Narratology and Narrative Change: Defining Terms

By Gabriel Ertsgaard

What is a “story”? What is a “narrative”? Are they the same thing or not? The answers to these questions can vary. A lot depends on who you’re talking to, and just as importantly, what exactly you’re talking about.

It’s common for specialized fields to take terms from ordinary language and give them narrow, technical meanings. This redefinition doesn’t suddenly invalidate how the “person on the street” uses the word, of course. The broader meaning still applies in everyday life. The new, technical meaning simply serves the needs of that specialized field. Sometimes, words that are near-synonyms in everyday language take on important distinctions in particular fields. As a veteran composition instructor, I’ve even caught cases of plagiarism by “reverse-engineering” misguided substitutions.

It’s also possible, though, for different fields to give different technical meanings to the same term. Neither field is wrong; both are responding to their particular needs. As long as the fields never intersect, those alternate definitions can simply exist in their own zones. But sometimes such fields might benefit from cross-fertilization. Ideas from one field may prove beneficial to the other. If those fields are using the same words in different ways, such cross-fertilization requires a translation key.

This is the situation, I believe for the fields of narratology and narrative change work. “Narrative” is a key concept for both fields, but they define this and other terms in divergent ways. For that reason, I’ve put together an initial, very basic glossary to facilitate interdisciplinary work between these fields. Let’s start by defining the fields themselves.

  • narratology: A field of literary studies that focuses on the structure of literary works. Early on, it was sometimes referred to as “structural poetics.”
  • narrative change work: A field of peace and justice studies that focuses on changing deep cultural narratives in order to facilitate positive social reform. This field applies insights from diverse disciplines, including sociology and literary studies, to activist campaigns.

To complicate matters, the term “narrative” isn’t always used consistently even within literary studies itself. We can see the difference by looking at two sets of terms that I’ll call narratology 1.0 and narratology 2.0. Consider the following terminology for narratology 1.0. (I’ll also list a key work in the field.)

  • narrative: The story being told.
  • narration: The act of telling the story.
  • narrator: The one who tells the story, or seems to tell the story. For example, if a story is told from a fictional character’s point of view, that character is the narrator.
  • narratee: The implied audience, or imaginary person that the narrator is speaking to. 

Key work: The Nature of Narrative by Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg (1966); revised edition with a new chapter by James Phelan (2006)

Now contrast that with this terminology for narratology 2.0.

  • story: The events that happen in a tale in their chronological order. In the early 20th century, the Russian formalists used the word fabula to describe this, and some theorists still prefer the Russian term.
  • discourse: How a tale is told. For example, events may be told out of order, or in differing degrees of detail. In the early 20th century, the Russian formalists used the word syuzhet to describe this, and some theorists still prefer the Russian term.
  • narrative: The combination of story and discourse that constitute a distinct tale or literary work.

Key work: Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film by Seymour Chatman (1978)

Basically, the terminology shifted as scholars began to study different issues. The new definitions didn’t actually supersede the old ones, though, even within literary studies. Rather, they supplemented them. The former are still taught in many introductory literature courses. However, it is the latter set of definitions that offer intriguing juxtapositions with the field of narrative change work—especially with how the latter field defines “narrative” and “story.” Consider the following terminology for that field.

  • story: A work in any medium (textual, visual, or oral) that follows a plot arc and portrays specific characters and events.
  • narrative: A story pattern or story template that is pervasive in a culture. Individual stories may fully or partially reflect/reinforce a prevailing narrative.
  • narrative change: A long-term effort to shift a prevailing cultural narrative toward one more compatible with a social cause.

Key work: “The Features of Narratives: A Model of Narrative Form for Social Change Efforts” from the Frameworks Institute (2021)

The “bootstraps” narrative is an example often used by organizations like Narrative Inquiry and the Frameworks Institute. In this narrative, the hero starts off in difficult circumstances, but overcomes the odds through talent and determination, thereby pulling himself up to fabulous success. The Will Smith movie The Pursuit of Happyness, based on the autobiography of Chris Garner, is a story that relies on the bootstraps narrative. The protagonist, a single father, pursues a prestigious, unpaid internship at a major brokerage while simultaneously he and his son face homelessness. His sacrifice pays off when he earns a high-paying job at the firm. This sets him on the path toward becoming a millionaire. 

Two common critiques of the “bootstraps” narrative are (1) that it isn’t scalable, and (2) that it downplays how help from others can contribute to personal success. Intriguingly, if we look back to an earlier point in Will Smith’s career, the episode “Will Gets a Job” from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air picks up on this second critique. Will explains to his Uncle Phil that he got a restaurant job because he wants to be self-reliant, just like his uncle. Uncle Phil, though, rejects that characterization. He insists, “Nobody does anything without help, Will. People opened doors for me, and I’ve worked hard to open doors for you. It doesn’t make you any less of a man to walk through them.” In this case, the narrative of “everyone needs a helping hand sometimes” is offered as a direct rebuttal of the “bootstraps” narrative.

As for why this rebuttal matters, think about issues like poverty or homelessness. The “bootstraps” narrative could lead one to blame the poor and homeless for their own inability to pull themselves up. The “helping hand” narrative, on the other hand, encourages us to think creatively about how we can “open doors” for other people “to walk through.”

Now let’s pivot back to our main topic, the overlap between terminology for narratology and narrative change work. In both cases, narrative represents a higher order concept, and story represents a lower order concept. However, the two fields are offset from each other. The term narrative in narratology is of the same order as the term story in narrative change work. Using “nc” to indicate a narrative change term and “n” to indicate a narratology term, we can map the orders as follows.


Viewed this way, it becomes clear what needs to be done. For narratology to make use of insights from narrative change, we need an alternate term for “narrative(nc).” And for narrative change work to draw more deeply from narratology, we need an alternate term for “story(n).” Inspired by Joseph Campbell and Ernst Cassier, I propose “myth” as narratology’s alternative to “narrative(nc).” Similarly, “plot” should serve the field of narrative change work as a more than adequate substitute for “story(n).”

Thus, for a narrative change audience, we could use this terminology:


For a narratology audience, the following terminology would work:


With the above key in mind, theorists from one field can read work in the other field, while keeping track of what the common words mean. Just as importantly, theorists can import concepts from one field to the other without confusing readers in their primary field. Admittedly, this is a somewhat clunky solution, but it should work. (Perhaps it will even inspire someone else to come up with a more elegant system.) It’s important to note that the vocabularies of both fields are much richer than what I’ve included here. My main purpose has been to address a particular source of potential confusion. I hope, nonetheless, that my modest effort paves the way for a deeper exchange of concepts between narratology and narrative change.


Gabriel Ertsgaard is the Interviews Editor for The Peace Chronicle and Copy Editor for the literary journal Drifting Sands. He earned his Doctor of Letters from Drew University with a dissertation on environmental themes in a medieval legend. He has taught college-level English courses in the United States and China. His criticism, poetry, and fairy tales have appeared in over a dozen publications.