Narrative Theory: A Brief Introduction

Chapter 5: Events


5.1 Importance for Narrative and Definitions


Definition of Event:

A change from one state to another

Events are the constituents of a story, and are thus crucial to it.  Without events, there will be no story Event has been defined by Bal as a transition of one state to another, and by Rimmon-Kenan  (1983: 15), as a ‘change from one state of affairs to another’. An event is essentially a process, an alteration, which deals with the occurrence of change.  As such, it need not always be observably or distinctly dynamic.  All it needs is a succession of two states and an indication that change has taken place, even if the change is virtually imperceptible.  The idea of  change is thus of crucial importance in the definition of event.


5.2 Events and Minimal Story


The importance of events to the story can be illustrated in the definitions of a minimal story which we have encountered in the first chapter.  We will go into further detail on the minimal story here, as most of these definitions are dependent on the concept of event. For example, Prince defines a minimal story as consisting ‘of three conjoined events . The first and the third  events are stative, the second is active’ (1973: 31).  Another minimalist definition of story is given by Rimmon-Kenan, who views it in terms of any two events arranged in chronological order.  She has also stated that ‘. . . temporal succession is sufficient as a minimal requirement for a  group of events to form a story’, and that ‘narrative fiction represents a succession of events’ (1983: 2;  her definition here is based on Tomashevsky, 1965).

Although events are important for the story, we can also say that from a reciprocal perspective, it is the story which makes each of the events which constitutes it significant.  According to Bal (1985), events are only meaningful in a series.


5.3 Importance of Events to Propp


The importance of events in the analysis of narrative has been strongly emphasised by some scholars.  To Propp, for example, the study of what is done should precede ‘the question of who does it and how it is done’.  Thus to Propp, events (‘what is done’) is prior to character or agency of the action (‘who does it’), and the style of the action or means by which it is done (‘how it is done’).


5.4 Micro- and Macro-Sequences of Events


Events can be grouped in terms of micro- and macro-sequences. Each individual event can also be described as major or minor, depending on the importance of its contribution to the overall narrative.  To Rimmon-Kenan, events are connected together to make up a story by the following procedure:  events combine to form a micro-sequence of events, which then combine to form a macro-sequence of events, which in turn combine to form the story-line, and this leads to the complete story (1983: 16).


Table 5.1: Rimmon-Kenan’s Conception of How Events and Event Sequences Combine to Form a Story












of events

micro-sequence of events

of events

of events

of events

macro-sequence of events

macro-sequence of events

complete story


In Chatman's approach, the major and minor events of a story can be compared to what he calls the story's kernels and satellites; kernels are the building blocks of a plot, they are the branching points in a story by which choices between alternative courses of action take place; satellites (also called catalysts) are involved in the elaboration and filling-in of kernels (1978: 53-6; see also Rimmon-Kenan's discussion and development of Chatman's ideas on kernels and satellites in her book 1983: 15-6).

5.5 Temporal Succession and Causality


There are two ways by which we relate the proximate events in a story: either in terms of tempo­ral succession or causa­lity. For tempo­ral succes­sion to occur, an event ‘B’ merely follows from event ‘A’, but for causa­lity to occur, there must be a stronger relationship between the two events. For example, an accident occurs (event ‘A’) and the man who is driving the car involved in the accident dies (event ‘B’): we can say that there is a causal relation between the two events. However, if a man is at a bus stop and looks at the traffic on the road (event ‘A’) , then someone taps him on the shoulder and says ‘hi’ (event ‘B’), it is difficult to say that the two events have a causal relation.

According to Rimmon-Kenan, the temporal succession of events is the most common method of linking events in a narrative together.  Temporal succession has a connection with the ‘actual’ chronology of the narrative.  Because of its importance, some scholars have defined narrative in terms of temporal succession.  However, like the definition which hinges on the minimal narrative, this may be too simple (or ‘skeletal’) a definition of narrative for most other scholars or students of narrative.

Events may be related to each other through causality.  In chapter one, we have noted the importance of  causality to narrative (1.12).  In this regard, we may want to refer to E. M. Forster’s famous distinction between story and plot. To Forster, a story is merely a succession of events, whereas a plot involves causa­lity (see 6.5).  Events may be causally recursive, in the sense that one event causes another, which in turn causes another, and so on (note that the use of the word recursive here is quite different from its use in linguistics, as it involves a linear instead of a hierarchical model, although both definitions may be accommodated in a more general definition of recursion).

