fabula (narratology) There are two definitions. First, the fabula is the plot of a story as a linear temporal narrative in relation to the complexity of its presentation in a complete narrative form: the film, the play, the book. The fabula separates plot from narration, the story from the telling of the story. The syuzhet, the specific film, play, or book is the narrated complex version of the fabula, where the linear plot/fabula can be told out of sequence: narrated from the viewpoint of different characters and using a linear or non-linear temporal structure: the plot/fabula of a crime story can have a syuzhet that is narrated from the point of view of the criminal, or the point of view of the crime investigators, or both, and the syuzhet can reveal who committed the crime at the start of the narrative or only at the end. These are examples of different syuzhet, different narrations, for the same fabula, The problem here is that this understands or presents the fabula to be the story as a linear plot, which is then complicated in the telling, but the linear telling is also a syuzhet: a particular version of the story. It's always possible to tell a story in different ways, and the narrated version, the syuzhet can be in a form that circulates, because it is the form of a play, film, book, but the notion that the linear plot, that a reductive 'simple' version of the story is primary is somewhat flawed: a fabula will still need to decide which character/s the plot follows and often stories don't rely on a single character: so there could be several fabulas, depending on which or how many characters are set out in a fabula.
As a second definition, in contrast and distinctly different to the first definition; the fabula is the raw material of a story, unformed, before it is structured into a set narration: the film, play, book. The difference between the two uses is dependent on where the concept is placed, as an analysis of a completed narration or as a conception of how a story is created and then also perceived. The narrative is the story that is told and then the reader or audience create a fabula, their understanding of the story: we do not recall the precise moment by moment, word by word, action by action events of a story, but create our own fabula, which is a personal and also a shared understanding of the story: so that there is a fabula which is a social and a personal construction of a story. When we remember or discuss a film we are usings its fabula. The writer and the filmmaker conceives a fabula, a range of options for the story, and then this is constructed into a plot: the fabula is a diffuse set of possibilities rather than a simple fabula that is then converted into narrative complexity.
The first definition of the fabula as plot is used within structural narratology as a method for studying narrative structure: showing how plot can be separated from its narration, to indicate how narration function, its varieties and forms. In film theory the explanation for the fabula as plot is usually exampled using a film narrative that has a non-linear narration where events are narrated out of temporal sequence or is narrated from different character viewpoints, such as a film starting at the end of the story then going back to the beginning. In this context, the analysis of the film, setting out the fabula often presents the linear story events as a plot diagram or outline. The fabula that is produced has a linear plot, setting out the actions of the central character in a temporal order or with a plot outline in temporal order for each main character. The film text is the basis for developing this concept of the fabula. The issue with presenting fabula as different to plot is that this is only different if the plot is non-linear in the narrative: it has an analytical application in certain specific circumstances. It creates the notion of a fixed fabula, which is flawed in relation to the experience of creating and understanding a story.
The second definition of fabula is unformed and open ended and would consider what was possible as part of the process of plotting and story construction, not a simplifying of the narrative into a single plot, but the possibilities for a story: so compared to the plotting as narrated in the narrative, all the viewpoints, options, differences, variations, potential for story are the fabula.
The concept of the ‘raw material’ can suggest an unformed material and then a refining process, which will extract material that can produce a coherent story and structured narrative from a mass of rejected, and redundant material. Also, ‘raw material’ can suggest clay or bricks, raw material, story elements from which many different structures may be formed. As part of the creative process this means that story development can be undertaken as a refining: there are a lot of ideas, thoughts, options, possibilities for the story and what will be used needs to be identified, or in contrast to a formless mass of material, there are clear narrative elements, material that can be used and this needs to be fashioned into a single story. The two options are not necessarily in opposition and can be understood as different stages or methods in the creation of stories. Sometimes story ideas are disorganized and at some point they have a much clearer set of characters and actions, which will develop into the complete narrative.
For screenwriting the concept of fabula as raw material can be extremely useful as it means that the conception, the initial stages of story creation is given a name: there is the fabula, then there is the story, and then the delineation of setting, plot, character, tone, formed into a single narration, the story as told in the film. What screenwriting guides prompt and offer is story structure, as though the story is like a ready to build kit, the diagram, the structure is in place, the blueprint is ready and all that's needed for a story to be written is to get some events and join them together. In this there is a formula, a model and this can be successful, it is also simplistic. Fabula indicates that there is an open, creative, evolving process to develop a story from: that structure is not set but developed. This is less clear than offering a pre-existing structure, it relies on the concept of a creative writer being able to gather, choose, shape and form material, and of course this is more demanding and less certain than the idea of a ready to build model. The simplicity of the pre-formed model can be seen when a plot structure, such as the revenge plot, or the three act structure is supposedly the basis for so many different stories, but rather than this, there is fabula, open story, and then there is the structure. Structure does not generate story, the fabula is the primary stage.
Fabula, since it exists in the understanding of the audience, it also indicates that there exists as an extension of the narration of the film, an understanding of the story outside of the film’s narrative: that there are events that are not narrated in the text. The narrative is one particular telling of the story, but it is not a discrete, complete and final entity but part of a fabula created by the audience. For the audience fabula has some resemblance to the method of narratology, it identifies and constructs a plot from the film, but there is no single fabula/plot: there are a multiplicity of interpretations and readings one from each member of the audience. The film narrative is a carefully constructed narration, but that does not close off the story. The audience’s experience of seeing the same film, and then disagreeing, not just about the meaning of the story, its morality or themes, but also about what happened: why and what characters did, their motivations and actions, even though these appeared to be present in the story shows the creation of the fabula by the audience.
In contemporary literature and film the concepts of intertextuality, hybridity, metanarrative, clarify that texts are not discrete. These are critical theory terms, and they can be considered as part of the fabula. This shifts fabula from a term of textual analysis to a cultural term which might seem questionable, but the issue for the theorisation of story is that parts can be named, plot, character, setting, but a mechanical, structural analysis must at some point connect to how story is understood, shared and communicated, and stories are part of a human process, social communication and cultural exchange.
So, fabula is an important idea in relation to understanding how a story is created, how a story is understood beyond an outline of its plot and also fabula supports an understanding of mimesis: the story becomes realistic, because as it read or viewed, the reader, the audience begin to elaborate and extend the story: the concepts of reading, comprehension, interpretation, participation, immersion, transportation are all valid in terms of how stories are perceived and understood, and the fabula suggests what is mentally constructed as the connection between the audience and the narrative and then how stories are integrated into a sense of lived experience: we know that stories are not real, but in some sense they are: we’ve seen the story and created the fabula: the story was an artefact and then becomes a form of experience which has personal and social value.
Fabula is understood as a particular method of textual analysis producing a discrete fabula from a single text. Fabula as the raw material of a story is an expansive concept. One example of a story can be studied to indicate the linear plotting for this story, but a story is not a fixed single text, a story can be narrated across mediums, forms, through adaptations, versions, iterations and a story is then held and carried by the readers and audience. In understanding story there is often a reductive understanding that stories can be reduced to archetypes, genotypes, structures, morphology, but this is not necessarily valid: story is a generative process: if all stories are the same why do we have so many stories? There are societies who aim to have one central story, often a religious text, a founding narrative, but then this is subject to reworking and retelling, often not as a text, because that is fixed but in oral form and through different forms of enactment. Fabula explains story as an emergent process.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019