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Narrative structure is a
literary elementA literary element, or narrative element, or element of literature is an essential characteristic of all works of written and spoken narrative A narrative, story or tale is any account of a series of related events or experiences, whether nonficti ...
generally described as the structural framework that underlies the order and manner in which a
narrative A narrative, story or tale is any account of a series of related events or experiences, whether nonfiction Nonfiction (also spelled non-fiction) is any document A document is a written Writing is a medium of human communication Comm ...

narrative
is presented to a reader, listener, or viewer. The narrative text structures are the
plot Plot or Plotting may refer to: Art, media and entertainment * Plot (narrative), the story of a piece of fiction Music * The Plot (album), ''The Plot'' (album), a 1976 album by jazz trumpeter Enrico Rava * The Plot (band), a band formed in 2003 O ...
and the
setting Setting may refer to: * A location (geography) where something is set * Set construction in theatrical scenery * Setting (narrative), the place and time in a work of narrative, especially fiction * Setting up to fail a manipulative technique to engi ...
.


Definition

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.


Variations


Three-act structure

The three-act structure is a common structure in classical film and other narrative forms in or associated with the West. The first act begins with setup, where all of the main characters and their basic situations are introduced, as well as the setting, and contains the primary level of characterization for both (exploring the character's backgrounds and personalities, the relationships between them, and the dynamics of the world they live in). Later in the first act, a dynamic event occurs known as the inciting incident (or
catalyst Catalysis () is the process of increasing the rate of a chemical reaction A chemical reaction is a process that leads to the chemical transformation of one set of chemical substance A chemical substance is a form of matter In cla ...

catalyst
), that involves the
protagonist 200px, Shakespeare's ''Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.'' William Morris Hunt, oil on canvas, c. 1864 A protagonist (from grc, πρωταγωνιστής, translit=prōtagōnistḗs, lit=one who plays the first part, chief actor) is the main character ...
. His or her initial attempts to deal with this event lead to the first
plot point In television Television, sometimes shortened to TV or telly, is a telecommunication Telecommunication is the transmission of information by various types of technologies over wire A wire is a single usually cylindrical A cy ...
, where the first act ends and a dramatic question is raised; for example, "Will X disable the bomb?" or "Will Y get the girl?" The second act, or confrontation, is considered by this structure to be the bulk of the story. This is the part of the story where the characters' conflict is most developed (particularly between the protagonist and
antagonist An antagonist is a character in a story who is presented as the chief foe of the protagonist 200px, Shakespeare's ''Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.'' William Morris Hunt, oil on canvas, c. 1864 A protagonist (from grc, πρωταγωνιστής, ...
) as well as any changes in values and personality one or more characters may undergo (known as character development, or a
character arc A character arc is the transformation or inner journey of a character Character(s) may refer to: Arts, entertainment, and media Literature * ''Character'' (novel), a 1936 Dutch novel by Ferdinand Bordewijk * ''Characters'' (Theophrastus), a c ...
). This leads to the second plot point, where the second act ends and the protagonist returns to his or her ordinary world. 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, leading to the
climax Climax may refer to: Language arts * Climax (narrative), the point of highest tension in a narrative work * Climax (rhetoric), a figure of speech that lists items in order of importance Biology * Climax community, a biological community that ...
, the answer to the dramatic question, and the end of the conflict.


Kishōtenketsu

Kishōtenketsu is a structure mainly found in classic Chinese, Korean, and Japanese narratives. Kishōtenketsu is divided up into four sections, which have been defined and used differently by narratives from each of the three cultures where the form is most commonly found in. The first section is generally considered an introduction of sorts across all three interpretations, albeit understood by each in a different way. The second may refer to the development, or to a beginning of an action related to self-realization. The third section is based around a turning point, change in direction, reversal, or twist. The fourth and final section concerns itself with a result or conclusion, a consequence thereof, or a 'coming to fruition'.


History

First described in ancient times by
Greek philosophers Ancient Greek philosophy arose in the 6th century BC, at a time when the inhabitants of ancient Greece were struggling to repel devastating invasions from the east. Greek philosophy continued throughout the Hellenistic period The Hellenistic pe ...
(such as
Aristotle Aristotle (; grc-gre, Ἀριστοτέλης ''Aristotélēs'', ; 384–322 BC) was a Greek philosopher A philosopher is someone who practices philosophy Philosophy (from , ) is the study of general and fundamental questio ...

