CSE 87D Winter 2006, Notes 1
Stories, Computers and Semiotics

What is a Narrative?
by Fox Harrell

A novel or short story is considered a narrative by almost everyone, as are films. But what about a Michael Snow film, such as "Wavelength" (45 minute zoom out of a wave pinned to a wall)?

Is the sentence "Because John hit the ball, they won the game" a narrative? What about the sentence "pouring this pitcher will cause the glass to fill with milk?"

Is narrative located in an artifact or is it located in the mind? Is it a human construction?

The following discussion of definitions of narrative is from Recent Concepts of Narrative by Brian Richardson:

Currently, four basic approaches to the definition of narrative are in use; we may designate these as temporal, causal, minimal, and transactional. The first posits the representation of events in a time sequence as the defining feature of narrative; the second insists that some causal connection, however oblique, between the events is essential; the third and most capacious, Genette's, suggests that any statement of an action or event is ipso facto a narrative, since it implies a transformation or transition from an earlier to a later state; the fourth posits that narrative is simply a way of reading a text, rather than a feature or essence found in a text. In additional to these four, Monika Fludernik in an essay in this volume draws on linguistics to differentiate narrative from other text types.

Of these positions, the most commonly employed are the temporal and the causal stances. Gerald Prince has defined narrative as "the representation of at least two real or fictive events in a time sequence, neither of which presupposes or entails the other" Dorrit Cohn has recently stated that the following is a fairly consensual definition of narrative: "a series of statements that deal with a causally related sequence of events that concern human (or human-like) beings". Brian Richardson: a narrative is a representation of a causally related series of events.

You can get the full artilce here.

The following is from Narratology: A Guide to the Theory of Narrative by Manfred Jahn:

First we must define narrative itself. What are the main ingredients of a narrative? What must a narrative have for it to count as narrative? For a simple answer let us say that all narratives have a story. But let us immediately add two additional requirements: (1) any kind of story is not enough; let us stipulate that a story must have an action which involves characters; and (2) let us also assume that all stories come with a story-teller. Actually, our preferred term for a story-teller will be 'narrator.' A narrative has a story based on an action caused and experienced by characters, and a narrator who tells it. Indeed, this getting started section will mainly focus on narrators and characters. Narratology: The theory of the structure of narrative. To investigate a structure, one dissects (segments, factors) an object into its component parts, and then goes on to describe the various relations that exist between these parts.
Note [by JG]: The above is not the definition of "narratology" used in this course, which is simply "the study of narrative" (e.g., on page 41 of Barthes). However, structure is important, and Jahn's definition does capture many (but not all) of the approaches to narrative that appear in the literature. Information on some topic pulled off the web may or may not reflect views of the larger community interested in that topic, and contrarian positions are found surprisingly often. The above quotes are thus intended (by the teachers of this course) to stimulate your own thinking on the topic of the title, rather than as definitive answers.
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