Story vs. Narrative

It’s the way you tell it.

Narrative is the choice of which events to relate and in what order to relate them – so it is a representation or specific manifestation of the story, rather than the story itself. The easy way to remember the difference between story and narrative is to reshuffle the order of events. A new event order means you have a new narrative of the same story.

Narrative turns story into information, or better, into knowledge for the recipient (the audience or reader). Narrative is therefore responsible for how the recipient perceives the story. The difficulty is that story, like truth, is an illusion created by narrative.

What does that mean?

First, let’s state some basics as we understand them here at Beemgee: a story consists of narrated events; events consist of actions carried out by characters; characters are motivated, they have reasons for the things they do; there is conflict involved; one and the same story may be told in different ways, that is, have varying narratives.

Note that we are talking here about narrative in the dramaturgical sense – not in the social sense. Like the term “storytelling”, the word “narrative” has become a bit of a buzzword. We are not referring here to open “social narratives” such as “the American narrative”. We are pinpointing the use of the term for storytellers creating novels, films, plays, and the like. These tend in their archetypal form to be closed narratives with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

A narrative may present the events of the story in linear, that is to say chronological order or not. But the story remains the story – even if it is told backwards. And that’s the easy way to remember the difference between story and narrative: if you reshuffle the order of events, you are changing the narrative – the way you tell the story –, and perhaps its premise too, but you are not changing the story itself.

The Components of Story

A story’s events may be arranged as chronology or narrative. 

Let’s take “Story” as the hyper-ordinate term. Every story features characters that do something, and the total of these actions constitutes the plot. Plot consists of things that happen, i.e. events. These may be sorted into two different orders, the chronological sequence in time, and the order in which the author chooses to relate them, which is the narrative. A story may furthermore consist of two or several plots – let’s call these storylines – which tend to meet and intertwine.

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Text Types That Describe Story

One and the same story can be represented by different text types:

All of these may be ascribed to the same work. They are different expressions of the same material.

The logline and the synopsis describe the story without telling it, in a sentence or a couple of paragraphs respectively. They are typically included in project proposals or exposés.

The treatment is a summary of the plot, including some of the most important events, but not all of them. Such a brief version of the story describes the same story as the full or finished version, but since this short version does not include the same (amount of) events, it is not the (same) narrative.

Both synopsis and treatment (and in extreme cases perhaps even the logline) may point out how the narrative works, especially if it is not chronological, but neither actually contains the narrative of the story because neither includes a description of each and every event.

The step outline describes all the events of the story in narrative order, as a sort of shortened meta-version of the story itself. While a logline, a synopsis, a treatment, a step outline, and the finished work may all refer to the same story, only the step outline and the finished work can express the same narrative of that story because they contain the same events without leaving any out. And as liars know, leaving out bits of information can change the narrative.

The Author Shapes the Cause and Effect of a Narrative

An author has choices. Many, many choices. An author has to choose the narrative in order to relate the story she has chosen to tell. For instance, the choice of genre influences the narrative. The same events can be turned into, say, a comedy or a thriller. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe use dissimilar narratives to tell similar stories that make comparable but differing points about the threat of nuclear war and how it may come about. The story of Lolita would likely be salacious told by a lesser writer than Vladimir Nabokov.

Perhaps the greatest influence on the way a story is perceived by the audience or reader is the author’s choice of Point of View (PoV). Point of view describes from which character’s perspective the story is told. Hardly any other factor has as significant an effect on narrative. Telling the same story from the various points of view of the participating characters creates differing narratives. This is the famous Rashomon effect, named after the 1950 film by Akira Kurosawa. Four times the same occurrence is shown, but as recounted by the four participants. The four narratives have very different effects on the audience’ understanding of the truth of what actually happened.

Such differences in understanding arise from the different motivations behind each character action, which we perceive differently due to the other point of view. Furthermore, one character may do something because she wants a particular result, but another character may ascribe completely different motivations to the same action, or observe different consequences. Even if the arrangement of the events is changed on very subtly, the chain of cause and effect is changed by the difference in point of view.

A chronology is essentially a list of events. It implies temporality. Between each event you could insert the words “and then”. The aim of a chronology is to report what happened. As humans, our minds will look for reasons why the events happened – the chronology might yield such interpretations or it might not. A narrative, on the other hand, implies causality. Here you could insert between the events the words “because of that …”. A narrative is an attempt at explanation or interpretation. It carries meaning or a message (usually in form of a theme), which is brought home to the recipients or audience because they experience the narrative on an emotional level.

How and why things occurred, and how events relate to each other, is what our minds are unceasingly trying to figure out. We look for causality. As such, narrative is not only the choice of an author, but is a technique our minds use in order to seek to understand our perceptions of a complex world – be it a story world or the real world. When we frame and shape our perceptions into a narrative, we reduce the feeling of living in a chaotic world and thereby have a greater feeling of control.

It may therefore be argued that story is tantamount to truth in that it ultimately remains equivocal, arguably an illusion created by narrative.

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