Defining Narrative // The Myth of ‘Universal’ Narrative Models

Defining Narrative

Abbott, H. Porter. “Defining Narrative.” The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, 2nd edition, Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp. 13–27.

Abbot introduces the idea of narrative as a collection of events, undertaken by entities (or characters), told or presented in a particular way (narrative discourse). The definition is fairly straightforward, and I especially appreciated that while Abbot acknowledges alternative, more precise categorizations he also dismisses them as not being necessarily useful. All models are wrong but some are useful, as they say.

The story is constructed

The actual story is signified by the media, but exists outside of it. This can lead to an interesting question: how can we say for sure that story is a particular story and not some other? The construction of the story is an active process by the audience.

If the construction is an active process, what are the real differences between an interactive narrative and a traditional one? Or alternatively, I wonder if a successful interactive narrative aligns the audience’s narrative construction process with the interaction experience. Traditional video games for example, while interactive, don’t always focus on interactive story elements - in most cases there is a fairly linear story with a nearly separate interactive game experience attached to it.

Constituent/Supplementary events

Abbot distinguishes between constituent, or key events and supplementary ones. Key events are hard to change, but supplementary events form part of the narrative discourse of a story and can easily influence themes and impact overall. The example Abbot gives is Frankenstein - the 1930 film adaptation adds many supplementary events concerning the technology that enables Frankenstein to create his monster, and thus impart a theme of technologically fueled anxiety, which is completely missing from the original 1818 novel.

This means that any computational approach can’t be too naive about leaving in and out varying elements - but also that there is a lot of potential for carefully crafted narrative systems that allow for a spectrum of different supplementary events and themes for the audience.

The Myth of Universal Narrative Models

Koenitz, Hartmut, et al. “The Myth of ‘Universal’ Narrative Models.” International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling, Springer, 2018, pp. 107–120.

In this paper the authors give some background as to why traditional (read: Aristotelian intro/rising action/climax/denoument/conclusion + Hero’s Journey) narrative structures are not adequate for interactive storytelling media (primarily, that the rising action takes way too long) and attempt to give some alternative story structures from outside the Western canon to give interactive storytellers more structural tools.

I don’t object to the overall objective of this paper, but I felt that some of the examples fell a bit short in terms of how useful they might be for interactive storytelling design. However, others were useful and I could immediately think of some examples or see ways in which it could be useful for reframing ways of storytelling in an interactive context.

Etiological Oral Narratives

In short, fable-like or moral-at-the-end of the story style narrative. Without careful design, I can’t see how this doesn’t suffer from the same problem as the traditional narrative structure does in terms of pacing. In general from a structural point of view I don’t really think this is that different from the Aristotelian model at all, even though the moralizing element is certainly distinct thematically from the Hero’s Journey archetype.

Bengali Widow’s Narratives

I thought that this structure was a fairly compelling example of how a multi-outcome story structure could be connected to a narrative theme - in this example, the Bengali widow either becomes the antagonist to her son’s wife (creating an endless cycle), or simply ends in tragedy (the widow ends up alone and penniless). However, ultimately neither outcome changes the fundamental tone of the story.

Ganga Comics

“The solution to one conflict immediately causes the next conflict to arise”

This reminds me generally of Japanese manga and anime narrative structures, where there is a seemingly endless ebb and flow and rising tension throughout the narrative. Ultimately, a more traditional meta-climax is needed for narrative satisfaction though - many popular manga series fall prey to the “Dragon Ball effect”, where the stakes continue to rise and new challenges must be presented over and over again, rapidly becoming stale. The most successful manga/anime (in my opinion, anyway) manage to wrap up the individual conflict components into a coherent arc over the multiplicty of smaller story-arcs. In this way, the narrative structure, on a zoomed out level, begins to mirror the Aristotelian narrative arc.

Sīra Narratives

This seems structurally identical to ganga comics

Epiphanic Structure

This original structure features a cycle of conflict designed to create a moment of epiphany, which causes the player/interactor to suddenly understand the events of the narrative in a different light, and subsequently explores the narative again from the beginning to discover the consequences of this revelation

This structure seems really interesting, although I’m not sure it makes sense to call it a separate structure more than a device that can be used in traditional and interactive narrative alike.


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