Whether you are a gamer or not, you must be familiar with the workings of a video game. As technology advanced, video games evolved to incorporate life-like characters and in-depth backstories. This is why some cultural theorists like to describe them as narratives and study them as such. However, some argue that games warrant a unique analytical framework and cannot be studied like literary texts. Students of narratology argue otherwise. 

Narratology Narratology

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Table of contents

    The theoretical methodology known as narratology looks for underlying narrative structure in texts. By the liberal definition of the word 'text', anything with discernible content can be described as a text, including film and games. Therefore, the study of narrative has a wider scope other than literary studies. Most things carry a narrative. By the same logic, narratives existed long before narrative theory and narratology emerged.

    Let's dive into the theory and examples of narratology (and the popular debate on ludology vs narratology)!

    Narratology: theory

    Narratology is the study of narrative and narrative structure and the ways they affect our perception. It involves elements such as plot, characters, narrative point of view, and themes. This study is applicable to any narrative form, including novels, films, theatre, and more. It's an approach often used in literary theory and criticism to dissect and understand the underlying structure of a narrative.

    Although the term narratology is relatively new, the discipline dates back to the classical period of Plato (c. 428–c. 348 BCE) and Aristotle (384–322 BCE). Aristotle's narrative theory in Poetics (C. 335 BCE) is believed to be one of the earliest texts in narratology. The Bulgarian-French philosopher Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017) coined the French term narratologie (translated as narratology) in his 1969 book Grammaire du Décaméron. Narratology grew remarkably during the twentieth century and subsequently attracted the attention of literary critics, linguists, philosophers, folklorists, and anthropologists across the world.

    Narratology is the study and analysis of narratives and narrative structure.

    A narrative can be defined as a fictional or non-fictional recreation of events presented in a time sequence.

    In narratology, a narrative is analysed through its components. The focus of narratology is finding what is common— and different— in all narratives. Therefore, narratology is not particularly concerned with the content of a text, its social and historical contexts, or its aesthetic value. The study of narrative is especially important as we construct meaning from the way time and space are ordered in our narrative forms.

    Narratology focuses on the formal or structural aspects of a work through its components, such as characters, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution. Not all narratives are obediently chronological; they can also be of different types, such as linear, non-linear, circular and so on, in terms of time.

    Narratology, A n open book with glasses lying on its pages next to a mac keyboard and mouse, StudySmarter

    Fig. 1 Narratology involves the study of narratives by examining elements like plot structure, narrative perspective, and time.

    Academics sometimes focus only on written narratives, but the principles of narratology are applicable to all kinds of narratives, irrespective of the medium. As a methodology, narratology transcends the boundaries of media and disciplines.

    The central concerns of narratology include:

    • What are the recurring features of a narrative? Do these features help us to identify similar narratives?
    • What would be an accurate model that accounts for these features and recurrent patterns in different narratives?
    • What factors influence our understanding and evaluation of a narrative?

    Narratology: examples

    Narratology offers a framework to analyze the structure and elements of a narrative. Let's look at a few examples:

    1. Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen: The book is a prime example of a linear narrative structure, where events unfold chronologically. However, Austen cleverly weaves in her characters' perspectives, showing how different narrative voices can shape the readers' understanding of the story.

    2. The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J.D. Salinger: This novel utilises first-person narrative point of view. The entire story is told from Holden Caulfield's perspective, which allows readers to delve deeply into his psyche, highlighting the effect of narrative voice on a story.

    3. The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald: The use of Nick Carraway as a first-person narrator who is also a character in the story provides an interesting study in narrative perspective and reliability. His interpretations and perceptions of events shape the readers' understanding of the story.

    These examples provide insight into how different narrative techniques and structures can shape and influence a reader or viewer's understanding and interpretation of a story.

    Narratology: phases

    For the sake of comprehension, narrative theory can be classified into different groups as they evolved in time. Broadly, narratology evolved in two phases: classical and postclassical. Originally, narratology was preoccupied with finding universal narratives and repetitive narrative patterns.

    In the post-classical stage, narratology began to acknowledge its scope in more disciplines other than literature. This led to the rise of interdisciplinary approaches like postmodern narratology and feminist narratology.

    Postmodern writers often like to toy with our perception by blurring the boundaries between fiction, reality, and the process of creating a text itself. Postmodern narrative theory is a contemporary analytical approach that tries to establish a direct link between the world of fiction and non-fiction instead of treating them as separate.

    Feminist narratology is the study of narratives from a feminist perspective. It recognises how gender influences narratives by highlighting the limitations of conventional narratology as it evolved over the years.

    Narratology: ancient narrative theory

    The discourse on narrative forms originated from ancient philosophers like Aristotle. Aristotle is considered to be the founder of modern narratology. Aristotle's Poetics is believed to have laid the foundation for narrative theory and criticism in the West.

    Debates are held among scholars as to whether Aristotle should be given sole credit for coming up with the idea that the narrator must be distinguished from the author. Aristotle is a top contender for the title 'the founder of narratology' as this distinction is now a central principle of modern narratology. He is widely cited for his recognition of plot (muthos), story (praxis), and narrative discourse (lexis).

    Aristotle was also the first to posit that there is a distinction between the story and the way it is told, which is now one of the basic principles of narratological analysis. Aristotle's theory was so influential in narratology that the Russian formalist literary critic Boris Tomashevsky (1868–1939) famously described his own work on narrative forms as 'simply Aristotle's old theory of literature.'1

    Narratology: Russian formalism

    Modern genealogies of narratology often locate its beginnings in the structuralist project of the 1960s, overlooking the work of formalists. The narratological theories of Russian formalism played a significant role in the evolution of narratology as well as its reception.

