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What are the main types of stories and narratives?

There are many different types of stories, with different labels. Let's start with the simplest.

  • Story: the telling of a happening or connected series of happenings, whether true or fictitious; account; narration

  • Narrative: the broadest sense is: anything told or recounted; more narrowly, something told or recounted in the form of a a story; account; tale.

  • So what's the difference between "story" and "narrative"? Good question! For a discussion of this issue, go the section below.

    For other terms in use, consider:

  • Springboard story: A springboard story is a story that enables a leap in understanding by the audience so as to grasp how an organization or community or complex system may change. A springboard story has an impact not so much through transferring large amounts of information, but through catalyzing understanding. It enables listeners to visualize from a story in one context what is involved in a large-scale transformation in an analogous context. Find out more about springboard stories in The Secret Language of Leadership (2007) or The Leader's Guide to Storytelling (2005) or The Springboard (2000)

  • Anti-story: an anti-story is a story that arises in opposition to another. Any story that has a significant impact in a group or organization will give rise to similar stories ("That reminds me...") as well as anti-stories. Anti-stories aim at undermining the original story. As often pointed out by Dave Snowden, an anti-story can arise as a negative or cynical counter to stories of official goodness. But it's not limited to the situation of stories of official goodness. It also arises in response to negative or cynical stories where again the intent is to undermine the original story.

    The phenomenon of anti-story is something that one needs to be aware of when telling stories in an organization. The phenomenon will occur spontaneously and naturally, no matter how powerful the story one tells. The scene then becomes a battle between competing stories. The competing stories may co-exist for an extended period, or one story may "overcome" the other, and become the accepted account of what is going on.

    One can perhaps envisage a sequence:

    Story >> Anti-story >> Eventual Story

    The Eventual Story may be the same as the original Story (if the original Story is "triumphant"), or the same as the Anti-story (if the opponents of that Story are "triumphant"), or perhaps a new story, combining elements of the original Story and the Anti-story.

    Anti-story can be used as a powerful tool to undermine the position of one's opponents particularly where they are circulating untrue rumors or unreasonable criticism in the organization in Chapter 7 of The Leader's Guide to Storytelling.

    The anti-story doesn't work very well against a rumor that is true or a criticism that is reasonable. In those situations, one should admit the truth and say what one is going to be done about it. In literature, stories with an anti-plot can emerge to undermine the idea that life has a plot with simple beginning, middle and ending. In Macbeth, Shakespeare powerfully expressed the anti-story viewpoint that life has no meaning (in a drama that is paradoxically full of meaning):

    "Life .. is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing:"

    Macbeth, Act V, Scene v.

  • Account: usually a reckoning of financial matters or transactions, but can also mean: an explanation, a report; description; story. (One of the first uses of written language was to record financial transactions which might be conceived of as miniature stories.)

  • Tale: something told or related; relation or a recital of happenings; or a story or account of true, legendary, or fictitious events; narrative; or a literary composition in narrative form

  • Chronicle: a historical record or register of facts or events arranged in the order in which they happened.

  • History: the several senses of history include: 1) an account of what has or might have happened, especially. in the form of a narrative, play, story, or tale; 2) what has happened in the life or development of a people, country, institution. 3) a systematic account of this, usually in chronological order with an analysis and explanation; 4) all recorded events of the past; 5) the branch of knowledge that deals systematically with the past; a recording, analyzing, correlating, and explaining of past events; 6) a known or recorded past

  • News: new information about anything; information previously unknown; or reports, collectively, of recent happenings, especially. those broadcast over radio or TV, printed in a newspaper

  • Report: to give an account of, often at regular intervals; give information about (something seen, done).

  • Stories that are typically oral and ephemeral include:

  • Anecdote: originally, an anecdote was a little-known, entertaining facts of history or biography; now, a short, often entertaining account of some happening, usually personal or biographical

  • Rumor: general talk not based on definite knowledge; mere gossip; hearsay; an unconfirmed report, story, or statement in general circulation

  • Hearsay: something one has heard but does not know to be true.

  • Gossip: idle talk and rumors, especially about the private affairs of others, and usually recounted with a pejorative tone.

  • Joke: anything said or done to arouse laughter; such as a funny anecdote with a punch line or an amusing trick played on someone

  • Forms of story that are originally oral and to some extent enduring either through being told and retold, or through being written down, include:

  • Fable: a fictitious story meant to teach a moral lesson: the characters are usually talking animals, such as fables written by Aesop (ancient Greece, 6th Century B.C.) or Jean de La Fontaine (French poet and writer of fables, 1621-1695)

  • Parable: short, simple story, usually of an occurrence of a familiar kind, from which a moral or religious lesson may be drawn

  • Myth: a traditional story of unknown authorship, ostensibly with a historical basis, but serving usually to explain some phenomenon of nature, the origin of man, or the customs, institutions, religious rites of a people: myths usually involve the exploits of gods and heroes.

