Narrative - perhaps the most powerful persuasive technique humans have developed...


When analysing any text, you will need to be able to find ways in which it is working to create and shape meaning as well as influence its audience to at least consider, and often to go along with, its writer's views. A key way, and one that is very common across many text types, is the use of a particular form and structure called narrative.

Let me start this guide by telling you a story. While I was writing this, in fact, just a few moments ago, I heard a repeated and quite loud creaking sound - just like footsteps - in the hallway at the side of the bedroom below (the office where I work is a converted loft space above that bedroom). Now I know for sure that I am alone in this house - quite, utterly alone. I know, too, that this is a very old house - with part of it dating right back to Tudor times. I know, as well, that the house was built on the site of the town's old jail where hangings took place with some regularity. Of course the hangman's scaffold was taken down centuries ago but still, at certain times of the year, neighbours and others have reported that they "see things". There - the noise happened again...

The above is the beginnings of what is technically called a narrative. You would normally call it a story, of course. And like all good stories it absorbed your attention and got you thinking. It's not the first story like this you'll have read of course - it's a part of the ghost story genre - and I suspect you "added in" a great deal of extra information to it as you read, In fact you probably had a good idea of where it was going. And none of it was true -  I made it up. But it fascinated you, I'm sure. Understanding how and why we are so easily absorbed and fascinated by narrative - and how narrative can affect and shape even the way we think about ourselves and the world in general, is an important area for you to study, not least because it can easily help you analyse very many texts far more subtly and thus gain you extra marks. An analysis at the level of narrative can easily achieve marks in the highest grade bands.

Narrative is the way we all tell, hear, read and write stories - which we do in one way or another on a daily basis. In every day usage, the term "story" means "narrative" but it's better to consider "story" as the series of events through time that occurred. Narrative is the way these events are eventually told.

Narrative is an unusually powerful device in part because it not only shapes meaning, it also helps to reinforce shared ways of thinking about the world and its peoples - that is, it reinforces dominant ideologies.

Analysing a text at the level of narrative is a subtle technique because - apart from its obvious in novels and short-stories - narrative generally 'hides' its presence in a text and thus its power can be invisible to its audience - narrative can be made to operate at a subconscious level.

Narrative is the most common way we all tell and learn about life in general - as well as what happens to us in our lives. It's important to realise that stories (i.e. narratives) are not a form that is just used to narrate fictional events, i.e. novels or short stories. We use the self-same techniques to tell about many aspects of life. We grow up with hearing about the world mainly through stories - not the fictional story of the image above, but what we come to think of as 'non-fictional' - that is, real events. In fact, we become so very used to the story-telling technique that it becomes 'hard-wired' into our brains as young children to the point that we fail to recognise we are using it and just how important can be.

  • Narrative is important because it is a powerful device that we all use - unknowingly - every day.
  • Narrative is a way of telling about a series of events - a "story" - in a way that shapes meaning and reinforces society's values like little else can.
  • Narrative is a way of communicating information that is not dry and boring: it is absorbing and gripping!

We each carry around with us a large fund of shared stories, some of which have their origins in ancient and enduring tales. These old tales work invisibly on us in ways that 'shape' our views of ourselves, of life and of the world. The most enduring and powerful of these stories or narratives are said to operate at the level of myth. We pick up these ancient ideas not usually as complete stories but more often as having been passed on to us in the form of fragments during childhood. Their power lies in that fact that we only need a snippet of one of these powerful narratives to evoke its meaning and thus shape our interpretation of the text in which it is being used. Ancient mythical stories work on our consciousness in surprisingly complex and subtle ways, not least by informing us about what life should or could be like - life at its best (and at its worst: in this lies the link to binary opposition - perhaps check this key analytical method out later).

  • These subconsciously 'cued' or evoked narratives act to provide a key 'framework' we use against which we feel we instinctively know how to weigh up, measure and judge the many ideas, people and events we meet in the world.

