Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms & Themes

(terms index)


"Narrative" is most easily translated as a fancy academic word for "story" or "plot." For most readers or audiences that definition is good enough. Everybody loves a good story.

But synonyms like narrative, plot, or story aren't really definitions--just other words that satisfy our need to identify something but don't advance our understanding of what the terms mean, how they function in human nature and culture, and why they matter so much to us.

Stories matter to everyone, and story-telling and -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 humans so far appear to be the only creatures who tell complex, multi-layered stories and record them for others to read, view, or hear.)

  • Stories can be brief and basic, as when you introduce yourself to a stranger or tell a partner how your day went.

Or stories can be massive, complicated, and extended, as with the Iliad and Odyssey, the Bible, nineteenth-century novels like War and Peace or Uncle Tom's Cabin, or the Twilight, Left Behind, or the Hunger Games series, or Mad Men or Star Trek, and on and on.

Stories are everywhere in human nature and culture, and everyone likes a good story. Nearly everyone who hears a story just goes with its flow, and often responds only by telling another story. Thus stories work for most people in a natural or spontaneous way that is partly conscious and partly unconscious.

Only a few people want to know how stories work: critics, authors, marketers, historians, teachers--critical thinkers who want to analyze how the world works so that it can work better. Critical thinking makes the unconscious become conscious.

Stories help people make sense of the world. Stories record what happen,

but they also reshape or even create what happened. Narrative or story-telling is a type of mimesislike all art, a story imitates or re-presents a sequence or series of symbols or events that happened (or could have happened) in reality, nature, the world.

Narratives may even be a part of critical thinking. Telling a story often appears as an exercise in problem-solving, as in a mystery, a detective story, or a vengeance narrative.

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. 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."

Standard elements of narratives or stories:

  • time—stories happen as a sequence of events in time . . . .

  • conflict—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 actions—Narratives may sequence events, actions, meetings, departures, even waiting. For the story to work, however, each event must have symbolic meaning. Thus a narrative is a code or progression of symbols.

Characters may function as symbols--e.g., hero, villain, damsel, father, helper. These characters' functions may cross or combine. 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, may perform a number of functions: they may attract or repel 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 only glimpse.


There are many dimensions to narratives--they're so essential to our nature and do so many things for us, but two formal dimensions create an intellectual figure or system:

  • the story-line, sequence, or series of symbols or events, which make a linear progression in time

  • the symbols or symbolic events that appear in the line of thought or narration.

Example from fictional narrative:

"Today the child opened a door that had always been closed."  (Identify symbols and analyze how they work in sequence or progress.)

Example from 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 within.



Other approaches:

  • People think, respond, and act in terms of stories that express our fears and desires (often expressed symbolically).

  • 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.

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

  • Narrative may thus resemble logic, but logic mostly operates consciously, while narrative mostly operates unconsciously like a dream. 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.

  • 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.


Odd notes:

Aristotle, Poetics: beginning, middle, end

narrative as mediation of tradition and change

narrative as management of conflict, resolution

narrative moves from past to future