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Story and Discourse

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In narratology, the terms ‘story’ (or ‘story level’) and ‘discourse’ (or ‘discourse level’) refer to constituent levels of narratives as analytical “abstractions or constructs”,[1] which do not occur in reality. First applied to fiction (such as novels and short stories), they can arguably also be applied to all narratives across media, such as film, drama, pictorial narratives, or video games. ‘Story’ comprises the ‘building blocks’ of a storyworld (they can be identified by answering the question ‘what is the case in this world?’), while ‘discourse’ comprises all phenomena and devices used for the transmission of the story(world); discursive elements can be identified by answering the question ‘how is the storyworld transmitted?’. The terms ‘story’ and ‘discourse’ were introduced by Tzvetan Todorov[2] and subsequently popularised in English narratology by Seymour Chatman.[3] Originally, narratology, in the field under discussion, was influenced by French theorist Gérard Genette, who, however, uses a ternary distinction: histoire (story), récit (the narrative text as such) and narration (the narrative act producing the story); récit and narration may be said to both refer to elements of the discourse level, and as a consequence the dichotomy ‘story vs. discourse’ has gained more importance than Genette’s terminology.

Story[edit]

‘Story’ refers to “a series of real or fictitious events, connected by a certain logic or chronology, and involving certain actors”.[4] A simple way of checking the elements of a storyworld thus created is to answer the following w-questions: who?, where?, when?, what? and why?. Among the many theories dealing with the story level Vladimir Propp’s merits mention.[5] It is a structuralist attempt to devise a grammar of story functions based on fairy tales. In the following, however, mainly elements of Chatman’s influential theory will be explained, who differentiates between ‘events’ and 'existents'.

Events[edit]

‘Events’ are “changes in states”[6] in a logical sequence triggered by either actions or happenings. Actions are caused by an agent, namely a character of the narrative. Happenings are situation changes without a character as their cause.[7]

According to Jurij Lotman, events occur as a consequence of characters crossing borders in the storyworld. Such borders are, on the one hand, of a physical nature such as doors, windows, or the limits of landscape features. On the other hand, they are also of a normative kind and may divide, e.g., areas of evil from areas of goodness or spaces of poverty from spaces of wealth.[8]

Certain events are often more important than others. Chatman uses the term ‘kernels’ to describe major events that are crucial to a story and are necessary for the logical coherence of the plot. He further uses the term ‘satellites’ for events that can be left out of the narrative without a major loss of sense or coherence.[9]

Existents[edit]

‘Existents’ refer to the setting and to characters as givens of a storyworld. “In verbal narrative, [the setting] is abstract, requiring a reconstruction in the mind”,[10] while film has the advantage of showing the spatial setting on screen in a concrete way.

As a rule, characters are representations of human beings. However, they can also be allegories of, e.g., human character features. In formalism (e.g. by Propp) and structuralism characters are regarded as mere functions providing important contributions to the plot,[11] e.g. as protagonists or antagonists.

In narrative fiction (but also in other media such as film or comics), characters can be either flat or round,[12] static or dynamic. Flat characters have often only one character trait or quality. For example, witches in fairy tales are frequently represented as flat, static characters, as their only personality trait is and remains being evil. In contrast, round characters have several different character traits and qualities, and in the course of a narrative may change over time (as does the protagonist of a Bildungsroman such as Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations).

Discourse[edit]

The discourse level comprises many phenomena, for example, the formatting of the narrative situations as described by Stanzel,[13] intertextuality, imagery, and so forth. However, only selected aspects will be mentioned below in order to exemplify some possibilities of a discursive transmission of story elements. They refer to the categories ‘time’, ‘mode’, and ‘voice’ as explained by Genette[14] and Rimmon-Kenan[15] (who draws on Genette). ‘Time’ is described as the “temporal relationships between the narrative [story] and the ‘actual’ events that are being told [history]”.[16] ‘Mode’ means the “relationships determined by the distance and perspective of the narrative with respect to the history”,[17] and ‘voice’ the “relationships between the narrative and the narrating agency itself: narrative situation, level of narration, status of the narrator and of the recipient”.[18]

Time[edit]

Genette and Rimmon-Kenan distinguish between three categories of ‘time’ as discursive ways in which verbal narratives can ‘format’ ‘story time’: ‘order’ (ordre), ‘duration’ (durée) and ‘frequency’ (fréquence).[19]

Order[edit]

The most natural order (ordo naturalis) in which a story can be told is often used in folk tales[20], in which the discourse proceeds in a linear way from the beginning (ab ovo) to the end and thus imitates the chronology of the story (and the action in particular) which it supposedly relates. A story can also be told in a non-linear, anachronic way or order (ordo artificialis). While Genette generally refers to this phenomenon as anachronies, Rimmon-Kenan uses the terms ‘analepsis’ and ‘prolepsis’ for certain forms of an artificial ordering of time: ‘analepsis’ is the narration in the form of a flashback, ‘prolepsis’ foreshadows or anticipates certain events.[21]

As for the beginning of narratives, it can be ‘formatted’ in two ways:

  • in medias res: for example, the first scene in the French comedy drama film Intouchables (2011) (engl.: The Intouchables) starts in the middle of the movie, where the two main characters speed away from the police. The movie then begins from the start, catches up to the point of this scene, and then continues.

