Narratology (narrative theory) Narratology was established as an academic field to formally study and explain narrative, and what is now often labelled Classical Narratology, is the first formal stage in the study of narrative, and it theorises and analyses the form and function of narrative within literary texts, rather than considering story, narrative across a range of mediums and varied social usages. Classical narratology did not attempt to develop cultural, political, sociological or psychological theories of narrative or incorporate concepts of narrative and narration across different mediums, establishing what could be shared as a definition of narrative and what was similar and different to the production and reception of narrative in different mediums.
The field of narratology was formed and developed through formalism and structuralism, and predominantly through the study of written texts, primarily literature, the novel: looking for the commonality of features that construct written narratives. This dominant trend continues with narratology still being underpinned by theories stemming from literary theory rather than the study of any other form of storytelling or medium. Present day narratology is now understood to be divided into classical and contemporary narratology with a move from structuralism to cognitive theory, how story is understood and created through human cognition, and there is also some study of narrative across media, concepts of narrative not led by theories of prose narrative. This is transmedia narratology, the study of narratives across media.
For filmmakers the formative history of narratology, its theories, debates and developments, have little interest as a specific field of study, and since structural narratology does not consider imagination and creativity within its remit then it offers no direct engagement for writers and filmmakers, but narratology does study narrative and useful material can be extracted or developed from narratology so that storytelling in film can be more precisely and usefully understood. Here it is the unpacking of story into constitutive elements, plot, narration and form that is helpful and this utility increases when these terms are directly applied to film narration, so that how storytelling functions in the medium of film is clearly articulated, and this can then be used by creative practitioners.
Very few film theorists have made use of narratology as the basis for studying story in film: Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Seymour, 1978) Point of View in the Cinema: A Theory of Narration and Subjectivity in Classical Film (Bordwell, Branigan, 1984) Narration in the Fiction Film. (Bordwell, 1985), Narrative Comprehension and Film (Branigan, 1992) This work, the limited number of studies, the short time span of their publication evidences film studies investment in narratology. It was short lived and is not a significant component of current film theory. The potential to develop and consider the narratology of film from this formative work was set aside in favour of studying films as forms of production, producing either industrial or cultural products: industrial film being codified as mainstream film, classical narrative film, Hollywood film, and as an alternative to industrial forms of filmmaking art based, experimental, non-narrative, avant-garde film. The documentary being somewhat set aside from this labelling because of its later development as a form and documentary’s central issue being articulated as the ethics of form: how film can represent reality and offer truth, rather than its production system and distribution.
There has been a single more recent attempt to establish a film narratology that uses theoretical narratology as a source: Film Narratology (Verstraten, 2010) but this work has yet to have any impact on film making or film studies. What can be stated, even though there has been only a very limited intersection between disciplines of film theory and narratology is that studying film from the perspective of narrative, having a film narratology or better still a transmedia narratology will enhance an understanding of film as a creative and critical practice.
While it has been clarified that classical narratology was not concerned with the medium of film a brief review of how narrative is discussed within narratology will clarify how it is discussed in this field.
Both story and narrative can be used as overarching terms to identify any sort of narrative event or expression, so they can be and are used interchangeably, but narrative rather than story is the term favoured by theorists. There is narrative: the narration of a story within a textual form, and this is a coherent definition that usefully distinguishes between narrative and narration. There is narrative vs. story, where narrative is de-culturalized, which is story as formal structure. There is story and discourse, where story is the received story, how it is understood, and discourse is its plotting and narration, which is a formulation that is not in common usage. The term discourse not usually being connected to narrative form. There is content and form, with the division that story is content, what the story is about, what it tells, and form is plot, which is narration, the telling of the story, how story is narrated. There is fabula and syuzhet, two mainly unfamiliar specialized terms stemming from Russian formalism: fabula is the specific linear plot and syuzhet is it narration. The concept of fabula is confused by it also being conceived as the ‘raw material of the story’: defining fabula as all the potential formulations of a story before it is developed into a specific plot, so that here syuzhet is both plot and narration. Additionally, and to proliferate the use of the term narrative, it is placed as an adjective when the study of the temporal events is applied to other disciplines: there is narrative criminology, narrative genetics, narrative psychology, narrative philosophy. Because narrative is the formal academic-like term this is preferred rather than story-psychology or story-criminology.
With the development of cognitive narratology and with a shifting from literature and writing as the object of study, and moving to consider story in a range of uses and mediums, there is a change from the term narrative to narrativity, which considers how formulations of language, writing, image and sound function to articulate story. Many mediums and forms have narrativity, they represent an event, but a narrative is a constructed narration, a form of narration.
Given all of the above it’s clear that narrative as a noun refers primarily to the text, its narration and form and when using the basic terms of storytelling: there is story, narrative, plot, narration, form and content, and it its important to try and avoid conflation: swapping between plot and story, narrative and story, narrative and form, narrative and narration. Using these different terms as interchangeable synonyms diffuses and confuses discussion when they can be usefully understood as separate aspects of storytelling. If it’s necessary to use the term plot to explain plot one should not slip into using story and narrative so as to avoid repetition.
Narratology has much useful material to offer film, and when it is labelled Narrative Theory, its openness, offering theory to different mediums and disciplines is illuminating for all forms of cultural production that are narrative and this would include, film, literature, drama, news, oral storytelling, games, television, religious and other ceremonies and rituals. These all use and share story in narrative forms.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019