Telling History: Narrative and Thematic Approaches
Telling History: Narrative and Thematic Approaches ©HistoryMaps

Telling History: Narrative and Thematic Approaches

nono umasy

When discussing history, there are different ways to present information. When history is told like a story, focusing on events, people, and narratives, it's often referred to as "narrative history." On the other hand, when history focuses on systems, structures, concepts, or themes, like the medieval manor system, it's often termed "thematic history" or "analytical history." Thematic or analytical history delves into specific topics in depth, examining their causes, effects, and significance rather than just recounting events in chronological order.

History papers come in all shapes and sizes. Some papers are narrative (organized like a story according to chronology, or the sequence of events), and some are analytical (organized like an essay according to the topic’s internal logic). Some papers are concerned with history (not just what happened, of course, but why and how it happened), and some are interested in historiography (i.e., how other historians have written history, specifically the peculiarities of different works, scholars, or schools of thought). Some papers emphasize social or cultural history, others political or military history, and still others intellectual or economic (or any other genre of) history.

The way history is told can greatly influence our understanding and interpretation of past events. Two primary approaches to narrating history are narrative and thematic storytelling. Both methods offer distinct perspectives and methods for engaging with historical material, but they differ significantly in structure, focus, and purpose.

Narrative Telling

Narrative telling is a chronological approach to history that focuses on storytelling and the sequence of events. This method emphasizes a linear progression, detailing what happened in the order it occurred, often with a focus on individuals, key events, and specific dates. The narrative method aims to provide a cohesive and comprehensive account of history, making it accessible and engaging by connecting events in a cause-and-effect relationship.

Characteristics of Narrative Telling:

  • Chronological Order: Events are presented in the sequence they occurred, making it easier to follow the development of historical processes over time.
  • Story-driven: Emphasizes a storyline, often centered around key figures, battles, discoveries, or pivotal moments, to draw in the reader or listener.
  • Causality: Highlights the cause-and-effect relationships between events, helping to explain why things happened as they did.
  • Detail-oriented: Often delves into the specifics of events, providing a rich, detailed account of historical moments.

Thematic Telling

Thematic telling, on the other hand, organizes history around specific themes, ideas, or concepts rather than in chronological order. This approach examines how different events, periods, and personalities reflect broader trends, patterns, or issues within society. Themes might include democracy, conflict, social change, economic systems, cultural movements, or technological innovation. Thematic telling allows for a deeper exploration of the underlying forces shaping history, making connections across different times and places to highlight continuities and changes.

Characteristics of Thematic Telling:

  • Theme-oriented: Organizes historical content around central themes or concepts, which can transcend specific time periods or geographical boundaries.
  • Comparative: Often compares and contrasts different periods or regions to draw out broader insights about the human experience.
  • Analytical: Focuses on interpreting and understanding the significance of historical events in relation to the chosen themes.
  • Cross-period Connections: Links events from different times and places to illustrate the development of ideas, movements, or societal trends.

Narrative vs. Thematic:

  • Purpose and Focus: Narrative telling aims to recount history as a series of events, while thematic telling seeks to understand and interpret history through the lens of overarching themes.
  • Engagement Strategy: Narrative history engages through storytelling and a focus on human actions and experiences. Thematic history engages through analysis and the exploration of ideas, patterns, and trends.
  • Educational Approach: Narrative history is often more accessible and engaging for those new to the subject matter, providing a clear chronological framework. Thematic history, however, can offer deeper insights and foster critical thinking by highlighting connections and themes that are not apparent in a strictly chronological approach.

In practice, historians and educators often blend these approaches to provide a more rounded and nuanced understanding of history. While narrative telling brings events to life through detailed storytelling, thematic telling offers the tools to analyze and understand the broader significance of those events. Together, these methods enrich our comprehension of the past, revealing both the unique circumstances of specific moments and the recurring themes that span the breadth of human history.

To illustrate the differences between narrative and thematic telling in history, let's consider two examples that highlight how each approach can be used to tell the story of the Industrial Revolution, a pivotal era in human history marked by dramatic changes in technology, society, and the economy.

Example of Narrative Telling: The Industrial Revolution

A narrative telling of the Industrial Revolution might begin in the late 18th century in Britain, detailing the invention of the steam engine by James Watt and the development of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney. It would follow a chronological sequence, highlighting key innovations, like the spinning jenny and the power loom, and the shift from agrarian economies to industrial production. This account might feature influential figures, such as entrepreneurs and inventors, and describe specific events, like the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the world's first major railway line.

Key Aspects:

  • Chronological Order: The story unfolds in a linear timeline, from early innovations to widespread industrialization.
  • Significant Events and Figures: Focuses on specific inventions, industrial breakthroughs, and the people behind them.
  • Causal Connections: Explains how each invention led to further developments, shaping the industrial landscape.

Example of Thematic Telling: The Industrial Revolution

A thematic telling of the Industrial Revolution, however, would organize the narrative around key themes such as technological innovation, social change, and economic impact. Instead of a linear story, it might explore how the revolution transformed social structures, comparing life before and after in terms of living conditions, work environments, and social mobility. Another theme could focus on the environmental impact, examining how industrialization led to urbanization and significant changes in land use and natural resources. It could also delve into the theme of technological progress and its relationship to human labor, contrasting the benefits of increased production with the challenges of worker displacement and social unrest.

Key Aspects:

  • Theme-oriented: Each section is organized around a different theme, allowing for a multifaceted examination of the era.
  • Comparative Analysis: Compares different aspects of society before, during, and after the Industrial Revolution, drawing insights across time periods.
  • Cross-period Connections: Links innovations and societal changes of the Industrial Revolution with their long-term effects on modern industrial society, technology, and the environment.


The narrative example provides a clear, linear account of the Industrial Revolution, making it accessible and engaging by focusing on human stories and key events. In contrast, the thematic example offers a deeper understanding of the era by examining the broader implications of industrialization on society, economy, and the environment. Both approaches have their merits, and combining them can provide a comprehensive view of historical events, blending the rich detail of narrative storytelling with the insightful analysis of thematic exploration.

Last Updated: Sat Apr 27 2024

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