Or

  • in ultimas res: frequently occurs in (parts of) murder mysteries, as in the TV series Columbo. Here, within the narration of the crime, the murder is shown at the beginning and it is only subsequently (through flashbacks) that the audience sees what events have led to the murder.

Duration[edit]

At first glance, the term ‘duration’ may describe the time it takes for a reader to scan a novel from the first to the final page. At a closer look, one, however, comes to realize that “a narrative text cannot really be said to possess a definite duration”[22]. What one can identify, however, is a ‘narrative speed‘, a relationship between the story and discourse, which describes which of these levels have a longer duration than the other.”[23] For example, a story may spread over several years, which, of course, cannot be paralleled by the discursive reading time; as a consequence, the story must be summarized. In other cases, story and discourse time may have a close similarity with each other, which frequently happens in dialogues. In yet other cases the discourse may focus, e.g., on a description, in which case the story comes to a halt. There are more possibilities of the relationships between discourse and story time, as the following overview shows:

Overview: discourse time in comparison to story time:

  • ellipsis: discourse time = 0, story time = 1
  • scene: discourse time = story time
  • summary: discourse time < story time
  • stretch: discourse time > story time
  • pause: discourse time = 1; story time = 0[24]

Frequency[edit]

Frequency refers to the number of times the discourse mentions an event (or several events) that occurred/is repeated in the level of story

  • singulative[25]: an event happens once and is being narrated once
  • multiple-singularly[26]: the same single event is being narrated several times
  • repetitive: what happens several times, is mentioned several times
  • iterative: what happens several times is being mentioned only once[27]

Mode/focalisation: internal or external[edit]

In fiction, a story is not only mediated through the voice of a narrative agency but also uses a specific perspective. Genette and Rimmon-Kenan call this ‘focalization’; however, the term ‘point of view’ may also be applicable. The former term however has the advantage of differentiating between the one ‘who sees’ and ‘the one who’ speaks. Rimmon-Kenan illustrates her argument with an example from the opening of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where Stephen Dedalus’s tale is told and experienced from the protagonist’s perspective.[28]

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo… His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face. (Joyce 1963: 7, originally published 1916).

Apart from the unmarked direct speech (the first two sentences), the discourse here imitates the perspective (and language) of a small child even in the narratorial passages. Although here the ‘speaker’ is the narrator (and not Stephen), little Stephen clearly becomes the focalizer. As a consequence, the narrator’s discourse appears to be ‘influenced’ by the focalizer’s (mental) perspective, which explains, for instance, the simple syntax, which otherwise would be “an unlikely procedure”[29].

Narrative voice[edit]

The narrative voice in fiction is categorized by the following three elements: “time of narrating, narrative level, and ‘person’”[30]. In terms of person, in fiction, a story is always mediated by a narrating agency, or to be more precise, a narrator. Narrators may be either covert or overt in their appearance on the discourse level. Covert narrators “remain hidden in the discursive shadows””,[31]. Overt narrators, however, are tangible in the text, as they describe scenes and events explicitly, give comments and evaluation and are sometimes in contact with the reader”,[32]. Further, narrators in fiction may either be ‘formatted’ as a first person narrator, an authorial narrator (overt, ‘omniscient’', third-person) or a figural (covert third-person) narrator[33].

Problems of the terms[edit]

It is debatable whether the terms ‘story’ and ‘discourse’ can also be applied to poems. Hühn uses the terms ‘enunciation’ and ‘enounced’ in relation to lyrical poetry[34]. Some poems (for example ballads), however, do have story and discourse elements, which is why ‘story’ and ‘discourse’ could be used in this case.

