Narrative Structure

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Narrative Structure

Katherine Saunders Nash

Narrative structure is the set of relations among the constituent parts of a narrative, as well as between those parts and the narrative as a whole. Narrative structure has proven a vital if elusive object of study for narrative theorists, in part because of the relationship between structure and narrative competence. Narrative competence is the intuitive grasp of conventions and distinctions that allows audiences to recognize certain productions as stories, to identify the essential units of those stories, and, with those units in mind, to read, retell, paraphrase, expand, evaluate, and interpret the stories. It means recognizing sequences such as, for example, a rags-to-riches plot in different forms: a film, a pantomime, a comic strip, a novel. Narrative competence permits audiences even with widely divergent backgrounds, in dissimilar contexts, to have similar intuitions about stories, and often to agree on basic—and even complex—rules by which stories operate.

As an outgrowth of formalism and structuralism, narratology (a term used here interchangeably with narrative theory) sought from its inception in the 1960s to explain narrative competence by determining a system of units and rules that underlies all narratives, the structure of relations on which the meaning of human productions is predicated. As Roland Barthes puts it, rather starkly, in his “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives,” “[E]ither a narrative is merely a random collection of events, in which case nothing can be said about it other than by referring back to the storyteller's (the author's) art, talent, or genius...or else it shares with other narratives a common structure which is open to analysis.” Without that common narrative structure, Barthes declares, story production and reception both would be “impossible” (1966, 82). Study of narrative competence was, at least in the early years of narratology (known as its “classical” phase), inseparable from analysis of narrative structure. This entry will examine the progressive understanding of narrative structure afforded by narratology, first in its classical and then in its postclassical phases. As the notion of narrative competence has evolved, so has the concept of narrative structure.

Deep and Surface Structures

One salient feature of most early models of narrative structure is their reliance on binaries. Structuralism borrows several key concepts from Saussurean linguistics, chief among them the distinction between langue and parole (see STRUCTURALISM, POSTSTRUCTURALISM). Langue is a system, a network of rules underlying a language, whereas parole is the individual manifestations of that language in speech and writing. This binary operates by distinguishing an abstract concept from a specific iteration of that concept. Noam Chomsky's “competence” and “performance” (1965, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax) operates in the same way, as do several of the binaries used to describe narrative structure. For instance, theorists such as Algirdas Julien Greimas differentiate a narrative's immanent level, at which story is an abstract and autonomous concept, a sequence of events, from its apparent level, which is that story mediated and manifested in a particular text. Whereas immanent versus apparent emphasizes a hierarchy of accessibility (signaling the structuralists' interest in comparing deep and surface levels, as discussed below), Gérard Genette's distinction between histoire (story) and récit (text) discards the structuralists' sense of hierarchy and focuses instead on juxtaposing virtual stories with actual written expressions of those stories. The Russian formalists' pairing of fabula (fable) with sjuzhet (plot), by contrast, emphasizes the process of selection and design, particularly sequential arrangement; sjuzhet is the strategic organization of certain events in a particular order (i.e., not necessarily the original chronology), whereas fabula is the complete story, the storyworld in its totality: all possible settings, characters, and a chronology of all events, from which the sjuzhet is selected. In all three binaries, the first term (immanent level, histoire, fabula) represents a plentiful and inclusive entity that has the potential to give rise to a multitude of unique iterations (apparent level, récit, sjuzhet).

In the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, narratologists strove to characterize narrative structure as scientifically as possible. Setting aside questions of hermeneutic interpretation, theorists tried to determine what all and only narratives have in common, to offer taxonomies of narrative rules, and, ultimately, to establish narrative grammars. To accomplish these goals they needed to codify rules by which narrative structure operates on both surface and deep levels. Vladimir Propp's formal analysis of nearly two hundred Russian folktales provided one influential model of surface narrative structure. From that analysis he derived a total of thirty-one functions, or significant constituent events, which appeared recurrently throughout the folktales in regular sequences, though no one story contained all thirty-one functions. Propp's analysis reveals three central insights: (1) that certain functions always appear together, always in the same order; (2) that functions are more fundamental to narrative structure than characters, since the characters performing the functions change from one story to the next; and (3) that functions, as invariable components of a narrative, are crucially different from variable or inessential ones. On the last point Propp's work parallels Boris Tomashevsky's distinction between bound (or plot-relevant) and free (non-plot-relevant) motifs, Barthes's (1966) nuclei and catalyzers, and Seymour Chatman's kernels and satellites.

