Narrative (NAIR-uh-tihv) is a spoken or written account of related events conveyed using certain literary techniques and devices. Narratives are seen throughout written works and other media, including prose, verse, movies and television shows, theater, music, video games, and podcasts.
The word narrative derives from the Middle French narrative and originates with the Late Latin narrare, which means “to tell, relate, recount, explain.” It was first used in English in the 1560s to indicate “a tale, a story, a connected account of the particulars of an event or series of incidents.”
The History of Narrative Storytelling
For as long as human civilization has existed, people have been recounting narratives. The ways that narratives are expressed and transmitted to an audience has evolved through the centuries, but the essential impulse—to tell a story—has remained unchanged.
Storytelling began with the oral tradition. Myths, legends, fables, ballads, and folktales were performed aloud to entertain and inform an audience. These narratives were memorized using mnemonic devices such as oral-formulaic composition, which utilizes repetition of the same phrases that fit into specific metrical conditions. The canonical spiritual works of world religions—such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and Catholicism—have roots in the oral tradition, as do epic poems like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Norse Eddas and Sagas, the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf.
As written languages developed, they were used to transcribe narratives from the oral tradition. Some of the earliest written narratives are the Sumerian stories in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates back to 2250–2000 BCE. With the advent of handwritten manuscripts and wood block-printed texts, written narratives continued in almost every culture in the Eastern and Western worlds. In the 15th century, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press allowed the precise and rapid creation of metal moveable type in large quantities, thus making printed texts more readily available and affordable.
Although both oral and written narratives have always focused on themes like love, adventure, heroes, life lessons, and supernatural and divine forces, modern narratives have evolved to include genres such as Westerns, science fiction, espionage, and mysteries/police procedurals. The popularity of different narratives depends on cultural context and often waxes and wanes based on interests and concerns of the era.
The Elements of Narrative
To build a narrative, writers rely on several other literary elements, including but not limited to characterization, conflict, frame stories, linear vs. nonlinear narration, pacing, point of view, and tone.
This literary technique introduces and develops a story’s character(s). There are two types of characterization: direct/explicit and indirect/implicit. Direct characterization is when the narrator tells the audience specific details about a character; this information can also be provided by another character in the story. Indirect characterization is when the audience must deduce aspects of a character for themselves by observing the character’s thought process, physical description, behavior, or dialogue.
The opposition of forces or people, which creates dramatic action, is a narrative’s conflict. There are two categories of conflict: internal and external. Internal conflict exists only as man vs. self—when a character experiences opposing emotions or desires simultaneously. External conflict, on the other hand, can exist in five different forms: man vs. man, man vs. mature, man vs. society, man vs. technology, and man vs. the supernatural. When employing any of these, the narrative’s conflict constitutes a protagonist’s struggle against forces outside themselves.
This is a literary form where one all-encompassing story contains one or more related stories. This technique unifies the stories’ narratives by providing smooth transitions and an overall theme. Frame stories can be found in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron.
Linear vs. Nonlinear Narration
The order in which events are told is another way to build narrative. If an author chooses to recount events in a chronological order, then their narrative is linear. If the narrative is told out of sequence, it’s nonlinear. The advantage of linear narration is that it’s easier for the reader to understand, and it builds tension as the narrative progresses through the natural rise and fall of the central conflict. Nonlinear narration, on the other hand, adds aesthetic interest to a written work and builds emotional resonance for readers.
The rate at which a story develops, or its pace, is controlled through elements like the length of scenes, depth of description, and intensity and frequency of action. Genre often affects pacing as certain types of writing require a faster pace (like action-adventures, horror, espionage, and crime thrillers) while others need a slow, extended pace (such as historical dramas or sweeping family sagas).
The narrator or speaker provides a story’s point of view; as such, the reader only experiences events as the narrator sees and describes them. There are three main types of point of view: first person, where everything is narrated from one single character using the pronouns I, me, and mine; second person, which is written as if the reader is a character and uses the pronouns you and your; and third person, which is told from an authorial point of view outside the story and uses the pronouns she/her, he/his, and they/them/ theirs.
This indicates the general character or attitude of a piece. There are as many types of tone as there are attitudes and emotions. A piece of writing can be cheerful or depressing; romantic or sincere; elegiac or optimistic. Even an objectively written news article maintains a tone—in that case, the tone is neutral.
Narrative is not restricted to fiction, nonfiction, and theater. Although some poems focus on an image, an emotion, an idea, or a mood, other poems tell a story. When a poem focuses on recounting a series of events, it is called a narrative poem.
