Author Archives: Jen Lennon

Narratology: A Study of Narration, Structure, and History

Throughout this semester I’ve been trying to think through narratives, whether that is through different mediums, their constructs, or their application to certain genres. Historical narratives, especially historical fiction, are particularly interesting to me because they instill imagination and, in some cases, wish fulfillment, but also include real facts and can perpetuate knowledge of humans passed through generations. However, one of the major takeaways of this study has been that narrative itself is just a form, a method that can be transposed through different structures and modalities. It can be broken down much like linguistics or semiotics; there is a formula, or at least different variations on the formula. First I’m going to discuss narrative more generally, and the basic tenets of narrative, but I’m also going to look at narrative through the lens of the example of The Great Gatsby where it applies, but definitely in the context of a historical narrative and as an example of narrative remediation.

 

Narrative Markers

There are a couple of markers that denote that something is a narrative, depending, of course, on who you ask. One of the biggest markers of a narrative is the structure of having a beginning, a middle, and an end. Another big overlapping tenet is that narratives should impart some sort of meaning, as opposed to just chronologically telling a story. Chatman describes narrative in the structuralist vein by describing it as having two parts: story and discourse. The story is the chain of events, plus the existents, which are the characters, setting, or time period among other attributes. The discourse would be the means in which the content is communicated. Chatman described is as the “what” versus the “how” (Chatman). Another big tenet of narration, at least from Chatman’s perspective, is the importance of eventhood, characterhood, or settinghood to color in a narrative beyond just a meaningless string of occurrences. He describes it by showing a cartoon of just dots and lines that are animated, but when placed within a setting they are given more meaning and don’t need overt vocal narration to be understood. In his view, the structure provided the narration.

Another big commonality between the different thinkers on narration is the importance of a sense of time. Bordwell wrote that the narrative process is “the activity of selecting, arranging, and rendering story material in order to achieve specific time-bound effects on a perceiver” (xi). In this theory, narrative would be a chain of events with cause and effect relationships within a certain time and place (Bordwell and Thompson). Here, story and plot are separated similarly to how Chatman described the difference between story and discourse. However, taking it a step further, film narration also typically includes actions that happen offscreen or which are not explicitly explained within the film. A story would contain all of the sets of events in a narrative, whether or not they are explicitly presented or if they are inferred. But the plot is only what is visibly and audibly present the film, during the actual time period one physically watches the film. So what you see with your eyes is the plot, but the story might extend beyond that.

An example of the type of action that might happen offscreen is most apparent in a story about murder mystery. Typically the actual crime isn’t shown, the effects of it are shown and the film is about trying to solve the mystery or to figure out what happened. The Great Gatsby has a lot of examples of action that happened offscreen, and is dealt with in different ways depending on the adaptation. But one of the bigger mysteries is Gatsby’s background, which in some ways gets filled in for the audience, but in others is inferred. Also, Gatsby and Daisy’s past happen “offscreen” so to speak. This is a good example of a narrative not happening chronologically, which is another big tenet of narration. The use of flashbacks or inferred events differentiate a narration from a mere plot or chronicle, as it would be described in historical accounts. Therefore, if a person wanted to describe the plot of a movie, they would describe what happened on screen. To describe the story, however, they would describe any important tidbits that happened offscreen but were described or inferred – even from a time period before the story started.

 

Mediation and Audience Participation
Beyond the inferred off-screen action, there are other components to mediated stories that are external to the plot itself. Bordwell and Thompson refer to them as nondigetic elements, which include things like the credits, editing, or even music. The digesis, in this format, is the recounted story or story as a whole (Bordwell and Thompson). In the world of comics, the role of the audience is also included in inferring what happens “offscreen” through what McCloud calls “closure”. This means that the reader puts together what happens between different frames by extrapolating the action for themselves. McCloud talks a lot about the role of audience participation as sort of an integral part of narration, which seems to be an important question that is discussed with mediation. He says that in comics, the writer depends on the reader to decide for him or herself what happens between frames, and almost encourage different creative licensing to take place with the reader. He wants you to decide for yourself how some action happened, so he will just tell you what happened, but not necessarily how. From McCloud’s perspective, if you asked creators if they thought their stories were being interpreted exactly as they intended, only about 20% of creators would say yes. A lot of this comes from the way that different people would interpret the closure within a story; everyone fills in those gaps differently. Joanna Drucker explained what happened on the page itself as depiction, compared to what the audience perceives or fills in themselves, which she called representation (Drucker).

In comics and graphic novels, the sense of time is shown through the use of the gutter, or white space between blocks, as well as with the actual size of the boxes or through negative space. The dialogue itself sort of sets a tempo for the timing of the story because the time it would take to speak the words is generally how long a box with dialogue should last. But Scott McCloud wrote that it is easy for the reader to know where in time they are because the past and future are basically visible through their peripheral vision (McCloud). Unlike in a film or television show, the past isn’t reliant on audience memory; it’s right there on the page (104).

Drucker echoes some of McCloud’s theories on the role of the audience to impart messaging with graphic novels. She says that “We know that a lot of slippage occurs between the telling and the told. Not only is there not a one-to-one relation of signifier to signified in any sight system…but much of what occurs within the materiality of graphic works cannot be simply perceived as a mechanical device for unfolding a story” (40).

The role of mediation in regards to narrative is interesting because throughout the course of the semester I found that mediums themselves don’t change any sort of narrative structures. However, how narrations might be perceived or compared to one another can change with mediation. One of the primary ways that this is demonstrated is through the notion of immersion. With immersion, the audience becomes part of the story as much as possible. The goal is to have the medium fade into the background as much as possible. Digital media is thought to provide this in a more seamless way, then say, film, which was more seamless than, say, a book. Drucker said that film theorists posited that the primary identification with viewing a film was the situation of the viewing with the content coming in second. However, with modern movies and computer technology becoming so prevalanetly used in their creation, it’s easier for the audience to become immersed in a film. Drucker said, ”When we enter a fictional world, we do not merely ‘suspend’ a critical faculty; we also exercise a creative faculty. We do not suspend disbelief so much as we actively create belief. Because of our desire to experience immersion, we focus our attention on the enveloping world and we use our intelligence to reinforce rather than to question the reality of the experience” (110). She continued, “We bring our own cognitive, cultural, and psychological templates to every story as we assess the characters and anticipate the way the story is likely to go” (110).

