Narratology – a Brief Lit Review
So, for my doctoral thesis, I did a Literature Review of the major works in narratology (that are useful to a screenwriter) since Plato. Below is a condensed version of that Literature Review.
A brief overview of “The History of Structural and Anthropological Narratology” is as follows:
- In 380 BCE, Plato published The Republic, in which he identified 3 genres: lyric, drama and epic. Plato stated that the “drama” genre uses mimesis (showing – via actors, using direct action), the “lyric” genre uses diegesis (telling, via narration – which includes authorial comment) and – the “epic” (episodic) genre uses both modes. In short, Plato said the “drama” genre uses the technique “Show, don’t Tell”. Plato’s core philosophical idea was that there are `perfect forms’ behind `nature/reality’. (Part of my thesis is that this same pattern underlies many things in `nature’: physics, chemistry, biology and – reality. In the case of the Top 20 most viral films – the Structure of the Fibonacci sequence, which underpins the 10-Act StoryAlity™ syntagm, derived from this empirical doctoral comparative research study of the Top 20 – and Bottom 20 – ROI films.)
- In 335 BCE Aristotle published The Poetics, in which he analyzed certain ancient Greek plays, and outlined their structure and content. Notably: Aristotle never said 3 Acts, although he did indicate two acts. Aristotle also decided that ancient Greek plays need a `beginning, middle and an end’. He also noted various other dramatic “principles”, including examples selected from the play Oedipus Tyrannous. (Oedipus The King. It should also be noted that Poetics was published in 2 volumes, and only the first volume, regarding `Tragedy’, survives. The `Comedy’ volume was lost. (I contend that many screenwriting `gurus’, such as Syd Field, Linda Seger, Michael Hauge and Robert McKee erroneously use Aristotle’s `Poetics’ as the basis of their story systems. I also contend this may also be one of the key reasons that: 7 in 10 films lose money. For one thing: Feature Films are not ancient Greek plays. For another, “3-Act structure” is not useful for screenwriters. See: `StoryAlity #26: 3 Acts? Aristotle said that?‘)
- In 1863, Gustav Freytag published Techniques of the Drama, an analysis of the dramatic structure of five-act plays: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and `denouement/ catastrophe/ resolution’ – also known as `Freytag’s pyramid’.
- In 1890, James Frazer published The Golden Bough, a comparative study of mythology and religion. He revealed that Humanity’s belief evolves – from a belief in primitive magic, then to religion, and finally, to science. (Also known in philosophy as: an evolution from mythos to logos).
- In 1895, Georges Polti published The 36 Dramatic Situations, in which he outlined the 36 different types of story/plot (including: Vengeance, Pursuit, Disaster, etc.). [Notably, this is a continuation of the work of playwright Count Carlo Gozzi.]
- In 1928, Vladimir Propp published The Morphology of the Folk Tale (translated into English in 1958). In his Morphology, Propp analyzed hundreds of Russian folk tales, to determine their common elements with regards to story structure and character archetypes. He discovered 31 plot beats, and 8 character types (the Hero, the Villain/Aggressor, the Donor, the False Hero, the Helper/Auxiliary, the Princess, her Father, and the Dispatcher/Committer). Most notably, Homer’s The Odyssey conforms very closely to Propp’s structural story paradigm.
- In 1946 Lajos Egri published The Art of Dramatic Writing, a study of the principles of playwriting. He postulated that the best plays follow the dialectic structure: Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis, in order to prove a `premise’, such as “Ruthless ambitions leads to its own destruction” (for example, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth).
- In 1949 Joseph Campbell published The Hero With A Thousand Faces, in which Campbell analyzed thousands of religious myths, folk and fairy tales and determined “the monomyth” which involves 17 story stages, and 10 character archetypes with parallels to those of “the collective unconscious” outlined by Carl Jung; Jung’s Man and his Symbols (1964) further outlines these archetypes. (Screenplay gurus Chris Vogler, John Truby, Linda Seger and Michael Hauge also use the monomyth extensively.)
- In 1955 Claude Lévi-Strauss (one of the founders of structuralism) published “A Structural Study of Myth” in Journal of American Folklore, and in 1960, Structural Anthropology. These works identified a constant conflict of binary oppositions, and their final reconciliation in myths (thesis, antithesis, and finally synthesis).
- In 1959, Joseph Campbell published the 4 volumes of The Masks of God, namely Primitive Mythology, Oriental Mythology, Occidental Mythology, and Creative Mythology. The work was a treatise on the evolution of human mythology, focusing more on anthropology and history, rather than psychology, as in The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
- In 1966 A. J. Greimas published Structural Semantics which proposed a system of 5 “actants”: the Hero, the Villain, the Object of the quest, the Helper of the hero, and the Sender (the one who initiates the quest).
- Also in 1966, a special issue of the journal Communications (Issue #8), featured 6 articles on Narratology by key contemporary academic structuralists, including Roland Barthes, Tzvetan Todorov, Umberto Eco, Gérard Genette, A. J. Greimas, and film theorist Christian Metz. Most of these articles take an Audience/Reader-based perspective rather than a working Writer’s, and due to their use of the often-obscure and impenetrable prose, and the highly academic and philosophical science of Semiotics, are not particularly useful to any working screenwriter or filmmaker.
- In 1969 Tzvetan Todorov published The Grammar Of The Decameron and coined the term “Narratology”. The Decameron (1353) by Giovanni Boccaccio, is a portmanteau story, encompassing 100 tales told by ten young people. Todorov’s structural analysis of the common elements in the stories within it included the 3 stages: Equilibrium; Agents of disruption who cause Disequilibrium; and finally: Harmony.
- In 1970, Roland Barthes published S/Z, a structuralist analysis of the short story Sarrasine, by Balzac. In it, Barthes identified 5 narrative codes: Enigma, Action, Semic, Symbolic, and Cultural.
- In 1972 Gérard Genette published Narrative Discourse: An Essay In Method in which he outlined 5 narrative modes: Order, Frequency, Duration, Voice and Mood.
- In 1979, Umberto Eco published a collection of essays, The Role of the Reader, which includes his analysis of the plot structure (the 9 common story beats) of all 14 of the James Bond novels.
- In 1995, Joseph Carroll published Evolution and Literary Theory where he outlined a theory of literature using Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and also integrating Evolutionary Psychology into the study of literature.
- In 2005, Christopher Booker published The Seven Basic Plots in which he finds all great stories are one of 7 plots, including structural story beats of each plot. (Although Dennis Dutton also criticizes aspects of this approach.)
- In 2009, Brian Boyd published On The Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, in which he extended evocriticism using a study of Homer’s The Odyssey and Horton Hears a Who!, including a wider conception of Evolutionary Psychology (e.g. Geary), and integrating creativity (e.g. DK Simonton).
- In 2010, Boyd, Carroll and Gottschall edited Evolution, Literature and Film: A Reader which collects many of the best essays and articles that employ an evolutionary slant in explaining literature, including two chapters by eminent film theorist and film historian David Bordwell.
- In 2012, Jonathan Gottschall published The Storytelling Animal in which he extends consilience and evocriticism even further, offering evolutionary explanations of why we tell stories.
Addendum – Also in 2016, I published this book chapter:
High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher
The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky
JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/