  • Legend: a story handed down for generations among a people and popularly believed to have a historical basis, although not verifiable

  • Stories in written literature include:

  • Short story: a fictitious literary composition in prose or poetry, shorter than a novel; narrative; tale.

  • Novella: a relatively long fictional prose narrative with a more or less complex plot or pattern of events, about actions, feelings, motives, of a group of characters

  • Epic: a long narrative poem in a dignified style about the deeds of a traditional or historical hero or heroes; such as Homer's Iliad or the Odyssey, with certain formal characteristics (beginning in medias res, catalog passages, invocations of the muse, etc.) (called classical epic) b) a poem like Milton‘s Paradise Lost, in which such characteristics are applied to later or different materials (called art epic or literary epic) c) a poem like Beowulf, considered as expressing the early ideals and traditions of a people or nation (called folk epic or national epic)

  • Drama: a literary composition that tells a story, usually of human conflict, by means of dialogue and action, to be performed by actors; play; now often any play that is not a comedy

  • Tragedy: a serious play or drama typically dealing with the problems of a central character, leading to an unhappy or disastrous ending brought on, as in ancient drama, by fate and a tragic flaw in this character, or, in modern drama, usually by moral weakness, psychological maladjustment, or social pressures (often seen as requiring catharsis, and a tragic flaw.

  • Comedy: originally, a drama or narrative with a happy ending or nontragic theme, for example Dante‘s Divine Comedy; more recently, any of various types of play or motion picture with a more or less humorous treatment of characters and situation and a happy ending

  • High Comedy: comedy appealing to, and reflecting the life and problems of, the upper social classes, characterized by a witty, sardonic treatment

  • Low Comedy: a comedy that gets its effect mainly from action and situation, as burlesque, farce, slapstick, and horseplay, rather than from witty dialogue and characterization

  • Farce: an exaggerated comedy based on broadly humorous or highly unlikely situations

  • Parody: a literary or musical work imitating the characteristic style of some other work or of a writer or composer in a satirical or humorous way, usually by applying it to an inappropriate subject

  • Satire: a literary work in which vices, follies, stupidities or abuses, are held up to ridicule and contempt.

  • What's the difference between "narrative" and "story"?

    In common usage: none.

    So in my books, The Secret Language of Leadership and The Leader's Guide to Storytelling, I use narrative and story as synonyms, in the broad sense of an account of a set of events that are causally related.

    One could fill a whole library with the academic discussion swirling around such a simple commonsense notion. Here, I will only allude to a few of the issues.

    Various practitioners have suggested different definitions.

    For some, story should be defined in the narrower sense of a well-told story, with a protagonist, a plot, and a turning point leading to a resolution. For them, narrative might be used in the broader sense I employ in this book. In this view, locutions that lack the traditional elements of a well-told story are not so much stories as ideas for possible stories yet to be told, or fragments of stories. (See for instance: Y. Gabriel, Storytelling in Organizations: Facts, Fictions and Fantasies -- Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2000).

    Others have suggested that story should be used in the broader sense I am suggesting, while narrative should be used in the narrower sense of “a story as told by a narrator.” On this view, “narrative = story + theme”: the theme is a layer added to the story to instruct, to provide an emotional connection, or to impart a deeper meaning. (See for instance L. Vincent, Legendary Brands: Unleashing the Power of Storytelling to Create a Winning Market Strategy (Chicago: Dearborn Trade, 2002).

    In practice, the actual everyday usage of both story and narrative is very broad. Polkinghorne and others have suggested that we accept this broad meaning and treat story and narrative as synonyms: D. E. Polkinghorne, Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988. Polkinghorne defines both narrative and story as “the fundamental scheme for linking individual human actions and events into interrelated aspects of an understandable composite.” Polkinghorne, Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences, p. 13.

    Within the broad field of story, we can then distinguish classically structured stories, well-made stories, minimalist stories, anti-stories, fragmentary stories, stories with no ending, stories with multiple endings, stories with multiple beginnings, stories with endings that circle back to the beginning, comedies, tragedies, detective stories, romances, folk tales, novels, theater, movies, television mini-series, and so on, without the need to get into quasi-theological discussions as to what is truly a story.

    In common usage, story is a large tent, with many variations within the tent. Some variations are more useful for some purposes than others. There are probably many variations that haven’t yet been identified. If we start out with predetermined ideas of what a “real story” is, we may end up missing useful forms of narrative.


    Stephen Denning, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations. Boston, London, Butterworth Heinemann, October 2000.

    Donald E. Polkinghorne, Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences. Albany N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1988.

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