Genette introduced the term “focalization” as a replacement for “perspective” and “point of view” (→ Perspective - Point of View). He considers it to be more or less synonymous with these terms, describing it as a mere “reformulation” ([Genette, Gérard ( 1988). Narrative Discourse Revisited. Ithaca: Cornell UP.1983] 1988: 65) and “general presentation of the standard idea of ‘point of view’” (84). This, however, is an underestimation of the conceptual differences between focalization and the traditional terms.
Genette distinguishes three types or degrees of focalization—zero, internal and external—and explains his typology by relating it to previous theories:
“The first term [zero focalization] corresponds to what English-language criticism calls narrative with omniscient narrator and Pouillon ‘vision from behind,’ and which Todorov symbolizes by the formula Narrator > Character (where the narrator knows more than the character, or more exactly, says more than any of the characters knows). In the second term [internal focalization], Narrator = Character (the narrator says only what a given character knows); this is narrative with ‘point of view’ after Lubbock, or with ‘restricted field’ after Blin; Pouillon calls it ‘vision with.’ In the third term [external focalization], Narrator < Character (the narrator says less than the character knows); this is the ‘objective’ or ‘behaviorist’ narrative, what Pouillon calls ‘vision from without’” ([Genette, Gérard ( 1980). Narrative Discourse. An Essay in Method. Oxford: Blackwell.1972] 1980: 188–89).
The passage synthesizes two models: a quasi-mathematical one in which the amount of narrative information is indicated by the formulas derived from Todorov; and a more traditional one based on the metaphors of vision and point of view, which is derived from Pouillon and Lubbock. That these two models are not equivalent has been shown by Kablitz (Kablitz, Andreas (1988). “Erzählperspektive—Point of View—Focalisation: Überlegungen zu einem Konzept der Erzähltheorie.” Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur 98, 237–55.1988). If a novel begins by telling us who a character is, to whom she is married, and for how long she has been living in a certain town, it will reveal no more than the character knows herself, but no one would describe such a beginning as an example of “vision with” or character point of view. To tell a story from a character’s point of view means to present the events as they are perceived, felt, interpreted and evaluated by her at a particular moment.
Genette himself leans in the direction of the Todorovian, information-based model. On occasion, he talks about focalization in terms of the point-of-view paradigm, e.g. when he describes it as placing narrative focus at a particular “point” ([Genette, Gérard ( 1988). Narrative Discourse Revisited. Ithaca: Cornell UP.1983] 1988: 73); but in general, he thinks of focalization in terms of knowledge and information. He thus defines it as “a restriction of ‘field’ […], a selection of narrative information with respect to what was traditionally called omniscience” ([Genette, Gérard ( 1988). Narrative Discourse Revisited. Ithaca: Cornell UP.1983] 1988: 74). This emphasis is also implied by the very term itself and the preposition that goes along with it. Genette consistently writes “focalisation sur” in French: while a story is told from a particular point of view, a narrative focuses on something. This preposition indicates the selection of, or restriction to, amounts or kinds of information that are accessible under the norms of a particular focalization. If focalization is to be more than a mere “reformulation” of point of view, it is this aspect of the term, the information-based model, which should be emphasized.
Genette’s emphasis on knowledge and information is also revealed by his extensive treatment of alterations ([Genette, Gérard ( 1980). Narrative Discourse. An Essay in Method. Oxford: Blackwell.1972] 1980: 194–98), defined as a transgression of the informational norm established by the focalization of a text. Alterations take two forms: paralepsis, the inclusion of an event against the norm of a particular focalization; and paralipsis, a similarly transgressive omission of such an event. According to Genette, the norms that are violated by these transgressions cannot be defined in advance (e.g. by commonsensical inferences as to what a particular narrator may have learnt about the story he or she tells). Instead, the norms are established by each particular text: “The decisive criterion is not so much material possibility or even psychological plausibility as it is textual coherence and narrative tonality” (208). Shen disagrees with this view, arguing that it boils down to a merely quantitative approach, a measurement of the relative length of the normative and the transgressive portions of the text; she suggests that there is a more general “legitimacy” that is violated by alterations (Shen, Dan (2001). “Breaking Conventional Barriers: Transgressions of Modes of Focalization.” W. van Peer & S. Chatman (eds). New Perspectives on Narrative Perspective. Albany: SUNY.2001: 168–69). However, her examples and her analyses show that “legitimacy” in matters of focalization is far from self-evident. In her case, it rests on rather arbitrary assumptions about the limited knowledge of first-person narrators and the unlimited knowledge of third-person narrators.
A major point in Genette’s theory is his rigorous separation between focalization and the narrator (referred to with the grammatical metaphor of “voice”). Most previous theories analyze such categories as first-person narrator, omniscience, and camera perspective under one umbrella term, usually point of view. Genette believes that such cavalier treatments of the subject “suffer from a regrettable confusion […] between the question who is the character whose point of view orients the narrative perspective? and the very different question who is the narrator—or, more simply, the question who sees? and the question who speaks?” ([Genette, Gérard ( 1980). Narrative Discourse. An Essay in Method. Oxford: Blackwell.1972] 1980: 186). What follows from the separation of the two questions is a plea for a relatively free combination of narrator types and focalization types, a position that has ignited a considerable amount of controversy.
