Every so often, a scholar or a group of scholars within a discipline reveals research so groundbreaking or so pioneering, the discipline, at least momentarily, collectively pauses to consider its implications. A lively debate typically ensues; responses papers are crafted; issues in journals are dedicated to the new concept; conference panels form around the idea; and new generations of scholars are inspired, immortalizing in some form the revolutionary research initially presented. Over the last forty years, several trailblazing concepts in Communication Studies followed this trajectory.

One such concept is the Narrative Paradigm. While the late Walter Fisher certainly redefined our discipline’s collective relationship with storytelling as a communicative form, the story of studying narrative in Communication Studies is more nuanced and revealing. For rhetorical critics, Fisher’s (1984) Narrative Paradigm offered new language and scholarly grounding for analysis, helping to uncover the persuasive components embedded within a story. For scholars rooted more in the social sciences, the Narrative Paradigm provided a methodological template to further examine narratives as form of persuasion.

In this article, we highlight the use of narrative as a form of rhetorical criticism by further defining terms typically employed by rhetorical scholars in analyzing narratives. Then, we discuss the history of Narrative Criticism in Rhetorical Studies and emphasize that the history actually begins well before Fisher’s (1984) proposal of the Narrative Paradigm. Finally, we feature some scholars that utilize aspects of Narrative Criticism in their research and consider the import of Narrative Criticism in Rhetorical Studies today.

Further Defining the Parameters of a Narrative

Before tracing the history of Narrative Criticism in Rhetorical Studies, it’s important to first further define the parameters and key concepts often employed in Narrative Criticism. In other words, what factors do rhetorical critics consider in revealing the underlying persuasive elements embedded within a story – or what makes a good story? Within Narrative Criticism, there are several dimensions of the narrative that critics typically examine. Of them, we will highlight a few: fidelity, probability, the role of the setting, and the role of the narrator.

In his original delineation of the Narrative Paradigm, Fisher (1984) proposed the notion of narrative fidelity, or the ability of the narrative under examination to “ring true” to its audience. Put differently, when examining the fidelity of a narrative, critics are tasked with revealing whether the narrative “represents accurate assertions about reality” for the audience or demonstrates what the audience thinks to be true about the world in which they live (Foss, 2017).

In our increasingly polarized world today, audiences are often splintered along ideological and socio-economic lines, so analyzing the fidelity of a narrative can reveal the rhetorical contours of a particular type of audience and its special relationship with the storyteller. For example, if a critic analyzed the dominant narratives presented by American presidential candidates during a general election, the critic could reveal that the respective rhetors narrated a version of reality that viscerally appealed to their audiences. In other words, the Republican’s narrative rang true to their Republican audience – and the Democrat’s narrative rang true to their Democratic audience.

Paired with fidelity, Fisher (1984) presented another tool in rhetorically analyzing a story – probability. The concept of probability, or whether or not the story presented adheres to a coherent form, is about structure. In other words, discerning the probability of a narrative is about determining if the story follows a consistent structure – does it make sense to the audience? Are there contradictions in the narrative that make it difficult for audience members to believe?

Elsewhere, critics examine the role the setting plays in the telling of a story. Is the setting fictional, real, or set in human history? What does a fictional setting do for the themes or motifs the author is trying to convey? Conversely, does a realistic setting advance the author’s goals better? George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series and HBO’s television depiction of his work in Game of Thrones, for example, continues to be lauded for the use of a fictional setting to better portray the complexity of its characters, ultimately allowing us to better reflect upon our the complexities in our own, real world.

Finally, the role of the narrator remains crucial in critically analyzing narratives. Of course, at work within studies of narrators in rhetorical discourse is the ancient Aristotelian concept of ethos, or the confluence of character, credibility, and speaker’s perceived good-will towards her/his audience.

Additionally, discussions regarding the centrality of rhetors in their own stories is increasingly being examined. For example, former President Obama often infused his personal story with that of America’s story in campaign rhetoric. As Darsey (2009) revealed, Obama relied upon the archetypal metaphor of the journey in constructing a campaign narrative around “change” in 2009 – Obama’s diverse upbringing mirrors America, their journeys one in the same.

