Telling the story: narrative across media

Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraq. By Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), via Wikimedia Commons.

Narrative is not only one of the most pervasing and persistent features of humans, but it is almost physically inevitable.

No matter which culture you care to examine, narrative plays a central role in its daily life and social interactions. Direct evidence of what happened in social groups before the formation of towns and cities in the ‘fertile crescent’, from modern Turkey down through Iraq, is scant and largely conjectural. But the latest evidence from cave paintings dated to before the last Ice Age implies that as long as 36,000 years ago, humans depicted narrative events quite vividly.

Anonymous, Volcano in Eruption (c 36,000 BP), pigment on limestone mural, 60 x 60 cm, Chauvet-Pont d’Arc Cave, Ardèche, France. B is the original panel (date sampling site shown in green), and C the constructed time sequence of layers. The photo in B was taken by D Genty, and the images in C by V Feruglio and D Baffier. These images are © 2016 Nomade et al.

Narrative is also one of the last of our mental powers to be lost as our brains decline with senescence or disease, being preserved long after we have lost our other faculties in dementias and the like. Indeed, in many organic disorders and under the influence of drugs, while maintenance of time sequence may become deranged, our narratives often become richer and more florid.

The physical determinant of much of narrative is, of course, another of the few human universals: time. Being locked into a physical world which sweeps incessantly through time, narrative is usually structured with time, and is one of the few tools that we have for transcending time. We construct narratives which take us back through time, or are set in the far future. Our narratives can break the structure of time by reordering events, and can dart through different moments in time as we are unable to.

There is huge but very uneven literature on narrative, much of it so deeply embedded in philosophic or political stances and phrased in opaque terminology so that it is almost inaccessible. In the absence of such fundamental agreements as a robust definition of narrative, it can be daunting. Certain forms of narrative medium, in particular written fiction and movies, have been the subject of intensive examination, while others, such as painting, graphic novels, and music, have received far less attention. Sound comparative and correlative studies are also rare.

The spoken word

Although no one knows when human language first reached the point where it could be used for narrative, that probably occurred long before any other form of narrative medium. It also remains the commonest medium for narrative, even in this age of electronic social media. Spoken narrative exists in a vast range, from a few sentences of everyday account, to multi-episode heroic sagas, although the latter are becoming increasingly rare.

As a serial medium, in its purest form oral narrative is explicit in its timeframe, but its content is usually heavily implicit. The audience is provided with details of the events which make up the narrative, usually in time sequence, but the descriptions leave much of the detail to the imagination. Listeners to radio series and drama, including such renowned works as Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood (1954) and Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978), like those of the Iliad and Odyssey before, built their own mental images of events, characters, and other details prompted by the words they heard.

The written word

Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraq. By Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), via Wikimedia Commons.

The advent of writing brought the first written epics, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, from around 2100 BCE, although low literacy rates made written narrative the privilege of small proportions of populations until the last few centuries. Early production of writing tablets and later manuscripts was labour-intensive and copying extremely limited, so it was not until the introduction of the printing press with movable type in around 1450 CE that it was feasible to distribute many copies of any given work. Most recently mobile electronic book readers have overcome the physical limitations of books, enabling avid readers to consume even greater amounts of narrative writing.

Normally used as a serial medium, books (physical and electronic) can also be accessed more flexibly, although this is less usual for fiction than non-fiction. Written narrative is normally explicit in its timeframe, but like the spoken word, its content is heavily implicit. The delivery of spoken narrative is often accompanied by abundant sound cues and effects which aid the hearer’s imagination, which the written word lacks. However some books of course provide illustrations as cues to the reader’s imagination.

Audio-books are a presentation of the author’s written words as speech, which are serial, explicit in timeframe, and heavily implicit in content, even more so than the spoken word would normally be.

Graphic novels, BD, etc.

This medium – whatever it should be called – is undoubtedly much more recent, although no one is sure quite when it became distinct. Sporadic paintings used composite images, or multiple images, to try to depict narrative, from before the Renaissance, but it was probably in the early 1800s that illustrators set out to produce integrated narrative using a series of drawings with accompanying text. By the end of that century, and during the twentieth, graphic novels and bandes dessinées came to flourish, but they did not really achieve general acceptance until the twenty-first century – and even then some look down on the medium.

By combining images and text, graphic novels are a serial medium with very flexible access, explicit timeframe, and their content is largely explicit too, although not as much as movies. Sound cues are often provided in onomatopoeic words inserted into the strip.

Plays, opera, movies and television

This group of media is ancient in origin, but their popularity has changed considerably as a result of the technologies available for their presentation. Plays, with or without dance and music, are oldest and very broadly cross-cultural. They probably evolved from the progressive enhancement of oral narration, from which there is no clear division.