    Formalism: an aesthetic movement centred in St. Petersburg and Moscow around 1914–29 that favoured form over the content of a text.

    Structuralism: a critical approach that focuses on the underlying structures and relationships that make up the world. The structuralist approach has a wider scope in the study of human behaviour and social organisation in addition to literary analysis.

    Formalist contribution to narratology is most associated with theorists Viktor Shklovsky (1893–1984), Boris Tomashevsky, and Vladimir Propp (1895–1970). The formalist movement explored the transmedial aspect of narratology ahead of its time by considering the evolution and morphology of different narrative forms such as the anecdote, the short story, the novella, and film, in addition to poetry, drama, and the novel.

    Both Russian formalists and narratologists placed emphasis on literary form over its content. They were more concerned with how a story is told rather than what it talks about. The concern for the manner rather than the matter is evident in formalist concepts like the syuzhet (plot) and fabula (story).

    Narratology: structuralism

    The structuralist approach in narratology was launched with the publication of a special edition of the French journal Communications in 1966. It featured contributions from theorists like Roland Barthes (1915–1980), Claude Bremond (1929–2021), Umberto Eco (1932–2016), Tzvetan Todorov, and Gérard Genette (1930–2018). Unlike formalists, these theorists saw themselves as a close circle engaged in the structural analysis of narrative. However, they borrowed important concepts like fabula and syuzhet from their formalist predecessors to reformulate them within the structuralist framework.

    Emphasis was placed not only on the ‘structural’ approach but also on their reliance on structural anthropology and on the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913). Structural narratologists like Genette built on the concepts of diegesis and mimesis from classical narrative theory. Genette is arguably the most important theorist in structural narratology who wrote copiously on the subject.

    Mimesis is an imitative representation that involves portrayal rather than narration.

    Diegesis is the narration or the act of telling a story by a narrator.

    Genette: narratology

    In the field of literary theory, narratology plays a vital role in enhancing the understanding and interpretation of a text. By examining elements like plot structure, narrative perspective, and time, narratology provides a systematic approach to analysing how stories are told and how they influence readers. Gerard Genette, a French literary theorist, is one of the foremost figures in the development of narratology, introducing key concepts like narrative mood, narrative voice, and narrative time.

    Genette has written extensively on the study of narrative to try and establish that the literary text is autonomous in nature. According to Genette, the narrative voice is multifaceted and is constituted by elements like the narrative instance, narrative time, and narrative levels.

    Genette replaced the traditional framework of 'point of view' with 'focalisation' by introducing the concept of the 'narrator-foculiser'. Foculisation is based on the narrator's position with regard to the story (inside or outside the story) and the degree of persistence, based on whether the narrator-foculiser remains the same or changes over the course of narration.

    For Genette, every narrative contains histoire (story or the order of events in the text), récit, which is the narrative text itself, and narration (the act of telling the story). There may be different types of narrators, such as homodiegetic, heterodiegetic, intradiegetic, extradiegetic, and autodiegetic.

    • If one or more characters become the narrator, they are called intradiegetic.
    • If a character tells the story from their point of view, they become a homodiegetic narrator.
    • When the narrator tells their story to another character within the novel, then they are called a homodiegetic-intradiegetic narrator.
    • If a homodiegetic narrator is also the protagonist of the story, then they are called an autodiegetic narrator.
    • An extradiegetic narrator is one who is above or beyond the story.
    • A heterodiegetic narrator is one who is outside the story and does not participate in it.

    Ludology vs narratology

    Narrative structures shape our perception of the world and the cultural artefacts in it. At a time when our lives are flooded by media, especially narrative media like television, film, and fiction, narratology is a useful tool to analyse popular culture. As you may know, every game contains a narrative framework. Narratology approaches games from the point of view that their underlying narratives can be studied using theories of literary analysis that already exist.

    Ludology: the study of games, players, and the cultures surrounding them.

    However, ludologists reject the notion as they believe games require a separate set of theories and cannot be analysed using the theoretical paradigm used for literary texts.

    Narratology - Key takeaways

    • Narratology is the study of narrative forms.
    • As an analytical method, narratology examines narrative elements within a text.
    • The origins of narrative theory can be traced back to ancient philosophers like Aristotle.
    • Narratology has emerged as an interdisciplinary tool in the study of narratives in different aspects of culture.
    • Famous narratologists include Gérard Genette, Roland Barthes, and Vladimir Propp.


    1. Boris Tomashevsky, ‘Letter to Shklovsky’, 1925
    Frequently Asked Questions about Narratology

    What is narratology?

    Narratology is the study and analysis of narrative forms. In literature, narratology analyses the form of narratives found in a text to compare and contrast them with other texts.

    What is the purpose of narratology?

    The purpose of narratology is to identify patterns in narratives and find common or recurring narratives in texts from different time periods and geographical origins.

    What are the basic principles of narratology?

    The principles of narratology are narrative syntax or narrative coherence, narrative semantics, and intentionality.

    What is an example of narratology?

    Narratology is an analytical methodology that places importance on narrative elements in a text. Narratology looks for common narratives in different texts to find universal patterns. 

    What is the difference between narrative and narratology?

    A narrative is a fictional or non-fictional representation of events as a time sequence. Whereas narratology is the study of narrative forms.

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