What is Narrative, Anyway?
The other day, a reporter asked me, "What is narrative, anyway?"
I should have had a ready answer at my fingertips (but it was early in the morning and I hadn't opened my can of Red Bull).
I mumbled something about an attempt to impose order on the chaos of the human condition (as I said, it was early and ...).
Then it occurred to me that we throw the word "narrative" around pretty freely these days. Yet here was a veteran, sophisticated reporter who was keenly interested in producing this thing she heard everyone talking about, but honestly wasn't sure what it meant.
At that moment, I wished I could have been like Woody Allen in "Annie Hall" when he trots out Marshall McLuhan to demolish a movie line bore. I could have said, "Well, let's ask..."
So I did the next best thing, which was to ask a lot of smart people — reporters, writers, editors, authors, teachers — for their answers.
Over the next two columns, I'll share their responses. I hope you'll contribute yours, too, and join our virtual roundtable discussion.
* * *
I think of narrative as storytelling: that is, as a way of ordering events and thoughts in a coherent sequence that makes them interesting to listen to. It therefore has a strong oral heritage. The sequence doesn't have to be strictly chronological, though it can be; it can include digressions and flashbacks and foreshadowings, just as a story recounted around a campfire can. But because narrative is powered by events, its goal is not essentially analytical or critical — though, like many stories (especially in traditional genres — folktales, fairy tales, fables), it can contain substantial moral lessons.
— Anne Fadiman
Editor, The American Scholar
Author, "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down"
"Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader"
* * *
Narrative is the dirt path that leads us through the impenetrable forest, so we move forward and don't feel lost.
— Wade Rawlins
Raleigh News and Observer
* * *
What we are doing is telling stories. The strict definition of "narrative" is seldom used as Fitzgerald used it in the "Great Gatsby." Fitzgerald had a character tell us a story from his point of view. We tend to write in the third person from the omniscient point of view, thus story telling.
A story told using:
- Character. In which a personality is revealed or changed.
- Scenes. A place described where an action occurs.
- Time. Used to define the limits of the story and around which action is organized.
- Technique. The use of descriptive writing and dialogue.
- Purpose. A theme or development which is of interest or importance to the intended reader.
Skillfully done, the story unfolds allowing the reader to meet the characters as they encounter problems with which they deal in a place and time the reader experiences with them.
— Joel Rawson
Executive Editor, The Providence Journal
* * *
"Narrative" means any technique that produces the visceral desire in a reader to want to know what happened next.
— Bob Baker
Los Angeles Times
* * *
For me, "narrative'' is a tool I use sparingly in telling a story.
Andre Dubus taught me the difference between narrative and scene. An example of narrative, inelegant narrative, is an old movie, where they superimpose a calendar over a bustling background, and show the pages flipping off to indicate: time passed.
When teaching narrative I use a short story from Richard Yates' collection "Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.'' The story's called "Fun with a Stranger.'' I don't have it here right now, but in a simple, elegant paragraph he captures the passage of an entire school semester, then breaks into a new, short pararaph to seamlessly transfer into scene.
Scene tightens time. To write a scene you need to capture the details of setting and the nuance of character. (Good character capturers include dialogue, action, and what you and Tom Wolfe call the status details.)
Sometimes the phrase "narrative journalism'' confuses me, too, for it is an inexact phrase. I consider what I do, what a lot of us write, as storytelling journalism. Much of journalism does not tell a story, nor is it intended to; many newspaper pieces have no more ambition than to present information. Tobias Wolff rightfully says "information is the death of story'' which means that as far as storytelling goes, much journalism is dead at birth. The stuff is useful to people who want that information: Red Sox 3, Tampa Bay 2; it does not tell a story. Sometimes people don't want to make the effort to read a story, to be cajoled and led along; in these instances journalism, as opposed to storytelling journalism, is the right format.
Storytelling journalism employs the techniques of fiction: point of view; time; scene (which includes setting, characters, dialogue); and narrative. Yet it remains true to the tenants of journalism: accuracy; honesty; integrity of intentions.
The short answer I'd give your questioner is the above paragraph, substituting Storytelling Journalism with Narrative Journalism, though if I had my way we'd all change "narrative'' to "storytelling.''
