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A narrative is a story: an interpretation of some aspect of the world that is historically and culturally grounded and shaped by human personality (per Walter Fisher). Derived from the Latin word gnarus and the Proto-Indo-European root ghnu, "to know," it came into English via the French language and it is used in a number of specialized applications. In everyday communication, humans often tell narratives as a means of sense making, or to better understand events, people, places, etc.

Conceptual issues

Semiotics begins with the individual building blocks of meaning called signs and studies the way in which signs are combined into codes to transmit messages. This is part of a general communication system using both verbal and nonverbal elements, creating a discourse with different modalities and forms. In On Realism in Art, Roman Jakobson argues that literature does not exist as a separate entity. He and many other semioticians prefer the view that all texts, whether spoken or written, are basically the same except that some authors encode their texts with distinctive literary qualities that distinguish them from other forms of discourse. Nevertheless, there is a clear trend to address literary narrative forms as separable from other forms. This is first seen in Russian Formalism through Victor Shklovsky's analysis of the relationship between composition and style, and in the work of Vladimir Propp who analysed the plots used in traditional folktales and identified distinct functional components. This trend continues in the work of the Prague School and of French scholars such as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes. It leads to a structural analysis of narrative and an increasingly influential body of modern work that raises important epistemological questions: What is text? What is its role in the contextual culture? How is it manifested as art, cinema, theatre, or literature? How as poetry, short stories and novels of different genres?

Walter Fisher's Narrative Paradigm

Main article: Narrative paradigm

Outside the mainstream of semiotics, Walter Fisher has also offered a comprehensive theory known as the Narrative Paradigm.


Rather than organising data as facts in logical relationships, most people retain their everyday information as anecdotal narratives with characters, plots, motivations, and actions. At its broadest level, Fisher argues that all communication is a form of storytelling. In his "Narrative Paradigm", he defines "narration" as symbolic actions, words, and/or deeds that have sequence and meaning for those who live, create or interpret them: a definition broad enough to support his claim that all meaningful communication is storytelling.

Fisher suggests that everyone has the same two abilities in judging either the rationality or the modality of the story:

  • to test for narrative coherence and probability, i.e. to see whether the story is "good", it must hold together as a credible sequence of events, and make sense in real world terms: and
  • to confirm narrative fidelity, i.e. that it matches the values, beliefs, and experiences common to the audience. If it does, it will be a reasonably faithful portrayal of the real world and it will "resonate" with soundness.

Main criticisms of the Narrative Paradigm

The first and most obvious is that not all human discourse takes the form of a story. This page, for example, is not written with human characters and a plot. Although it might be possible to sustain the idea that Fisher, himself, is a character in the narrative of whether his theory will be accepted or not, this sequence of words does not match the normal reader's expectations for a narrative. However, Fisher then argues that the writer(s) of this page have their own narratives and, in offering this information to the reader, the writer(s) are inviting the readers to incorporate this information into their own lives. Secondly, Fisher does not define the relationship between narrative probability or fidelity, nor provide criteria for testing them. In general, he seems to be dismissing traditional philosophical standards of rationality with little to replace it with. Nevertheless, the Paradigm does represent an interesting parallel to the more traditional theories of Semiotics.

Narrative and identity

In remembering and telling our stories we construct a continually evolving sense of identity. Who are we? We are the kind of people who did this, thought that, had that sort of relationship etc.

Main article: Narrative and identity

Literary theory

General purposes in Semiotics and Literary Theory, a 'narrative' is a story or part of a story. A story is any form of text, regardless of medium, describing a sequence of events caused and experienced by characters, some of whom may be fictional. It may be spoken, written or imagined, and it will have one or more points of view representing some or all of the participants or observers. In stories told verbally, there is a person telling the story, a narrator whom the audience can see and hear, and who adds layers of meaning to the text nonverbally. The narrator also has the opportunity to monitor the audience's response to the story and to modify the manner of the telling to clarify content or enhance listener interest. This is distinguishable from the written form in which the author must gauge the readers likely reactions when they are decoding the text and make a final choice of words in the hope of achieving the desired response.

