Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative – Bal

Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985. Print.

Mieke Bal’s Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative has great utility for discussions of narrative; it clearly sets up and defines the terminologies that are so frequently used with indefinite meaning in the discussion of narrative/story/text/etc. Bal not only outlines the distinction between these terms, and why such distinctions are necessary and important, but she also layers them tone on top of another like stacking cups to show how one many contain another, and yet another, and so on. For instance Bal defines a text as “finite, structures whole composed of language signs” while a narrative text is one in “which an agent related (‘tells’) a story in a particular medium, such as language, imagery, sound, building or a combination thereof” (5). Further still, she stipulates that a story is a “fabula that is presented in a certain manner” wherein a fabula is understood as “a series of logicially and chronologically related events that are caused or experienced by actors” (5). These definitions are quite useful as they allow for the distinction between narrative text, story, and the events experienced. Additionally, while the cups can stack one on top of the other, Bal also points out that they need not have to – they can also exist independently (8). As a result, she devotes a good portion of the book to providing examples of how these elements layer, but is always careful to note how they remain distinct. Bal acknowledges it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between these elements and that sometimes the elements can act in parallel or union. In other words, while it is important to use distinct terms in discussion, she admits the narratives are flexible and that any methodology for understanding them is simply that: a method that enables understanding but which is not the understanding itself.

Of particular interest to me is Bal’s statement that “The provisional definition given above, and the more elaborate ones that follow, have in common a special focus on agency. To talk about narrators, for example, is to impute agency to a subject of narration, even if this subject is not to be identified with the narrator. Actors, in the fabula, are the subjects of action. This attention paid to subjectivity is, indeed, the basic tenet of the theory presented in this book. It is meant to insist on the complex manner in which narrative communicates (11).” Much like Abbott, Bal is negating and resisting stifling understandings of “first-person” or “third-person” narration to instead acknowledge the perspective and action inherent in all stories regardless of first/third person positioning. The narrative itself is one of action and agency just as the fabula is – sometimes the agent will be the same, but this isn’t necessary.

In terms of games, this allows for an increased understanding not just of narrative and perspective, but of multiple potential agencies. We frequently discuss the agency of the player, but rarely layer agency in games the way Bal layers agency in narratology. This opens the door to consider other forms of agency in games that could work, not necessarily against player agency, but in parallel or, at times even, in conjunction to it.

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