With film, the technology is improving the amount of immersion. As Bolter and Grusin put it, “Filmmakers routinely spend tens of millions of dollars to film on location or to recreate period costumes and places in order to make their viewers feel as if they were ‘really’ there” (5). Murray shows that this kind of technology might even be better suited to portray narratives. “Decades before the invention of the motion picture camera, the prose fiction of the nineteenth century began to experiment with filmic techniques. We can catch glimpses of the coming cinema in Emily Bronte’s complex use of flashback, in Dickens’ crosscuts between intersecting stories, and in Tolstoy’s battlefield panoramas that dissolve into close-up vignettes of a single soldier. Though still bound to the printed page, storytellers were already striving toward juxtapositions that were easier to manage with images than with words” (29). Murray felt that older forms of media were already primed for current forms. But she continued, “Eventually all successful storytelling technologies become ‘transparent’: we lose consciousness of the medium and see neither print nor film but only the power of the story itself. If digital art reaches the same level of expressiveness as these older media, we will no longer concern ourselves with how we are receiving the information. We will only think about what truth it has told us about our lives” (26).

Narration and History

Hayden White writes about narration and history, and offered a lot of insight into what makes a historical account a narrative. Because in his view historians are under no obligation to write history as a narrative, and most don’t. In order to make a history into a narrative, there has be meaning, a beginning, middle, and end, and some cause and effect. Cause and effect are other major components to narrative theory. In some cases, an outside force might wreak havoc on the characters, which would then provide something for characters, who possess specific traits, to react to and to show how they might respond under certain circumstances. 

To think through some of the ideas of narration with history, and the structure as a whole, I want to go through the example of The Great Gatsby. This is by no means a special case, but a historical story that has been mediated through multiple forms and adaptations and that shines some light on some of these narration theories.

I recently watched the newest movie version, which Baz Luhrmann adapted this year. One of the first things that I noticed was the change in the way the narrator is inserted into the story. Nick Carraway, the narrator, is a part of the novel, as well, actively participating in the events. But in the movie, it starts with him in a sanitarium telling a doctor the entire story as a flashback. Another change in the basic structure is that a lot of the inferred information that the reader was meant to “close” for themselves in the novel was explicitly explained in the movie. This is true of some actual action and background information for the characters, and also for some of the symbolism of the book.

One of the most glaring attributes in the newest movie version is that it is a mediated version of the story, meant to almost reference the medium itself. The original movie version, filmed in the 1970s, was basically a straightforward film adaptation where jazz music played and the visual nature of the film was pretty static. In Luhrmann’s version, footage of the 1920s in black and white are shown alongside CGI shots of New York City; hip hop music replaces jazz music, but with all references still being to “jazz” while Jay-Z plays in the background.

Bolter and Grusin said “Sometimes hypermediacy has adopted a playful or subversive attitude, both acknowledging and undercutting the desire for immediacy” (34). In a lot of cases, this adaptation was overtly referencing what came before, sometimes with a kind of wink and a nudge that alludes to the mediation itself.

Bolter and Grusin talked about historical fiction films made in the 1990s which didn’t reference the books which they were adapting. Jane Austen film adaptations are still popular, and often follow the book and are costumed in historical costumes in realistic settings with no mention of the book on which it was based. In some views, that would ruin the immediacy. But Luhrmann’s Gatsby seemed to be overtly referencing the book, acknowledging that it’s a remake and that it’s pulling from other source material while sort of putting a new spin on the story. The most obvious way that this is portrayed is at the end of the film where it’s shown that Nick Carraway was writing the story as he told his therapist and signs the entire account as “The Great Gatsby by Nick Carraway”. I thought this was an interesting addition because it overtly references the book, which isn’t typical, but then it also attributes a different writer to the story. It calls out the narrator, as well, which is atypical of other narrative structures. Probably the most glaring example of referencing the source novel was that at certain points, usually for really iconic quotes from the novel, the text from the novel are shown on the screen as Nick narrates, pulling Fitzgerald’s actual words onto the screen.

Bolter and Grusin put it this way, “The digital medium can be more aggressive in its remediation. It can try to refashion the older medium or media entirely, while still marking the presence of the older media and therefore maintaining a sense of multiplicity or hypermediacy” (46).

Between the narrator change and the use of modern music with the historical setting, costuming, and references, Luhrmann’s Gatsby is an epitomization of remix culture. As Bolter and Grusin say it, “This tearing out of context makes us aware of the artificiality of both the digital version and the original clip. The work becomes a mosaic in which we are simultaneously aware of the individual pieces and their new, inappropriate setting” (47). They felt that through hypermediacy, creators can make the audience delight in the juxtaposition of old and new and to acknowledge the medium as the medium. It would be difficult for the audience to forget the medium while watching Luhrmann’s version of Gatsby. It is more than just a film version; it’s certainly the digital version of the story. While the immersion is still likely there, it is impossible to not notice all the different forms of media and the different ways the story is being remixed with modern social and economic opinions, current music, computer graphical editing and imagery, old clips, and typed out quotes from the novel.  As Bolter and Grusin say, “No medium today, and certainly no single media event, seems to do its cultural work in isolation from other media, any more than it works in isolation from other social and economic forces” (15).

One of the big themes of The Great Gatsby is morality and the effect that all of this wealth had on society in the 1920s. The hero of the story, Gatsby, is shown to be a fraud and not always the best person, but he’s so focused on his wild daydream to reunite with Daisy that he becomes sympathetic and the audience wants to follow him on his quest.  

Hayden White says that any historical narrative has the desire to moralize the events that it describes. “And this suggests that narrativity, certainly in factual storytelling and probably in fictional storytelling as well, is intimately related to, if not a function of, the impulse to moralize reality, that is, to identify it with the social system that is the source of any morality that we can imagine” (18).

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the characters of The Great Gatsby in the time period in which he lived, so it’s difficult to see if he was meditating on the morality of his own crowd. I think that he was. The “eyes” in the Valley of Ashes were constantly referred to in Luhrmann’s version as the eyes of God and that everything was seen by them. This was alluded to in the book, but really hammered home in the film. Luhrmann’s version seems like a hyperbolic reference to the morality of the historical account, with the lens of looking through time and seeing it in hindsight. White commented a lot about the use of historical narrative to provide meaning to the past, or to be a form of wish fulfillment showing that it all mattered in an existential type of way. He viewed it as a way to merge the imaginary with the real, and usually in order to make sense of the world or to give life meaning. He also viewed this as as easier and probably less problematic with fiction than with fact, which is why The Great Gatsby is an interesting case. While it is set in a historical time period, the characters themselves are fictional, which allowed Fitzgerald, and later Luhrmann, the opportunity to meditate on the meaning of the time without attributing it to real people.

White talked about the different kinds of historical accounts that historians can write, namely the difference between annals, chronicles, and history proper (White). Annals lack any narrative component and is basically just a list of events in chronological order. A chronicle, in his view, wants to tell a story and usually starts to tell one, but falls short but ending abruptly, or failing to achieve narrative closure. Historical narratives, by comparison, take into account what came before. They ponder the meaning of the events that are chosen to be included. And, most importantly, they have an ending. The ending is one of the biggest keys mainly because history continues on forever, so the narrativization of a story must include picking out that period with which the story can begin and end – a key tenet of narrative. White admits that not all histories are suitable for narrative and don’t need to be put into that form. He said, “But real events should not speak, should not tell themselves. Real events should simply be: they can perfectly well serve as the referents of a discourse, can be spoken about, but they should not pose as the tellers of a narrative” (8).