3 History of the Concept and its Study
Genette’s theory was welcomed as a considerable advance on the previous paradigm of perspective or point of view, and the neologism of focalization has been widely adopted, at least by narratologists. Genette himself claims that his term is preferable because it is less visual and metaphorical than the traditional ones ([Genette, Gérard ( 1980). Narrative Discourse. An Essay in Method. Oxford: Blackwell.1972] 1980: 189). Other critics prefer it because it is not part of everyday speech and thus more suitable as a technical term with a specialized meaning (Bal [Bal, Mieke ( 1997). Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Toronto: U of Toronto P.1985] 1997: 144; Nünning Nünning, Ansgar (1990). “‘Point of view’ oder ‘focalization’? Über einige Grundlagen und Kategorien konkurrierender Modelle der erzählerischen Vermittlung.” Literatur in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 23, 249–68.1990: 253; Füger Füger, Wilhelm (1993). “Stimmbrüche: Varianten und Spielräume narrativer Fokalisation.” H. Foltinek et al. (eds). Tales and their “telling difference”: Zur Theorie und Geschichte der Narrativik. Festschrift zum 70. Geburtstag von Franz K. Stanzel. Heidelberg: Winter, 43–59.1993: 44). However, the main argument is that the term dispels the confusion of the questions who sees? and who speaks? This argument has become a veritable commonplace (e.g. Bal [Bal, Mieke ( 1997). Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Toronto: U of Toronto P.1985] 1997: 143; Edmiston Edmiston, William F. (1991). Hindsight and Insight: Focalization in Four Eighteenth-Century French Novels. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP.1991: X; O’Neill O’Neill, Patrick (1992). “Points of Origin: On Focalization in Narrative.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature / Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée 19, 331–50.1992: 331; Rimmon-Kenan [Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith ( 2002). Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. London: Routledge.1983] 2002: 71; Nelles Nelles, William (1990). “Getting Focalization into Focus.” Poetics Today 11, 363–82.1990: 366; Nünning Nünning, Ansgar (1990). “‘Point of view’ oder ‘focalization’? Über einige Grundlagen und Kategorien konkurrierender Modelle der erzählerischen Vermittlung.” Literatur in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 23, 249–68.1990: 255–56). Finney states it as follows: “‘Focalization’ is a term coined by Gérard Genette to distinguish between narrative agency and visual mediation, i.e. focalization. ‘Point of View’ confuses speaking and seeing, narrative voice and focalization. Hence the need for Genette’s term” (Finney, Brian (1990). “Suture in Literary Analysis.” LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 2, 131–44.1990: 144). It is true that Genette introduces the term focalization immediately after his polemics against the typological conflation of who sees? and who speaks?, but he does not establish a connection between these polemics and his neologism—nor is there such a connection. As a term, focalization dispels the confusion of seeing and speaking no more than the traditional terms do. On the contrary, the connection between the question who sees? and point of view should be a little more evident than between who sees? and focalization. It is perfectly possible to embrace Genette’s scheme, including the separation and free combination of narrator and focalization types, while referring to his three focalizations as points of view.
The case that the advocates of focalization have made for its superiority to point of view is by no means beyond dispute. Nor is it improved by the fact that some of them use the new term while still thinking along the lines of the old, overlooking the semantic differences between them and neglecting the new conceptual emphasis of the neologism. Füger, for example, explains that internal and external focalization can be distinguished by the “situation of the agent of the process of perception” (Füger, Wilhelm (1993). “Stimmbrüche: Varianten und Spielräume narrativer Fokalisation.” H. Foltinek et al. (eds). Tales and their “telling difference”: Zur Theorie und Geschichte der Narrativik. Festschrift zum 70. Geburtstag von Franz K. Stanzel. Heidelberg: Winter, 43–59.1993: 47), which is nothing but a roundabout paraphrase of point of view. A characteristic instance of the reinterpretation of focalization in terms of point of view is a change of preposition in the English translation of Genette’s study: “[L]e mode narratif de la Recherche est bien souvent la focalisation interne sur le héros” (Genette, Gérard (1972). “Discours du récit.” G. G. Figures III. Paris: Seuil, 67–282.1972: 214). “[T]he narrative mood of the Recherche is very often internal focalization through the hero” ([Genette, Gérard ( 1980). Narrative Discourse. An Essay in Method. Oxford: Blackwell.1972] 1980: 199). The rendering of sur as through speaks volumes. It seems that the translator is under the spell of the point-of-view paradigm. Instead of thinking about focalization as a selection of or a focusing on a particular region of the storyworld—in this case the mind of the protagonist—the translator regards this mind as a kind of window through or from which the world is perceived.
Bal’s influential revision of Genette’s theory is another example of the reinterpretation of focalization in terms of point of view, although she is more aware of this than others. Thus she admits that perspective “reflects precisely” what she means by focalization ([Bal, Mieke ( 1997). Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Toronto: U of Toronto P.1985] 1997: 143), and she points out that Genette ought to have written “focalisation par” instead of “focalisation sur” (Bal, Mieke (1977). Narratologie: Essais sur la signification narrative dans quatre romans modernes. Paris: Klincksieck.1977: 29). The continuing influence of the point-of-view paradigm also seems to underlie Bal’s reconceptualization of Genette’s typology in terms of focalizing subjects and focalized objects. According to her, the distinction between Genette’s zero focalization and his internal focalization lies in the agent or subject that “sees” the story (the narrator in the first case, a character in the second); the difference between Genette’s internal and external focalization, however, has nothing to do with the subject that “sees” but with the object that is “seen” (thoughts and feelings in the first case, actions and appearances in the second). Thus she ends up with a system of two binary distinctions that replace Genette’s triple typology. There are two types of focalization: character-bound or internal (Genette’s internal focalization) and external (Genette’s zero and external focalization combined into one). Furthermore, there are two types of focalized objects: imperceptible (thoughts, feelings, etc.) and perceptible (actions, appearances, etc.).
