Narrative is a term that pops up everywhere, not only in relation to film and literature, but also in news stories, in college curriculums, to describe a style of podcasts, even to specify a form of psychotherapy. But what is a narrative? And why is the term used so often to describe so many seemingly unrelated subjects?
Although the many forms of narrative can make a definition feel elusive, once you have a strong understanding of their form and function, you can begin to tie together the many kinds of narratives into one overarching concept.
To get you there, we’ll define narrative, analyze its purpose, highlight examples, and lay out the basics of how it works.
What does narrative mean?
First, let’s define narrative
Narratives are everywhere. They are as critical to our daily existence as food and shelter. Without them, we would lack some of the most important tools to learn and share our experiences.
What is a Narrative?
A narrative is a story, an account of a string of events occurring in space and time. They do not unfold randomly, but rather as an ordered series of events connected by the logic of cause and effect. Narratives are as old as human civilization, and probably older. Historians trace the visual storytelling of cave painting back at least 30,000 years. And people were telling each other stories before they were writing them down.
- Films and TV shows
- Novels and plays
- Graphic novels and comic books
- Video games
- Journalism and essays
- History accounts
- Biographies and memoirs
- Myths and legends
- Religious texts
- Stories around the campfire
As you can see from the many narrative examples listed above, storytelling is predominant in our lives. Next we examine why that is. What is the purpose of a narrative?
Understanding Narrative Meaning
What is the purpose of a narrative?
Many of us probably think of narrative as entertainment first — with good reason. Entertainment, and the escape it provides, occupies a vast chunk of our free time. We may watch Netflix on weeknights, go to the movies and play video games on the weekend, read a novel before bed.
Even sports, which seemingly unfolds randomly, is packaged as narrative, with announcers contextualizing the action in terms of the history of the game, the arc of a season, and the lives of players.
But narratives have many purposes beyond entertainment and escape. Throughout human history, people from cultures across the world have consumed and created narratives multiple times a day.
The reason is that narratives are the primary way that we understand and give meaning to our lives.
WHAT IS A NARRATIVE
LET’S DEFINE NARRATIVE PURPOSE
Among other things, we use narratives to:
- Express our individual thoughts and feelings
- Create cautionary tales about what could happen if we aren’t careful
- Create morality tales that help us to be good people
- Stay informed about each other’s lives
- Educate ourselves and our children
- Inspire us to keep going during difficult times
- Store records of human civilization
These examples prove the adage of the famous screenwriting teacher Robert McKee that, “Stories are equipment for living,” and that even our entertainment narratives serve a larger purpose in our lives. To examine this further, watch the TEDx talk below.
As the narrator, Donald R. Guillory, says, “Our personal narratives are the individual threads that help make up the fabric of humanity. They help us understand each other’s perspective and our histories.”
What is a narrative story?
Narrative examples in literature
Literature is one of the primary expressions of narrative and the one that many people think of when they think of a narrative story definition. Novels, plays, essays, and poetry are all forms of literature.
Examples include plays by Shakespeare (Hamlet, MacBeth, Othello); Greek epic poems by Homer (The Iliad and The Odyssey); the essays of James Baldwin; and the novels of Toni Morrison (Beloved, The Bluest Eye). This video examines the purpose of literature, and the ways it benefits us.
By definition, all literature is narrative. So, instead of just listing narrative examples in literature, let’s instead ask: what are different types of narratives? Types include the quest narrative, the historical narrative, the psychological narrative, the roman à clef — a thinly disguised narrative about real life — and the Bildungsroman, the story of a character’s education. Below we examine two of these categories along with examples.
The Quest Narrative
What are different types of narratives? One popular type is the quest narrative. In this type, the hero must undertake an arduous journey and face many obstacles to complete a difficult task. The stakes are often very high, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. The quest narrative often dramatizes the personal transformation undergone by the protagonist as well, as a result of his or her trials and suffering.
Famous quests include J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, in which a Hobbit, Frodo, must travel to the distant land of Mordor to destroy a magic ring before evil envelops Middle Earth. Homer’s “The Odyssey” is another famous quest, in which a great warrior, Odysseus, struggles over ten years to find his way home from The Trojan War.