Whatever the form, the content may concern real-world people and events. This is termed personal experience narrative. When the content is fictional, different conventions apply. The text is projecting a narrative voice, but the narrator is ontologically distant, i.e. belongs to an invented or imaginary world, and not the real world. The narrator may be one of the characters in the story. Roland Barthes describes such characters as 'paper beings' and fiction comprises their narratives of personal experience as created by the author. When their thoughts are included, this is termed internal focalisation, i.e. when each character's mind focuses on a particular event, the text reflects his or her reactions.

In written forms, the reader hears the narrator's voice both through the choice of content and style (the author can encode voices for different emotions and situations, and the voices can either be overt or covert), and through clues that reveal the narrator's beliefs, values, and ideological stance, as well as the author's attitude towards people, events, and things. It is customary to distinguish a first-person from a third-person narrative (Gérard Genette uses the terms homodiegetic and heterodiegetic narrative respectively). A homodiegetic narrator describes his or her personal and subjective experiences as a character in the story. Such a narrator cannot know anything more about what goes on in the minds of any of the other characters than is revealed through their actions, whereas a heterodiegetic narrator describes the experiences of the characters who do appear in the story and, if the story's events are seen through the eyes of a third-person internal focaliser, this is termed a figural narrative. In some stories, the author may be overtly omniscient, and both employ multiple points of view and comment directly on events as they occur.

Tzvetan Todorov (1969) coined the term narratology for the structuralist analysis of any given narrative into its constituent parts to determine their function(s) and relationships. For these purposes, the story is what is narrated as usually a chronological sequence of themes, motives and plot lines. Hence, the plot represents the logical and causal structure of a story, explaining why the events occur. The term discourse is used to describe the stylistic choices that determine how the narrative text or performance finally appears to the audience. One of the stylistic decisions may be to present events in a non-chronological order, say using flashbacks to reveal motivations at a dramatic moment.

See also

Other specific applications

  • Narrative poetry is poetry that tells a story.
  • Narrative film is film which uses filmed reality to tell a story, often as a feature film.
  • Narrative history is a genre of factual historical writing that uses chronology as its framework (as opposed to a thematic treatment of a historical subject).
  • Narrative environment is a contested term that has been used for techniques of architectural or exhibition design in which 'stories are told in space' and also for the virtual environments in which computer games are played and which are invented by the computer game authors.

Further reading

  • Clandinin, D. J. & Connelly, F. M. (2000). Narrative inquiry: Experience and story in qualitative research. Jossey-Bass.
  • Flyvbjerg, B. (2006). "Five Misunderstandings About Case Study Research." Qualitative Inquiry, vol. 12, no. 2, 219-245. [1]
  • Genette, Gérard. (1980 [1972]). Narrative Discourse. An Essay in Method. (Translated by Jane E. Lewin). Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Hunter, Kathryn Montgomery (1991). "Doctors' Stories: The Narrative Structure of Medical Knowledge." Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Jakobson, Roman. (1921). "On Realism in Art" in Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist. (Edited by Ladislav Matejka & Krystyna Pomorska). The MIT Press.
  • Labov, William. (1972). Chapter 9: The Transformation of Experience in Narrative Syntax. In: "Language in the Inner City." Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. (1958 [1963]). Anthropologie Structurale/Structural Anthropology. (Translated by Claire Jacobson & Brooke Grundfest Schoepf). New York: Basic Books.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. (1962 [1966]). La Pensée Sauvage/The Savage Mind (Nature of Human Society). London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Mythologiques I-IV (Translated by John Weightman & Doreen Weightman)
  • Linde, Charlotte (2001). Chapter 26: Narrative in Institutions. In: Deborah Schiffrin, Deborah Tannen & Heidi E. Hamilton (ed.s) "The Handbook of Discourse Analysis." Oxford & Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Norrick, Neal R. (2000). "Conversational Narrative: Storytelling in Everyday Talk." Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Polanyi, Livia. (1985). "Telling the American Story: A Structural and Cultural Analysis of Conversational Storytelling." Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishers Corporation.
  • Shklovsky, Viktor. (1925 [1990]). Theory of Prose. (Translated by Benjamin Sher). Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press.
  • Todorov, Tzvetan. (1969). Grammaire du Décameron. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Toolan, Michael (2001). "Narrative: a Critical Linguistic Introducti

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