Narrative and narrativity




Humans are communicative beings by nature and storytelling is probably almost as old as human intelligence is. People need to express themselves in various ways and stories have always been a useful and resourceful tool for communicating ideas and sharing knowledge across time and space. Stories are used as a complex way of organizing and understanding human experience. It is generally believed that the narrative process helps us expand our intelligence, our ability to empathize with others (Worth 2005, 1) and gives us a sense of our reality. By definition, narrative is a story, a series of events or experiences, be it true or fictional. The term should be distinguished from narrativity, which refers to the qualities and characteristics of a narrative. To emphasize the difference between the terms, and for a better understanding of the upcoming chapters, I will shortly discuss each of them from the narratological point of view.


Narrative is both a largely used and highly debated term in academic writing. Wilkens et al. (2003, 2) give the following classification (based on definitions by David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson and Jerome Bruner): “narrative is a chain of events related by cause and effect occurring in time and space and involving some agency”. This description captures very concise the basic premise of the narrative: not any random series of events can be considered a story, unless there is a force of intentionality, which drives the chain of causes and effects. Usually, this agency takes the form of characters or of the narrator (ibid.).


In the introduction of her book Narrative across Media: The Languages of Storytelling, Marie-Laure Ryan seeks a definition while looking at the various positions from which the term of narrative has been investigated: existential, cognitive, aesthetic, sociological and technical (2004: 2-6). The existential category tries to explain how the act of narrating helps us comprehend temporality, mortality, humanity, and, in Ryan’s words, how it might be “a way [...] to give meaning to life” (2). In turn, she argues that the cognitive approaches describe the methods implied by the narrative intellect, but without a proper distinction from the literary narrative fiction (4). Furthermore, the author observes that aesthetic and sociological studies tend to get idiosyncratic towards a definition, either by considering narrative inseparable from fiction and literature or by evaluating it from an exclusive contextual perspective, thus being unable to isolate the term from external factors (4-5). Finally, the technical approaches, through narratology, folklore, experimental psychology, linguistic and discourse analysis, succeed in giving Ryan an adequate field to search further for an appropriate definition (5-15). The phenomenon of narrative has also been recently studied from discursive, historical, cultural and evolutionary points of view, shifting the focus to its relationship with the creator (Abbott 2011).


A key feature of narrative, and also vital for this paper, is its transportability or transmediality, given by the fact that it is a process of organizing human experience. This makes storytelling valuable in various fields and allows it to be replicated in other media, even when the language factor is not involved, e.g. music and visual arts. Michael Mateas and Pheobe Sengers sustain that contemporary artists “rarely tell straightforward narratives employing the standard narrative tropes available within their culture, but rather ironize, layer, and otherwise subvert the standard tropes from a position of extreme cultural self-consciousness” (2003, 10). Hence, a work of art which engages narrative should not be regarded as a surrogate for traditional storytelling, but rather as a different and often radical method of sharing thoughts.


To find a definition of the term narrativity is even a more complex task and maybe the widest dispute in narratology. John Pier offers a set of questions that outline the multiple issues of understanding narrativity, but he admits that they might never receive definitive answers:

Can narrativity be defined by its formal features? Is it one narrative category among others? Are there types of narrativity?, degrees of narrativity? Do narratives possess narrativity or do they exhibit narrativity? Do they produce narrativity or are they produced by narrativity? Does narrativity in, say, a novel differ from narrativity in a short story or a film? Can narrativity be perceived in different ways? (2008: 109)

Although narrativity is an on-going field of research, the many narratological studies conducted in the last 30 years have cast light upon this controversial concept. One of the first to explore the term narrativity in English fiction was Philip John Moore Sturgess, who referred to it as “the enabling force of narrative [...] present at every point in the narrative” (Sturgess cited in Ryan 2004, 4). Along with him, narratologist Gerald Prince describes it as “the set of properties characterizing narrative and distinguishing it from non-narrative; the formal and contextual features making a (narrative) text more or less narrative, as it were” (Prince cited in Rudrum 2008, 254). For Sturgess and Prince, narrativity is the range of qualities or characteristics which shape into narrative, the fundamental property of narrative, or “that which distinguishes narrative from other texts” (Rudrum 2008, 254 emphasis added).


Conversely, David Rudrum (2008) is not completely satisfied with Prince’s idea that narrativity is linked to the receiver, because it can be either confused with readability or be subjective and consequently unclassifiable. So, to assume that the way in which the receiver perceives a narrative is a sign of narrativity can be misleading, due to external factors like the reader’s background, culture, intelligence or even taste. Rudrum (ibid.) also questions Sturgess’s belief that causality is a sign of the “logic of narrativity”. He argues that causality is significant in other areas, too, like mathematics, therefore it cannot be an essential argument for narrativity.


H. Porter Abbott tries to explain narrativity by giving as example a micro-narrative: “She drove the car to work” (2008, 24). He observes that such a story lacks narrativity and compares it to other two improved versions of it: “She ate lunch. Then she drove the car to work” and “Brooding, she ate lunch. Then she drove the car to work” (25). By adding, in order, a new temporal event and a literary aid, he demonstrates that the amplified narrativity of the text is “a matter of degree” (ibid.). Hence, narrativity lies in the way the narrator convinces the reader about its story. In Narrativity, Abbott describes it as “the ‘narrativeness’ of a narrative” (2011), similar to “the lyricism of a lyric” (ibid.), which consolidates the idea that narrativity is a quality of the narrative.


Gerald Prince defined two of the characteristics of narrativity. An “extensional” category – narrativehood – that denotes all the entities meeting the conditions of a narrative and an “intentional” category – narrativeness – that refers to the qualities or features of a narrative. Both characteristics rely on scalar values, the first on quantity and the second on quality. Another term that requires explanation is narratibility (or tellability). It was first used to describe the characteristics of informal storytelling, but later began to be associated with any narrative. Narratibility refers to the ability of an experience or event to become a narrative, should its narrator decide that it is worthy. Therefore, it distinguishes itself from narrativity, because the latter appears only after the story is told. Livia Polanyi assumes that narratibility is defined by answering these questions: “What is worth telling, to whom and under what circumstances?” (Polanyi cited in Baroni 2011).


It may seem like a doubtful idea to attempt a demonstration of the narrativity in a field that is not primarily word-based, as long as the theory of this concept has not yet reached a common definition and narratologists often still have different opinions about what it means. Nonetheless, I consider that this uncertainty leaves enough room for interpretation and gives me a chance to sustain my own theory about what narrativity in multimedia composition means and how the concept is applied in my pieces.


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