Narrative Theory: A Brief Introduction


Chapter 1: Definitions of Narrative


 1.1 Problems with Definition


One problem we may face in the definition of narrative is that we all seem to know what stories and narrative are, so one wonders whether one should define it at all. Another problem is that many scholars have a tendency to be circular in their definitions of the word, or of terms which make use of the word narrative.  Quite frequently, the word to be defined is included in the definition itself. Here are some examples,

Here are further examples of circular definitions from Bal's book:

Although such circularity is difficult to avoid, one must somehow arrive at a greater degree of clarity as to what a narrative is before one can proceed further in its study.


1.2 The Dualistic Nature of Narrative


Fortunately, there is broad agreement on the dualistic nature of narrative: that it has a what and a way. The what of narrative can be viewed in terms of narrative content, which consists, as far as the main elements are concerned, of events, actors, time and location.  The way has to do with how the narrative is told.

The what is also called the story; or what is also known as the histoire by the French structuralists, or fabula by the Russian Formalists.  The way is the discourse, or what the French structuralists called discours or the Russian Formalists called sjužet.  These terms and the difference between story and discourse are indicated in the tables below.  This dualism is found in the title of an important book of narrative: Story and Discourse by Seymour Chatman.


Table 1.1: The What and The Way of Narrative














Table 1.2: Meaning of Story and Discourse

Narrative Aspect



what narrative is: its content, consisting of events, actions, time and location


how the narrative is told: arrangement, emphasis / de-emphasis, magnification / diminution, of any of the elements of the content


The binary classification of narrative may be necessary in order for us to conceptualise the idea of the ‘translation’ or conversion of a particular narrative from one art form or medium to another: when one converts from one medium to another, one tries to retain at least some elements of the storyDiscourse  differences may arise from differences in the respective medium. The story/discourse distinction is also helpful, as we will discover in the next chapter, when we want  to specify what we mean by the beginning and end (or for that matter, the middle) of a narrative, as the beginning and end of a narrative at the story and discourse levels may differ.


1.3 Narrative Discourse: Two Further Aspects


It may be useful to divide narrative discourse into two further aspects: the story-internal aspect, and the aspect which involves an interaction with story-external factors.  The definition of discourse in table 1.2 above as ‘the arrangement, emphasis / de-emphasis, magnification / diminution of any of the elements of the content’ has to do with the story-internal aspect of discourse.  Also important in my view, is the story-external aspect, which tells us how the narrative arises, how it ends, what are the motivating factors in the telling, beginnning, ending and continuation of narrative and so on.  Such a view of narrative does not look at it as an autonomous entity.  Some of these story-external factors will be discussed later in this book.


1.4 Three-Level Descriptions of Narrative


Sometimes, a three-level division of narrative is proposed.  According to Bal (1985: 7-9), for example, we have the fabula, the story and the text: 

Another three-level conception is given by Rimmon-Kenan (1983: 3-4).  To her, a narrative consists of story, text and narration.

In spite of the obvious added advantages of giving a three-level description of narrative, you will notice that for the most part, the two-level division into story and discourse is usually adequate for most purposes.  However, a third level of text may be useful if it refers to the physical entity where the narrative resides: for example, the pages of a book, the acts of a play, etc.


1.5 Looking  from Various Angles and Taking a Minimalist View


Although a simple ‘dictionary’ definition of  narrative is difficult – as it has a tendency to be circular – there have been various attempts to define narrative. Some of these attempts do not give a ‘straight’ definition of narrative, by listing its components, but look at it from various angles.

A Minimalist Definition of  Narrative

Two states and a transition or move­ment between the two states.

One way to define narrative, is to look at it in terms of a minimal narrative (eg. Labov 1972: 361; Prince 1973:  31;  cf. also Rimmon-Kenan 1983: 18; Tomashevsky 1965). One minimalist definition looks at narrative in terms of two states and a transition or movement between the two states: anything which has this is considered a narrative.

In spite of being slightly more complex than the minimal narrative as it is defined above, Bal's definition of narrative as involving three phases, that is to say, as consisting of

can also be considered a minimalist definition, as quite a number of event sequences will satisfy the above three stages, and should therefore be considered a narrative.


1.6 Paradigmatic and Sytagmatic Features


Narrative has also been defined according to what can be called its paradigmatic core features. A paradigm, as a contrast to a syntagm, works on the vertical plane, where one element in a configuration can be substituted with another element belonging to a similar category, whereas a syntagm is a linear configuration which can be analysed in terms of the relationships of each of its elements in the linear configuration. Any text must have these paradigmatic core features in order to be considered a narrative; a paradigmatic core feature, in contrast to a syntagmatic core feature (see below), can occur at any point in a narrative, and not merely at a specific point in a sequence of other features.  Some of the features to be discussed later in this book, such as characters and events as they are broadly defined, can be described as paradigmatic core features, as they can occur at any or all points in a narrative.

