Narrative Theory: A Brief Introduction
In relation to the above, one initial question is whether one should study narrative production only in relation to texts that are primarily narrative or in relation to all manifestations of narrative: for example, narrative in descriptive discourse, argumentative prose, etc. However, this chapter will limit itself to the production of texts that are primarily narrative.
Narrative production is not accorded a high status in the academic research on narrative. Quite often, the production of narrative is only dealt with in manuals on how to write sellable fiction. The status of research on narrative production is reflected, for example, in what Bal has to say about it (1985: 49): ‘The aim of textual analysis is not to account for the process of writing, but for the conditions of the process of reception’.
The status of the research on narrative production is not helped by the perennial problem connected to the study of narrative: the definition of the word narrative itself. An attempt at defining narrative is needed before one can go on to a discussion of how narrative is produced. But as we have seen earlier, the word is not easy to define, and that, we can at best arrive at a series of definitions instead of a single definition.`
In the study of narrative production, we can adopt what can be called a systemic or systems approach to narrative production by initially viewing the environment
● that has given rise to the narrative, or
● that has the potentiality of giving rise to it.
When we look at written narrative, the environment that gives rise to it is more difficult to pin down than that of oral narrative. The environment of oral narrative is usually ‘there’ either in the temporal framework (leisure time, play time etc.) or in the physical environment itself (eg. participants, place, social relationships etc.). Some of the factors that can give rise to an oral narrative have been tabulated by Nessa Wolfson (see 2.4). These factors are not only important for triggering a narrative in the appropriate environment, but they are also important for sustaining it in accordance with the audience's expectations and satisfaction. Failure to observe the factors noted by Wolfson may result in the inability of the teller to successfully continue or complete the narrative, as the audience's attention and subsequent comprehension may not be maintained. Although some of Wolfson's factors may require background information, some are readily or even physically apparent in the environment of the oral narrative.
However, the environment that gives rise to written narratives may be less apparent on the surface. The environment here is relatively more abstract, and may be displaced both in time and space. Thus, in the analysis of written narratives, it is more important for an observer to understand the more elusive background that brings about the narrative, as there are fewer clues that are available on the surface.
Table 1: Environments Which May Give Rise to Narrative
For oral narrative
Environment usually ‘there’ either in
● the temporal framework: leisure time, play time etc., or
● in the physical environment itself: participants, place etc.
For written narrative
Environment for written narratives may be displaced both in time and space.
The environment gives rise to a set of possible choices. Some environments do not give rise to narrative production. But if narrative production is an option, among the choices are, whether to resort to narrative rather than other modes of discourse, or possibly, to write one's story rather than to tell it orally, etc. The initial choices can be described as paradigmatic. Once these choices have been made, the narrative producer tries to arrive at the tentative or even sketchy overall plan of the story itself, which involves some kind of syntagmatic design.
During the act of telling or writing, the narrative producer can be described as engaged in choosing a series of paradigmatic and syntagmatic options, as each set of vertical options is chosen with the overall horizontal narrative ‘structure’ in mind. The points in the story where further paradigmatic options are made can be described as reference points where the storyteller or writer may return to when revising or re-planning his or her story: these may also be points that allow the narrative producer to backtrack when necessary.
An oral narrative can be preconceived or spontaneous. A preconceived narrative may involve a simple case of narrative reproduction and may involve the performance of a narrative that has been prepared in advance.. Another term that has been used instead of spontaneous narrative is naturally occurring narrative. One should view the distinction between preconceived and spontaneous not in terms of a fixed distinction, but in terms of a continuum. In this regard, there are elements of spontaneity in narratives that are preconceived, including those that are performed, and elements of preconception in narratives that are spontaneous.
A spontaneous oral narrative is often associated with narrative in face-to-face conversational interaction (see Fludernik 1996). When one engages in telling a narrative face-to-face, one has to be prepared, depending on one's audience, to revise, modify, re-plan or even stop telling the story altogether at every stage of its telling. But again, one must be careful about too rigid a distinction between spontaneous and preconceived oral narratives here, as the form of the narrative delivered in conversational interaction may be determined before the beginning of the narrative itself, although it may undergo changes during its telling. Indeed, it could be argued that in everyday conversation, many of such spontaneous narratives are actually predictable, and hence are in some ways preconceived.
Preconceived narratives are more dependent on mnemonic devices, which include linguistic patterns such as rhyme, metre, and onomatopoeia. For narratives set to music, rhythm and melody, or the use of music in general, should also be regarded as mnemonic devices. Partly because of the mnemonic value of such musical features, some of the more notable genres of preconceived oral narratives set to music, such as examples of the ballad and epic, have survived, in spite of not having been written down.
The mnemonic devices which help a preconceived narrative survive without the aid of writing, actually have the paradoxical effect of making the narrative as a whole have qualities of written language. This is paradoxical because the mnemonic devices themselves have phonological and suprasegmental features which are, by their very nature, more closely associated with spoken language, and may actually be redundant when it comes to written language. In this regard, the mnemonic devices have an effect quite different from what one expects in an oral narrative: they make one feel that the narrative is self-contained (just like the feeling that one sometimes get with written narratives). Thus the need to interact with one's listeners, and the related need to revise or re-plan one's telling of the story, may be reduced. However, this does not mean that the narratives are remembered exactly, and that there is no spontaneity or creativity in the content of such narratives. Indeed, there is good evidence that in some instances, the composition process continues during recitation or singing, even though such traditional narratives are not ‘new’ and are not created totally on the spot, but are handed down from generation to generation.
