The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


H. Porter Abbott

For the question “What is a narrative?” the commonest response is “a story,” and for narrative in general, “the telling of stories.” But the subject is more complicated than this. Story is indeed essential to narrative and is generally understood as having the core properties of an event or events, proceeding chronologically in time, and being conveyed through some medium. But almost immediately differences of opinion arise regarding the first of these core properties. For some scholars only one event, however meager (“The gourd bounced off the wall”), is needed to qualify as a story. It extends the concept of story to almost any instance of discourse involving a verb of action, but at the cost of including many that would not earn the status of a “story” as the word is commonly used. Its advantage is that it identifies a specific cognitive gift—the ability to represent events in time—without which there would be no stories at all, much less narratives.

All other definitions of story are more exclusive, though they all involve this universal building block. In some definitions, for the event to qualify as a story it must result in a change of state (“The gourd fell apart when it bounced off the wall”). For others a succession of at least two events is required (“The gourd fell apart when it bounced off the wall. Night fell as the sun slipped below the horizon”). Still others require that the events be causally connected (“The gourd fell apart when it bounced off the wall, revealing a perfect diamond that began to glow and slowly rise from the scattered fragments”). Many also require human characters and at least some human agency (“An aged shaman threw the gourd against the wall, causing it to fall apart. The assembled throng gasped as a perfect diamond slowly rose, glowing, from the scattered fragments”). And finally, there are those for whom a story is fully legitimate only when its events follow an arc from equilibrium to disruption and back to equilibrium (“The first star of heaven was born when the last Shaman of the Dark Nights threw a gourd against a wall, causing it to fall apart. The assembled throng gasped as a perfect diamond slowly rose, glowing, from the scattered fragments. Steadily it rose, gathering speed, until at last it came to its rightful place in the sky as the Evening Star”).

Wherever one draws one's defining line, it is clear that for each succeeding example above there is an increase in “narrativity,” i.e., an increase in the sense that one is apprehending a story. The advantage of narrativity's “scalar” rather than absolute quality is that, on the one hand, it reflects a reality of the experience of narrative and, on the other, it helps avoid tying the term “narrative” down in ways that are more arbitrary than useful. Narrativity includes, but should not be confused with another scalar feature of narrative, William Labov's concept of “tellability,” which registers the extent to which a narrative has point, i.e., the extent to which it forestalls the “so what?” response. Narrativity also plays a key role in how we designate longer texts like epics and novels in which narrative elements are intermixed with stretches of description, discussion, poetic rhapsodizing, and other non-narrative modes that interrupt the sequence of events. They earn their status as narrative because there is a sufficient arc of connected action, a sufficient degree of narrativity, to earn that status. This is often a judgment call. Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), for example, includes a great deal of non-narrative material, yet has a sufficient narrative arc to persuade most readers that it is a novel. SImageren Kierkegaard's Frygt og Bæven (1843, Fear and Trembling), by contrast, is less a novel than an apologue, in which philosophical exposition predominates. While a text like Walter Pater's Marius the Epicurean (1885) seems to straddle the line between narrative and philosophical exposition.

Consecution and Conveyance

So far, we have been focusing on the core element of the event or events, as a key component of any story and the variable element of narrativity in the way events are rendered. But, looking at the second core element of story, the consecution of its events, another complication arises. For where story events always proceed in chronological sequence, they can be narrated out of chronological sequence. In our minds, we restore the proper sequence, even if it is given to us in reverse (“The Evening Star is a perfect diamond. It soared to its rightful place in the heavens from the remnants of a gourd that fell apart when the last Shaman of the Dark Night threw it against a wall”). This is an aspect of narrative that has been compounded by the digital resources of hypertext narrative, where readers themselves may choose different combinations of narrative bits (lexia) to get from one end of the narrative to the other.