At least some of the elements in this reconceptualization result from Bal’s adherence to the point-of-view paradigm, notably the elimination of the distinction between Genette’s zero and external types (merged by Bal into external focalization). Within the point-of-view model, this change makes some sense. If one thinks about Genette’s zero and external focalization in terms of a point from which the characters are viewed, this point would appear to lie outside the characters in both cases. However, if one thinks in terms of knowledge and information, zero and external focalization are worlds apart. The first provides us with complete access to all the regions of the storyworld, including the characters’ minds, whereas in the second the access is extremely limited and no inside views are possible.
While it is possible to explain the motivation of Bal’s modifications of Genette’s theory by pointing out her adherence to point of view, it must be said that, in themselves, these modifications are hardly compelling. It is simply erroneous to claim that Genette’s zero and internal types are distinguished by the focalizing subjects, whereas his internal and external types differ in the focalized objects. All of Genette’s focalizations vary, among other things, in the range of objects that can be represented; his zero focalization and his internal focalization (distinguished in terms of the focalizing subjects by Bal) are also dissimilar in this respect. Furthermore, the “focalized object” is a misleading concept: the crucial distinction concerning such objects is between “perceptible” and “imperceptible” ones, which means that the subjective element of perception that Bal has previously eliminated is reintroduced by way of the adjective. As Edmiston writes: “[T]he focalizer can be characterized by his objects of focalization, despite Bal’s efforts to separate them [...]. Subject and object [of focalization] may be analyzed separately, but they cannot be dissociated totally, as though there were no correlation between them” (Edmiston, William F. (1991). Hindsight and Insight: Focalization in Four Eighteenth-Century French Novels. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP.1991: 153).
Another feature of Bal’s theory, pointed out and criticized by Jahn, is “that […] any act of perception (brief or extended; real, hypothetical or fantasized) presented in whatever form (narrated, reported, quoted, or scenically represented) counts as a case of focalization” (Jahn Jahn, Manfred (1996). “Windows of Focalization: Deconstructing and Reconstructing a Narratological Concept.” Style 30, 241–67.1996: 260). This is a problematic premise, which perhaps stems from taking Genette’s question who sees? rather too literally. It ultimately reduces the analysis of focalization to a paraphrase of narrative content, to identifying acts of perception. However, if a narrative tells us that Mary sees John, it would appear to depend very much on how this is told and what the context is whether the narrative is also focalized “by” (to use Bal’s preferred preposition) Mary. However, Bal is not the only one to equate focalization with perception. This premise is also shared by Herman & Vervaeck (Herman, Luc & Bart Vervaeck (2004). “Focalization between Classical and Postclassical Narratology.” J. Pier (ed). The Dynamics of Narrative Form: Studies in Anglo-American Narratology. Berlin: de Gruyter, 115–38.2004), Margolin (Margolin, Uri (2009). “Focalization: Where Do We Go from Here?” P. Hühn et al. (eds). Point of View, Perspective, and Focalization. Modeling Mediation in Narrative. Berlin: de Gruyter 48–58.2009) and Prince, who explicitly states that his “discussion links focalization only to the perception of the narrated by (or through, or ‘with’) an entity in that narrated” (Prince, Gerald (2001). “A Point of View on Point of View or Refocusing Focalization.” W. van Peer & S. Chatman (eds). New Perspectives on Narrative Perspective. Albany: SUNY, 43–50.2001: 47).
The equation of focalization with perception is also made by David Herman in “Hypothetical Focalization” (Herman, David (1994). “Hypothetical Focalization.” Narrative 2, 230–53.1994), a critical reading of this article revealing the problems inherent in the equation. Drawing on possible-worlds semantics, Herman examines passages that explicitly describe what might have been seen at a particular point in the story if there had been someone to see it. Thus, in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the narrator invokes an imaginary onlooker of this kind when he describes the house: “Perhaps the eye of a scrutinizing observer might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall […]” ([Poe, Edgar Allan ( 1956). Selected Writings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.1839] 1956: 97–8). There is a basic problem with Herman’s article. What he discusses is not hypothetical focalization, but hypothetical perception. The discovery of the fissure by Poe’s imaginary observer is hypothetical only in comparison with the case of a character actually seeing this fissure. In terms of the focalization of Poe’s story, the discovery is not hypothetical at all for the simple reason that the narrator utters it. It has an effect on the focalization in that it contributes to the distancing of the narrating I from the experiencing I: the narrating I knows there was a fissure because he has seen it very clearly at the end of the story, whereas the experiencing I seems to be unaware of it when he approaches the house for the first time. Generally speaking, instances of hypothetical perception would appear to point in the direction of zero focalization (or narratorial point of view in the traditional paradigm), just like the “report [of] what a character did not in fact think or say” discussed by Chatman ([Chatman, Seymour ( 1980). Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell UP.1978] 1980: 225). Hypothetical focalization in the strict sense is a focalization option that is conceivable but not realized in a text, such as an internally focalized version of Fielding’s Tom Jones. Whether a text itself can achieve or suggest such hypothetical focalization is an interesting question awaiting an answer.