In the twentieth century, there are narratives which have actually been written down, but as they are broadcast or disseminated through the mass media or film, they give one the impression that they are oral narratives. These apparent oral narratives are, however, by the very nature of the media of transmission, very much like written narratives, as they are not interactive. For such narratives, re-planning (see the next section) – and the spontaneous repeating of some of its parts due to human error, or due to failure to convey the narrative to the audience etc. – are minimised if not non-existent. However, with the advent of the Internet, some modes of communication, especially those that have to do with synchronous interaction, including those that involve writing, may be moving back towards the two-way exchange, among other factors, that is associated with orality.
The planning stages of narrative production should not be viewed strictly as occurring only at the beginning. Re-planning occurs at almost every stage of telling or writing the narrative, and not only at the beginning. In the creation of a one-off narrative in digital gaming, planning and re-planning of the possible development and outcome of the narrative occur frequently, but one must not think that this process is limited to digital gaming. It applies, although less obviously and perhaps less hurriedly, in other attempts to create narrative, including those over which the author has more control.
The planning stages in the production of oral narratives are more difficult to record than those of written narratives. The planning of written narratives can be examined by consulting the writer's drafts, notes, diaries (although this may become problematic with the advent of the word processor or computer, as I will mention again in section 12 below). In spite of advances in technology, the tape-recorder or video camera cannot really record the planning stages in oral narrative production. In this respect, it may actually be impossible to know what is in the teller's mind before the actual telling of the story, unless the story-teller resorts to introspection and is interviewed by the analyst shortly after telling the story. This however, may only deal with processes
● that the writer wants to or is able to reveal to the analyst or
● that are conscious to the teller, as the unconscious or semi-conscious processes may not be conveyed to the analyst.
The planning stages in oral narratives are certainly more crucial for spontaneous narratives when compared to those which are preconceived. However, like the teller of a spontaneous narrative, the teller of a preconceived narrative also has a set of choices prior to the telling of the story itself: eg. points of emphasis, deletions and additions, etc., which may change in each retelling of the story.
A study of the planning and re-planning stages of written narrative composition will reveal that different writers plan and re-plan differently (the same writer may also plan and re-plan different stories differently). Some writers, for example, may begin with the plot (or skeleton plot), while others begin with a scene, an idea, a theme, an argument, atmosphere, description, character, point-of-view (in various senses of the word). Some writers may begin with the end of the story, and then try to think of its beginning. Others may begin with the first sentence, a summary, or adopt a chapter-by-chapter approach, while others may prefer to write certain parts of the story, then try to connect them together.
At least an informal knowledge of how the various elements of a story can be deployed is needed before writing the story. For example, a writer may need some knowledge, even at an informal level, of
● setting: where to set it? how to set it? is it closely based on a real setting, or is it largely imagined?
● plot and arrangement of events: whether to use flashbacks, flashforwards, and so on;
● character/characterization: whether to have simple, complex, round, flat characters; what characteristics should the main characters possess, and so on;
● dialogue: whether direct or indirect speech should be used, how often to repeat dialogue tags such as someone ‘said’ or similar words, whether there will be more description than dialogue, whether the dialogue is clipped or elaborate, and so on;
● theme: what the story is ‘about’ or its moral argument;
● point-of-view: first-person, third-person, characters’ perceptions;
The writer must also know how to effectively bring about changes in any of the above-mentioned elements. The many ‘how to’ manuals of the various popular genres of narrative are usually full of advice on how to effectively write (or perform) each of the elements or how to combine them in a convincing way. However, it needs to be stressed that knowledge of this kind may not be of the formal variety and may not be acquired from books or teachers, but may, in some ill-defined ways, be described as ‘innate’.
In the research on the creative aspects of narrative writing, the element of inspiration cannot be neglected, although it is difficult to academically analyse it. We certainly do not know how to categorise inspiration as part of the planning stage of narrative, although we are quite sure that it is the stimulus that often impels writers to produce their stories. Even if we put the element of creativity and the writing of literary works in the background, we can say that the production of narrative in general is more dependent on inspiration when compared to the production of other modes of discourse.
Revision in written narrative production may not always involve a revision of the narrative content, but may involve certain aspects of the language or text which may not themselves be strictly narrative. The study of the revisions done by major writers, which involves an examination of the earlier drafts of their works, is a major academic industry in its own right. However, with the advent of the word-processor and computer, earlier drafts may cease to be available to researchers of writers who have used the computer or word-processor.
Prescription in the teaching of written narrative composition is quite common. Examples of prescription in narrative pedagogy are
● that one should ‘show’ and not ‘tell’, and
● that one should put an emphasis on the elements of implication, compression, and economy.
Prescription for narrative composition occurs quite frequently in the formal school environment, where the teacher gives her pupils a set of pointers on how a story should be written or told. Sometimes, these criteria on how a story should be written may not be given beforehand, but may only be appealed to when the teacher corrects the pupils' stories.
Narrative production may serve a pedagogical function. There seems to be a pedagogical purpose served in teaching or requiring pupils to tell and write stories, even if we are not entirely clear as to what this purpose exactly is. However, one suspects that the skills in narrative production are correlated with comprehension ability. These skills may also lead children to improve their communicative abilities, and to develop the use of other modes of discourse. It may be noticed, for example, that children are usually more receptive to narrative when compared to other modes of discourse. With this in mind, it may be helpful for these pupils to begin with narrative production, and to proceed to the production of other types of discourse only after narrative production has been learnt. The benefits of storytelling are apparent when dealing with children with language impairment, as their problems with language can be correlated to their lack of skill in storytelling.
The idea of narrative production in cinema is problematic. It is not just the writer of the shooting script who produces the narrative, but the director, editor, cinematographer, and even the producer and actors are involved. The multiple authorship of cinematic narrative will be one of the main themes of the next chapter: see 11.15-11.19.
© 2004–19; last revised on 6 August 2019.