David Herman: Story Logic

[Readings] (10.15.08, 9:30 pm)

This bridges the worlds of narratology and cognitive science (especially mental models) with crystal clarity. Narrative defines a world, and readers understand a story by understanding the underlying model. “This amounts to claiming, rather unspectacularly, that people try to understand a narrative by figuring out what particular interpretation of characters, circumstances, actions, and events informs the design of the story.” (p. 1) This is foundational! Herman’s investigation ties narratology to linguistics and cognitive science, but to him, it is cognitive science that underpins the study.

Existing narrative theory goes from structuralist movements (Todorov, Genette, Barthes, Prince) to more recent narratologists, who focus on generation and emergence (Ryan, Fludernik, Jahn). Here, the target of narrative analysis is the storyworld, which is similar to the concept of the discourse model in linguistics. The focus of these is to explore beyond what is stated in the text, but to extrapolate the knowledge that is implicit or inferred in the discourse or story.

The first part of the book discusses narrative microdesigns, while the latter half is on macrodesigns. Microdesigns are the features defining states, events, and characters, whereas the macrodesigns plot the mood or feel of the model in a broader sense. The features of macrodesigns are issues such as spatiality or temporality, especially with respect to how these map out onto how the story is read and understood.

Herman invokes the critique of story grammars from Wilensky and Johnson-Laird. However, the critique of story grammars requires more care than it is usually given. The real challenge comes from the complexity of language, which is rife with ambiguity and textual cues. “Thus the real task for narrative analysts–a task only begun in the present study–is to chart constraints on the variable patterning of textual cues with the mental representations that make up storyworlds.” (p. 12) A story cannot be fully specified by a structural grammar, because of the importance of cues. Understanding (and adaptation) come from deciphering those cues and using them to reconstruct the storyworld.

The storyworld captures the ecology of narrative interpretation. It is important to capture the environment of a story, not just the events themselves. This shift is further justified by research in narrative understanding.

Herman notes the role of adaptation within story worlds: “Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1993), for example, does not falsify Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1960) but rather supplements it; in this process, Lubomir Dolezel (1998: 199-226) has called ‘literary transduction,’ one fictional world extends the scope of another by sketching a ‘successor world’ that may precede the ‘protoworld’ in time, feature a different constellation of participants, and fill in otherwise irrecoverable gaps in the protoworld.” (p. 16) This treatment explores a storyworld as something open and shared, that may be extended and interpreted. The idea that a world may be extended highlights the plasticity of storyworlds. Other philosophers (Deleuze for example) might claim that disparate storyworlds may be woven together and connected to form broader conceptions of meaning.

Discourse models depend on Emmott’s contextual frames. These operate like Goffman’s frames for interaction. A guiding theme here is whether a storyworld is special in relation to other kinds of models.

States, Events, and Actions

Herman’s focus of story here is on states, events, and actions. Namely, the aspect of storyness that depends on statefulness and transitions. There is a reference here to Mark Turner, on the narrative basis for understanding the world. Turner argues for a kind of conceptual blending (called a “parabolic projection”) wherein one story is projected onto another to help make it more tractable. The theme guiding this chapter is understanding the relationship between the way that states change in stories, and how these are interpreted. One rule used in interpretation is “understand events as actions,” but this proves to be problematic as it does not address the complexity and gray area between events and actions.

The study here is primarily on microdesign, that is, the extra information that word choice and construction play in the meaning of sentences. But, Herman extends the conclusions more broadly. There are a number of things that exist between states and actions, for instance, activities and achievements. Sentences may be constructed to favor one over another, but over the course of a story, this forms a chain of choices, which informs the reading of the story on the whole. Genres have different preferential typologies for how events are presented.

  • Epic : Accomplishments > achievements > activities > states
  • News reports : Achievements > accomplishments > activities > states
  • Psychological novels : States > activities > accomplishments > achievements
  • Ghost stories : Activities > states > accomplishments > achievements

This analysis is important because it exposes the way that certain types of genres are fundamentally different. It bears a comparison to the construction of different types of games: a sim game has a different event typology than an action game, for example. It is also remarkable because it skewers Aristotle’s poetics. The hierarchy used by one genre is that genre’s own, and this must be cast as a difference in genre, rather than an issue of superiority or inferiority.

Herman gives an analysis of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. There is a relation of narrative traditions, but also important is how certain genre encoding strategies construct and define the tacit logic of the storyworld. The analysis of The Metamorphosis illustrates how it uses genre conventions (of realist fiction) to communicate its message. This logic or model depends on its representation. As an extrapolation: A News report reading of the Odyssey would not have the same model. In order for an adaptation to work, it must be able to preserve the entire model, that includes the model from the genre.

