Definition of Narrative
A narrative is a sequence of connected events, whether real or fictional. The definition of narrative is the same as that of a story. There are many types of narratives, such as non-fiction (journalism, memoir, biography, etc.), prose, drama, and some forms of poetry, songs, and video games. Examples of narrative can be found everywhere in human expression and creativity, from everyday speech to performance of all types, including television, movies, radio, and even in more static arts such as sculpture, painting, and photography. Even scientific reports may contain elements of narrative, as they describe the initial hypotheses and how those theses were challenged and changed over the course of the study. Thus, narrative is truly a vital aspect of the experience of being human, and has been since the beginning of communication.
The word narrative comes from the Latin word narrare, which means, “to tell.”
Common Examples of Narrative
As stated above, narrative is involved in so many aspects of life that it can be difficult to find examples of communication that don’t contain examples of narrative. Some jokes may contain narrative, as in the following:
Ole died. So Lena went to the local paper to put a notice in the obituaries. The gentleman at the counter, after offering his condolences, asked Lena what she would like to say about Ole.
Lena replied, “You just put ‘Ole died’.”
The gentleman, somewhat perplexed, said, “That’s it? Just ‘Ole died?’ Surely, there must be something more you’d like to say about Ole. If its money you’re concerned about, the first five words are free. We must say something more.”
So Lena pondered for a few minutes and finally said, “O.K. You put ‘Ole died. Boat for sale.'”
Many famous song lyrics contain narrative examples as well, such as in Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane”:
Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night
Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall.
She sees the bartender in a pool of blood,
Cries out, “My God, they killed them all!”
Here comes the story of the Hurricane,
The man the authorities came to blame
For somethin’ that he never done.
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world.
Significance of Narrative in Literature
Is it impossible to imagine literature without narrative. Though some post-modern writers have challenged the conventions of narrative by doing away with the notions of narrator and plot, there are still elements of story in every piece of literature ever written. Narrative actually predates literature in the sense that oral storytelling has been a part of every culture of humans that has ever had verbal communication. Narratives through the means of oral storytelling were important to reinforce moral lessons for a culture, pass down history and traditions, and share values and norms. Narratives were also a means of entertainment and have helped people in every age develop a sense of identity, deepen their understanding of human psychology, and make meaning out of life.
Narrative is considered one of the four rhetorical modes of discourse, along with exposition, argumentation, and description. Of these four modes, it is the one in which, generally speaking, the narrator communicates a story directly to the reader.
Examples of Narrative in Literature
Let’s take a look at how narrative works in several different types of literature by considering their opening lines:
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.
There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
A wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
(Beowulf, as translated by Seamus Heaney)
This is an example of narrative that comes to us from oral storytelling. The author of Beowulf remains anonymous, but eventually it was written down to be passed on to future generations. The narrator first begins with a reminder to the listeners about “those princes heroic campaigns,” such as Shield Sheafson and uses that to set up the narrative of the hero Beowulf and his victories against Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon.
Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.
(The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Robert Fitzgerald)
This example of narrative comes from Ancient Greece, when Homer wrote the epic poem The Odyssey. The narrator explains to the listener the background of the story and invokes the Muse to tell the hero Odysseus’s story.
CHORUS: Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)
This is a narrative example found in drama. William Shakespeare chose to open his famous tragedy Romeo and Juliet with a prologue spoken by a chorus. It is notable in that the chorus quickly lays out the entire plot of the story—we know that there is an ancient grudge and we know that the “pair of star-corss’d lovers” will eventually kill themselves. Thus, the rest of the play is not meant to tell what happened as much as why it happened.
Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.
(Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, translated by Edith Grossman)
The classic tale of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes is an important part of the literary canon in that it is considered one of the first novels ever written. Thus, Cervantes was taking on a new way of expressing narrative in this masterpiece. Interestingly, the novel was published in two volumes, with the second published a decade after the first, and contains aspects of meta-narrative that would be considered avant garde in contemporary times. For example, the fictional characters in volume two are familiar with the publication of volume one. Since there were not many rules concerning the boundaries of narrative at that time, it’s possible that this device did not seem as revolutionary as it does today (or, effectively, that everything about Don Quixote was revolutionary, and thus this aspect did not perhaps stand out as much as it does now).
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice–they won’t hear you otherwise–“I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.
(If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino)
This is a contemporary example of narrative in which Italo Calvino makes reference to the reading experience of the novel in a meta-fictional way, somewhat like Cervantes. This narrative example continues to challenge the boundaries of what narrative really means, as the chapters alternate between second-person narrator addressing the reader and the reading experience and stories that become increasingly interwoven, even as they introduce new characters and plots.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.
(1984 by George Orwell)
This is the opening of a relatively straightforward narrative style. George Orwell writes his work of dystopia, 1984, in chronological order and with much descriptive detail. The interesting element of this opening, however, is that it immediately disorients the reader with the phrase “the clocks were striking thirteen.” This is a good example of how an author quickly and subtly lets the reader know exactly what kind of narrative he or she is about to embark upon.
Test Your Knowledge of Narrative
1. Choose the best narrative definition:
A. A story
B. A song
C. A true fact
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2. Which of the following statements is false?
A. Narrative predates literature.
B. There are elements of narrative in many different expressions of human nature, from sculpture to video games.
C. All songs contain a narrative
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3. What function can narrative serve?
A. To entertain
B. To share cultural values
C. To pass down history
D. All of the above
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