Narratology: Origins in the 1960s

If a date of birth could be given to narratology, Marie-Laure Ryan (2006) suggests, it would fall on the publication date of issue 8 of the French journal Communications in 1966, which contained articles by Claude Bremond, Gerard Genette, A. J. Greimas, Tzvetan Todorov, and Roland Barthes.

For Barthes (1975: 237),

“ … there is a prodigious variety of genres, each of which branches out into a variety of media … Among the vehicles of narrative are articulated language, whether oral or written, pictures, still or moving, gestures, and an ordered mixture of all those substances; narrative is present in myth, legend, fables, tales, short stories, epics, history, tragedy, drame [suspense drama], comedy, pantomime, paintings (in Santa Ursula by Carpaccio, for instance), stained-glass windows, movies, local news, conversation. … Like life itself, [narrative] is there, international, transhistorical, transcultural.”

Equally, for Bremond (quoted in Ryan, 2006: 3-4), story,

“may be transposed from one to another medium without losing its essential properties: the subject of a story may serve as argument for a ballet, that of a novel can be transposed to stage or screen, one can recount in words a film to someone who has not seen it.”

As these quotes from Barthes and Bremond demonstrate, narratology was conceived initially as a field of study that transcends discipline and medium. However, in the subsequent decades, under the influence of Genette, narratology took a different direction, and developed as a project almost exclusively concerned with written literary fiction.

Narratology: Expansion in the 1980s onwards

More recent work has repositioned the study of narrative back onto the transmedial and transdisciplinary track, as envisioned by Barthes. Narrative environment design extends this study of narrative beyond the transmedial and transdisciplinary into the environmental and the experiential lifeworld.

It was not until 1980 that  narrative theory took centre stage in North American literary contexts, ushering in the beginning of the narrativist decade of the 1980s, Martin Kreiswirth suggests. Kreiswirth points out that during the 1980-1981 academic year there were five special journal issues devoted solely to questions of narrative. Four of them, New Literary History‘s narrative sequel and the three issues of Poetics Today, examined various aspects of literary narratology and flowed along with the structuralist literary mainstream. The fifth, Critical Inquiry‘s special issue “On Narrative” offered, a rather different approach, pointing, in many ways, toward the kind of interrogation of narrative that would become increasingly prominent during the rest of the decade.

As outlined by David Herman in Narratologies, the expansion of narratology in the 1980s can be traced along three paths which he defines as, firstly, the increase in digital and communications technologies’ and associated methodologies of narrative; the progression of narrative beyond the domain of the literary; and the growth of narratology into new ‘narrative logics’. Herman sketched a shift from classical to post-classical narratology, in the process highlighting new queer, ethnic, postcolonial and feminist narrative perspectives, as well as the expansion of narrative theory into new media such as the performing arts, computer games and film (Jamieson, 2014)

Marie-Laure Ryan, extending Herman, defines narrative as ‘a cognitive construct or mental image, built by the interpreter in response to the text’. From this definition, it is possible to substitute a range of semiotic objects and constructs, including architecture, for the word ‘text’. In this way, Ryan posits narrative as an active process on the part of the reader or viewer, similarly to reader response theory and reception theory. Werner Wolf describes this active process as ‘narrativisation’.

Narrativisation is the application of a narrative frame, i.e. a cognitive construct that is culturally acquired, which describes the way that we use narrative to organise and structure information. Applying the narrative frame to information, whether it be a text, a moving image, a painting, an object or a situation, causes us to ‘narrativise’ the information. This, for Wolf, is an active process which is an essential part of human thinking

Ryan (2006: 15-16) herself discusses the possibility of narrative environments as an example of metaphorical narration when she outlines the extention of narration to architecture. Thus, she argues,

“In the case of architecture, a metaphorical interpretation would draw an analogy between the temporality of plot and the experience of walking through a building. In a narratively conceived architecture, the visitor’s discovery tour is plotted as a meaningful succession of events. This occurs in Baroque churches, where the visitor’s tour is supposed to reenact the life of Christ.”

Other key figures in the theory and the study of narrative and narrative structure, and the ways that these affect our perceptions and actions, include Plato, Aristotle, Shklovsky, Bakhtin, Ricoeur, Foucault and Bal.


Barthes, R. (1975). An Introduction to the structural analysis of narrative. New Literary History, 6 (2), 237–272. Available from [Accessed 4 April 2016].

Jamieson, C.A. (2014). NATO: Exploring architecture as a narrative medium in postmodern London [PhD thesis]. Royal College of Art. Available from Claire Thesis %28REDACTED VERSION%29.pdf [Accessed 4 February 2019].

Kreisworth, M. (1992). Trusting the tale: the narrativist turn in the human sciences. New Literary History, 23 (3), 629–657. Available from [Accessed 4 February 2019].