In White’s perspective, a historical narrative should attempt to fill in the blanks that an annal would leave between mere mentions of events that occurred. It would give them meaning and a moral center. “The historical narrative, as against the chronicle, reveals to us a world that is putatively ‘finished,’ done with, over, and yet not dissolved, not falling apart. In this world, reality wears the mask of a meaning, the completeness and fullness of which we can only imagine, never experience. Insofar as historical stories can be completed, can be given narrative closure, can be shown to have had a plot all along, they give to reality the odor of the ideal” (23).

But another big part of his argument is that considering historical narratives should be a way to sort of erase reality and show the wish fulfillment of a storied version of the past. The Great Gatsby is a great example of this construct. Fitzgerald seems to be yearning to find meaning within the novel; or at least his characters are struggling to make sense of the world that they inhabit, along with the economic and social constructs that entails. But the author must choose the way to conclude the story, though history moved on. As White put it, “I cannot think of any other way of ‘concluding’ an account of real events; for we cannot say, surely, that any sequence of real events actually comes to an end, that reality itself disappears, that events of the order of the real have ceased to happen. Such events could only have seemed to have ceased to happen when meaning is shifted, and shifted by narrative means, from one physical or social space to another” (26). But he continued that by fantasizing about the past, in much of the ways that The Great Gatsby does, certainly in the newest adaptation, that the construct of a formal story real events are skewed to become wish-fulfilling mechanisms. White said, “In the enigma of this wish, this desire, we catch a glimpse of the cultural function of narrativizing discourse in general, an intimation of the psychological impulse behind the apparently universal need not only to narrate but to give to events an aspect of narrativity” (8).

Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby was a visually pleasing daydream into what it was like to live in the 1920s for a certain population of people. He moralized the ways which their wealth affected them, as well as the ways that they might have given up ethics and morals to get that money, while providing the lush landscape and historical references. He also moralized what people will do when they are in love and what fuels human behavior, essentially. By filling in these gaps with his imaginary characters, borrowed from Fitzgerald of course, he could paint a picture of the time period. It is certainly a narrative version of the time. White said, “The presence of these blank years in the annalist’s account permits us to perceive, by way of contrast, the extent to which narrative strains to produce the effect of having filled in all the gaps, to put an image of continuity, coherency, and meaning in place of the fantasies of emptiness, need, and frustrated desire that inhabit our nightmares about the destructive power of time” (15).

The short clips of the 1920s that are used in the mediated version would be closer representations of the chronicle where newspaper images are used to show that the stock market was booming and that Prohibition had sent people to secret parties and clubs to continue drinking. It is through the characters of Gatsby, Daisy, and Nick Carraway that the audience can start to fill in those morals for themselves. The closure of the historical narrative comes from personal knowledge of events mixed with the characterization and setting that the author provides. Off-screen action is referred to implicitly since it is set in a known time period, so the time mechanisms of the narrative are just as important. But as White summed up, “…this value attached to narrativity in the representation of real events arises out of a desire to have real events display the coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure of an image of life that is and can only be imaginary. The notion that sequences of real events possess the formal attributes of the stories we tell about imaginary events could only have its origin in wishes, daydreams, reveries” (27).

 

Conclusion

Narratives are everywhere. The more I read about the structure of the narrative, the more I realized how often they are used in our day-to-day lives. Friends tell their stories through narratives. Advertisements sell products by telling a story. Culturally, they have become expected across the world and have been shown to be a way to connect with others in a universal way. Drucker said, “Production, distribution, audience and reader expectations, as well as differences of cultural positioning, all help give graphic novels their identity” (41).  I think that the concept of expectations and cultural positioning definitely go beyond just graphic novels. Different mediums are viewed differently depending on the culture. And The Great Gatsby is an interesting version of that, especially with the critical reviews that came from the remediated version that Luhrmann created. Audience participation is different with certain mediums, and immersion can range, as well. But it is also what the audience expects, what they already know of a story, and what they already know of a history that can all become parts of the way that they digest the narrative.

I studied narratology this semester, which is the ensemble of theories of narratives, narrative texts, images, events, cultural artifacts that tell a “story”. I wanted to learn how to understand, analyze, and evaluate narratives. I think that these readings certainly forwarded this desire along. I thought that the mediation aspect actually made a bigger effect than I thought that it would. I had been curious about the importance of the audience while considering different media forms and the intentions of the creator. I’ve learned that it kind of does matter which medium is used in that sense. Certain media produce certain means of increasing audience participation. Graphic novelists can choose to draw their characters in more simplistic versions so the reader will extrapolate themselves onto the narrator. Digital media can force the audience to participate in the narrative itself. It will be really interesting to see how much further this can go. Because while virtual reality could insert the audience into the story itself, there are still the same structures of the beginning, middle, and end. There are the moral implications, the necessity to fill in the gaps between events. There is the need for characterization and for setting. And those components seem to repeat regardless of the media form, and regardless of the time period. Narratizing history has those same elements, as well, and it’s up to the author if they want to consider the social implications of a time period and if they want to determine story, pulled from a list of events. But it does seem that narrative histories are separate from histories themselves, or the history proper that White refers to. These narratives seem to exist to give the past some meaning and to reassure those in the present, which isn’t a bad reason to create art.

Overall, White sums it up nicely by saying, “So natural is the impulse to narrate, so inevitable is the form of narrative for any report of the way things really happened, that narrativity could appear problematical only in a culture in which it was absent – absent or, as in some domains of contemporary Western intellectual and artistic culture, programmatically refused” (5).

 

 

References and Works Cited

Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Third Edition. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980.

Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction (with Tutorial CD-ROM). 8th ed. New York, NY and London, UK: McGraw-Hill, 2006.

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.

Drucker, Johanna. “Graphic Devices: Narration and Navigation.” Narrative 16, no. 2 (2008): 121–139.

Drucker, Johanna. “What Is Graphic About Graphic Novels?” English Language Notes, Special Issue: Graphia: The Graphic Novel and Literary Criticism,  46, no. 2 (2008): 39–XI.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Reprint. William Morrow Paperbacks, 1994.

Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998.

White, Hayden. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore, MD: John’s Hopkins University Press, 1973.

White, Hayden. “On Narrative.” Critical Inquiry, 7, no. 1 (Autumn, 1980): 4-27. 

History and Meaning

Continuing on with some more ideas about White’s views, meaning becomes a really crucial factor in historical narratives.

