Seymour Chatman: Story and Discourse

[Readings] (01.24.09, 6:14 pm)

Seymour Chatman is primarily a film scholar, but his research aims to encompass the broad concept of narrative in all its forms. Chatman belongs to the structuralist school of criticism, and finds that structuralism is an effective and useful approach toward understanding narrative. His position finds that narrative is a combination of “a what and a way”, where the what is the story of a narrative, and the way is its discourse.


Chatman opens by comparing theory and poetics. Poetics accounts for the structure of storytelling, which accounts for how to analyze form, but asks more questions than it answers. Poetics is not concerned with “What makes Macbeth great?” but rather “What makes Macbeth a tragedy?” Russian formalism is an instance of poetics, but it lacks the power to address more complex and modern narratives. Literary theory is about the nature of literature. It is not criticism. It is about explaining what the possibilities are. Instead of asking what the author should or should not do, it asks “What can we say about the way structures like narratives organize themselves? That question raises subsidiary ones: What are the ways we recognize the presence or absence of a narrator? What is plot? Character? Setting? Point of view?” (p. 19) These questions are Chatman’s goals to explore. To do this, he breaks down narrative into components: Narrative is composed of story and discourse, and the story is made of events and existents. This extends loosely from Aristotle.

Chatmans diagram of narrative (p. 26)

Chatman's diagram of narrative (p. 26)

The idea of structure that Chatman uses comes from Piaget, who claims that structure contains wholeness, transformation, and self-regulation. Narrative is a structure by these terms, and furthermore it is a semiotic structure. As a semiotic structure, it is divided into quadrants by expression and content, and substance and form. Discourse is the expression of narrative, while content is the story. Both of these have elements of substance and form. A worthwhile endeavor is to imagine what of this constitutes the world and the model. It seems like both of these are content, but what identifies the world versus the model in terms of the cultural codes, characters, and such is lest clear. The experience of reading is a part of the discourse, and it is arguable that in an adaptation project, the form of expression should be mimicked or made analogous to the source material.

Experiencing a narrative requires interpretation, filling in the gaps. This is a crucial element in story, that it is possible for the reader to inject their own interpretations, and supply extra details and imagery to what is being read. This is interesting in the context of film and visual video games, which supply more and more visual information. Chatman explains that narratives evoke a world of potential details. The text supplies some of these details, but it is up to the reader to fill in the rest. There is a range of artistic expression in narrative, as is present in painting. Painting may be more or less detailed (impressionistic works forgo detail to create expression and mood), likewise narrative may choose to go in or out of details at whim. Narrative is never complete.

Statements in discourse may be interpreted, and have different interpretations. Discourse can show and tell, but showing and telling have different meanings. All statements are mediated to some degree, but telling increases the degree of mediation. The range of mediation and forms of narration create a spectrum of modes between the author and the reader.

Story: Events

Events make up the things that happen, and this is the content, but the arrangement of these events as presented to the reader is a matter of discourse. The presentation of sequence implicitly conveys causality. Readers interpret consecutive events as causally related. The verisimilitude of events, the manner in which they are interpreted as real, is according to how the reader thinks they should be, not necessarily as they are. Thus, explicit narration is only required for events which are notable or unusual. Without narration, the reader is left to believe that things continue as they “ought to”. Narration thus becomes an issue of inclusion and omission. This is an interesting point because it ties back to the way in which we read or use models. Although the application to formal models is difficult because common expectations are notoriously difficult to express.

Chatman describes extensively the filmic devices for developing cuts and scenes, and explains these in relation to the terms of narrative sequence. These have to do with the role of time in events, which have flow of rhythms and cycles. Using Pride and Prejudice as an example, he explains how the narration is broken into phases of scene (action) and description. Rhythm and flow are good to think about from the perspective of adaptation, because these carry the dramatic mood and experience of the narrative.

The latter part of this chapter discusses macroscopic plot structures. Chatman argues that to form characterization of narrative forms, it is necessary to understand cultural codes, among other things. Without understanding these, typologies of narratives (for instance, Propp) must be narrow and confined to particular domains.

Story: Existents

Where an event is something that occurs in time, an existent is something that occurs in space. In cinematic narratives, this is more literal: existents are things that show up on screen and take up space on the screen. Chatman gives five qualities for these: (p. 97-98) These are ostensibly matters of presentation, but it is still a matter of the material content of the film itself.

  1. Scale or size
  2. Contour, texture, and density
  3. Position
  4. Degree, kind, and area of reflected illumination
  5. Clarity or degree of optical resolution

Verbal and cinematic story space are different in several respects. Text has much more ambiguity and freedom, and is open in terms of visual imagery, but this imagery may be suggested given the style of the narrative. Conversely, cinema cannot describe things and events, it must show them. Games, interestingly, are in an in-between space. They can both show and tell by making use of various interactive techniques.

Regarding character, the original model belongs to Aristotle, but Aristotle’s approach leaves much to be desired. Aristotle frames characters as having traits, but this raises contention about the primacy of the action or the character’s traits: which is the cause of which? What is the relation of the plot to the character? Formalist depictions of character treats characters as variable and interchangeable, where the only importance is their function within the story. Characters are secondary or worse with respect to the plot. On the other side, Henry James argues for an interdependence of character and plot.

