Seymour Chatman- All About the Narrative

Seymour Chatman was an American film and literary critic, as well as a professor, and was particularly well known for his book ‘Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film’. However, when it comes to understanding drama and the narrative, his essay ‘Story and Narrative’ is most enlightening.

So what makes the narrative so special? What does it even comprise of? Well lets take a look!


Structuralist theory believes that each narrative holds two parts; a story, the content, or “chain of events” (actions, happenings), and the “existents” (characters, items of settings;  and the discourse, or the “expression, the means by which the content is communicated”. The story then becomes the ‘what’ in a narrative that is portrayed, while the discourse becomes the ‘how’. Chatman notes that such a distinction has existed since the time of Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’; “For Aristotle, the imitation of actions in the real world, praxis, was seen as forming an argument, logos, from which were selected (and possibly rearranged) the units that formed the plot, mythos”

The Russian formalists had such a distinction as well, but used only two concepts; fable (fabula)- the “basic story stuff, the sum total of events to be related in the narrative” and the plot (sjuzet) the story as actually told by linking the events together. Formalists see the fable as the series of events tired together, which are communicated to us in the course of the work, whereas plot is how the reader is made aware of what has transpired.

The narrative embodies a “communication”, therefore it has two parties; a sender and a receiver. Each party has three different “personages”- the sender contains the real author, implied author and the narrator (if present). The receiver contains the real audience, the implied audience and the narratee. Furthermore, the audience is compelled to respond with an interpretation; they can’t avoid participating in the “transaction”. Likewise, the audience makes interpretations about the character as well.

The events of a story are usually thought to form the plot. Aristotle stated that the plot (mythos) was “an arrangements of incidents”. Structuralists believe that narrative theory proposes that the arrangement “is precisely the operation performed by discourse”-then the events in a story are turned into a plot by its discourse, the “modus of presentation”. Like Chatman says, its function is to “emphasize” and “de-emphasize” certain story events, to interpret some and to leave others to inference, to show or to tell, to comment or to remain silent, and to focus on any aspect of an event or character.

In terms of the narrative, what is an event? Events are either “actions (acts)” or “happenings”. Both are “changes of state”. If the action leads to being significant to the plot, then the “agent” or “patient” is called a character. So, the character is the narrative subject of the “narrative predicate”. In classic narratives, events take place in “distributions”; they are linked to one another as a cause to effect-these effects cause other effects which in turn cause effects.

Perhaps the most important part of his narrative theory are the concepts of ‘kernels’ and ‘satellites’-here, Chatman draws on Roland Barthes works. Major events and minor events have different structures, and major events, which Chatman calls ‘kernels’ takes forward the plot by raising and satisfying questions. Kernels are essentially “narrative moments that give rise to cruxes in the direction taken by events”. The minor plot events, or “satellite” are not really as crucial as the kernels, and their deletion can occur without disturbing the plot, even though it may cause an aesthetic imbalance of the narration. Satillites are based on the kernels and they primarily “flesh out” the skeleton of the kernel.

Chatman’s theory provides an interesting, and detailed way to understand narratives, and his construction of the plot and events are applicable to many texts we see today. By understanding his point of view, it opens a door into understanding structuralist and formalist schools of thought and also can be applied to drama’s to uncover deeper meanings within the plot.


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