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Narrative Theory and Television

Sarah Kozloff

"When someone with the authority of a teacher, say,

describes the world and you are not it,

there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked in a mirror and saw nothing."

-- Adrienne Rich, "Invisibility and Academe"






Why we tell stories.

Why we listen to other people’s stories.

What the stories we tell, tell about us.

What the stories we tell, tell ourselves.

The stories cultures tell.

The semiotics of narrative.

"The subtle and undercover techniques of narrative as art, which do not obviously aim to control, may seduce people into letting their guard down… The rise of the mass media, which lend themselves more to stories than sermons, strengthens the position of expressive culture. Expressive forms, including narrative forms, might well assume increasingly important roles in social control. Should this occur, the study of narrative will become increasingly relevant to the student of society."

--- Colby and Peacock (1973), p. 633, from Handbook of Social and Cultural Anthropology.

K-- "To this end, we learn from narrative theory that every narrative can be split into two parts: the story, that is, ‘what happens to whom’, and the discourse, that is, ‘how the story is told’. ... To recognize television’s specificity, I believe we need to add a third layer, schedule, that is, ‘how the story and discourse are affected by the text’s placement within the larger discourse of the station’s schedule’."




causality from succession





proliferating storylines


Story Concepts:

K- Rimmon-Kenan defines a story as ‘a series of events arranged in chronological order.’ She correspondingly defines an event as ‘a change from one state of affairs to another.’ Todorov uses different terms but he is talking about the same phenomenon when he defines a minimal narrative as a move from equilibrium through disequilibrium to a new equilibrium."

K- Example:

K/exp: United Airlines commercial-- mother daughter hugging/ mother leaves/ mother returns.

K- "Television, like all other narrative forms, takes advantage of the viewer’s almost unquenchable habit of inferring causality from succession."

K- Example

K/exp: Nyquil ad---- man and woman in bed sneezing/ woman takes Nyquil, man something else/ LATER man still awake, woman asleep.

K- "Not all story events are of equal importance. As Barthes was the first to point out, one can determine a hierarchy between the events that actively contribute to the story’s progression and/or open up options (Chatman labels these kernals) and those events that are more routine or minor (Chatman’s satellites).


K/examp: Decision not to take Nyquil-- kernal/ reaching for the bottle- satellite.


Long history of critics attempting to identify story’s underlying structure, from Aristotle, to Freytag to Propp.

K- "Taking off from Propp’s lead, several structuralist narrative theorists have argued that stories are governed by a set of unwritten rules, acquired by all storytellers and receivers in somewhat the same way we acquire the basic rules of grammar.... The search for underlying structure may be particularly relevant to television, which as critics have so often complained, is highly formulaic.

K- Example:

K/exempt: "...One can practically guarantee that each week on the original Star Trek the USS Enterprise will encounter some alien life form, members of the crew will be separated from the ship (which will itself be placed in jeopardy), one crew member will have a romantic interest, and all will be resolved through the crew’s resourcefulness or high-mindedness."

Chandler Example:


Umberto Eco interpreted the James Bond novels (one could do much the same with the films) in terms of a basic narrative scheme:

(see Woollacott 1982, 96-7).


K-- "Such predictability has led scholars to remark on television’s deficiencies in terms of one of the major engines driving narrative--suspense." Suspense depends on each significant event opening up possibilities, which leads us to ask "what next?"



K- Episodes are very suspenseful. Episode summary:

The Kopsticks are ending their vacation in a resort condo. Christine is in the kitchen washing dishes while her husband, Terry, loads the car with luggage. The two children are watching TV. Unseen by Christine, two-and-a-half year old Ross goes into the bedroom and looks out the window at the ducks below. Ross leans on the screen--- it gives way, and the boy falls three stories into the pond. His parents notice that he is missing and initially without anxiety start to look for him. Meanwhile the boy’s body, floating in the water, is seen by the smith family; Lindell Smith dives in and pulls him---apparently lifeless-- to shore. An ambulance is called for. The parents realize what is going on and are distraught. Terry attempts CPR on his son; he is soon replaced by the resort’s landscapers who are more effective. Ross starts to breathe and moan. The ambulance arrives; the paramedics are concerned that Ross may have suffered spinal injuries in the fall. He is carefully loaded into the ambulance and taken to the hospital. Doctors examine him for six hours and conclude that he has escaped all injury; the parents are overjoyed. Drawn together by the accident the Kopsticks and the Smiths become friends.


