Narrative history allows you to master the art of good storytelling that lies at the heart of most compelling history.
In a nutshell, narrative history asks you to tell a story: when, where, and (hopefully) why a certain event occurred, its larger significance or context, and who the important participants were. This is one of the more basic types of assignments you are likely to encounter, well-suited for (although not limited to) a short paper assignment.
Usually (in the context of a "W" class, for example) your professor has already covered the event. You have read about it and discussed it in class, and the assignment's objective is simply 1) to get you writing and, 2) to allow you to display, in writing, your mastery over the material.
Often - especially in a "W" course - the professor will ask you to limit your sources to those used in class, to use a system of annotation of his or her choosing, and to display basic quoting skills. Most likely, the professor will also require you to provide a "Works Cited"-page, or bibliography. (In the event that your professor asks you to access sources aside from those used in class, go to types of sources).
Such an assignment will invariably require you to develop a thesis (a basic claim, or question, your paper seeks to prove or answer) and to formulate a conclusion. In between, in the main body of your paper, you will tell your story: what happened, when, and why.
Here is a typical question that falls into the category of a narrative history assignment, and one that is integral to our larger thematic focus on events leading up to World War II:
Chart the foreign policy of Adolf Hitler from his appointment as German Chancellor in 1933 until the eve of World War II in 1939.
The events that marked the pre-WWII foreign policy of Nazi Germany, although complicated, are well-documented (they are listed below). You will find them briefly explained in any standard textbook of European, World, or American history. Most likely, your professor expects you to introduce your topic, to establish a broader context, to place the relevant events into chronological order, to explain each one briefly, and to draw a conclusion.
The benefits of such assignments are several: Most importantly, they get you to write on a straightforward topic. Secondly, they heighten your awareness of cause and effect and the importance of chronology. (Follow the above link to explore the relevance of cause and effect in the context of this assignment.) Finally, they also ask you to develop a thesis and formulate a conclusion.
A thesis, in the case of narrative history, can be modest: "The foreign policy pursued by the Nazi government under Adolf Hitler from 1933 to 1939 paved the way for World War II." A more ambitious thesis might add a statement along the following lines: "The unwillingness of the League of Nations or the United States to challenge Hitler's foreign policy may have emboldened him in his increasingly aggressive tactics. Ultimately these mutually reinforcing strategies culminated in the major confrontation that became World War II."
For a lengthier version of this paper, you may choose to establish a broader context in your thesis, also: "Still-recent as well as current events in Europe and in the world further contributed to the short-sightedness with which the League of Nations and the United States responded to Hitler's policies." (Follow the link above to see how to establish such a broader context for this sample assignment.)
Following your thesis, and having told your story (what happened, when, and why: consult the timeline below) you will formulate a conclusion. A conclusion does more than just summarize your findings: while briefly recapping the major points in the story you have told, your conclusion should also, as importantly, present the insights and larger lessons your story has yielded: that which makes your topic worthy of historical investigation.
For more on this sample assignment, see Establishing a Broader Context.
Timeline of Adolf Hitler's foreign policy, 1933-39:
- 1933 Hitler becomes Führer ("leader") of Germany; leaves the League of Nations.
- 1935 begins re-building the German navy and increasing troop strength of German army in violation of the Treaty of Versailles.
- 1936 Hitler remilitarizes the Rhineland, placed under French control for 20 years in 1919's Treaty of Versailles.
- 1936 Hitler signs the Rome-Berlin Axis Pact, creating an alliance with Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini.
- 1936-39 Along with Mussolini, Hitler aids Franco's Nationalists (the "falange") against the Republicans (or "Loyalists") in the Spanish Civil War.
- 1938 Hitler annexes Austria in the so-called Anschluss ("annexation").
- 1938 September, Britain and France appease Hitler by granting him the right to occupy the Sudetenland, an ethnic German-populated western province of Czechoslovakia; Hitler asserts that his territorial claims in Europe are satisfied.
- 1939 March, Hitler takes the rest of Czechoslovakia.
- 1939 September 1, Hitler attacks Poland.
- 1939 September 3, Britain and France declare war on Germany: World War II officially begins.
Narrative history is the practice of writing history in a story-based form. It is generally distinguished from a purely analytical form of history. Though history is considered a social science, the story-based nature of history allows for the inclusion of a greater or lesser degree of narration in addition to an analytical or interpretative exposition of historical knowledge. It can be divided into two subgenres: the traditional narrative and the modern narrative.
Traditional narrative focuses on the chronological order of history. It is event driven and tends to center upon individuals, action, and intention. For example, in regard to the French Revolution, a historian who works with the traditional narrative might be more interested in the revolution as a single entity (one revolution), centre it in Paris, and rely heavily upon major figures such as Maximilien Robespierre.
Conversely, modern narrative typically focuses on structures and general trends. A modern narrative would break from rigid chronology if the historian felt it explained the concept better. In terms of the French Revolution, a historian working with the modern narrative might show general traits that were shared by revolutionaries across France but would also illustrate regional variations from those general trends (many confluent revolutions). Also this type of historian might use different sociological factors to show why different types of people supported the general revolution.
Historians who use the modern narrative might say that the traditional narrative focuses too much on what happened and not enough on why and causation. Also, that this form of narrative reduces history into neat boxes and thereby does an injustice to history. J H Hexter characterized such historians as "lumpers". In an essay on Christopher Hill, he remarked that "lumpers do not like accidents: they would prefer them vanish...The lumping historian wants to put all of the past into boxes..and then to tie all the boxes together into one nice shapely bundle."
Historians who use traditional narrative might say that the modern narrative overburdens the reader with trivial data that had no significant effect on the progression of history. They believe that the historian needs to stress what is consequential in history, as otherwise the reader might believe that minor trivial events were more important than they were.
White, Hayden (1 March 1984). "The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory"(PDF).