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Why narrative?
  1. John Launer
  1. Dr John Launer, London Deanery, Stewart House, London WC1B 5DN, UK; jlauner{at}

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If you have been reading medical journals regularly over the last few years, you will almost certainly have noticed that the word “narrative” has been appearing more and more often. You may even have come across articles referring to “narrative-based medicine”1 or simply “narrative medicine”.2 What exactly is a narrative and what is narrative medicine all about?

A narrative is quite simply a story—no more and no less. As Aristotle said, a story has a beginning, a middle and an end. It also has other common features including a character or characters, a sense of time, a degree of suspense as it unfolds, and some kind of plot. It can be spoken or written, and it can be very short indeed (as in “I’ve just fallen down and cut my knee”) or extremely long. The only reason for preferring the word narrative to the word story is probably because it is connected to the verb “to narrate”. Hence it conveys more impression of a process and it is easier to inflect into a range of other words such as narrating and narration.

Stories are universal and as old as human civilisation. However, it was only in the 20th century that a wide range of thinkers started to observe that we all speak, think and experience our lives in narrative form. In other words, we receive the sensory data that comes our way as individuals or as …

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