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Easton Rivera
Easton Rivera

Explore the Nature, Diversity, and Significance of Narrative with The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative

The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative

Narrative is one of the most fundamental and pervasive forms of human communication. We tell stories to make sense of our lives, to entertain ourselves, to persuade others, to express our identities, and to create our cultures. Narrative is everywhere: in literature, film, television, video games, social media, journalism, history, law, medicine, education, and more. But what exactly is narrative? How do we analyze it? And why is it important?

The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative

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In this article, we will explore these questions by drawing on the insights and perspectives of The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, a comprehensive and accessible guide to the theory and practice of narrative written by H. Porter Abbott. We will cover the following topics:

  • What is narrative?

  • How to analyze narrative?

  • Why is narrative important?

By the end of this article, you will have a better understanding of the nature, diversity, and significance of narrative as a mode of human expression and interaction.

What is narrative?

The first question we need to address is: what is narrative? This may seem like a simple question, but it is actually quite complex and contested. Different scholars and disciplines have different definitions and criteria for what counts as a narrative. However, according to Abbott, there are some common features that most narratives share. He defines narrative as follows:

"Narrative is the representation of an event or a series of events." (Abbott 2008: 13)

This definition may seem too broad or vague, but it captures the essence of what makes a narrative different from other forms of representation. A narrative does not just describe or depict something; it tells what happened or what might happen. A narrative has a temporal dimension: it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A narrative also has a causal dimension: it shows how one event leads to another, or how an action produces a consequence. A narrative implies a story: a meaningful sequence of events that involves some kind of change or transformation.

Of course, not all narratives are the same. There are different types and genres of narrative that vary in their form, content, style, purpose, and audience. For example, some narratives are fictional (such as novels or films), while others are factual (such as biographies or documentaries). Some narratives are verbal (such as oral stories or written texts), while others are visual (such as paintings or photographs) or multimodal (such as comics or video games). Some narratives are realistic (such as realism or naturalism), while others are fantastic (such as fantasy or science fiction). Some narratives are linear (such as chronological or sequential), while others are nonlinear (such as flashbacks or parallel plots). Some narratives are simple (such as anecdotes or jokes), while others are complex (such as epics or sagas).

Despite these differences, all narratives share the same basic function and effect: they create a sense of involvement and engagement for the reader or viewer. Narratives invite us to imagine what it is like to be in another time, place, situation, or perspective. Narratives make us curious about what will happen next, how things will turn out, and why things happen the way they do. Narratives make us feel emotions, such as joy, sadness, fear, anger, or surprise. Narratives make us think about ourselves, others, and the world in new and different ways.

How to analyze narrative?

The second question we need to address is: how do we analyze narrative? This is another complex and contested question, as there are many different approaches and methods for studying narrative. However, according to Abbott, there are two main aspects that we need to consider when analyzing any narrative: the elements and the methods.

The elements of narrative

The elements of narrative are the basic components or building blocks that make up a narrative. They are the tools that the narrator or the author uses to create and shape the story. Abbott identifies six main elements of narrative: plot, character, setting, point of view, theme, and style. Let's briefly examine each of these elements.


Plot is the sequence of events that constitute the story. It is what happens in the narrative, and how it happens. Plot involves the following aspects:

  • Exposition: the introduction of the background information, such as the setting, the characters, and the situation.

  • Conflict: the problem or challenge that drives the story forward, such as a goal, a desire, a threat, or a dilemma.

  • Complication: the obstacles or difficulties that prevent or delay the resolution of the conflict, such as an antagonist, a twist, or a setback.

  • Climax: the turning point or the peak of the action, where the conflict reaches its highest intensity and its outcome is decided.

  • Resolution: the outcome or the consequence of the climax, where the conflict is resolved or unresolved, and where the story ends.

Plot can be organized in different ways, depending on the structure, order, duration, frequency, and speed of the events. For example, some plots follow a linear structure (such as beginning-middle-end), while others follow a circular structure (such as repetition or return). Some plots present events in chronological order (such as cause-effect), while others present events in non-chronological order (such as flashback or foreshadowing). Some plots cover a long span of time (such as years or decades), while others cover a short span of time (such as hours or minutes). Some plots repeat events (such as parallelism or variation), while others omit events (such as ellipsis or summary). Some plots move fast (such as suspense or action), while others move slow (such as description or dialogue).


Character is the agent or the actor who performs the actions and experiences the events in the story. It is who the story is about, and who we identify with or care about in the narrative. Character involves the following aspects:

  • Protagonist: the main character or the hero of the story, who pursues a goal or faces a conflict.

  • Antagonist: the opposing character or the villain of the story, who opposes or challenges the protagonist.

  • Supporting characters: the secondary characters who help or hinder the protagonist or the antagonist.

