Narrative Therapy: Key Concepts

Narrative therapy, emerging since the 1980s, has been defined as “a postmodern-feminist-constructivist approach that entails the co-construction of real, imagined, or possible stories of the past, present, or future” (Mascher, 2002, p. 58). The shift from problematic stories to more adaptive ones leads to greater empowerment and enables clients to more successfully manage their lives (Seligman, 2006). In this article we explore some of narrative therapy’s key concepts.

Given the importance of language to narrative therapy, it is not surprising that certain words and phrases come to have technical meanings within this theoretical field. First, let us state what you will not see in a genuine narrative approach. Because the client is deemed to be the expert on his own life and the therapeutic alliance is formed as a partnership in which the therapist is a consultant, typical counselling concepts such as “resistance”, “denial”, or “mental disorders” are not to be found in the sessions. Too, those using a narrative approach have little use for the DSM: the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of symptoms describing the various personality and mental disorders. Those would describe, after all, someone else’s story about the client, not that of the client.

Below we delineate several notions that are essential to a narrative approach. Many of the key concepts are also techniques, but in this article we look only at the concepts that do not also constitute a technique. You may notice that many of them seem stolen from the literature teacher’s arsenal of ways to analyse a novel. Four of them belong to a new wave of narrative approach called “personal construct therapy”.

Personal construct therapy

Robert Neimeyer (2009) and other constructivist psychotherapists (Raskin & Bridges, 2008) have looked at personal problems in the way that a person might analyse a story. Called personal construct therapy, it is an adjunct to White/Epston’s narrative therapy, which we describe more fully in the next chapter through its techniques. Some of the concepts Neimeyer and others use for analysis include:

Setting. Where does the story take place? When? Does it occur indoors, outdoors, or over a wide area? The setting provides the backdrop for the characters to act out the plot, and it can be “painted in” with either broad brushstrokes or in painstaking detail.

Characterisation. The people (actors) in the story are the characters. Typically, the client is the protagonist, or viewpoint character, who is central to the plot. Often there is an antagonist, who opposes or is in conflict with the protagonist. The client may perform the role of narrator, adding insight about the personality and motives of the characters, or this may emerge in the telling of the story. Sometimes, clients act out the story.

Plot. What is happening to the characters? Are there several episodes or actions in the plot? Are these coherently linked by the client (if not, the therapist can help the client to understand how they may all be related). The plot may have difficult problems and be highly “problem-saturated”, where it’s hard to see any solutions, but with telling and re-telling the story, solutions may develop.

Themes. What is the reason that things are happening in the story? What meaning(s) does the client attach to the story? What is the client’s emotional experience as he tells the story? What does the client see as significant in the story? It is the client’s understanding and focus that is important here, not that of the therapist. But the client may offer understanding on only a single level: say, cognitive, emotional, or spiritual. The therapist may thus be able to employ different techniques to help the client understand the story and the themes in it from different levels (Sharf, 2012).

Other concepts

Still organised around a novel, other narrative therapists have described concepts essential to how narrative therapy is actually practiced.

Discourse. If we think for a moment where the “buzz” of talk is in our society at any given time, we begin to understand the concept of discourse. We experience the creating and developing of discourse when we observe or participate in discussions through a variety of media, including children’s stories, books, songs, television programs, and movies. Of course, members of societies hold a wide range of perspectives regarding various topics, such as on education, religion, and questions related to civic life, but often communities come together around particular views on the matters under discussion. When this happens, we see a dominant discourse constellate. An example of a dominant discourse for the first half of the 20th century was that women need to be protected and should basically make their me[n happy, keeping the home fires burning. A dominant discourse now, at least in most western developed nations, is that fitness is important, and people do a disservice to all in their lives – family members, employers, and themselves – when they do not eat in a healthy way and exercise regularly.

We should note that, while a dominant discourse may hold sway in a society, alternative discourses and stories are always present. No matter how strong the dominant discourse is on a given topic, some people will always hold a different view.

Dominant plots and counterplots. A client can and often does come with a highly specific narrative about her life in which she takes a particular perspective and through which she predicts how events will turn out in the future. Again, if clients are showing up in the therapy room, the chances are good that such a dominant plot is full of problems and offers only limited possibilities for future success. Like societal-level dominant discourses, however, there is always room for an alternative view, and counterplots can be constructed collaboratively between therapist and client which are based on different details of the client’s life and a more positive view of future possibilities for coping.

Deconstruction. Upon an individual forming a dominant plot or a society coalescing around a dominant discourse, the thing takes on a life of its own, and comes to be taken for granted by those who subscribe to it (or we could say: those who are in its thrall). From that point, the plot or discourse tends not to be questioned. How many ambitious, intelligent, career-minded women through the early years of the last century never questioned the injustice of being denied the right to hold a job outside the family? The concept of deconstruction comes into play when therapists help clients to systematically review – in detail – the assumptions comprising an event, circumstance, belief, or behaviour. The plots and discourses deconstructed are those which have caused difficulty or limitation to clients. The alternative plots which clients are encouraged to develop allow for creative solutions to the problems presented (Archer & McCarthy, 2007).

This article was adapted from Mental Health Academy’s upcoming professional development course, “Narrative Therapy: The Basics”.


  • Archer, J., & McCarthy, C.J. (2007). Theories of counselling & psychotherapy: Contemporary applications. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Education, Inc.
  • Mascher, J. (2002) Narrative therapy: Inviting the use of sport as metaphor. Women and Therapy, 25, 57-74.
  • Raskin, J.D., & Bridges, S.K. (Eds.). (2008). Studies in meaning 3: Constructivist psychotherapy in the real world. New York: Pace University Press.
  • Seligman, L. (2006). Theories of counseling and psychotherapy: Systems, strategies, and skills, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc. ISBN 0 – 13 – 114975 – X.
  • Sharf, R. (2012). Theories of psychotherapy and counselling: Concepts and cases, 5th ed. Belmont, CA: U.S.A.: Brooks/Cole, Cengage Learning. ISBN 10 0 – 8400 – 3366 – 4; ISBN 13 – 978 – 0 – 8400 – 3366 – 6.