An important notion that White brought up for me, that will apply to my paper about Gatsby, was that what fills out a mere list of events is the idea that there would be a social center and that events would be charged with moral or ethical significance. Without a social center, then events aren’t really ranked by importance and might stifle any desire to work something into a narrative. Without a social center, with moral or ethical implications, then in White’s perspective a fights are merely fights instead of epic battles or hero journeys. Taking it a step further, White talks about how Hegel thought that a “genuinely historical account ahd to display not only a certain form, htat is, hte narrative, but also a certain content, namely, a political-social order” (15).

Hegel wrote,
“…it is the State which first presents subject-matter that is not only adapted to the prose of History, but involves the production of such history in the very progress of its own being” (16).

This brings up the idea of authority, as well. White says, “this raises the suspicion that narrative in general, from the folktale to the novel, from the annals to the fully realized ‘history’, has to do with the topics of law, legality, legitimacy, or, more generally, authority” (17).

“The more historially self-conscious the writer of any form of historiography, the more the question of the social system and the law which sustains it, the authority of htis law and its justification, and threats to the law occupy his attention” (17).

“…every historical narrative has as its latent or manifest purpose the desire to moralize the events of which it treats” (18).

“And this suggests that narrativity, certainly in factual storytelling and probably in fictional storytelling as well, is intimately related to, if not a function of, the impulse to moralize reality, that is, to identify it with the soial system that is the source of any morality that we can imagine” (18).

“Common opinion has it that the plot of a narrative imposes a meaning on the events that comprise its story level by revealing at the end a structure that was immanent in the events all along…The reality of these events does not consist int eh fact that they occurred but that, first of all, they were remembered and, second, that they are capable of finding a place in a chronologically ordered sequence” (23).

“In order for an account of the events to be considered a historical account, however, it is not enough taht they be recorded in the order of their original occurence. It is the fact that they can be recorded otherwise, in an order of narrative, that makes thema t once questionable as to their authenticity and susceptibel to being considered tokens of reality” (23).

“The authority of the historical narrative is the authority of reality itself; the hisotircal account endows this reality with form and thereby makes it desirable, imposing upon its processes the formal coherency that only stories possess” (23).

“The historical narrative, as againts the chronicle, reveals to us a world that is putatively ‘finished,’ done with, over, and yet not dissolved, not falling apart. In this world, reality wears the mask of a meaning, the copmleteness and fullness of which we can only imagine, never experience. Insofar as hisorical stories can be copmleted, can be given narrative closure, can be shown to have had a plot all along, they give to reality the odor of the ideal” (23).

“I cannot think of any othe rway of ‘concluding’ an ccount of real events; for we cannot say, surely, that any sequence of real events actually comes to an end, that reality itself disappears, that events of hte order of the real have ceaseed to happen. Such events could only have seemed to have ceaseed to happen when meaning is shifted, and shifted by narrative means, from one physical or social space to another” (26).

“…this value attached to narrativity in the representation of real events arises out of a desire to have real events display the coherence, integrity, fullness,a nd closure of an image of life that is and can only be imaginary. The nothion that sequences of real dvents possess the formal attributes of hte stories we tell about imaginary events could only have its origin in wishes, daydreams, reveries” (27).

White’s concluding point is that life really presents itself more as annals and chronicles with mere sequences without beginning or end and aren’t tidy stories that tell us the meaning.

Narration and History

For my last post before my paper, I read a couple of pieces by Hayden White, who focused a lot on historical representation along with narration. They both covered similar ideas, but the one I found the most in was “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality”

“So natural is the impulse to narrate, so inevitable is the form of narrative for any report of the way things really happened, that narrativity could appear problematical only in a culture in which it was absent – absent or, as in some domains of contemporary Western intellectual and artistic culture, programmatically refused” (5).

“…narrative might well be considered a solution to a problem of general huan concern, namely, the problem of how to translate knowing into telling, the problem of fashioning human experience into a form assimilable to structures of meaning that are generally human rather than culture-specific” (5).

White continued that while people can’t necessarily understand how people from other cultures might think, they probably can understand a story that comes from another culture. He quoted Roland Barthes, who said, “narrative…is translatable without fundamental damage” in ways that philosophy or discourse doesn’t.

“Narrative is a metacode, a human universal on the basis of which transcultural messages about the nature of a shared reality can be transmitted” (6).

In talking about history, White broke down the different ways that historians can choose to tell historical accounts. And he really stressed the idea that they do choose how to tell them. They don’t necessarily have to choose narrative. Examples of non-narratives to White are meditation, anatomy or epitome. Some historians refused narratives because they felt that the events they wanted to tell weren’t suited to representation in the narrative form. The key distinction seems to be in telling a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

“While they certainly narrated their accounts of the reality that they perceived, or thought they perceived, to exist within or behind the evidence they had examined, they did not narrativize that reality, did not impose upon it hte form of a story” (6).

To White, there is a difference “between a discourse that openly adopts a perspective that looks out on the world and reports it and a discourse that feigns to make the world speak itself and speak itself as a story” (7).

For a historical narrative, the narrator stays objective by being invisible. In this sense, events are recorded chronologically, and no one seems to speak. The story basically tells itself. Interestingly, he talks about imaginary events, or fiction, and questions whether they can be represented as speaking for themselves, as well. It seems like he views the story as being more attuned to this sort of self-narration, and real events as needing a narrator.

“But real events should not speak, should not tell tehmselves. Real events should simply be: they can perfectly well serve as the referents of a discourse, can be spoken about, but they should not pose as the tellers of a narrative” (8).

White thinks that narratiization of history is difficult because it’s trying to give real events the form of a story. The difficulty behind this lies in the fact that history is fluid, and continues. There is no direct beginning, middle, or end to history. He questions what authors choose from historical records. And what gives them meaning? Attributing meaning is a big part of his argument.

“What wish is enacted, what desire is gratified, by the fantasy that real events are properly represented when they can be shown to display the formal coherency of a story?” (8).

“In the enigma of this wish, this desire, we catch a glimpse of the cultural function of narrativizing discourse in general, an intimation of the psychological impulse behind the apparently universal need not only to narrate but to give to events na aspect of narrativity” (8).

He views this as a desire to merge the imaginary with the real, and usually in order to make sense of the world or to give life meaning.

He gives three different forms of historical accounts: the annals, the chronicle, and the history proper. Annals lack any narrative component and is basically just a list of events in chronological order. A chronicle, in his view, wants to tell a story and usually starts to tell one, but falls short but ending abruptly, or failing to achieve narrative closure.

He shows old historical records that merely show births and deaths and social events. There are no descriptions or anything about them, just merely recorded facts. In White’s perspective, “Social events are apparently as incomprehensible as natural events. The seem to have the same order of importance or un-importance. They seem merely to have occurred, and their importance seems to be indistinguishable from the fact that they wer recorded. In fact, it seems that their importance consists of nothing other than the fact that they were recorded” (12).

