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Narrative Theory Part II: the story

By Fariha Uddin - English Student @ Keble College, Oxford


The story, to reiterate from Part I, is the ‘content’ in the narrative text and there are many ways of telling one. When the chronological events are affected by tools of narrative, such as flashbacks and flashforwards, changing the way the events are unfolded, a story is created. And the unfolding of the story depends on the writer’s play of time. Although there are other elements, such as characterisation and focalization that can also affect the story, part 2 is about the effects of time on the construction of the story. Once again, much of the article is indebted to Mieke Bal’s Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative.

The concept of time is exploited using anachronism, which the Cambridge Dictionary defines as “a person, thing, or idea that exists out of its time in history, especially one that happened or existed later than the period being shown.” Examples include flashbacks and flashforwards, or analepsis and prolepsis, which Bal likes to also call ‘retroversion’ and ‘anticipation’ respectively.

Time units can also be primary or secondary (Bal, 2017). For example: “Back in 2010, life was much easier.” With the use of retroversion, you enter a different unit of time, where the retroversion is secondary compared to the fabula which is the primary unit of time.

Speaking of retroversion, a distance is created between the fabula (the chronological events in the narrative) and the event in the anachronism, i.e., a flashback (Bal, 2017). The distance created brings us to types of retroversion that further explores this gap:

  • External retroversion: Flashback takes place outside the time unit of the primary fabula. (Bal, 2017)

  • Internal retroversion: Flashback takes place within the time unit of the primary fabula. They are used to fill in gaps in the narrative, or repeat what has happened in the fabula, but in more detail which can affect the reader’s reaction to the narrative text. Detective novels often use such technique. (Bal, 2017)

  • Mixed retroversion: Flashback starts off outside the time unit and then ends within the fabula. (Bal, 2017)

Although they feature seldom in narrative texts, anticipation, or flashforward is still as effective as a retroversion. Texts which open with a summary, like the prologue in Romeo and Juliet, are using anticipation from the beginning. The rest of the narrative is used to explain the anticipation, or as Bal puts with much brevity: “a sense of fatalism, or predestination” for which “nothing can be done” (Bal, 2017).

Here are a few types of anticipation:

  • Internal anticipation: clears things up within the text. (Bal, 2017)

  • Iterative anticipation (Bal, 2017): Builds on the previous anticipation. For example, in dystopian texts, the totalitarian regime is often described to control its citizens through restrictions on freedom and that results in repetition within everyday lives of the victims. “Every Sunday, we are allowed to go to the meat market to collect one piece of chicken for a family of five.” Here, “Every Sunday…” indicates the anticipation that builds on the previous Sunday activity: the same weekend activity that builds on from the previous Sunday.

Other than using anachronism (retroversion and anticipation), the writer also exploits time to construct the story using rhythm and frequency (Bal, 2017).

Rhythm depends on how fast the story unfolds and can be slowed down or come to a momentary pause. A pause is when time is frozen in the fabula. Descriptive passages in narrative texts provide the pause. Virginia Woolf’s modernist novels often explore the pause in time, where not much happens in terms of events, but the narrative is stuck within the characters’ stream of consciousness. A good novel to explore the pause is in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

Moreover, Gérard Genette uses the term ‘frequency’ to describe events which are repeated in narrative texts due to narration by different characters who have their own interpretation of the same event (Bal, 2017). Frequency is another aspect that affects the construction of the story. Maybe time seems to be cyclic in that case?

In the third and final part of the ‘Narrative Theory’ series, I will explore characterisation and focalisation in relation to narrative texts.

Further reading:

  1. Mieke Bal, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, third edition, 2017

  2. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse


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