The Structure of Narrative

The Structure of Narrative

The narrative of personal experience given below (which was drawn from Life Stories: The Creation of Coherence, by Charlotte Linde, Oxford, 1993, page 84) is relatively simple and undramatic, but its formal structure is quite clear, and it provides a good illustration of what such a narrative looks like, what its parts are, and how they fit together.

A Simple Narrative of Personal Experience

The Clause Structural Type
And how bout the particular field? Abstract furnished by interviewer's request
That was more or less an accident. Evaluation of entire narrative
Uh, I started out in Renaissance studies, Orientation
but I didn't like any of the people I was working with, Orientation/Evaluation
and at first I thought I would just leave Y
and go to another university
Narrative (main verb "thought")
uh but a medievalist at Y university asked me
to stay or at least reconsider whether I should
leave or not,
Narrative (main verb "asked")
and um pointed out to me that I had done very
well in the medieval course that I took with
him and that I seemed to like it,
Narrative (main verb "pointed out"). Absence of
subject indicates that the verb is closely tied to
the previous verb, and may be simultaneous with it.
Also Evaluation of speaker's university career.
and he was right. Evaluation
I did. Evaluation
And he suggested that I switch fields
and stay at Y.
Narrative (main verb "suggested")
And that's how I got into medieval literature. Coda: summarizes the narrative and marks its end

Notice that all the main verbs are in the narrative past tense, as is usually the case for such narratives of personal experience.

It is not difficult to formalize what we will call the Labov narrative structure as a sign system, in much the same style as the sign system gven for a fragment of English grammar in An Introduction to Algebraic Semiotics, with Applications to User Interface Design. The top level sort is of course for narratives, lets denote it Narr, and the second level sorts include Cls, for narrative clauses, which we take as potentially including evaluative material, Eval for a stand-alone evaluative clause, Open for the opening section, which may include an orientation and/or an abstract, and Coda for the closing section. There are several constructors for building narratives from other material, corresponding to various options for leaving out some material; the priority on these corresponds to how common or ordinary they are.

The easiest way to summarize this situation is to give a general syntactic expression, the instances of which correspond to the structures for narratives that can be built according to the rules of this sign system. The following uses an "extended BNF" notation,

[(<Abs> + <Ornt> + <Abs><Ornt>)[<Eval>]] (<Cls>[<Eval>])* [<Coda>] where [...] indicates either zero or one instance of whatever is enclosed, where + indicates exclusive or, and where juxtaposition of subexpressions indicates concatenation. For example, the subexpression [(<Abs> + <Ornt> + <Abs><Ornt>)[<Eval>]] at the beginning of the expression gives the definition for Open, the opening section of a narrative. So we could now write the whole thing as follows: <Narr> ::= <Open> (<Cls>[<Eval>])* [<Coda>] <Open> ::= [(<Abs> + <Ornt> + <Abs><Ornt>)[<Eval>]]

It is a very good exercise to write out the formal details of the sign system of which this is a summary; it will of course include the priorities etc. that are left out of the above purely syntactic description. Note that in general regular expressions cannot suffice, because sign systems can define context free languages, and axioms can further restrict these, resulting in context sensitive languages, or even general recursive languages.

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Last modified: Thu May 8 21:10:14 PDT 2003