Adventures in Literary Theory – Narratology

We are constantly told as writers to ‘show, don’t tell’.  That well known quote by Anton Chekov ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining ; show me the glint of moonlight on broken glass’ is a perfect example, but in practice authors must use both, switching between the two in order to speed up events that would otherwise make the story long and boring and to slow down scenes so that the reader feels as though they are watching them unfold in real time.

The narratologist Gerard Genette calls these two modes mimesis (the showing) and diegesis (the telling). To give an example:

For the past six weeks, Tess had rehearsed her part in the chorus until it was flawless. Today they would begin dress rehearsals, but as the music began and  as Tess and the other girls  began to dance across the stage a movement in the upper circle caught her eye.  She tried to look up without turning her head out of sync with the others. What she saw made her falter, the choreographer yelled at them to stop and start again from the beginning.

The first sentence is diegetic, it condenses several weeks of activity into just a few words. These are events that the reader does not need to see in detail and move the story along quickly. The rest of the extract is mimetic, slowing down the pace and allowing the reader to experience the events of the scene at the same time as Tess, the protagonist of the story, experiences them.

We can see, therefore, that showing and telling both have a place in narrative and work together to build the story. The trick is to know where each belongs and when it’s most appropriate to use them.

There are other things to consider in narratology – structure and sequence of events for instance. There is a difference between the actual order of events and the way they are presented or packaged in a story. A detective novel may begin with a crime, but this is the last sequence in the events that led up to that crime. The detective then appears to work backwards along the timeline, piecing together the events as they happened in order to solve the mystery. We also have flashbacks (analepsis) and flashforwards (prolepsis) to consider.

We can also look at who is telling the story, not merely the author because even an omniscient, third person narrator is not the author’s ‘real voice’ but an ‘authorial persona’. The narrator can also be a character who is ‘heterodiegetic’, meaning they are outside the events, telling someone else’s story, or ‘homodiegetic’ meaning a character who is within the story and took part in the events.

Then there is how the story is packaged. Often we find stories within stories, such as when a character tells someone a story which then becomes the main narrative. I won’t bog you down with all the technical terms, but Genette refers to these narratives within narratives as meta-narratives.

Narratology then, is not as simple as it at first looks and there are other devices within it that can be used to analyse a story or set of stories. On the other hand it is the first theory that has made much sense to me so is probably one I’ll follow up in greater detail.

Some books on Literary Theory that will explain more are:

Beginning Theory by Peter Barry

Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed by Mary Klages

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