— Gerald Carbone
The Providence Journal
"The Wrong Man," with Cathleen F. Crowley
* * *
Story. A narrative moves forward by dramatic and chronological sequence.
It may just move forward all the time or may move back and forth, but the reader assumes that it has a starting point (conflict) and an ending point (resolution).
Between the starting and ending point there is dramatic action. Characters act (and dialogue is action) and react. The action and reaction changes them in a way that is significant to them and to the reader.
Narrative does not (usually) tell the reader about the story as traditional journalists do but as novelists and screen writers do. The narrative writer reveals the story so the reader watches and comes to the reader's own conclusions about the significance of the events the reader has observed.
Show, don't tell. Mark Twain: "Don't say the old lady screamed — bring her on and let her scream."
— Donald M. Murray
* * *
Obviously terms everyone uses, but no one can quite define (but everyone is eternally pressed to define) are about vast, various, blind-men-feeling-elephant sorts of concepts.
I get asked that "What's narrative?" question all the time, and given the name of our slice of the Nieman Foundation, I've been pressed on it. When first starting the program, in jest, I tried to evade what I knew would be coming by suggesting that we should call ourselves "The Nieman Program for 'Contactful' Journalism." Journalism that doesn't act like the reader is a robot or doesn't know and feel and snicker and get wild. Perhaps the question you're really being asked is a more truculent one: "What's up with this narrative stuff?", a question that denotes factions and dis-ease with the clear movement toward more narrative in news coverage, the quest for a definition is simply a conversation starter.
Anyhow, here's my official answer: At a minimum, narrative denotes writing with a) set scenes, b) characters, c) action that unfolds over time, d) the interpretable voice of a teller, a narrator with a somewhat discernable personality, e) some sense of relationship to the reader/viewer/listener, and f) all arrayed to lead the audience toward a point or realization or destination.
To comment on each of these:
a) Set scenes: Lots of unpracticed narrative writing simply is haphazard or naive about painting physical location — objects fly about, are near and far, we're inside and outside: I call it 'Chagall-like description.' It's easy and quick to set readers down IN a scene, and it's requisite for narrative, at least for engaging narrative.
b) Characters: If the standard (and much lamented, by most everyone on your list) news-voice is the voice of a beneficent bureaucracy, the speech of informative sentinels on the walls of the city, issuing heads-ups to citizens ("A fire yesterday at 145 Elm St. destroyed ... Damage is estimated at ... "), it is a voice that eschews investigations of character. Persons, in the world of news-voice, are citizens, not characters. They have addresses, ages, arrest records, voting district and precinct locations, official hospital conditions, and military statuses. These are 'civic traits.' Narrative is about people doing stuff, and to some extent, and in the right places, must reach past civic traits if it is to cover real folks' real stories well.
c) Action that unfolds over time: This is the very essence of narrative construction, the I-Beams of narrative on which all else leans, hangs, depends. It also offers a non-topical way of organizing material — arraying it chronologically, as it's experienced by a character in a setting, crossing outline categories, but following experiential ones. Most narrative articles/books represent a sensible truce in the struggle between chronological and topical organizational principles.
d) Voice: ... which is only possible if the reader/viewer/listener is so engaged by the strong voice of the teller that the ...
e) Relationship with audience: ... reader willingly follows the teller through unset topical digressions, shifts gladly and interestedly to other settings and characters, and back, and if the reader then starts assembling in mind ...
f) Destination: ... a sequence of subtextual comprehensions that work toward the reader's engineered discovery that the story has a theme, purpose, reason, destination — that it's worthwhile to ingest it.
— Mark Kramer
Director and Writer-in-Residence,
Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism
* * *
As editors of "River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative," my co-editor and I spend half of our time explaining what we mean by "river teeth" and the other half explaining what we mean by narrative. I like to define narrative the old-fashioned way, as a "telling." "Here's what happened to me. Let me tell you about yesterday. Here's what it was like growing up the way I did." All we need to do is take a look at how many people and groups of people — a lot of them historically marginalized — who use narrative in its less structured essence, whether this is the narrative of a slave life, the narrative of ... fill in the blank.
