Resources for story completion
We have organised our story completion reading list into different sections, to help guide you through different uses of story completion in qualitative research. In addition to this reading list, we occasionally give recorded talks related to story completion.
Practical guidance on using story completion in qualitative research
Braun, V. & Clarke, V. (2013). Successful qualitative research: A practical guide for beginners. Sage.
Chapter 6 of Virginia and Victoria’s qualitative research textbook provides an introduction to the story completion method and practical guidance on using story completion in qualitative research. Chapter 3 provides guidance on sample size in story completion research. Chapter 10 provides brief guidance on analysing story completion data. The companion website for this book provides examples of story completion research materials for use in student projects and story completion data-sets for use in teaching.
Braun, V., Clarke, V. & Gray, D. (2017). Innovations in qualitative methods. In B. Gough (Ed.), The Palgrave handbook of critical social psychology (pp. 243-266). Palgrave.
In this chapter, Virginia, Victoria and Debra Gray provide an introduction to and published examples of several innovative methods including story completion.
Braun, V., Clarke, V., Hayfield, N., Moller, N. & Tischner, I. (2019). Story completion: A method with exciting promise. In Liamputtong, P. (Ed.), Handbook of research methods in health social sciences (pp. 1-18). Springer.
This is an abbreviated version of the Clarke et al. (2017) chapter, covering the evolution of story completion as a qualitative method, design, analysis and the strengths and challenges of story completion as a qualitative technique.
Clarke, V., Braun, V., Frith, H. & Moller, N. (2019). Editorial introduction to the Special Issue: Using story completion methods in qualitative research. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 16(1), 1-20.
This editorial introduction to a Special Issue of the journal Qualitative Research in Psychology on the story completion method provides a history of qualitative story completion and an overview of design, sampling and data analysis in story completion research. You can access the entire Special Issue here.
Braun, V., Clarke, V., Frith, H., Hayfield, N., Malson, H., Moller, N. & Shah-Beckley, I. (2019). Qualitative story completion: Possibilities and potential pitfalls – Virginia Braun, Victoria Clarke, Hannah Frith, Nikki Hayfield, Helen Malson, Naomi Moller and Iduna Shah-Beckley in conversation. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 16(1), 136-155.
This ‘Spoken Word’ edited discussion paper features seven members of the Story Completion Research Group discussing their experiences of using the story completion method, with a particular emphasis on some of the challenges and unanswered questions of story completion research. This paper is also part of the Special Issue of Qualitative Research in Psychology.
Clarke, V., Hayfield, N., Moller, N., Tischner, I. & the Story Completion Research Group (2017). Once upon a time…: Qualitative story completion methods. In V. Braun, V. Clarke & D. Gray (Eds.), Collecting qualitative data: A practical guide to textual, media and virtual techniques (pp. 45-70). Cambridge University Press.
This chapter provides an introduction to the story completion method and discusses the unique features and benefits of story completion, as well as potential challenges, provides guidance on design, sampling and implementation, as well as data analysis and includes activities for student readers.
Gravett, K. (2019). Story completion: Storying as a method of meaning-making and discursive discovery. International Journal of Qualitative Methods.
A discussion and application of the method with an ‘experimental’ approach to analysis based in Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic concept, and a discussion of data from a poststructuralist/discourse perspective.
Frith, H. (2018). Exploring the meaning of orgasmic absence using the story completion method. SAGE Research Methods Cases. Sage.
Hannah Frith discusses her orgasmic absence story completion study and considers the merits of story completion as a social constructionist approach for researching sensitive topics such as sex and the benefits of creative and third-person responding as well as the practical benefits of low cost and quick data collection.
Lupton, D. (2020). The story completion method and more-than-human theory: Finding and using health information. In SAGE Research Methods Cases. Sage. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781529715194
A practically-oriented discussion of the use of story completion within postqualitative and more than human theory, and combined with poetic inquiry, to explore both seeking of and using health information.
Moller, N. P., Clarke, V., Braun, V., Tischner, I., & Vossler, A. (2021). Qualitative story completion for counseling psychology research: A creative method to interrogate dominant discourses. Journal of counseling psychology, 68(3), 286–298.
