Narrative Theory: A Brief Introduction
The term narrative structure is often taken to be equivalent to plot. More specifically, if narratologists use the word narrative structure, it is likely that they are referring to what we call plot. To them, plot is the literary (or traditional) term for what they prefer to call narrative structure. They avoid the term plot because they believe that ‘it has become too vague in ordinary critical usage’ (Rimmon-Kenan, 1982: 135).
Until recently, the analysis of plot has been avoided by most literary critics. There are some notable exceptions, such as R. S. Crane and other figures of the Chicago school of literary criticism. Traditional literary critics preferred to concentrate on other aspects of narrative, such as the analysis of point-of-view. There is also the belief that plot is a concern of popular narratives, and not serious works of literature. In the same vein, there is an underemphasis on plot in some works of modern literature (mentioned again in 6.30 below).
Plot has been defined as the sequence of incidents or events of which a story is composed. It has also been defined as an array of events, some of which can be described as being key moments in the narrative (Chatman 1978; see also the discussion on kernels, in 5.4 and 6.9). Clearly, plot is not a merely a stringing of events, but these events must be of some significance. Also, the events must have a connection to each other, and as a whole, should be relatively coherent.
Plot is regarded as essential by some scholars of narrative. To Chatman's (1978), for example, it is essential to all stories. He in fact views it as being logically necessary for all stories. To Leitch however, there can be stories without plots.
To Leitch, a story may be there even if there is no causal or successive sequence of events. The claim that a story can exist without plot depends, of course, on one's definition of plot. Leitch has a problem-solving definition: plot is the series of actions which lead to an end, or more elegantly, it is the ‘image of human experience as a series of rational actions with a necessitous end’ (1986: 130). Leitch's definition thus regards plots as not existing in stories with irrational actions, or those which contain little or no action. Thus plots do not exist in some modern or post-modern narratives for him.
The distinction between ‘story’ & ‘plot’ has been made by the novelist E. M. Forster in his Aspects of the Novel. To Forster, ‘story’ is the narration of events, but there is the element of causality in ‘plot’. An example of a ‘story’ to him would be: ‘the king died, and then the queen died’; an example of a ‘plot’ would be: ‘the king died, and then the queen died of grief’.
Table 1: E.M. Forster’s distinction between ‘story’ & ‘plot’.
narration of events,
the king died, and then the queen died
element of causality involved
the king died, and then the queen died of grief
Not everyone agrees with Forster's definitions and/or distinction. An important question here is why shouldn't his definitions of story and plot be the other way round?. Among those who disagree with his definition are Chatman and Rimmon-Kenan, who regard his distinction as hard to accept, as readers may superimpose the causal relations in a text even if they are not actually given in the text itself. Chatman's definition of story in fact relies on the conception of events which are ordered in a logical manner (which is perhaps closer to Forster's conception of plot than his conception of story).
To Chatman, beginnings and ends are only meaningful in the realm of discourse, but not in the world of the story.
Beginnings and ends, which were discussed in chapter 2, are important in the plot. Plots are marked by beginnings, middles and ends in discourse, but in the world of the story, such terms according to Chatman, are ‘meaningless’, as there is no real end in the world of the story: only discourse constructs a "The End" to signify a stop to the movement of the plot (see 6.17-18 below for a further discussion of the end).
The most effective order of events is not necessarily chronological. Thus attempts at anachrony (5.8) may make the narrative more interesting. If plot is defined, following Chatman, as ‘story-as-discoursed’, then anachrony has a definite part to play in it. Anachrony may disrupt not only the ordering of events at the level of discourse, but it may also have an effect on one’s conception of the causal connections in the narrative. As we have seen above, causal connections are important to Leitch and Forster in their conceptions of the plot.
Although not often noted, characters are also crucial to the plot. Some characters are the driving forces behind some plots, and the plots would simply collapse or become non-existent without them. Even more significantly, conceiving plots without characters is virtually impossible. Phelan (1989) has noted that one may end up ‘mixing up the study of character with the study of plot’ (ix), if one is not careful, and if one does not acknowledge their symbiotic relationship in advance. Also, one way to classify plots is according to the characters that perform the actions that shape the plot.
The plot of a narrative is usually not difficult to identify. An analysis of plot will leave out description and narratorial commentary and concentrate on the major events. To Chatman, what he calls the kernels of a narrative, which were defined in the previous chapter as the branching points of a plot (see section 5.4 of the chapter), form the crux of the plot. As an analysis of plot leaves out description and narratorial commentary, it is thus not equivalent to the content of the work. However, the usage of the term plot summary usually veers quite closely to a description of the content of a narrative.
One of the ways to approach plot is to look at its constituents; in this light, it has been analysed as consisting of
The three-element conception of the plot above is perhaps the most well-known, followed by the five-element structure. The seven-element structure by Longacre is perhaps the least well-known, although it is the most lingistically interesting of the three conceptions. The three-element structure has a relationship with the triangular conception of the plot associated with the work of the German novelist and literary critic, Gustav Freytag.
