Genre – and Story (fabula) and Plot (sjuzet)

Russian formalism distinguishes three aspects of story, i.e. fabula, sjuzet, and forma, which can roughly be translated as theme, discourse and genre. The first two terms, fabula and sjuzet, have been described by modem literary theorists as, respectively, the timeless or structural aspects (the tale, the story, the already told and/or already known) and the sequential or dynamic aspects of story (the telling, the plot, the as-yet unknown).

Bruner (2004: 696) argues that the timeless/structural fabula is the mythic dimension, the transcendent plight that a story is about, for example, jealousy, authority and obedience, thwarted ambition, and those other plights that are widely experienced and which articulate the human condition. The sjuzet incorporates or realises the fabula not only in the form of a plot but also in an unwinding net of language. Bruner amends Frank Kermode’s (1984) thoughts on fabula and sjuzet in story, to suggest it their relationship is like the blending of timeless mystery and current scandal. The seemingly everlasting human dilemmas of envy, loyalty, jealousy and the like are woven into the acts of Iago, Othello, Desdemona, and Everyman with a fierce particularity and localness, which James Joyce called an “epiphany of the ordinary.” This particularity of time, place, person, and event can also be found in the mode of the telling, in the discourse properties of the sjuzet, Bruner (2004: 696 ) notes.

In order to create such epiphanous and unique ordinariness through the weaving of fabula and sjuzet, Roman Jakobson proposes that the author has to “make the ordinary strange”. Such a effect depends not upon plot alone but upon language because, Bruner (2004: 696) argues, language constructs what it narrates, both semantically and pragmatically as well as stylistically.

The third aspect of narrative, i.e. forma or genre, is an ancient topic dating from Aristotle’s Poetics. A genre is plainly a type, in the linguist’s sense, of which there are near endless tokens, such as romance, farce, tragedy, Bildungsroman, black comedy, adventure story, fairytale, wonder tale and so on. In that sense, it may be viewed as a set of grammars for generating different kinds of story plots. However, it is not that alone. Genre also commits one to use language in a certain way: lyric, for example, is conventionally written in the first person/present tense, epic is third person/past tense, and so on. A question that remains an open one is whether genres are mere literary conventions; are built into the human genome, in a Jungian archetypal sense; or are an invariant set of plights in the human condition to which all persons react in some necessary way (Bruner, 2004: 697).

Thus, Bruner (2004: 697) suggests, we may ask of any story, what is its fabula (or gist, or moral, or leitmotiv); how is it converted into an extended tale and through what uses of language; and into what genre is it fitted.


Bruner, J. (2004). Life as Narrative. Social Research, 71 (3), 691–711. [Originally published in Social Research, 54 (1), Spring 1987]

Kermode, F. (1984). Secrets and narrative sequence. In On Narrative, edited by W. J. T. Mitchell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

edited 22 January, 2017 by Allan Parsons

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