Narratives: Opening and Introductions

on 24 November 2008 at about 23:26

This item was originally posted on CEMP's Interactive Media Portal on 24 November, 2008.

Lecture notes for Narratives Keynote Lecture 1 – Level C, BATV, BASW, BAIMP

Too long, didn’t read – or – discuss

Introducing the Introductory Lecture about Introductions

We started with a version of the Shoutometer – this version showed you a clip of an animation of the Big Bang. What did this have to do with Narratives? Nothing at all, but it got us off to a blood-pumping start, and we have to start somewhere.

IMPS: suggestions please, for things to do with the Shoutometer.

Why do we tell stories?

I asked you why we tell stories: you suggested – entertainment, education, escapism, moral instruction, information, getting to know people, gossip, historical accounts, and egotism. This a good list, there are probably more things we could add, but it’s starting to look like stories do all sorts of things.

I suggested that story-telling is such a big subject that we could probably spend the whole year dwelling on it, not just the six weeks. Why? Well, perhaps because human beings are in some ways story-telling machines, pattern-matching brains, looking for structure and meaning in the world of existence. Yeah, a bit philosophical, srry bt tht.

This week’s key reading speaks to this subject:

“The gift of narrative is so pervasive and universal that there are those who strongly suggest that narrative is a “deep structure”, a human capacity genetically hard-wired into our minds in the same way as our capacity for grammar … is something we are born with” (Abbott, 2002)


We looked at the schedule briefly.

We could use scary “-isms” to describe some of the theoretical currents in lectures as structuralism (lecture 2), marxism (lecture 3), ludology (lecture 4), psychoanalysis (lecture 5), post-structuralism (lecture 6). I could have planned the schedule more chronologically – marxism (3), psychoanalysis (5), structuralism (2), post-structuralism (6), and ludology (4).

I could have done separate lectures on adaptation and intertextuality, but instead it made sense to weave these ideas throughout all the lectures. Similarly the building block and ‘axes’ (listed below) recur throughout all of the lectures,

I suggested that, actually, creating a schedule of lectures is rather like constructing a narrative. You have to trust me that the structure I use is useful. Or critique me if you think it doesn’t work. Agree, disagree, respond, react, consider, mull. Leave comments, join the forum :-)

Musical interlude

Our first musical interlude of the series involved us firstly listening to a sound sample:

short sample audio clip

- which you said sounded ominous, redolent as it was of the Jaws theme tune, or some kind of fog-horn. It turns out it came from this snippet of music:

longer sample audio clip

- which you immediately associated with ‘The Apprentice’. We noted that this is how connotations work: associations get attached to ‘signs’ – and those signs can be images, words, sounds – anything that can be used to ‘signify’ meaning. You’re familiar with these ideas, since they come from semiotics. I wanted you to think about this piece of music in a different way, though, and played all six minutes of the piece.

The timbre and texture of the opening chord is indeed ominous – we probably expect Prokofiev intended to conjure the enmity between the Montagues and the Capulets. But there are all kinds of structural things going on in pieces of music such as this, which are analogous to narratives. This music has a ‘home’ key, which the melody moves away from, and to which we expect it to return. Themes and motifs appear and reappear. Keys change from minor to major, creating effects like melancholy and menace, or brightness and cheer. There is movement, development, contrast, resolution.

We also noted that music can be reduced to its structural components:

musical score

… musical scores are, of course, not the same as the music itself. We could probably feed a score into a computer, and it could reproduce the music. But would that reproduction satisfy us? Would it capture the spirit, the emotion, feeling and meaning of the music? Is structure the same as a set of instructions? What is music, besides the record we see on the score? Isn’t there more to it than that?

Semiotics & Structuralism

The analogy of music has returned us to the semiotics you met in the ‘Images’ unit. Recall: semiotics is the study of signs – specifically the structured nature of signification systems and codes.

Semiotics itself is an instance of ‘structuralism’ – the study of [x] as structure, where [x] can be things like:

We’ll return, in a big way, to structuralism next week.

Structure & Texture


In the meantime, we dwell on how to understand ideas of structure. We have said that by reducing music down to its minimal structure in the form of a score, it loses something. Scores are silent, for starters. If you were just such a wonderful musician that you could read the music and hear how it ought to sound in your head, what would you be bringing to that lifeless set of instructions? If an orchestra performs the score, what is it that is returned to the score that had been lost? I’m going to use the word texture to describe this thing that is lost.

