The Tripartite Model

Three words to label ‘what is told’, ‘how it is told’ and ‘on/through what it is told’.tripartite-new1In this table (terms following Lowe 2000), ‘Story’ is the ‘what’, the content of the ‘Narrative’. That second block ‘Narrative’ is the ‘how’, the way in which the ‘Story’ is presented. The third block ‘Text’ is the particular medium in/on/through which that ‘Narrative’ is experienced. Of the three blocks in this stratified model, the only one we have, in any physical sense, is the ‘Text’. ‘Story’ and ‘Narrative’ are abstractions, useful for analysis but also used by every reader. I’ll quote Lowe’s comments on the process of constructing these abstractions, as there is an emphasis on the role of the reader which especially appeals to me.

It seems plain that both ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ must exist as something more than artifacts of the critic; indeed, I am not sure that a sensible line can be drawn between the cognitive manipulations performed on a text by critics on the one hand and any other kind of reader on the other. There is a better case: that the ‘story’ and the ‘narrative’, while clearly abstractions from the text, are abstractions by the reader, constructed in the course of the normal cognitive process of reading fiction.
(Lowe 2000: 22)

As a starting example then, let’s use Hilary Mantel’s An Experiment In Love (since it instigated my decision to add this section on terminology) but before that, let’s flip the blocks (and work as readers from Text through Narrative to Story).tripartite-new2The Text begins on page one with the printed words on the page now reproduced digitally here: ‘This morning in the newspaper I saw a picture of Julia.’

Preliminary observation: the Text is not the Book. The 1996 Penguin edition I am looking at whilst typing this has a cover with an image on the front and a selection of reviews on the back (along with pricing, serial numbers and a barcode). Before getting to the Text, I must negotiate more laudatory review snippets, an ‘About the author’, title pages, publication information and a dedication. This is paratext. The information it contains might draw us to a Text (e.g. an attractive cover) or influence in some way our reading (e.g. reviews, hierarchical ordering of contents) but it is not the Text. Further reading here is Genette’s Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. There is a concise overview of how paratexts can affect the reading process by Valerie Pellat in the Introduction (available in the preview) of Text, Extratext, Metatext and Paratext in Translation. In films or TV shows paratext includes the title sequence, end credits and so on.

Observation: The Text is the only one of the three levels which is not an abstraction. It is the medium which carries the Narrative. I noted a distinction between what I was viewing (words printed in ink on paper) and what I was reproducing (words digitally rendered on a screen). Both page and screen are mediums. The glossary in New Perspectives on Narrative Perspective defines Text as ‘any symbolic representation of a narrative through a particular medium, whether that be oral or written language, gesture, film, television, or computer animation’ (2001: 358). Lowe, in outlining his cognitive model and allowing a similarly expansive view of textual media includes an important additional qualification for his usage – a ‘text is a set of representational signs with a directional linear structure’ (2000 :21). Text is not only words in print. In comic books, image and words work together and advance together (hence ‘sequential art’). Text has a direction.

This applies even to experimental presentations of text such as Danielewski’s House of Leaves with its multiple fonts, formats and layouts, its upside-down and back-to-front passages (pages 139-140 available in the link preview are a good example). The reader is required to make physical adjustments to read those sections of text and perform mental operations to process relationships between text sections but the texts themselves (in themselves) have a directional linear structure.

Looking at this screen, we read a sequence of representational signs: ‘This morning in the newspaper I saw a picture of Julia.’ Mentally, we process that sequence of signs. Then the next.

She was standing on the threshold of her house in Highgate, where she receives her patients: a tall woman wrapped in some kind of Indian shawl.

There is a danger here that analysis could take us off the path so I simply wish to draw attention to some immediate and obvious markers of a Narrative: Point of View and Time. ‘This morning – I saw – She was standing.’ The Narrative is a presentation. Here it is organised by ‘I’. This ‘I’ (later identified as ‘Carmel’) is structuring events that took place in a Storyworld according to ‘I’’s point of view and choices of presentation – what to talk about, how to talk about it, in what order to talk about it.

