ERIC Identifier: ED250698
Publication Date: 1984-00-00
Author: Pradl, Gordon
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading and Communication Skills Urbana IL.
Narratology: The Study of Story Structure. ERIC Digest.
The telling of stories is such a pervasive aspect of our environment
that we sometimes forget that stories provide the initial and continuing means
for shaping our experience. Indeed, without stories our experiences would merely
be unevaluated sensations from an undifferentiated stream of events. Stories are
the repository of our collective wisdom about the world of social/cultural
behavior; they are the key mediating structures for our encounters with reality.
Thus, it is not surprising that a great deal of scholarly investigation has
focused on both the nature of stories and their central role in human affairs.
Across many disciplines -- including linguistics, literary criticism,
anthropology, psychology, and sociology -- researchers have begun to see how the
analysis of story structure is fundamental to our understanding of individual
intention and potential.
WHAT IS NARRATOLOGY?
This rather pretentious label refers to the structuralist study of narrative.
The structuralist seeks to understand how recurrent elements, themes, and
patterns yield a set of universals that determine the makeup of a story. The
ultimate goal of such analysis is to move from a taxonomy of elements to an
understanding of how these elements are arranged in actual narratives, fictional
The intellectual tradition out of which narratology grew began with the
linguistic work of Ferdinand de Saussure. By distinguishing between parole
(specific instances of spoken language) and langue (the idealized abstract
grammar relating all the specific instances of speech), Saussure initiated
"structuralism," the study of systems or structures as independent from
meanings, and the field of semiotics was born (see ERIC Fact Sheet,
"Semiotics"). Roman Jakobson and the Russian Formalists also influenced the
study of narrative, revealing how literary language differs from ordinary
language. Structuralism was further shaped by French anthropologist Claude
Levi-Strauss, who concluded that myths found in various cultures can be
interpreted in terms of their repetitive structures.
WHAT FUNCTIONS DO STORIES PLAY IN HUMAN AFFAIRS?
Although, strictly speaking, narratology refers only to the particular
research of literary critics and anthropologists who study narrative discourse,
a concern for narrative penetrates many academic disciplines. Significantly, the
words "narrative" and "story" can both be traced back to an original meaning of
"to know." It is through the story that people quite literally come to know --
that is, to construct and maintain their knowledge of the world. Through a
story, an individual creates meaning out of daily happenings, and this story, in
turn, serves as the basis for anticipation of future events.
The psychologist George Kelly has described how our personalities grow out of
the stories we have chosen to construct from our perceptions of what has
happened to us, and how these stories influence our future expectations.
Similarly, sociologist Peter Berger has emphasized the importance of stories in
shaping social realities, showing how people's characteristic stories change as
they progress from one life theme to another.
WHAT HAS STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS REVEALED ABOUT THE NATURE OF NARRATIVES?
For one thing, researchers have found that certain underlying narrative
structures remain constant, despite the apparently endless diversity of story
forms and content. In his study of one hundred Russian folk tales, Vladimir
Propp found that the same types of actions were being performed (e.g., the hero
is transported to another kingdom) even while the personages and details varied
greatly (e.g., the hero might be Sucenko or Ivan; the vehicle an eagle, a horse,
or a magic ring). In all, Propp identified seven spheres of action and
thirty-one fixed elements that fit his sample of stories; and though tales from
other cultures reveal additional elements, they too are composed of recurring
patterns. Structural analysis, then, uncovers the basic social-psychological
tasks that people confront during their lives -- issues of dependence or
independence, selfishness or sacrifice, birth or death.
For another, structuralists like Tzvetan Todorov, Gerard Genette, and Roland
Barthes have given us new ways to look at how stories (novels) are constructed,
especially across dimensions of time and narration. With regard to time, in
everyday life a speaker relates events according to normal chronology; but in
complex works of fiction, a distinction between "plot" and "story" evolves. The
plot in effect reveals the story, often rearranging the timeline; and through
this the reader "rediscovers" the original events. For instance, in a mystery
story two timelines move in opposite directions to keep the reader guessing
"whodunnit" until the end.
With regard to narration, an oral tale normally consists of a speaker telling
of past events either from a first-person perspective (if the speaker was
involved) or from a third-person perspective (if the speaker was a mere
onlooker). The complicated modern novel, however, destroys such a neat picture
of narrator and voice. Point of view in the modern novel becomes a powerful tool
of the author in revealing subtleties of human psychology. Mitchell Leaska, for
example, has demonstrated how Virginia Woolf's novels involve a carefully
crafted "multiple point-of-view." In sum, narratology has deepened our insights
into both the structure of the novel and its origins in primal tales, adding to
our store of psychological and social wisdom.
HOW DOES A CHILD'S CONCEPT OF STORY DEVELOP?
