Narrative

Narratives are one of the four most common rhetorical modes of communication, which include description, exposition, and argumentation. A rhetorical mode describes the variety, purpose, and conventions in writing and speaking used to present a subject in a certain manner.

Narrative Narrative

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Table of contents

    Narrative meaning

    A narrative’s function is to tell a series of events. We can define narrative as an account of actual or imagined events in which a narrator communicates information directly to the reader. Narrators relate narratives in either spoken or written form. Narrative organises distinct events, places, characters, and times of action in a coherent structure by using the concept, themes, and plot. Narratives are in all forms of literature and art, such as novels, video games, songs, television shows, and sculptures.

    Tip: The earliest method of sharing narrative is oral storytelling, a crucial communal experience that promotes intimacy and connection to rural and urban communities as people share stories about themselves.

    Examples of narrative story

    Narratives may be as simple as this joke:

    A doctor says to his patient: ‘I have bad news and worse news.’

    ‘What’s the bad news?’ The patient asks.

    The doctor sighs, ‘You only have 24 hours to live.’

    ‘That’s terrible! How can the news get possibly worse?’

    The doctor replies, ‘I have been trying to contact you since yesterday.’

    Narratives are also complex, multi-volumed accounts of history or fiction, such as Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748), Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927), and Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West (1592).

    If narratives involve actual and imagined events (the story) and the arrangement of those events (the plot), then the study of narratology is the analysis of the literary elements that make up the narrative.

    Analysing narratives consists of three main parts: time, characterisation, and focalisation (the more formal expression for ‘point of view’).

    Narrative, book pages, StudySmarter'Narrative' refers to how a real or imagined story is told.

    For example, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009) opens with the historical figure Thomas Cromwell. He is our fictional narrator that relates the narrative events of sixteenth-century England.

    ‘So now get up.’

    Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned towards the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.

    Time / TenseCharacterisation Focalisation
    The novel is set in 1500. However, it was written in 2009 so the narrative uses present-day language and slang.Mantel uses implicit characterisation. This means the reader doesn't immediately realise that the main narrator in the opening chapter is a teenage Thomas Cromwell.The novel is told in a third-person limited point of view. The reader only knows the narrator’s thoughts and feelings at this moment and can only see where the narrator is looking.

    Narration utilises a narrator to convey a story to an implied reader. How much information the narrator and the narrative tell are a crucial indicator for the analysis of narratives.

    The author also chooses narrative techniques (the methods of telling stories such as cliffhangers, flashbacks, narrative hook, allegory) to aid the story’s narration. The story’s setting, the themes of the literary work, the genre, and other storytelling devices are important to the narrative. Through these, the reader understands who is telling the story and how narratives are told and influenced by other narratives.

    That structuring is part of the narrative discourse (through which Michel Foucault contributed pioneering work), which focuses on the specific language choices and structure to present a meaningful account of the narrative.

    Narrative discourse

    Narrative discourse refers to the structural elements of how a narrative is presented. It considers the ways in which a story is told.

    Narrative story - definitions and examples

    Narratives are involved in both non-fiction and fiction. Let's take a look at each of these in more detail!

    Non-fictional narratives

    Non-fiction is informative or factual prose writing. Non-fictions still employ storytelling devices to retain the reader’s attention. Thus, narrative non-fiction is a genre that involves a factual account told as a story, which covers memoirs, travelogues, biographies, or true-story documentaries.

    Think about your history textbook. Textbooks present historical events in a chronological sequence of events and facts, right? For example, in 1525 Henry VIII met Anne Boleyn. The meeting led to Henry VIII divorcing Catherine of Aragon in 1533 and becoming the Head of the Church of England in 1534 through the First Act of Supremacy.

    Ask a historian to explain the past, and they will usually tell you a story that provides the how and why of events in the past. History can then be called a narrative. Since the 1960s, frequent debates have questioned whether history is a narrative. A famous critic is Hayden White, who explained in Metahistory (1973) that narratives are crucial to understanding historical events. History is not just a simple representation of a sequence of events or historical facts. It has a narrative pattern to which we can apply narratological and archetypal theories.

    Historical narratives are comprised of both non-narrative sentences (such as business documents, legal papers, and technical manuals) and narrative sentences. Narrative sentences appear in narratives of all sorts and in common speech. However, they refer to at least two time-separated events.

    Narratives consist of narrative sentences which make the narrative re-interpretable in light of the facts that occur later in time. Narratives are an explanatory device.

    Tip: Consider this question – Are historians storytellers?

    Advertisements also use narratives by using storytelling to convey a core message. Persuasion methods, the advertisement’s verbal and visual presentation, and a simple beginning-middle-end sequence help influence customers’ attention towards the product. For example, John Lewis, Marks & Spencers, Sainsbury’s, etc., all have Christmas ads every year that tell a narrative of Christmas cheer and promote messages of kindness and generosity.

    Fictional narratives

    Fiction is any narrative –either in verse or prose– which focuses on invented characters and events. Fictional narratives focus on a character or characters that interact in a given social setting, which is narrated from a point of view and is based on some sort of sequence of events leading to a resolution that reveals aspects of the characters (i.e. the plot).