Carroll (2001: 23) writes, ‘Narratives mandate that the events and/or states of affairs represented be perspicuously time-ordered.’ Herman’s four basic elements of what constitutes a Narrative (analysed in his 2009 monograph) – situatedness, event sequencing, worldmaking/ world disruption, and what it’s like – will come into play in due course, though Time is central to the element of event sequencing. All I wish to establish and to reiterate for now is that Narrative (as I am using the term) is an ordered production produced by a narrator, and in doing so make that definition distinct from the manner in which I am using the term Story.

Like Narrative, Story is an abstraction. I use Story now as a term because I like ‘Storyworld’ which helps me to be clear about the difference between the ‘what’ and ‘how’. A Story is a linear sequence of events that took place in a Storyworld. Herman (2009: 192-3) defines the Story (in the sense I am following in the model diagram) as the chronological sequence of situations and events that can be reconstructed on the basis of cues provided in a narrative text’ and the Storyworld as ‘a global mental model of the situations and events being recounted.’

Sticking with An Experiment In Love, Carmel as the ‘Narrating-I’ structures a Narrative of events and situations in which her younger self, the ‘Experiencing-I’, was involved. The ‘Narrating-I’ is not obligated to follow the chronological sequence of events as they occurred in the Storyworld (and does not) and what the ‘Narrating-I’ communicates is from her point of view. It is not the totality of the Storyworld. For example, what she has to say about characters is not everything that happened to those characters (and remains untold) or everything that happened in the London of the ‘Experiencing-I’ in the 1980s. It is a window on a world. It could be a world similar to our own, or quite different.

As another example, consider the (once?) popular HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. The Text is the TV show (excluding paratext), a multimodal medium comprised of moving images and sound (and further complicated by the narrative metadata of e.g. a soundtrack. See Lowe 2000: 25). When we watch the show, we as readers take on a role as an audience of a Narrative. In the format of the show that Narrative is often the presentation of a sequence of situations and events affecting one or more characters in the Storyworld of Westeros. It’s a selected sequence of episodes. Accepting a role as an audience and immersing ourselves in process of reading its Narrative, we allow that these characters have a Storyworld existence, that they don’t simply freeze when not in view but carry on with lives of which we see selected snippets – and those snippets are from a particular view point and are not necessarily in a chronological sequence. And if we could pass through the TV screen and into Westeros, we would be walking in their Storyworld, within the global model we reconstruct from c(l)ues in the presentation of the Story; that is to say, in the Narrative.

I hope that makes sense because I’m now going to make it messy. Here’s the same block diagram with some alternative corresponding terms.tripartite-new3In the PhD thesis, my narratological model was de Jong (following Bal 1985) and in place of ‘Story’ I used the term ‘Fabula’ and in place of ‘Narrative’ I used the term ‘Story’. This can be very confusing for the reader! At the time, I liked ‘Fabula’ because of its technical appeal. It sounds like an abstraction. It reminds us that that level is a mental reconstruction drawn from the Narrative – it’s something we create ourselves when rearranging temporal ordering of Narrative into chronological order and when we strip away, as best we can, point of view. But ‘Storyworld’ appeals to a reader as ‘Fabulaworld’ never will. As noted above, my three key terms now follow Lowe 2000 who discusses (17-23) his own reasons for selecting them over the alternatives (and I was convinced despite his misgivings).

According to which pairing of narratological terms is used, Story is either Story or Narrative and the reader is reliant on the analyst making clear the terminology in their method. Story and Narrative both have a variety of informal usages and ones which overlap. For example, what do we mean in making the request ‘Tell me a story’? Well following the terminology set out in my tripartite scheme and the discussion thus far, we might more expansively say ‘Take on the role of a narrator and communicate to me (taking on the role of audience) a narrative in an oral mode (accompanied/reinforced by the visual mode of gesture and facial expressions); a narrative which arranges and represents events and situations that took place in a fictional world, selecting a finite number of locations of that world, setting the narrative within a finite time frame and having it feature a fine cast of characters from that world.’ The shorter version is more likely to gain a positive response but I hope the point is made.

Discourse is another alternative to Narrative but again a term with several usages and, for me, Narrative (as defined above) works (and I need Discourse for Speech Acts). My other reason is precisely (or perversely) their ubiquity. The alert reader can see from my opening paragraph that there is much technical terminology waiting to be employed in classifying narrator-types, and beyond that there is focalisation, anachrony, communication models et cetera. Underneath all that is to be piled on top,  I wanted a simple and accessible foundational model of three defined terms: Text – Narrative – Story.

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