This paper provides an introduction to qualitative story completion with a particular focus on the counselling psychology and counselling research context. It provides an explanation of the method and its origins, and offers practical guidance about how to use it.
Smith, A. K. J., Haire, B., Newman, C. E., & Holt, M. (2022). Challenges of Using the Story Completion Method to Research Clinical Encounters. Sage Research Methods Cases.
The authors provide an overview of the use of story completion to understand clinical encounters, reflect on the method, and offer recommendations for conducting a successful story completion study and considerations for future studies to optimize the method.
Early examples of qualitative story completion research
Horner, M.S. (1972). Toward an understanding of achievement-related conflicts in women. Journal of Social Issues, 28, 157-175.
As far as we are aware this is one of the first, if not the first, paper to use story completion in a qualitative design. Horner retained the psychoanalytic lens of the earlier clinical use of story completion as a projective technique and made the interpretative leap that the participant’s responses to the story stems reflected their own thoughts and feelings about achievement, which was the focus of her research. Horner’s research was controversial because she concluded that women have a ‘fear of success’. This controversy seemed to extend to her use of the story completion method and relegated it to the margins of qualitative research. A commentary on this paper by Robbins and Robbins (1973), which disputes the generalisability of the findings, can be read here.
Kitzinger, C. & Powell, D. (1995). Engendering infidelity: Essentialist and social constructionist readings of a story completion task. Feminism & Psychology, 5, 345-372.
An essential read for any qualitative story completion researcher! The paper that rehabilitated and reinvigorated story completion as a qualitative method. Kitzinger and Powell argued that story completion data could be interpreted through an essentialist lens, as reflecting the feelings and thoughts of participants, or it could be interpreted through a constructionist lens, as reflecting the social meanings surrounding a topic available to participants. This paper has been hugely influential on subsequent use of the story completion method, particularly with regard to the reworking of story completion as accessing social (rather than psychological) meanings. You can read about Celia Kitzinger’s later reflections on this paper, and the method, here.
Lewin, M. (1985). Unwanted intercourse: The difficulty of saying no. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 9, 184-192.
An early example of story completion, innovative in its use of a video-stem. Third person stem – participants were asked to write two different versions. Essentialist interpretation – participants’ responses assumed to reflect their thoughts and feelings. Data analysed with ‘content analysis’ (similar to a coding reliability type of thematic analysis), with some qualitative description of the story content.
Moore, S.M. (1995). Girls’ understanding and social construction of menarche. Journal of Adolescence, 18, 87-104.
An early example of an essentialist interpretation of story completion data – assuming the stories reflect the thoughts and feelings of the participants, about menarche in this instance. Participants were asked to complete five third-person story stems and the stories were analysed with a coding reliability type of thematic analysis (using a structured codebook and measuring the level of agreement between two independent coders). The story stems were part of a wider questionnaire.
Moore, S.M., Gullone, E. & Kostanski, M. (1997). An examination of adolescent risk-taking using a story completion task. Journal of Adolescence, 20, 369-379.
An early example of third person story completion – participants each completed 4 stems, data analysed with a coding reliability form of thematic analysis, some qualitative reporting of the story content.
Examples of first-person story completion
Beres, M., Terry, G., Senn, C.Y. & Ross, L.K. (2019). Accounting for men’s refusal of heterosex: A story-completion study with young adults. The Journal of Sex Research, 56(1), 127-136.
First person stem, comparative design (comparing male and female responses), participants each complete one stem, data analysed with qualitative content analysis.
Jones, A., Caes, L., Eccleston, C., Noel, M., Rugg, T., & Jordan, A. (2020). Loss-adjusting: Young People’s Constructions of a Future Living With Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. The Clinical Journal of Pain, 36(12), 932-939.
First person, single stem design, focused around adolescents experience of complex regional pain syndrome imagining the future. Analysed deductively then, alongside interview data from a subsample of participants, inductively using thematic analysis, reporting two themes centred around loss.
Livingston, J.A. & Testa, M. (2000). Qualitative analysis of women’s perceived vulnerability to sexual aggression in a hypothetical dating context. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 17, 729-741.
