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Modern definition of NARRATIVE needed

The term "narrative" is being used with increasing frequency and almost always in a "Post-Truth Era" context... that is, in regards to a 'story' (in the traditional sense of "narrative") intended to convey a factual account or explanation might or might not be factual, or based on objectively factual premises.
There are (at least) five aspects of narrative that are important in modern usage: 1) purpose-driven: The narrative is developed to fulfill a specific purpose. 2) the social aspects: The narrative is intended to be shared 3) consistency (Once developed, it is repeatedly shared, and consistently maintained), 4) coherency (conformity with other fundamental beliefs, which might be explicitly stated, or tacitly implied, irrespective of their truth; ), and 5) independence of correspondence with objective reality.


  • Narrative is basically an adjective related to the nouns story and storytelling.

    Unlike the cognate nouns narrator and narration it pertains to the abstract nature of stories and storytellings.

    Because story is used to capture both the concrete performance and the abstract content, narrative has come to be used a a noun expressing the abstract nature of a story.

    In its concrete sense, a story involves

    • a teller — usually a single person, but possibly more: speaking with a collectionve voice or individualy one at a time
    • an audience — whether physically present or imagined by the teller
    • a performed text — with a recognisable start, a recognisable ending and (if successful) an internal cohesion

    The abstract qualities covered by the word narrative include

    • clear signals of beginning and ending
    • a structuring of information based on chronological order of events. At its simplest this may simply involve relating events in the order in which they happened. However, we often introduce prior events, often as explanations, often as 'flashback' devices. Descriptive information is carefully presented as related to the chronological structure.

    [The qualities of narrative have profound effect on English grammar, including:

    • the use of SIMPLE PAST even for the first mention of an event
    • the possible omission of explicit markers of sequence (then, next etc),
    • in some cases even the possible omission of markers of result (e.g. and instead of so that)
    • the use of PAST PERFECT for events mentioned out of chronological sequence]

    These narrative devices have long been recognised as an effective means of presenting any body of information that will accommodate them. Science is communicated in terms of discoveries or successive formulations of concepts. Artists are explained interns of their biographies, their influences, their legacies. History was originally indistinguishable from story, and in its modern sense is expressed in narrative. Non-narrative accounts of the past are given other names such as chronology. Economic, philosophical and ethical concepts are explained in little stories: the sale of fish; Plato's shadows in the cave; the parables of Jesus.

    A effective political argument is often one which structures the chronology of events and the associated described states so as to convey a convincing and memorable narrative. In an ideal word, the events, the chronology and the described state would all correspond to what actually happened. The selection of events and states should illuminate, not obfuscate, and the description of those events and states should correspond to what actually happened. But there have always been instances of people making mistakes in their narratives, and of people deliberately falsifying their narratives. Nothing is new.

    What is fairly new is that storytellers and their audiences are becoming more aware of those mechanics of narrative construction that go beyond the simple duality of truth and lies. Some storytellers are more brazen in acknowledging the mechanics of their narratives. Some audiences are becoming more perceptive in their criticism of misleading narratives.

    But the word narrative has not changed its meaning, not in the slightest.

  • Thank you for your narrative about narrative. This, at least, is the most extensive and detailed discussion I've come across.... although, I must admit I haven't really researched it extensively. I was more struck that the current dictionary definitions do not adequately describe how the word is currently being used. And I still feel that way. Your discussion does provide a credible, probably accurate, description of how the word evolved in its meaning and usage. It is simply inconsistent with its current usage.

    Modern usage of the term--as I understand it, at least--differs in the following way:

    1) It is used principally in a political context to reinforce a politically motivated "conclusion" or "explanation".

    2) There is typically no sense of chronology. Rather, it is a collection of postulates that support a particular conclusion. There may be an inferred "cause-and-effect" relationship, but the chronological sequence is of less significance than the causal relationship. I suppose it is similar in structure to an inductive argument. To the extent that a narrative accounts for, or justifies, a particular conclusion in a somewhat contrived and artificial manner, it might be described as a "just so" story.

    3) In an epistemic context it is most closely aligned with coherentism. The narrative provides a collection of assertions that fit together and support one another to form or to conform to some overarching worldview.

    Perhaps it would be helpful if I provide some specific examples. Unless I've badly misunderstood you, I think you'll find that this usage does not conform with your narrative. To find these, I simply did a Google search on "Republican narrative". (To give credit where credit is due, the US Republican Party are masters of narrative, often relying on "alternative facts" to support their position)

    The GOP's Tax-Cut Narrative Is Already Unraveling - The Atlantic

    Two Classic Examples Of Republican False Narratives | HuffPost

    The Hopeless GOP Narrative | Mises Wire

    The Republican Narrative and American Political Culture: Wendell Berry, Christopher Lasch and the Great American Cultural Conversation

    The Right Builds an Alternative Narrative About the Crises Around Trump

  • Hi @jlevine429,

    I think Oxford Dictionaries Online covers your definition rather well (here) in subsense 1.3:

    A representation of a particular situation or process in such a way as to reflect or conform to an overarching set of aims or values

    You seem to be arguing that the patchwork nature of the various postulates does not amount to a cohesive sequence of events, ergo, it is not a narrative, however, I don't see that qualification as inherent in the above-quoted subsense, specifically, the phrasing of the latter half: such a way as to reflect or conform to an overarching set of aims or values".

