Ohio State nav bar

What is Narrative Theory?

Narrative theory is currently enjoying a major burgeoning of interest in North America and throughout the world, with especially strong activity in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., France, Germany, Scandinavia, Belgium, Israel, and China. Narrative theory starts from the assumption that narrative is a basic human strategy for coming to terms with fundamental elements of our experience, such as time, process, and change, and it proceeds from this assumption to study the distinctive nature of narrative and its various structures, elements, uses, and effects.

More specifically, narrative theorists study what is distinctive about narrative (how it is different from other kinds of discourse, such as lyric poems, arguments, lists, descriptions, statistical analyses, and so on), and how accounts of what happened to particular people in particular circumstances with particular consequences can be at once so common and so powerful. Thus a key concern is whether narrative as a way of thinking about or explaining human experience contrasts with scientific modes of explanation that characterize phenomena as instances of general covering laws. Narrative theorists, in short, study how stories help people make sense of the world, while also studying how people make sense of stories.
To this end, narrative theorists draw not only on literary studies but also on ideas from such fields as rhetoric, (socio)linguistics, philosophical ethics, cognitive science (including cognitive and social psychology), folklore, and gender theory to explore how narratives work both as kinds of texts and as strategies for navigating experience. Narratives of all kinds are relevant to the field: literary fictions and nonfictions, film narratives, comics and graphic novels, hypertexts and other computer-mediated narratives, oral narratives occurring during the give and take of everyday conversation, as well as narratives told in courtrooms, doctors' offices, business conference rooms—indeed, anywhere. Because of the pervasiveness of narrative in our culture and the diversity of the texts, media, and communicative situations narrative theory examines, narrative theory constitutes an exciting new frontier of English Studies, one that promises to bring English Department faculty and students into closer contact with their counterparts in a variety of social-scientific, humanistic, and other disciplines.