Elements of narrative

Since narrative involves storytelling – with the emphasis very much on the telling – we need to begin our study of narrative (like, indeed, our study of any particular narrative, be it Huckleberry FinnStar Wars or anything else) by recognising a fundamental distinction between story (what happens) on the one hand and narration (the way in which those events are presented to us) on the other.

In practice, narratives can never tell us the ‘full’ story or the story ‘as it really was’; all they can do is present us with a particular version (or in some cases versions) of that story.  This is why we need to pay so much attention to the narration, which is to say to the manner in which a story is told. Only then can we understand why we respond to the book, film, cartoon strip or whatever other form of storytelling is involved that we do. Only then can we understand how we come to interpret and derive the meaning from the story that we do.

In this part of the module, we will introduce ourselves to – and develop some basic strategies for analysing – the main elements of narrative. These are the principal elements that, taken together, determine the way a narrative tells its story. Not all of these elements play an equally important role in every individual act of storytelling, but if you consider each one of them in relation to the particular narrative you are studying, you should be able to end up with a good understanding of how that narrative works.

The principal elements of narrative are the following:

Please note that scholars have developed a large and highly specialised vocabulary for describing the workings and characteristics of these individual elements of narrative. In this module, we will keep our use of this terminology to a minimum. Nonetheless, all the terms involved were developed for a specific reason, namely, to enable us to talk about particular features of narrative (and narratives) in a more precise and therefore insightful manner. Your own use of this vocabulary should therefore follow the same procedure: you should never use it for its own sake (i.e. merely to demonstrate you are aware of its existence); you should only use it when it enables you to say with precision, concision and clarity something that no other word or phrase could say equally well.

If you are unsure about the meaning of a particular narratological term, many of the books listed in the additional narrative resources page of this module contain useful glossaries, as will any dictionary of literary terms. You can also find helpful glossaries online, such as this one [external site].

Once you have completed this second unit in the narrative module, you may either return to the module’s front page or proceed directly to the next unit: Guidelines for interpreting narrative.