RELATED TERMS: Dasein; Ontological metalepsis; Diégèse; World, World of the Story and World of the Narrative Environment; Lifeworld - Lebenswelt - Umwelt; Actant; Actor Network Theory; Method and methodology

The design of narrative environments involves the articulation of (interpreted) narrative world/worlds and (embodied) lifeworld/lifeworlds. This articulation gives rise to a storyworld. A storyworld is not a mere sequence of events to be followed, such as might be presented, for example, in a strict structuralist analysis, but is rather an emotionally engaging world in which the reader, viewer, audience or participant situates himself, herself or themselves, by means of which the associative field of a storyworld is created. In the words of Ryan and Thon (2014: 3), “while the author creates the storyworld through the production of signs, it is the reader, spectator, listener, or player [or participant] who uses … a finished text [or narrative environment] to construct a mental image of this world.”

The notion of storyworld involves an extension of the thinking of the classical, structuralist narratologists, who relegated the referential or world-creating properties of narrative as a matter of little concern (Herman, 2009: 71). This was partly due to the exclusion of the referent in favour of the signifier and signified in the Saussurean language theory that informed the structuralists’ approach.

Since the late 1980s, however, scholars of narrative have been more concerned with how readers of print narratives, interlocutors in face-to-face discourse and viewers of films use textual cues to build up representations of the worlds evoked by stories, i.e. storyworlds. Such approaches to narrative inquiry, while building on the work of classical, structuralist narratologists, such as Roland Barthes, Gerard Genette, A. J. Greimas, and Tzvetan Todorov, supplement it with concepts and methods that were unavailable to story analysts during the heyday of the structuralist revolution.

As Marie-Laure Ryan (2014) explains this transition, the notion of storyworld emerged from a shift from formal narratology to a phenomenological approach focused on the act of imagination required by the reader, spectator, player or participant. The two traditions of thought from which storyworld inherits its concerns are possible world theory, as discussed in analytical philosophy, and cognitive approaches to literature, such as pursued by David Herman.

Thus, David Herman uses the term storyworld to refer to the world evoked implicitly as well as explicitly by a narrative, irrespective of whether it takes the form of a printed text, cinematic film, graphic novel, sign language, or everyday conversation. Herman extends his scope to include tales that are projected but never actualised as concrete artefacts. The examples he gives are those of stories about ourselves that we contemplate telling to friends but then do not, or film scripts that a screenwriter plans to create in the future.

Thus, Herman (2009: 72-73) defines storyworlds as,

“ … global mental representations enabling interpreters to frame inferences about the situations, characters, and occurrences either explicitly mentioned in or implied by a narrative text or discourse. As such, storyworlds are mental models of the situations and events being recounted — of who did what to and with whom, when, where, why, and in what manner. Reciprocally, narrative artifacts (texts, films, etc.) provide blueprints for the creation and modification of such mentally configured story worlds.”

As Herman (2005: 570), cited by Horvath (2010: 90), explains,

“In trying to make sense of a narrative, interpreters attempt to reconstruct not just what happened but also the surrounding context or environment embedding storyworld existents, their attributes, and the actions and events in which they are involved. Indeed, the grounding of stories in storyworlds goes a long way towards explaining narratives’ immersiveness, their ability to ’transport’ interpreters into places and times that they must occupy for the purposes of narrative comprehension. Interpreters do not merely reconstruct a sequence of events and a set of existents, but imaginatively (emotionally, viscerally) inhabit a world in which things matter, agitate, exalt, repulse, provide grounds for laughter and grief, and so on – both for narrative participants and for interpreters of the story. More than reconstructed timelines and inventories of existents, then, storyworlds are mentally and emotionally projected environments in which interpreters are called upon to live out complex blends of cognitive and imaginative response.”

Herman contends that this notion storyworld is consonant with a range of other concepts proposed by the likes of cognitive psychologists, discourse analysts, psycholinguists and philosophers of language, who are concerned with how people go about making sense of texts or discourses. These other notions include deictic center, mental model, situation model, discourse model, contextual frame and possible world. Like story world, Herman (2009: 73) argues,

“ … such notions are designed to explain how interpreters rely on inferences triggered by textual cues to build up representations of the overall situation or world evoked but not fully explicitly described in the discourse.”

From the perspective of the design of narrative environments, it is important to acknowledge that storyworlds are not hermetically sealed but become effective when they begin to act upon and within, the lifeworld of the reader, viewer, listener, participant, in short the interactant. This understanding involves, as Herman recommends, an extension of the work of A. J. Greimas, through its linkage to the work of Bruno Latour on actor-networks (or actant-rhizomes), by taking the notion of actant to apply both within storyworlds and lifeworlds. It also involves an extension of the work of Gerard Genette and Christian Metz, through a development of the notion of ontological metalepsis, as discussed, for example, by Bell and Alber (2012).


Bell, A. and Alber, J. (2012). Ontological metalepsis and unnatural narratology. Journal of Narrative Theory, 42 (2), 166–192. Available from [Accessed 18 March 2016].

Herman, D. (2002). Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Herman, D. (2005). Storyworld. In: Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory, edited by David Herman, Manfred Jahn, Marie-Laure Ryan. London, UK: Routledge.

Herman, D. (2009). Narrative ways of worldmaking. In: Heinan, S., and Sommer, R., eds. Narratology in the age of cross-disciplinary narrative research. Berlin, DE: Walter De Gruyter, 71–87.

Horvath, G. (2010). From sequence to scenario: the historiography and theory of visual narration [PhD thesis]. School of World Art Studies and Museology, University of East Anglia. Available from [Accessed 13 December 2015].

Ryan, M.-L. (2014) ‘Story/worlds/media: tuning the instruments of a media-conscious narratology’, in Ryan, M.-L. and Thon, J.-N. (eds) Storyworlds across Media. Toward a Media-Conscious Narratology. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, pp. 25–49.

Ryan, M.-L. and Thon, J.-N. (eds) (2014) Storyworlds across media: toward a media-conscious narratology. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.