The conflict in a plot can occur at different levels or between different entities of a narrative. Basically, a conflict is centred on a character or characters. A conflict can reflect a discord between
● a character or characters with another character or other characters
● a character with himself or herself, either:
♦ between two or more personalities found in the person, or
♦ with the character’s past
● a character with the setting
● a character with the turn of events
A conflict can be single, clear-cut and easily identifiable, or it can be multiple, various and subtle. It can also be external (actional) or internal (psychological), or it can be a mixture of both. A character, in fact, may not be aware of the existence of conflict (in which case the conflict involved is psychological and unconscious). The element of conflict in the plot may be important, especially when one does literary criticism.
In the climax or what Longacre calls the peak, there is a concentration of participants on a crowded stage. A climax or peak may also involve a moment of illumination, or what is sometimes called an epiphany in literary criticism, where an important character has an insight into the truer nature of things or of his or her actual situation in life. Linguistically, there is a change in the climax, according to Longacre, from the use of more conjunctions to less, and there may also be an increase in onomatopoeia.
Suspense is regarded by Longacre as an element of the plot, but not everyone agrees with him on this. To other scholars, suspense is a response created by the plot, rather than a constituent of the plot itself. However, this conception of suspense may be compatible with definitions of plot in terms of readers’ response, such as those of Leitch (see below) and Peter Brooks. Suspense makes readers ask the question ‘what's going to happen next?’ or ‘how will this turn out?’. To an extent, suspense may involve a retarding element, where the answer to the question ‘how will this turn out?’ is not given immediately, but is deliberately delayed.
The element of surprise is related to suspense and/or unexpectedness. Surprise is created when the story departs from our expectations. As such, it is – perhaps more clearly than the element of suspense – an effect created by the plot, which to some scholars, does not qualify it as a plot constituent. Surprise may lead to a moment of illumination where the character is able to see certain things in clearer perspective.
Chance occurrences do seem to be a consideration in any discussion of the plot. They may be found at the beginning, end or during the complication of the story. They often create surprise on the part of the reader. They can be motivated or unmotivated. Chance occurrences that are not justified or prepared by the situation or the characters involved are regarded as unmotivated. Reliance on chance to bring about a solution to the story, especially if it is unmotivated, is often viewed negatively.
Fate, on the other hand, does not leave things to chance. With fate as a controlling factor, all occurrences, including events that seem to be accidental, are predetermined by supernatural forces. In some traditional stories, fate is an important controlling factor of the plot: the classic instance in Western literature is the story of Oedipus the King, who was fated to marry his mother, and failed to try to change the course of events. In Latin, the word fatum means ‘a sentence of the gods’, something that one cannot escape from.
The ending of a story may be happy, in which case the main characters ‘live happily ever after’. Some readers, listeners or viewers dislike unhappy endings, which they regard as ‘depressing’. When faced with an unhappy ending, such respondents maintain that real life is rarely as unhappy as what is given in the story. The important issue in the serious study of narrative however, is whether the ending follows from what is given earlier, or whether it makes sense (see 6.20 below), not whether it is happy or unhappy.
An ending may be indeterminate, where no definite conclusion is arrived at. This is clearly the case with the ‘open’ form in modern fiction, where there is no proper ending (see section 2.9).
An episode in a serial may end with a cliffhanger, which leads the reader, listener or viewer to want to know the outcome in the next episode. On the surface, this may look different from an indeterminate ending, as a cliffhanger does not occur at the discoursal end of the narrative, but more as a linker between parts of a larger narrative. However, some film makers have exploited indeterminate endings so that they are very much like cliffhangers, in that they lead to the possible production of another movie which continues from where the previous one left off.
Two devices are commonly used for cliffhangers:
1. The episode may end with a mystery, where there is an unusual set of circumstances for which the reader/listener/viewer needs an explanation, or
2. The episode may end with a dilemma, where a character must choose between two courses of action, both of which are undesirable, and the reader/listener/viewer is thus left wondering as to which course of action is to be taken, or if there is a third alternative which may become evident only after certain events have unfold.
Some stories may contain side-sequences or full-fledged sub-plots. Sub-plots may function as part of the main plot, and cannot be separated from it, or it can act as a reflector on the plot. Some sub-plots however (for example, that found in Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s play The Changeling), are separate from the main plot, but may serve a contrastive or diversionary function, and thus may not affect the aesthetic unity of the plot in a serious way.
As suggested in the previous section, aesthetic unity, to some literary critics, is essential to a good plot, in the sense that everything in the plot
● must be relevant, and
● must contribute to the meaning of the whole story.
