Archive: February 20th, 2009

Gerard Genette: Narrative Discourse

[Readings] (02.20.09, 2:16 pm)

Genette’s book is about the treatment of time and narrative in Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. Since I am not focused on either Proust or summarizations of his work, my analysis of this will be focused on the forms of time in narrative, and how those relate to other types of media, specifically games. Genette is not the first person to analyze the complex relationships of time in narrative, but he is arguably one of the first to conduct so thorough an analysis.

Genette introduces several important concepts in his work. The point of view in a work is a combination of both mood and voice, which have generally been convoluted in other works of analysis. Mood is whose point of view does the narrative take, while voice is who the narrator is, which are two different questions. Mood leads to a kind of focalization, meaning how the narrative is focused. A narrative may be focused internally, through a character, but it may also be focused externally, onto a character. Genette spends much time on examining the iterative, which is the network of means by which the plot is interwoven with the narrative. The iterative is analyzed in terms of order, duration, and frequency, which suggest an almost musical theory. In addition, Genette finds in Proust a system of variations and deviations from conventional systems of point of view, leading to anomalous systems of polymodality, where a narrative moment may reveal both information limited by a point of view, and information beyond it. Sentences like “I watched George reach into his briefcase for something while he thought about whether he might have lamb for dinner that evening” (taken from the foreword, p. 12-13), confuse the seemingly ordinary relationship between perspective, mimesis, and diagesis.

It has always been my perspective that narrative is systemic, and that fiction is a kind of simulation. Narrative is frequently described as a linear form, but that assessment seems inaccurate. Narrative is treated as linear because our minds are engines for digesting presented elements and reassembling them into a sequential format, however, the actual process and matter of narrative is far from linear. Text is a linear medium, as is film, but narrative is a form, that can be rendered into either of these media. Similarly, narrative may be rendered into a game, or read from a game (but this is not to say that they are equivalent or that the transformations are lossless or ideal). What is important to realize, though, is that both narratives and games provide approaches to a world (or the time of a world) in several ways, and that those ways are deep and complex. They are not the same approaches, but given a close inspection (such as in the iterative dimensions shown by Genette), they might have more in common than first appears.

Genette’s analysis is of Proust specifically. It is not meant to be an indication of narrative as a whole. The specificity is irreducible, but, he argues, the specificity is not indecomposable, so what is learned here may be applied elsewhere. However it is not Genette’s aim to make final claims about narrative as a whole. I would argue that the devices and structures he finds may be easily applied to other narratives, but the conclusions induced by the use of those are not so extensible. The focus on the specific work to guide a broader study is analogous to my focus on Austen.


The analysis of narrative discourse is the analysis of the relationships of the story elements, notably between story, narrative, and narrating. These are the different senses conjured by the word narrative, but they are functionally distinct. Genette’s starting point is the categories of tense, aspect, and mood, which were originally defined by Todorov. These are all traits of narrative verbs that relate to time. Tense is the relationship between the time of the story and the time of the discourse; aspect is the way in which the story is perceived by the narrator; and mood is the type of discourse used by the narrator.


The chapter on order is concerned with the presentation of the story from within the narrative time. This discussion originally comes from Christian Metz (1974), and Gunther Muller (1948). At this level, it is possible to look at narrative nodes as having two temporal coordinates, the location in the narrative itself, and the location in the story. This, however is just the first layer.

The course of narration is often done in sequences of linear structures, where movement that changes the order is an anachrony. Anachronies are either prolepses or analepses, generally meaning either flash-forwards or flash-backs. The existence of these constructs two threads in the story time, with one subservient to the other. The relationship between these can form a sort of conflict all of its own, with both threads vying for dominance. Repeated analepses can be used to fill in details, fleshing out the context in layers. Thus, the same temporal moment may be returned to in many times in the story. This is most notable when done in film or in, for instance, serial television (Lost is a great example of this).

