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A narrative is a story that is created in a constructive format (as a work of speech, writing, song, film, television, video games, photography or theatre) that describes a sequence of fictional or non-fictional events. The word derives from the Latin verb narrare, "to recount", and is related to the adjective gnarus, "knowing" or "skilled".[1] Ultimately its origin is found in the Proto-Indo-European root gnō-, "to know".[2]

The word "story" may be used as a synonym of "narrative", but can also be used to refer to the sequence of events described in a narrative. A narrative can also be told by a character within a larger narrative. An important part of narration is the narrative mode, the set of methods used to communicate the narrative through a processnarration.

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.

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. 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” (Consciousness Reconsidered 198).

Stories are of ancient origin, existing in ancient Egyptian, ancient Greek, Chinese and Indian culture. 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. Narrative may also refer to psychological processes in self-identity, memory and meaning-making.

Conceptual issues Edit

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 elemets, 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.[3] 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 Edit

For general purposes in semiotics and literary theory, a "narrative" is a story or part of a story. It may be spoken, written or imagined, and it will have one or more points of view representing some or all of the participants or observers. In stories told orally, there is a person telling the story, a narrator whom the audience can see and/or hear, who adds layers of meaning to the text non-verbally. The narrator also has the opportunity to monitor the audience's response to the story and modify the manner of the telling to clarify content or enhance listener interest. This is distinguishable from the written form in which the author must gauge the readers' likely reactions when they are decoding the text and make a final choice of words in the hope of achieving the desired response.

Whatever the form, the content may concern real-world people and events; this is termed "personal experience narrative". When the content is fictional, different conventions apply. The text projects a narrative voice, but the narrator belongs to an invented or imaginary world, not the real one. The narrator may be one of the characters in the story. Roland Barthes describes such characters as "paper beings", and fiction comprises their narratives of personal experience as created by the author. When their thoughts are included, this is termed internal focalisation: when each character's mind focuses on a particular event, the text reflects his or her reactions.

In written forms the reader hears the narrator's voice both through the choice of content and the style — the author can encode voices for different emotions and situations, and the voices can be either overt or covert —, and through clues that reveal the narrator's beliefs, values and ideological stances, as well as the author's attitude towards people, events and things. It is customary to distinguish a first-person from a third-person narrative: Gérard Genette uses the terms homodiegetic and heterodiegetic narrative respectively. A homodiegetic narrator describes his or her personal and subjective experiences as a character in the story. Such a narrator cannot know anything more about what goes on in the minds of any of the other characters than is revealed through their actions; a heterodiegetic narrator describes the experiences of the characters who appear in the story and, if the story's events are seen through the eyes of a third-person internal focaliser, this is termed a figural narrative. In some stories, the author may be overtly omniscient, and both employ multiple points of view and comment directly on events as they occur.

Tzvetan Todorov (1969) coined the term "narratology" for the structuralist analysis of any given narrative into its constituent parts to determine their function(s) and relationships. For these purposes, the story is what is narrated as usually a chronological sequence of themes, motives and plot lines; hence, the plot represents the logical and causal structure of a story, explaining why its events occur. The term discourse is used to describe the stylistic choices that determine how the narrative text or performance finally appears to the audience. One of the stylistic decisions may be to present events in non-chronological order, using flashbacks, for example, to reveal motivations at a dramatic moment.

Narrative aesthetics Edit

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 hetergloss 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 other 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.

Narration as a fiction-writing mode Edit

As with many words in the English language, narration has more than one meaning. In its broadest context narration encompasses all written fiction. As one of the four rhetorical modes of discourse, the purpose of narration is to tell a story or to narrate an event or series of events. Narrative may exist in a variety of forms, including biographies, anecdotes, short stories and novels. In this context, all written fiction may be viewed as narration.

Narrowly defined, narration is the fiction-writing mode whereby the narrator is communicating directly to the reader. If, however, the broad definition of narration includes all written fiction, and the narrow definition is limited merely to that which is directly communicated to the reader, what comprises the rest of written fiction? The remainder of written fiction would be in the form of any of the other fiction-writing modes, such as description, exposition, summarization, etc.

Psychological narrative Edit

Within philosophy of mind, the social sciences and various clinical fields including medicine, narrative can refer to aspects of human psychology.[4] 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.[5][6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[8]


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. Lawrence Stone started it in 1979. He defined narrative: it is organized chronologically; it is focused on a single coherent story; it is descriptive rather than analytical; it is concerned with people not abstract circumstances; and it deals 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."[9]

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.[10]

See also Edit



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Other specific applicationsEdit

  • 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 is film which uses filmed reality to tell a story, often as a feature film.
  • 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.


  1. Oxford English Dictionary Online, "narrate, v.". Oxford University Press, 2007
  2. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.
  3. Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale, p 25, ISBN 0-292-78376-0
  4. Hevern, V. W. (2004, March). Introduction and general overview. Narrative psychology: Internet and resource guide. Le Moyne College. Retrieved September 28, 2008.
  5. Dennett, Daniel C (1992) The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity.
  6. Dan McAdams (2004). "Redemptive Self: Narrative Identity in America Today". The Self and Memory 1 (3): 95–116. 
  7. Gold E (August 2007). "From narrative wreckage to islands of clarity: stories of recovery from psychosis". Can Fam Physician 53 (8): 1271–5. PMC Template:=pmcentrez&artidTemplate:=1949240 1949240. PMID 17872833.  Hyden, L.-C. & Brockmeier, J. (2009). Health, Illness and Culture: Broken Narratives. New York: Routledge.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Gayle A. Sulik (2010). Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women's Health. USA: Oxford University Press. pp. 321–326. ISBN 0-19-974045-3. OCLC 535493589. 
  9. Lawrence Stone, "The Revival of Narrative: Reflections on a New Old History," Past and Present 85 (1979), pp 3-24, quote on 13
  10. J. Morgan Kousser, “The Revivalism of Narrative: A Response to Recent Criticisms of Quantitative History,” Social Science History vol 8, no. 2 (Spring 1984): 133–49; Eric H. Monkkonen, “The Dangers of Synthesis,” American Historical Review 91, no. 5 (December 1986): 1146–57.

Further readingEdit

  • 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.
  • Flyvbjerg, B. (2001). Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How It Can Succeed Again (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  • Flyvbjerg, B. (2006). "Five Misunderstandings About Case Study Research". Qualitative Inquiry 12 (2): 219–45. doi:10.1177/1077800405284363. 
  • Genette, Gérard. (1980 [1972]). Narrative Discourse. An Essay in Method. (Translated by Jane E. Lewin). Oxford: Blackwell.
  • 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.
  • Quackenbush, S.W. (2005). Remythologizing culture: Narrativity, justification, and the politics of personalization. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 61, 67-80.
  • Polanyi, Livia. (1985). "Telling the American Story: A Structural and Cultural Analysis of Conversational Storytelling." Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishers Corporation.
  • 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"

External linksEdit

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