The epic poems The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Aeneid, The Kalevala, and Beowulf are all narrative poems, as are other longer poetic works, such as The Canterbury Tales, Metamorphosis, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. There are shorter narrative poems as well, such as Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” and Alfred Noyes “The Highwayman.”
Why Writers Employ Narrative
Writers use narrative because it keeps audience members engaged. A strong narrative can heighten characterization and augment the emotional or aesthetic elements of a work. It is human nature to want to know “what happens next,” so readers are inclined to follow the full narrative arc once it begins. A compelling narrative will keep the audience consistently engaged and interested.
Narrative’s Relationship to Story and Plot
Although people often use the words narrative, story, and plot interchangeably, they are not the same thing.
Story refers to a series of events related in their chronological order. Plot indicates a series of events that are arranged deliberately to reveal emotional, thematic, or dramatic significance. This means the plot also conveys the causes, effects, and meanings of events. According to E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, the sentence “The king died and then the queen died” is a story, whereas the sentence “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.
Narrative, on the other hand, includes the sequence of events (the story), the causes, effects, and meaning of these events (plot), and the techniques and decisions employed by the author that determine how these events are recounted to the audience.
One way to remember these distinctions is to think of what each provides. The story is what happens, the plot includes the whys and significance of what happens, and the narrative is how what happens is recounted.
Examples of Narrative in Literature
1. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Coleridge’s long narrative poem opens with the Ancient Mariner stopping the Wedding-Guest, who is with two companions, in the street:
It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three….
He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child:
The Mariner hath his will.
Although the Wedding-Guest wishes to continue on his way, he is unable to resist the compelling story of the Mariner’s ill-fated journey and inexplicable sin of killing an albatross. Coleridge utilizes the narrative technique of a frame story to contain the Mariner’s tale within the larger experience of the Wedding Guest who listens—and learns—from the Mariner.
2. Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange
Burgess’s novel is told by a first-person narrator. Alex, a hardened young criminal, relates the nefarious doings of himself and his “droogs” with great delight, peppering his memories with a distinctive slang:
There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie,
and Dim, Dim being relly dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up
our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard
though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my
brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so
skorry these days and everybody very quick to forget, newspapers not being
read much neither.
Alex’s use of invented slang and run-on sentences lends greater depth to Burgess’s characterization and forces the readers to experience the narrative’s sequence of events alongside Alex, rather than having any objective distance from them.
3. Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine
Erdrich’s award-winning novel, which chronicles the lives of several indigenous families across six decades, opens with third person point of view:
The morning before Easter Sunday, June Kashpaw was walking down the clogged main street of oil boomtown Williston, North Dakota, killing time before the noon bus arrived that would take her home.
While this chapter is written in the third person, most chapters are told from other characters’ first person point of view. Erdrich’s episodic, nonlinear approach heightens characterization and allows her to create a vast panoply of voices, bringing fully to life a number of Chippewa living on an Ojibwa reservation.
4. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
Morrison’s debut novel also shifts points of view with its narrative structure. It begins with lines drawn from the Dick and Jane early reading primers, moves to first-person narration, then continues with a third person narrator as the narrative jumps back in time to the Great Migration.
In the novel’s final section, the point of view reverts to Claudia MacTeer’s first-person narration as she explains how complicit the community was in the unfortunate events that befell Pecola Breedlove:
All of us—all who knew her—felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used—to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt.
Morrison’s nonlinear narrative, with its shifting points of view, creates a fragmented effect, which reflects both the dissolution of Pecola’s sanity as the book progresses and the way her community failed to sustain her.
5. Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Boo’s award-winning nonfiction examination of poverty in Mumbai begins with a Prologue. She sets the scene by introducing some of the people whose lives she will follow:
Midnight was closing in, the one-legged woman was grievously burned, and the Mumbai police were coming for Abdul and his father. In a slum hut by the international airport, Abdul’s parents came to a decision with an uncharacteristic economy of words. The father, a sick man, would wait inside the trash-strewn, tin-roofed shack where the family of eleven resided. He’d go quietly when arrested. Abdul, the household earner, was the one who had to flee.
Boo uses third person narration and a neutral tone. These choices allow her to maintain a sense of journalistic objectivity, which is necessary for this type of nonfiction work. Her nuanced characterization and detailed description throughout the book add to readers’ ability to trust her knowledge and breadth of research.
Further Resources on Narrative
Project Gutenberg has an extensive list of narrative techniques.
Ohio State University’s “Project Narrative” is a wonderful source for information about narrative theory.
Amit Majmudar published a great round up of “old-school narrative poems” on the Kenyon Review website.