An example of a first-person story completion – the stem was third-person but participants were instructed to imagine themselves as the female character in the stem when completing the story. Story completion was used as part of an experimental design. The stories were analysed using a coding reliability form of thematic analysis and the authors reported and discussed three themes.
Examples of third-person story completion
Auðardóttir, A. M., & Rúdólfsdóttir, A. G. (2020). “Chaos ruined the children’s sleep, diet and behaviour”: Gendered discourses on family life in pandemic times. Gender, Work & Organization.
One of a few examples which have used story completion to understand the conditions of COVID-19 (see also this paper and this chapter). This paper uses thematic analysis to explore constructions of parenting and gender generated by a single stem (but with different gender versions) within the context of Icelandic COVID-19 restrictions.
Butler, C., Beavis, J., Fatema, A., Nelson-Hall, S., & Shah-Beckley, I. (2021). The social construction of gender variance in childhood, adolescence and parenthood: A story completion study. Journal of Family Therapy.
An empirical paper using story completion with parent participants, aiming to understand the (liberal but also heteronormative and gender-binary) contexts of sense-making around young people who identify outside the gender binary.
Clarke, V. & Braun, V. (2019). How can a heterosexual man remove his body hair and retain his masculinity? Mapping stories of male body hair depilation. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 16(1), 96-114.
The first published paper to explore Braun and Clarke’s (2013) story mapping technique using thematic analysis through a constructionist lens. From a wider study exploring the meanings of (broadly) non-normative body hair practices (see also Jennings et al., 2019). One stem design.
Clarke, V., Braun, V. & Wooles, K. (2015). Thou shalt not covet another man? Exploring constructions of same-sex and different-sex infidelity using story completion. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 25(2), 153-166.
A constructionist thematic analysis of a comparative four-stem design – comparing participants’ responses to same-sex and different-sex emotional and sexual infidelity.
Drini, E. (2019). Therapists’ discursive constructions of shame in the therapeutic process: A story completion task. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Surrey.
Doctoral thesis, using single third-person stem oriented to gain understanding of therapists discursive constructions around shame. Constructionist approach, analysed using Foucauldian discourse analysis.
Frith, H. (2013). Accounting for orgasmic absence: Exploring heterosex using the story completion method. Psychology and Sexuality, 4, 310-322.
A constructionist thematic analysis of a comparative two-stem design – comparing the responses of female and male participants to a woman in a heterosexual couple not having an orgasm and a man in a heterosexual couple not having an orgasm.
Gavin, H. (2005). The social construction of the child sex offender explored by narrative. The Qualitative Report, 10, 395-415.
Unusual six-stem design, in which participants completed each of the six stems. Data analysed with theory-led thematic analysis.
Hayfield & Wood, M. (2019). Looking heteronormatively good! Combining story completion with Bitstrips to explore understandings of sexuality and appearance. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 16(1), 115-135.
An empirical paper from the Special Issue of Qualitative Research in Psychology on the story completion method. An innovative combination of story completion and visual methods.
Hunt, X., Swartz, L., Carew, M.T., Braathen, S.H., Chiwaula, M. & Rohleder, P. (2018). Dating persons with physical disabilities: The perceptions of South Africans without disabilities. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 20, 141-155.
Two stem comparative design, thematic analysis.
Jennings, M., Braun, V, & Clarke, V. (2019). Breaking gendered boundaries? Exploring constructions of counter-normative body hair practices in Aotearoa/New Zealand using story completion. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 16(1), 74-95.
From a wider study exploring the meanings of (broadly) non-normative body hair practices (see also Clarke et al., 2019). Comparative two stem design, thematic analysis.
Lloyd, C. E. M., & Panagopoulos, M. C. (2022). ‘Mad, bad, or possessed’? Perceptions of Self-Harm and Mental Illness in Evangelical Christian Communities. Pastoral Psychology.
An example of a single-stem third-person design that explores (gendered) perceptions and meanings of self-harm and mental illness among evangelical Christians in the UK, using a contextualist thematic analytic approach.
Lupton, D. (2021). ‘The Internet Both Reassures and Terrifies’: exploring the more-than-human worlds of health information using the story completion method. Medical Humanities, 47(1), 68-77.
