Narrative Interviews - helping people to tell their stories

There are different types of narrative interview. The approach that I have used is an adaptation of the Biographical Narrative Interpretive Method (BNIM) that Tom Wengraf originally wrote about in his book 'Qualitative Research Interviewing'.

Whatever narrative method you use, it’s important to ask questions that will help people to tell stories about their experiences in their own way and from their own perspective, remembering how it felt at the time. BNIM is a method that supports the remembering (and recounting) of particular experiences or what Wengraf calls ‘Particular Incident Narratives’ (PINs).  

In BNIM, the best PIN-inducing questions are questions that ask about events - these are open - ‘Do you remember how it all happened?’ - type questions, rather than questions that ask for opinion or generalisation - ‘What did you think/feel about that?’. The storyteller will tell you what they think and feel anyway. There are a number of reasons why we don't ask questions about opinions and feelings: talking about your views and emotions can be threatening for some people and can also be limited by what is seen as being socially acceptable or desirable. In other words, such questions may not get close to the experience of events in a life. And people’s current opinions may get in the way of recalling the experience as they lived it then. You will probably want to find out about both. 

A Short Guide on BNIM

Tom Wengraf has produced an excellent and constantly evolving Short Guide on BNIM that will introduce you the different aspects of the method, including the analysis of the interviews.

Tom sent me the version included here  in July 2013. If you’d like a copy of the most recent and updated Short Guide contact Tom directly. He is always pleased to hear from people and to find out and advise about how BNIM might be used in different projects -

Tom Wengraf - always happy to help with BNIM  

Tom Wengraf - always happy to help with BNIM  


The BNIM method of interviewing begins with asking one open question that Tom Wengraf calls a 'SQUIN' (Single Question aimed at Inducing Narrative). Subsequent questions are only asked once the person being interviewed has finished their story. Here is the transcribed SQUIN that I used in my very first BNIM interview that I did with 'George' (a nurse), as part of my training in BNIM. It was quite a cumbersome question. With hindsight and more experience, I could have worded it better, but despite this clumsy wording (and my nervousness!) George talked at length (six pages of the transcript) without me asking any other questions.

I'm collecting life histories for a training project that I'm doing and please could you tell me yours? Take your time. We've got  as much time as you need for this and start wherever you like. I'll listen first, I won't interrupt and I may take a couple of notes that I'll ask you questions about later, um, please take the time that you need and as I said I won't interrupt you. So can you tell me your life history, the events and experiences that have been important to you up till now.

The questions that you ask in the second 'session' of the interview are still entirely participant focussed, following strictly the order of the topics freely associated by the narrator. For example, the narrator starts with remembering being told about his diagnosis in the hospital; it was warm and sunny that day. In telling you about what happened, he also remembers going to that same hospital more than twenty years ago when his daughter was born. The topic of his daughter, brings up other times, relationships and memories. The last time that he saw his daughter was when they watched the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, he was in a lot of pain then but didn’t want to disturb their reverie by taking his pain relief.

In your brief notes taken during the interview you will have noted down these topics. You can then come back to them in the second phase of the interview, asking questions about each topic in the order in which they were narrated:

Diagnosis in the hospital 'warm and sunny day'

Same hospital where his daughter was born

The last time saw daughter watched the opening ceremony of the Olympic games (was in pain)

The rationale for this ordering of questions is that BNIM interviewers believe that the initial narrative has a shape or ‘gestalt’ of sedimented experience that is a part of a unique framework of relevance for the teller. One of the most challenging and vital skills for a narrative interviewer is to ‘go with the flow’, allowing the gestalt to emerge in its own way – without interruptions - no matter how incoherent or ‘off the point’ certain accounts can feel.

You can hear more about narrative interviews and BNIM in the pod-cast interview with Prue Chamberlayne who introduced the German BNIM method to the UK.

A busy workshop in palliative care on stories

A busy workshop in palliative care on stories


In the BNIM interview, the interviewer can appear to be quite passive - we say very little! The focus is upon listening and supporting story telling.

When I teach narrative interview methods this is what students tell me is one of the most challenging aspects of the interview. It takes a lot of work to listen and not to interrupt! ‘When she mentioned x I really wanted to ask her more about it, but she went on to something else!’ You can always come back to that ‘interesting’ topic later on in the interview, so don’t worry.

I often use the metaphor of a computer screen to convey the specific role of a narrative interviewer. Imagine hitting the minimize icon on yourself as the interviewer, so that within the interview you shrink in significance and the 'screen' - the space of the interview - is filled by the teller and their story.

When you have conducted a narrative interview you can often 'see' the evidence in the shape of your interview transcript. Unlike semi-structured interviews or focus groups where the transcript is quite 'spiky', in narrative interviews there are long, long stretches of talk with minimal interruptions from the interviewer.