In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Narrative

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Origins of Narrative
  • Narrative and Identity
  • Early Narrative
  • The Novel
  • Audiovisual Narrative
  • Narrative in the Digital Age
  • “Naturally Occurring” Narrative
  • Narratology
  • Narrative in Social Science
  • Narrative and Cognition
  • Time and Narrative

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Communication Narrative
Paul Cobley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0088


As a concept, narrative has now seriously come of age. Whereas in the past people may have talked about “stories,” they now refer to “narratives,” betraying the awareness of how story events are very much organized phenomena, and the fact that the way in which narratives are used is a matter of considerable significance. This awareness comes at a time when human societies are saturated with narratives. It is possible to consume dozens, perhaps hundreds, of narratives in different media each day. It is also possible to trade narratives interpersonally on a scale unprecedented in human history. It is hardly surprising, then, that “narrative” has become a key category in how humans understand themselves: it is possible that humans live by way of narratives, and that humans quite frequently think in narratives. It is certainly the case that humans produce narratives and have done so for tens of thousands of years, since the oral cultures of our early forager ancestors. There is a growing consensus regarding why humans evolved this form of signification, although there are also differences of opinion about some of the specifics. One key issue concerns whether the way the human child develops is particularly fitted to narrative modes of thought and expression. If so, a question arises regarding how deep-rooted in psychology this disposition might be, and what environmental conditions are required for it to function or flourish. One key and related topic concerns identity. Narrative has been instrumental in recording the identity of communities and offering groups of people stories by which they might live. Yet there is debate regarding the extent to which narrative governs individual identities. Furthermore, identity and narrative will be inflected in different ways according to the media in which they are embodied. Many of these media are extremely complex; they frame narratives in ways that are far more challenging than if narrative simply reflected reality. Thus there has been much analysis—beyond self-conscious narrative theory—of drama, the novel, and cinematic and televisual narrative, as well as oral narrative. Research into the reconfiguration of narrative forms on digital platforms and in a range of technologies continues. In recent decades there has also been an accelerated interest in how narrative suffuses everyday and occupational life, a development that has emerged almost concurrently with a more concentrated investigation of the relation of narrative and cognitive processes, particularly the human relations to time. The entries in this bibliography include “landmark” studies, surveys, debates, and currents in the study of narrative.

General Overviews

An overview that covered all topics and all approaches in the field of narrative would be especially difficult to imagine. Many choose to focus on theoretical issues in narrative; some offer a historical account; some focus on one narrative medium rather than others; some present a specific “approach” to narrative; some offer an overview of approaches; and others prefer to discuss narrative without the baggage of contemporary or historical scholarship. Some overviews even contain a mixture of the aforementioned approaches. Certainly, it is possible to identify work that emerged before the advent of Narratology and work that was published after and influenced by narratology. Scholes and Kellogg 1966 is a useful instance of the former. The majority of overviews incorporate some discussion of narratology and/or Anglo-American discussions of the rhetoric of narrative, including Rimmon-Kenan 1983. There has also developed a considerable body of work that acknowledges narratology but identifies itself as part of postclassical narratology with specific interests in cognitive theory and discourse analysis. Herman 2009 is an example of this, along with the essays in Herman 2007. Yet these are not the ultimate boundaries of overviews on narrative. There are works that remain resolutely outside such identifications, such as the cognate semiotic perspectives of Cobley 2014 and Taha 2015, the communicative approach of Altman 2008, and the eclecticism of Herman, et al. 2005.

  • Altman, Rick. 2008. A theory of narrative. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    Maverick work by a distinguished film theorist that circumvents the major and contemporary theories of narrative to produce an overview based on analyzing what characters are “followed” in pictorial and print fictions. Also considers nonfiction, and some philosophy and Biblical texts. Makes interesting and far-reaching conclusions.

  • Cobley, Paul. 2014. Narrative. 2d ed. London: Routledge.

    Historical overview of narrative that focuses on how narratives have been embodied in different media, and what that has entailed for narrative’s social function of memorializing identity. Final chapter consists of a review of current research and theory in the field of narrative.

  • Herman, David, ed. 2007. The Cambridge companion to narrative. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Extremely useful guide to narrative from a theoretical, rather than historical, perspective. Contains a discussion of the attempt to define narrative (Ryan), plus orientating essays on key topics such as character (Margolin) and dialogue (Thomas), as well as essays on narrative and media, and issues such as language (Toolan) and ideology (Herman and Vervaeck).

  • Herman, David. 2009. Basic elements of narrative. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444305920

    Introduction to narrative from the point of view of narrative’s “worldmaking” capacity. A necessarily partial approach to what the “basic elements” of narrative are, but contains some excellent, illuminating readings of canonical and popular texts across media.

  • Herman, David, Manfred Jahn, and Marie-Laure Ryan, eds. 2005. Routledge encyclopedia of narrative theory. London: Routledge.

    Certainly hitting the spot in 2005, this bulky volume is well-organized, well-indexed, and very much to the point. With its roster of contributors, it remains a crucial reference book. Contributions offer further readings and references, while the readers’ guide at the front makes the hard task of connecting issues and theories much easier.

  • Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. 1983. Narrative fiction: Contemporary poetics. London: Methuen.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203426111

    An exceptionally skillful, concise synthesis of Narratology and then extant Anglo-American work on fiction. Mainly arranged according to sections on “Story,” “Text” and “Narration,” the volume clarifies some basic ideas on narrative that were challenging in 1983 and remain so, to some extent, today.

  • Scholes, Robert, and Robert Kellogg. 1966. The nature of narrative. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    An overview of narrative that is historically very interesting because of its focus on narrative per se before the project of Narratology that developed in Anglophone criticism soon after this book was published. Initially takes a historical approach, then, later, focuses on thematic issues in favor of discussing narrative outside of literature.

  • Taha, Ibrahim. 2015. Heroizability: An anthroposemiotic theory of literary characters. Berlin: de Gruyter Mouton.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781501502651

    Semiotic survey that shows how the role of the hero is central to the constitution of narrative. Offers a very persuasive argument regarding the relation of narrative to the question of what it is to be human. It is useful to compare Taha’s focus on the hero with Woloch 2003 (cited under Novel).

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