Approaches to narrative theory

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Transcript of Approaches to narrative theory

  • 1.Introducing narrative August 2006

2. What does narrative mean?

  • The way that stories are told, how meaning is constructed to achieve the understanding of the audience.
  • Groups events into cause and effect action and inaction.
  • Organises time and space in very compressed form.
  • The voice of the narrative can vary; whose story is being told and from whose perspective?
  • Narrative plot refers to everything audibly or visibly present, i.e. selective.
  • Narrative story refers to all the events, explicitly presented or referred.
  • In film, narrative is constructed through elements like camerawork, lighting, sound, mise-en-scene and editing.

3. Why is narrative important to us?

  • As children we listen to fairytales and myths/legends. As we grow older, we read short stories, novels, history and biographies.
  • Religion is often presented through a collection of stories/moral tales e.g. the Bible, the Ramayana, etc.
  • Scientific breakthrough is often presented as stories of an experimenter/scientists trials.
  • Cultural phenomena such as plays, films, dance and paintings tell stories.
  • News events are told as stories.
  • Dreams are retold as stories.

We use narratives or stories to make sense of our lives and the world around us. There different ways in which we use the narrative form: 4. Approaches to studying narrative

  • There are many ways of looking at and thinking about narratives.
  • For nearly 2300 years various thinkers, philosophers and theorists have tried to explain how narratives work.

5. Aristotle

  • Over 2000 years ago the Greek philosopher Aristotle observed that a ll narratives hav e:
  • a b eginning
  • a m iddle
  • a ne nd

6. Five-stage narrative structure

  • Expositionsetting scene and introducing characters
    • Little Red Riding Hood has to take food to grandmother who is ill
  • Developmentsituation develops, more characters introduced
    • She sets out through woods where wolf is lurking
  • Complicationsomething happens to complicate lives of characters
    • She meets wolf, he delays her and rushes ahead and ties up grandmother
  • Climaxdecisive moment reached; matters come to head; suspense high
    • She arrives, comments on size of grandmothers ears, etc., Wolf eats her up
  • Resolutionmatters are resolved and satisfactory end is reached
    • Wolf falls asleep, passing forester investigates noise, rescues grandmother from cupboard and Red Riding Hood by cutting Wolfs stomach open

7. Todorovsa pproach ton arrative

  • Todorov suggests that all narratives begin withequilibriumor an initial situation (where everything is balanced).
  • This is followed by some form ofdisruption , which is later resolved.
  • With theresolutionat the end of the narrative a new equilibrium is usually established.

8. Todorovsa pproach ton arrative

  • There arefivestages a narrative has to passt hrough:
  • The state ofequilibrium(state of normality good, bad or neutral) .
  • A neventdisrupts theequil i brium (a character or an action) .
  • The mainprotagonistrecognises that the equilibrium has been disrupted.
  • Protagonist attempts to rectify this in order torestore equilibrium .
  • Equilibrium is restored but, because causal transformations have occurred, there are differences (good, bad, or neutral) from original equilibrium, which establish it as anew equilibrium .

9. Propps approach to narrative

  • Vladimir Propp studied hundreds of Russian folk and fairytales before deciding that all narratives have a common structure.
  • He observed that narratives are shaped and directed by certain types of characters and specific kinds of actions
  • He believed that there are 31 possible stages orfunctions in any narrative.
  • These may not all appear in a single story, but nevertheless always appear in the same sequence.
  • A function is a plot motif or event in the story.
  • A tale may skip functions but it cannot shuffle their unvarying order.

10. Propps approach to narrative

  • Villain struggles with hero
  • Donorprepares and/or provides hero with magical agent
  • Helperassists, rescues, solves and/or transfigures the hero
  • Princessa sought-for person (and/or her father) who exists as goal and often recognises and marries hero and/or punishes villain
  • Dispatchersends hero off
  • Herodeparts on a search (seeker-hero), reacts to donor and weds at end
  • False Heroclaims to be the hero, often seeking and reacting like a real hero

Propp believed that there are seven roles which any character may assume in the story: 11. Propps 31 narrative functions

  • Preparatory section
  • One of members of a family absents him/herself from home
  • An interdiction (ban) is addressed to the hero
  • Interdiction is violated (villain usually enters story here)
  • Villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance (either villain tries to find children/jewels etc. or intended victim questions villain)
  • Villain receives information about victim (villain gets an answer)
  • Villain attempts to deceive victim by using persuasion, magic or deception (trickery; villain disguised, tries to win confidence of victim)
  • Victim submits to deception and thereby unwittingly helps enemy (hero sleeps)


  • Villainy/lack (plot set in motion)
  • Villain causes harm or injury to member of a family (e.g. abduction, theft, casts spell on someone).
  • Alternatively, a member of family lacks something, desires or desires to have something (magical potion, etc.).
  • Misfortune or lack is made known: hero is approached with a request or command; hero allowed to go or is dispatched.
  • Seeker (hero) agrees to or decides upon counteractions.
  • Hero leaves home interrogated, attacked, etc. which prepares way for receiving magical agent or helper (donor usually enters story here).
  • Hero reacts to actions of future donor (withstands/fails the test, frees captive, reconciles disputants, performs service, uses adversary's powers.
  • Hero is tested against them.


  • Hero acquires use of magical agent (directly transferred, purchased, etc.).
  • Hero is transferred, delivered or led to whereabouts of object of search.
  • Path A: Struggle and victory over villain; end of lack and return
  • Hero and villain join in direct combat.
  • Hero is branded (wounded/marked, receives ring or scarf).
  • Villain is defeated (killed in combat, defeated in contest, etc.).
  • The initial misfortune or lack is liquidated (object of search distributed; spell broken, slain person revived, captive freed).
  • Hero returns.
  • Hero is pursued (pursuer tries to kill, eat, undermine the hero).
  • Hero is rescued from pursuit (obstacles delay pursuer, hero hides, etc.).


  • Path B: Unrecognised arrival, task, recognition, punishment, wedding
  • Hero, unrecognised, arrived home or in another country.
  • False hero presents unfounded claims.
  • Difficult task is proposed to hero (trial by drink, riddle, test of strength).
  • Task is resolved or accomplished.
  • Hero is recognised, often by mark or object.
  • False hero or villain is exposed and/or punished.
  • Hero is given new appearance (is made whole, handsome, etc.).
  • Villain is pursued.
  • Hero is married and ascends throne.

15. Claude Levi-Strausss approach to narrative

  • After studying hundreds of myths and legends from around the world, Levi-Strauss observedthat we make sense of the world, people and events by seeing and usingbinary oppositeseverywhere.
  • He observed that all narratives are organised around theconflictbetween such binary opposites.

16. Examples of binary opposites

  • Good vs evil
  • Black vs white
  • Boy vs girl
  • Peace vs war
  • Civilised vs savage
  • Democracy vs dictatorship
  • Conqueror vs conquered
  • First world vs third world
  • Domestic vs foreign/alien
  • Articulate vs inarticulate
  • Young vs old
  • Man vs nature
  • Protagonist vs antagonist
  • Action vs inaction
  • Motivator vs observer
  • Empowered vs victim
  • Man vs woman
  • Good-looking vs ugly
  • Strong vs weak