Types of narrative structures

Written by catherine ketley
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Types of narrative structures
Stories need a strong structure. (Getty Thinkstock)

Everyone loves a good story. Storytelling techniques may vary around the world but they all have a framework which supports the narrative. Our favourite films and books rely on narrative structure to organise events and make sense of the story. A weak narrative structure confuses the plot and fails to build the dramatic tension we expect. A strong one provides us with a satisfying resolution to the conflict within the story.

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Linear

Over 2000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle identified stories as having a beginning, middle and end. This dramatic arc of storytelling still guides authors and directors today. The classic Hollywood narrative structure sets a goal, then allows the hero to overcome a series of obstacles in order to attain it. The action takes place chronologically in a linear fashion. The Indiana Jones films are good examples of this simple linear narrative structure.

Non-linear

Films like "Inception" and "The Matrix" use a non-linear framework, where the story can start anywhere in the field of narrative. Events then unfold in a seemingly haphazard, non-chronological way. There are unforeseen elements within the structure that alter the audience's previous conclusions and make them reframe what they have already seen in a different light. Based on the Kishōtenketsu heritage of Chinese and Japanese narrative, this structure often has only a partial resolution and leaves the story open-ended.

Circular

Lecturer Joseph Campbell identified a narrative structure known as the Hero's Journey. This circular framework draws parallels between a hero's adventure and his inner growth. It concludes with the hero returning home a better person. Symbolism and spiritual motifs are essential elements to help the reader recognise links between events and the hero's growing self-awareness. Charles Dicken's novel "Great Expectations" and the Star Wars films show how the hero's psychological development is constructed within this narrative framework.

Conflicting

Drawing on Aristotle's idea that all drama evolves from conflict, theorist Claude Lévi-Strauss said that it is the clash of opposing forces that creates the narrative structure of any story; the conflict between opposite elements drives the narrative tension and creates the resolution. A good example is "Macbeth", where the struggle between good and evil results in tragedy. This narrative structure is concerned more with a story's oppositional themes than with its chronology.

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