    I think what you have described is a conflation of two senses of the word, firstly, sense 1:

    A spoken or written account of connected events; a story

    This is the grand vision represented by the politician/party. As I have only recently read Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology, the subject strikes me as being quite analogous. The entirety of the mythology describes everything from the beginning of the world to the final battle of Ragnarök. Within this overarching storyline, there are a patchwork of tales of a lesser scale which add many layers of texture to the overarching narrative. Those tales are also complete and cohesive narratives of the sense 1 type in and of themselves. To pull the analogy back to the subject, these tales are equivalent to the postulates you identified only, in the political context, the postulates are more often narratives of the subsense 1.3 type.

  • I concur, but would elevate it to a higher level, rather than as subsense of definition 1. The meaning I refer to does not describe "events"; and it doesn't constitute a "story" in the sense of a chronological sequence, as implied in Meaning 1. I see it as a distinct second meaning.

  • edited May 2018

    Sorry... Being a bit unfamiliar with this blog, I hadn't expanded your full response prior to my previous reply. Nevertheless, I anticipated the points that you raised w.r.t. chronology. I do acknowledge your point(s) made. Point(s) taken. However... (I hope without being too stubborn)... MY interest in the word came about through my interest in the social-psychological phenomena of "denialism" (especially Anthropogenic Global Warming Denialism, "cultural cognition", "confirmation bias", "cognitive dissonance avoidance", "tribal epistemology".... ALL of which entail either a misperception of reality or the willful creation of an "alternative reality" that conforms with other pre-existing ideology or beliefs.... And that is how little baby "narratives" are born.... and if they are healthy, and well nourished, they grow up into big "narratives". The point is that the main requirement of the narrative is coherence (and, of course, that it lead to the predetermined result). And this is all because human cognition craves coherence, and where we can't find it, we make it up.

    If the umbrella of definition1 is broad enough to cover that meaning (through sense 1.3) then I don't have much more to add. I still feel that the phenomenon of the modern political narrative has taken a somewhat different tone... By way of the internet, new narratives can be generated and nourished in a matter of days, whereas old Norse narratives may have required a few generations of sitting around the fire on long, cold winter nights. Either way, it's OUR way of constructing an ontology that makes sense and that we feel comfortable with.

    Good discussion. I appreciate everyone's comments.

  • In reply to your last-but one post, I wrote:

    @jlevine429, I couldn't disagree more.

    To your last post I would agree that

    'a misperception of reality or the willful creation of an "alternative reality" that conforms with other pre-existing ideology or beliefs....'

    is what critics object to and cynical politicians admit to. However, these creations succeed only because they are good stories, and those taken in by them fail to apply any other criteria.

  • Hi @jlevine429,

    I think your questioning of the breadth of sense 1 is the key issue. Returning to the precise wording "A spoken or written account of connected events; a story", there seems to be no explicit suggestion of chronology or even logic within that scope. Therefore, as it is, the breadth would seem to adequately encompass subsense 1.3.

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭
    edited May 2018

    I may have muddied the waters by using the word chronology. What a story need is a sequence of events. The sequence is in chronological order — which may be explicitly signalled or implicitly understood.

    The sociologist Harvey Sacks studied conversation and verbal communication in general at its most abstract level. In a paper called On the Analysability of Stories by Children he sought to identify the irreducible minimum elements that allow teller snd audience to identify a story. Famously, he quoted a child's story:

    The baby cried. The mommy picked it up.

    That's it. That's the whole story. A minimum of information, but the child feels that it's enough to tell an entire story. And, strangely, so do we. Once we buy into it being a story:

    • The use of the is understood to imply that no other babies or mommies are involved.
    • The proximity of baby and mommy to the exclusion of any other characters is understood to imply that the mommy is the baby's mommy.
    • The order of the sentences is understood to imply that the crying the picking up were two distinct events, and that the former happened before the latter.
    • The order also is understood to imply that the crying was the cause and the picking up was the result.
    • The fact that the child ends the story is understood to imply that the situation was resolved, and the positive nature of the story allows to infer that the baby was comforted and stopped crying.

    So, @AmosDuveen, even a tiny story like this contains a chronology in the sense that I was using the word and an assumed logic in the sense that one thing follows logically from another. Neither chronology nor assumed logic are explicitly signalled by the child. We the audience have supply them. But we do supply them because we have accepted that this is a story.

    And actually it's not such a bad story.

