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Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Narrative Theories

  3 Main Narrative Theories





Vladimir Propp, a Russian critic, active in the 1920’s, published his Morphology of the Folk Tale in 1928. While the Soviet cinema was producing excellent films, Propp was essentially interested in the narrative of folk tales. He noticed Folk tales were similar in many areas. They were about the same basic struggles and they appeared to have stock characters. He identified a theory about characters and actions as narrative functions. According to Propp, every character within the narrative has a specific function which back up the text and provide a structure. 

Examples of the characters narrative functions would be: 

·         The Hero – a character that seeks something
·         The Villain – who opposes or actively blocks the hero’s quest
·         The Donor – who provides an object with magical properties
·         The Dispatcher – who sends the hero on his/her quest via a message
·         The False Hero – who disrupts the hero’s success by making false claims
·         The Helper – who aids the hero
·         The Princess – acts as the reward for the hero and the object of the villain’s plots
·         Her Father – who acts to reward the hero for his effort 

Actions as functions of narrative:


A community/kingdom/family is in an ordered state of being
A member of the community/kingdom/family leaves home
A warning is given to the leaders of the community or a rule is imposed on the hero
The warning is discounted/ the rule is broken
The villain attempts to discover something about the victim of the broken rule
The villain tries to deceive the victim to gain advantage
The victim unwittingly helps the villain


A state of disorder
The villain harms a member of the community/kingdom/family
One of the members of the community/kingdom/family desires something
The hero is sent to get what is desired
The hero plans action against the villain


The hero leaves home
The hero is tested or attacked/ he meets the test and is given a magical gift or helper
The hero reacts to the donor
The hero arrives at the place he can fulfil his quest


There is a struggle between the hero and the villain
|The hero is branded
The villain is overcome
The state of disorder is settled


The hero returns
The hero is pursued
The hero escapes or is rescued
The hero arrives home and is not recognised
A false hero claims rewards
A task is set for the hero
The task is accomplished


The hero is recognised
The false hero or villain is unmasked
The false hero is punished
The hero attains the reward (princess/ kingdom)

To Propp, events are not just about character and action but also about progressing the narrative.


Tzvetan Todorov is a Bulgarian structuralist publishing influential work on narrative from the 1960s onwards. Todorov suggested that stories begin with an equilibrium or status quo where any potentially opposing forces are in balance. This is disrupted by some event, setting in chain a series of events. Problems are solved so that order can be restored to the world of the fiction being shown on screen.

 Todorov suggested that conventional narratives are structured in 5 stages:
·       A state of equilibrium at the outset
·       A disruption of the equilibrium by some action
·       A recognition that there has been a disruption
·       An attempt to repair the disruption
·       A reinstatement of the equilibrium

The narrative has a clear being, middle and end.
Everything begins with equilibrium, then disequilibrium occurs and finally the narratives equilibrium is restored.


In the mid-20th century, two major European academic thinkers, Claude Levi Strauss and Roland Barthes, had the important insight that the way we understand certain words depends not so much on any meaning they themselves directly contain, but much more by our understanding of the difference between the word and its 'opposite' or, as they called it 'binary opposite'. They realised that words merely act as symbols for society's ideas and that the meaning of words, therefore, was a relationship rather than a fixed thing: a relationship between opposing ideas.
For example, the understanding of the word 'coward' depends on the difference between that word and its opposing idea, that of a 'hero' (and to complicate matters further, a moment's thought should alert you to the fact that interpreting words such as 'hero' and 'coward' is itself much more to do with what our society or culture attributes to such words than any meaning the words themselves might actually contain).


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