The emergence of new digital media offers new possibilities for narrative form on the web. Though some historians may be resistant to these changes, forms of representation of the past have been evolving throughout history.

The historical narrative that most historians use today is a recent form of expression. Historiographer Hayden White examines the evolution of narrative form, advocating for the annals and chronicles as viable alternative representations of reality, while describing the qualities that set the historical narrative apart. Looking beyond the historical narrative, historian Ann Rigney and literary critic Marie-Laure Ryan explore possibilities narrative in the online age, taking advantage of digital properties.

Understanding the evolution of narrative form allows new approaches to be understood as part of a continuing process, rather than an unprecedented rejection of convention. However, if historical representations are evolving, it raises the question of whether what is being produced online, in this thesis or in general, is a historical narrative or something entirely different.

Hayden White & forms of historical representation

Book cover, "The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation" by Hayden White
Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1987).

In The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation, White outlines the characteristics of the modern historical narrative. Historical narratives must:

  1. have narrativizing discourse, namely that events speak for themselves and tell their story without an active narrator[1]
  2. be given a structure of meaning that respects the chronological order of events but, more importantly, gives it larger moral conclusions and relevance[2]
  3. must have a well-defined beginning, middle and end[3]

While this form seems self-evident to historians today, White questions if the historical narrative as a form of representation provides any further insight into past reality than the annals and chronicles, forms of history from earlier centuries. United by their own logic, White argues that the annals and chronicles’ attempts to represent past reality were as successful as attempts by the historical narrative.[4]

By arguing for the validity of other forms of history, White is prompting historians to question whether

“the world really presents itself to perception in the form of well-made stories, with central subjects, proper beginnings, middles, and ends, and a coherence that permits us to see ‘the end’ in every beginning? Or, does the world present itself in other forms, like the annals or the chronicles?” [5]

With his argument that there are many valid ways to represent the past, White allows for speculation on what form narratives of the past may take in future.

Ann Rigney & historical narrative in the online age

Also influenced by the idea that representations of the past evolve, historian Ann Rigney argues that the form of historical narrative itself has been changing. Over time and across topics, understandings of narrative have changed since the 1950s as academics adapt to new stories being told in different ways and environments.[6] Most visibly, narrative form has begun to change with the emergence of digital medias to the point where Rigney argues that

“the ‘book’ should no longer provide the exclusive model for theoretical reflection on narrativity and the production of historical knowledge.”[7]

Instead, the development of new medias has encouraged authors and filmmakers to experiment with plot and conclusions, making the focus not the narrative but rather its effects for the reader—increased interactivity, a blurred boundary between author and reader, or even multiple versions of the same narrative.[8]

Exploring the potential in websites specifically, Rigney notes the possibilities for creating associative, rather than chronological, connections. Moving away from conventional historical narratives, Rigney argues that these associative connections challenge dominant meta-narratives and allow

“for all sorts of points of identification or momentary amazement, rather than a narrative pathway that will lead to a clear outcome.”[9]

Rigney does acknowledge that the results of this process may not be considered a narrative in the way we understand it today, but she does not seem concerned. Instead, Rigney emphasizes the possibilities available for historians who are willing to look at new media—new forms of collaboration, multimedia, communication, “intelligibility”, and theoretical models that emphasize thinking about and writing history in different ways.[10]

Marie-Laure Ryan’s Multivariant Narratives

Where Rigney continues to accept textual expressions in the online age, literary critic Marie-Laure Ryan suggests that narrative futures with the most potential in the digital age may be in gaming and other expressions that rely on her idea of multivariant narratives.[11] Ryan argues that even in this digital age, narratives must retain some of the historical narrative’s foundations; they must be linear and vectorial, that is they must move continuously in the same direction.

Under this definition of narrative, Ryan discounts electronic poetry and other electronic literature that are too random, that allow the reader to travel along any path without a narrative coherence, or that veer into the realm of “conceptual art.”