I like David James Duncan's definition of what a narrative can be: "What we want from a writer is a canto (Old English "fyttte" : fit), which was originally defined as a burst of bardic energy sufficient to satisfy an audience (a reader)."
Maybe that's all we're ever talking about.
— Joe Mackall
Co-editor, River Teeth
* * *
I always thought it was telling the reader or viewer a story through you own eyes sort of like the character Sarah Jessica Parker plays, Carrie Bradshaw, from "Sex in the City."
— Ruth Bashinsky
New York Daily News
* * *
At least the reporter didn't ask, "Well, what is news, anyway?"
I agree that narrative is, put simply, just storytelling. It's what I do when my wife asks me how golf went and I describe how it was that I nearly birdied but eventually bogeyed the last hole of the day, shot by shot, with insertions about the weather, the conditions, my state of mind, the unfairness of life, how I set out to reduce my stress and wound up creating it. Some of this I render for her in pictures. Some I cannot. But it's all still a tale, a yarn, a story, a narrative.
Which, in a way, is to say that narrative is not always show rather than tell. Sometimes the writer needs to step back and explain what's going on, what something technical or complicated means, or why something in a minimal context is important in a broader sense. I read narratives now and then that I recognize as great writing, but the writer never deigns to tell me what it all means, or why she's telling me what she's telling me, or why he took me wherever he took me, and so I move on to the sports section where all the many tiny narratives within the "stories" aren't so opaque (I know what it means when Notre Dame loses to Michigan, 38-0. The apocalypse is near!).
Sometimes it's just easier, and faster, to tell something rather than show it. (Say you're writing a tale of how Alan Greenspan came to the conclusion that the Bush tax cuts were all wrong. It's hard to show tax cuts. Sure, you can illustrate their effect, but at some point you're gonna have to stop and tell me what the hell they are. That doesn't mean there isn't a hell of a story here, although it would take a better reporter than me to get it.)
Although it borrows method from literature — plot, character, theme, conflict — it's really more like documentary film. We strive to show all that we can, but now and then the viewer/reader needs to have things explained. I'm writing a narrative now that involves an intense disagreement between two powerful interests over how best to remedy a particular social ill. I have lots of sharp pictures (or at least I think I do) of characters doing things in conflict with each other. But their disagreement involves rather esoteric arguments that defy "show" but lend themselves to "tell." So every now and then, alas, I have to look into the camera and speak.
And what I say when describing that bogey can only be shown on HBO.
— Bryan Gruley
Wall Street Journal
* * *
— Craig Matsuda
Los Angeles Times
Here's what I'm getting out of the great attempts to define narrative: That some get at the question by an inventory of the required elements of narrative: scenes, dialogue, character, point of view, and the like. That helps enormously. But it's also necessary to define what those tools are designed to create: I agree with those who say "experience." A narrative or story is a form of vicarious (or substitute) experience. The story transports the reader to a place and a time not otherwise available to the reader. We can problem climb another step up: What's the purpose of such vicarious experience: maybe empathy, understanding, catharsis. Here's another way to climb this step ladder of narrative:
1. What special tools do I need? (Scenes, etc).
2. What am I trying to make? (Stories)
3. What is the effect of stories? (Vicarious experience)
4. What's the value of such experience? (Human
— Roy Peter Clark
The Poynter Institute
* * *
I agree that we bandy this word about without a clear shared sense of what it means, and at the risk of sending writers off for weeks or months of frustration.
I tend to use the term carefully. Mostly, I talk about "storytelling," or use other story descriptives (profile, explanatory, etc.) that help define the basic approach or goal of a story. Then we talk about weaving "narrative elements" into those stories.
A true narrative, as I understand it, requires 1) core character, 2) facing core conflict, and 3) resolving same through a forward-moving plot.
That leaves many, many great journalistic stories off the list.
But narrative elements ... character, scene, dialogue, description, action, tension, etc. ... can enhance almost any story, no matter its form.
That said, I haven't had my Red Bull yet today either.