Aristotle
and
Plato Plato ( ; grc-gre, Πλάτων ; 428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BC) was an Classical Athens, Athenian philosopher during the Classical Greece, Classical period in Ancient Greece, founder of the Platonist school of thought and the Platoni ...

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 Roland Gérard Barthes (; ; 12 November 1915 – 26 March 1980) was a French literary theorist Literature broadly is any collection of Writing, written work, but it is also used more narrowly for writings specifically considered to be an a ...

Roland Barthes
,
Vladimir Propp Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp (russian: Владимир Яковлевич Пропп; – 22 August 1970) was a Soviet The Soviet Union,. officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. (USSR),. was a socialist state A socialis ...
,
Joseph Campbell Joseph John Campbell (March 26, 1904 – October 30, 1987) was an American professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College who worked in comparative mythology and comparative religion. His work covers many aspects of the human experience ...
, and
Northrop Frye Herman Northrop Frye (July 14, 1912 – January 23, 1991) was a Canadian literary critic Literary criticism (or literary studies) is the study, evaluation Evaluation is a system A system is a group of Interaction, interacting or inter ...

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 Post-structuralism is a term for philosophical, theoretical and literary forms of theory that both build upon and reject ideas established by structuralism In sociology Sociology is the study of society, human social behaviour, patterns o ...
such as
Michel Foucault Paul-Michel Foucault (, ; ; 15 October 192625 June 1984) was a French philosopher, History of ideas, historian of ideas, writer, political activist, and Literary criticism, literary critic. Foucault's theories primarily address the relationship ...

Michel Foucault
and
Jacques Derrida Jacques Derrida (; ; born Jackie Élie Derrida; See also . July 15, 1930 – October 9, 2004), born in Algeria ) , image_map = Algeria (centered orthographic projection).svg , map_caption = , image_map2 = , capital = Algiers ...
asserted that such universally shared, deep structures were logically impossible. In Northrop Frye's ''
Anatomy of Criticism ''Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays'' (Princeton University Press Princeton University Press is an independent publisher Publishing is the activity of making information, literature, music, software and other content available to the pub ...
'', he deals extensively with what he calls myths of spring, summer, fall, and winter: * Spring myths are
comedies Comedy (from the el, wikt:κωμῳδία, κωμῳδία, ''kōmōdía'') is a genre of fiction consisting of discourses or works intended to be humorous or amusing by inducing laughter, especially in theatre, film, stand-up comedy, television ...

comedies
, that is, stories that lead from bad situations to happy endings.
Shakespeare William Shakespeare (bapt. 26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616) was an English playwright, poet and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's greatest dramatist. He is often called England's national p ...

Shakespeare
's ''
Twelfth Night ''Twelfth Night'', or ''What You Will'' is a romantic comedy Romantic comedy (also known as romcom or rom-com) is a subgenre of comedy and slice-of-life Slice of life describes the depiction of mundane experiences in art and entertainm ...

Twelfth Night
'' is such a story. * Summer myths are similarly
utopia A utopia ( ) typically describes an imaginary community A community is a social unit (a group of living things) with commonality such as Norm (social), norms, religion, values, Convention (norm), customs, or Identity (social science), identi ...

utopia
n
fantasies
fantasies
such as
Dante Dante Alighieri (), probably baptized Durante di Alighiero degli Alighieri and often referred to Mononymous person, simply as Dante (, also ; – 14 September 1321), was an Italian Italian poetry, poet, writer and philosopher. His ''Divine Co ...

Dante
's '' Paradiso''. * Fall myths are
tragedies Tragedy (from the grc-gre, wiktionary:τραγῳδία, τραγῳδία, ''tragōidia'', ''tragōidia'') is a form of drama based on human suffering and, mainly, the terrible or sorrowful events that befall a tragic hero, main character. T ...
that lead from ideal situations to disaster. Compare ''
Hamlet ''The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark'', often shortened to ''Hamlet'' (), is a tragedy Tragedy (from the grc-gre, τραγῳδία, ''tragōidia'', ''tragōidia'') is a genre of drama Drama is the specific Mode (litera ...