  • Characterization: the process of creating and developing characters by revealing their traits, motives, emotions, actions, speech, appearance, etc.

  • Character development: the change or growth that characters undergo throughout the story as a result of their actions and experiences.

Characters can be classified in different ways, depending on their role, function, complexity, and realism in the story. For example, some characters are flat (such as stereotypes or types), while others are round (such as individuals or personalities). Some characters are static (such as unchanging or consistent), while others are dynamic (such as changing or evolving). Some characters are realistic (such as lifelike or believable), while others are fantastic (such as mythical or supernatural).


Setting is the time and place where the story takes place. It is when and where the story happens, and how it affects the story. Setting involves the following aspects:

  • Time: the historical period, the cultural context, the season, the day, the hour, etc. that determine the mood, the atmosphere, the values, the norms, etc. of the story.

  • Place: the geographical location, the physical environment, the social setting, the cultural background, etc. that influence the action, the conflict, the character, the theme, etc. of the story.

Setting can be portrayed in different ways, the degree of detail, significance, and realism in the story. For example, some settings are detailed (such as descriptive or vivid), while others are vague (such as suggestive or ambiguous). Some settings are significant (such as symbolic or thematic), while others are incidental (such as background or filler). Some settings are realistic (such as historical or factual), while others are imaginary (such as fictional or fantastical).

Point of view

Point of view is the perspective or the angle from which the story is told. It is who tells the story, and how they tell it. Point of view involves the following aspects:

  • Narrator: the voice or the agent who narrates or tells the story, either as a character in the story (such as first-person narrator) or as an observer outside the story (such as third-person narrator).

  • Focalization: the focus or the lens through which the story is presented, either as the narrator's own vision (such as omniscient or objective focalization) or as another character's vision (such as limited or subjective focalization).

  • Narrative mode: the mode or the manner of narration, such as narration (telling what happened), description (showing what something looks like), dialogue (showing what characters say), monologue (showing what characters think), etc.

  • Narrative level: the level or the layer of narration, such as primary level (the main story), secondary level (a story within a story), tertiary level (a story within a story within a story), etc.

Point of view can be varied in different ways, depending on the choice, reliability, and effect of the narrator and focalizer in the story. For example, some narrators are reliable (such as trustworthy or consistent), while others are unreliable (such as deceptive or contradictory). Some focalizers are internal (such as inside the story world), while others are external (such as outside the story world). Some narrative modes are dominant (such as prevalent or prominent), while others are subordinate (such as occasional or marginal). Some narrative levels are embedded (such as nested or framed), while others are intercalated (such as alternating or parallel).


Theme is the main idea or the message that the story conveys. It is what the story means, and why it matters. Theme involves the following aspects:

  • Subject: the topic or the issue that the story addresses, such as love, war, death, etc.

  • Motif: the recurring element or the pattern that supports the subject, such as an image, a symbol, a word, etc.

  • Statement: the proposition or the argument that the story makes about the subject, such as a moral, a lesson, a question, etc.

Theme can be expressed in different ways, depending on the clarity, complexity, and universality of the statement in the story. For example, some statements are explicit (such as stated or obvious), while others are implicit (such as implied or subtle). Some statements are simple (such as clear or straightforward), while others are complex (such as ambiguous or contradictory). Some statements are specific (such as particular or contextual), while others are universal (such as general or timeless).


Style is the way of writing or telling the story. It is how the story sounds, and how it affects the reader. Style involves the following aspects:

  • Diction: the choice and use of words, such as vocabulary, register, tone, etc.

  • Syntax: the arrangement and structure of sentences, such as length, complexity, variety, etc.

  • Rhetoric: the use of figures of speech and literary devices, such as metaphor, simile, irony, etc.

  • Aesthetics: the creation and appreciation of beauty and artistry in the story, such as harmony, balance, rhythm, etc.

Style can be characterized in different ways, the purpose, effect, and quality of the writing in the story. For example, some styles are informative (such as clear or concise), while others are expressive (such as creative or poetic). Some styles are persuasive (such as convincing or appealing), while others are entertaining (such as humorous or witty). Some styles are elegant (such as refined or sophisticated), while others are plain (such as simple or direct).

The methods of narrative analysis

The methods of narrative analysis are the different approaches or frameworks that we can use to study and interpret narrative. They are the tools that help us understand and explain how narratives work and what they mean. Abbott identifies five main methods of narrative analysis: structuralism, narratology, poststructuralism, feminism, and psychoanalysis. Let's briefly examine each of these methods.


Structuralism is a method of narrative analysis that focuses on the underlying structure or system of narrative. It is based on the idea that narratives are composed of universal and recurrent elements or units that can be identified and classified according to their functions and relations. Structuralism aims to reveal the rules and patterns that govern the production and comprehension of narrative.