Many of the great journalistic narratives of recent years (done by fellow travelers Jon Franklin, Tom French, Tom Hallman, etc.) require considerable use of reconstruction. In the days post-Jayson Blair, I'm wondering if we need to reprise our discussions about where the line is drawn on reconstruction and credibility. You all at Poynter hosted a great session a few years back. Has our thinking changed? Do we have ways to signal to readers that a piece is true when we all admit we weren't actually there?
— Jacqui Banaszynski
Seattle Times, University of Missouri
"Six Paths to Story"
* * *
What is narrative?
I don't use the word much any more because I've found that too many writers aren't quite sure what it means. To me it means "storytelling" ... nothing more, nothing less. So mostly I use that word now. Nearly everyone seems to understand what THAT means (although too few people seem to know how it's done.) I don't think it requires definition, but in case it does: "Storytelling" relates a series of connected events, using chronology (what happens next) as the main organizational element. Pure storytelling (or narrative) requires a theme (a central point or message). And it requires the classic character/problem/struggle/resolution structure that is part of every story from fairy tales to Melville to the "Sopranos." It also requires a narrator — a speaker or writer who takes control of the material, shapes it, and relates it in an appealing and personal voice. Finally, storytelling (or narrative) elements can be inserted in articles that are not pure narrative from top to bottom. For example, a well-told anecdote in the body of a block organization story is a form of narrative or storytelling.
— Bruce DeSilva
The Associated Press
* * *
Didn't Jon Franklin say narrative is simply "chronology with meaning"? Characters and theme add up to meaningful.
I appreciate Bruce's DeSilva's remarks on the term narrative. My boss doesn't like it when I use the word. Call it "storytelling," she says, because narrative is unfamiliar to many people and for some it has bad connotations. I find, though, that people who avoid or are unfamiliar with the term frequently "don't get it.'' Some are just learning, others are resisters and think of people who use the term narrative as effete. I try to draw these folks out with some questions so I know if I'm dealing with ignorance or prejudice.
— Dick Weiss
Deputy Metro Editor / Writing Coach
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"Dad's Write Stuff"
* * *
We can use many, many words to describe narrative — and perhaps we should — because it is bandied about, too often used loosely or incorrectly. But I usually come back to just two words that are easy to remember — and which emphasize the two most important elements: "Chronology with Meaning," in Jon Franklin's phrase.
Because a narrative is not simply what-happens-next, plot and action ... It is storytelling in which the writer/narrator makes sense of the action for you. The writer has the authority, grounded in reporting, to interpret.
I like what Nabokov wrote: "The term 'narrative' is often confused with the term 'plot,' but they're not the same thing. If I tell you that the king died, and then the queen died, that's not narrative; that's plot. But, if I tell you that the king died, and then the queen died of a broken heart, that's narrative."
— Jan Winburn
The Baltimore Sun
"In Search of Story"
* * *
Here's my humble attempt: Narrative simply means storytelling, with a sense of character, time, and place. Narrative journalism goes beyond the mere facts of traditional news writing to tell a human story. The story line flows from the lives, thoughts, and emotions of the people at the center of that story as they face changing circumstances. A narrative has a thoughtfully arranged thematic development. The story continues to enlarge from beginning to end, almost like a flower unfolding in the sun, until an epiphany or sense of understanding is revealed at the end. Style is an important element of narrative writing, as well: The stories should be written with sensitivity, depth and grace that raise them above the ordinary.
Narrative journalism is often described as nonfiction written with the techniques of fiction, but I don't think that's an adequate explanation. The inviolable rule of narrative journalism, of course, is that everything must be absolutely, verifiably true.
— Matt Schudel
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
* * *
I'd say narrative is a chronology that goes somewhere.
My thinking is heavily influenced by Jon Franklin and Don Drake.
Here's what they said in "The Journalist's Craft":
Jon Franklin: "Narrative is a simple thing, at bottom: chronology with meaning."
Don Drake: "You might say that a narrative is an anecdotal lead that keeps on going until the end, unlike conventional stories with anecdotal leads, which are to storytelling what a stripteaser is to sex. An anecdotal lead excites, but the story never delivers what it promises."
— John Sweeney
Wilmington News Journal
co-editor, "The Journalist's Craft"
* * *
For me, it's storytelling in the simplest and most complex ways.
