Narrative, Plot, and Story

By Mark Nichol

What’s the difference between narrative, plot, and story? Not much, but enough that it matters. Here are the distinctions, explained with aids of analogy, plus some details:

Narrative is the structure of events — the architecture of the story, comparable to the design of a building. Story is the sequence of events, the order in which the narrative occurs — the tour through the building. Plot is the sum of the events, told not necessarily in sequential order, but generally consistent with the story and often considered synonymous with the narrative — the building itself.

But these similar and even overlapping components of composition are further affected by the narrative mode — the techniques the author employs to tell the story. Among these strategies are narrative point of view and narrative voice.

Narrative Point of View

A first-person narrator relates the story by using the pronoun I (or, rarely, if two or more narrators are telling the story simultaneously, we). This device enables the reader to know the narrator’s internal thoughts and feelings as well. This narrative style may indicate that the narrator may or may not consciously be aware of a reading audience. Also, the first-person narrator is not necessarily the main character, or even central to the story.

Second-person narrative, rare in literature, is that in which the narrator refers to a character as “you.” The most frequent mode, third-person narrative, involves reference to characters as “he,” “she,” “they,” or “it.”

Variety is achieved by the author’s decision to narrate subjectively, revealing characters’ thoughts and feelings, or objectively, without internal insight into any of the characters, as well as choice of omniscient or limited point of view: The author either knows all that is occurring in the story or is restricted to sharing only what is known to the focal character. Narrative point of view can vary within the same story, either by section or chapter or even within the same passage.

Narrative Voice

Narrative voice is the style in which the narrative is presented — for example, a character’s recounting of events, or a privileged window into the character’s thoughts and feelings.

A narrator may be a participant, a character in the story who describes events, or a nonparticipant, an objective (but not necessarily accurate) observer who is not integrated into the story. Another technique is to feature an unreliable narrator, one whose narrative is initially or ultimately suspect because it contradicts what the reader learns from nonnarrated exposition or other points of view.

For instance, in the Japanese film Rashomon, based on two short stories, four characters give conflicting accounts of an event. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the title character’s naiveté, a plot device enabling author Mark Twain to demonstrate his gift for social satire, makes him an unreliable narrator.

Note that narrative applies to nonfiction as well as fiction, and even plot and story have a place in nonfiction, as reporters and authors often manipulate an account by constructing a narrative more sophisticated than the who, what, when, where, and why formula of traditional journalism. There’s even a term for this approach: creative nonfiction.

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1 Response to “Narrative, Plot, and Story”

  • Sally

    Thanks, Mark!

    Might I point out that non-fiction is rarely ‘objective’ – not only does every author select the ‘facts,’ she spins them according to her own agenda (personal or professional) and perceptions (conscious or unconscious), her prospective audience and the ‘accepted’ worldview of the society in which she is writing.

    I think the only ‘objective’ non-fiction you’ll find is in a maths textbook.

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