In written narratives, the causal relationships may be indicated by the language: through the use of conjunctions such as ‘because’, ‘since’, ‘as’, and conjunctive adjuncts such as ‘therefore’, ‘hence’, ‘thus’, ‘consequently’, ‘as a result’, ‘for this reason’, ‘because of that’ etc (see the adjuncts showing causal-conditional relation­ships in Halliday's list of conjunctive adjuncts).  Sometimes however, conjunctions or adjuncts which merely indi­cate temporal succession or temporal antecedence (such as ‘and’, ‘later’, ‘afterwards’, ‘after which’, ‘prior to that’, ‘before that’) may suggest a causal relationship, even if they do not directly indicate it.  Indeed, some writers prefer to subtly indicate causality by resorting to the latter, as these words indicate relationships which are more subtle.


Table 5. 2:  Indication or Suggestion of Causal Relationships through Language

Language Indicating Causal Connection

Language Indicating Temporal Succession: Causal Connection to be Inferred by the Reader

Use of


Conjunctive adjuncts

The conjunction

Conjunctive adjuncts

because, since, as,

therefore, hence, thus, consequently, as a result, for this reason, because of that


later, afterwards, after which, prior to that, before that


In cinematic narratives however, it is usually the case that causality is indicated by a succession of images: we establish causality through our under­standing of how such images encode events which are causally related in everyday life (or in other films or narratives). Quite often, a character in the film may linguistically des­cribe or indicate the causal relationships after the events have occurred (or sometimes while they are occurring) either to another character or through voice-over narration.

5.6 Events, Characters and Actions


An event associated with a cha­racter may not be physical, but may be subjective and involves inner psychological states.


An event may arise from the action of a character.  In fact, one definition of action is that it is an event initiated by a character.  However, we must note here that although some events may arise from the action of characters, other events may be independent of the action of any character, as they may arise from natural causes.  Also, an event associated with a character need not necessarily involve physical action: the event may be subjective and may involve inner psychological states.

An action associated with a character can be voluntary or involuntary.  An event is more strongly associated with the actions of a charac­ter if it arises from his or her voluntary actions. Involuntary actions can be more appropriately described as having arisen from accidental or natural factors.  Events arising from natural factors may be coincidental with the action of the character: thus the two types of events may interact, and may even be considered together in one's analysis of the narrative.

An event may not involve only a single action, but may constitute a collection of the actions of a character or characters. In this case, it may be appropriate to describe it as a macro-event (cf. macro-sequence above), although isolating a macro-event from a series of micro-events may not always be easy to do.

In relation to the association of events with the actions of characters, we may note Propp's definition of a function as an act of a character which has significance for the course of action in the story as a whole (see also, 4.38).


5.7 Events in Relation to Story and Discourse


The arrangement of events according to story and discourse (or histoire and discours) has been touched on early in chapter 1 (in relation to the ‘what’ and ‘way’ of narrative, section 1.2).  In this regard, we may note that discourse has also been called

As you already know, although the events need not be chronologically arranged in a discourse, they are arranged according to their appropriate chronology in the story.  However, it may be useful, especially when one refers to duration, to look at at it in terms of text, thus invoking a third level of description discussed in the section on the three-level description of narrative (1.4).


5.8 Order of Events and Anachrony


An important consideration in the analysis of events is their order: that is to say, ‘when’ does each event occur: whether it is first, second, last, before, after, etc.  The discrepancy between the arrangement of events in story-order and in text-order (or between events as they are arranged in story and in discourse) is known as anachrony.

There are two types of anachrony:

The three terms above were introduced into narrative studies by Genette (1980: 35-47). 

Analepsis involves the narration of a story-event after later events have been told. They may involve a flashback or retrospection.

Prolepsis involves the narration of a story-event before earlier events have been told.  It may also involve a flashforward, foreshadowing or anticipation. We have an excursion into the future of a story in prolepsisProlepsis is less common than analepsisProlepsis is different from merely hinting at a future occurrence: it is different from anticipation as we normally understand the word (cf. Bal 1985: 63-6). A mere anticipation of a future event, without the occurrence of the event, is not a prolepsis.