While Bal’s revision of Genette’s theory involves deletions such as “external focalization,” it also contains additions, notably the “focalizer,” i.e. the “agent that sees” in a given focalization (Bal [Bal, Mieke ( 1997). Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Toronto: U of Toronto P.1985] 1997: 146). This concept has spawned a considerable amount of controversy, including a more specific debate about the question of whether narrators can be focalizers. Bal, Phelan (Phelan, James (2001). “Why Narrators Can Be Focalizers—and Why It Matters.” W. van Peer & S. Chatman (eds). New Perspectives on Narrative Perspective. Albany: SUNY, 51–64.2001) and many others assume that both characters and narrators can be focalizers; Chatman (Chatman, Seymour (1990). Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell UP.1990) and Prince (Prince, Gerald (2001). “A Point of View on Point of View or Refocusing Focalization.” W. van Peer & S. Chatman (eds). New Perspectives on Narrative Perspective. Albany: SUNY, 43–50.2001) argue that characters can focalize while narrators cannot. Genette, on the other hand, rejects character focalizers but concedes, with some reluctance, the possibility of regarding the narrator as a focalizer ([Genette, Gérard ( 1988). Narrative Discourse Revisited. Ithaca: Cornell UP.1983] 1988: 72–3). However, he does not see any great need for the term, an attitude shared by Nelles, who considers it redundant (Nelles, William (1990). “Getting Focalization into Focus.” Poetics Today 11, 363–82.1990: 374). The skepticism of the latter two critics seems to be justified. To talk about characters as focalizers is to confuse focalization and perception. Characters can see and hear, but they can hardly focalize a narrative of whose existence they are not aware. This leaves us with the narrator (or the author?) as the only focalizer, an inference whose interest is primarily scholastic. If all the different focalization options can be attributed to one agent, this attribution does not provide us with any conceptual tools that we can use in distinguishing and analyzing texts.
Furthermore, the concept of focalizer is misleading because it suggests that a given text or segment of text is always focalized by one person, either the narrator or a character. But this is a simplification. Consider the famous beginning of Dickens’s Great Expectations in which Pip, the first-person narrator, tells us how, as a little orphan, he visited the graves of his family and drew some highly imaginative conclusions about his relatives from the shape of their tombstones. This passage focuses on the thoughts and perceptions of the boy, but it also communicates the knowledge and the attitude of the adult narrator, primarily through style (elaborate language, ironically inflated lexis, etc.). It makes little sense here to ask whether or not the boy is the focalizer in this passage. It is more appropriate to analyze focalization as a more abstract and variable feature of the text, wavering between the knowledge and the attitudes of the adult narrator and the experience of the child character.
To sum up, the various theoretical innovations introduced by the advocates of focalization are fraught with considerable problems; focalization is hardly so much superior to point of view that the old term can be discarded. Niederhoff (Niederhoff, Burkhard (2001). “Fokalisation und Perspektive: Ein Plädoyer für friedliche Koexistenz.” Poetica 33, 1–21.2001) compares the meanings and merits of the terms, making a case for peaceful coexistence of and complementarity between the two. There is room for both because each highlights different aspects of a complex and elusive phenomenon. Point of view seems to be the more powerful metaphor when it comes to narratives that attempt to render the subjective experience of a character; stating that a story is told from the point of view of the character makes more sense than to claim that there is an internal focalization on the character. Focalization is a more fitting term when one analyses selections of narrative information that are not designed to render the subjective experience of a character but to create other effects such as suspense, mystery, puzzlement, etc. If focalization theory is to make any progress, an awareness of the differences between the two terms and of their respective strengths and weaknesses is indispensable.
4 Topics for Further Investigation
(a) The most pressing need is for an analysis of the specific conceptual features of the focalization metaphor in comparison with related metaphors such as perspective, point of view, filter, etc. This needs to be complemented by a thorough, non-dogmatic analysis of texts that shows which of these terms is more appropriate to which kind of text. (b) The question raised by Herman’s (Herman, David (1994). “Hypothetical Focalization.” Narrative 2, 230–53.1994) article remains to be investigated: Is there such a thing as hypothetical focalization? In other words, can a text suggest or imply a focalization that is not present in this text?
5.1 Works Cited
- Bal, Mieke (1977). Narratologie: Essais sur la signification narrative dans quatre romans modernes. Paris: Klincksieck.
- Bal, Mieke ( 1997). Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Toronto: U of Toronto P.
- Chatman, Seymour ( 1980). Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell UP.
- Chatman, Seymour (1990). Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell UP.
- Edmiston, William F. (1991). Hindsight and Insight: Focalization in Four Eighteenth-Century French Novels. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP.
- Finney, Brian (1990). “Suture in Literary Analysis.” LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 2, 131–44.
- Füger, Wilhelm (1993). “Stimmbrüche: Varianten und Spielräume narrativer Fokalisation.” H. Foltinek et al. (eds). Tales and their “telling difference”: Zur Theorie und Geschichte der Narrativik. Festschrift zum 70. Geburtstag von Franz K. Stanzel. Heidelberg: Winter, 43–59.
- Genette, Gérard (1972). “Discours du récit.” G. G. Figures III. Paris: Seuil, 67–282.
- Genette, Gérard ( 1980). Narrative Discourse. An Essay in Method. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Genette, Gérard ( 1988). Narrative Discourse Revisited. Ithaca: Cornell UP.
- Herman, David (1994). “Hypothetical Focalization.” Narrative 2, 230–53.
- Herman, Luc & Bart Vervaeck (2004). “Focalization between Classical and Postclassical Narratology.” J. Pier (ed). The Dynamics of Narrative Form: Studies in Anglo-American Narratology. Berlin: de Gruyter, 115–38.
- Jahn, Manfred (1996). “Windows of Focalization: Deconstructing and Reconstructing a Narratological Concept.” Style 30, 241–67.
- Kablitz, Andreas (1988). “Erzählperspektive—Point of View—Focalisation: Überlegungen zu einem Konzept der Erzähltheorie.” Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur 98, 237–55.