This is an example of an annal. But to take that further, there must be a plot, according to White. He defines plot as a structure of relationships where events are given meaning and are part of a whole. The idea that events are part of a whole are a big factor to White’s argument. He continues,

“It is this need or impulse to rank events iwth respect to their significance for the culture or group that is writing its own history that makes a narrative representation of real events possible” (14).

One of the ways that White mentions cultures building up significance or making things are narrative-like as possible, is by filling in gaps between those big events.

“The presence of these blank years in the annalist’s account permits us to perceive, by way of contrast, the extent to which narrative strains to produce the effect of having filled in all the gaps, to put an image of continuity, coherency, and meaning in place of hte fantasies of emptiness, need, and frustrated desire that inhabit our nightmares about the destructive power of time” (15).

 

Remediation.

Bolter and Grusin discuss the ideas of remediation, mediation, and immediacy. The main idea behind their writing is that people want to experience media without a sense of the medium – that they just want to experience the story.

“Filmmakers routinely spend tens of millions of dollars to film on location or to recreate period costumesa nd places in order to make their viewers feel as if htey were ‘really’ there” (5).

They refer to web sites which meld many different kinds of media forms, such as animation, video or graphics which might also be referencing a certain time period or art style. Films also often mix media and styles, according to Bolter and Grusin. A big part of their argument with remediation within film lies with increasing technology which allows for digital possibilities that didn’t exist in the past. Now films can combine live-action footage with computer editing and graphics.

“The desire for immediacy leads digital media to borrow avidly from each other as well as from their analog predecessors such as film, television, and photography” (9).

Immediacy is a big part of their argument. Immediacy is really similar to the immersion Murray talked about, as well. This puts the audience as part of the story where the medium fades as far into the background as possible. “…to achieve immediacy by ignoring or denying the presence of the medium and the act of mediation” (11).

“Digital visual media can best be understood through the ways in which they honor, rival, and revise linear-perspective painting, photography, film, television, and print. No medium today, and certainly no single media event, seems to do its cultural work in isolation from other media, any more than it works in isolation from other social and economic forces” (15).

“This ‘naive’ view of immediacy is the expression of a historical desire, and it is one necessary half of the double logic of remediation” (31).

“Sometimes hypermediacy has adopted a playful or subversive attitude, both acknowledging and undercutting the desire for immediacy” (34). I think this is an interesting idea, and one that’s percolating for my final project on The Great Gatsby. It also seems apparent in some of the remix culture that has become so much a part of the cultural encyclopedia. In a lot of cases, works are overtly referencing what came before, sometimes with a kind of wink and a nudge that alludes to the mediation itself.

Bolter and Grusin elaborate, “In the logic of hypermediacy, the artist (or multimedia programmer or web designer) strives to make the viewer acknowledge the medium as a medium and to delight in that acknowledgement. She does so by multiplying spaces and media and by repeatedly redefining the visual and conceptual relationships among mediated spaces – relationships that may range from simple juxtaposition to complete absorption” (41-42).

They also touch on the idea of historical works, where in the 1990s filmmakers produced film versions of classic novels set in the past. In a lot of these examples they tried to be historically accurate with costumes and the setting and stayed close to the original story. However, these movies typically don’t overtly reference the novel from which they were adapted. If they were mentioned, then the immediacy would be disrupted because in this view the audience would want to just experience the story in the same seamless way as reading the novel would provide.

“The digital medium can be more aggressive in its remediation. It can try to refashion the older medium or media entirely, while still marking the presence of the older media and therefore maintaining a sense of multiplicity or hypermediacy” (46).

“This tearing out of context makes us aware of the artificiality of both the digital version and the original clip. The work becomes a mosaic in which we are simultaneously aware of the individual pieces and their new, inappropriate setting” (47). This especially reminds me of movies set in historical times which utilize modern music or modern dress. It’s a blatant mash-up and acknowledging the original source while adapting in a new way.

Overall this reading focused much more on the medium and mediation than on narration, but I’m starting to see how this can be applied to the broader picture. I’m excited to utilize these ideas to deconstruct some adaptations of The Great Gatsby for my final paper.

Narration on the Holodeck

Janet H. Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck considers narration and storytelling devices in the digital realm. At times she makes convincing arguments that digital formats allows for more thorough storytelling with the addition of multimedia forms – or even with the namesake holodeck and virtual reality.

“Eventually all successful storytelling technologies become ‘transparent’: we lose consciousness of the medium and see neither print nor film but only the power of the story itself. If digital art reaches the same level of expressiveness as these older media, we will no longer concern ourselves with how we are receiving the information. We will only think about what truth it has told us about our lives” (26).

“Decades before the invention of the motion picture camera, the prose fiction of the nineteenth century began to experiement with filmic techniques. We can catch glimpses of hte coming cinema in Emily Bronte’s complex use of flashback, in Dickens’ crosscuts between intersecting stories, and in Tolstoy’s battlefield panoramast hat dissolve into close-up vignettes of a single soldier. Though still bound to the printed page, storytellers were already striving toward juxtapositions that were easier to manage with images than with words (29).

In these still early days of the “narrative computer”, as Murray puts it, she sees examples of twentieth-century novels, films, and plays that have been pushing the boundaries of linear storytelling. She views the future as multiform stories, “linear narratives straining against the boundary of predigital media like a two-dimensional picture trying ot burst out of its frame” (29). In this case, she’s using multiform to describe a narrative that presents a single plotline or situation in multiple versions – her example is It’s a Wonderful Life, but any movie with divergent timelines would work. One example that pops to my head is the Community episode that plays exactly into this construct when they explore several different timelines including the dreaded darkest timeline.

Another important part of this book to the study of narrative, is the idea of immersion. This means the audience feeling like a participatory part of the story, or feeling like you’re being transported into the story. There are fictional versions of exactly like, like her titular holodeck from Star Trek, but also in The Matrix.  “When we enter a fictional world, we do not merely ‘suspend’ a critical faculty; we also exercise a creative faculty. We do not suspend disbelief so much as we actively create belief. Because of our desire to experience immersion, we focus our attention on the enveloping world and we use our intelligence to reinforce rather than to question the reality of hte experience” (110).

“We bring our own cognitive, cultural, and psychological templates to every story as we assess the characters and anticipate the way the story is likely to go” (110).

“Such immersive stories invite our participation by offering us many things to keep track of and by rewarding our attention with a consistency of imagination” (111).

Murray gives an example of a language program in Paris which included a working telephone that students could access by stepping into an apartment through a photographed space. The story was mostly told through pre-recorded video segments, but the inclusion of the telephone where they could call pre-approved numbers became a favorite part of the experience because it was a functional virtual object that offered accomplishment for a specific goal.

