Narratology is the study of narrative and narrative structure and the ways that these affect our perception.[1] It is an anglicisation of French narratologie, coined by Tzvetan Todorov (Grammaire du Décaméron, 1969).[2] Its theoretical lineage is traceable to Aristotle (Poetics) but modern narratology is agreed to have begun with the Russian Formalists, particularly Vladimir Propp (Morphology of the Folktale, 1928), and Mikhail Bakhtin's theories of heteroglossia, dialogism, and the chronotope first presented in The Dialogic Imagination (1975).


The origins of narratology lend to it a strong association with the structuralist quest for a formal system of useful description applicable to any narrative content, by analogy with the grammars used as a basis for parsing sentences in some forms of linguistics. This procedure does not however typify all work described as narratological today; Percy Lubbock's work in point of view (The Craft of Fiction, 1921) offers a case in point.

In 1966 a special issue of the journal Communications proved highly influential, becoming considered a program for research into the field and even a manifesto.[3][4] It included articles by Barthes, Claude Brémond, Genette, Greimas, Todorov and others, which in turn often referred to the works of Vladimir Propp[3][4] (1895–1970).

Jonathan Culler (2001) describes narratology as comprising many strands

implicitly united in the recognition that narrative theory requires a distinction between "story," a sequence of actions or events conceived as independent of their manifestation in discourse, and "discourse," the discursive presentation or narration of events.'[5]

The Russian Formalists first proposed such a distinction, employing the couplet fabula and sujet. A subsequent succession of alternate pairings has preserved the essential binomial impulse, e.g. histoire/discours, histoire/récit, story/plot. The Structuralist assumption that one can investigate fabula and sujet separately gave birth to two quite different traditions: thematic (Propp, Bremond, Greimas, Dundes, et al.) and modal (Genette, Prince, et al.) narratology.[6] The former is mainly limited to a semiotic formalization of the sequences of the actions told, while the latter examines the manner of their telling, stressing voice, point of view, transformation of the chronological order, rhythm and frequency. Many authors (Sternberg, 1993,[7] Ricoeur, 1984, and Baroni, 2007)[8] have insisted that thematic and modal narratology should not be looked at separately, especially when dealing with the function and interest of narrative sequence and plot.

James Phelan, editor of Narrative (the journal of the International Society for the Study of Narrative), has written numerous books and articles on narrative theory (see reference list). With Frederick Luis Aldama, Brian McHale and Robyn Warhol, Phelan directs Project Narrative at The Ohio State University.


Designating work as narratological is to some extent dependent more on the academic discipline in which it takes place than any theoretical position advanced. The approach is applicable to any narrative, and in its classic studies, vis-a-vis Propp, non-literary narratives were commonly taken up. Still the term "narratology" is most typically applied to literary theory and literary criticism, as well as film theory and (to a lesser extent) film criticism. Atypical applications of narratological methodologies would include sociolinguistic studies of oral storytelling (William Labov) and in conversation analysis or discourse analysis that deal with narratives arising in the course of spontaneous verbal interaction. It also includes the study of videogames, graphic novels, the infinite canvas, and narrative sculptures linked to topology and graph theory.[9] However, constituent analysis of a type where narremes are considered to be the basic units of narrative structure could fall within the areas of linguistics, semiotics, or literary theory.[10]

Narratology in New Media

Digital Media theorist and professor Janet Murray theorized a shift in storytelling and narrative structure in the twentieth century as a result of scientific advancement in her 1998 book Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Murray argues that narrative structures such the multi-narrative more accurately reflected "post-Einstein physics" and the new perceptions of time, process, and change, than the traditional linear narrative. The unique properties of computers are better-suited for expressing these "limitless, intersecting" stories or "cyberdramas."[11] These cyberdramas differ from traditional forms storytelling in that they invite the reader into the narrative experience through interactivity i.e hypertext fiction and Web soap The Spot. Murray also controversially declared that video games - particularly role-playing games and life-simulators like The Sims, contain narrative structures or invite the users to create them. She supported this idea in her article "Game Story to Cyberdrama" in which she argued that stories and games share two important structures: contest and puzzles.[12]