This is also a key reason why narrative cannot be the same thing as story. In consequence, most narrative theorists divide narrative into at least two components: the chronological sequence of the events and the sequence in which they are conveyed. Russian formalist critics of the 1920s called the first of these the fabula (story) and the second the sjuzhet (sometimes translated as “plot”) (see FORMALISM, STORY). For some theorists it is the complex interplay of these two sequences, the story and the way it is plotted, that is at the heart of the narrative experience. Generally in English, the broader and more inclusive term “discourse” is used instead of “plot” or sjuzhet, in which case, to adapt the words of Seymour Chatman, narrative can be defined as the “story-as-discoursed” (43).

This brings us to the third core element of story: that it is always conveyed in some way. We never encounter an unmediated story, never experience it in the way we experience events in life, but always as inflected by the medium through which it is conveyed and by an array of other elements of the discourse, like the order in which events are recounted, the amount of time given to a particular event, the number of times an event is recounted, the eyes through which we see the story, the voice by which we hear it, the sensibility of the narrator, the style deployed. Whether theorists lump all of these mediating factors under the single umbrella term of “narrative discourse” or keep them in separate bundles of concern as medium, plot, narration, or style, they lend their combined effects in broad or subtle strokes as they convey the story.

There are several consequences of the separation of story and discourse. One is that, increasingly, scholars have released the concept of narrative from the necessity of a narrator. The distinction between stories that are told and stories that are enacted is a venerable one that goes back to Plato's distinction in The Republic (ca. 380 BCE) between diegesis and mimesis. Some narratologists would still insist that the distinction is significant enough to justify requiring that a narrative have a narrator. But others argue that media like staging and filming, with the elements of directing, acting, camerawork, editing, etc., do essentially what narrators do: convey a story. The separation of story from discourse also means that stories are “transposable” (Chatman, 20). Stories are told and retold, enacted and reenacted, painted and repainted. The same story can be rendered in prose, in film, and on stage. The life of Christ and numerous other stories of the Bible and MYTHOLOGY have been rendered in all three and in painting as well. There are a host of other media to which stories can be transposed, including ballet, comics, mime, and electronic media.

Another consequence of this separation of story and discourse is that a story seems always to precede the discourse. The logic here is that there must already be a story for it to be conveyed. For this reason most stories are told in the past tense. They are all in their way history, either fictional or nonfictional. The absolute necessity of this has been challenged by Dorrit Cohn (107) in the example of “simultaneous narration” in fiction when it is rendered in the first person (“I throw the gourd against the wall and watch it burst into fragments”). In this mode of narration, Cohn argues, there is no temporal gap between the words and the experience they give voice to. Jonathan Culler has made the larger claim that any story can be said to come after the discourse, since there is no story until the discourse generates it. Moreover, expectations that are aroused by the discourse can play an irresistible role in determining the story's course of events (169—87).

The Recognition of Narrative

Human beings have probably been telling stories for at least 120,000 years. For most of this time, what people thought about the art of storytelling, like most of the stories themselves, is lost to us. But from the earliest recorded commentary up to the 1960s, the analytical reflection on narrative has been largely genre-specific, as it was in Aristotle's Poetics (ca. 335 BCE), which focused not on narrative per se but on the essential properties of tragedy and COMEDY. Narrative as a phenomenon transcending genre fully emerged as a subject of disciplined study in the 1960s with a constellation of brilliant work by Roland Barthes, Algirdas Julien Greimas, Claude Bremond, Tzvetan Todorov, and others. Christened in 1969 by Todorov as “narratology,” the field was arguably a last efflorescence of the European structuralist tradition. As such, it took as its model Saussurean linguistics, which had already been applied to narrative in the 1920s by the Russian formalists Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Tomashevsky, and Vladimir Propp, whose Morphology of the Russian Folktale (1928) was to be a major influence (see FORMALISM; STRUCTURALISM).