Much study in narratology places character subordinate to plot, only existing to serve the plot’s needs. However, the reader is free to interpret and extend the idea of the character and ask questions about them. Models of characters that are merely functional are closed, where the characters cannot be extended outside the narrative space. In theories that close characters, readers are forbidden from attempting to think about characters outside of the plot. An example that characterizes this stand is O. B. Hardison, who argues that characters (specifically in the case of Shakespeare) are simply dramatic figures and their lives and personalities are restricted to the words on the page. Chatman is horrified by this position and argues that it is absurd, and the reader must be free to imagine and extend the personalities, and ask questions about the characters beyond the text. An interesting element of this conflict is that the closed model of characters is intrinsically hostile to not only adaptations, but the idea that the text may belong to anyone other than the author. If the characters cannot live outside of the text, then they are simply puppets of the author, controllable by the author alone.  Chatman explains that to understand a character, it must be interpreted and reconstructed. There is always more to interpret of characters.

The narrative evokes a world, and the reader is free to enrich that world. Chatman’s goal is to construct an open theory of character (open in the Umberto Eco sense). The terms to be understood in characters are totality, traits, and uniqueness. Traits are used to compose character and character has a range of them. A trait is a “relatively stable or abiding personal quality” (p. 126). Characters may shift between traits over the course of a narrative, and traits may extend beyond the events of a story. The idea of traits is to develop a structural format for character identity, that is meaningful within the scope of the story world, but can also be extended beyond the story world. The notion of trait is sufficient for literary analysis, but for the purposes of procedural adaptation, it requires more formalization and detail. A character model is something that I am interested in developing, but it is not clear exactly how the process will work.

The process of going through a narrative and extrapolating a world from it is something Chatman calls “reading out”. This is discussed in relation to A. C. Bradley (who focused on Shakespeare) and open trait-analysis. This is the sort of thing I am doing with Pride and Prejudice now. This sort of analysis though has been broadly criticized for neglecting the surface features, the texture of language.

Discourse: Nonnarrated Stories

The first topic on the subject of discourse is the narrative spectrum, which is largely pulled from Wayne Booth. The essence of this spectrum revolves around the conflict between showing and telling, or presentation versus mediated narration, or mimesis and diagesis. All of these essentially represent the same conflict between how the story is narrated and read. The importance of discourse is heightened by perspective or point of view. This is made the most prominent in film, but has always been an issue in narration. Most clearly, point of view has to do with how the world is logically digested and understood. There are many forms of discourse, which rely on how the point of view is communicated. Discourse may be narrated, nonnarrated, direct, soliloquy, and so on. Each of these forms implies something meaningful.

One of these forms of narration is free direct speech, which is an interior monologue. This form of narration is frequently used in Pride and Prejudice, and Chatman explains the critical features of interior monologues in five bullet points: (p. 182-183)

  1. The character’s self-reference, if any, is first person.
  2. The current discourse-moment is the same as the story-moment; hence any predicate referring to the current moment will be in the present tense. This is not an “epic present” depicting past time, but rather a real present referring to contemporary time of the action. Memories and other references to the past will occur in the simple preterite, not the past perfect.
  3. The language–idiom, diction, word- and syntactic-choice– are identifiably those of the character, whether or not a narrator intervenes.
  4. Allusions to anything in the character’s experience are made with no more explanation than would be needed in his own thinking, that is,
  5. There is no presumptive audience other than the thinker himself, no deference to the ignorance or expository needs of a narratee.

Chatman more elements of the interior monologue (as stream of consciousness, or free indirect speech), and again relates it to Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth’s thoughts after Lady Catherine leaves are revealed to us, to indicate her emotional state. Chatman explains that the key reason why we are privy to this thought is as a clear narrative action. Elizabeth’s internal mind is a reflection of her character, and the flow of thoughts and moods are very controlled and logical. Narratively, this moment is highly significant, and the moment reveals her emotions and state: perplexed, angry, and strangely hopeful. “The passage tells us, firstly that she is discomposed; secondly, that she cannot take her mind off a visit extraordinary not only in its substance but in the urgency attached to it by Lady Catherine, who clearly feels that Darcy may indeed act; thirdly, that she wonders how such a rumor could have begun; fourthly, that the fact that Darcy is Bingley’s friend and she Jane’s sister must have prompted speculation about her prospects too; and finally that the Lucases have already consummated a match which she has begun to contemplate only in the privacy of her own mind.” (p. 191) This extrapolation, or reading out, as it were, gives a clear set of narrative events that are taking place in Elizabeth’s mind, but are important nonetheless.

This point suggests an interesting game mechanic, though. The player might be prompted at certain points with a bubble of “I think…”, or “I feel…” and must fill in some thoughts, which will indicate the player character’s disposition and composure.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorChatman, Seymour
TitleStory and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film
Tagsdigital media, narrative, film, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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