Electronic Literature and Cybertext

Development and exclusive consumption on digital devices and interactivity are key characteristics of electronic literature. This has resulted in varying narrative structures of these interactive mediums. Nonlinear narratives serve as the base of many interactive fictions. Sometimes used interchangeably with hypertext fiction, the reader or player plays a significant role in the creation of a unique narrative developed by the choices they make within the story-world. Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden is one of the first and most studied examples of hypertext fiction, featuring 1,000 lexias and 2,800 hyperlinks.[13]

In his book Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, Espen Aarseth conceived the concept of cybertext, a subcategory of ergodic literature, to explain how the medium and mechanical organization of the text affects the reader's experience:

...when you read from a cybertext, you are constantly reminded of inaccessible strategies and paths not taken, voices not heard. Each decision will make some parts of the text more, and others less, accessible, and you may never know the exact results of your choices; that is, exactly what you missed.[14]

The narrative structure or game-worlds of these cybertexts are compared to a labyrinth that invites the player, a term Aarseth deems more appropriate than reader, to play, explore and discover paths within these texts. Two kinds labyrinths that are referenced by Aarseth: the unicursal labyritnth holds one single, winding path that leads to a hidden center, while the multicursal labyrinth, synonymous with maze, is branching and complex with the path and direction chosen by the player. These concepts help to distinguish between erogodic (unicursal) and nonerogodic literature (multicursal). Some works such as Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire have proven to potentially be both depending on the path the reader takes.[15]

See also


  1. General Introduction to Narratology, College of Liberal Arts, Purdue University
  2. Gerald Prince, "Narratology," Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, ed. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994) 524.
  3. Herman, David and Jahn, Manfred and Ryan, Marie-Laure (2005) Routledge encyclopedia of narrative theory, pp.574–5
  4. Bamberg, Michael G. W. (1998) Oral Versions of Personal Experience: Three Decades of Narrative Analysis. A Special Issue of the Journal of Narrative and Life History, p.40
  5. Jonathan Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, Routledge Classics ed. (London: Routledge, 2001) 189.
  6. Ruth Ronen, "Paradigm Shift in Plot Models: An Outline of the History of Narratology", Poetics Today, 11(4):817–842 (Winter 1990).
  7. Meir Sternberg, Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction, (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.)
  8. Raphaël Baroni, La Tension narrative. Suspense, curiosité et surprise, (Paris: Seuil, 2007).
  9. Félix Lambert, 2015, "Narrative sculptures: graph theory, topology and new perspectives in narratology."
  10. Henri Wittmann, "Théorie des narrèmes et algorithmes narratifs," Poetics 4.1 (1975): 19–28.
  11. Murray, Janet Horowitz (1997). Hamlet on the holodeck. Internet Archive. Free Press.
  12. Murray, Janet (May 1, 2004). "From Game-Story to Cyberdrama". Electronic Book Review. Retrieved 2019-12-08.
  13. Ensslin, Astrid (May 2, 2010). "Victory Garden". Electronic Literature Directory. Retrieved 2019-12-08.
  14. Aarseth, Espen (1997). Cybertext : perspectives on ergodic literature. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 3. ISBN 0-8018-5578-0. OCLC 36246052.
  15. Aarseth 1997, pp. 5–8.


  • Phelan, James. Experiencing Fiction: Judgments, Progressions, and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2007.
  • Phelan, James. Living To Tell About It: A Rhetoric and Ethics of Character Narration. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005.
  • Phelan, James. Narrative as Rhetoric: Technique, Audiences, Ethics, Ideology. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1996.
  • Phelan, James. Reading People, Reading Plots: Character, Progression, and the Interpretation of Narrative. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
  • Phelan, James, ed. Reading Narrative: Form, Ethics, Ideology. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989.
  • Phelan, James, David Herman, and Brian McHale, eds. Teaching Narrative Theory. New York: MLA Publications, 2010.
  • Phelan, James, and Peter J. Rabinowitz. A Companion to Narrative Theory. Malden: Blackwell, 2005.
  • Phelan, James, and Peter J. Rabinowitz. Understanding Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1994.
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