Ryan, M.-L. (2006). Narrative, media, and modes. In: Avatars of story. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 3–30.

Wolf, W. (2003). Narrative and narrativity: a narratological reconceptualization and its applicability to the visual arts. Word & Image, 19 (3), 180–197. Available from [Accessed 4 February 2019].

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Associated Terms


in Narratology

The capacity of an entity to act, to cause events. Characters are typically entities with agency.

(based on: Porter Abbott, H. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002)

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in Narratology

contest or conflict, usually between the protagonist and his/her antagonist(s)

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in Narratology

the protagonist’s opponent

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in Narratology

Outside the world of the story (the diegesis).

Usually used in reference to the narrator, also the reader or audience is typically extradiegetic. Thus classical narratology. See extradiegetic in Narrative Environment design for more.

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Framing Narrative

in Narratology

A framing narrative contains a second (or more) embedded narrative(s), for which it provides a context or setting. Sometimes the framing narrative will begin and end the narrative as a whole, providing book ends,  other times it will simply be present at the beginning of the narrative, sometimes it reappears as a linking device between a series of embedded narratives. The framing narrative “sets the scene” for the embedded narrative(s), giving us a context in which we can read and interpret the text.

There are many types of framing narratives, but the two main ones are:

1. a collection of stories which are not necessarily related to one another or to the framing narrative (e.g. One Thousand and One Nights), in this case the framing narrative often has little effect on our reading of the embedded narratives.

2. in the other type the framing narrative is related to the the embedded narrative, examples of this are The Turn of the Screw (Henry James), in which the framing narrative introduces the main narrative, and Frankenstein (Mary Shelley) in which a set of narratives successively enclose each other like a nest of boxes or baboushka dolls: Robert Walton writes letters to his sister describing the story told to him by Victor Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s story contains the monster’s story, and the monster’s story  contains the story of a family he had lived with. In this kind of framing the framing narrative can have a very strong effect on the way we read the embedded narrative: for example, in The Turn of the Screw, the narrator of the framing narrative expresses a hgh opinion of the narrator of the embedded (main) narrative, which might lead us to believe the main narrator to be a reliable narrator. However, we can (and many people do) consider the framing narrator to be an unreliable narrator – deceived about the psychology of the main narrator, who is herself unreliable (deluded).

In MANE we call this type of framing narrative a meta narrative


Web resources:

The international Society for the Study of Narrative

The Wikipedia entry for Frame Narrative is good:

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in Narratology

the main character in a narrative; usually equivalent to protagonist, but has the connotation of being ‘good’, which protagonist does not carry.

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Implicit Narrative

in Narratology

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in Narratology

Inside the world of the story. It is typically applied to the narrator (if they are in the story (a character)); the narrator can also be extradiegetic: outside the story, an unknown third part narrator, or someone who is a character in a framing narrative and telling this story.

This is a simplification of the typically Byzantinely complex formulations of narratology.


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Meta Narrative

in Narratology

A framing Narrative is one that encloses another or other narratives, which exist on a different narrative level. A framing narrative contains a second (or several) narrative(s) and provides a context or setting for it/them. Sometimes this framing narrative will begin and end the narrative as a whole, providing book ends, while other times the framing narrative will simply be present in the beginning of the narrative. Sometimes when there are several embedded or sub narratives, the framing narrative acts as linkage between them. The framing narrative “sets the scene” for the embedded narrative(s), giving us a context in which we can read and interpret the text.

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in Narratology

Genette (1980) defines narrative metalepsis as an intrusion by extradiegetic elements into the diegesis (and vice versa). He recognises that anyone or anything can slip from one diegetic level to another if the boundary between the levels is porous, and he doesn’t like it: ”The most troubling thing about metalepsis indeed lies in this unacceptable and insistent hypothesis, that the extradiegetic is perhaps always diegetic, and that the narrator and his narratees – you and I – perhaps belong to some narrative”. This, in a sense, is pretty much what we consider to be the case in narrative environments, where the diegesis typically is constituted of things that exist in the real world.

See Genette, G. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method.  Trans. Jane E. Lewin.    Ithaca: Cornell UP (1980) page 236.

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in Narratology

Communication of something by imitation or representation, as opposed to diegesis: communication of something by narration or report. From the Greek.

There is a lot of confusion about mimesis, because Plato and Aristotle conceived it in very different ways but related it to diegesis in the same way: one represents, the other reports; one embodies, the other narrates; one transforms, the other indicates; one knows only a continuous present, the other looks back on a past. See the good essay in Wikipedia:

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in Narratology

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in Narratology

The protagonist is the main or central character in a narrative, whose contest or conflict (agon) with antagonists, and/or natural forces, and/or fate drives the story.


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