The structure / texture dichotomy is often used in psychology, but less often in media theory. I’m using them, then, because I think we need them.

What is lost by reducing things (like cultures, brains, stories) to structural elements, is texture – the expression and richness of experience.

Some examples:

Comic Interlude

We looked at Rich Hall’s stand-up routine from Live at the Apollo to illustrate the contrast between structure and texture. Skip to the bit about Tom Cruise’s films at 3:01 …

So this is a good illustration of what it might mean to say that narratives might reduce down to structure. If you are a fan of any of the Tom Cruise films that Hall mercilessly ridicules, then what Hall ruthlessly discarded, and what you probably liked, is the textural uniqueness and charm of any of those films.

Snow White

We got down to business and watched the opening ten minutes of a couple of films: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (Disney, 1937) and Snow White (Goodtimes, 1994).

Erratum: I incorrectly asserted that the second film we watched was a Disney film – it was a Goodtimes production, not a Disney remake.

You noted the similarities and differences between the two films: the characters, plot devices and developments were of course similar; while the aesthetic and ‘expository’ approaches and were different. The earlier film seemed richer in terms of visual detail, and dramatic appearance; the later film looked cheap. The earlier film used a book with ornate text to set the scene; the later film used a narrator’s voice. The earlier film left more to the imagination, where the later film told us who was dead, who was bad, who was good.

An important point here is that this kind of analysis – close reading, comparing and contrasting of different ‘texts’ – is the very stuff, the nuts and bolts of thinking critically about media and media theory. In a sense, we were trying to derive some general principles about fairy-tales and story-telling from the empirical evidence at hand – the films themselves.

It was this sort of thing that Vladimir Propp was doing when he wrote the book we turn to now.

Vladimir Propp

The Morphology of the Folk-Tale is Propp’s famous formalist work, analysing the structure of Russian folk tales. (We will explore differences between formalism and structuralism in the next lecture). Propp examined the breadth of folk tales and tried to list the structural units which they ‘reduce’ to – the irreducible narrative elements.

He proposed 7 ‘roles’ and 31 ‘functions’. The ‘dramatis personae’ could be interchangeable and variable, but their roles could always be reducible to 7 character roles: the hero, the villain, the donor, the helper, the father and princess (functionally indistinguishable), the dispatcher, and the false hero. Note that any character might fulfill one or more of these roles; not all roles were ‘compulsory’ – but there were no other roles than these.

Similarly the 31 ‘functions’ – leaving home, interdictions, villain reconnaissance, hero / villain combat, etc – are not all compulsory, but all story events are reducible to these 31 units.


The question is, does reducing stories down to these units help us? Well, check out the online fairy-tale generators which will generate fairy-tales using Propp’s structural units for you while you wait. What do you think? Can we reproduce the richness of a story, just by combining the different elements?

Maybe? Maybe not?

And what conclusion are we supposed to draw from this? That these 38 items somehow represent the gamut of human experience? Or at least the entirety of tellable stories? Or just the limitations of fairy-tales? Or even more narrowly, the pre-occupations of Russian fabulists? Or, at any rate, the workings of the mind of one V. Propp, late of St Petersburg? We will return to the subject of what formalists were trying to do later in the lecture series.

In the meantime, let’s try another approach.


I suggested we might think about examining narratives using other structure-based approaches, that might be a little less reductionist. So we looked at thinking in terms of tensions or axes. That is more than one axis, rather than more than one axe.

Some examples:

Metaphor & Metonymy

These are figures of speech which use substitution. Metaphor replaces like with like, metonymy substitutes the part for the whole. Metaphor uses a substitution of kind, metonymy plays with substitutions by relation. William Blake’s Sick Rose is metaphorical; Dicken’s description of Pip and his environs uses much metonymy:

“… I found out for certain, that […] the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.”

[For some reason, some of you find it memorable that many swear-words are metonymic: if you call me an ‘arsehole’, then you have used a ‘part’ of me to refer to the ‘whole’ of me (no pun intended). Whatever works for you… ]

Syntagm & Paradigm

These axes refer to choices of kind, and choices of relation; there are syntagmatic relationships between elements which are present (e.g. the syntax of a sentence), and there are paradigmatic relationships between any individual elements present and the world of elements that are absent. Here’s a sentence constructor to help you think about syntagmatic and paradigmatic relationships.

Synchrony & Diachrony

These are axes of time: the synchronic axis is a snapshot of any given moment, the diachronic axis is the movement of time. Think of events in stories – some events happen simultaneously, at the same time as each other: synchronically; other events happen at different times – diachronically.


