Narratology Part 1

Narratology is a growing field of literary study. It arose from the thought of  “Structuralist” thinkers of the early 20th century, in addition to a school of literary theory called the “Russian Formalists.” It is a relatively new area of study, and something that I find deeply intriguing.

Narratology is essentially a means of understanding one common phenomenon of human communication: narrative.

The underlying assumption behind this particular study is that all narrative is a form of representation, or mediation. In the same sense that a noun represents something else but is not the thing itself, narrative is also a form of representation.

Narratology also tends to embrace the idea that this form of representation is socially constructed, or that society is what gives a narrative its meaning.

One of the important distinctions within narratology is the separation of plot from story. The term “fabula” (a Latin word that gives us our word “fable”) refers merely to the raw material of a story, completely separate from any form of organization.
The current distinctions are these:

  1. Story/fabula – the raw material of a story, without organization or underlying theme.
  2. Plot – the underlying causality that binds certain events together, or the uniting factor behind any “story.” Which events are pertinent? Which aren’t? Why?
  3. Narrative – how story and plot are structured. Who narrates? Who is being narrated to? In what order are the events told?

This is the basic framework of narratology, upon which everything else is built.

Imagine that you have some funny story that you want to tell a friend. In your mind, you may have some series of events with a basic chronological order. That chronological order is probably crucial for the telling of your story. However, you may not be sure exactly how you want to tell your story. You may decide for the sake of brevity to leave out some part of it, so you decide which parts of the story are crucial in order for it to be a successful story. Finally, you decide how you are going to tell the story.

The three basic levels of narrative are at work in your mind as you decide how best to tell your story. You start out with a fabula, or the raw material. As you think about it, the plot begins to emerge; you understand the causal factors of the events and the underlying theme. You understand what details are essential and which are not.  Finally, you communicate it. You are the narrator and your friend is the receiver of the narrative. You may structure your narrative such that you go in chronological order, or you may decide to go in a different order for an entirely different reason.

These are the factors at work in the mind of a master storyteller. The master storyteller may not have an explicit understanding of these distinctions, but he does not need to. These distinctions are merely descriptive and not prescriptive. The storyteller naturally follows the distinctions, whether he knows he is or not.

Scholars have found many ways to complicate narratology, which makes a lot of their work useless to some poor neophyte (i.e. me) trying to learn about this theory. I’ve charged myself with the task of boiling it down to its component parts, since no one else seems to have done that in a way that makes any sense.

I’ll write more posts on the subject as I continue reading about it, hopefully arriving a more comprehensive view of the subject and its applications. But for now, I’ll be content with the most basic definitions.


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