“As the digital art medium matures, writers will become more and more adept at inventing such belief-creating virtual objects and at situating them within specific dramatic moments that heighten our sense of immersed participation by giving us something very satisfying to do” (112).

Murray also brings up agency within digital environments; people like to feel like something will happen if they double-click on a folder on their desktop. But usually agency isn’t a big part of narrative in ways that people are used to experiencing it. One form of agency common to digital environments is spatial navigation. This is definitely true of video games, where plays can choose their movements through digital landscapes.

Narrative within Digital Media

This week I continued with Johanna Drucker’s work, this time with “Graphic Devices: Narration and Navigation.” This piece moved the idea of narration beyond mediums like books and graphic novels to include the web and how narration is presented in digital media. This is an interesting next step to what I’ve been thinking about as it encompasses a wide swatch of “new” media, such as videogames and simulations, but also just regular old websites. The big component of this piece was the idea of graphic devices being used as navigation tools for the reader. Such navigation devices in, say, book form would be page numbers, chapter titles, indentations for paragraphs, or even the white space for margins or between paragraphs. This has become so learned throughout history that it might be less noticeable in book format, but Drucker showed a few examples where if you remove the directional lines from a flow chart or table that could be included within a book, the meaning is lost. So her argument is that these directional graphical devices, and in this case we’re also including actual arrows or symbols to show where to read next, become an actual part of the narrative itself.

An interesting example of this comes when she describes the experience of going through a standard website. Drucker asserts that the graphic devices on a website help to propel the narrative, or action, the reader takes through the site. Examples of this are drop down menus, menu boxes, category listings, etc. She argues that this experience is actually similar to game such as Second Life because every user’s experience is different; each narrative is different. But the graphic devices, the navigational devices, are integral to all iterations of the narration. “Graphic devices don’t just ‘serve up’ such narratives in some decorous manner. They are frequently integral and substantiative aspects of meaning” (125).

One way that graphic devices can be used as part of the narrative, even in a text-based story, is by serving as connectors and transitions. When the next chapter heading appears, the reader knows that a new section is beginning. With graphic novels, the gutter size or way that the chunking is laid out could contribute to the narrative. With the example I mentioned earlier, a flow chart without the arrows loses its meaning; so with the graphic devices back in place, the reader understands what happens next or where to direct his or her attention, which makes the narrative make sense.

Getting back to the computer graphical interface, however, Drucker states that many people view web pages to be devoid of semantic content. She proposes that “appearance belies a highly coded structure whose hierarchies and organizations are often semantic, and furthermore, that graphic organization expresses a model of what can and can’t be said, done, and experienced thorugh a given interface” (134). She continues by explaining that the standard GUI allows a user to produce a narrative through different spaces and frames, with a continuous sequence of events that seems seamless. However, by working on usability, I’ve learned through my career that these decisions are very much made on purpose and with the user in mind. So though the particular path is different for each person, the sites are set up with certain pathways being intentional – meaning, the graphic devices are a part of the narrative.

Drucker also briefly discusses the ideological, cultural, and historical matters implicit with narration and graphic devices, and how different products are composed for a specific audience and time period. In regards to the web, she says “The daily business of reading in the narrative-producing navigation of the Web depends on this same effortless movement and absence of consequence in structuring our search and brose, linking and clicking activities as the absorption into story produced by first person identification” (138). She explained that film theorists pointed out that the primary identification with viewing a film was the situation of the viewing with the content coming in second. I liked her closing a lot because it implied that messaging rarely comes off or is interpreted in the means it was intended. She says, “You think you are writing a story, producing a narrative as a reading  but as the hard-learned lessons of critical theory taught us, we are the ones produced as an effect of texts. Graphic devices connect the space of navigation and narration, these directings and orderings shape what we can imagine the space of narrative to be” (138).

Graphic novels and timing

I’m starting to read through a few different pieces by Johanna Drucker, and in What is Graphic about Graphic Novels? she explores graphic novels and how their structure differs from literature or cinema, which are the two mediums she thinks they most resemble. Drucker says graphic novels “synthesize the language of cinema, the sensibilities of contemporary literature, and the appeal of mass media” (39). Drucker echoes some of McCloud’s theories on the role of the audience to impart messaging with graphic novels. She says that “We know that a lot of slippage occurs between the telling and the told. Not only is there not a one-to-one relation of signifier to signified in any sight system…but much of what occurs within the materiality of graphic works cannot be simply perceived as a mechanical device for unfolding a story” (40). Continued, “One of the striking features of graphic novels is their investment in the materially replete visual presentation on the page.” I think that this draws back to McCloud’s notions that by making drawings more simplistic, it allows the reader to project more of themselves onto the characters. This has me thinking even more about McLuhan’s ideas of hot versus cold media. The different levels of necessary audience participation is something I’ve never considered, and it’s starting to become more clear which mediums might persuade the audience to participate more. So far, it’s seeming that literature, comics, and graphic novels are known to produce participation and have audience perceptions as a large part of the experience. I’m still working through where TV falls on this spectrum because it seems that film is less participatory.

Drucker argues that the “graphic-ness” results in the idea of the fabula, or “life-world imagined as the scene of the tale”. Fabula is something I’ve seen in earlier readings on narratives, but this is a more workable definition for me.

As a side note, there was a section about expectations that I thought was interesting. Drucker said, “Production, distribution, audience and reader expectations, as well as differences of cultural positioning, all help give graphic novels their identity” (41).  Are reader expectations different depending on the medium of narrative itself? Are hero stories, for example, perceived differently depending on the medium? Also the idea of cultural positioning is interesting, as well. How does cultural positioning affect the expectations of narrative structure? Or does it at all? This has me thinking about Game of Thrones again because this week a huge event happened on the TV show that readers have been expecting for years. But it’s interesting to consider if the kind of violent, game changing event would be subverting expectations differently from the book to TV. My first inclination is that the subversion was more to the hero narrative itself as opposed to the medium, but I wonder if it was more shocking within the book or from the TV show if at all. That’s tough to calculate, though.

Drucker explains that the typeface of dialogue in graphic novels is different from literature since it’s usually in the author’s handwriting, which makes it more like the author’s voice than a standard typeface would. As Drucker explains, it is more spoken from the artist as opposed to a subject of mediation or standardization like tyeface would be. This is something that’s obviously unique to graphic novels or comics, but other readings thus far have talked about how dialogue changes the narrator in some cases. Dialogue jumps out differently from exposition in literature. I wonder if this is perceived differently when reading because, again, it requires audience participation to almost feel like the character speaking. Whereas in film, most action is through dialogue and has a character’s face associated with the words, which would offer much less audience projection.

