Narrative Theory: A Brief Introduction

Chapter 2: Beginnings and Ends


2.1 Introductory Remarks


Beginnings and ends of narrative are often treated as concepts that are derived from Aristotle, but they may come from life itself.  They are seen, for example, in birth and death. In this regard, Frank Kermode in his The Sense of an Ending (1967: 44-5), refers to the tick-tock of the clock.  There is also a natural psychological tendency to look for beginnings and ends in everything, of which narrative is certainly not an exception. Edward Said, for example, refers to the ‘aboriginal human need to point to or locate a beginning’ (1975: 5). Our response to narrative seems to accentuate this tendency, as conceptions of beginnings and ends in narrative are more determinate than related ideas in life (except perhaps, for birth and death themselves, which serve as the determinate and clear-cut beginning and end of each of our biological lives).

Attempts to define beginning and end in narrative, just like the attempts to define narrative itself, may be circular.  Martin (1986: 85), for example, notes that the contention that beginning and end exist in narrative presupposes that we know what these words mean and how they actually work in narrative. However, just like the attempts to define narrative (which we have seen are of paramount importance in any study of narrative, in spite of their tendency to be circular) we cannot avoid trying to delimit the beginnings and ends of narrative, as they are also of extreme importance in any study of narrative.


2.2 The Beginning is Not Always the Beginning


At the onset, we can note that the beginning of narrative is not always the beginning. The poet Horace for example, believed, following the example of Homer, that an epic should begin in the midst of things, or what is called ‘in medias res’ in Latin. In fact, the beginning of a story can well occur towards the end of the discourse of the narrative.

This disjunction between the two conceptions of the beginning of narrative arises because of the two-fold division of narrative into story and discourse, which we have pointed out in the previous chapter (1.2). An example of a disjunction between story and discourse occurs when one of a series of  final events of a story is placed at the discoursal beginning of the narrative. Much of the rest of the narrative discourse, is thus a series of flashbacks leading to this series of final events in the story.


2.3 The Discoursal Beginning


In relation to the discoursal beginning, we may want to note here that the placement of a final event or a series of events of a story at the discoursal beginning of a narrative quite obviously serves a strategic purpose.  The discoursal beginning delimits the possibilities of the narrative, and this becomes especially clear if there is a disjunction between the beginning of a narrative at the level of story and at the level of discourse.

We can also note that if the discoursal beginning of a narrative is an abstract of the story, there may be a sense of fatalism about the narrative.  In this regard, one has the feeling that nothing else could be done, as the reader or listener knows what is going to happen in the course of responding to it. One immediately notes here the problem with conceptions of narrative, such as that of William Labov (1972), which places an abstract as an optional element at the beginning of the structure of a narrative.


2.4 Discoursal Beginnings of Narrative in Conversational Interaction


An interesting manifestation of the discoursal beginning of narrative emerges when one analyses narrative in conversational interaction.  The discoursal beginning here may be a matter of negotiation, and is not  always predetermined by the teller of the story.

A question that can be asked in relation to narrative in conversational interaction is why narrative in such a situation should begin at all. We may want to note here that the beginning of a conversational narrative may be triggered by an event external to the story itself.

In relation to the triggering of narrative in conversational interaction, some work has been done by Nessa Wolfson (1982), whose observations are listed in the table below.


Table 2.1: Wolfson’s tabulation of the likelihood of narrative occurrence in conversational interaction

There is more chance that narrative in conversational interaction will be initiated if the participants:

 1. are of similar sex, age, ethnic group, occupation, status,

 2. are friends

 3. share attitudes and background - and the potential teller perceives this

 4. are placed in a situation which is conducive to the telling of the story

There is also more chance that the narrative will be told if:

 5. the story topic is appropriate to the listener

 6. the events are recent

 7. the story includes physical verbal interaction


2.5 Setting and Beginning


With reference to narrative constituents, we  may want to ask if the setting should be included at the beginning.  If  the elements of the setting run through the entire narrative, we may also want to ask whether the setting presented at the beginning may be refined, or new settings introduced, as the story develops (we will touch on this again in our discussion on setting in the next chapter).