As stated above, a syntagmatic constituent of narrative must occur at a specific point in a sequence of other constituents or features. Thus using an appropriately arranged set of syntagmatic constituents (or syntagmatic core features), one can determine whether a sequence of events can be considered a narrative.  A plot for example which we will discuss in more detail in a chapter 6, is usually seen in terms of a set of syntagmatically arranged constituents, which are often viewed in terms of a series of  events.


Table 1.3: Paradigmatic and Syntagmatic Aspects of Narrative

paradigmatic core feature

can occur at any point in the narrative and not merely at a specific point in a sequence of other features

syntagmatic core constituent

must occur at an appropriate point in a sequence of other constituents


1.7 Narrative as Communication


There have also been attempts to define narrative in terms of a communicative framework.  To Chatman (1978: 28), ‘[a] narrative is a communication; hence, it presupposes two parties, a sender and a receiver’. Chatman is also of the view that ‘[n]narratives are communications, thus easily envisaged as the movement of arrows from left to right, from author to audience’ (1978: 31).

The term narration has also been defined in terms of communication.  To Rimmon-Kenan, ‘narration suggests a communication process in which the narrative as message is transmitted by addressor [sic] to addressee’ (1983: 2).  It has been claimed (for example by Martin 1986: 27), that the recent trend in narrative analysis represents a shift from the linguistic to the communication model.

In the communicative framework, a narrative is viewed in terms of a transaction which has an addresser, addressee and (possibly) a message. If one is referring to a written text, the addresser is the author or narrator and the addessee is the reader or narratee (see chapter 7 for more details).  If one is referring to a spoken text, the addresser is the speaker or narrator and the addessee is the listener or narratee.  One can also take a semiotic perspective of the communicative framework, where the addressee is the encoder, who intends a meaning in relation to the sign system he or she has produced; the listener is the decoder who interprets the meaning according to the given sign system.  These are illustrated in the table below.  Such a communicative framework may occur at several levels, in which case it can be quite complex.


Table 1.4: The Communicative Framework

Type of Text




Written text


(written) message


Spoken text


(spoken) text



Using the communicative framework for the analysis of narrative is certainly useful. We will be using ideas related to communication later in the discussion of the narrative levels between author-reader, narrator-narratee, characters, and so on.  However, the communicative framework must be used with caution. Communication is certainly not a distinctive feature of narrative, as other areas of human activity are also communicative.  The addresser, addressee and message framework can easily be used for other forms of communication which do not involve narrative.

Another problem is the association of communication with the conveyance of truth.  When we say, for example, that ‘I have successfully communicated to him my interest in the project’ or ‘I have not been successful in communicating to him the facts of the case in spite of our exchange of letters’, we are associating communication with the conveyance of truth.  In this connection, we can ask in what sense fictional narratives, which have no truth value, be communicative.  Of course, this conception of communication is a restrictive one.  But it must be bourne in mind when one takes the communicative approach to narrative.


1.8 Narrative and Sociology


A narrative can be sociologically defined, in which case, it can be analysed in terms of any or all of the above-mentioned features or factors. However, these features or factors must be of sociological consequence, reflect social patterns, or are activated by social factors.  Formal concerns of narrative analysis are usually not of direct interest in a sociological approach.

A prominent recent approach in sociological and cultural analysis, is to treat society itself as consisting of various narratives.  For example, it was believed that what were called Enlightenment grand narratives (such as the belief that we are progressing towards rationality, the betterment of human kind, and so on), has now been replaced in the postmodern age by a collection of little narratives (petit récits) which put some of these grand narratives into question (see the influential book by Jean François Lyotard, 1984).

Another prominent strand is to treat the concept of the nation as justifying itself through a collection of narratives, some of which are dependent on a selective interpretation of history, or on mythic accounts of what were believed to have occurred in the past. These narratives give an unjustifiably homogeneous account of the nation as a holistic entity (see some of the essays collected in Bhabha, 1990).


1.9 Narrative and Cognition


Aside from the sociological definition, narrative has also been cognitively defined, in which case it is defined in terms of any or all of the features mentioned above, but these factors are looked at from a psychological angle. In a sense, every aspect of narrative and narrative as a whole cannot be understood or even sensed unless they have been cognitively processed. So the cognitive approach is implicit in narrative studies, even if it is not always systematically brought to the surface in the analysis of narrative. An important concept in the cognitive approach to narrative is the schema, which we will be discussing in chapter 8.


1.10 Narrative and Literature


Much valuable research on narrative has been done by literary scholars.  However, I am not sure if there is such a thing as a literary definition of narrative.  It does seem to be the case that definitions of narrative in literature could easily be applied to spheres outside literature. Thus an absolute distinction between literature and other spheres of human activity, even if one concentrates on what appears to be a specifically ‘literary’ concept such as narrative, cannot be made.


1.11 The Human Element in Narrative


The human element in narrative is important.  We can say here that  narrative  must have a human (or human-like) agent who must do something, or something must be done to him or her. Even stories involving animals or inanimate objects have characters which act like, or have features of, human beings. The human factor can be regarded as a paradigmatic core feature of narrative.