She brings up the idea of narrative chunking, as well, which seems like it’s mostly just the division of units similar to comics. She says that graphic novels share aspects of lots of other kinds of storytelling mediums: story and plot like narrative media, composition and production techniques of visual media, and duration and development like other “time-based” or spatial media. However, then she compares two different graphic novels that seem to be completely different in narrative structure, with one sort of meandering and building a sense of place and time more than being driven by plot. The other is more moving from scene to scene to achieve plot points. For the graphic novel Maus, she compares its narrative conventions with cinematic editing since the story has changes of venue and character in a way that “time-based” media utilizes. (Interestingly, she also says that theater can’t pull off scale, time, and space as well as cinema, which is just a whole other can of worms I haven’t thought about yet. Where does theater fit in?)

Drucker’s basic levels of narrative organization in a graphic novel: page (discourse enunciation), story (comments and reflection), embedded narrative (shown and depicted in the panels). (47).

McCloud and Drucker both brought up that the illustrations in comics and graphic novels are not (always) merely illustration of the action already described by the words, but they are the story itself in some cases. She describes McCloud’s idea that there is the difference between what a reader is seeing (depiction) versus what mental image or concept the mind produces from the story (representation). I think this is the clearest way I’ve seen this idea described, which a lot of this narrative theory has been dancing around. However, Drucker thinks that this blurs what she calls the fabula (life world created by the story) and the suzjet (story as it unfolds) (53). Her example is Ware’s work, one of the graphic novels she uses as an example, who wants the reader to dwell as opposed to constantly finding narrative closure. In this respect, it seems like graphic novels shouldn’t be all described as the same storytelling genre, though, and this is where I start to disagree with Drucker. It seems difficult to lump all of these mediums together by themselves to compare against other mediums. Aren’t there specific narrative structures that differ from others? There is a huge library of graphic novels and they can’t all be telling stories in the same way. This doesn’t seem like a medium question so much as the kind of story the particular authors she chose wanted to tell.

Geeking out a bit.

I just finished Scott McCloud’s excellent Understanding Comics and am feeling the urge to take up comic book reading even more so than our last in-person class discussion. There’s so much about comics in general that he covers, but also about storytelling that I feel like it’s going to come out in bits and pieces as I continue through the summer.

However, my initial impression did actually have to do with his explanations of how time and space are depicted in comics. To start, McCloud shows how with comics, any frame the eye lands on is the ‘present’ frame, with the ‘past’ and ‘future’ being obvious because they are laid out in sequential order. The eye can see the past and future clearly while looking at the present. Unlike in a film or television show, the past isn’t reliant on audience memory; it’s right there on the page (104). The frames of comic books can show time either from frame to frame or within a frame. He showed some examples of different ways that a lengthy pause could be explained, either from repeated the same frame multiple times or by increasing the amount of space between the two frames. Another way was to make that frame itself spatially bigger and longer than the others to denote the passage of time. The use of dialogue can also be used to denote time as the words insert sound, in a way, into the story and the lines tend to go in order. The amount of time you would imagine it would take to say those words would denote the time passage of that frame.

However, a big part of understanding the timing within the story depends on the reader, and “closure”, which is what happens when the reader extrapolates what happens in the gutter, or the space between the frames. While this happens in film, and Bordwell talked a bit about this when considering events that are referred to or implied that happened offscreen, it’s a more continuous process in comics. He describes six different kinds of transition: moment-to-moment, action-to-action, subject-to-subject, scene-to-scene, aspect-to-aspect, and non-sequitur (72). The final two are more abstract, the first is so slow that it doesn’t happen often. The most common are those with action, subject, and scene, with the notable exception being the prevalance of aspect transitions in Japanese comics. Japanese comics have a few differences, however, which was fascinating as it relates to how they tell stories in their own way across mediums, as well, in a more deliberate, place-building way.

McCloud talks a lot about how important the audience is to comic reading, which is something that I’ve thought about when it comes to different storytelling forms. He mentions McLuhan, and it follows with the McLuhan that I read last semester on hot and cold media. McCloud says that Mcluhan’s only examples of cold media were comics and television; cold media meaning media that required audience participation. I’m still working out what this exactly means within television, a medium that I love to study, but with comics it makes a lot of sense. McCloud makes it easy to see how much of comic reading includes the reader filling things in or assuming things to be a certain way. One example he gave was of one frame with someone raising a knife, I think, or in some way threatening someone, and the next frame was basically just wording of a scream of some sort. The reader is supposed to know that the person was killed, but how they were killed was left up to them. I often think about storytelling and how much of stories are understood in the way that a creator intended it to be, and McCloud addresses that head on by saying that most people you ask would say, maybe 20%. Some of this he deems from being good at the craft, which is something all artists continue to work on. But I’m sure a big part comes from the places where readers have to fill things in for themselves. Everyone thinks about things in different ways and puts stories together in their own personal way that makes sense for them.

Another favorite part for me was when he related comics to written work. He said that “closure in comics fosters an intimacy surpassed only by the written word, a silent, secret contract between creator and audience. How the creator honors that contract is a matter of both art and craft” (69). Though comics are visual, he spends a lot of time explaining how cartoon images are useful for stories more about ideas or to get readers to think more about themselves as characters. McCloud says that the more detailed a character’s drawing is the less it becomes personally identifiable as a reader. So though comics are visual, some still use simple drawings to showcase ideas or feelings, which I could see leading to more audience imagination, much like reading, and unlike more continuous visual mediums like film or television.

And then, of course, was the concluding sections about the six steps any artist in any medium would follow to create, which was more just personally interesting.

Story versus Plot

 

Furthering this week’s thoughts on film and narrative, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson dive deeper into film making as a whole in Film Art. They consider narrative to be a chain of events with cause and effect relationships within a certain time and place. This idea that time and place is crucial is something that puts narrative into a little bit more context. By inputting a setting, a story starts to unfold as opposed to miscellaneous actions or thoughts. They differentiate story and plot, much in the way others differentiate by story and discourse. Some of the other pieces I’ve read thus far have made the distinction on discourse, but I find this model a little easier to grasp, and is more palatable to the average consumer of storytelling. By their definition, a story contains the set of all events in a narrative, whether they are explicitly presented or inferred. The plot is everything that is visibly and audibly present in the film, during the actual time period one would watch the film.

Diegetic versus nondigetic

Diegesis: “recounted story” – this is the whole story, as Bordwell and Thompson define story. This includes things that the audience infers to have happened, people they assume to be offscreen, etc.

Nondigetic elements are things like the credits, which the audience sees but come from outside the story. These are elements that are put in with editing, like music.