    Here are the main narrative forms in prose.

    • The novel is extended fictional prose of varying lengths.

    • Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719).

    • Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1861).

    • The novella is a narrative in prose that is intermediate in length.

    • Henry James, The Aspern Papers (1888).

    • Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1902).

    • The short story is a narrative in prose that is considered too short to be published on its own.

    • George Saunders, Tenth of December (2013).

    • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Thing Around Your Neck (2009).

    Literary theorists have classified narratives in many forms (in particular during the 1950s). In these examples, the length of the narratives determines the narrative form. The length also influences how narratives present information or tell stories.

    Narrative forms such as a Quest Narrative, a Myth, and Historical Fiction are classified into genres by theme, content, and plot.

    Narratives in verse include narrative poetry, which involves the class of poems which tell stories. Narrative poetic forms include the ballad, epics, verse romances, and lai (a lyrical, narrative poem written in octosyllabic couplets). Some narrative poetry appears as a novel in verse and is different from dramatic and lyric poetry.

    • Homer, The Iliad (8th Century BC).

    • Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy (1320).

    Narratology description

    The study of narratology is concerned with narratives' general theory and practice in all their forms and genres.

    Narratology topicsExplanationExamples
    Types of narrators

    The main character or persons who are telling the story can impact the telling and themes of the narrative.

    Objective narrators, third-person narrators, unreliable narrators, omniscient narrators.
    The narrative structure (and combinations thereof)A literary element that underlies the order in which a narrative is presented to the reader. Plot: how and what to expect in the plot, and whether it circles back on itself or recapitulates. Setting: whether the setting is incidental or symbolically central to the narrative.Would it be Jane Eyre without the classic rags-to-riches plot? Can you imagine Harry Potter without Hogwarts as the setting?
    Narrative devices and techniques (and if they reoccur)The devices the author uses to play with genre conventions or convey what information they want to relay to the reader.The epistolic device (narratives that involve letter writing) differs significantly from a Mockumentary (think The Office (UK/US)) in how they tell a narrative.
    The analysis of narrative discourse Narrative discourse focuses on the specific language choices and structure to present a meaningful account of the narrative.Word choices, sentence structure, tone, dialect, and sound devices.

    Narratologists figure that narratives are a systematic and formal construction with certain rules and genres to follow. We consider narratives as more structured than a story. This is because narratives shape a mere sequence of events in time into an organised and meaningful structure or plot.

    How can we define narrative structures?

    These are some of the many examples of narrative structures in the English Language.

    Linear narrative

    A linear narrative is the most common form of narration. The account, or historical events witnessed by the narrator, are presented in chronological order.

    Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (1847). This novel is a bildungsroman that chronologically follows Jane’s life.

    Non-linear narrative

    A non-linear narrative involves a disjointed narrative, with events presented out-of-order, in a fragmented way, or not following a typical chronological pattern. This structure may involve reverse chronology, which reveals a plot from ending to beginning.

    • Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things (1997).
    • Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient (1992).

    Interactive narrative

    An interactive narrative is a single narrative that opens up into multiple branches, story developments, and plot outcomes depending on the reader or user’s choice or accomplishment of a task. Interactive narratives are most frequent in video games or choose-your-own-adventure narratives. Here, the narrative is not predetermined.
    • Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018).
    • Dragon Age Franchise (2009-2014).

    Frame narrative

    A frame narrative is not a narrative structure. Instead, a frame narrative is a narrative device that involves a main story that encloses (or has embedded) one or several shorter stories. The tale-within-the-tale plays with the readers’ previous conceptions of how narratives are told and whether the narrator should be believed.
    • Ovid, Metamorphoses (8 AD).
    • Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire (2008)/ Vikas Swarup, QA (2005).

    A narrative has many structures, characteristics, and devices for the reader to explore. Analysing narratives is an important part of understanding imagined and real stories and what they mean to the reader.

    Narrative - Key takeaways

    • A narrative is an account of actual or imagined events organised into a coherent structure.
    • Narratology is concerned with narratives' general theory and practice in all their forms and genres.
    • Narrative discourse focuses on the specific language choices and structure to present a meaningful account of the narrative.
    • A narrative structure is a literary element that underlies the order of how a narrative is presented to the reader.
    • Narrative non-fiction involves a factual account told as a story, while fictional narratives focus on imagined characters and events either in verse or prose.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Narrative

    What is a narrative?

    A narrative is an account of actual or imagined events that are organized into a coherent structure.

    What is an example of a narrative?

    Examples of narratives include short stories, novels, biographies, memoirs, travelogues, non-fiction, plays, history, sculptures.

    What is the difference between a narrative and a story?

    Narratives are considered more structured than a story because narratives shape a mere sequence of events in time into an organised and meaningful structure or plot.

    What is a narrative sentence?

    Narrative sentences appear in narratives of all sorts and common speech. They refer to at least two time-separated events though they only describe (are only about) the earliest event to which they refer. They are nearly always in the past tense.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following is not an example of a narrative structure? 

    Which of the following is an example of a fictional narrative in prose?

    The speed of events can only be slowed down.True or false?

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    Team Narrative Teachers

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