1.12 Causality


Another important element in narrative is causality or more appropriately perhaps, the perception of causality.  In fact, it is regarded as a crucial element for defining a text as narrative to many scholars.  Looking at causality or the perception of causality from a general angle, one can say that it can be regarded as another paradigmatic core feature. However, the type of causality, the causal agents involved, or the causal chains or typical causal sequences, can be looked at from a syntagmatic perspective.


1.13 Movement


Movement is also essential to narrative.  A static description cannot be a narrative.  Thus verbs of movement are more essential to narrative than verbs which describe states.  Verbs which describe physical movement are described in the linguistics of  M. A. K. Halliday, as material processes, and these verbs are therefore more cardinal to narrative than the other categories of verbs. We can also view the verbs involved in narrative as dynamic verbs: i.e. verbs which describe activities, as contrasted to verbs that describe states.


1.14 The Story Teller, Author and Narrator


There are some scholars who claim that the story-teller is necessary for narrative. We have seen earlier that in their three-level description of narrative, Bal’s text and Rimmon-Kenan’s narrator, include conceptions which can easily be related to the story-teller. Another scholar who includes the story-teller in his narrative framework is Leitch (1986: 3), who cites Scholes and Kellogg (1966) to support his belief in its importance.  But the story-teller and its importance need further specification, as there are some stories which do not have a well-defined story-teller,  and there may be several story-tellers in a narrative  One must therefore indicate which of them, or which category of  story-tellers is necessary to narrative, as not all of them can be considered fundamental to the overall definition of the text as a narrative.

In written texts, an important story-teller is the author; another is the narrator. For spoken texts, we have the speaker, in addition to the narrator (see table 4 above).  In this regard, Genette and Rimmon-Kenan are of the view that the element of narration entails the presence of both the author and the narrator.


1.15 Does the Author Exist?


We should ask here whether we should bring the author into the picture in our definition of narrative, as s/he is, at best, an unseen presence, especially when one refers to written narrative. The ‘I’ of narrative, for example, may not (and frequently does not) refer to the author, but to the narrator.

The presence of the author is in fact put into question by the rejection or ‘decentring’ of the ‘Subject’ in post-structuralist theory.  But we have to note here that this may not be a good argument against the presence of the author, as the structuralist and post-structuralist notion of the subject does not merely refer to the author. It may, for example, refer to the narrator, which does however seem to play an important part in most approaches to narrative.


1.16 Problems with the Narrator


In spite of its importance, there are problems with the existence of the narrator in some genres of narrative, such as those found film and drama. We will  discuss this issue further in chapters 7 and 11 on the narrator and on cinematic narrative.  One way out of this problem is to regard narrative and drama as distinct.  Some scholars (for example, Leitch) believe that they should be distinguished.  Taking this approach, one can say that the problem of the existence of the narrator does not arise in drama because drama is not narrative.  But many may not agree with this.  After all, one of the earliest works on narrative theory is Aristotle’s Poetics, which is essentially a study of dramatic narrative.


1.17 Is An Audience Necessary?


There have been many attempts to explain the necessity of an audience to narrative.  In the communicative framework of narrative, one sees terms such as addressee, reader, listener, narratee, decoder, all of which are related to the audience.


Table 1.5:  Other Words Used for the Audience

Those Mentioned Earlier

Those Not Mentioned Earlier

addressee, reader, listener, narratee, decoder

recipient, respondent, target, destination, etc.

Important note: each of the above  terms may serve a different purpose, may refer to only certain genres of narrative, or may work at a different level from the others


However, it has been argued that not only is the audience necessary, but what it knows, or more importantly, what it does not know, must be taken into consideration.  Leitch, for example,  has put the audience's ignorance as essential to narrative. According to him (16), ‘[a]s soon  as   the audience knows everything that is to happen, narrative becomes ritual’.


1.18 Narrative, Culture & Society


A difficulty one faces in the analysis of narrative, and in the attempt to define it, lies in the fact that the shapes of narrative are based on general cultural assumptions, which may be different from society to society. The close relationship of narrative with society may thus contribute to the difficulty in giving it a definition which views it as an autonomous entity, separate from factors or other entities external to itself.

It has even been argued that not only the shapes of narrative, but narrative itself is dependent on cultural factors. It has been suggested, for example, that the existence of narrative is dependent on the lack of stability in the social world: to Wallace Martin (100) ‘Karl Marx said that history, and perhaps narrative, will end when there is a classless society.  Narration starts when that world is thrown out of kilter, or there  is a need to explain the world's origin and structure’.


1.19 The Nature of Definitions


As we can see above, definitions can either be internal – in which case one talks of the constituents of narrative; or it can be external –  where one views the various contexts that these constituents should be viewed from.   There are also static and dynamic approaches to the definition of narrative where one looks at what narrative is and how it works. 

Clearly, a mixture of these approaches can help us to understand narrative better.  Internal definitions of narrative cannot help us if we are not able to locate the contexts by which these constituents are viewed from.  Similarly, looking at narrative as a static entity may help us to see things more distinctly, but this may not be helpful if we are not able to see how narrative works.


© 2004–18; last revised: 30 March 2018.