The writer and scholar Joseph Campbell studied the quest narrative across cultures and history. He found that elements repeated in quest stories around the world, even in cultures that had had no contact with one another. He famously organized them into “The Hero’s Journey,” which includes the steps, “the call to adventure,” “transformation,” and “return.”
The quest remains a very popular form in literature. Other famous examples include Beowulf, Moby Dick, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Bildungsroman is a German term for a literary genre that focuses on the moral and psychological maturation of its protagonist. The term translates to “novel of education” or “novel of formation,” and such stories typically focus on young protagonists as they come of age. Thematically, they attempt to show that gaining wisdom, maturity, and humility is inextricably linked to success in life.
Classic examples include Emma, by Jane Austen, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Here's a trailer for a recent adaptation of Austen's iconic novel.
A contemporary example of a Bildungsroman is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The seven novels chronicle Harry’s adventures at a magical boarding school, but they also detail Harry’s moral, philosophical, and psychological coming of age.
In a broader sense, you could argue that most stories are Bildungsromans, as most stories trace character growth.
What does Narrative Mean in Film
Examining narrative in film
Literature was the most popular and widely consumed storytelling form for several thousand years, at least since the height of Greek drama in the 5th century BC. However, in the late 19th century, cinema emerged and quickly eclipsed literature as the most popular mode of storytelling.
By the 1930s, tens of millions of people were going to the movies every week. Cinematic storytelling provided people with escape and inspiration during the Great Depression.
As with literature, there are many different kinds of cinematic storytelling forms — feature length films, short films, documentaries. Films can be further organized into movie genres. Some of the most prominent genres are drama, comedy, thriller, science-fiction, western, war, horror, and musical. This video analyzes the western genre and how it gave rise to the neo-western.
As the video makes clear, genres evolve over time to reflect how people and cultures have changed. However, stories within the genre continue to reflect the same themes and serve the same fundamental individual and social needs.
What Makes a Story
Characteristics of a narrative story
Narratives focus on human or human-esque characters — such as talking animals, aliens, or robots — and their struggles to achieve goals. Character need and desire is typically responsible for cause and effect in storytelling.
Goals might include locating treasure, choosing a foster parent, or finding true love. The next video outlines the way that character needs and desires work within a story.
Characters encounter obstacles in pursuing these goals. The collision of goals and obstacles create conflict and thus drama. Obstacles to character goals can come from within the character, from other characters, from non-humans (such as aliens or monsters), and from nature. This is otherwise known as internal vs. external conflict.
Obstacles may come in the form of concrete physical challenges, the actions and desires of others, or psychological and emotional issues. Most narratives involve characters overcoming obstacles on more than one level. Watch this video analysis of the Interstellar script to see how this works.
Typically a narrative begins with an initial situation — a setup, plus an inciting incident that creates the protagonist's goal. A series of changes occurs according to a pattern of cause and effect. Finally a new situation arises – through character choice and conflict – that restores equilibrium to the world of the story and brings about the end of the narrative.
The new story equilibrium almost always results in character change. The character change is meant to be instructive to the audience, using narrative meaning to help people see how to effect change in their own lives.
What does narrative mean in Star Wars?
The Empire Strikes Back begins with the protagonist Luke Skywalker hiding from the Empire. Changes that result from conflict and character choice force him into a climactic showdown with the antagonist, Darth Vader.
Vader triumphs and equilibrium is restored. Though Luke is defeated, he changes by becoming wiser and more humble. He will be better equipped to face Vader next time.
When we define narrative, we must also consider character traits. Character traits are attitudes, skills, habits, tastes, psychological drives and other qualities that distinguish a character. Traits in opening scenes are relevant to later scenes; this is related to cause and effect.
The Empire Strikes Back introduces Luke’s character traits early; they pay off in later scenes. They include his Force abilities; survival skills; combat adeptness; and his impetuousness.
In this early scene, the narrative establishes that Luke can call his lightsaber to him using the Force. This sets up his ability to use it in a crucial moment late in the film during his battle with Vader.
Master the Art of Dramatic Writing
We have now summarized narrative definitions, examined its purpose and meaning, and looked at some narrative examples in literature and film. The next step in understanding storytelling function is to further analyze its component parts and complex structure.