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Narrative structure is a literary element generally described as the structural framework that underlies the order and manner in which a narrative is presented to a reader, listener, or viewer. The narrative text structures are the plot and the setting.
Narrative structure is about story and plot: the content of a story and the form used to tell the story. Story refers to the dramatic action as it might be described in chronological order. Plot refers to how the story is told. Story is about trying to determine the key conflicts, main characters, setting and events. Plot is about how, and at what stages, the key conflicts are set up and resolved.
The setup (act one) is where all of the main characters and their basic situations are introduced, and contains the primary level of characterization (exploring the character's backgrounds and personalities). A problem is also introduced, which is what drives the story forward.
The second act, the conflict, is the bulk of the story, and begins when the inciting incident (or catalyst) sets things into motion. This is the part of the story where the characters go through major changes in their lives as a result of what is happening; this can be referred to as the character arc, or character development.
The third act, or resolution, is when the problem in the story boils over, forcing the characters to confront it, allowing all the elements of the story to come together and inevitably leading to the ending.
First described in ancient times by Greek philosophers (such as Aristotle and Plato), the notion of narrative structure saw renewed popularity as a critical concept in the mid-to-late-20th century, when structuralist literary theorists including Roland Barthes, Vladimir Propp, Joseph Campbell, and Northrop Frye attempted to argue that all human narratives have certain universal, deep structural elements in common. This argument fell out of fashion when advocates of poststructuralism such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida asserted that such universally shared, deep structures were logically impossible.
In Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, he deals extensively with what he calls myths of spring, summer, fall, and winter:
- Spring myths are comedies, that is, stories that lead from bad situations to happy endings. Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is such a story.
- Summer myths are similarly utopian fantasies such as Dante's Paradiso.
- Fall myths are tragedies that lead from ideal situations to disaster. Compare Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear and the movie Legends of the Fall.
- Winter myths are dystopias; for example, George Orwell's 1984, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and Ayn Rand's novella Anthem.
Most forms of narrative fall under four main categories: linear narratives, nonlinear narrative, interactive narration, and interactive narrative.
- Linear narrative is the most common form of narration, where events are largely portrayed in a chronological order, that is, telling the events in the order in which they occurred.
- Nonlinear narratives, disjointed narrative or disrupted narrative is a narrative technique, where events are portrayed, out of chronological order or in other ways where the narrative does not follow the direct causality pattern.
- Interactive narration refers to works where the linear narrative is driven by, rather than influenced by, the user's interaction.
- Interactive narrative is a form of fiction in which users are able to make choices that influence the narrative (for example, through alternative plots or resulting in alternative endings) through their actions.
Flashbacks are often confused with true narratives which are not linear, but the concept is fundamentally linear. An example would be Citizen Kane by Orson Welles. Although some films appear to open (very briefly) with the ending, flashback movies almost immediately jump back to the very beginning of the story to proceed linearly from there, and usually proceed past the supposed "ending" shown at the beginning of the movie.
Cinema can only provide the illusion through broken narrative, a famous example of this being the 1994 film Pulp Fiction. The film is ostensibly three short stories, which, upon closer inspection, are actually three sections of one story with the chronology broken up; Quentin Tarantino constructs the narrative without resorting to classic "flashback" techniques.
An even more ambitious attempt at constructing a film based on non-linear narrative is Alain Resnais's 1993 French film Smoking/No Smoking. The plot contains parallel developments, playing on the idea of what might have happened had the characters made different choices.
Outside of film, some novels also present their narrative in a non-linear fashion. Creative writing professor Jane Alison describes nonlinear narrative "patterns" such as spirals, waves, and meanders in her 2019 book Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative. The chapters of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's novel Before We Visit the Goddess are not arranged based on the linear sequence of events, but rather in a way that fulfills certain literary techniques. This allows the characters in the novel to have a believable life timeline while still employing the techniques that make a story enjoyable.
In works of interactive narration there is only one narrative but the method of delivery requires the user to actively work to gain the next piece of the narrative, or have to piece the parts of narrative that they have together in order to form a coherent narrative.
This is the narrative approach of some modern video games. A player will be required to reach an objective, complete a task, solve a puzzle, or finish a level before the narrative continues.
An interactive narrative is one which is composed with a branching structure where a single starting point may lead to multiple developments and outcomes. The principle of all such games is that, at each step of the narrative, the user makes choices that advance the story, leading to new series of choices. Authoring non-linear narrative or dialogue thus implies imagining an indefinite number of parallel stories.
In a gamebook, readers are told to turn to a certain page according to the choice they wish to make to continue the story. Typically, the choice will be an action rather than dialogue. For example, the hero hears a noise in another room and must decide to open the door and investigate, run away, or call for help. This kind of interactive experience of a story is possible with video games and books (where the reader is free to turn the pages) but less adapted to other forms of entertainment. Improvisational theatre is similarly open-ended, but of course cannot be said to be authored.
A simple graphic narrative, such as in comics, has four stages: an introduction of the characters and a description of a situation, the introduction of a problem, unexpected opportunity, or other complication into the situation, a resolution in the form of a partial or complete response to the problem by one or more of the characters, and the denouement, the aftermath of the response that makes clear the success, partial success, non-success, or uncertain success of the response. This fourth stage may also show how the original situation has changed due to what has taken place in the Complication and Resolution stages of the narrative.
In a simple narrative, the four stages appear in order. That is, the sequence of the telling or presentation follows the chronology of the told. In a more complex story, the order of the telling may vary. For instance, such a story may begin with the Denouement and then present the Situation, Complication, and Resolution in a flashback. But this is not the case with a simple narrative.
- Dramatic structure
- Narreme as the basic unit of narrative structure
- Non-narrative film
- Rising action
- Three-act structure
- Visual Storytelling and Narrative Structure, In Point
- "Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative by Jane Alison". Catapult. Retrieved 2020-01-28.
- Baraou, Anne. "Facing Faces", Drawn and Quarterly 10 (1992)
- "Composing Graphic Narratives", Rutgers University