I recently finished reading The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative by H. Porter Abbott (Cambridge University Press, 2nd. edition, 2008). This book is by far the best introduction to narrative currently available, encompassing the range of narrative forms including literature, cinema, and new media. Abbott emphasizes that narrative is not just in found in literature, cinema, and theater, but throughout the ordinary course of our lives.
The book is informed by recent scholarship in the field, but avoids the more esoteric arguments in order to present a clear and concise introduction to the most important topics in narrative studies. The book covers the definition of narrative, the rhetoric of narrative, closure, the process of narration, interpretation of narratives, adaptation across media forms, character and self in narrative, truth and narrative, narrative worlds, and more. Abbott provides a excellent starting point for both students and specialists in a wide range of fields from literature to media studies, and each chapter ends with recommendations of both secondary and primary texts for further study.
Abbott begins the book with several definitions of narrative, but states that if we had to choose one answer above all others, it should be that “narrative is the principal way in which our species organizes its understanding of time,” he continues in the introduction of the book,
[...] wherever we look in this world, we seek to grasp what we see not just in space but in time as well. Narrative gives us this understanding; it gives us what could be called shapes of time. Accordingly, our narrative perception stands ready to be activated in order to give us a frame or context for even the most static and uneventful scenes. And without understanding the narrative, we often feel we don’t understand what we see. We cannot find the meaning. Meaning and narrative understanding are very closely connected [...] the connections between narrative and meaning are many (p. 10)
The origins of the word narrative are ancient, rooted in our process of knowing the world:
Hayden White pointed out in his book The Content of the Form that the word “narrative” goes back to the ancient Sanskrit “gna,” a root term that means “know,” and that it comes down to us through Latin words for both “knowing” (“gnarus”) and “telling” (“narro”). This etymology catches the two sides of narrative. It is a universal tool for knowing as well as telling, for absorbing knowledge as well as expressing it. This knowledge, moreover, is not necessarily static. Narrative can be, and often is, an instrument that provokes active thinking and helps us work through problems, even as we tell about them or hear them being told. But, finally, it is also important to note that narrative can be used to deliver false information; it can be used to keep us in darkness and even encourage us to do things we should not do. This too must be kept in mind. (pp. 10-12)
If you read only one theoretical book on the topic of narrative, this one is a good candidate. While theoretical in perspective, it’s written in a manner that will appeal to anyone involved in telling stories.