The Difference between Narrative and Story - Pt 2

In the first installment of this series, we looked at the differences between Story, Narrative, and Narrative Structure. A Narrative Structure is the shape and purpose of a Story, absent the mundane, non-archetypal details. As for "Narrative" vs "Story", some banal but substantiating links I found were this and this.

But for my money (and politics aside), the most interesting one by far was this

...which is a response to the following lecture by John Hagel:

Excerpt: "Hagel’s formulation has the broad social narratives at the highest level—what we would label master narratives, which endure over time and are broadly known by members of a culture—and personal narratives at the lowest level. The step he is missing is what we have called local narratives: systems of stories about events in the here-and-now. Local narratives ground master narratives in contemporary events and define a place where individuals can cast themselves in roles, aligning their personal narratives. This creates vertical integration, where all three levels are aligned, and it makes for an extraordinary persuasive package."

(You had me at "Persuasive Package".)

A "story" has the typical definition here: a retelling of events in the shape of an arc with a beginning, middle and end. But a "narrative" in this sense is a connected network of stories and statements (which Hagel intriguingly calls "unfinished stories") which provides a sense of identity or purpose to a social group or a whole society. The idea that a Narrative includes "unfinished stories" as well as finished stories really drives home the important distinction here.

So in this sense... "George Washington and the Cherry Tree" is a (probably apocryphal) Story that supports a Narrative of "Americans Value Honesty". "Saddam Hussein has WMDs" was a (false) Story that supported an "America Is Always Right" Narrative.

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Another intriguing statement was the idea that a Narrative is open-ended. Because of this, it invites participation. (Or play!) In practice (or play), your participation (your Story) may end up either supporting or refuting the Narrative.

But this goes both ways: the Narrative may support or refute your Story as well! For instance, You may take part in a covert mission in the war, but the government denies any knowledge of your mission, and after the war is over no one supports or believes your story. Your story has a beginning middle and end, but it will be refuted by the official Narrative (public perception via media) of the war.

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A Local Narrative brings a tactical level to a Master Narrative.

I see Local Narratives as fractal (local) manifestations of Master Narratives, which is perhaps why Hagel did not mention them. For instance, within the Master Narrative that says "There exist powerful and monstrous creatures spawned by evil which torment man and deserve to be slain", we might have a Local Narrative that says "The evil Gazoo of the Tulgey Woods eats farm animals and terrorizes the children. We are at its mercy, and must make sacrifices to appease it. One day we will be delivered from its tyranny by a mighty hero."

But Personal Narratives are qualitatively different. These are statements that individuals or groups tell themselves about themselves. In this category go many of the trappings of RPG Character Development, such as Aspects, Goals, even Character Classes, etc. Statements that say "I am a ___ that does ___."

  • "I am a Watchdog of God who fights the evil in mens hearts"
  • "I am a warrior prince destined for the throne"
  • "I am a superhero who struggles with a personal life"


Little by little, one by one, all Narratives wish to be substantiated by Stories. In fact, I think that's what happens when a Personal Narrative comes up against (collides with?) a Local Narrative, and the veracity of both are tested.


In RPGs (unlike descended myths), not all sessions are successful - i.e. not all stories support the narrative - because it is possible for a PC to fail, and/or the narrative to turn out to be wrong.

But those aren't the games players really want, are they!?

At least in western culture, we like for our heroes to succeed. And that why our favorite "tales" are the Stories (game sessions or "modules") in which the characters' actions succeeded in adhering to (or being reduced to) a stable Narrative Structure, and therefore those Stories supported a Master Narrative.

I'm aware that the sense in which I'm using the word "Narrative" is colored by my education in sociology, and that writers tend to use the word in a different sense. But our definitions aren't really as different as we think. In the next installment I'll show you why.

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The Difference between Narrative and Story is part of a structuralist approach to game design and interactive storytelling currently being explored by the As If Collective. These principles are at the root of the "ScenePlay" narrative card game system, currently in playtesting. Join our Patreon Community to follow and contribute to this project.