Narrative Theory: A Brief Introduction


Chapter 8: The Schema


8.1 What is a Schema? Schemas in Relation to Narrative


According to contemporary cognitive psychologists, schemas or schemata are the basis of all knowledge. As such, schemas will definitely be involved in our understanding of stories. The schema is defined as a collection of the generic properties of a meaningful category which is stored in a person's memory for future retrieval.  It is a mental entity which is also used for comprehension and recall.  We can thus note here that memory is crucial for comprehension.

However, the concept of the schema is difficult to define.  This difficulty may have its origin in Frederic Bartlett, whose use of the concept is generally recognised now as the most important early use of the concept in the twentieth century (see the next section).  To Gordon Bower, Bartlett's definition is ‘frustratingly difficult to tie down’, and to Thorndyke & Yekovich (1980: 26), each researcher differs precisely as to what a schema is, how it is structured, and  how it is used.


Table 1: The Schema


The basis of all knowledge.


A collection of the generic properties of a meaningful category which is stored in a person's memory for future retrieval


For comprehension and recall.


The concept is hard to pin down.


8.2 History of the Concept


The concept of the schema was introduced by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1934; see eg., p. 119). The first significant use of the concept in twentieth-century psychology is by Frederic Bartlett in his book Remembering (1932), in which, in his experiments with the Amerindian story ‘The War of the Ghosts’, he hypothesised that the recall and comprehension of the story were affected by schemas, which had their origins in the sociocultural world. Bartlett's conception is borrowed by Ernst Gombrich in his book Art and Illusion (1960), where it is used in relation to art criticism. Gombrich's book is perhaps the most significant mid-century use of the concept of the schema in aesthetics and art criticism.


8.3 Frames and Scripts


Frames and scripts are concepts used in artificial intelligence. They are more prototypical versions of schemas (see the section on the prototype, below), and are more widely stored in a given form by members of a particular sociocultural community.  A distinction is sometimes made between frames, which were introduced into artificial intelligence research by Marvin Minsky (1975), and scripts, which were introduced by Roger Schank and Robert Abelson (1977): frames are more spatial, whereas scripts refer to process models only. However, in Minsky's definition, frames refer to both spatial and process models.


Table  2: Distinction is sometimes made between frames and scripts


spatial models


process models only

→ Scripts are understood as process models in Schank and Abelson

However, in Minsky's definition,  frames refer to both spatial and process models.


8.4 Slots and Fillers


The concepts of frames and scripts (and most other schemas) can be more easily understood if one thinks of slots and fillers.  The slots of a frame or script are arranged in a meaningful order; these slots however, may have different fillers: thus two objects may look different, due to the use of different fillers, but they are meaningfully the same, as they have the same frame, or the same configuration of slots arranged in a meaningful order.

The slots involved in frames and scripts have a force which is weaker than the finite set of necessary or sufficient conditions for the definition of a concept that one may encounter in formal semantics and formal logic, thus making them conceptions that are not completely explicable in these terms.  At any rate, the strong link of  frames and scripts with society and culture, makes any rigid connection they may have with formal logic rather tenuous.

Frames and scripts are crucial for our understanding of natural language.  Even simple concepts encoded in language, such as that of a house or car, or simple action sequences described in language by single words or simple phrases, such as ordering food in a restaurant or taking a bus, are heavily dependent on the activation of the appropriate frames or scripts in our minds.


8.5 Missing Links and Default Values


Schemas in general provide us with the discoursal missing links, which provide the connections between concepts in a text.  These missing links are described by van Dijk (1977: 93) as the propositions postulated to establish the coherence of the text, but are not explicitly expressed in discourse.

An important related idea in schema theory is that of default values or assignments, which are assumed if no evidence to the contrary is found.  These default values or assignments are again important in comprehension and for the establishment of coherence in discourse.  For example, it is usually assumed by default that a car has four wheels and that a house has a door and windows, unless we are told otherwise, or evidence is found which indicates otherwise.


8.6 The Prototype


In the prototype theory of Eleanor Rosch, a prototype is a schematic concept in which all the typical features of a category must be satisfied: in other words, these features can be regarded as slots that are filled in with the most likely fillers.  Ostriches and chickens for example, are not prototypical birds, as they are incapable of flight. A concept is thus viewed in terms of degree, and again, necessary and sufficient conditions are too restrictive for the explanation of prototypical meanings, which are understood in terms of more or less, and not in absolute terms. In an approach to narrative, prototypes may be useful for the analysis of popular fiction: for example, for the understanding of how certain stock characters (see 4.28) function in such works. Also, it is useful for the understanding of how a character who is far from being a prototypical representative of a type or category, such as that of the hero (4.32-33), can still be regarded as a member of the category.


8.7  Long Range Schemas


There are several types of long-range schemas.  Among the most important are plans, which are hypothetical schemas used to speculate on how something which the person has no previous experience of could be done.  A plan may involve a speculative arrangement or rearrangement of scripts.

Our understanding of narrative itself can be described as dependent on a long-range schema or set of schemas.  The plot of a narrative, for example, can be described as an example of a long-range schema.  The plot extends throughout the narrative.  It is not merely what is ‘there’ in the text, but arises from an interactive process which is dependent on the schema for its realization. 

This process can be viewed from both the angles of production and reception.  In production, one thinks of a plot in terms of a schematic arrangement which could be used for the narrative that one wants to create.  From the perspective of reception, one’s response to the plot is a speculative arrangement of a schema or set of schemas which one feels can be used for the narrative at hand.


8.8 Significance of Schema Theory to Narrative Studies


What is clear from our discussion of the schema is that one is not strictly confined to the physical text in our understanding of narrative.  Understanding a narrative is an interactive process.  The process of understanding is psychological, and is not merely the passive and exact retrieval of what is ‘there’ in the text.