Beginning, middle, end – traditions of narrative (1)

narrative [na-ra-tiv], a telling of some true or fictitious event or connected sequence of events, recounted by a narrator to a narratee (although there may be more than one of each)… A narrative will consist of a set of events (the story) recounted in a process of narration (or discourse), in which the events are selected and arranged in a particular order (the plot). The category of narratives includes both the shortest accounts of events (e.g. the cat sat on the mat, or a brief news item) and the longest historical or biographical works, diaries, travelogues, etc., as well as novels, ballads, epics, short stories, and other fictional forms.

Chris Baldick, Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 145.

Stories surround us. In childhood we learn fairy tales and myths. As we grow up, we read short stories, novels, history, and biography. Religion, philosophy and science often present their doctrines through exemplary stories… Plays tells stories, as do films, television shows, comic books, paintings, dance, and many other cultural phenomena. Much of our conversation is taken up with stories of one sort or another – recalling an event from the past or telling a joke. Even newspaper articles are called ‘stories’, and when we ask for an explanation, we may say, ‘What’s the story?’ We cannot escape even by going to sleep, since we often experience our dreams as little narratives, and we recall and retell the dreams in the shape of stories. Perhaps narrative is a fundamental way that humans make sense of the world.

David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, London: McGraw-Hill, 1993, p. 64.

We have been discussing narratives and what a narrative really is. We have also been discussing whether images on their own can demonstrate a narrative or whether a series of images must be used and is text even necessary to convey this.


Narrative discourse: key terms and ideas

Narrative is often split into story and plot, the distinction being as follows:

story – what it is (i.e. all the material available to the narrator, including that which s/he chooses not to use and which are therefore left to the viewer’s or listener’s imagination: this is sometimes referred to as diegetic material, or the diegesis)

plot – how it is told (i.e. the choice and arrangement of materials, plus other materials which are ‘outside’ the story: this can include non-diegetic material, in other words elements which have nothing to do with the actual story, e.g. the passers-by in a street scene, or which are not actually know to the protagonists of the story, e.g. credits, soundtrack)

Experimentation with narratives

The Unfortunates


The Unfortunates by B.S Johnson

The Unfortunates is an experimental “book in a box” published in 1969 by English author B. S. Johnson and reissued in 2008 by New Directions. The 27 sections are unbound, with a first and last chapter specified. The 25 sections in-between, ranging from a single paragraph to 12 pages in length, are designed to be read in any order. Christopher Fowler described it as “a fairly straightforward meditation on death and friendship, told through memories.” Jonathan Coe described it as “one of the lost masterpieces of the sixties”.

Johnson said of the book “I did not think then, and do not think now, that this solved the problem completely… But I continue to believe that my solution was nearer; and even if it was only marginally nearer, then it was still a better solution to the problem of conveying the mind’s randomness than the imposed order of a bound book.

Wikipedia. 2013. The Unfortunates. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 8 November 2013].

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