MLL 301
Story and Discourse
Story refers to what is being narrated. Stories generally consist of an abstract, an
orientation introducing the setting and the participants (where, when, who), a
complicating action, a resolution, and a coda, with evaluation occurring
throughout the story.
Discourse, on the other hand, has to do with how the story is being narrated and
with the interactive circuit between teller and readers/listeners. The kind of
discourse the sender selects for telling the story – a novel, painting, film, drama,
opera, music video, comic strip, cartoon – is communicated by a framing, setting
the rules of the game. Throughout the telling of the story, narrative focalization
(point of view, orientation) and evaluative metamessages communicate the
attitude of the sender to the story and the audience.
Narrative Interaction and Situational Frames
Narrative discourse usually implies a number of senders and receivers whose
interactions are associated with framing messages delimiting the type of
narrative situation or genre. Such a frame is similar to the lines drawn around a
sports field or a tennis court clearly signifying that different rules of interaction
are in effect inside than outside the lines.
Publisher to Consumer
If we take the example of a novel, we can begin to trace the various senders,
receivers, and situational frames by beginning with the cover. Thus, the first
sender may be considered the publisher, whose name appears on the outside of
the book, and who is directing the novel at the consumer. The book’s price
indicates that we are dealing with a commodity circulating within an economic
network of distribution.
Author to Readers/Listeners
At the next level, there is the author whose name appears on the cover and on
the title page and whose addressees are the novel’s readers. Usually the book
format and/or an explicit label, such as “novel,” serves as the framing message.
Narrator and Spoken-to (Narratee)
Within the novel, there are one or several narrators who are fictional or
nonfictional speakers. The spoken-to of the narrator is termed the narratee,
which is a purely textual construct representing the receiver role opposite the
narrator. Narrators often pretend that there is a nonfictional frame around the
story they are telling. But when the higher-level authorial frame tells us that we
are reading fiction, this fictional frame overrules the narrator’s frame of pretense.
We are aware that we are reading fiction. On the other hand, the border between
what is and is not fiction is often blurred and not easily ascertained. Modernist
and postmodernist literature is particularly fond of playing with this ambiguity
of frames and borders.
Participants to Participants
Finally, within the story, there are numerous participants/characters as senders
and receivers. The situational frames vary and can be analyzed using the same
categories that apply to nonfictional interactions.
Narrative Focalization (Point of View) and Reader Response
Person, Place, and Time
Narrative discourse is anchored in a particular speaker at a particular place and
at a particular time. This position constitutes the deictic center. Deictics such as
personal pronouns, verb tense, and spatio-temporal terms related to the speaker
– “now,” “here,” and so on – help to orient (or disorient) the receivers concerning
person, place, and time.
Person: Narrative Involvement
A narrator may be the writer’s voice or a participant in the novel through whom
the story is mediated by deictic projection. An involved narrator is a participant
in the story he or she is telling and may be more or less reliable. Such a narrator
may be a first-person narrator-participant or a third-person participant through
whom the action is viewed. An omniscient narrator stands outside the story and
may be more or less privileged (intrusive or detached) in relation to the
Person: Social Positioning.
The sender’s social position, including social characteristics (age, sex, social
class, ethnic group) and social role (parent, doctor, teacher) and access to power
and authority, necessarily determines to some extent the narrative point of view.
Verbal and nonverbal styles – casual, consultative, formal, for instance – and
other stylistic features connected to social variability – generational, gender,
geographical dialects, for example – partly let us know the social position of
senders and their corresponding view of their receivers. Senders can exercise
authority over their receivers, for instance, from a position of social status or
from a position of knowledge.
Narrative discourse, therefore, also communicates metamessages of status and
connection. Do the senders situate themselves one up or one down? Do they seek
to involve the receivers in the narrative process and thereby bring them closer?
In addition to situational style and social deixis, such metamessages can be
gleaned from instances of indirectness, such as indirect speech acts and figures of
speech related to politeness and impoliteness.
Receivers may reject or accept the social positioning assigned them in the
discourse. Depending on their own social characteristics, readers will respond
differently to the narrative interaction.
Story Time, Discourse Time: Sequencing
Story time is a linear representation of chronological temporality. One event
follows the other in chronological order.
Discourse time, to the contrary, can be nonlinear and anachronological. The
sequencing of events in the story can be manipulated in a variety of ways:
o flashbacks or retrospections
o flashforwards
o beginning in media res
o parallel action, in which two stories or events alternate
o cyclical time, involving circling back to the beginning at the end
o involuted discourse, or sequencing events without any concern for
o conceptual discourse, in which sequencing is based on thematic
o embedding, or stories within stories
The last device – embedding – is a particularly complex way of undoing
narrative linearity, which implies both chronology and causality. As in syntactic
recursion, embedded segments replace coordination by subordination. One
example of embedding is a character within a story who tells another story.
Often, embedded segments are used as flashbacks or as commentaries on the
action or as thematic echoes of the main story. Embedded fragments are usually
an element of cohesion, since they tend to reduplicate or to contrast with the
main narrative.
Embedding can be simple (one story within a story), multiple, or even infinite.
Paradoxical embedding involves a story supposedly containing the story that
contains it. This can be envisioned as a kind of inside-out reversal.
Cultural Knowledge, Beliefs, and Intertexts
Narrative senders take for granted that they share with their receivers a certain
amount of cultural knowledge and beliefs and a large number of texts. Narrators
may aim to reinforce or to undermine their audience’s expectations about
linguistic and nonlinguistic conventions as well as their cultural beliefs and
values and thereby set up a dialogic interaction with the receivers. They may also
take a positive or negative attitude toward their intertexts, that is, the other
works to which they allude or which they quote directly or indirectly in their
own discourse. Receivers will interpret the discourse according to their own
knowledge and cultural values and beliefs, or they may choose to read against
the grain.
Narrative focalization also involves the emotions, drives, fantasies, and
repressed experiences of the sender(s), which are indirectly encoded in the
discourse. Whether receivers react to these depends on their own moods and
inner experiences as well as their skill in reading indirectness and producing
readings beyond the literal.
Sender Attitude to the Story
The evaluative stance of the sender toward the story can be most immediately
gleaned from the choice of topic or theme. Obviously, the speaker attaches
importance to the choice of subject matter and wants to convince receivers that
the events being narrated are worthy of their attention. The organization of the
text—including selection, sequencing, and expression—also lets the receivers
know about the sender’s attitude toward the tale being told. Additionally,
receivers can ascertain the sender’s evaluative metamessages by paying
attention to the following:
o overt evaluation and opinions
o tone conveying irony, banter, humor, negativity, expressive intensity, etc.
o stylistic choices (phonological, lexical, syntactic), including style register
and cohesive patterns of repetition and contrast
o semantic role types
o indirectness, vagueness, and figurative language
o intertextuality
Senders may take an anti-narrative stance by questioning all or some of the
textual strategies of story and narrative discourse, refusing, for example
conventional plot structure, leaving the story open-ended, doing away with story
and theme entirely, disorienting instead of orienting receivers in relation to
person, space, and time, or denying everything as soon as it has been narrated.

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