- Margolin, Uri (2009). “Focalization: Where Do We Go from Here?” P. Hühn et al. (eds). Point of View, Perspective, and Focalization. Modeling Mediation in Narrative. Berlin: de Gruyter 48–58.
- Nelles, William (1990). “Getting Focalization into Focus.” Poetics Today 11, 363–82.
- Niederhoff, Burkhard (2001). “Fokalisation und Perspektive: Ein Plädoyer für friedliche Koexistenz.” Poetica 33, 1–21.
- Nünning, Ansgar (1990). “‘Point of view’ oder ‘focalization’? Über einige Grundlagen und Kategorien konkurrierender Modelle der erzählerischen Vermittlung.” Literatur in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 23, 249–68.
- O’Neill, Patrick (1992). “Points of Origin: On Focalization in Narrative.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature / Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée 19, 331–50.
- Phelan, James (2001). “Why Narrators Can Be Focalizers—and Why It Matters.” W. van Peer & S. Chatman (eds). New Perspectives on Narrative Perspective. Albany: SUNY, 51–64.
- Poe, Edgar Allan ( 1956). Selected Writings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Prince, Gerald (2001). “A Point of View on Point of View or Refocusing Focalization.” W. van Peer & S. Chatman (eds). New Perspectives on Narrative Perspective. Albany: SUNY, 43–50.
- Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith ( 2002). Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. London: Routledge.
- Shen, Dan (2001). “Breaking Conventional Barriers: Transgressions of Modes of Focalization.” W. van Peer & S. Chatman (eds). New Perspectives on Narrative Perspective. Albany: SUNY.
5.2 Further Reading
- Rossholm, Göran, ed. (2004). Essays on Fiction and Perspective. Bern: Lang.
- van Peer, Willie & Seymour Chatman, eds. (2001). New Perspectives on Narrative Perspective. Albany: SUNY.
A narrative or story is a report of connected events, real or imaginary, presented in a sequence of written or spoken words, or still or moving images, or both. The word derives from the Latin verb narrare, "to tell", which is derived from the adjective gnarus, "knowing" or "skilled".
Narrative can be organized in a number of thematic or formal categories: non-fiction (such as definitively including creative non-fiction, biography, journalism, transcript poetry, and historiography); fictionalization of historical events (such as anecdote, myth, legend, and historical fiction); and fiction proper (such as literature in prose and sometimes poetry, such as short stories, novels, and narrative poems and songs, and imaginary narratives as portrayed in other textual forms, games, or live or recorded performances).
Narrative is found in all forms of human creativity, art, and entertainment, including speech, literature, theatre, music and song, comics, journalism, film, television and video, video games, radio, gameplay, unstructured recreation, and performance in general, as well as some painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, and other visual arts, as long as a sequence of events is presented. Several art movements, such as modern art, refuse the narrative in favor of the abstract and conceptual.
Oral storytelling is the earliest method for sharing narratives.  During most people's childhoods, narratives are used to guide them on proper behavior, cultural history, formation of a communal identity, and values, as especially studied in anthropology today among traditional indigenous peoples.
Narratives may also be nested within other narratives, such as narratives told by an unreliable narrator (a character) typically found in noir fiction genre. An important part of narration is the narrative mode, the set of methods used to communicate the narrative through a process narration (see also "Narrative Aesthetics" below).
Along with exposition, argumentation, and description, narration, broadly defined, is one of four rhetorical modes of discourse. More narrowly defined, it is the fiction-writing mode in which the narrator communicates directly to the reader.
Owen Flanagan of Duke University, a leading consciousness researcher, writes, "Evidence strongly suggests that humans in all cultures come to cast their own identity in some sort of narrative form. We are inveterate storytellers." Stories are an important aspect of culture. Many works of art and most works of literature tell stories; indeed, most of the humanities involve stories.  Stories are of ancient origin, existing in ancient Egyptian, ancient Greek, Chinese and Indian cultures and their myths. Stories are also a ubiquitous component of human communication, used as parables and examples to illustrate points. Storytelling was probably one of the earliest forms of entertainment. As noted by Owen Flanagan, narrative may also refer to psychological processes in self-identity, memory and meaning-making.
Semiotics begins with the individual building blocks of meaning called signs; and semantics, the way in which signs are combined into codes to transmit messages. This is part of a general communication system using both verbal and non-verbal elements, and creating a discourse with different modalities and forms.
In On Realism in ArtRoman Jakobson argues that literature exists as a separate entity. He and many other semioticians prefer the view that all texts, whether spoken or written, are 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 folk-tales and identified 31 distinct functional components. This trend (or these trends) continued 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 (culture)?
- How is it manifested as art, cinema, theater, or literature?
- Why is narrative divided into different genres, such as poetry, short stories, and novels?
In literary theoretic approach, narrative is being narrowly defined as fiction-writing mode in which the narrator is communicating directly to the reader. Until the late 19th century, literary criticism as an academic exercise dealt solely with poetry (including epic poems like the Iliad and Paradise Lost, and poetic drama like Shakespeare). Most poems did not have a narrator distinct from the author.
But novels, lending a number of voices to several characters in addition to narrator's, created a possibility of narrator's views differing significantly from the author's views. With the rise of the novel in the 18th century, the concept of the narrator (as opposed to "author") made the question of narrator a prominent one for literary theory. It has been proposed that perspective and interpretive knowledge are the essential characteristics, while focalization and structure are lateral characteristics of the narrator.[according to whom?]