    • There are the satisfyingly right number of protagonists and events. We are not confused by people or happenings that don't contribute to the story.
    • The events are plausible. We are comfortably familiar with the ideas of babies crying and mothers picking them up.
    • The imaginative effort of supplying relevant relationship, chronology and causation is effortless and gives us satisfaction.
    • Because of the other feature that we the audience supply — the resolution — which in this case is implicitly positive, we feel the satisfaction of a happy ending.

    Good stories don't have to appeal through a happy ending. Another class of stories satisfies us because we feel that now we understand what was previously unclear.

    That's the sort of story that people around Putin and Trump have perfected.

    • While journalists try to report all potentially relevant protagonists and events, the narrative-makers select those that fit into the story.
    • While journalists may outline all the possible causes of an effect and all the possible effects of a cause, the narrative-makers present single pairs which the audience will happily understand as unique cause of unique effect — even when there are no explicit signals.
    • While journalists may stop at an inconclusive ending, narrative-makers ensure that the audience feels that the matter has been resolved — in many cases giving them the feeling that they were previously made to feel foolish, but now they know.

    So, in that definition

    A representation of a particular situation or process in such a way as to reflect or conform to an overarching set of aims or values

    'representation in such a way' amounts to 'representation by storytelling devices'.

  • Hi @DavidCrosbie,

    I think we both ought to clarify our terms. I was thinking of external logic (i.e. does it stand up to scrutiny to the outside world) as contrasted with the internal logic of the story.

    As for chronology, there will always be a chronology that can be derived from the events described but the events need not be recounted in strict chronological order, so the word I was aiming for, but missed, was chronological. I think I may have been barking up the wrong tree on that one.

  • @jlevine429, let me return to your comment at greater length

    ...the willful creation of an"alternative reality" that conforms with other pre-existing ideology or beliefs.... And that is how little baby "narratives" are born.... and if they are healthy, and well nourished, they grow up into big "narratives". The point is that the main requirement of the narrative is coherence...

    There are other ways of creating an alternative reality and other ways of supplying the required coherence.

    Martin Luther King created an alternative reality and communicated it in his unforgettable speech — remembered most of all for the passage in which he articulated it.

    I have a dream doesn't just introduce King's vision of a future which contrasts dramatically from present reality. More than this, it contributes to the coherence of the passage by multiple repetition. The events and associated states which King describes are not organised by sequence in the manner of narrative. Rather they are grouped in vignettes within echoing frames: I have a dream followed by a location

    • in some vignettes the nation
    • in others places infamous for segregation and discrimination
    • in the climax Biblical 'every valley ... and every hill and mountain'

    The repeated rhetorical frame provides the same coherence that sequencing (which is what I meant be 'chronology') and implicit causality provide to a narrative.

  • OK, OK. I concede.
    I mostly appreciate your thoughtful comments and discussion.

    I also particularly enjoyed the story about the baby, and the mom.... marked by tension, anticipation, and uncertainty about how the crisis would be resolved, until finally, in the oddly satisfying climax... resolution and implied denouement. As Hemingway might have written it.

    In my ADHD-impaired world, it's rare that I can read something from start to finish at one sitting... but that one kept me glued to my chair.

    And you're right... If MLK had proclaimed, "I have a narrative... ", no matter how passionately he said it, I doubt we'd still be talking about it today.

    I will print out this entire discussion, and file it away for future reference.

  • I have been following this discussion with great interest. Some very interesting comments here. Thanks, all!

  • There's just been an interesting programme on BBC radio on the subject of narrative is political and marketing campaigns. It clarifies I think, an important difference between the use of narrative and narrative itself.

    The former is what jlevine29 is concerned with. Broadly speaking, I think most people would agree with the general thrust, if not on the small details. The latter is what I was writing about: narrative meaning 'story'.

    What the radio programme addresses is how campaigns have succeeded not necessarily by telling a story, although a marketing experiment did just that. But the trick of the political campaigns was to make their slogans imply a story. Both the Reagan/Trump Make America great again and Brexit's Take back control appealed to a story of a country that rose to greatness, had that greatness stolen, and will return to greatness. The narrative was still a story even though nobody told it out loud. Those who recognised some element of the story told it silently to themselves, or absorbed it subconsciously. Conscious or unconscious, the reaction worked because stories are emotionally appealing.

    Unlike TV programmes, BBC radio programmes are widely available online. Here's a link

  • John Harris's treatment of narrative in the programme The Tyranny of Story leads me to rethink Martin Luther King's speech.

    He begins with a historical reference to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. This immediately evokes the narrative — the universally known and deeply felt story — which starts with slavery, and carries on to Emancipation, the Jim Crow South and the contemporary struggle for civil rights. To his prepared speech he was persuaded to attach the famous I Have a Dream sequence, which transformed the narrative into one with a happy ending. The climax alludes to the start of this newly optimistic narrative by citing a spiritual — which, for all who knew the narrative, was seen as a product of slavery.

    Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'

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