event (narrative theory) An event is something that happens, that may or may not be significant in relation to other events, that may or may not be significant within a progression and development of a sequence of events that might be combined and constituted into a story: something happens, sometimes it is important and has an effect, and sometimes it doesn’t. Events in life can be understood to have a narrativity, but they are not in themselves a story.
Since narratology is concerned with the construction of narratives that narrate stories, it is important in this context to be able to state what a story is. It is also important for screenwriters and filmmakers to recognize the difference between an event and an event as the action of a story, as this can be deceptive: it’s a common practice to describe a representation that shows an event as a narrative: such as a narrative painting, as though it is a form of a story. However, a narrative painting shows an event, it has narrativity, but it is not a narrative in the same form as a novel or a film: One way to address these conflations, event, narrative, story is to be able to differentiate between an event and a story.
To example the difference: children are playing in a park, there is, running, climbing, digging in the sand pit. These are events. If one or more child decides to set a challenge: to see how fast they can run around the park, to climb to the highest point on the climbing frame, to see how deep they can dig a hole, then the events that contribute to this are a story: the activity of digging becomes an action that will form part of a unity of action which can then be represented as a narrative. If one were to narrate a story about a child digging in a sand pit in the park, and trying to dig the deepest hole they could, the narrative would be incomplete if it did not state what happened: how deep was the hole in the end, did the child give up digging: the story is what happened as a consequence of deciding to dig the howl and other events become extraneous to this. Also, if the narration of the story left out elements, there was no mention of the shovel or the digging then there would be no story: the unity of action of a story is that it is able to tell a complete action, a whole story and the linked events become actions within a story.
It can be argued that the initial state, the children in the park, their activities are a story: yes, these are activities and they can be described or filmed showing things happening, they have narrativity, they are events with duration, but they do not combine into a story. In prose writing, to offer a confusion, a short story can be descriptive account of a situation and have very few events/actions, but this is a particular form of prose: the sketch, the conte. One might say that stories can have less or more action and they are both story, but the aim here is to differentiate between an event that represents single action and a story that connects actions: a list that includes just a few or very many events is not a story. A list might be considered as a form a anti-narrative or a form of description, but a list of events is not a narrative. In film there is the observational documentary that shows the activities at a location. This has duration and has events, and its form is to obverse incidents and not to create a unity of action: in this form many events might be added or discarded, the narration is a limited or a specific form. If one wants to include all film forms that have events and describe them as narrative, having story, then they might be delineated by a typology: narrative defined by place and the events that take place there, and narrative by action of plot and character.
When looking at narrating a particular story, developing its form, understanding what shapes this narrative and tells the single story is important, there is no template for story, even though this is often stated in writing manuals, but it is still necessary to be clear what is a story-event, the action of a story, rather than an action that can be related to the setting, or the characters, but is redundant to the narrative.
A confusion that occurs in relation to events not being story, is when there is a significant event, a death, a murder, an illness, a loss, a separation and this is taken to be a major event that defines the remainder of the story. There are many stories that include these kinds of events, and they can be an action in a story, but the story is the events leading up to the murder, the events after the murder, what happens because of the illness, the death. In screenwriting a premise such as a woman finds out she has cancer and decides to go on a journey is not a story premise. The news of the cancer could be an inciting incident: it can prompt a series of actions which can compromise a story, but what happens on the journey is the story and the initial event does not create a sense of meaning and purpose that carries across all events. The inciting incident in a narrative is an event that causes change and prompts a specific aim in order for it to be an story-event. If a life-partner dies and the surviving partner has to sell their home, then a story can be constructed around the choices and changes related to the selling of the home, but the death itself is not the story: it’s a story about how a life can change after someone’s death.
As serious event is often taken to be a story because of its emotional impact in life, it’s important to us, and in a dramatic story the same sort of event can represented as having importance for the characters, there are scenes of birth, death, separation, joy, grief, returning, but these are made meaningful within the narrative. In the news report of a car crash this can cause lifelong suffering and sorrow to the actual people involved and to their friends and relatives, but the emotional impact of the news report for the audience is minimal as it recounts only a very limited story: it’s a report of events. The role that event plays in a dramatic story is what makes it significant, not how the event would have effects in actual life.
Stories have different forms that give the same events different emotional values. There is the melodrama that has the aim of engendering emotion, and a melodrama will narrate in detail a particular calamity so that the audience empathises with the emotions of the central characters in the story. A thriller can have many people killed, in fights, shoot outs, bombings, and this will be experienced as part of a thrilling story. The story structures the emotional value of events. In a film narrative there is a shot of children playing in a playground, running, playing, and digging. As an isolated shot, it’s a shot of children in playground. As part of a narrative if the children have all gone to the park while their parents are being buried, then the events in the park are now related to the funeral, and in the narration of a film there is the technique of parallel action, cutting between simultaneous events, and cutting between the children playing in the park and the funeral of their parents would create a narrative connection between them which the audience would respond to emotionally. It is in the construction of a story that events develop meaning, purpose, and emotion. Storytelling structures events to give them meaning, and the emotional effect of a story indicates what story does as opposed to a cataloguing system. In life events are meaningful as part of our personal narrative, and in a constructed narrative, this meaning has to be part of the narration.
There are stories that have few events, and this might indicate that events are less crucial to some stories, but there is a difference between a character that does nothing of significance, and a character who is acted upon and so is unable to act: a story may give the central character few actions, the story has a limited range of events, but then the forces acting on the character will be shown: oppressive societies that stop action, economic circumstances, personal morality putting characters in tension. The suspense film is a narrative form that holds people from action and this is the dramatic tension.
If a story is about an oppression acting on a character then the narrative needs to portray this oppression. In prose writing this oppression can be depicted through internal commentary what a character is thinking and feeling, so there is very little external action, while in a film there needs to be narration that shows this inability to act. There are stories that are considered to be developed through plot and stories that are considered to be developed through character and this leads to the assumption that a plotted story has more events, but rather it the scale of events that are changed: there is the physical event story of a firefighter tackling life threatening fires, and the story of a person who has lost their home and are left helpless: The person left homeless is less physically active than the firefighter, but both stories need events to develop the narrative: the personal story is less spectacular but if it has no events that link and develop this story there is effectively no story: a story gives events significance, without this narrative construction they are just events.
There are complex and simply stories, but story events are not random, they function as action in the story. We perceive stories as realistic, as having a realism, but they are carefully constructed forms, not just a sequence of events.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019