Types of narrators and their modes
A writer's choice in the narrator is crucial for the way a work of fiction is perceived by the reader. There is a distinction between first-person and third-person narrative, which Gérard Genette refers to as intradiegetic and extradiegetic narrative, respectively. Intradiagetic narrators are of two types: a homodiegetic narrator participates as a character in the story. Such a narrator cannot know more about other characters than what their actions reveal. A heterodiegetic narrator, in contrast, describes the experiences of the characters that appear in the story in which he or she does not participate.
Most narrators present their story from one of the following perspectives (called narrative modes): first-person, or third-person limited or omniscient. Generally, a first-person narrator brings greater focus on the feelings, opinions, and perceptions of a particular character in a story, and on how the character views the world and the views of other characters. If the writer's intention is to get inside the world of a character, then it is a good choice, although a third-person limited narrator is an alternative that does not require the writer to reveal all that a first-person character would know. By contrast, a third-person omniscient narrator gives a panoramic view of the world of the story, looking into many characters and into the broader background of a story. A third-person omniscient narrator can be an animal or an object, or it can be a more abstract instance that does not refer to itself. For stories in which the context and the views of many characters are important, a third-person narrator is a better choice. However, a third-person narrator does not need to be an omnipresent guide, but instead may merely be the protagonist referring to himself in the third person (also known as third person limited narrator).
- Multiple narrators
Main article: Multiperspectivity
A writer may choose to let several narrators tell the story from different points of view. Then it is up to the reader to decide which narrator seems most reliable for each part of the story. It may refer to the style of the writer in which he/she expresses the paragraph written. See for instance the works of Louise Erdrich. William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying is a prime example of the use of multiple narrators. Faulkner employs stream of consciousness to narrate the story from various perspectives.
In Indigenous American communities, narratives and storytelling are often told by a number of elders in the community. In this way, the stories are never static because they are shaped by the relationship between narrator and audience. Thus, each individual story may have countless variations. Narrators often incorporate minor changes in the story in order to tailor the story to different audiences.
Narrative is a highly aesthetic art. Thoughtfully composed stories have a number of aesthetic elements. Such elements include the idea of narrative structure, with identifiable beginnings, middles and ends, or exposition-development-climax-denouement, with coherent plot lines; a strong focus on temporality including retention of the past, attention to present action and protention/future anticipation; a substantial focus on character and characterization, "arguably the most important single component of the novel" (David LodgeThe Art of Fiction 67); different voices interacting, "the sound of the human voice, or many voices, speaking in a variety of accents, rhythms and registers" (Lodge The Art of Fiction 97; see also the theory of Mikhail Bakhtin for expansion of this idea); a narrator or narrator-like voice, which "addresses" and "interacts with" reading audiences (see Reader Response theory); communicates with a Wayne Booth-esque rhetorical thrust, a dialectic process of interpretation, which is at times beneath the surface, forming a plotted narrative, and at other times much more visible, "arguing" for and against various positions; relies substantially on the use of literary tropes (see Hayden White, Metahistory for expansion of this idea); is often intertextual with other literatures; and commonly demonstrates an effort toward bildungsroman, a description of identity development with an effort to evince becoming in character and community.[jargon]
See also: Narrative therapy
Within philosophy of mind, the social sciences and various clinical fields including medicine, narrative can refer to aspects of human psychology. A personal narrative process is involved in a person's sense of personal or cultural identity, and in the creation and construction of memories; it is thought by some to be the fundamental nature of the self. The breakdown of a coherent or positive narrative has been implicated in the development of psychosis and mental disorder, and its repair said to play an important role in journeys of recovery.Narrative Therapy is a school of (family) psychotherapy.
Illness narratives are a way for a person affected by an illness to make sense of his or her experiences. They typically follow one of several set patterns: restitution, chaos, or quest narratives. In the restitution narrative, the person sees the illness as a temporary detour. The primary goal is to return permanently to normal life and normal health. These may also be called cure narratives. In the chaos narrative, the person sees the illness as a permanent state that will inexorably get worse, with no redeeming virtues. This is typical of diseases like Alzheimer's disease: the patient gets worse and worse, and there is no hope of returning to normal life. The third major type, the quest narrative, positions the illness experience as an opportunity to transform oneself into a better person through overcoming adversity and re-learning what is most important in life; the physical outcome of the illness is less important than the spiritual and psychological transformation. This is typical of the triumphant view of cancer survivorship in the breast cancer culture.
Personality traits, more specifically the Big Five personality traits, appear to be associated with the type of language or patterns of word use found in an individual's self-narrative. In other words, language use in self-narratives accurately reflects human personality. The linguistic correlates of each Big Five trait are as follows:
- Extraversion - positively correlated with words referring to humans, social processes and family;
- Agreeableness - positively correlated with family, inclusiveness and certainty; negatively correlated with anger and body (i.e., few negative comments about health/body);
- Conscientiousness - positively correlated with achievement and work; negatively related to body, death, anger and exclusiveness;
- Neuroticism - positively correlated with sadness, negative emotion, body, anger, home and anxiety; negatively correlated with work;
- Openness - positively correlated with perceptual processes, hearing and exclusiveness
Social sciences approaches
Human beings often claim to understand events when they manage to formulate a coherent story or narrative explaining how they believe the event was generated. Narratives thus lie at foundations of our cognitive procedures and also provide an explanatory framework for the social sciences, particularly when it is difficult to assemble enough cases to permit statistical analysis. Narrative is often used in case study research in the social sciences. Here it has been found that the dense, contextual, and interpenetrating nature of social forces uncovered by detailed narratives is often more interesting and useful for both social theory and social policy than other forms of social inquiry.