Hand-drawn illustration of Vannevar Bush's memex machine
An illustration of the ‘memex’, a machine theorized by Vannevar Bush that was the pre-cursor to hypertextuality. Bush’s essay “As We May Think” was originally printed in The Atlantic, but this illustration is from Life Magazine, Vol. 19, No. 11 (September 10, 1945).

However, Ryan does allow for the idea of ‘multivariant narratives.’ Multivariant narratives create structures where a reader is given narrative choices based on previously made decisions. Ryan provides examples of hypertextual narratives,[12] either in websites or fictional works, that fit this definition and preserve their narrative coherence. However, Ryan suggests that hypertextuality as a theoretical underpinning for new narrative forms is a relatively arcane concept in the fast-moving evolution of digital medias. In her article, she dismisses narratives that rely on hypertextuality for reader navigation because they are primarily used by theorists creating conceptual literary art that readers can wander at will by clicking links without the purpose and direction she considers integral in narrative form.

Ryan’s preference is for multivariant narratives in online gaming where players can create personalized narratives with a nearly limitless number of narrative paths dependent on the player’s actions, but that always move forwards with narrative coherence.

Overall, whether through acceptable forms of hypertextuality or gaming, Ryan argues that narrative theorists need to

“find a territory where narrative form is neither frozen nor ostracized, but recognized as an endlessly productive source of knowledge and aesthetic experiences.”[13]

Regardless of what medium or which technique, Ryan sees future narratives assuming dynamic forms.

What is the future and what is this thesis?

So what does this mean for this thesis or, more broadly, the future of historical narrative? My thesis starts to push at what a ‘history’ is and how it is presented, recognizing the benefits of both the historical narrative and future digital medias. As a prototype, this thesis is not radically challenging the historical status quo, but rather envisioning how histories might look as they embrace the features of new media. This thesis still includes many fundamental features of a ‘history’, including primary source research, original contributions to scholarship, and referencing secondary literature. Overall, it still works towards many of the same aims as a traditional history but in a new form.

More broadly, scholars are making educated guesses and predictions for the future of historical narratives, but only time will tell. While Rigney and Ryan do not agree on its specific shape, they do agree that narrative form has been changing and will continue to evolve. It is unclear whether all the features White outlines as fundamental to historical narratives will continue in digital representations of the past, or even if we can continue to call these digital representations ‘narratives’.

What the three authors do agree upon, however, is that change in the form of historical representation is not new, whether over the last millennium or the last decades. More importantly, the authors conclude that other forms of representation, whether in the past, present or future, are as valid as the historical narrative today. Rather than posing a threat to the historical discipline, new narrative forms offer a venue for historians to experiment with new productions of knowledge.


[1] Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1987), 3.

[2] White, The Content of the Form, 4, 23.

[3] White, The Content of the Form, 2.

[4] White, The Content of the Form, 6.

[5] White, The Content of the Form, 24-25.

[6] Ann Rigney, “When the Monograph is No Longer the Medium: Historical Narrative in the Online Age,” History and Theory 49, no. 4 (2010): 101-104,

[7] Rigney, “When the Monograph is No Longer the Medium,” 108.

[8] Rigney, “When the Monograph is No Longer the Medium,” 108, 111.

[9] Rigney, “When the Monograph is No Longer the Medium,” 116.

[10] Rigney, “When the Monograph is No Longer the Medium,” 116-117.

[11] Marie-Laure Ryan, “Multivariant Narratives,” in A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens and John Unsworth (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), n.p.

[12] Most of us are familiar with the concept of hypertextuality as the, often blue, links that allow us to jump from webpage to webpage. Everything written on the web is connected by these links and it is one of the key features that differentiates it conceptually from the ‘book’ or monograph. For more information on the theoretical underpinnings of hypertextuality, read Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” The Atlantic (July 1, 1945). His idea, like some of the founding discoveries of the internet, came out of 20th century eras of war.

[13] Ryan, “Multivariant Narratives,” n.p.