Hamlet
,
Othello ''Othello'' (full title: ''The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice'') is a tragedy Tragedy (from the grc-gre, τραγῳδία, ''tragōidia'', ''tragōidia'') is a genre of drama Drama is the specific Mode (literature), mod ...

Othello
'', and ''
King Lear ''King Lear'' is a tragedy Tragedy (from the grc-gre, τραγῳδία, ''tragōidia'', ''tragōidia'') is a genre of drama Drama is the specific Mode (literature), mode of fiction Mimesis, represented in performance: a Play (t ...

King Lear
'' and the movie ''
Legends of the Fall ''Legends of the Fall'' is a 1994 American epic historical drama A historical drama (also period drama, costume drama, and period piece) is a work set in a past time period, usually used in the context of film and television. Historical drama i ...
''. * Winter myths are
dystopia A dystopia (from Ancient Greek Ancient Greek includes the forms of the used in and the from around 1500 BC to 300 BC. It is often roughly divided into the following periods: (), Dark Ages (), the period (), and the period (). ...
s; for example,
George Orwell Eric Arthur Blair (25 June 1903 – 21 January 1950) known by his pen name A pen name, also called a ''nom de plume'' () or a literary double, is a pseudonym (or, in some cases, a variant form of a real name) adopted by an author and printed ...

George Orwell
's ''
1984 Events January * January 1 January 1 or 1 January is the first day of the year in the Gregorian Calendar. There are 364 days remaining until the end of the year (365 in leap years). This day is known as New Year's Day since the day m ...
'',
Aldous Huxley Aldous Leonard Huxley (26 July 1894 – 22 November 1963) was an English writer and philosopher. He wrote nearly 50 books—both novels and non-fiction works—as well as wide-ranging essays, narratives, and poems. Born into the prominent Huxl ...

Aldous Huxley
's ''
Brave New World ''Brave New World'' is a dystopian File:Die Dekonstruktinsmaschine.jpg, 275px, Landscape painting with dystopian atmosphereThe deconstruction machine, 2005Acrylic on canvas, 50 × 300 cmLocation: :de:Aargauer Kunsthaus, Museum of Art ...

Brave New World
'', and
Ayn Rand Ayn Rand (; born Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum;,  – March 6, 1982) was a Russian-American writer and philosopher. She is known for her two best-selling novels, ''The Fountainhead'' and ''Atlas Shrugged'', and for developing a philosophic ...

Ayn Rand
's novella ''
Anthem An anthem is a of , usually used as a symbol for a distinct group, particularly the s of . Originally, and in and religious contexts, it also refers more particularly to short sacred (still frequently seen in and other types of singing) and s ...
''. In Frye’s ''Great Code'', he offers two narrative structures for plots: * A U-shaped structure, that is, a story that begins with a state of equilibrium that descends to disaster and then upward to a new stable condition. This is the shape of a comedy. * An inverted U-shape structure, that is, a story in which the protagonist rises to prominence and descends to disaster. This is the shape of tragedy.


Categories

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 narrative Nonlinear narrative, disjointed narrative or disrupted narrative is a narrative technique, sometimes used in literature Literature broadly is any collection of Writing, written work, but it is also used more narrowly for writings specifically c ...
s, 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 Narrative structure is a literary elementA literary element, or narrative element, or element of literature is a constituent of all works of narrative fiction—a necessary feature of verbal storytelling that can be found in any written or spoken ...
refers to works where the linear narrative is driven by, rather than influenced by, the user's interaction. *
Interactive narrative Interactive storytelling (also known as interactive drama) is a form of digital entertainmentDigital entertainment includes, but is not restricted to, any combination of the following industries (that themselves have a considerable degree of overla ...
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.


Linear narrative

Flashbacks, often confused with true narratives, are not linear, but the concept is fundamentally linear. An example would be ''
Citizen Kane ''Citizen Kane'' is a 1941 American drama film In film A film, also called a movie, motion picture or moving picture, is a work of visual art The visual arts are art forms such as painting Painting is the practice o ...
'' by
Orson Welles George Orson Welles (May 6, 1915 – October 10, 1985) was an American director, actor, screenwriter, and producer who is remembered for his innovative work in radio, theatre and film. He is considered to be among the greatest and most in ...