Claude Lévi-Strauss's theory of mythic structure became the basis for understanding deep narrative structure. According to him, analyzing myths selected from different cultures can reveal insights into the way narrative competence operates worldwide. By treating myths as parole, and individual cultures' variations on those myths as langue, one could deduce that the same four-part homology underlies all myths (A is to B as C is to D) and that, owing to that deep structural unity, people from dissimilar cultures could nonetheless understand one another's myths (see also Culler).

Greimas, expanding on both Propp and Lévi-Strauss, proposes an actantial model to represent both deep and surface structures. Actants are fundamental roles in a narrative trajectory, located at a narrative's deep level, whereas actors populate the narrative's surface level. Greimas's original actantial model includes six actants: subject, object, sender, receiver, helper, and opponent. The actors who fulfill those roles, however, might vary in number and scope: several actors might occupy a single actantial role, and several actantial roles might apply to a single actor.

Like any other semiotic system, the hierarchical model of narrative structure begs the question of how deep structures are converted into surface structures to produce meaning. To answer this question, some narratologists worked toward establishing narrative grammars, which would enumerate the finite number of rules governing the combination and functioning of narrative units, explaining the production of all possible narratives. Narrative grammars are designed to explain how narrative structure and narrative competence are interdependent within a given context of semiotic conventions. Grammars depend in part on paradigmatic and syntagmatic analysis. Paradigmatic analysis examines deep structural units that may be substituted for one another in static, logical equations, but which are mutually exclusive (e.g., Greimas's semiotic squares). Syntagmatic analysis pertains to coexistent surface structural units (e.g., Propp's functions or Greimas's actors) that may be grouped together according to a variety of temporal or causal principles. Greimas, for instance, proposes three kinds of syntagms: performative (tests and struggles), contractual, and disjunctional (related to departures, returns, and displacements). Other types of narrative grammar include structuralist models that focus on the syntax and semantics of plot (Pavel), generative-transformational models that account for both story and discourse (Prince), and story grammars that draw on research done by cognitive psychologists and specialists in artificial intelligence (Mandler and Johnson). By the mid-1980s, however, most narratologists and linguists alike concluded that the grammars produced to date had inadequate explanatory power. In the field of narratology, the rise of interest in discourse and plot dynamics reflected a widespread desire for a more supple theoretical model of narrative competence.

Postclassical Structures

Early models of narrative structure focus more on story than on discourse, more on what the narrative depicts than on how it is depicted (see STORY). While they do not exclude discourse-related topics, such as the ordering of events in the sjuzhet, they demonstrate the structuralists' heavy reliance on the assumption that a story and its rendering are separable. As the field of narratology gained momentum and moved beyond its structuralist origin, many followed Genette's example in theorizing extensively and productively about narrative discourse, particularly order, duration, frequency, mood, and voice. Chatman's model proved particularly influential in the evolution from classical to postclassical concepts of structure, as he demonstrated that story and discourse may both be mapped on a single diagram of narrative structure. Chatman brings together structuralist units of narrative content (such as events, existents) and Genette's work on narrative expression. He demonstrates that content and expression, though theoretically separable, are functionally interdependent, and that our understanding of narrative structure must reflect that. Further, he depicts structure as a process of transmission (see diagram in NARRATION). Two of the postclassical phase's major innovations appear in this model: the inclusion of audience in the structure itself, and a shift from models of narrative structure as essentially static to fundamentally dynamic.

Whereas classical (structuralist) narratology identifies structural units by their generic function, postclassical narratology concentrates more closely on the relationships those units have to one another and to the reader. Moreover, what constitutes a structural unit changes considerably after the heyday of structuralism. The structure of a narrative comes to be seen as something that unfolds progressively through the act of reading, rather than as a stable construct independent of the reader's vantage. Theorists such as Edward Said, Susan Winnett, and Peter Brooks consider plot to be of primary importance in dynamically structuring both the narrative and the reader's experience, though they differ respectively on whether the wellspring of a plot's energy appears at its beginning, middle, or end. (Brooks's model of end-driven narrative structure takes up the old challenge of explaining deep structure: he posits a correspondence between plot dynamics and Freud's theories about desire and the death drive.) Elements that create suspense, delay, divagation, and indeterminacy figure prominently in postclassical narrative structure, particularly as they are deployed to amplify readerly desire. Theorists such as Wolfgang Iser and Meir Sternberg demonstrate the importance of information gaps as structuring devices that encourage the implied reader to fill in blanks, anticipate further developments, and retrospectively assess meaning in the course of reading. Poststructuralists, on the other hand, look not for unity but for instability and open-endedness, declaring that if structure exists anywhere, it resides in the reader's mind. Barthes's (1977) theory of writerly texts posits a vital interplay between the reader's reversible, revisable interpretations and “textual signifiers,” each identifiable by one of five codes (hermeneutic, semiotic, proairetic, symbolic, and cultural). The writerly text allows a reader to paraphrase her reading comprehension through a series of labels as she decodes the text, but more importantly, it permits her to revise some labels as her reading progresses.

