Narrative & Story

Robert Mills

Storytelling and the web is a topic I like to talk and write about, mainly because a lot of  theory and discussion about storytelling is concerned with more traditional media like books and films. We can apply this knowledge to the web and the result will be more engaging and targeted stories for our users. I’ve recently worked on some digital storytelling projects where we have a story and have had to design the story and construct the narrative. It has reminded me of some confusion around these two terms.

I often hear the word ‘story’ being used as a synonym for ‘narrative’  but they aren’t the same thing, though they are so closely woven that it can be hard to distinguish between them and hence the terms are used incorrectly. This similarity also means that when interchanged incorrectly, the meaning of the point being made can still be understood but the difference between the two is important.

My go to for any media studies related info is a textbook from my days as a Journalism student, The Media Student’s Book by Branston and Stafford. Here, they define narrative as:

A sequence of events organised into a story with a particular structure.

Story is then described as:

All of the events in a narrative, those presented directly to an audience and those which might be inferred.

These two strands can be better explained using Little Red Riding Hood as an example. The story is the events that occur, the little girl in the red cloak meets a wolf in the woods. The wolf later pretends to be the little girl’s grandmother and eats them both up. The hunter cuts the wolf open and both the girl and the grandmother emerge unharmed.

The narrative is the way these events are told. For a fairy tale like this, the most common method is starting the story with, ‘once upon a time’, then presenting the events in chronological order and concluding with, ‘and they all lived happily ever after’.

This is a key distinction to keep in mind when telling stories online because you will likely have one (main) story to tell, but a number of ways in which you can tell that story. Knowing what you want to say is the first thing to understand. Only then can you address how to tell that story in the best way for your audience.

Narrative Options

The fairy tale example above is a linear narrative. Events unfold chronologically with a clear beginning, middle and an end. The story also includes well established storytelling elements such as exposition, conflict and resolution but that is a different article entirely.

A great example of straying from a linear narrative is the film Memento. The story is:

A man, suffering from short-term memory loss, uses notes and tattoos to hunt for the man he thinks killed his wife.

The film doesn’t start at the beginning and lead us through to the end though. In fact, the narrative is far more complicated than that. To be as simple as possible, the film is actually shown backwards in fifteen minute increments. There are also some scenes in colour and others in black and white. Those in colour are a reverse order scene and the black and white scenes are in chronological order. It’s complex but an interesting example because the film makers could have started at the beginning and kept it linear but they wanted to tell the story in a different way.

The narrative is led by the story though as the main character, Leonard suffers from short-term memory loss. The fifteen minute increments are around the same time his memory lasts. Other films that have shunned traditional narrative structures include Inception, Pan’s Labyrinth and Slumdog Millionaire. There’s also the TV series Lost which used the flashback structure to death.

This isn’t to say that you need to shun linear narratives for something more complicated or creative. Determining the best and most appropriate narrative for your story will be based on what the story is and who it is for, this is true for all mediums, digital or otherwise.

People have been telling stories online for years but there has certainly been a shift in focus on the term ‘storytelling’ in relation to the web.  There are already some great examples of storytelling on the web that I put into a blog post a while back. They all have a clear story and a defined narrative.  Knowing that there is a difference between the two and understanding what that difference is, well that’s just the beginning.


Little Red Riding Hood photo credit – Kevin Walker
Memento story synopsis – IMDB