I have the impression that the term narrative, which traditionally refers to the literary sense of:

  • the art, technique, or process of narrating, or of telling a story: Somerset Maugham was a master of narrative.- Origin: a tale, story," 1560s, from Middle French narrative. (Dictionary.com)

is more and more frequently used with the modern/contemporary connotations which I could find clearly defined only in the AHD:

  • A presentation of real-world events that connects them in a storylike way:

    • "There has been less of a coherent, connected media narrative and more of a kind of episodic focus on events, controversies and gaffes" (Mark Jurkowitz).
  • An explanation or interpretation of events in accordance with a particular theory, ideology, or point of view:

    • the competing narratives of capitalism and Marxism.

Though the latter connotations are clearly an extension of the traditional one, they appear to be more related to real facts with social and political relevance rather than to fictional stories.

Ngram is not very helpful here but it shows an increase in usage of the term "narrative" from the '50s.


How recent is the usage of the term "narrative" as described by the AHD? Was it first and mainly a "journalist" usage?

  • You're right about this recent upsurge in this type of particular usage of the word. My first conjecture is that this particular usage has been adapted from the noun form narration, which means the commentary that accompanies movies, documentaries and newsreels, therefore narrative has also come to mean a commentary based on the facts that are already present. In the example you've given "the competing narratives of capitalism and Marxism",
    – user180089
    Jul 22, 2016 at 23:16
  • (cont,) I believe the word is more being used to illustrate how present-day proponents of these ideologies are propagating their world-view, i.e. how the commentaries from these proponents are evolving day by day in a manner akin to the narration of newsreels.
    – user180089
    Jul 22, 2016 at 23:17
  • This is interesting... in film, "narrative" is often used directly to contrast with "documentary"... to imply that the story is fictional.
    – Catija
    Jul 22, 2016 at 23:24
  • Ngrams show that for the specific phrase "competing narrative" this type of usage popularized in the mid 80s: books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – user180089
    Jul 22, 2016 at 23:28
  • 1
    The idea seems to be be that if an unfolding event isn't part of the narrative, then it's a distraction (almost by definition). You don't want to be associated with new distractions, so you take pains to steer events so they slot into the narrative. I have always associated the usage with the PR folks, ie., upstream of the journalists. @V0ight Mid 80's sounds right.
    – Phil Sweet
    Jul 22, 2016 at 23:29

1 Answer 1


All evidence seems to point at this particular usage of narrative originating in the mid 1980s American political media and popularizing in the 90s.:

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Google Ngram on "competing narrative(s)"

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Google Ngram on "media narrative(s)"

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Google Books search of "competing narratives"

Here's a result from the Time magazine corpus from 1986:

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It's important to note that one of the meanings of "narrate" is to "supply a running commentary"

American Heritage dictionary

  1. To supply a running commentary for (a documentary or performance, for example).

The noun form of this is narration, or the background commentary that can be found in newsreels, documentaries, or movies. The reason narration is used to describe this sort of commentary is because narration has a connotation of the present moment (as the -tion suffix denotes a process), while narrative is the narration as the product of a whole.

In other words, a news story can be a narrative, but it gives narration. Therefore, the usage for "narrative" outlined in the question (competing narratives) comes from the definition of "narrate" that's shown above. In other words, when two narratives are competing in the media then that means that two different forms of running commentary that are fashionable in the media are competing, and in some cases they may even be contradictory to each other. .

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