We paused to think about one of Propp’s ‘characters’ – the father. Philip Toledano recently created a beautiful photographic record of his father, and we looked at one of the portraits he took of his father, to help us to consider what these bits of vocabulary might bring to our understanding of this ‘irreducible unit’.

We decided that ‘father’ is metonymic because we are using a role or function (being a father, having children) to refer to the whole human being. We allow the enormity of a human existence to be represented by a specific part of that human’s life – his fatherhood.

But we might also consider that ‘father’ can be metaphorical too: father can be used to describe people who are old, kind, wise, (has Father Christmas got any children? does he need children to be a ‘father’?) – so ‘father’ here has metaphorical connotations which go beyond the role of having children, and extend into wisdom, authority, patriarchy, age, etc.

Similarly, we can think about ‘fatherhood’ syntagmatically and paradigmatically. Being a father involves being defined by your relation to others – so there is a syntagmatic relationship between a child and its father. The paradigmatic relationship is defined by gender (a father is not a mother), sometimes by profession (priesthood), etc.

The axes of time must also be important: fatherhood is not timeless – at any given moment, one may be a father, or not be a father; though one may become a father, having not been a father; and even if one is a biological father, one may still be accused of not being a father.

Tensions and relationships

So here we emphasise that by applying these ‘axial’ modes of thinking to concepts such as ‘fatherhood’, we find it can be very productive: instead of, like Propp, reducing a character to the ‘irreducible’ unit of ‘father’, we flesh out and texturise the unit of ‘father’ in different ways and in different directions.

In so doing, we develop – what? Narratives.

We continued with some more useful tensions…

Diegesis & Framing

Diegesis refers to the internal integrity of a ‘story-world’. Snow White doesn’t hear the non-diegetic soundtrack which we hear. The soundtrack which we are privileged to hear is a framing device. When diegesis leaks in and out of framing devices, strange things like alienation and estrangement and the breaking of the 4th wall occur (we come to these ideas in lecture 3). Narrators, reliable or otherwise, are framing devices who strive to conjure a diegesis.

Story & Plot

Story and plot: story is the integrity of diegesis, which we assume to be causal and chronological. Plot is the artificially constructed way in which story is revealed, not necessarily in chronological order.

This weeks’s screening is Memento (Nolan, 2000): look out for contrast and tension between the chronology of the story, and the way it is unravelled for us as audience.

Concluding remarks

Metaphor & metonymy set up relationships through substitution and association; syntagms and paradigms provide relationships between things; synchrony and diachrony highlight relationships in and over time; diegesis and framing give us boundaries and connections between things.

So relationships between things are important fundamental building blocks in narrative: relationships allow for change, breakdown, development, transformation, confrontation, and resolution. These things are the stuff of narrative which we’ll explore in the next 5 weeks.

Oh, and…

Things I intended to include but which we ran out of time for:

We’ll look at these and recap the fundamentals at the start of the next lecture.

Til then check out:

Too long, didn’t read

Narratives: we’re interested in structure, because narratives are all about structure; but we don’t want to lose texture – what makes every narrative unique and rich.

So Vladimir Propp’s reduction of folk-tales to list of components is interesting but we might find it worthwhile to explore more productive tensions and relationships: metaphor and metonymy; syntagms and paradigms; synchrony and diachrony; diegesis and framing; story and plot.

Lecture archive

  • Media & The Body Readings
  • The Use of Theory
  • Play
  • Production - [Critical Media Concepts and Contexts]
  • Narratives: Endlessnesses and Existence
  • Narratives: Endings, Meaning and Morals
  • Narratives: Performers and Players
  • Narratives: Performers and Players
  • Narratives: Familiarity and Strangeness
  • Intro to Media and Participation 2008 - 2009
  • Narratives: Stories and Structures
  • Narratives: Opening and Introductions
  • The Writerly Text: Part 1
  • Media & Participation: Identity
  • Media & Participation: Truth
  • Media & Participation: Citizenship
  • Media & Participation: Culture
  • Ownership of Ideas: Part 2: The History of Copyright
  • Ownership of Ideas: Part 1: The Romantic Author
  • Bournemouth Soundseeing: collaborative authorship
  • Marx's Critique of Capital: 101
  • Key concepts: Ideologies ...a historical view
  • Narrative and Structuralism and the brothers Grimm
  • Intro to Digital Media at BU
  • Small Print

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