Another way of looking at analepsis and prolepsis:

  • analepsis: the narration of events to the past of the narrative now.
  • prolepsis: the narration of events to the future of the narrative now.

Another way to look at anachrony is to view it in terms of the telling of an event to the past or future of what can be called the narrative now (see Talib 1990).  It is perhaps preferable to view anachrony in these terms.  Quite clearly, anachrony is designed to create an effect on the reader.  In this regard, it has been said that it replaces the question ‘What will happen next?’ with ‘How is it going to happen?’


5.9 Duration


An important consideration in the study of events is duration, that is to say, how long the event is; for example, whether:

Story and discourse may have different effects on duration.  Although duration is frequently seen in terms of story time (as in the above), it also functions at the level of discourse.  For example, when we say that the story which our friend tells us on the bus lasts five minutes, that the film is two hours long, or that the one-hundred page novella takes three hours to read, one is talking of duration at the discourse level.  Closely related to discourse duration is text duration

Discourse duration and story duration interact in various ways (see the next section).  For example, in a ‘crisis’, the chain of events in story time may be action-packed into a short period of discourse time; in a ‘development’ however, the events take place over a longer period of discourse time.


5.10 Duration: acceleration, deceleration, ellipsis, descriptive pause and scene.


The interaction between story duration and discourse duration (Rimmon-Kenan 1983: 51-6) can be seen in terms of

Measurement of acceleration and deceleration (or, for that matter, of any disjunction between story time and discourse time) depends on the norm established for the text.

In acceleration, one devotes a short segment of the text or discourse to the event, which occurs over a comparatively longer time span in the story; deceleration is the other way round.  One must be clear here that there can never be an exact comparison between the length of an event at the level of discourse, and the duration of the corresponding event in the story. Acceleration and deceleration are relative to the norm established for the text.

The contrast between story time and discourse time may result in ellipsis, where an event in the  story is deleted in the discourse.  On the other hand, it may result in a descriptive pause, where time  in the story is stretched or suspended in discourse in order to describe something.

In a scene, story duration and discourse (or text) duration are conventionally considered identical.  Dialogue is often regarded as the best example of scene: the narrator virtually ‘disappears’ here.  In a cinematic narrative, the equivalence of story duration to discourse (or text) duration in a scene is more easily measured than in written narratives (which are affected by different reading times).


5.11 Frequency


In addition to order and duration, we should also mention frequencyWith regard to frequency, we ask ‘how often’ an event occurs.  This question can be asked in relation to how many times the event occurs in a minute, a month, or a page (Rimmon-Kenan 1983: 46).  Quite clearly,  frequency may refer to either the story, discourse or discourse levels.


5.12 Events and the Plot


As seen earlier, the events of a story may combine to form the plotEvents are the building blocks of the plot.  The relationship of events to plot is such that events form an essential part of any analysis of the plot (for more discussion on this, see sections 5.4 and 5.5 above, and also, sections 3-5, 7, 9-11 of chapter 6).  When events are used to analyse plot, they are regarded as the constituents of the plot (see sections 6.10-11 and the rest of chapter 6).


5.13 Events and Setting


The relation between setting and event (or series of events) has been mentioned in the chapter on setting. As an example of this relationship, Bal has listed the close linkage of certain events with their settings, such as declarations of love by moonlight, rendezvous in an inn, ghostly appearances  among ruins, brawls in cafés, etc. (section 3.3).


5.14 Events and Binary Categories


Some scholars, such as Lévi-Strauss, Greimas and Bremond, have analysed events in terms of binary categories. As an example of the use of a binary category, there is the attempt to analyse events by Bremond in terms of whether an action has been done or not done, which results in an event occurring or not occurring, which in turn leads to further binary choices etc.  This may be too simple for some of us, and we may prefer to label the events according to their appropriate categories (see the section below).


5.15 Event Labels


Events have been analysed by using event labels to name or classify them.  Such labels have been used by Barthes in his S/Z, where they are used not only in the form of obvious one-word descriptions such as ‘killing’ or ‘marriage ceremony’ but also, in the form of propositions, or simple sentences used to describe the events.  While event labels may be more informative than classifying events in terms of binary categories, labels may proliferate, and may not allow us to perceive general patterns in a narrative or in a group of narratives.  This problem is avoided if one categorises events in terms of a higher-order category, such as the constituents of the plot mentioned in section 12 above.