Sociologists Jaber F. Gubrium and James A. Holstein have contributed to the formation of a constructionist approach to narrative in sociology. From their book The Self We Live By: Narrative Identity in a Postmodern World (2000), to more recent texts such as Analyzing Narrative Reality (2009)and Varieties of Narrative Analysis (2012), they have developed an analytic framework for researching stories and storytelling that is centered on the interplay of institutional discourses (big stories) on the one hand, and everyday accounts (little stories) on the other. The goal is the sociological understanding of formal and lived texts of experience, featuring the production, practices, and communication of accounts.
In order to avoid "hardened stories," or "narratives that become context-free, portable and ready to be used anywhere and anytime for illustrative purposes" and are being used as conceptual metaphors as defined by linguist George Lakoff, an approach called narrative inquiry was proposed, resting on the epistemological assumption that human beings make sense of random or complex multicausal experience by the imposition of story structures." Human propensity to simplify data through a predilection for narratives over complex data sets typically leads to narrative fallacy. It is easier for the human mind to remember and make decisions on the basis of stories with meaning, than to remember strings of data. This is one reason why narratives are so powerful and why many of the classics in the humanities and social sciences are written in the narrative format. But humans read meaning into data and compose stories, even where this is unwarranted. In narrative inquiry, the way to avoid the narrative fallacy is no different from the way to avoid other error in scholarly research, i.e., by applying the usual methodical checks for validity and reliability in how data are collected, analyzed, and presented. Several criteria for assessing the validity of narrative research was proposed, including the objective aspect, the emotional aspect, the social/moral aspect, and the clarity of the story.
Mathematical sociology approach
In mathematical sociology, the theory of comparative narratives was devised in order to describe and compare the structures (expressed as "and" in a directed graph where multiple causal links incident into a node are conjoined) of action-driven sequential events.
Narratives so conceived comprise the following ingredients:
- A finite set of state descriptions of the world S, the components of which are weakly ordered in time;
- A finite set of actors/agents (individual or collective), P;
- A finite set of actions A;
- A mapping of P onto A;
The structure (directed graph) is generated by letting the nodes stand for the states and the directed edges represent how the states are changed by specified actions. The action skeleton can then be abstracted, comprising a further digraph where the actions are depicted as nodes and edges take the form "action a co-determined (in context of other actions) action b".
Narratives can be both abstracted and generalised by imposing an algebra upon their structures and thence defining homomorphism between the algebras. The insertion of action-driven causal links in a narrative can be achieved using the method of Bayesian narratives.
- Bayesian narratives
Developed by Peter Abell, the theory of Comparative Narratives conceives a narrative as a directed graph comprising multiple causal links (social interactions) of the general form: "action a causes action b in a specified context". In the absence of sufficient comparative cases to enable statistical treatment of the causal links, items of evidence in support and against a particular causal link are assembled and used to compute the Bayesian likelihood ratio of the link. Subjective causal statements of the form "I/she did b because of a" and subjective counterfactuals "if it had not been for a I/she would not have done b" are notable items of evidence.
Linearity is one of several narrative qualities that can be found in a musical composition. As noted by American musicologist, Edward Cone, narrative terms are also present in the analytical language about music. The different components of a fugue — subject, answer, exposition, discussion and summary — can be cited as an example. However, there are several views on the concept of narrative in music and the role it plays. One theory is that of Theodore Adorno, who has suggested that ‘music recites itself, is its own context, narrates without narrative’. Another, is that of Carolyn Abbate, who has suggested that ‘certain gestures experienced in music constitute a narrating voice’. Still others have argued that narrative is a semiotic enterprise that can enrich musical analysis. The French musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez contends that ‘the narrative, strictly speaking, is not in the music, but in the plot imagined and constructed by the listeners’. He argues that discussing music in terms of narrativity is simply metaphorical and that the ‘imagined plot’ may be influenced by the work's title or other programmatic information provided by the composer. However, Abbate has revealed numerous examples of musical devices that function as narrative voices, by limiting music’s ability to narrate to rare ‘moments that can be identified by their bizarre and disruptive effect’. Various theorists share this view of narrative appearing in disruptive rather than normative moments in music. The final word is yet to be said, regarding narratives in music, as there is still much to be determined.
In cultural storytelling
A narrative can take on the shape of a story, which gives listeners an entertaining and collaborative avenue for acquiring knowledge. Many cultures use storytelling as a way to record histories, myths, and values. These stories can be seen as living entities of narrative among cultural communities, as they carry the shared experience and history of the culture within them. Stories are often used within indigenous cultures in order to share knowledge to the younger generation. Due to indigenous narratives leaving room for open-ended interpretation, native stories often engage children in the storytelling process so that they can make their own meaning and explanations within the story. This promotes holistic thinking among native children, which works towards merging an individual and world identity. Such an identity upholds native epistemology and gives children a sense of belonging as their cultural identity develops through the sharing and passing on of stories.
For example, a number of indigenous stories are used to illustrate a value or lesson. In the Western Apache tribe, stories can be used to warn of the misfortune that befalls people when they do not follow acceptable behavior. One story speaks to the offense of a mother's meddling in her married son's life. In the story, the Western Apache tribe is under attack from a neighboring tribe, the Pimas. The Apache mother hears a scream. Thinking it is her son's wife screaming, she tries to intervene by yelling at him. This alerts the Pima tribe to her location, and she is promptly killed due to intervening in her son's life.