The Anglo-American prehistory of narrative theory was also formalist but was confined largely to the novel. It was also less scientistic and more oriented toward the craft of fiction, beginning with Henry James's essay “The Art of Fiction” (1884) and running through work by Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Percy Lubbock, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, William K. Wimsatt, and Kenneth Burke. This work was not displaced by the structuralist onslaught in the 1960s but rather absorbed into the discourse on narrative, along with an array of its own concerns such as repetition, central reflectors, narrative voice, point of view, perspective, showing versus telling, and characterization. Perhaps the most powerful American influence on the future development of narrative theory, however, was Wayne Booth's Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), which itself was a critique of the formalist tradition out of which it came. For Booth, authors had an obligation to their readers to achieve a certain moral clarity, and the formal concepts he introduced (the implied author, reliable and unreliable narrators) were keyed to this concern for the transaction between the novel and its reader. Booth's rhetorical and ethical concerns have been richly developed by narratologists in the intervening years. More broadly, the work on narrative that has evolved from the 1970s to the present has built a host of other contextual considerations (historical, cultural, social, psychological, ideological) onto its formalist base, while extending its domain into the cognitive inner space of audiences and authors, and outward to narrative modes far from the realms of art.

Though there are those who argue that at some point narratology's structuralist base must give way entirely if we are to progress in our understanding of narrative (Gibson), the implicit near-consensus for now appears to be that with continual adaptation the base will prove strong enough to support a poststructuralist or “post-classical” narratology (Herman, 1997). At the same time, disciplines across the academic spectrum, as well as professional fields like law and medicine, have experienced a “narrative turn,” as more and more researchers explore the many and pervasive roles that narrative plays in almost all aspects of life.

Narrative Limits

As the study of narrative has expanded our understanding of both its internal complexity and the extent to which it can be found in areas far removed from traditional storytelling, much attention has been given to the question of limits. How much actually happens in the narrative transaction, and where does narrative give way to other modes of expression?

Narrative Space

Narrative both tells of events as they transpire in time and is apprehended through time. Narrative desire, intensified through the management of suspense and retardation, is always looking forward to what will happen next. Accordingly, definitions of narrative have emphasized the element of time, TIME much of the classical work on narrative has implicitly and sometimes explicitly assumed that the anti-type of the narrative arts are the spatial arts (painting, sculpture). But, on the one hand, though this may be true of portraits and still-lifes, it neglects the narrative element in much of the representational art in spatial modes. A painting of St. George and the dragon, a sculpture of St. Sebastian, an eighteenth-century genre painting of a girl with a broken pitcher, are each moments in a story in progress. This was an insight that the German aesthetician and dramatist Gotthold Lessing formulated more than 200 years ago in his treatise on the Laocoön (1766), but it was largely neglected during the structuralist development of narrative theory.

On the other hand, narrative itself is not so much a purely temporal phenomenon as it is what Mikhail Bakhtin called “chronotopic” or temporal-spatial. Like the Russian formalists, Bakhtin first developed his theory of the chronotope in the 1920s, and like their theories it, too, lay comparatively dormant until the 1960s. But it is now common to speak of the “storyworld” that a narrative creates, and that grows larger and more complex as a narrative advances in time. In the example above, each advance in narrativity is accompanied by a corresponding increase in our sense of a world with its own inhabitants and geography (indeed, universe), as well as the inner space of thought and feeling that goes on in its inhabitants. Just as we are conscious of ourselves inhabiting an actual world and imagining all kinds of “possible worlds,” so a narrative fiction has its own actual world in which fictional people imagine a proliferation of possible worlds (Doležel; Ryan). The common feeling of being “immersed” in fiction or “transported” by it is a feeling of being in a whole other world.

