The Narrator, Iran:Baqney
  • Polanyi, Livia. (1985). "Telling the American Story: A Structural and Cultural Analysis of Conversational Storytelling." Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishers Corporation.
  • Salmon, Christian. (2010). "Storytelling, bewitching the modern mind." London, Verso.
  • Shklovsky, Viktor. (1925 [1990]). Theory of Prose. (Translated by Benjamin Sher). Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press.
  • Todorov, Tzvetan. (1969). Grammaire du Décameron. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Toolan, Michael (2001). "Narrative: a Critical Linguistic Introduction"
  • Turner, Mark (1996). "The Literary Mind"
  • Ranjbar Vahid. The Narrator, Iran:Baqney 2011 (summary in english)
  • Ed. Robert Doran. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

External links

  • International Society for the Study of Narrative
  • Narrative and Referential Activity
  • Some Ideas about Narrative – notes on narrative from an academic perspective
  • SF State News. 09/29/11
  • DOC Film Institute