Indigenous American cultures use storytelling to teach children the values and lessons of life. Although storytelling provides entertainment, its primary purpose is to educate. Alaskan Indigenous Natives state that narratives teach children where they fit in, what their society expects of them, how to create a peaceful living environment, and to be responsible, worthy members of their communities. In the Mexican culture, many adult figures tell their children stories in order to teach children values such as individuality, obedience, honesty, trust, and compassion. For example, one of the versions of La Llorona is used to teach children to make safe decisions at night and to maintain the morals of the community.
Narratives are considered by the Canadian Métis community, to help children understand that the world around them is interconnected to their lives and communities. For example, the Métis community share the “Humorous Horse Story” to children, which portrays that horses stumble throughout life just like humans do.Navajo stories also use dead animals as metaphors by showing that all things have purpose. Lastly, elders from Alaskan Native communities claim that the use of animals as metaphors allow children to form their own perspectives while at the same time self-reflecting on their own lives.
American Indian elders also state that storytelling invites the listeners, especially children, to draw their own conclusions and perspectives while self-reflecting upon their lives. Furthermore, they insist that narratives help children grasp and obtain a wide range of perspectives that help them interpret their lives in the context of the story. American Indian community members emphasize to children that the method of obtaining knowledge can be found in stories passed down through each generation. Moreover, community members also let the children interpret and build a different perspective of each story.
In historiography, according to Lawrence Stone, narrative has traditionally been the main rhetorical device used by historians. In 1979, at a time when the new Social History was demanding a social-science model of analysis, Stone detected a move back toward the narrative. Stone defined narrative as organized chronologically; focused on a single coherent story; descriptive rather than analytical; concerned with people not abstract circumstances; and dealing with the particular and specific rather than the collective and statistical. He reported that, "More and more of the 'new historians' are now trying to discover what was going on inside people's heads in the past, and what it was like to live in the past, questions which inevitably lead back to the use of narrative."
Some philosophers identify narratives with a type of explanation. Mark Bevir argues, for example, that narratives explain actions by appealing to the beliefs and desires of actors and by locating webs of beliefs in the context of historical traditions. Narrative is an alternative form of explanation to that associated with natural science.
Historians committed to a social science approach, however, have criticized the narrowness of narrative and its preference for anecdote over analysis, and clever examples rather than statistical regularities.
Storytelling rights is most notably important in the genre of personal experience narrative in English academics. Academic disciplines such as English, performance, folklore, literature, anthropology, Cultural Studies and other social sciences are interested in exploring storytelling rights, because storytelling rights hinges on ethics.
The storytelling rights of retelling other people’s stories is explored by asking a few questions; like whose story is it, what is the story being used for, what does the story promise (empathy, redemption, meaning), and at whose benefit?  The ethics of storytelling rights— includes empathy and representation— helps people, organizations, the media, and government agencies clearly understand stories, One way in which personal experience narratives achieve the status of the authenticity is with representation. Violating the representation of storytelling rights creates negative repercussions on not only the individuals who are engaging in the storytelling process, but also damages the social order like the communities, institutions, and the networks that people are involved in because “voice” is used as a powerful tool for agency and advocacy.
This misrepresentation of voice often leads to the misunderstanding and exploitation of storytelling rights. An example, would be the stories of abused women, because women are told by government agencies that by telling their stories they will be heard and helped. But, in truth, the irony is that domestic violence has become ‘big business' because the law system does not listen to the voices of these battered women. This example illustrates how women reshape their stories to gain assistance from shelter and charities. But women reshaping their stories violates the ethics of storytelling rights, because this fuels the “big business” of domestic violence.
There was another study on Hurricane Katrina survivors where the media misrepresented the voices of the survivors, and manipulated the public. The media and press turned the whole country against a community that desperately needed help because journalist reshaped the stories of the survivors in television broadcasts and newspaper articles. Nevertheless, this study contradicted the media, and used "voice” to prove that the media misrepresented their stories of the survivors. At the end of the article, the readers learned that the media was actually misrepresenting the community of New Orleans, because the truth was heard in the “voice” of the survivors. In which the people’s stories revealed that the community was actually helping each other out during a destructive time.
Empathy is an important aspect in storytelling rights because if the audience has empathy towards a story, there will be less of a chance for violating ethics. Empathy presumes the ability to understand another’s life story: its opposite, the inability to empathize, is reserved for situations that the normal person cannot imagine, including, notably unspeakable evils and insanity. Empathy describes the sphere of the normal and allows us to imagine what any normal person would do. In other words, the listener of a narrative will not be able to comprehend a story without empathy. That is why empathy is an important component concerning storytelling rights.
The examples of domestic violence against women and the survivors of Hurricane Katrina show how stories are reshaped either by the narrators themselves or by others, and highlights an important issue regarding the ethics and storytelling rights in narration. Such as, that the listener or audience infringes on storytelling rights because sometimes they are not listening to the “voice” of the teller. Ultimately, when a narrator reshapes their own story, the “voice” becomes lost and muddled in the ears of the audience. Logically, when the narrator’s voice is not being adequately represented, the ethics of storytelling rights are not honored.
Other specific applications
- 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.
- Narrative film usually uses images and sounds on film (or, more recently, on analogue or digital video media) to convey a story. Narrative film is usually thought of in terms of fiction but it may also assemble stories from filmed reality, as in some documentary film, but narrative film may also use animation.
- 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 poetry is poetry that tells a story.
- Metanarrative, sometimes also known as master- or grand narrative, is a higher-level cultural narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience you've had in life.
- Narrative photography is photography used to tell stories or in conjunction with stories.
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