Narrative and Abstract Expression

The psychologist Jerome Bruner has made the case for two modes of thinking that “are irreducible to one another” (11): narrative and argument. The former deals with human beings in particular situations, the latter with abstractions. Bruner's distinction echoes a common opposition of narrative and abstraction. For Herman, this is the deep difference between narrative and scientific discourse: “Science explains how in general water freezes when...its temperature reaches zero degrees centigrade; but it takes a story to convey what it was like to lose one's footing on slippery ice one late afternoon in December 2004, under a steel-grey sky” (2007, 3). Though there can be stretches of abstract discourse in the longer narrative genres like the novel and autobiography, it is the sensed preponderance of narrativity that keeps any particular text from being shifted to another, non-narrative, genre. An interesting borderline case is narrative allegory in which each character stands for an abstraction, like Beauty, Strength, and Knowledge in the medieval play Everyman. Call it “narrativized abstraction,” but watching the play, the audience becomes immersed in the story. It is the particularity of Everyman and his personal engagement in his quest that makes this immersion possible. Authors have at times named their characters with abstract labels, as Charles Dickens did when he named the schoolmaster in Hard Times (1845) Mr. M'Choakumchild. But despite the way Dickens telegraphs the idea the schoolmaster stands for, it is his capacity to develop him as a particular character that brings him to life in a way no abstraction can.

Narrative, Poetry, and the Lyric

Poetry and narrative have also been frequently referred to as opposites. But probably a majority of all narratives ever told or written have been in poetry, not prose—this would include all the great epics, medieval romances, ballads, European drama up through the Renaissance, and even some novels (David Jones's In Parenthesis, 1937; Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate, 1986). A much more defensible opposition is between narrative and lyric. Lyrical poetry is by definition devoted to the expression of an emotion, whether grief (elegies), veneration (odes), or love (most sonnets). And though lyrics may contain micro-narratives and even undergo a shift in mood (in effect, a change of state), as in the last quatrain or sestet of a sonnet, by and large they tend to be static evocations of emotion rather than vehicles for a story. Here again there are borderline cases like Jeanette Winterson's short work “The White Room” (2002) or Ann Beattie's “Snow” (1983), where it is difficult to say whether it is narrative or lyric that predominates.

Narratives and Games

A number of other contrasting modes to narrative have been proposed—description, exposition, meditation, instruction—but with the explosion of digital and internet resources, and the hybridization of narrative games, considerable attention has lately been given to the question of how games and narrative differ, if indeed they do. On the face of it, they seem to be distinctly different, a narrative being essentially a representation of an action and a game being a rule-bound contest involving one or more players. A narrative conveys a story that seems to preexist its conveyance; a game is not conveyed but unfolds in the present. A narrative differs from life in the actual world by existing in an imagined storyworld, a game happens in the actual world but differs from life by its containment within arbitrary rules and its unambiguous production of winners and losers.

But “text adventures” and role-playing games (RPGs) take place in a narrative environment. In varying degrees there is a story, apprehended by players who in turn participate through fictional creatures (avatars) they control. With on-line multi-user RPGs, game masters stay several “plot points” ahead of their players, so a story can be said to precede its apprehension in narrative time, though it is “read” through an active process of search and discovery. Moreover, in some multi-user RPGs, much of the action in the story (or game) world is a kind of improvised story production carried on independently by the players' avatars. Finally, though there are electronic games and on-line RPGs that operate like a competitive sport with a premium on winning, the game aspect of many multi-user RPGs is more like play than sport, taking place in a community atmosphere where “winning” or achieving some kind of goal is less important than having a good time.

The hybridization of narrative and game in multi-user on-line RPGs poses a fascinating challenge to assumptions that are built into customary definitions of narrative. Is the story “conveyed,” or are clues to it simply lying about, waiting to be discovered, and are players more like detectives, unraveling a mystery that has taken place in a storyworld now belonging to the past? Conversely, to what extent is the story as given subsidiary to the storylines that the avatars make up as they go along? If achieving the goal set by the game masters coincides with the full comprehension of the story behind the game, do these two ideas remain conceptually distinct? Or does their conjunction correlate with the feeling one has when finishing a novel—a kind of victory in a solitary game in which the object is to overcome one's ignorance of what happened? Finally, if much of the action is improvised on the spot in a series of unrepeatable acts in real time, how different is this from what happens in actions of life itself which are also, in effect, consumed as they are made?

