Study Guide

Narrative Theory

Narrative Theory Introduction

Shakespeare once wrote that "the play's the thing," but if you're a smarty-pants narrative theorist, well, the narrative's the thing. And why is that? Well, narrative theorists believe that narratives are so ingrained our lives that it's almost like they're invisible to us. Invisible or not, though, they're everywhere. Are you into books, movies, music, or TV? Then you're totally into narrative.

But just what is a narrative?

Well, first off, we need to draw a line between narrative and story. According to narrative theory, "story" refers to all the building blocks you start out with: you've got a bunch of events, people, and places. The thing is, you can put this stuff together in all kinds of different ways. There's where "narrative" steps in: it's how you weave the story material together and give it shape. Narrative is about organizing the story material and making choices about how to put it together.

It's not just about organization, though—narratives are also about being creative. When an author writes a novel, for example, there are all sorts of ways he or she can choose to tell the story. You're probably familiar with "happily ever after" Disney-style narratives but, as you'll see, there's a boatload of different forms that narratives can take. Not all narratives follow the usual beginning→middle→end template. In fact, writers can choose to play around with narrative for deliberate effect, keeping us guessing and challenging our expectations.

Think of it: two writers could start off with the same story but turn it into two completely different narratives. Just think of all those movies made from a single novel, like Dracula or Anna Karenina. If they were all identical, then things would get pretty boring and samey, right? But the thing is: they're all different—and you've got narrative to thank for that.

What is Narrative Theory About and Why Should I Care?

Why Should Readers Care?

Narrative is like second nature for us—we barely even notice that it's there most of the time. It's not until we read a book or watch a movie that deliberately messes with narrative (think of something like Pulp Fiction) that we sit up and take notice. But it's narratives that shape our experience and make it possible for us to make sense of both literature and the wider world.

Narrative theory helps us to understand how texts work, and it gets us thinking about the choices that the author has made. After all, there's always more than one way of telling a story. It's by taking a look at narrative that we can get a handle on how the story is told—and that makes it possible for us to weigh in on what the story is all about and come up with our own opinions and interpretations based on that.

Why Should Theorists Care?

There are lots of different angles you can take when you're analyzing a text, but when it comes right down to it, what you've got in front of you in a good ol' narrative structure. "Structure" is a key term here, since narratology is totally a spinoff of structuralism. What structuralism and narratology have in common is an obsession with the nuts and bolts of how things like novels and movies (and even entire cultures) are put together.

Exploring narrative helps us understand and describe how texts work, how they create their effects, and how they relate to other texts in the same field.

Pinning down how narratives work helps you get to grips with texts on a critical level. Narratology makes it possible for you to not just analyze individual texts but also find patterns in them. Some of the most famous narratological studies, actually, are those that uncover the underlying patterns in familiar genres like folktales and detective novels. With the help of narratology, you can totally come up with a set of conventions for all kinds of narrative "types."