I. Some Useful Distinctions
A text is a finite, structured whole composed of language signs [oral, gestural, and/or written]. A narrative text is a text in which an agent relates a narrative. A story is a fabula that is presented [interpreted, judged by the story-teller] in a certain manner. A fabula is a series of logically and chronologically related events that are caused or experienced by actors. An event is the transition from one state [of things] to another state [of things]. Actors are agents that perform actions. They are not necessarily human. To act is defined here as to cause or to experience an event. The text is not the story [because "the same story" can be told in different texts, even in different media]. The story is not the fabula [because the same sequence of events can be seen and presented as having different significance or with different emphases]. Mieke Bal, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative (1980; English translation 1985), 5.
Characteristics of Narrative Texts:
1. Two types of spokesmen are found in narrative texts; one does not play a role in the fabula whereas the other does. [If the narrative is in the "first person," one of the figures may function as both types of spokesman. ]
2. It is possible to distinguish three layers in a narrative text: the text, the story, and the fabula.
3. The narrative text is concerned with a series of connected events caused or experienced by the actors. (Bal, 8).
II. The Purpose of Narrative:
[There are three modes of comprehending a number of objects together, the theoretical (the usual method of physical science), the categorical (the usual method of philosophy), and the configurational (the usual method of history and fiction).]
What are the different ways in which a number of objects can be comprehended in a single mental act [that is, "understood" or "known"] ?
First, they may be comprehended as instances of the same generalization. This way is powerful but thin. It is powerful because the generalization refers to things as members of a class or as instances of a formula, and thereby embraces both the experienced and the unexperienced, the actual and the possible. It is thin because it refers to them only in virtue of their possession of certain common characteristics, omitting everything else in the concrete particularity of each. This theoretical mode of comprehension is also often called "hypothetico-deductive."
A second and quite different way of comprehending a number of objects is as examples of the same category. Categorical comprehension superficially resembles theoretical comprehension and is often confused with it, but the relation of theory to its objects is that it enables us to infer and coordinate a body of true statements about that kind of object; the relation of categories to their objects is that they determine what kind of objects these objects may be. Thus a set of categories is often called a conceptual framework : a system of concepts functioning a priori in giving form to otherwise inchoate experience [that is,a set of categories is a plan we consciously set up to sort every item of some group of things into one of several subgroups].
Yet a third way in which a number of things may be comprehended is as elements in a single and concrete complex of relationships. Thus a letter I burn may be understood not only as an oxidizable substance but as a link with an old friend. It may have relieved a misunderstanding, raised a question, or changed by plans at a crucial moment. As a letter, it belongs to a kind of story, a narrative of events which would be unintelligible without reference to it. But to explain this, I would not construct a theory of letters or of friendship but would, rather, show how it belongs to a particular configuration of events like a part to a jigsaw puzzle. It is in this configurational mode that we see together the complex of imagery in a poem, or the combination of motives, pressures, promises, and principles which explain a senator's vote, or the pattern of words, gestures, and actions which constitute our understanding of the personality of a friend. [Narratives, whether fictional or factual, aim to produce this kind of comprehension in the reader. ]
Louis O. Mink, "History and Fiction as Modes of Comprehension," reprinted in Historical Understanding , ed. Brian Fay. E. O. Golob, and R. T. Vann, 51, 54. These modes are further explained at http://web.clas.ufl.edu/users/pcraddoc/minkc1.htm .
III. Narrative in Conversation or "Real Life"--Labov's "Natural Narrative"
Labov defines narrative as:
My summary of part of Mary Louise Pratt's summary, in A Speech Act Theory of Literary Discourse, of part of William Labov's Language in the Inner City , reprinted as "Natural Narrative" in Textbook, ed. Robert Scholes, Nancy R. Comley, and Gregory L. Ulmer. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988, pp. 7-11; 1995, pp. 7-10.
IV. How do we become readers/hearers/speakers of narratives?
Two essential characteristics of narratives, or stories, are pentadic imbalance and the consciousness or subjectivity of the protagonists. A central question in the study of narrative thought is how children come to think narratively. Before attempting an answer to this question, a brief discussion of these story features is necessary.
Kenneth Burke, in his classic Grammar of Motives (1969), noted that, as a minimum, narrative requires
A second critical feature of narratives, noted by Greimas and Courtes (["The Cognitive Dimension of Narrative Discourse," New Literary History 7: 433-77,] 1976), is the subjectivity of the protagonists. Narrator subjectivity may be included here as well. This means that any developed narrative must have (as Greimas and Courtes put it), a double landscape: one of the world of action depicted in the story, the other of the world of consciousness in the minds both of the protagonists and narrator.
Narrative thinking involves, in part, the comprehension or understanding of imbalances as such. Such comprehension presupposes knowledge of canonical states, in that imbalances consist in violating . . . the canonical relations that may exist among pentadic elements. Accordingly, the child needs to garner experience with conventional happenings to understand when other happenings vary starkly from what is normal or expected.
Young children appear to have knowledge of the canonical relations among agents, actions, goals, scenes, and instruments [of everyday events].
But what of the second key feature of narrative, the elaboration of action in terms of a landscape of consciousness? What moves the child from the mere exposition of the occurrence of actions to an introduction of character subjectivity or mind in relation to action? It may be the case that pentadic imbalance itself serves as a trigger for this elaboration. Pentadic balance is easily handled by the laws of action and convention alone, whereas imbalance sets [the observer] on to thinking about the contents of mind, such as intentions. [Experiments have shown that the ability to distinguish between what happened and what the character knows about is something that children develop about the age of 3 or 4.]
Joan Lucariello, "Canonicality and Consciousness in Child Narrative,"
in Narrative Thought and Narrative Language, ed. Bruce K. Britton
and A. D. Pellegrini (1990), pp. 131-33.