As theoretical approaches to narrative have multiplied in recent years, maintaining consistent terms and definitions has become increasingly difficult. However, two major methodologies appear poised to establish long-lasting criteria for understanding narrative structure through narrative competence: COGNITIVE and rhetorical narrative theories. Cognitive narratologists study the neurological processes involved in narrative competence, including but not restricted to perception, memory, language use, and knowledge. Research in psychology and artificial intelligence has yielded useful data about how we mentally structure our reading experience (e.g., Fludernik; Herman; Jahn), including the use of our theory of mind, or mind-reading abilities (e.g., Zunshine). Marie-Laure Ryan applies semantics and AI to her theory of the way we mentally construct storyworlds. And theorists such as Alan Palmer study cognition in fictional minds, rescuing characters' sophisticated thought processes from the rather coarse categories to which they had been consigned by structuralist analysis.

The rhetorical approach defines narrative as a communicative act—“Somebody telling somebody else on some occasion and for some purpose(s) that something happened” (Phelan)—and examines the nuanced roles of both speaker (real author, implied author, narrator) and audience (real reader, authorial audience, narrative audience, narratee) (Rabinowitz, 1977). James Phelan posits that narrative is structured according to its progression, which he defines as the simultaneous development of plot dynamics—including the mimetic, thematic, and synthetic dimensions of character construction—with the development of readerly dynamics: the audience's cognitive, affective, ethical, and aesthetic experiences as they arise from the audience's sequence of interpretive, ethical, and aesthetic judgments. Readerly judgments, especially those that occur early in a narrative, are necessarily revisable—not, as for Barthes, because of textual indeterminacy, but because the experience of reading fiction is based on a recursive relationship, constantly unfolding, among author, text, and reader. The rhetorical model of progression draws on Wayne C. Booth's theories about the way authors implicitly and explicitly shape their readers' desires in fiction, and on Rabinowitz's (1987) demonstration that narrative and textual features activate expectations we already have before reading a given text. Rabinowitz shows that our mastery of the tacit rules by which narratives operate corresponds not to a langue of narrative structure but to a vast set of conventions shared by authors and readers alike.


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

2. Barthes, R. (1974), S/Z.

3. Booth, W.C. (1983), Rhetoric of Fiction, 2nd ed.

4. Brooks, P. (1984), Reading for the Plot.

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

6. Culler, J. (1975), Structuralist Poetics.

7. Fludernik, M. (1996), Towards a “Natural” Narratology.

8. Genette, G. (1980), Narrative Discourse, trans. J. Lewin.

9. Greimas, A.J. (1983), Structural Semantics.

10. Herman, D. (2002), Story Logic.

11. Iser, W. (1974), Implied Reader.

12. Jahn, M. (1997), “ Frames, References, and the Reading of Third-Person Narratives,” Poetics Today 18: 441—68.

13. Lévi-Strauss, C. (1968), Structural Anthropology.

14. Mandler, J.M. and N. Johnson (1977), “ Remembrance of Things Parsed,” Cognitive Psychology 9: 111—51.

15. Palmer, A. (2004), Fictional Minds.

16. Pavel, T. (1985), Poetics of Plot.

17. Phelan, J. (2007), Experiencing Fiction.

18. Prince, G. (1973), Grammar of Stories.

19. Propp, V. (1968), Morphology of the Folktale.

20. Rabinowitz, P.J. (1977), “ Truth in Fiction,” Critical Inquiry 4: 121—41.

21. Rabinowitz, P.J. (1987), Before Reading.

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

23. Said, E.W. (1975), Beginnings.

24. Sternberg, M. (1978), Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction.

25. Tomashevsky, B. (1965 [1925]), “Thematics,” in Russian Formalist Criticism, ed. L. T. Lemon and M. J. Reis.

26. Winnett, S. (1990), “ Coming Unstrung,” PMLA 105: 505—18.

27. Zunshine, L. (2006), Why We Read Fiction.