A further problem with the terminology is the fact that in various literary (national) traditions different terms are employed to signify the same or similar meanings. Russian formalists, e.g. Tzetan Todorov, use the terms fabula (story) and sjuzet (plot), which in translations sometimes acquire different meanings; for example, fabula is mistranslated as plot rather than as story (for the confusion see Hawthorn 1994: 198). Hawthorne offers a graphic chart based on Fludernik to point out the different terminology according to the scholar who established it:

Events in chronological order Events causally connected Events ordered artistically Text on page Narration as enunciation
Genette histoire histoire discours (récit) discours (récit) narration (voice and focalization)
Chatman story discourse discourse discourse discourse
Rimmon-Kenan story story text text text
Stanzel - story story mediation by teller or reflector and enunciation if teller figure mediation by teller or reflector and enunciation if teller figure

(excerpt from Hawthorn 1994: 199, based on Fludernik 1993: 62)[35]

References[edit]

  1. Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith (1983). Narrative Fiction. Contemporary Poetics. London and New York: Routledge. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  2. Todorov, Tzvetan. "Les categories du récit littérarie". Communications. 8: 125-151.
  3. Chatman, Seymour (1980). Story and Discourse. Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  4. Hawthorne, Jeremy (1994). A Concise Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory. London, New York, Sydney, Auckland: Auden. p. 198. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  5. Propp, Vladimir (1969). Morphology of the Folktale. Transl. Laurence Scott. Austin: University of Texas Press. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  6. Chatman, Seymour B (1980). Story and Discourse. Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. p. 44. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  7. Chatman, Seymour B. (1980). Story and Discourse. Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. p. 44. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  8. Lotman, Jurij (1970). The Structure of the Artistic Text. Transl. Gail Lenhoff and Ronald Vroon. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  9. Chatman, Seymour B. (1980). Story and Discourse. Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. p. 53-54. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  10. Chatman, Seymour (1980). Story and Discourse. Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. p. 97. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  11. Chatman, Seymour B. (1980). Story and Discourse. Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. p. 111. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  12. Forster, Edward Morgan (1927). Aspects of the Novel. London: Arnold. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  13. Stanzel, Franz K (1979). Theorie des Erzählens. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  14. Genette, Gerard (1980). Narrative Discourse. Translated Jane E. Lewin (orig. Discours du récit). Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  15. Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith (1983). Narrative Fiction. Contemporary Poetics. London and New York: Routledge. p. 43-58. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  16. Genette, Gerard (1971). "Time and Narrative in A la recherche du temps perdu.". In J. Hillis, Miller, ed. Aspects of Narrative. Selected Papers from the English Institute. Columbia University Press. p. 93.CS1 maint: Extra text: editors list (link) Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  17. Genette, Gerard (1971). "Time and Narrative in A la recherche du temps perdu.". In J. Hillis, Miller, ed. Aspects of Narrative. Selected Papers from the English Institute. Columbia University Press. p. 93.CS1 maint: Extra text: editors list (link) Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  18. Genette, Gerard (1971). "Time and Narrative in A la recherche du temps perdu.". In J. Hillis, Miller, ed. Aspects of Narrative. Selected Papers from the English Institute. Columbia University Press. p. 93-94.CS1 maint: Extra text: editors list (link) Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  19. Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith (1983). Narrative Fiction. Contemporary Poetics. London and New York: Routledge. p. 43-58. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  20. Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith (1983). Narrative Fiction. Contemporary Poetics. London and New York: Routledge. p. 94. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  21. Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith (1983). Narrative Fiction. Contemporary Poetics. London and New York: Routledge. p. 47. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  22. Genette, Gerard (1980). Narrative Discourse. Translated Jane E. Lewin (orig. Discours du récit). Oxford: Basil Blackwell. p. 99. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  23. Genette, Gerard (1980). Narrative Discourse. Translated Jane E. Lewin (orig. Discours du récit). Oxford: Basil Blackwell. p. 9´3. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  24. Genette, Gerard (1980). Narrative Discourse. Translated Jane E. Lewin (orig. Discours du récit). Oxford: Basil Blackwell. p. 99. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  25. Genette, Gerard (1980). Narrative Discourse. Translated Jane E. Lewin (orig. Discours du récit). Oxford: Basil Blackwell. p. 114-116. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  26. Chatman, Seymour (1980). Story and Discourse. Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. p. 78. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  27. Genette, Gerard (1980). Narrative Discourse. Translated Jane E. Lewin (orig. Discours du récit). Oxford: Basil Blackwell. p. 114-116. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  28. Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith (1983). Narrative Fiction. Contemporary Poetics. London and New York: Routledge. p. 71-72. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  29. Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith (1983). Narrative Fiction. Contemporary Poetics. London and New York: Routledge. p. 73. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  30. Genette, Gerard (1980). Narrative Discourse. Translated Jane E. Lewin (orig. Discours du récit). Oxford: Basil Blackwell. p. 215. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  31. Chatman, Seymour (1980). Story and Discourse. Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. p. 197. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  32. Chatman, Seymour (1980). Story and Discourse. Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. p. 219. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  33. Stanzel, , Franz K (1979). Theorie des Erzählens. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  34. Hühn, Peter (1995). Geschichte der englischen Lyrik. Tübingen: Francke. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  35. Hawthorn, Jeremy (1994). A Concise Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory. 2nd edition. London, New York, Sydney, Auckland: Auden. p. 199. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png


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