The Postmodern Narrative

It is difficult to generalize about postmodern narratives, because their range of experimentation is so great, but it is safe to say that many of them challenge our narrative expectations. Some of these involve the violation of narrative levels (metalepsis) as when the author enters his or her novel as a character (John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman, 1969) or the reader is made a character in the novel (Italo Calvino's Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore; 1979, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler); some induce a permanent confusion about what happens in the story (Alain Robbe-Grillet's Dans le labyrinthe (1959, In the Labyrinth); some develop forking paths in which worlds contradict each other (Peter Howitt's film Sliding Doors, 1998); some even lack characters (Samuel Beckett's The Unnamable, 1953). There are many more postmodern modes of deliberate narrative frustration, almost all of which challenge narrative theory. In his study of “extreme narration,” Brian Richardson has argued that “the essence” of such fiction “is to elude fixed essence” (140) and has called for a revaluation of narrative theory from the ground up to address their extraordinary departures from narrative normality.

Narrative power: plots and master plots

The power of narrative to rouse an audience was certainly recognized long before Plato banned the poets from his republic because of their ability to wield that power. For Plato, the storyteller's art could override reason and on that account alone, he recommended limiting its use to martial themes when they were needed to defend the republic. For Plato's student, Aristotle, it was precisely the emotional appeal of narrative that gave it cathartic and restorative powers, and a way of lodging wisdom in the heart that abstract reasoning could never achieve. Between them, Plato and Aristotle established two poles within which much of the discussion of narrative effects has played out ever since.

The power of narrative has often been keyed to the way stories conform to one or another plot or story type. “Plot” is a term used in several incompatible ways, but in this sense a plot is a skeletal story that is repeated in one variation or another in any number of distinct narratives. The fact of its repetition is in itself an indication of its power to catalyze strong emotional responses. Some plots in this sense of the word are more universal than others. Narrative versions of the quest story, for example, can be found across cultures and throughout recorded history, from the Odyssey (ca. eighth century BCE) to Saving Private Ryan (1998). Archetypal theories of story types see in them a reflection of universal structures of the human imagination, as in Northrop Frye's four “generic plots”: the comic, the tragic, the romantic, and the ironic (see MYTHOLOGY). As a general rule, however, the more particularized the plot, the more likely it is to be the property of a distinct culture and to deal with issues that are of critical importance to that culture. In many such instances, the plot is a defining feature of a GENRE (literary kind), as in the Jacobean revenge tragedy, the medieval romance, or the saint's life. Genres that have no defining plot, like the novel or the ballad, often have a number of subgenres that are to some degree plot bound: the bildungsroman, the Harlequin romance, the Horatio Alger story, the vampire novel.

The term “master plot” (often used in the discourse on film in the sense of story type) includes a connotation of the ideological power that can be embedded in a popular cultural plot (see IDEOLOGY). The story of Abraham Lincoln (1809—65), from his birth to his presidency, conforms to a master plot that orchestrates major elements of American mythology—the democratic belief that anyone, however impoverished in his origins (the gender is part of the myth), can rise to the highest social position, through the application of his native gifts, hard work, and steadfast determination. Much narrative theory taking FEMINIST or minority viewpoints has stressed the ways in which such stories work to obscure, marginalize, or contain segments of the population by the kinds of roles that come with those plots. Nancy Miller, for example, has shown how the role of “heroine” in plots common to the eighteenth-century novel strictly limited the range of agency and favorable plot paths for women characters. This stood in sharp contrast to the range of behavioral options and power open to the “hero.” But it is also possible to achieve rhetorical power by working against received treatments of cultural types and their culturally scripted roles. Much of the immense impact of Richard Wright's Native Son when it was published in 1940 derived from the way it took a frightening cultural master plot—the story of sexual and deadly force visited on a white woman by a black man—and opened it up to an inside view that disallowed the narrow psychology sustaining the cultural story.

