In media terms, narrative is the coherence/organisation given to a series of facts. The human mind needs narrative to make sense of things. We connect events and make interpretations based on those connections. In everything we seek a beginning, a middle and an end. We understand and construct meaning using our experience of reality and of previous texts. Each text becomes part of the previous and the next through its relationship with the audience.

The difference between Story & Narrative:

"Story is the irreducible substance of a story (A meets B, something happens, order returns), while narrative is the way the story is related (Once upon a time there was a princess...)" (Key Concepts in Communication - Fiske et al (1983))

Media Texts

Reality is difficult to understand, and we struggle to construct meaning out of our everyday experience. Media texts are better organised; we need to be able to engage with them without too much effort. We have expectations of form, a foreknowledge of how that text will be constructed. Media texts can also be fictional constructs, with elements of prediction and fulfilment which are not present in reality. Basic elements of a narrative, according to Aristotle:

"...the most important is the plot, the ordering of the incidents; for tragedy is a representation, not of men, but of action and life, of happiness and unhappiness - and happiness and unhappiness are bound up with action. is their characters indeed, that make men what they are, but it is by reason of their actions that they are happy or the reverse." (Poetics - Aristotle(Penguin Edition) p39-40 4th century BC )

Successful stories require actions which change the lives of the characters in the story. They also contain some sort of resolution, where that change is registered, and which creates a new equilibrium for the characters involved. Remember that narratives are not just those we encounter in fiction. Even news stories, advertisements and documentaries also have a constructed narrative which must be interpreted.

Narrative Conventions

When unpacking a narrative in order to find its meaning, there are a series of codes and conventions that need to be considered. When we look at a narrative we examine the conventions of

and use knowledge of these conventions to help us interpret the text. In particular, Time is something that we understand as a convention - narratives do not take place in real time but may telescope out (the slow motion shot which replays a winning goal) or in (an 80 year life can be condensed into a two hour biopic). Therefore we consider "the time of the thing told and the time of the telling." (Christian Metz Notes Towards A Phenomenology of Narrative).

It is only because we are used to reading narratives from a very early age, and are able to compare texts with others that we understand these conventions. A narrative in its most basic sense is a series of events, but in order to construct meaning from the narrative those events must be linked somehow.

Barthes´ Codes

Roland Barthes describes a text as

"a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one; the codes it mobilizes extend as far as the eye can read, they are indeterminable...the systems of meaning can take over this absolutely plural text, but their number is never closed, based as it is on the infinity of language..." (S/Z - 1974 translation)

What he is basically saying is that a text is like a tangled ball of threads which needs unravelling so we can separate out the colours. Once we start to unravel a text, we encounter an absolute plurality of potential meanings. We can start by looking at a narrative in one way, from one viewpoint, bringing to bear one set of previous experience, and create one meaning for that text. You can continue by unravelling the narrative from a different angle, by pulling a different thread if you like, and create an entirely different meaning. And so on. An infinite number of times. If you wanted to.

Barthes wanted to - he was a semiotics professor in the 1950s and 1960s who got paid to spend all day unravelling little bits of texts and then writing about the process of doing so. All you need to know, again, very basically, is that texts may be ´open´ (ie unravelled in a lot of different ways) or ´closed´ (there is only one obvious thread to pull on).

Barthes also decided that the threads that you pull on to try and unravel meaning are called narrative codes and that they could be categorised in the following five ways:

Narrative Structures

There are many ways of breaking down narrative structure. You may hear a movie described as a "classic Hollywood narrative", meaning it has three acts. News stories have their own structure. A lot of work has been done by literary theorists to develop ways of deconstructing a narrative.

Deconstructing Narratives

Separating Plot And Story

Think of a feature film, and jot down a) the strict chronological order in which events occur b) the order in which each of the main characters finds out about these events a) shows story, b) shows plot construction. Plot keeps audiences interested eg) in whether the children will discover Mrs Doubtfire is really their father, or shocks them, eg) the 'twist in the tale" at the end of The Sixth Sense. Identifying Narrator Who is telling this story is a vital question to be asked when analysing any media text. Stories may be related in the first or third person, POVs may change, but the narrator will always

The narrator also tends to POSITION the audience into a particular relationship with the characters on the screen.

Comprehending Time

Very few screen stories take place in real time. Whole lives can be dealt with in the 90 minutes of a feature film, an 8 month siege be encompassed within a 60 minute TV documentary. There are many conventions to denote time passing, from the time/date information typed up on each new scene of The X-Files to the aeroplane passing over a map of a continent in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Other devices to manipulate time include

Locating the Narrative

Each story has a location. This may be physical and geographical (eg a war zone) or it may be mythic (eg the Wild West). Virtual locations are now a feature of many newsrooms (eg the computers and holograms of the BBC's Nine O'Clock News). There are sets of conventions to do with that location, often associated with genre and form (eg all space ships seem to look the same inside).

A good way to test your understanding of narrative is to apply the theories to a non-linear narrative such as the movie Memento (2002). You can find a study guide to Memento here.


Further Reading

This is a complex area of media theory and many of the websites available are written in language aimed at undergraduates or above. If you are feeling brave, try the following