Action Representations

This section is on further distinguishing the gray area between events and actions. Actions are generally attributed as depending on intention and agency. However, the nature of intention in an event is not always clear. Eventness and actionness is also dependent on the observer’s perspective. The narration in a story can make an occurrence seem more like an event or more like an action depending on the representation. For example, in Pride and Prejudice: Darcy and Bingley’s arrival at Netherfield is an event from the perspective of the Bennett family, but is certainly an action on the part of the characters themselves.

In an effort to further explain actions, Herman explores some parameters and categories of actions. The following types are borrowed from Von Wright (1983). These types relate to the intentional and effectual qualities of actions. (p.61):

  1. Producing a given state of affairs
  2. Leaving the state to continue absent
  3. sustaining the state
  4. letting the state cease to obtain
  5. destroying the state
  6. leaving the state to continue present
  7. suppressing the state
  8. letting the state come to obtain

Another system of parameters is borrowed from Rescher (1966; p. 215), and described on the next page (p. 62):

  1. Agent (who did it)
  2. Act-type (what did he do)
  3. Modality of action (how did he or she do it?)
    a. Modality of manner (in what manner did he or she do it?)
    b. Modality of means (by what means did he or she do it?)
  4. Setting of the action (in what context did he or she do it?)
    a. Temporal aspect (when did he or she do it?)
    b. Spatial aspect (where did he or she do it?)
    c. Circumstantial aspect (under what circumstances did he or she do it?)
  5. Rationale of action (why did he or she do it?)
    a. Causality (what caused him or her to do it?)
    b. Finality (with what aim did he or she do it?)
    c. Intentionality (in what state of mind did he or she do it?)

This categorization and parameterization is useful as an analytic tool for reading actions in narratives, and also as a constructive tool for planning how actions should be composed and executed.

Scripts, Sequences, and Stories

Herman is attempting to discern here the difference between narrative and non-narrative forms. The difference seems to be in knowledge structures: schemata, scripts, and frames. These emerge from cognitive science, AI, and (I would argue) sociology. Storyness relates to expectations. Ultimately, this must be grounded in an experiential repertoire. Part of a story will trigger something that is activated, which will enable the rest of the story to make sense.

On one hand, this could be considered an instance of classical dramatic structure, but it also makes sense being more broadly understood as an artifact of cognition. The mind functions associatively, and constructs models. Together, these facts suggest that observed information (discourse or story elements) are actively assembled and make meaning when they form a model that is consistent with subsequent information.

Herman is arguing for a more narrow conception of narrative, though. Recipes or syllogisms are not exactly stories, but they do operate as models that make sense when assembled. He realizes this fuzzyness, and argues for a scalar range of narratives. The quality of narrativity depends primarily on a work’s recognition as narrative, but some works (for example Joyce’s Finnegans Wake) cannot be interpreted or recognized easily. This I would argue returns to the experiential basis of recognition. I would say that the capacity to identify a work as narrative is secondary to the capacity to recognize and understand the work in the first place.

Herman ties together elements of storyness, recognition, and originality. Stories are understood by familiarity with models and concepts. There is a conflict between the value of the form versus the content of a story. Herman argues that people use a number of processing strategies to make meaning from a story. These strategies are not elaborated, but I would guess that these strategies could be argued to make significant use of conceptual blending (of form, content, with prior experience and familiarity with other works).

Participant Roles and Relations

This section is on the relation between storyworld and participants. Herman generalizes participants from characters, because the term “participant” broadens the study, and focuses on involvementt and actions. The idea of participants (or actants) is borrowed from Greimas. Herman’s concern in this chapter is to differentiate between the participant/actant and circumstances. My intention here is to compare storyworld participants with the idea of the player. In the light that a storry is a representation of a storyworld populated by participants, the narrative to game comparison seems less stark and surprisingly natural.

There is a concern here over what sorts of roles and positions participants have. An example here is the distinction between processes and roles. Another genre typology compares some preferences: (p. 147)

  1. Epic : Actor > Behaver > Sayer > Experiencer
  2. Allegory : Identified > Actor > Sayer > Experiencer
  3. 19th century realistic novel : Actor > Carrier > Sayer > Behaver
  4. Psychological novel : Experiencer > Behaver > Carrier > Sayer
  5. Detective novel : Experiencer > Actor
  6. Ghost story : Experiencer > Sayer

In a game adaptation of a narrative, the player must be a participant, and be put into these roles, as appropriate for the particular genre or story.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorHerman, David
TitleStory Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative
Tagsdigital media, narrative, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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