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OnWords: Narrative


It has always bothered me that grant proposals always require “narratives.”

Grant narratives are generally so highly structured that they could not possibly resemble narrative as we commonly use the term.

Coming from a background in creative writing, I think of a narrative as telling a story. I don’t think of narrative as just any piece of prose that happens not to be strictly analytical. Indeed, a really cracker-jack writer can present an analysis that tells a story or a story that provides an analysis—all while keeping the integrity of the story intact.

I may be biased, but I believe there is value in equating narrative with such things as a distinct plot, a storylike thing peopled with characters interacting with their environment and with each other. I will even go so far as to say that a narrative should have a distinct setting—a discernible time and place it happens—and a narrator who presents a theme with a distinct point of view.

Thought of this way, the traditional way within writing and literary studies, narrative is both usefully specific and nearly infinitely flexible, a structure for sense-making that is far more human than other kinds of blocky prose. 

This is why story forms pervade culture, from ads to movies to the journalism on either side of this commentary: analysis and algorithm can tell us many things, but it requires a narrative, a story, to make it all real.