Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film – Chatman

Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structures in Fiction and Film. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978. Print.

In Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, Seymour Chatman discusses story events, story existents, nonnarrated stories, and covert versus overt narrators. Of particular utility to me were Chatman’s discussions of events and existence. Before defining events, however, Chatman defines story and plot. For Chatman, story is “the continuum of events presupposing the total set of all conceivable events” (28). In this way, Chatman is focused on the telling of story as a process of subtraction. This aligns well with Madison Smartt Bell’s argument in Narrative Design that, much as a sculpture cuts away the excess to reveal the hidden form inside the marble, a writer whittles the story down to essential detail, telling no more than is necessary (Bell 213).

Chatman states the function of plot is to “emphasize certain story-events, to interpret some and to leave others to inference, to show or to tell, to comment or to remain silent, to focus on this or that aspect of an event or character” (43). An event, then, is an action or a happening that acts as a change of state (44). These changes in state are what point to characters, as characters exist only insofar as they are affected by plot-significant action. If an agent or participant is not part of plot-significant action, they are not characters (44). The distinction between an action and a happening is also important. An action is a physical act, speech, thought, feeling, perception, or sensation of an existent (44). A happening, by contrast entails a predication of which the character or other focused existent is narrative objects (44). In other words, characters are agents when an action is performed, but are agentless during happenings.  Chatman also discusses story kernels. Kernels “are narrative moments that give rise to cruxes in the direction taken by events…Kernels cannot be deleted without destroying the narrative logic” (52). While Kernels are crucial to plot and story, satellites (minor plot events) can be deleted without disturbing the logic of the plot. Satellites entail no choice, but are the “working out of the choices made at the kernels” (52). Again, for Chatman story occurs my subtraction. When one choice is made, another in canceled out. In this way, he defines an anti-story as one that treats all choices as equally valid (58).

Chatman also argues, “Stories only exist where both events and existents occur. There cannot be events without existents” (113). He also argues that a good existent character is one that is autonomous and not merely a plot function. Furthermore, characters should be able to be reconstructed by the audience from evidence announced or implicit in the story. Character should be malleable – in other words, characters are not static but can change throughout a story as the result of events, kernels, and satellites (119).  This flexibility is called a trait, which Chatman defines as, “the sense of relatively stable or abiding personal quality, recognizing that it may either unfold, that is, emerge earlier or later in the course of the story, or that it may disappear and be replaced by another” (126). In this way traits differ greatly from events. Chatman states, “We can now perceive a fundamental difference between events and traits. The former have strictly determined positions in story (at least in classical narratives): X happens, then Y happens because of X, then z as a final consequence. The order in story is fixed; even if the discourse presents a different order, the natural order can always be reconstructed. Further, events are discrete; they may overlap, but each has a clear-cut beginning and end; their domain circumscribed. Traits are not subject to these limitations. They may prevail throughout the work and beyond, indeed, as long in our memory as does the work itself” (128).

Chatman analyzes narrative as a system. This is most telling in the charts and graphs he includes which chart narrative or map it out as a concrete and knowable form/environment/map.

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