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.


Nonlinear narrative

Cinema can only provide the illusion through broken narrative, a famous example of this being the 1994 film ''
Pulp Fiction ''Pulp Fiction'' is a 1994 American black comedy Black comedy, also known as black humor, dark humor, dark comedy, morbid humor, or gallows humor, is a style of comedy Comedy (from the el, wikt:κωμῳδία, κωμῳδία, ''kōm ...
''. The film is ostensibly three short stories, which, upon closer inspection, are actually three sections of one story with the
chronology Chronology (from Latin ''chronologia'', from Ancient Greek , ''chrónos'', "time"; and , ''wikt:-logia, -logia'') is the science of arranging events in their order of occurrence in time. Consider, for example, the use of a timeline or sequence ...
broken up;
Quentin Tarantino Quentin Jerome Tarantino (; born March 27, 1963) is an American filmmaker, film director, screenwriter, producer, film critic, and actor. His films are characterized by nonlinear storylines, dark humor Darkness, the polar opposite of brig ...

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 Alain Resnais (; 3 June 19221 March 2014) was a French film director and screenwriter whose career extended over more than six decades. After training as a film editor in the mid-1940s, he went on to direct a number of short films which included ...
'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 Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (born Chitralekha Banerjee, July 29, 1956) is an Indian-American Indian Americans or Indo-Americans are Americans Americans are the Citizenship of the United States, citizens and United States nationality ...
'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.


Interactive narration

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.


Interactive narrative

An
interactive narrative Interactive storytelling (also known as interactive drama) is a form of digital entertainmentDigital entertainment includes, but is not restricted to, any combination of the following industries (that themselves have a considerable degree of overla ...
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 A gamebook is a work of printed fiction Fiction is any creative workA creative work is a manifestation of creative effort including fine artwork (sculpture Sculpture is the branch of the visual arts that operates in three dimensions. It ...
, 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.


Graphic narrative

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."Composing Graphic Narratives", Rutgers University
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See also

*
Dramatic structure Dramatic structure is the structure of a drama Drama is the specific Mode (literature), mode of fiction Mimesis, represented in performance: a Play (theatre), play, opera, mime, ballet, etc., performed in a theatre, or on Radio drama, rad ...
*
The Hero with a Thousand Faces ''The Hero with a Thousand Faces'' (first published in 1949) is a work of comparative mythology by Joseph Campbell, in which the author discusses his theory of the mythological structure of the journey of the archetypal hero found in world mytholo ...
*
Narratology Narratology is the study of narrative and narrative structure and the ways that these affect human perception. It is an anglicisation of French ''narratologie'', coined by Tzvetan Todorov (''Grammaire du Décaméron'', 1969). Its theoretical lineag ...
*
NarremeNarreme is the basic unit of narrative structure Narrative structure is a literary element generally described as the structural framework that underlies the order and manner in which a narrative A narrative, story or tale is any account of a se ...
as the basic unit of narrative structure *
Non-narrative film Non-narrative film is an aesthetic of cinematic film that does not narrate, or relate "an event, whether real or imaginary". It is usually a form of art film An art film is typically an independent film An independent film, independent movie, ...
*
Rising action Dramatic structure is the structure of a dramatic work such as a Play (theater), play or film. Many scholars have analyzed dramatic structure, beginning with Aristotle in his ''Poetics (Aristotle), Poetics'' (c. 335 BCE). This article looks at Ar ...
*
Screenwriting Screenwriting or scriptwriting is the art and craft of writing scripts Script may refer to: Writing systems * Script, a distinctive writing system A writing system is a method of visually representing verbal communication Communicatio ...
*
Suspense Suspense is a state of mental uncertainty Uncertainty refers to Epistemology, epistemic situations involving imperfect or unknown information. It applies to predictions of future events, to physical measurements that are already made, or to ...
* The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers


References

{{Narrative Fiction Literary theory Narratology Parts of the narrative structure