I don't think it works without some mystery and suspense, and with a concept seldom talked about in this biz — movement.
Movement is accomplished by having a sense of the reader's experience, and knowing where and when to tuck in details without disrupting the gradual but smooth unraveling of the story.
— Steve Lopez
Los Angeles Times
"What Do You Do With All the Pots?"
* * *
Narrative — whether we're talking about an intricately, creatively structured story or the oft-damned inverted pyramid — is merely a thread that combines words and facts in a way that keeps the reader reading. A good narrative is a fast read because each sentence is a transition sentence. This creates flow which, combined with fact, makes a story absorbing until the end.
Much was made of the fact that the movie "Memento," (a landmark deconstruction of narrative) was filmed backwards — with the opening scene the last event of the movie, and the last scene the first event. But the narrative itself moved forward — the story was tight and linear and had a beginning that hooked you and an ending that stunned you, despite the dazzling construction.
— Mark Fritz
Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, 1995
* * *
A narrative is a factual story told with fictional techniques. Example: Taking note of scenes and details that wouldn't make it into a more traditional story. "Alone in her office late at night with only a goose-neck lamp for illumination, the city manager furrowed her brow over the budget for the coming fiscal year ... "
A narrative isn't just writing, it's reporting through all of one's senses.
A narrative is a story with a beginning, middle, and end.
A narrative is a story about a person or group and how that person or group changes over the course of the story.
A narrative does not depart from the cardinal rule: Make nothing up or you'll be out of here and working at the Sunglass Hut so fast it'll make your head spin around.
A narrative doesn't have to be "A Year in the Life of ___," nor does it have to take up four open pages after jumping from the front page.
A narrative is a journalistic form that has fallen into considerable disfavor in the wake of our craft's ceaseless, self-flagellating credibility crisis.
A narrative reveals character through action.
A profile can be a narrative if it gets into how the subject changed over time and what the turning points in his or her life were. A profile of Howard Dean that states his positions on issues is not a narrative. A profile on where Howard Dean came from, what about that time and place informed his character, what his views are and how he came to hold them can be a narrative.
A narrative is a grandiose and outdated appellation that makes those who write them look like prima donnas and those who don't look like overworked hacks.
— Patrick Beach
"The First Son"
* * *
Entire books, many of them, have been written to explain what narrative is. Here's a brief overview I just wrote for a writing textbook I'm revising for Bedford Books, "Convergences." I can't explain narrative in 25 words or less or even in a neat punch-line quip. But maybe this would interest you.
Storytelling appears throughout all cultures and is an inseparable part of human life. Our brains seem to be "hard-wired" for constructing narratives, for putting events in sequences, for selecting details, for reporting our experiences to others. We begin doing these things in very early childhood, practically as soon as we learn to speak.
The stories we tell also help us construct identities, both for ourselves and our communities. As Harvard historian Drew Gilpin Faust puts it: "We create ourselves out of the stories we tell about our lives, stories that impose purpose and meaning on experiences that often seem random and discontinuous." If that is the case with individuals, it is equally true for cultures and communities, who share stories in the form of myths, legends, and historical narratives. Understanding ourselves and the world we live in is many ways dependent upon understanding what we do when we relate a story, whether through words, pictures, or movements.
We naturally see our lives in terms of stories. In much of our conversation we spontaneously narrate the events of our day: this happened, then that happened, and so on. Such informal, everyday narrative consists of a string of events connected chronologically. This is the simplest and most common form of narration. Although we may imagine our life as a story, it should not take a lifetime to tell it! In narration, knowing what to leave out is as important as knowing what to include. Anyone who has listened patiently to a long-winded friend laboriously relate a story has often casually expressed an important criticism of all narration: "Please, get to the point!" we want to say, as we try to stifle a yawn. Our long-winded friend gets lost in details, often interrupting the flow of events to include yet another detail, one that may have no bearing on what happened. Worse, some incidents suggest completely irrelevant details so that the storyteller becomes "sidetracked." We all know people who cannot tell us about getting a flat tire without first telling us how they bought the car.