Spotlight on Scholarship – Featured Scholars Researching Narrative in Rhetoric

Narrative Criticism, as one of many tools for the rhetorical critic, can take on many shapes and sizes when put into practice. The proceeding list of scholars utilize narrative criticism to some degree – with some more than others. Additionally, it should be noted that although much of the scholarship referenced below may not be considered Narrative Criticism in the strictest sense, these scholars and their work inherently involve narratives.
Leroy Dorsey, Ph.D. – Texas A&M University

In the broadest of descriptions, Dr. Dorsey studies presidential rhetoric. More specifically, however, Dr. Dorsey’s work on President Theodore Roosevelt’s use of mythic narratives in shaping American cultural identity continues to be the lauded as the gold standard of myth, narrative, and presidential rhetoric scholarship. In particular, Dorsey and Harlow’s (2003) essay in Rhetoric & Public Affairs “‘We Want Americans Pure and Simple’: Theodore Roosevelt and the Myth of Americanism” is a staple in most graduate seminars when discussing narrative, and his follow-up book We Are All Americans, Pure and Simple: Theodore Roosevelt and the Myth of Americanism won the 2008 National Communication Association Marie Hochmuth Nichols Award.

John Lynch, Ph.D. – University of Cincinnati

With scholarship spanning and blending several unique areas, Dr. Lynch’s publication list is storied and impressive. In particular, his work in the area of narrative is featured in respected journals ranging from Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Rhetoric of Health & Medicine, and the Howard Journal of Communications. His essay “‘Prepare to Believe’: The Creation Museum as Embodied Conversion Narrative” is quickly becoming a feature in graduate seminars across the country. Dr. Lynch is currently the Graduate Director for the Department of Communication at the University of Cincinnati.

Mieke Bal, Ph.D. – University of Amsterdam

While not a Communication scholar by trade, Dr. Bal’s work is widely read and disseminated throughout the discipline. In particular, her book Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative is a must-read for scholars of any background looking to engage in Narrative Criticism. Now Professor Emeritus at the University of Amsterdam, Dr. Bal is primarily a culture and literary theorist and critic, examining topics ranging from antiquity to modern notions of feminism.

Greg Dickinson, Ph.D. – Colorado State University

Now the chair of the Department of Communication Studies at Colorado State University, Dr. Dickinson is both a prolific scholar and teacher. His scholarship examining memory, place, culture, and rhetoric’s materiality has won numerous awards at the National Communication Association. In the realm of narrative, Dr. Dickinson’s work on the rhetoric at work in museums is widely featured and cited. In particular, Dr Dickinson’s (2005) essay (along with Dr. Ott and Dr. Aoki, listed below) “Memory and Myth at the Buffalo Bill Museum” featured in the Western Journal of Communication reveals how the museum reasserts the Myth of the American frontier in telling Buffalo Bill’s story, advancing whiteness through carnival-like depictions of violence against Native peoples.

Brian Ott, Ph.D. – Texas Tech University

Dr. Ott is a prominent scholar with his work merging several areas, including Rhetorical Studies, visual rhetoric, cultural studies, social media, and public memory. A case could be made that much of Dr. Ott’s work is in relation to narrative – with the aforementioned essay on the Buffalo Bill Museum as one exemplar – and how stories impact audiences across a variety of mediums. However, Dr. Ott’s (2002) essay with Dr. Aoki, “The Politics of Negotiating Public Tragedy: Media Framing of the Matthew Shepard Murder,” uses Kenneth Burke’s work on dramatism to examine how the news media framed Matthew Shepard’s murder. Indeed, this essay is a testament to the malleable nature of Narrative Criticism – it can assume many forms.

Eric Aoki, Ph.D. – Colorado State University

In addition to the aforementioned essays he co-authored, Dr. Aoki’s work in Intercultural Communication is without rival. In the realm of narrative, Dr. Aoki recently published an essay in the Howard Journal of Communications entitled “Mexican American Ethnicity in Biola, CA: An Ethnographic Account of Hard Work, Family, and Religion,” utilizing, as the title indicates, an ethnographic perspective in documenting Mexican American ethnicity. Again revealing the diffuse ways Narrative Criticism can manifest, ethnography is one such vehicle to bring to the fore the persuasive elements of a story.

The History of Narrative Criticism in Rhetorical Studies

Because human beings are indeed storytelling creatures, narrative – and, by extension, narrative criticism – has always been a part of our literary and poetic genetic code. As Burgchardt (2010) puts it, even neo-classical criticism (the dominant form of rhetorical criticism for many generations of scholars) “recognize(d),” to an extent, the power of narration as a rhetorical “technique.”