In other words, there must be nothing in the story that is there for its own sake. Aesthetic unity may involve the logical connection of events which are linked together in a chain of cause and effect. This chain of cause and effect will result in events being linked together in an inevitable sequence.
Judgments of probability may also be involved in one's assessment of the aesthetic unity of a plot. One factor which is considered in relation to probability is fatalism, another is chance occurrences (see 6.16 above). Probability may also be judged from a serial perspective: by looking at it in relation to the concatenation of events. We may note here that although in real life, events may follow one another in a haphazard or incoherent sequence, we demand some kind of probable sequence when it comes to stories. The improbable sequencing of events in real life may be one of the factors one thinks of when one says that ‘truth is stranger than fiction’.
Thomas Leitch stresses the importance of audience response in the analysis of plot. To Leitch, the elements of causality and temporal succession in the plot are not as important as ‘the sequence of the audience's perceptions, projections, and reintegrations of the story . . .’ (1986: 130). He also says that ‘[a] plot shows us something about the narrative world by changing that world in some important way: It alters or reorders the world even as it provides an interpretation of it.’ (1986: 131). It can be argued that the relationship of the plot to audience response is not new, and arguably, was already there in Aristotle.
Among the most important analysts of plot is Vladimir Propp, especially in his book Morphology of the Folktale. Propp's analysis however, is corpus specific: it is limited to the Russian fairy tale. He and his followers have also been accused of disregarding content for form, which is a common criticism of approaches to plot which do not consider other aspects of narrative (we may note here that plot analysis is not equivalent to the analysis of narrative content; see 6.9 above).
Propp's work can be described as an attempt to show, in O.B. Hardison's words, that ‘a great many plots can be made from the same story’. Or should it be, reversing Hardison's key words, an attempt to show that a great many stories can be made from the same plot?.
The attempt to show that a great many stories can be made from the same plot, can be related to the search for the universal plot, which is a single plot which lies at the heart of all the world's stories. The search for the universal plot or the universal structure of stories was once seriously considered by the French structuralists, some of whose work has been inspired by Propp. There was also the belief here that finding this ‘universal plot’ will lead to an understanding of the human mind.
The attempt to relate the analysis of plot structure to the understanding of the human mind is also found in anthropological studies of plot, such as that of Lévi-Strauss. However, we have to note here that although the anthropological study of plot may lead us to believe that the study of plot is important, anthropologists are not really interested in the plot or even narrative itself, but the study of other entities or phenomena, such as culture or the human mind.
The quality of the writer's plot construction, or the quality of plot construction as it pertains to certain narrative genres, has been used as an evaluative criterion by some writers. Aristotle, for example, prefers drama to epic because drama has a more tightly knit plot. For similar reasons, Edgar Allan Poe prefers the short story to the novel.
The analysis of plot is usually considered to be less important in the study of serious fiction (mentioned in 6.2). One reason for this belief is that plot is usually more obvious in popular works and less evident in serious fiction. However, we may note that some adventure novels (including those which can be classified as ‘popular’) also have plots which cannot be described as tightly constructed. In spite of that, there is more emphasis on action in these narratives when compared to serious works of fiction. The plots – even if they are less tightly constructed – may thus be more palpable in such narratives.
Picaresque fictional works (cf. 2.9) are regarded as having rambling plots. The plot of a picaresque work is similar to that of adventure fiction, but it deals basically with the adventures of rogues. Picaresque works are usually regarded with more scholarly respect than the average adventure novel one can buy at the drug store.
Another way to look at the problem of the so-called ‘rambling plot’ in picaresque fiction is to say that the whole novel consists of a string of micro-plots, some of which are well-constructed by themselves, and that these micro-plots are strung together (usually but not always in chronological sequence) mainly because they occur to the picaro (the ‘hero’ of the picaresque work).
We may note here that the same principle as in the picaresque novel may be at work in the television serial, such as soap operas. Each episode of a television serial may be quite well-constructed with regard to its plot, but the overall ‘story’ from the first to the last episodes of the series may not add up to a coherently constructed plot.
The novel itself as a genre has been described as a ‘loose, baggy monster’ whose plot is not tightly knit. This is the notorious description of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace by Henry James, who believed that the work could be more tightly written. It has also been used to refer to the tradition of the Victorian novel and nineteenth-century fiction in general. As we have seen (6.25), E. A. Poe prefers the short story because it is more tightly knit than the novel.
In modern fiction, Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield are well-known for what has been described as the ‘rejection of the “well made”, strongly-plotted story...’ (cf. 2.9, on the ‘open’ form in fiction). If anything, the importance of plot in serious fiction seems to be further reduced once we reach the modern era, although this is debatable, especially if one looks outside of mainstream literature. For instance, strongly-plotted narratives are still very much in demand in popular fiction, such as science fiction and fantasy stories.
© 2004–18; last revised:26 June 2018.