Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure

“Introduction” from Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Summary)

Summary by Pierre Gander (, Oct. 1997


    Chatman, S. (1993). Story and discourse: Narrative structure in fiction and film. London: Cornell University Press.

This article by Seymour Chatman is the introductory chapter to a textbook on narratology. Chatman is attempting to give an overview of the area of narratology while also giving specific examples of how narratives can be analyzed structurally.

Chatman notes that earlier work by Propp was useful since it tried to make a theory of plot and separated the structure of narrative from its mere manifestations, a distinction Chatman says have been made generally by the French structuralists and Russian formalists. The shortcomings with Propp’s analysis was that it looked on simple folk tales which are not representative of modern narratives, and also that it might lead to analysis without seeing the narratives as a whole.

With the formalists and structuralists, Chatman agrees that the object of study of narrative theory is literary discourse, not individual works in themselves. The task is not to criticize or prescribe, but to explore questions such as: What are the ways in which we recognize a presence of a narrator? What is plot? What is point of view?

Chatman goes on to show that narratives are structures because they involve Piaget’s three notions of wholeness, transformation, and self-regulation. Narrative is a whole because the elements are related in an organized way. Narratives include transformations and self-regulations because the transformations, the expression of narrative events, follow certain rules that do not ‘go beyond’ the narrative. Chatman also shows that narratives are – as is language – semiotic structures – they have meaning in and of themselves. By being in a narrative, elements become meaningful, e.g. an artifact can become a living character in a cartoon because it takes the role of ‘actor’. Chatman divides narrative discourse into narrative form (the structure of narrative transmission) and its manifestation (its appearance in a specific materializing medium). Another distinction is that between story and discourse. Story is the content of the narrative expression, while discourse is the form of that expression.

Chatman discusses two aspects of narratives: selection and coherence. Selection means that from the mass of details in the story, some are selected to appear in the discourse. Because of the properties of the medium, some details are left out and remain unknown, which Chatman denotes with the term Unbestimmthetien. Coherence means that the audience should be able to make assumptions about what is told, ‘common sense’ inferences should be true, e.g. “He left” should refer to the same “he” as was mentioned earlier.

Chatman stresses the distinction between the narrator and the author. The narrator might or might not be present in the narrative while the author never is – he or she is instead the real person behind the work and is always there.

The structure of a short example narrative is analyzed using a list of constituents: stasis, process, events, actions, happenings, character, setting, etc. Chatman also indicates how the reader makes inferences from what he sees, and thereby constructing the story. Some narrative statements uses the mode of telling (mediating, presenting, diegetic) other the mode of showing (unmediated, exposing, mimesis). In diegesis the narrator is revealed which not has to be the case in mimesis. The example also illustrates that narratives can exist in media other than language, e.g. pictures. Chatman stresses that the description of a narrative in abstract narrative statements (say, written language) is not actually the story itself. It is a manifestational representation, selections having been made and effects of realizing it in a certain medium (written language), of the story which is an abstract entity.

Finally, Chatman differentiates between “reading” and “reading out”, where the former means surface reading and the latter means relating surface statements to deep statements, moving between narrative levels, and thereby ‘constructing’ the story.


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