Building off the “broad tradition of dramatism,” Walter Fisher (1984) introduced – or, at least, repurposed – narrative criticism for scholars of rhetoric (Burgchardt, 2010). As mentioned in our article on Rhetorical Studies, Fisher (1984) “put forth to represent the essential nature of human being” the concept of homo narrans, or the idea that human beings are inherently storytelling creatures. This premise “holds that symbols are created and communicated ultimately as stories meant to give order to human experience and to induce others to dwell in them to establish ways of living in common, in communities in which there is sanction for the story that constitutes one’s life” (Fisher, 1984). In other words, narration is a mode of human communication that is ancient, universal, and important to our collective survival. Dr. Fisher’s research and publications continue to reverberate across other scholars’ work and the paradigms that are used to examine narrative forms. In addition to his landmark 1984 “Narration As a Human Communication Paradigm: The Case of Public Moral Argument,” Fisher expanded his work with narrative, releasing five additional essays on the topic, in addition to a book that further extended the Narrative Paradigm’s reach.

Although this debate rekindled inspiration in rhetorical scholars, it was not the field’s first foray into studying the communicative components of narratives. Indeed, many consider the work of Roland Barthes to be the scholarly predecessor of the Narrative Paradigm. In particular, Barthes’ (1957) book, Mythologies, amalgamates narrative, semiology, cultural studies, and myth into a cohesive series of essays that reveal the ways in which modern myths discursively operate.

Narrative Criticism Today

To borrow from Mark Twain, rumors of narrative’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Some suggested that with all the trappings of modernity – technology, the Internet, instant communication, political and social polarization – storytelling as a mode of human communication would diminish. Quite the contrary, narratives are perhaps more important than ever.

Anecdotally, one need only witness the sustained growth of creative industries that bring narratives to life to understand their enduring importance to humanity. Film and television, for example, regularly feature compelling stories and intricately woven narratives that function as pedagogical tools and catalysts for complex human emotions. What’s more, our discourse (in all of its many forms – political, social, mythical, etc.) continues to employ narrative frequently.

Indeed, this growth and continued reliance upon storytelling today provides critics of narrative in Rhetorical Studies ample opportunity to further probe the ways narrative functions communicatively and impacts the human psyche. In the political realm, campaign advertisements employ narrative regularly – they can introduce a candidate, provide their background, weave policy positions into their biography, and highlight aspects of their service to the country from their life.

For example, Elizabeth Warren ties her proposed policy on making childcare affordable in America with her struggles to find childcare while she finished school. Elsewhere, Donald Trump regularly highlights his success in business as a crucial component of his life’s story, tying his success there to his success in economic matters as President of the United States. Scholars examining these instances could reveal how these stories inspire voters, change perceptions about the candidate or elected officials, and contribute to their legacy.

Given its centrality to human existence and communication, scholars in Communication Studies continue to examine narratives, even if by another name. Indeed, scholars studying memory, culture, drama, health, and politics, in particular, routinely study the dissemination and impact of stories. While the mantle of “Narrative Criticism” may not be assumed in emerging scholarship, rest assured, elements of this form of rhetorical criticism are absolutely at work – and will be for generations to come.

About the Author: Christopher Wernecke is a Ph.D. candidate and Graduate Instructor at Georgia State University, where he is currently studying collective memory and American cancer rhetoric in the Department of Communication. He holds a bachelor's degree in political science from DePaul University, and a Master of Arts in Communication and Media Studies from Texas State University.

Sources and Additional Resources

To learn more about narrative criticism and its impact on human history and society, check out the following resources:

Additional Topics on Research in Rhetorical Studies

Introductory Guide to Rhetorical Studies

This guide provides an in-depth discussion of rhetorical studies, describing the history and significance of the discipline while also providing readers with theories that are useful to understanding different forms of rhetoric and their functions in human communication.

Critical Rhetoric

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Gender Criticism

This detailed article discusses the history and forms of gender criticism in rhetorical studies, and also explains the political, social, and cultural significance of this field of study.

Genre Criticism

This article provides an overview of genre criticism in rhetorical studies, and how it has evolved over the centuries. It also explains the influential work of scholars in this field of study.

Material Rhetoric

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Metaphoric Criticism

This article explains how metaphors are widely used in human communication and understanding, and provides a background on the history and prominent scholarship of this field.

Rhetoric of Social Movements

This article examines the history and impact of social movement rhetorical research, and provides readers with a detailed overview of some of the latest research in the field that is being completed by eminent scholars of social justice and civil rights rhetoric.