A helpful way they use of showing how plot and story overlaps is this way:

Story: Presumed and inferred events

Explicity presented events            (overlap)      Plot:

Added non diegetic material

(p. 77)

 Cause and Effect

Cause and effect are also important components to a narrative, and these are usually carried out by characters, who possess certain traits. However, in some films, especially something like a disaster film or science fiction film, then some outside element comes and wreaks havoc with the characters, which then provides the event for the characters to react to and show how they will respond or deal with each other under the circumstances.

An interesting way to think about this view of narration was their example about murder mysteries. In a film like this, or a thriller, there tends to be a huge part of the story that occurs offscreen: the murder itself. The rest of the story is the characters trying to solve the crime that happened when the viewer wasn’t watching. This shows the difference between the plot versus the story nicely because when describing the plot itself, one would just recount what they saw onscreen. To describe the story, however, it would be necessary to include what happened offscreen. I also liked that they mentioned the idea that viewers are so used to storytelling since it is constantly around people at all times in advertising, television, novels, even in personal interactions – how many conversations revolve around telling a story to someone? – that they expect certain things from a narrative. Typically, the average person would expect that there are going to be characters who have to deal with some sort of situation or conflict and the ending will be either something that they expected, which would be satisfying, or a twist, which is satisfying in a different way.

 


Comments

This is a good start to cinema narrative description. (BTW, “diagesis” comes from the Greek term for narrative, literally “leading/drawing through” as through time. It’s a useful technical term for describing the movement of plot or narrative, as opposed to scene details, character development, and all other techniques in film that aren’t strictly “narrative.” “Narrative” comes from the Latin word “narratio” meaning a telling, a discourse.)  Chatman, Bordwell, and Metz also lead to considering time-based media in all forms (media requiring duration in time to experience and genres that represent states of time–past-present-future–in compressed or “real time” forms. Think about how this can be extrapolated to music, comics and graphic novel panels (like movie storyboards), multimedia on a computer (video and games), etc. –MI

 

Narration and Film

Narration in the Fiction Film by David Bordwell

Narrative as a process, “the activity of selecting, arranging, and rendering story material in order to achieve specific time-bound effects on a perceiver” (xi). This process is what Bordwell considers to be narration.

Digetic theories: think of narration as consisting of a verbal activity, or “telling”, whether that’s is literally or not.

Mimetic: think of narration as presenting the spectacle of the “showing”.

Henry James, and later Percy Lubbock (novel as spectacle), thought that the novel was a sort of pictorial art. He felt that the inclusion of point of view within a novel was a post-Renaissance perspectival metaphor (8). He felt that people craved the picture, and that a novel provided the most elastic, comprehensive version of that. Lubbock took that a little bit further, by including the idea of drama along with pictorial representation. The perspective painting with point of view was pictorial, but the unfolding of events was like a stage play or drama; Luddock saw both of these facets in novels.

Bordwell explains that over more years, the idea of the pictorial element of novels got extended to cinema. In the mimetic tradition, it has become common to compare literary narration to cinematic narration.

 

 

Narratives and Semiotics

Today I have more definitions, this time by Seymour Chatman’s Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Chatman breaks down structuralist theory for narrative as such: a narrative has two parts – a story and discourse. The story is the chain of events, as well as the happenings plus “existents” which are the characters, the setting, etc. The discourse is the means by which the content is communicated (Chatman). He breaks it down even further by describing it as the “what” versus the “how”.

Chatman questions if narrative can be semiotic, meaning if it can communicate something on its own apart from the story. Can narrative itself be semiotic? In order to do so, he argues that narrative must contain a “form and substance of expression” and “a form and substance of content”. In this vein, Chatman says that the narrative discourse is the form of expression with the story being the content and the discourse the form of expression.

Signifieds: event, character, detail of setting

significants: elements in a narrative statement that can stand in for any of those signifieds. Any kind of physical or mental action, any person, any evocation of place (respectively to the signifieds above.)

Chatman contends that narrative structure imparts meanings on its own accord, by providing these three categories above. By providing eventhood or characterhood or settinghood, a meaningless text becomes understood. He describes a cartoon with animated lines and dots, which have no meaning on their own; they are just geometric symbols. But by animating them, character starts to emerge, and by putting in a setting or series of events, the meaning can be understood without overt vocal narration. The structure alone is providing enough narration.

(A really handy diagram Chatman lays out that I think will be helpful for this research going forward this summer. Pg. 26)

The post structuralist approach casts a wider net. It would require studying not just the narrative structure itself or the story, but also the systems of knowledge that produced that work. I’d like to explore this a little bit more, so I’m looking into a few more sources on post-structuralism.

Narratology

This week I’m just starting to dive into a discipline I don’t know much about in the academic sense: narratology. While I’m a voracious consumer of books, television shows, films and plays, I haven’t studied the idea of narrative itself. I’m interested in the way that narratives can play out through different mediums or different versions or adapations, or how the same basic narrative can be used over and over again in different iterations or by using the same formula. Since I’m still getting my feet wet, I figured I could lay out some of the definitions I read from Mieke Bal’s seminal work, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. These are Bal’s definitions.

Narratology: the ensemble of theories of narratives, narrative texts, images, events, cultural artifacts that tell a “story” – helps to understand, analyze, and evaluate narratives.

Text: finite, structured whole composed of signs. Signs can be linguistic like words or sentences, but also cinematic shots and sequences or painted dots and lines.

I thought that this was an interesting distinction that Bal makes, “The finite ensemble of signs doesn’t mean that the text itself is finite, for its meanings, effects, functions, and background are not.” This just means that the text has a beginning and end; a first and last word or first and last frame.

Narrative text: a text in which an agent conveys to an addressee a story in a particular medium (words, imagery, sounds, etc.)

Story: the content of that narrative text and produces a particular manifestation or inflection or “coloring” of a fabula,

Fabula: series of logically and chronologically related events that are caused or experienced by actors (agents that perform actions – not necessarily human) Events, actors and time are all elements of the fabula. Actors are given distinctive traits, which forms their character. A choice is made of whose point of view the events are presented, which is described as focalization.

From here, the fabula needs to be conveyed through through a medium with signs for it to be a narrative test. The agent that relates the signs is considered the narrator.

Bal says that there are three layers of a narrative text: text, story, fabula. Text is what a reader would see first because the fabula needs to be processed in order to be understood. I’m still trying to work through this a little more to get the terminology right; there are a lot of elements that Bal is breaking down throughout her work. The quick searching I’ve done on Bal has her, and this work specifically, labeled as structuralist. Structuralism seems to be a theory that stresses the whole over the sum of the parts, or the idea that everything is interconnected. It also posits that there must be structure in text, when it comes to literary theory at least, which makes it easier for experienced readers to understand. However, opponents to structuralism claim that it can be too reductive and that structuralists understand stories in too formulaic way. This would means that adaptations that are almost completely different stories would be unoriginal. I’m interested to dive a little deeper in structuralism as well as its counterpoint.