An empirical example of a three-stem study which deploys more-than-human and postqualitative theory to explore health/information sense-making, affect and potentiality.
Lupton, D. (2021). ‘Things that matter’: poetic inquiry and more-than-human health literacy. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 13(2), 267-282.
An empirical example of combining story completion data collection with poetic inquiry, within the context of postqualitative and more than human theory.
McDonald, A., & Braun, V. (2022). Right, yet impossible? Constructions of healthy eating. SSM – Qualitative Research in Health, 2, ONLINE FIRST.
An example of a single-stem, first-person design, which examined contemporary meaning-making around healthy eating using an ostensibly gender-neutral stem.
Moller, N. & Tischner, I. (2019). Young people’s perceptions of fat counsellors: “How can THAT help me?” Qualitative Research in Psychology, 16(1), 34-53.
An empirical paper from the Special Issue of Qualitative Research in Psychology on the story completion method. One stem design, thematic analysis.
Scholz, B., Bocking, J., Hedt, P., Lu, V. N., & Happell, B. (2019). ‘Not in the room, but the doctors were’: an Australian story-completion study about consumer representation. Health Promotion International, 35(4), 752-761.
An empirical example of a two stem design to access meaning around different positions within mental health care debates.
Shah-Beckley, I. S. (2017) Therapists and non-therapists’ constructions of heterosex: A story completion study. DCounsPsych, University of the West of England.
Four stem comparative design, comparing the responses of female and male participants and therapist and non-therapist participants to scenarios depicting heterosexual couples, data analysed with a constructionist thematic analysis. One of the few examples to date of a non-student sample.
Shah-Beckley, I., Clarke, V. & Thomas, Z. (2018). Therapists’ and non-therapists’ constructions of heterosex: A qualitative story completion study. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice.
A paper based on the sexual refusal stem in used in Iduna’s doctoral research.
Tischner, I. (2019). Tomorrow is the start of the rest of their life — so who cares about health? Exploring constructions of weight-loss motivations and health using story completion. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 16(1), 54-73.
An empirical paper from the Special Issue of Qualitative Research in Psychology on the story completion method. Two stem design, constructionist thematic analysis.
Troiano, G. M., Wood, M., & Harteveld, C. (2020). “And this, kids, is how I met your mother”: Consumerist, mundane, and uncanny futures with sex robots. Proceedings of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Honolulu, HI, USA.
This empirical paper provides an example of a single 3rd-person stem, where participants were asked to write from one of two different perspectives.
Walsh, E. & Malson, H. (2010). Discursive constructions of eating disorders: A story completion task. Feminism & Psychology, 20, 529-537.
A discursive analysis of a two-stem design.
Watson, A., & Lupton, D. (2021). Tactics, affects and agencies in digital privacy narratives: a story completion study. Online Information Review, 45(1), 138-156.
A study with four stems – participants completed all – that explored understandings and meaning making around digital privacy with a more-than-human conceptual analytic framework.
Whitty, M.T. (2005). The realness of cybercheating: Men’s and women’s representations of unfaithful internet relationships. Social Science Computer Review, 23, 57-67.
A follow-up to the Kitzinger and Powell study, used two stems to explore responses to women and men engaged in internet infidelity. Data analysed with qualitative content analysis.
Williams, T. L., Lozano-Sufrategui, L., & Tomasone, J. R. (2021). Stories of physical activity and disability: exploring sport and exercise students’ narrative imagination through story completion. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, ONLINE FIRST.
Exciting use of a (social constructionist) narrative analytic focus with story completion data, highlighting the value of a narrative orientation with story completion data. The paper also discusses methodological process, and includes examples of how the (four) stems were refined to their final form.
Wood, M., Wood, G. & Balaam, M. (2017). “They’re just tixel pits, man”: Disputing the ‘reality’ of virtual reality pornography through the story completion method. Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. . 5439-5451). ACM.
Social constructionist, single stem design, participants from online writing communities to ensure writing fluency, thematic analysis.
