Cambridge Introduction to Narrative


  • Media: #Books #Books 2021
    • Author: H Porter Abbott
    • Date: 2021-01-21
    • Tags: #read #narratology #storytelling #storytellingBooks #textbook #nonfiction #literature
    • Rating: ★★★★★
    • Idea richness: ★★★★★


The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative does exactly what it says on the tin: introduce core principles of the theory behind narrative construction, psychology, and analysis in concise and jargon-free fashion.


  • Narrative and life
  • Defining narrative (what is and what is not a narrative, narrative discourse vs story, etc.)
  • Narrative rhetoric (masterplots, normalization)
  • Closure
  • Narration
  • Interpreting narrative
  • Adaption
  • Characters
  • Narrative and truth (exploring both fiction and nonfiction)
  • Narrative worlds (unfortunately not so much about worldbuilding or how narrative shapes worlds as investigating how narratives define and create space as well as time)
  • Narrative contests (specifically how we put narratives head to head and build off each other, with a fascinating true courtroom example)
  • Narrative negotiation (how narratives help us negotiate conflicts by those they resolve (or fail to) within themselves)


The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative is a surprisingly readable and brisk guide to narrative, proving the perfect place to start for someone like me. I am a selfish person approaching weighty topics like [[!Narratology]] from the outside perspective: not as a English Lit student but as a designer. Researching my interaction design dissertation led me by a backwards route into the fascinating topics of, well, how [[!Storytelling is our native language]] and essentially everything. Having gotten an idea of the vast power of narrative, I'm now searching out the fundamentals to learn more about the theory and structure behind such a force.

The book itself is incredibly concise (some 200 odd pages) and Abbott takes pains to avoid jargon (which is always explained when used, along with an excellent glossary) and adhere strictly to the 'introduction' label. This is both a blessing (it's a textbook but you can read it cover to cover in a couple of nights without melting your brain) and a curse (if there is a particular topic you are researching, don't expect more than an introduction), depending on your wants. However, as an introduction it is perfect and the ample bibliography is excellent, offering suggestions for each topic with notes so you can dive down whichever rabbithole suits you.

For my personal study, I did feel a tad disappointed by the middle of the book. The opening and closing chapters dive into the connections between narrative and life (my particular interest) and do so excellently. However, the middle portion is far more focused on interpretation and analysis and does not weave in quite so much of the cultural and psychological interplay from earlier. The chapter on narrative worlds also felt a bit sparse and not what I was expecting, even though the key point of narratives creating and existing in both time and space was fascination. But that's just me. For literature studies, it would be perfect and I certainly learned a lot.


If you want an introduction to narrative no matter your background or field and don't want to get bogged down in intelligible terms or pages of analysis on a book you haven't read, look no further.

As of 2021, the second edition is dirt cheap used on ebay.


  • We are all narrators
  • The power of the narrative vs the power of the readers/audience --> interpretation
  • "...narrative is always a two-way street. Without our collaboration, there is no narrative to begin with."

Narrative and Life

  • Narrative, like language, the distinctive human trait?
  • Fredric Jameson described narrative as "the central function or instance of the human mind."
  • Roland Barthes, Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives
    • "Caring nothing for the division between good and bad literature, narrative is international, transhistorical, transcultural: it is simply there, like life itself."
  • "Memory itself is dependent on the capacity for narrative"
  • Is narrative, like language/grammar (according to some linguists), a 'deep structure' hard-wired into out brains from birth?

Narrative and time

  • What does narrative do for us? "Narrative is the principal way in which our species organizes its understanding of time."
  • Narrative organizes time. Unlike a clock, which organises events into time, narrative allows events to create the order of time.
  • "Narrative time is not necessarily any length at all."
  • Narrative time vs clock time --> is this like how in 'doomscrolling' and other internet activities hijack our sense of time?
  • Paul Ricoeur 'human time' - "Time becomes human to the extent that is organized after the manner of a narrative; narrative, in turn, is meaningful to the extent that it portrays the features of temporal existence."

Narrative Perception

  • "People don't see the world before their eyes until it's put in a narrative mode." - Brian De Palma
  • Machine image recognition vs human perception. We don't just see a ship, we see a shipwreck and the layers of time around that (before it was a ship, something happened, now it is wrecked). A photo, in our perception, can still be seen as a succession of events to account for what we see.
  • Narrative templates - "We have many narrative templates in our minds and, knowing this, an artist can activate one or another." Or subvert. We have expectations, but still a range of possibilities which makes it exciting.
  • Human propensity to narrativize. --> shape animation experiment.
  • Narrative jamming --> surrealism? The effect that arouses but refuses to satisfy our narrative perception.
  • "Wherever we look in this world, we seek to grasp what we see not just in space but in time as well. Narrative gives us this understanding; it gives us what could be called shapes of time."
  • Narrative vs meaning?
  • Entomology of narrative. From sanskrit for 'know' and Latin for both 'knowing' and 'telling'. "It [narrative] is a universal tool for knowledge as well as telling, for absorbing knowledge as well as expressing it. This knowledge, moreover, is not necessarily static."
  • Narrative as an instrument to provoke active thinking... or keep us in the dark and seed false information.

Defining Narrative

  • "Narrative is the representation of an event or a series of events."
  • Event/action. Without an event, you have a description, argument, lyric, etc.
  • Marie-Laure Ryan: narrative is a "fuzzy set defined at the center by a solid core of properties, but accepting various degrees of membership."
  • Works (ex: TS Eliot's The Waste Land) may be full of narratives and micro-narratives but not necessarily a narrative as a whole.
  • Story = the event or sequence of events. Narrative discourse = how the story is conveyed. "The difference between events and their representation."

Topics to Pursue

  • Hayden White The Content of Form