Story Completion


Story completion is a method used or qualitative research, wherein participants express their views on a topic by completing a story normally started by the researcher. This post will give you an overview of the method, including some tips and practicalities to think about when designing a research study that uses story completion.

When is it appropriate to use story completion? 

Story completion can provide access to a wide range of responses, including responses that may not be socially desirable. When participants are encouraged to write hypothetically and in third-person, they don’t have to justify their answers or take ownership of them like they would if they were asked about the research topic in a more straightforward way in an interview or a focus group. Story completion is therefore suitable for studying topics that participants may find difficult or uncomfortable to talk about, but also for identifying discourses associated with certain topics.

For example Kitzingen & Powell (1995) used story completion to examine how undergraduate students made sense of infidelity in the context of a heterosexual relationship. The study had a comparative design to explore the differences in responses when the unfaithful person was a man vs. a woman. The narratives then offered insight into discrepancies in discourses of the mid ’90s that participants used for understanding the behaviour of males and females in heterosexual relationships. Ten years later, Whitty (2005) replicated the above mentioned study in the context of Cybercheating, and found similar differences in the discourse surrounding male and female infidelity.

Designing a story completion study

The “story stem” is the beginning of the story that participants are asked to complete. A good story stem should have a balance between providing participant with a meaningful story and leaving enough ambiguity that wouldn’t restrict the direction in which participants might take their stories.

  • Length of the story stem – appropriate length depends on the topic as well as the participant group. For example if you have a sample of psychology students, and you’re investigating attitudes towards a specific mental health issue, you generally don’t need to provide as much description as you might need to give to a sample form a different subgroup in order to make the scenario meaningful to them.
  • Authentic and engaging scenarios and characters – the story stem should be relatable. Use of names and realistic and believable scenarios will normally result in richer and more complex stories.
  • Amount of detail – too much detail and direction can end up limiting the variation and richness of the data. Not enough detail could mean that participants will not know where to take the story and the collected data will fail to address the research question.
  • Deliberate ambiguity – story completion is useful for exploring underlying, taken-for-granted assumptions around a topic. This can be achieved by leaving certain components of the story ambiguous, like demographic characteristics of the protagonists.
  • First- or third- person – the use of first-person can help participants step into the shoes of the protagonist and empathise with them, but at the same time, it can sometimes lead to more socially desirable responses. In third-person, participants assume the role of an omniscient narrator and their responses tend to be less controlled.
  • Completion instructions – make it as clear as possible what it is that you expect participants to write about. Is it necessary that they write about a particular aspect of the scenario? Do you want to know how the story develops in the future or are you interested in the back story of your characters? How long should the story be?

What can go wrong with story completion?

Refusing’ the task by not writing the response as a story, or generating short and shallow stories can often be the result of low participant motivation – individuals who participate for reasons other than wanting to contribute to the study (e.g. students needed course credit) often write short stories. It is therefore necessary to give them explicit and repeated instruction to produce stories of a certain length.  Alternatively, participants can sometimes write stories that contain elements of humour or fantasy. These can reflect participants’ discomfort with the topic, but it can also show that participants are not taking the task seriously. Humour and fantasy are not always a problem, but can be a red flag.

The above information has been extracted from:

Braun, V., Clarke, V., & Gray, D. (2017). Collecting qualitative data. A practical guide to textual, media and virtual techniques. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Click here to read about Hannah’s story completion study.

Some more examples of story completion studies:

Melanie Ann Beres, Gareth Terry, Charlene Y. Senn & Lily Kay Ross (2017): Accounting for Men’s Refusal of Heterosex: A Story-Completion Study with Young Adults, The Journal of Sex Research