Story completion history | Some examples of quantitative story completion
Story completion was first used in quantitative research, particularly in the area of child development and attachment. The participants’ stories are coded using structurec coding frameworks and transformed into numerical data for statistical analysis. For some examples of quantitative story completion see:
Bretherton, I. Oppenheim, D., Emde, R.N. & the MacArthur Narrative Working Group 2003, The MacArthur story stem battery. In R.N. Emde, D.P. Wolf and D. Oppenheim (Eds.), Revealing the inner worlds of young children: The MacArthur Story Stem Battery and parent – child narratives (pp. 381-396). New York: Oxford University Press.
Smeekens, S., Riksen-Walraven, J., Van Bakel, H.J.A. & De Weeth, C. (2010). Five-year-olds’ cortisol reactions to an attachment story completion task. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 35, 858-865.
Story completion history | Story completion as a projective technique
Story completion was first developed as a projective technique, informed by psychoanalytic theory, for use in clinical practice and assessment. The assumption was that by providing people with an ambiguous stimulus like a story stem or an ink-blot, as in the famous Rorschach ink blot test, the person completing the test would be compelled to ‘fill in the blanks’ and reveal something of their unconscious desires and motivations; they would ‘project’ these onto the test (hence the term ‘projective technique’). The following book provides a discussion of story completion as a projective technique:
Rabin, A.I. & Zlotogorski, Z. (1981). Completion methods: Word association, sentence, and story completion. In A.I. Rabin (Ed.), Assessment with projective techniques (pp. 121-149). New York: Springer.
Other resources on story completion
Braun, V., Clarke, V., & Moller, N. (2020). Pandemic tales: Using story completion to explore sense-making around COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. In H. Kara & S.-M. Khoo (Eds.), Researching in the Age of COVID-19 (Vol. III: Creativity and Ethics, pp. 39-47). Policy Press.
A commentary around the methodological and ethical dilemmas of researching within pandemic condition.
Jones, A., Caes, L., Rugg, T., Noel, M., Bateman, S., & Jordan, A. (2021). Challenging issues of integrity and identity of participants in non-synchronous online qualitative methods. Methods in Psychology, 5, 100072.
Broader discussion, but considers some of the issues around participant identity in a context of story completion study (Jones et al., 2020) where specific participant identity was sought.
Kitzinger, C. & Wood, M. (2019). Story completion, methodological innovation, epistemology and social change: Matthew Wood in conversation with Celia Kitzinger. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 16(1), 21-33.
Reflections and commentary on story completion from Celia Kitzinger, decades on from her original qualitative story completion paper with Deborah Powell, which led to our initial interest in the method.
Lam, L., & Comay, J. (2020). Using a Story Completion Task to Elicit Young children’s Subjective Well-Being at School. Child Indicators Research, 13(6), 2225-2239.
Paper reporting the use of story completion in an oral mode with young children, using a single base stem with variations.
Rúdólfsdóttir, A. G., & Sigurðardóttir, S. (2019). „Þessi týpíska óörugga stelpa“: Greining á sögum ungra kvenna um holdafar og stefnumót. [“This typical, insecure girl”: Young women’s stories about the importance of women’s body weight in a dating scenario]. Netla – Veftímarit um uppeldi og menntun.
This paper – in Icelandic with an English abstract (at the end of the PDF before the references) – uses story completion to explore ideas about body weight and dating for young women, with analysis informed by feminist poststructuralism.
Smith, B. (2019). Some modest thoughts on story completion methods in qualitative research. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 16(1), 156-159.
A commentary on the Special Issue of Qualitative Research in Psychology on the story completion method.
Stainton-Rogers, W. (2019). Are you sitting comfortably? Then I will begin. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 16(1), 160-162.
A commentary on the Special Issue of Qualitative Research in Psychology on the story completion method.
Troiano, G. M., Wood, M., Sonbudak, M. F., Padte, R. C., & Harteveld, C. (2021). “Are We Now Post-COVID?”: Exploring Post-COVID Futures Through a Gamified Story Completion Method. Designing Interactive Systems Conference 2021, Virtual Event, USA.
An exciting extension of the story completion method, through the incorporation of gaming tech. Detailed methodological discussion of how they did this, with a single, 3rd person stem, and with stimulus prompts within the platform.