Story and Discourse, by Seymour Chatman (Callen)
November 29, 2004
Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film by Seymour Chatman
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978
In this invaluable text to the fields of narrative theory and film/narrative studies, structuralist and film theorist Seymour Chatman offers an analysis of narrative by detailing the clear distinctions between story (what is told) and discourse (how it is told). Broadly, Chatman attempts to draw connections between narrative and the effect of narrative on audiences by breaking down the elements that create a story. He does this by describing key elements within narratives and providing examples from a broad range of text, film, theater, and other narrative outlets which serve as examples to highlight specific elements that create a narrative. I decided to format this review in a chapter by chapter summary, as I will certainly use this text in future analyses of film narratives and will also revisit it for my thesis.
In chapter one, Chatman offers a definition and discussion about the notion of story, which “exists only at an abstract level; any manifestation already entails the selection and arrangement performed by the discourse as actualized by a given medium” (37). In this introductory chapter, a comic strip is broken down into “reading-out” and “reading.” Reading-out is an ‘interlevel’ term that includes the readers’ assumptions and knowledge of other events/states/implications that contribute to the plot of the narrative (41). In Chatman’s words, “…the interesting thing is that our minds inveterately seek structure, and they will provide it if necessary” (45). Conversely, reading is ‘intralevel’ and audiences understand a narrative based solely on the information about the plot related by an author (41).
Chapter two breaks down events in a story and how these events are understood by readers/audiences. Naturalizing is the way in which “audiences come to recognize and interpret conventions” (49). That is, to incorporate conventions of narrative into a language that is understood by and, later, applied by readers/audiences. For instance, in the language of film, when one watches a character on screen write in a diary and hears a voice-over of events that fit as an entry in a diary, viewers connect the image and the voice. Naturalizing is activated in narratives as a result of intertextuality, intersubjectivity, and verisimilitude (50). Chapter two also details atypical narrative forms such as antistory, “an attack on…convention, which treats all choices as equally valid,” and antinarratives, which question “narrative logic” (57). Narratives by authors Borges and Robbe-Grillet are cited as examples of alternative narrative forms. Also, in chapter two, Chatman outlines conventions of narrative form including suspense, surprise, flashbacks, flashforwards, time, plot, order, duration, and frequency. Imperative to Chatman’s arguments are his notions of ‘kernels’ and ‘satellites.’ Kernels are the major elements of a plot and are “narrative moments that give rise to cruxes in the direction taken by events” and are essential to understanding a story (53). Satellites, on the other hand, are minor elements that are made up of “the workings-out of the choices made at the kernels” and are important, though not required, in the relation of a narrative. Also, vital to Chatman’s discussion of these terms include his notion of discourse-time, “the time it takes to peruse the discourse,” and story-time, “the duration of the purported events” (62). Also important in this chapter are Genette’s categories of relations (order, duration, and achrony) between story and discourse time. Chapter two ends with a discussion about how time distinctions are manifested (language tense system, montage in film, etc.).
The third chapter highlights ‘existents’ in a story by introducing different arenas of story-space. In a cinematic narrative, story-space is the “spacial parameters that communicate story in film” (97). In a verbal narrative, story-space is developed by a moving focus of direction developed through descriptors. This chapter closes by focusing on the character as an existent, highlighting different understandings and descriptions of characters (traits, settings) by Aristotle, Propp, Todorov, Barthes, and A.C. Bradley.
In chapter four, nonnarrated stories are introduced as an offshoot of discourse. Chatman presents the different roles of the real author, implied author, narrator, real reader, implied reader, and narratee. Two indispensable roles in a narrative are the real author and real reader. The narrator and narratee are optional depending upon the narrative. Finally, though the implied author and implied reader are immanent, they are not required in the creation of narrative. Chapter four also discusses the many possibilities of point of view in film and the various channels, visual and auditory, that act as different ways to create written and speech records. Two such examples include a diary and a soliloquy. Finally, converging point of view and speech records, chapter four concludes by providing descriptions and examples of stream of consciousness, free association, and interior monologue in narrative.
Chapter five discusses covert v. overt narrators. Covert “occupies the middle ground between non-narration and conspicuously audible narration” while overt narrative forms offer straight-forward set descriptions and temporal summaries (197). Especially interesting in this chapter is a discussion about how unreliable narration in film forces viewers analyze the situation and character in-depth and come to one’s own opinions, involving audiences on a higher level (235). Chapter five closes with a discussion on the commentary and interpretation of events in the story. Factors such as self-conscious narrators and general truths and scientific facts introduced by the narrative are important in discussing commentary and interpretation of narrative.
Finally, the short conclusion offers readers a series of open-ended questions that inspires deeper thought on the topic. Chatman wonders how useful a distinction between story and discourse can be for analyzing narrative form. Also, Chatman ponders the role of narrative causality, cultural messages subsumed by narratives, and the influence of the media on abstract discursive structures.
Overall, this text was probably the most helpful guide in my quest to learn about narrative theory because of its dissection and description of the vital parts of a narrative. Chatman is easy to comprehend and offers a broad range of readers a terrific and crucial analysis of the complex system of a narrative.