2.6 The Exposition


Another constituent that is often associated with the beginning of a narrative is the exposition, which is a plot constituent found at the beginning.

The exposition consists of the following elements:
    1) an explanation of the background
    2) an introduction to the characters
    3) the establishment of the setting and
    4) a definition of the basic situation.

These are explained in table 2.2 below.


Table 2.2: The Exposition and the Beginning of a Narrative

In the exposition,


the setting is established

the setting will predetermine the possibilities of the three factors below

the characters are introduced,

the dramatis personae are given -- introduction to the main characters

the background is explained

background of the setting and characters presented

the basic situation defined.

given the above three factors, what is the story going to be like?

N.B.: Most of the above are located at the beginning of the narrative; hence the association of the exposition with the beginning.


2.7 Planning the Narrative: Before the Beginning?


The planning stage of a narrative initially occurs before the beginning proper, but the teller/writer may plan and re-plan the narrative during the course of producing the narrative. In this sense, planning a narrative is not merely associated with the beginning of the narrative.


2.8 A Final End?  Is It Sad or Happy?


With reference to the end of a narrative, we may note what I have mentioned earlier: that beginnings and ends in narrative are more determinate than related ideas in life.  In this regard, Chatman has said: that ‘No end, in reality, is ever final in the way “The End” of a novel or film is’ (1978: 47). Thus a comparison of the notions of the end of narrative with that in real life may not always work.

Some of us are also interested in whether the end of a narrative is happy or sad. It is a common notion, for instance, that the death of the main character of a narrative may end a tragic story. But whether the ending of a narrative is happy or say may not always be a consideration in serious discussions of narrative.


2.9 Novel as a Literary Genre: No End in Sight?


One common complaint about the novel as a literary genre is that its narrative tends to ramble, and has no proper ending. With specific reference to the picaresque and adventure novels (cf. 6.26 and 6.27), Viktor Shklovsky has noted that they tend to be interminable, as they simply go to the future of the story proper at the discoursal end of the narrative, and summarize what happens after the story proper has ended.

The summary at the end which tells one what happens in the future of the story proper is called an epilogue, where there is a drift to the future of what has been told in the main body of the narrative.  Some novels which do not belong to the picaresque or adventure genre, also have epilogues at the end. Epilogues are also found in some films, where they appear in the form of a written (or sometimes spoken) summary of ‘future’ events at the end.

In a roman fleuve, the story is continuous: the ending of one novel is not definite, and is continued in another.  We may want to compare this with a television series (especially one based on a long fictional work).  However, in another genre of the television series, each episode is not closely related to the previous one, and is more or less complete in itself; hence the ending is more definite, although less complete than in a non-serial fictional work or movie.

We may also want to refer to the ‘open’ form in fiction, which refers to a narrative without an explicit or clearcut ending. The ‘open’ form is increasingly used from the late nineteenth century onwards.


2.10 External Factors Initiating The End


Undoubtedly, there are external factors which may initiate the ending of a narrative. External factors are especially evident when it comes to conversational narratives.  We may note here that these external factors are usually non-linguistic, and the ending is the end of the discourse, but not of the story.   As such, the ending may not be intrinsic to the narrative itself.  Narrative in psychotherapy, for example, which occurs when the patient tells the analyst a story, may end when the analyst believes that he has arrived at a diagnosis of the patient, and not because the story has been concluded satisfactorily.


2.11 No End Without the Whole


One major problem with any discussion of the end, is that one cannot really discuss it until other components of  narrative are discussed, unless of course one is dealing with external factors which trigger the end. Said (1975) has noted that the end implies that there is a beginning before it. The same can be said about the other components of a coherent narrative that lead to the end: taken together, they are responsible for the end of the narrative.  External factors may tell us how the discourse has ended, but not the story, although it can be said that the discourse may be all we have, and not the story.