K- Why is this suspenseful:

"I can think of three reasons for this unusually high level of suspense: 1) This story is a self-contained episode. Thus the future is not predetermined by the demand of the series format; 2) The story itself has unpredictability and 3) The show capitalizes on a certain ‘reality effect’--- knowing that this actually happened makes the peril and the stakes much higher."


NOTES: Our need for suspense:

Brad Pitt on the meaning of the new movie "The Fight Club" where young men get together beat each other senseless. This movie is not about violence; it is about "people who work at jobs they hate to buy things they don’t need trying to cover some sense of feeling." Comment on the numbness of technological/consumer culture. Need for stimulation in the face of lack of meaning.


K- "Ongoing, scripted, fictional narratives have learned to compensate for their lack of suspense by proliferating storylines." Adds interest and complexity. Displaces "audience interest from syntagmatic axis to the paradigmatic, that is from the flow of events per se to the revelation and development of existents."... And "broader cosmology" of show.





K- "Narration is a communicative act: to have a narrative, one must have not only a tale, but also a teller and a listener."


K- "In fact, on a theoretical level, literary narratives always involve the following six participants:

[ Text ]

real author --- implied author --- narrator --- narratee --- implied reader -- real reader


K- Example:

Huckleberry Finn--- Real author is Samuel Clemens; implied author is mark Twain; Huck is the narrator--- "You don’t know much about me without you have read a book by the name of Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter."; The narratee is the unspecified person, the "you" above to whom Huck is speaking; the implied reader is the imaginary person for whom the implied author seems to be writing--- someone, in this case, who is willing to criticize the foibles of civilization; the real reader is the flesh and blood person reading the book in his or her armchair.


K- "The question of the existence of a cinematic or television narrator has sparked much discussion in narrative theory. Our prototypical model of a narrator is a person speaking aloud. Films and television proceed instead through the unrolling of a series of moving images and recorded sounds. Yet we sense that someone, or some agency, is presenting these images in just this way---- someone/something has chosen just these camera set-ups and arranged them in just this fashion with just this lighting, these sound effects, and this musical score. As Metz leads us to see, because it is a narrative, someone must be narrating. This intangible narrating presence need not be thought of as a person, but rather as an agency which chooses, orders, presents, and thus tells the narrative before us."



Sense of behind programs there is a presence-- such as someone fatalistic and irreverent behind Hill Street Blues or humorless and professional behind The FBI.


K- "Partly because the narrating presence behind most television shows is impersonal and nebulous, time after time television naturalizes this strangeness by offering a substitute human face and/or voice."

K/examp: Rod Sterling-- Twilight Zone/ Alfred Hitchcock- Alfred Hitchcock Presents/ William Shatner (James T Kirk) --- Rescue 911. Current examples?



THE WORK OF THE NARRATOR? NARRATEE (studio audience as stand-in/ laugh track/ talk show co-host)?

K: "making the communicative act concrete"/ "creates an implied viewer who is interested in its message."/ models our relationship-reaction to message.

K: Helps us to understand the power of direct address, when someone on TV speaks directly to the camera and seemingly directly to us. All various roles of narrative are collapsed into the primal two of speaker/listener. Extraordinarily powerful/personal. "Such a strong impression is given of direct, interpersonal exchange that when Rather says ‘good night’, I for one am likely to answer back to the screen with ‘good night can."


Discourse/Typology of Narrators






K- "Narrative theory can provide crucial help in analyzing television narrators because the field has isolated a host of issues concerning the relationship of a narrator to his or her tale and to the world constructed by that tale--- what in narrative theory is called the diegesis."


Six Variables:

"First is the narrator a character in the story he or she tells or is the narrator outside of the story-world? (Homodiegetic vs. Heterodiegetic).