Movies started to develop during the 1890s, but it was not until the late 1920s that they commonly included spoken dialogue, sound effects, and music. Television started to become popular after the Second World War, and gained colour and increasingly sophisticated image and sound from the 1960s onwards. Combined audio-visual media are now widely available in a rich range of presentations, including on-demand online supplies via the Internet and cable systems.

Originally strictly serial, recent developments have opened more flexible access although most users still access their content serially. They have explicit timeframes which can be set to run in real time. Of all the media, they are the most explicit, in providing complete visual and audio content throughout, and relying least on the viewer’s imagination to construct mental images of additional content. As a result they are often condemned, in comparison with more traditional media, although skilled productions can be very stimulating to the imagination.

Paintings and graphic arts

In simple forms, these may be older than the written word, and for much of human history have been far more accessible to the general population, as they require no reading skills, of course. However, until the popularisation of printed images from about 1500 onwards, there were very limited numbers of graphic images in circulation.

Paintings and other images are unusual in that one image, or a limited number of images, perhaps as many as three in a triptych, has to contain all the cues to its narrative, making them a singular rather than serial medium. Because of this, their timeframe is implicit, their visual content explicit, and other sensory elements (such as sound) are implicit and have to be imagined by the viewer.

Some artists have experimented with more explicit timeframes, which have led ultimately to the graphic novel, and animated movies.

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), The Garden of Eden (1530), oil on lime, 80 x 118 cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden. Wikimedia Commons.
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), The Garden of Eden (1530), oil on lime, 80 x 118 cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden. Wikimedia Commons. Six different scenes of the Fall of Man are shown in this single composite painting.

Most narrative paintings therefore use content (narratives) which are already very familiar to the viewer: those from the Bible and classical mythology are among the most popular, where the viewer can imagine the elements of the narrative before and after the scene depicted in the painting.

Deciphering the narrative, by reading the painting, becomes much more of a challenge when the narrative is unfamiliar or even concealed. Paintings by Paula Rego, for example, explained by her in a movie, Telling Tales, are likely to have very different narratives from those read by the uninformed viewer. Some viewers find such speculative challenges enhance the narrative experience, but others reject it.


The birth of photography is usually attributed to 1839, but it was not until photographs could be reproduced in print that they became widely accessible. Taking photographs became widespread after the introduction of cheap cameras and film around 1900, and colour photography and reproduction was not commonplace until after the Second World War.

Photographs share many of the properties of paintings, but until the twenty-first century were much more limited in their content. Some photographers and technicians used multiple exposure and other techniques to manipulate their images, but for the great majority, their content was determined by what was actually in front of the lens at the time the photograph was taken. Adobe Photoshop and the general availability of digital cameras changed this through the early twenty-first century, blurring distinctions between digital photography, illustration, and digital painting.

As with paintings, photographs are usually singular rather than serial, with implicit timeframe, explicit visual content, but other senses markedly implicit.

Even without manipulation of an image, a photograph can be posed to imply a deceptive narrative. Taken by an unknown photographer at Collaroy Beach in about 1940. By State Library of New South Wales collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

Because it remains a common assumption that a photograph is a faithful record of a moment in time (‘the camera cannot lie’), viewers often place unwarranted faith in their imagined interpretation of the events before and after the moment at which a photograph was taken. This is commonly aided by verbal cues in the form of a caption or short text narrative. Photographs, particularly following manipulation of their content, are thus very effective means for the construction of fictional narratives apparently set as fact.


Music is also ancient and almost universal among human society and cultures. At its technically simplest it augments spoken narrative in singing, but has developed into orchestras and virtual instruments assembled into a huge range of styles of music with or without sung words.

Until recently, music has been invariably serial, and although modern technology allows greater flexibility, it remains essentially so. It is unusual in being explicit in timeframe, both explicit and implicit in sound, and highly implicit in all other senses. The latter can be changed by adding visual content, to form opera and musicals, of course, and music has been a sound supplement to movies long before films gained their own soundtracks.

Although narrative music may use instruments in ways intended to mimic natural sounds, and sometimes includes natural sounds, the assembly of purely natural sounds into narrative – without oral narration – remains unusual and unpopular. This may be because most music has intrinsic rhythmic structure, as part of its expression of timeframe; this rhythm is also associated with rhythmic movement, which may become participatory dance.


I have tried to draw together a lot of this common knowledge to help see it in a less common way, to prepare for future articles looking at narrative in non-fiction, and more generally at narrative in modern hypertext and hypermedia. I hope that it stimulates further insight.