In a story world where analepsis is common, the sebments could be considered heterodiegetic, that is, taking place in different story lines. These can lead to paralepsis, which is a side stepping in time, so there are two threads that are at different times, but essentially do not have a direct temporal relationship to each other: they are not flash forwards and flash backs, but they are alternate moments that might revolve around the same event. For instance, a description of one character’s death and then its impact on another. All of these shifts must be understood in terms of reach and extent, as well as internality and externality.


The chapter on duration describes the rhythm and pacing of story time with respect to narrative time. This is examined in detail by an analysis of chapters and their presentations of time and progression. The end of this section is characterized by an increasing discontinuity. Genette analogizes rhythm of time using musical and mathematical terminology. There are four movements of narrative, which relate narrative time (NT) to story time (ST): (p. 95)

  1. Pause: NT = n, ST = 0
  2. Scene: NT = ST
  3. Summary: NT < ST
  4. Ellipsis: NT = 0, ST = n

It is useful to compare these sorts of temporal relations with other media and other narratives (for instance, Austen). In games, gameplay is often separated into several modes, where player action operates on different levels of time. Instead of narrative time, there would be a context of play time.


Frequency is a subject highly relevant to the study of games. Gameplay often involves a great deal of repetition. Fiction, and writing in general, aim to avoid needless repetition most of the time, but repetition is indeed used to cause different effects. This involves a study of the layering and folding of narrative time and story time. In narrative, this interweaves with the existential question of identity- as in, the identity of what a moment is. The example of the existential quandary is that the sun that rises one morning is in some sense not equal to the sun that rises the next. A statement that the sun rises every morning describes and creates a certain system of equivalence among all instances, forming a geneneralization. Generalizations are also the substance of systems of rules that describe worlds.

There are four kinds of narrative frequencies:

  1. 1N/1S: where an event happens once and is narrated once. This defines a single and unique occurrence. The singularity gives the narrative an authority over the event.
  2. nN/nS: an event happens many times and is narrated each time. This is still iconic and singulative, reducing to the previous type.
  3. nN/1S: an event happens once, but is narrated many times. This happens in context of multiple points of view, or in analepsis (flashbacks), where an event may be returned to many times. The narration may have stylistic variations as well. Ultimately this works to give a single event a great deal of attention and layers, making it all the more rounded and real.
  4. 1N/nS: an event happens many times, but is only narrated once. This is a form of generalization, where one might say that the sun rises every morning. This implies a kind of homogeneity in the actual story events, where only one narrative gesture is necessary to describe them all.

Iterative narrative is composed from systems of units. These units are conveyed through several parameters: Determination, Specification, and Extension. Determination describes the range in which the units occur, specification indicates the conditions under which the units occur, and extension conveys the depth of narrative attention devoted to the units.

Frequency is relevant in comparison to games because games make use of frequent and repeated events regularly. A retelling of a game might use summary, or a 1N/nS relationship, saying that “While wandering the plains, I killed many goblins”, but the actual experience of the game involves each and every action. Generally, in the course of play, everything is unfolded, and the player must live out the completeness of the story time. However, many games also borrow conventions of temporal manipulation (usually from film), making use of summary, generalization, and repetition. It is possible to analyze games using these levels of frequency, but generally games have not made use of temporal codes to their fullest potential.


This is a discussion of mood in narrative. Mood is borrowed from the grammatical term, indicating the sense of whether a verb is indicative, subjunctive, imperative, and so on. Genette suggests that normally narrative is seen as only working on the indicative level, but there is more to it than that. At the surface, mood is the distinction between showing versus telling, but the issue is really the matter of distance and perspective. These are a matter of who orients the narrative and whose point of view is taken. There are four kinds of these: (p. 186)

  1. Narrator is a character in the story, internal analysis of events: Main character tells the story.
  2. Narrator is a character in the story, outside observation of events: Minor character tells the main character’s story.
  3. Narrator is not a character in the story, internal analysis of events: Analytic or omniscient author tells the story.
  4. Narrator is not a character in the story, outside observation of events: Author tells story as observer.

These define the space of focalization. The next chapter covers voice, which is the identity and subjectivity of the narrator within the story world.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorGenette, Gerard
TitleNarrative Discourse: An Essay in Method
Tagsmedia theory, narrative
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon