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2.1.2.8.2: Narrative Theory

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    Roland Barthes was arguably one of the most important literary theorists of the twentieth century. To begin, we’ll look at his thoughts on narrative:

    The narratives of the world are numberless. Narrative is first and
    foremost a prodigious variety of genres, themselves distributed
    amongst different substances—as though any material were fit
    to receive man’s stories. Able to be carried by articulated language,
    spoken or written, fixed or moving images, gestures, and
    the ordered mixture of all these substances; narrative is present
    in myth, legend, fable, tale, novella, epic, history, tragedy,
    drama, comedy, mime, painting (think Carpaccio’s Saint Ursula),
    stained-glass windows, cinema, comics, news items, conversation.
    Moreover, under this almost infinite discovery of forms,
    narrative is present in every age, in every place, in every society;
    it begins with the very history of mankind and there nowhere is
    nor has been a people without narrative. All classes, all human
    groups, have their narratives, enjoyment of which is very often
    shared by men with different even opposing, cultural backgrounds.
    Caring nothing for the division between good and bad
    literature, narrative is international, transhistorical, transcultural:
    it is simply there, like life itself. (qtd. in Abbott 1–2)

    In the forty-five years since Barthes penned this passage, nearly every book on storytelling or narrative theory has referenced this quote. Even if this quote is not referenced directly, often authors simply make a similar statement in their own words. For example, twenty-one years after Barthes voiced his thoughts on narrative, Luc Herman and Bart Vervaceck, authors of The Handbook of Narrative Analysis, stated:

    No single period or society can do without narratives. And, a
    good number of contemporary thinkers hasten to add, whatever
    you say and think about a certain time or place becomes a
    narrative in its own right. From the oldest myths and legends
    to postmodern fabulation, narration has always been central.
    Postmodern philosophers . . . also contend that everything
    amounts to a narrative, including the world and the self. If
    that is correct, then the study of narrative . . . unveils fundamental
    culture-specific opinions about reality and humankind,
    which are narrativized in stories and novels. (1)

    Whether authors quote Barthes directly or voice the same sentiment in their own words, one of the few things almost all authors, scholars, and critics can agree on is that narrative is part of humankind, it always has been, and it always will be.

    Of course, what Barthes and Herman call narration, many, myself included, call story. H. Porter Abbott notes in The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, “Many speakers of English grow up using story to mean what we [Abbott and Barthes among others] are referring to here as a narrative” (16). Technically, however, there are some differences between the words “story” and “narrative.” In his book The Classical Plot and Invention of Western Narrative, N. J. Lowe talks about these differences using the terms fabula and sjuzhet:

    This distinction is a cornerstone of modern narrative theory,
    even though there has been huge disagreement over the precise
    definition of the two terms and the boundary between them,
    and scarcely less over how to present them in English. Fabula
    (in English, usually ‘story’) is the series of events the work recounts,
    but imagined stripped of all the artifices of storytelling:
    a series of actual events in their natural order, in what merely
    happens to be a fictional world. In contrast, sjuzhet is the account
    of those same events that we actually get, reordered and
    reshaped in the process of telling to reach and affect the audience
    or reader in a particular and deliberate way. (5)

    As Lowe mentions, scholars and writers have disagreed over the exact meaning of words like story and narrative. Abbot, for example, talks about “three distinctions: narrative is the representation of events consisting of story and narrative discourse; story is the event or sequence of events (the action), and narrative discourse is those events as represented” (16). In this chapter, we’ll use these definitions: a story (or fabula) encompasses the events or action in the story, and narrative discourse (or sjuzhet) is the way these events or actions are related. For example, all stylistic choices or organizational strategies, such as flashback, are part of the narrative discourse. Narrative discourse can encompass numerous things, but story almost always includes two primary parts: events and characters. After all, what story does not have these two characteristics? A story by its very nature includes events, and as Abbott contends, “what are events but the actions or reactions of [characters]?” (17).

    Characters and events (or actions) may seem inextricably linked, but which is more important has been debated since Aristotle’s time. Aristotle took the stance that action was most important. In Poetics, he states: “Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or reverse. Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of Character: character comes in as a subsidiary to the actions” (62–63). Still, character was important to Aristotle; he believed it was the second most important element in a drama and that character brought morality to a text (64). In the twentieth century, however, many authors started to think character was more important. For example, as author Andrew Horton notes, “Flannery O’Conner says ‘it is the character’s personality that creates the action of the story’ and not the other way around.” Horton goes on to state that usually the characters connect an audience emotionally to a story (2).

    Because the purpose of a Who I Am story is to illustrate something about oneself, some might assume that character is the most important aspect of the Who I Am story, but in truth, as novelist Henry James asserts, both character and action are important in this type of story. James believes: “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character? . . . It is an incident for a woman to stand up with her hand resting on the table and look out at you in a certain way; or if it be not an incident I think it will be hard to say what it is. At the same time it is the expression of character” (qtd. in Abbott 124).

    Granted, thinking of the people in a Who I Am story as characters may seem odd because most likely they will be real people. However, consider Theodore A. Rees Cheney’s thoughts:

    Traditional nonfiction, particularly journalistic nonfiction,
    never concerned itself with developing characters. Fiction
    writers worked at characterization; nonfiction writers concentrated
    on events. Creative nonfiction writers say that because
    so many events occur as the result of human interactions, the
    event cannot be fully understood without also understanding
    something of the people (characters) surrounding it. (134)

    So while thinking of yourself, friends, or family as characters may not feel completely natural, remember some similarities do exist between characters and real people in that the people/characters in a Who I Am story need to be developed, interesting, and understandable, just like characters in a fiction work. Of course, some differences exist as well. Since the characters in a Who I Am story are real people, you will not be creating characters, as a fiction writer does; instead, as Cheney notes, you will be revealing them:

    When I write about character development, I’m talking about
    how the writer goes about revealing a person’s character . .
    . The creative nonfiction writer does not ‘create’ characters;
    rather, he or she reveals them to the reader as honestly and accurately
    as possible. Like most contemporary fiction writers,
    creative nonfiction writers reveal character much as it happens
    in real life—bit by bit. (134)

    Generally speaking, authors reveal their characters in two ways: direct and indirect characterization. With direct characterization, the author simply tells the audience something about a character. The line “He was 35, looked 13 and was third generation rich” from the Who I Am story at the beginning of this chapter is an example of direct characterization. With indirect characterization, the audience learns about characters by watching or listening to them. Indirect characterization can also include descriptions of characters. The Who I Am story at the start of this chapter primarily utilizes indirect characterization. The entire story Skip tells about his first job, the mindless drawing, being upset about an hourly worker calling him at home—all indirect characterization. Since indirect characterization shows what a character does, indirect characterization often directly relates to the sequence of actions, again showing how character and action can intertwine.

    Another important piece of a story and narrative discourse is the difference between real time and narrative time. Consider the following passage:

    Amy dropped a mug of coffee. It shattered on the kitchen
    floor. Coffee and shattered glass were everywhere. Amy got a
    towel and began cleaning up the mess.

    This is real time, but if a few details are added, we get narrative time:

    Amy dropped a mug of coffee. It shattered with a loud crash
    onto the kitchen floor. She felt the hot liquid burn through
    her socks into her feet. Coffee and shattered glass were everywhere.
    Amy sighed; there was no more coffee in the pot,
    and she had really needed a caffeine burst. Moving carefully
    through the mess, Amy grabbed an old towel out of the drawer
    and began cleaning up the remains of her breakfast.

    Abbott explains the difference between real (or clock) time and narrative time:

    Clock time . . . always relates back to itself, so that one speaks
    in terms of numbers or seconds or their multiples (minutes,
    hours) and fractions (nanoseconds). Narrative time, in contrast,
    relates to events or incidents. And while clock time is
    necessarily marked off by regular intervals of a certain length,
    narrative time is not necessarily any length at all. (4–5)

    Abbott adds that writers can slow the “whole sequence down by simply adding details” and “conversely, we can make narrative time go like the wind” by using phrases like “in the following months” or “a few weeks later” (5).

    The universality of narrative, fabula and sjuzhet, character and action, indirect and direct representation, real time and narrative time are just a few aspects of narrative theory, but these terms and this information will provide a solid foundation as we begin thinking more specifically about the Who I Am story.


    2.1.2.8.2: Narrative Theory is shared under a CC BY-NC-ND license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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