The 'Hero Myth'

jfk An example. The 'hero myth' is one of the most powerful narratives. It sits deep in all our psyches. If you were reading a story, a poem or a newspaper article about a 'powerful' and 'good' leader (US President John F Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr perhaps fit the bill for many people in the West), you wouldn't need to have many of the qualities of that person described to you. This is because you already have, in your head, a pre-existing narrative that tells you all you need to know about what 'powerful and good leadership' is. This 'knowledge', derived from ancient narratives and myths, guides you about what it means to be such a person.

The power of such narratives is immense. It even creates suggestions about such details such as what kind of life such a person likely leads, what kind of friends they have, what kind of house they would choose to live in and so on.  

The 'Romance Myth'
Similarly, a romantic story (or it might be a magazine ad for, say, a new perfume for these, too, rely on narratives for some of their persuasive power) works by 'cueing' or evoking a pre-existing memory of a 'femininity narrative'. Such stories involve princesses and knights in shining armour, for example, who - perhaps surprisingly - act as powerful 'role models' in surprisingly important ways that often define ideal characteristics against which we measure reality.

You do not need to be told what it means to be feminine... or masculine: the answers have already been provided to you and all-but 'hard-wired' into your brain from these ancient and ingrained myths and narratives.
romance myth

Narratives & Ideology

There are many aspects of life that narratives guide us to interpret and judge in particular ways. What is important to recognise is that these ways are shared with most others within our own culture or society.

The kind of narratives involved here are those that can be easily invoked and very quickly brought to mind, even by a few words or a single image. These words and images act as a kind  of 'shorthand' - a snapshot or 'mini-narrative' - that acts to invoke important aspects of the whole narrative which then guides our response and interpretation to the text in question.

  • It's an important to realise that because these narratives are shared ways of thinking they often act at an ideological level. This means that they work by reinforcing certain fixed ways of thinking about life and society. Narratives are an important way in which an ideological 'mind set' can be formed and reinforced.

As has been said, these narratives exist often not as complete stories but as 'snapshot narratives' or 'mini-narratives'. These work at the level of what is called narrative codes (a code is a collection of seemingly connected signs that, together act to signify some larger meaning). These codes work by prompting or bringing to mind a memory of a deeply embedded narrative or myth through a process often called 'cueing'.

  • To understand more about signs, codes and signification - click here.
This simple but profound image will help you recognise how narrative codes operate. The image and the text are simple enough, yet, as they say... every picture tells a story; and in the case of narrative, a picture is often worth a thousand words!

What kind of narrative is being cued by this image? It is a surprisingly powerful one that affects the way we tend to view the world. It works by cueing the story of loneliness and all the emotional power that this ancient narrative brings in its wake.

>> Can you fill in more of this loneliness narrative? It really is a very well-known story - probably working at the level of myth. It's certainly a very sad story and it's something we want to avoid happening to us.

>> In part, this particular narrative informs our decision-making processes, for example when we enter into relationships or marriage, or have children and even when we think about old age. It even guides our actions when we choose our clothes, cosmetics and so on... all could be viewed at the level of helping us to avoid loneliness.

This is narrative at its most obvious. Can you think of more? There are very many. Remember that the most enduring and ancient have reached the status of myth. A moments thoughts will bring to mind narratives of masculinity, of femininity, of heroism and more. They bring to mind and guide us about what it means to be a good this, or a bad that and so on (for 'this' and 'that' read: boy/girl friend, son, daughter, wife, husband, student, president, leader, manager... and so on)..

Remember that these narratives are not really 'stories' of the kind you could necessarily write down or tell; but they are still, very much, just stories - and they act powerfully to reinforce and support particular ways of thinking about life.

As has been said already, in this sense, such narratives act at an ideological level (and they also often operate through the process called binary opposition). Click on the links to find out more about these two important ideas).


It can be difficult to believe that something as everyday as a story can act so powerfully to shape the way in which we interpret meaning, but by now you should have seen that narratives act powerfully to define and shape who we are - our 'sense of ourselves', our identity.

The following pages will show you how narrative codes can be created and how they work. The analysis you will see could easily be applied to any number of texts in both English and Media Studies.