One of the most influential structuralist models of narrative analysis is the one proposed by Vladimir Propp, a Russian folklorist who studied the structure of fairy tales. Propp identified 31 functions or actions that constitute the plot of a fairy tale, such as departure, struggle, victory, return, etc. He also identified seven roles or characters that perform these functions, such as hero, villain, donor, helper, princess, dispatcher, false hero, etc. Propp argued that all fairy tales follow the same sequence of functions and roles, regardless of their variations and differences.


Narratology is a method of narrative analysis that focuses on the form and technique of narrative. It is based on the idea that narratives are composed of distinct levels or layers that can be distinguished and analyzed according to their modes and functions. Narratology aims to describe and explain the principles and strategies that shape the construction and interpretation of narrative.

One of the most influential narratological models of narrative analysis is the one proposed by Gerard Genette, a French literary theorist who studied the form and technique of novels. Genette identified five categories or aspects that determine the form and technique of narrative: order (the temporal relation between the story and the discourse), duration (the temporal relation between the story and the narration), frequency (the temporal relation between the story and the text), mood (the modal relation between the story and the narrator), and voice (the modal relation between the story and the focalizer).


Poststructuralism is a method of narrative analysis that focuses on the meaning and interpretation of narrative. It is based on the idea that narratives are composed of multiple and unstable meanings that depend on the context and perspective of the reader. Poststructuralism aims to challenge and deconstruct the assumptions and conventions that limit and constrain the understanding and appreciation of narrative.

the one proposed by Roland Barthes, a French literary critic who studied the meaning and interpretation of texts. Barthes identified five codes or systems of meaning that operate in texts: the hermeneutic code (the code of enigma and solution), the proairetic code (the code of action and suspense), the semantic code (the code of connotation and implication), the symbolic code (the code of opposition and equivalence), and the cultural code (the code of reference and citation).


Feminism is a method of narrative analysis that focuses on the gender and sexuality of narrative. It is based on the idea that narratives are composed of patriarchal and sexist representations and ideologies that oppress and marginalize women and other groups. Feminism aims to expose and resist the power and domination that operate in and through narrative.

One of the most influential feminist models of narrative analysis is the one proposed by Elaine Showalter, an American literary critic who studied the gender and sexuality of literature. Showalter identified three phases or stages in the development of women's literature: feminine (the phase of imitation and adaptation), feminist (the phase of protest and critique), and female (the phase of self-expression and autonomy).


Psychoanalysis is a method of narrative analysis that focuses on the unconscious and desire of narrative. It is based on the idea that narratives are composed of hidden and repressed meanings that reveal the fantasies and conflicts of the author and the reader. Psychoanalysis aims to uncover and explore the drives and impulses that motivate and influence narrative.

One of the most influential psychoanalytic models of narrative analysis is the one proposed by Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist who founded psychoanalysis. Freud identified three structures or agencies that constitute the human psyche: id (the unconscious source of instinctual energy and desire), ego (the conscious mediator between id and reality), and superego (the internalized representation of moral and social norms). Freud also identified three stages or phases in the development of human sexuality: oral (the stage of mouth and sucking), anal (the stage of anus and defecation), and phallic (the stage of penis and castration).

Why is narrative important?

The third question we need to address is: why is narrative important? This is perhaps the most fundamental and interesting question, as it relates to the value and impact of narrative in our lives. According to Abbott, there are three main reasons why narrative is important: its role in culture and society, its benefits for cognition and emotion, and its challenges and opportunities in the digital age.

The role of narrative in culture and society

and society, as it is a primary means of creating and transmitting knowledge, values, beliefs, and identities. Narrative helps us to understand and explain ourselves, others, and the world around us. Narrative also helps us to influence and persuade others, and to shape and change our social realities. Narrative is a form of cultural expression and social interaction that reflects and affects our collective and individual experiences.

Some examples of the role of narrative in culture and society are:

  • History: narrative is a way of recording and interpreting the past, and of constructing and contesting our historical memory and identity.

  • Law: narrative is a way of presenting and evaluating evidence, and of arguing and judging cases and claims.

  • Medicine: narrative is a way of diagnosing and treating illnesses, and of communicating and empathizing with patients and doctors.

  • Education: narrative is a way of teaching and learning information, skills, and values, and of engaging and motivating students and teachers.

  • Religion: narrative is a way of expressing and exploring faith, spirituality, and morality, and of creating and sustaining communities and rituals.

The benefits of narrative for cognition and emotion

Narrative also has many benefits for cognition and emotion, as it is a source of mental stimulation and emotional satisfaction. Narrative enhances our cognitive abilities, such as memory, imagination, creativity, reasoning, problem-solving, etc. Narrative also enriches our emotional experiences, such as pleasure, curiosity, suspense, surpris


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