K- "The distinction between these two types of narrators can be important because by convention, character-narrators are considered less objective and less authoritative than are heterodiegetic narrators. The former are personally more involved in the stories they relate; the latter merely observe from some more or less Olympian vantage point."

"Second, does the narrator tell the whole tale, or is his or her story embedded within a larger "frame" story? [Russian nested dolls]

K- Whenever a character within a program tells another character a story, that narration is considered embedded with the overarching discourse of the narrating agency. Because the embedded narrators are themselves enfolded within the discourse of the whole text, they are assumed to be less knowledgeable and powerful."

"Third, what degree of distance, in terms of time and space, exists between the story events and the time and space of the narrator’s narrating?"

K- John-boy Walton narrates from the vantagepoint of a grown man; his tone is nostalgic and reflective... on the other hand Thomas Magnum narrates as his story unfolds. He is more wrapped up in the action; his narration is more anxious and immediate.

"Fourth, what degree of distance, in terms of transparency, irony, or self-consciousness does the narrator exhibit?"

"Fifth, is the narrator reliable? If unreliable, does the narrator withhold the truth through his or her own limitations, or in order to mislead us?"

K- "The way to tell whether a narrator is unreliable or not is to look for discrepancies between what the narrator tells us and what we intuit the implied author believes. Heterodiegetic voices generally strive for perfect sincerity, and every other facet of the text is designed to bolster their credibility. Character voice-overs narrators are likely to be fallible."

Sixth, "one might look at the narrator’s degree of omniscience. Omniscience may involve one or more of the following traits: knowing the story’s outcome, having the ability to penetrate into character’s hearts and minds, and/or having the ability to move at will in time and space."

CONCLUSION: K- Identical story events can seem radically different depending upon the narrator’s slant and on the degree of the narrator’s power, remoteness, objectivity, or reliability. As Walter Benjamin once put it, ‘Traces of the storyteller cling to the story the way the handprints of the potter cling to the clay vessel."












K- "Christian Metz has written, ‘There is the time of the thing told and time of the telling...One of the functions of narrative is to invent one time scheme in terms of another time scheme.’.... Story events, by definition proceed chronologically. But when the teller tells the tale, that teller is not bound to follow chronological order; events can be presented in any order the teller finds effective."


"Not only can discourse reorder the sequence of story events, it can also alter those events’ duration."

"Time as happening simultaneously: the parallel montage."


1. Summary: discourse time is shorter than story-time. For example, montage sequences of time passing.

2. Ellipsis: discourse time is zero. Cut from one shot to the next leaves out time. Riding in car. Next shot walking into building. Allows story, which takes place over time to be collapsed into shorter period.

3. Scene: story-time and discourse-time are equal. The scene is the basic building block of television narratives.

4. Stretch: discourse-time is longer than story-time. Slow motion.

5. Pause: the same as stretch except that story-time is zero. Freeze-frame of product or character.



Singulative--- tell what happened once.

Repetitive---- tell n times what happened (replay quarterbacks pass again and again)

Iterative---- tell once what happened n times (let one pass stand for all passes)


K- "What is the point in identifying these time distortions?" Ways of encoding a particular understanding/interpretation of what is taking place.



Conveys yet another way of how we should understand and respond to what is taking place. Sense of immediacy, involvement, spontaneity, lack of control, etc.










K- "Television narratives are unique in the fact that they are embedded within the metadiscourse of the station’s schedule... American TV schedules are like jigsaw puzzles. They are composed of scores of separate pieces that must fit together in set patterns and thus conform to standardized rules." Stories must be exact length. Designed for commercial interruption. Must fill airtime 24 hours a day on every channel.

K- Economics demands same cast, same sets, emphasis on sameness helps build audience familiarity and loyalty.

K- As John Ellis has noted ‘The TV series repeats a problematic. It therefore provides no resolution of the problematic at the end of the run of the series.... Fundamentally, the series implies the form of the dilemma rather than that of resolution and closure. This perhaps is the central contribution that broadcast TV has made to the long history of narrative forms and narrativised perception of the world."



Bruner, Jerome. Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Carey, James. Media, Myths, and Narratives. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1988.

Roemer, Michael. Telling Stories. Rowman and Littlefield: London, 1995.

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