Effective storytelling is not a matter of simply repeating a continuous sequence of events (x happened, then y, then z) but of selecting events that lead to something significant (x happened, which resulted in y, and that culminated in z). Skillful narrative, then, is not so much sequential as it is consequential. This is what we normally mean when we say a story has a plot. A plot is a deliberate shaping or staging (see the introduction to Chapter I), of events to achieve a particular effect: suspense, surprise, intrigue, a sudden illumination or transformation, a moral. The renowned British novelist E. M. Forster made a useful and much-cited distinction between plot and story in his classic study of fiction, "Aspects of the Novel" (1927): "'The king died and then the queen died' is a story. 'The king died, and then the queen died of grief' is a plot. As you can see in this very brief example, one is sequential and the other consequential.
A plot deals with the causes and consequences of the events, and adds to the story's level of artifice. For example, we can tell a child an artless, rambling bedtime story that we make up as we go along. But if we want our story to have the impact of surprise or to make a moral point, we usually need to know our ending in advance. Plots — as we know from many films and detective stories — can be elaborately constructed.
Although narrative and story are commonly used interchangeably, we can best consider narrative as the overall construction of a story. As we know, the same story can be told any number of ways. Deciding how to tell a story forms the basis of narrative art: should we begin at the beginning or start at the end and proceed backward? Which events should we select and how should they be arranged? Should we establish a strict time period or not worry about gaps in time? Should we report multiple points of view or focus on a single perspective? Anyone who undertakes a screenplay, a novel, or cartoon confronts these decisions, whether consciously or not. "All my films have a beginning, a middle, and an end," said the French director Jean-Luc Godard, "but not necessarily in that order."
Narrative structure can be found everywhere: in jokes, lab reports, historical accounts, personal essays, songs and ballads, news coverage, comic books, movies, sitcoms, and ballets such as the Nutcracker that tell a story through dance. Some television commercials are mini-narratives lasting only a few seconds without dialogue or commentary. Even photographers find ways to work with sequential storytelling methods as Nora Ephron dramatically shows in her essay "The Boston Photographs."
— Robert Atwan
Series Editor, "Best American Essays"
* * *
Narrative, to me, is telling a story.
It is using the techniques of classic storytelling as the structure for news/feature reports.
Narratives return journalism to the simplistic, yet complicated, state of telling stories.
— Karen Dunlap
The Poynter Institute
* * *
I still have to ask myself that question. What is a narrative anyway? As a reporter, I really don't know. I'm guessing that most reporters always try to write with voice (one of those narrative characteristics) and lots of detail. The narrative forces you to find a theme or a thread of the day and weave it through the entire story (which is something a lot of reporters already try to do). The narrative forces you to consider every single possibility and angle as the beginning of the story (like most stories). The narrative allows you to use more source-to-source dialogue (like most stories ... you hope). For me, a narrative is a narrative when everyone else says it's a narrative. For me the reporter, I'm just trying to write the best story for the readers. To be honest, Chip, I'm not smart enough to figure anything else out.
— Demorris Lee
Raleigh News & Observer
* * *
Narrative is what I come up with when I put my niece to bed and she says, "Tell me a story." I tell her a story, I don't tell her an article.
— Janet Rae Brooks
Salt Lake Tribune
* * *
Narrative? Good question. I've been accused of writing narrative newspaper stories, but no one has ever asked me to define the term.
Let's see: A story that follows a central character or characters, usually through adversity or difficult circumstances, along a dramatic arc that closes (in most cases) with a clear resolution. In the case of newspaper narratives, somebody usually ends up dead, or at least indicted.
— David Zucchino
Los Angeles Times
* * *
I see this as a two-parter: defining narrative and doing it. Defining it seems fairly easy: For journalists, a narrative is a piece presented in storytelling form instead of report form.
Knowing how to do that is harder. Chapters and books, many by people in this group, have been devoted to that question. But I think the essence is finding a way, without any compromise in accuracy or any other journalistic value, to dramatize what is meaningful and special by telling a story that makes it as hard as possible for a reader to stop reading.
— Carl Sessions Stepp
University of Maryland
* * *
A narrative is not just telling the reader what happened, but putting the reader there.
— Scott Mayerowitz
The Providence Journal