What is narrative?

As we have seen, narrative in its broadest sense is storytelling. More precisely, though, it involves the representation of an event or sequence of events that takes place in time. Thus, for something to qualify as a narrative – rather than, say, as a lecture or description – it must contain at least one event and give us some sense of the progression of time.

Try to memorise that more extended definition and then take the following short quiz to see if you have understood how it might apply in practice. By asking you to identify which painting, which short sentence and which longer passage of prose contains the basic elements of narrative, this multiple-choice quiz allows you to ensure you have a basic understanding of the difference between narrative and non-narrative.

(Once you have submitted your answers and completed the quiz, click on the View Questions button at the end to see fuller explanations for why some of the examples are narratives and some are not)



Completing that quiz should have added some extra layers of refinement and nuance to the understanding of narrative offered at the top of this page. If this is a topic that interests you and you would like to find out more about some of the further characteristics scholars have contended should be regarded as essential elements of narrative, take a look here for a brief overview.

The examples we have just looked at in any case highlight three important points about narrative we certainly should keep in mind as we continue our study:

  • in the arts, narratives appear in different media (such as paintings, books and films) and different genres (such as plays, poems and prose)
  • narratives often employ other, non-narrative forms of discourse (such as description, information and argumentation) as part of their narrative technique. At the same time, passages of narrative are in turn employed by other forms of discourse in order to help them achieve their specific goals of persuading, informing and/or appealing to the emotions of their readers, viewers and listeners
  • to be considered a narrative, a work of art must do more than merely represent an event or sequence of events that takes place in time; they must do so in a manner that feels as if they are telling a story (if you wish to acquire a fuller sense of what this entails, this page illustrates the point with reference to the third of the questions contained in the quiz you have just completed)

That last point is especially crucial and explains why we will continue to define narrative as storytelling throughout this module.

Next: The importance of narrative and narratology