Arthur Applebee has studied the stories children tell and children's
responses to the stories they read. His study shows that a child's idea of a
story parallels other cognitive abilities and is related to general growth in
ability to take on others' perspectives. Applebee describes six stages in
children's event-arrangement, a developmental pattern ranging from "heaps" (mere
lists of unrelated perceptions) to "true narratives" (complete events that
reveal a theme or evaluation of experience). Other researchers have shown that
children in the telling of their own stories gradually develop certain literary
conventions ("once upon a time...") as they grow increasingly sensitive to the
overall aesthetic structure of narrative.
Developments that parallel children's storytelling abilities occur in their
responses to narratives. While small children have no abstract system for
categorizing the stories around them, adolescents begin to differentiate stories
on the basis of underlying themes and personal significance. What children are
developing here is a mature use of the "spectator role" of language, as James
Britton has described it. In reacting to narratives, children grow in their
ability to compare their constructs of the world with others', and they learn to
question whether their system of expectations is adequate for the future.
"Storying," in other words, is central to personal and ethical development.
HOW DOES CULTURE AFFECT THE INTERPRETATION AND TELLING OF STORIES?
Important differences among cultural groups are reflected in their
explanatory stories of the universe. Similar events appear radically dissimilar
when viewed through the lenses of different cultural traditions. For example,
Wallace Chafe and his associates showed a short film (in which some youths take
pears from a man who has been picking them) to subjects of different
nationalities. The result was multiple interpretations and storytelling
performances. The response patterns of Americans focused on details and temporal
sequencing, while Greeks sought a larger story context and ascribed social
motives to the characters. William Labov's research with cultural subgroups
revealed not only different story lines in response to a question ("Have you
ever been in a situation where you were in serious danger of being killed?") but
also diverse linguistic strategies for stating explanations.
HOW DOES THE STUDY OF NARRATIVE RELATE TO TEACHING/LEARNING THE LANGUAGE
Since story forms provide an essential means of organizing material about
human behavior and events in the world, teachers should explore narrative with
their students. Stories will be a major vehicle of our students' language
development. In encouraging their storymaking, along with their personal
responses to the stories they read, we are fostering personal and cultural
Just as narratology reveals certain universals underlying our stories, it
establishes the ground for heterogeneity of values and surface forms, and thus
supports pluralism in the classroom. While the broad, outward forms of narrative
predominate in the language classroom, narratology is also concerned with how
the individual mind seems to encode information about the world through highly
personalized schemata (see ERIC Fact Sheet, "Schemata"). Finally, storymaking
provides a natural transition into more formal writing tasks. The underlying
"moral" or point that stories attempt to uncover is what eventually gets
transformed into the thesis statement in expository or persuasive essays.
Narratology, then is fundamentally related to teaching and learning at all
grade levels, and even beyond the classroom. From the study of reading
comprehension to the building of models of artificial intelligence, the more we
understand the nature of narrative, the more we understand ourselves.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Applebee, Arthur. THE CHILD'S CONCEPT OF STORY: AGES TWO TO SEVENTEEN.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
Bergold, Sharon. "Children's Growth of Competence in Storytelling". LANGUAGE
ARTS 53 (1976): 874-77.
Britton, James. PROSPECT AND RETROSPECT: SELECTED ESSAYS. Gordon M. Pradl,
ed. Upper Montclair, N.J.: Boynton Cook, 1982.
Chafe, Wallace L., ed. THE PEAR STORIES: COGNITIVE, CULTURAL, AND LINGUISTIC
ASPECTS OF NARRATIVE PRODUCTION. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex Publishing Corporation,
Eagleton, Terry. LITERARY THEORY: AN INTRODUCTION. Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1975.
Favat, F. Andre. CHILD AND TALE: THE ORIGINS OF INTEREST. Urbana, Ill.:
National Council of Teachers of English, 1977.
Freedle, Roy O., ed. NEW DIRECTIONS IN DISCOURSE PROCESSING. Norwood, N.J.:
Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1979.
Kelly, George. THE PSYCHOLOGY OF PERSONAL CONSTRUCTS. New York: Norton, 1955.
Labov, William. "The Transformation of Experience in Narrative Syntax." In
LANGUAGE IN THE INNER CITY. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,
Levi-Strauss, Claude. "The Structural Study of Myth." In STRUCTURAL
ANTHROPOLOGY. New York: Basic Books, 1963.
Leaska, Mitchell A. VIRGINIA WOOLF'S LIGHTHOUSE: A STUDY IN CRITICAL METHOD.
New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.
Pradl, Gordon M. "Learning How to Begin and End a Story." LANGUAGE ARTS 56
Propp, Vladimir, MORPHOLOGY OF THE FOLKTALE. Austin: University of Texas
Rouse, John. THE COMPLETED GESTURE. New York: Skyline Books, 1978.
Schank, Roger. DYNAMIC MEMORY: A THEORY OF REMINDING AND LEARNING IN
COMPUTERS AND PEOPLE. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
"Schemata ." ERIC Fact Sheet, Urbana, Ill.: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and
Communication Skills, 1983.
"Semiotics." ERIC Fact Sheet. Urbana, Ill.: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and
Communication Skills, 1983.