Our dependency on plots to organize and make sense of events has been extended by Hayden White to the entire domain of historiography. In this view, the writing of history (as opposed to the mere chronicling of one event after another) is inevitably a process of “emplotment,” the shaping of what has happened in time according to the requirements of one or another plot drawn from the cultural repertory. This is a cognitive operation, however, that must be concealed from consciousness in order for history to succeed as nonfiction. The necessary illusion of history as a plot-free apprehension of reality, harmonizes with Jean-François Lyotard's concept of the grand récit (“master narrative”). This is the overarching “meta-narrative” that permits storytelling to pass as knowledge. The Enlightenment idea of progress through the application of reason and a disciplined process of empirical testing and verification, for example, is in Lyotard's view the master narrative that permits science to pass as an objective encounter with reality rather than a narrative art. As might be expected, the views of White and Lyotard have been the subject of intense debate.

Master plots of human development were fundamental to the work of Freud, Jung, and other early architects of PSYCHOANALYTIC theory and practice. With an event structure keyed to traumatic moments of early childhood, and a powerful posttraumatic determining power, such plots were assumed to be universal and thus to be the deep structures of stories endlessly recurring in dreams, literature, and the other arts. Freud's master plot of male development took its name from the most famous of Greek tragedies, Sophocles's Oedipus Rex (ca. 429 BCE) and therapy itself became a mode of narrative inquiry. More recently, Bruno Bettelheim focused on the critical role fairy tales play in childhood development, while psychologists like Jerome Bruner, Katherine Nelson, Oliver Sacks, Bettelheim, the historian Carolyn Steedman, and others have, in their different ways, featured the developmental importance of situating oneself within one's own narrative (see LIFE WRITING).

In these and many other ways, the power of narrative in our own lives and in almost every aspect of culture and society, has been intensively researched and, no doubt, will continue to be.


1. Bakhtin, M.M. (1981), Dialogic Imagination, ed. M. Holquist, trans. C. Emerson and M. Holquist.

2. Barthes, R. (1977), “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives,” in Image Music Text, trans. S. Heath.

3. Booth, W. C. (1961), Rhetoric of Fiction.

4. Bremond, C. (1973), Logique du récit.

5. Bruner, J. (1986), Actual Minds, Possible Worlds.

6. Chatman, S. (1978), Story and Discourse.

7. Cohn, D. (1999), Distinction of Fiction.

8. Culler, J. (1981), Pursuit of Signs.

9. Doležel, L. (1998), Heterocosmica.

10. Frye, N. (1957), Anatomy of Criticism.

11. Gibson, A. (1996), Towards a Postmodern Theory of Narrative.

12. Greimas, A. J. (1983), Structural Semantics, trans. D. McDowell, et al.

13. Herman, D. (1997), “ Scripts, Sequences, and Stories,” PMLA 112: 1046—59.

14. Herman, D. (2007), “Introduction,” in Cambridge Companion to Narrative, ed. D. Herman.

15. James, H. (1956), “The Art of Fiction,” in Future of the Novel, ed. L. Edel.

16. Labov, W. (1972), “Transformation of Experience in Narrative Syntax,” in Language in the Inner City.

17. Lyotard, J.-F. (1979), Postmodern Condition, trans. G. Bennington and B. Massumi.

18. Miller, N. (1980), Heroine's Text.

19. Propp, V. (1968), Morphology of the Russian Folktale, trans. L. Scott, 2nd ed.

20. Richardson, B. (2006), Unnatural Voices.

21. Ryan, M.L. (1991), Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory.

22. Todorov, T. (1968), “ La Grammaire du récit,” Langages 3(12): 94—102.

23. White, H. (1987), Content of the Form.