Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes


a.k.a "story" or "plot"

see also genres; narrative genres

"Narrative" is an academic or scholarly term for "story" or "plot" or sometimes "action." Those synonyms define "narrative" well enough for most readers or audiences. Everybody loves a good story!—and everybody knows or senses what a story is, if only because storytelling is an essential part of human nature.

Humans teach, learn, and entertain by telling or hearing stories.

Humans are imitative or mimetic creatures—we learn and act by imitating others. (Examples: learning a language; cooking as "watch me.")

Story-telling is a type of mimesis, imitation, or representation. Like all art, a story imitates or represents a world or an idea of a world that humans might inhabit. (Examples: movies aren't real life but look and feel potentially real.)

Unlike painting, photography, or film, which present direct images, written or spoken stories offer a sequence or series of verbal symbols or events that happened (or could have happened) in reality.

Writers of fiction or screenplays know the importance of a good story for keeping readers' attention or "eyeballs on the screen." Screenwriters today often talk in terms of narrative "arcs" or "trajectories." Writers of literary fiction often start with characters and situations, then develop the plot based on what their characters would do. Reader follow the protagonist as if the story is happening to them.

For readers or audiences, stories help people make sense of the world while confirming or challenging its rules. In the process, stories provide exercises in solving problems and explaining what happens and why.

For readers and critics, narratives are studied as an essential constituent of critical thinking. Anecdotes or stories are exercises in problem-solving, as in a mystery, a detective story, or a vengeance narrative.

No conflict, problem, or obstacle = no story. The necessary conflict in a story stands as a problem, and the working out or resolution of that conflict represents the solving or resolution of the problem, where the story ends.

Narratives or stories may be fiction or nonfiction, personal or historical—and story-telling frequently blurs the borders between what really happened and what might have happened.

Problems with defining or describing narrative:

Like the blind men and the elephant, narratives or stories are so big, with so many parts and ways to perceive them that no single definition or function is adequate.

Adding to the difficulty, stories operate unconsciously as much as consciously, so that analysis of storytelling may sometimes feel inappropriate or unwelcome.

But these difficulties prove the power of narrative: so many things are happening in a story that no single element or perspective commands or comprehends the whole. A good story is greater than the sum of its parts and has more power than can be explained.

Only a few people want consciously to know how stories work: critics, authors, marketers, political advisors, historians, teachers—critical thinkers who analyze how the world works so it can work better. By making the unconscious become conscious, narrative analysis can help us control what may have been beyond our control (e.g., our unconscious mind, the ways others can use stories to make us do what they want, falling into predictable habits of thinking or reacting).

On the other hand, stories like all literature must provide both entertainment and education. Stories cannot be controlled and redirected too much, even to make a good point. If stories become too unpredictable, audiences' unconscious expectations are frustrated.

Standard elements of narratives or stories:

timestories happen as a sequence of symbolic events in time. Aristotle (Poetics, vii) says a story "is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end."

conflictresolution)—We all may wish for a nice day or an easy journey, but they provide no stories to tell. If instead you have a run-in with a co-worker or a fender-bender with another car, you have a story you will tell and tell again, shaping and re-shaping the narrative to express the meaning and effect the outcome you desire. (For example, the story you tell your partner about your fender-bender may change when you tell your insurance adjustor.)

sequence or series of symbolic events or actionsNarratives sequence events, actions, meetings, departures, even waiting. For the story to work, however, each event must have symbolic meaning—every action must indicate a value or an effect. Thus a narrative is a code or progression of symbols.

Settings, objects, or characters may function as symbols—e.g., hero, villain, damsel, parent, helper; farm, city, table, bedroom. Creative writers often attribute narrative to choices their characters make. Thus, characters may be the source of plot, and plot may occur through their agency. See Vladimir Prop, Morphology of the Folktale (1928).

Symbols, like narratives, perform a number of functions: positively or negatively affecting the audience or protagonist, who may identify or dis-identify with this or that symbol. Or symbols may interact with other symbols to form complex webs of meaning that the audience or characters follow, believe in, or resist.

Example of brief symbolic fictional narrative: "Today the child opened a door that had always been closed." 

Example of cultural narrative (e.g., the American Dream): "After all the shame and darkness, the pain and struggle, now Pat had arrived: a job, a partner, a house with a white picket fence, and a welcome light burning inside."

Stories can be brief and basic, as when you introduce yourself to a stranger or tell a partner how your day went. The briefer the story, the greater the action, the less characterization, theme, decision-making.

Or stories can be massive, complicated, and extended—the Iliad and Odyssey, the Oresteia, the Bible, 19c novels like War and Peace or Uncle Tom's Cabin, or the Twilight, Left Behind, or Hunger Games series, or Mad Men and Star Trek, and on and on.

Stories are everywhere in human culture, and everyone likes a good story. Nearly everyone who hears a story just goes with the flow, and often the only response is to tell another story—"The way I heard it . . . ."

Thus stories work for most people in a natural or spontaneous way that is partly conscious and partly unconscious.

A fictional or historical character's story may reflect a larger cultural narrative. For example, an individual's striving for success may imitate or embody "the American Dream." Vice versa, a description of the American Dream (or its frustration) may make a reader think, "That's my story."

Other approaches:

Narrative acts as a form of logic that can serve some of the same functions as logic or critical thinking.

  • In psychological counseling and psychiatry, a patient or client is encouraged to tell, recount, or narrate the emergence of problems and solutions attempted as a means of problem-solving and therapy, the so-called "talking cure."

  • Courtroom trials or investigations (or detective shows) review and reconstitute evidence of "what happened" so that motives, actions, and consequences are arranged in a clear narrative sequence with moral implications.

Narrative may thus resemble logic, but logic mostly operates consciously, while narrative mostly operates unconsciously like a dream. (Dreams too are thinking-emotive exercises that straighten or clear our lines of thought.) A convenient analogy is that a literary narrative is like a musical melody, where we spontaneously comprehend whether a sequence of rhythms and tones works or not.

Comparably, when reading a story or watching a movie or play, we're not conscious of learning or modeling but they happen regardless, unconsciously.

Reality, nature, God, and ultimate truth may be greater and more complicated than our stories, but stories keep us going and provide meaning.

Narratives are propelled by desire: for love, for revenge, for recovery of something lost.

Stories matter to everyone, and story-telling and story-hearing is part of what makes us human. (Some other animal species may tell stories—e.g., whale songs, bees dancing to give other bees directions to pollen—but so far humans appear to be the only creatures who tell complex, multi-layered stories and record them for others to read, view, or hear.)

Narrative as ritual, ceremony, sacrifice: sequence of symbolic events (cf. Christian communion)

Narrative genres

“Narrative genre” refers to the kind of narrative, story, or plot that various works of literature tell or enact. The source for such literary criticism is . . .

Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (1957), acc. to which there are four basic story lines or patterns (which can overlap or combine):

These distinct narratives often work in combination—for instance, romantic comedy, or a tragic romance.

(narrative as time-sequence)