Topic 32 – Narrative texts. Structure and characteristics

Topic 32 – Narrative texts. Structure and characteristics

In this topic I am going to deal with narrative texts. I will divide the topic into four sections. In the first section I will define what a narrative text is and the criteria that a stretch of language must fulfil to be considered a text. In my second section I will present the main text types, in order to establish what a narrative text is, and in the third section I will concentrate on the characteristics of narrative texts, dealing also with the meaning and tone of narratives. Finally, in my last section I will deal with the point of view of narratives.

Let’s start with a definition of text. A text may be defined as “a stretch of language, spoken or written, of whatever length, which forms a unified whole”. However, we should ask ourselves: “What makes a stretch of language form a unified whole and, therefore, be a text?” Seven criteria or standards are given for textuality, that is, criteria that a sequence of sentences must meet in order to qualify as a text:

  • Cohesion is the connection which results when the interpretation of a textual element is dependent on another element in the text.

The store no longer sold porcelain figures. It used to…

The interpretation of “it” is dependent on that of “store”, and the interpretation of “used to” is dependent on “sold porcelain figures”.

  • Coherence is the connection which is brought about by something outside the text. This “something” is usually knowledge which a listener or reader is assumed to possess. The best way to illustrate coherence is giving an example of incoherence. Chomsky gave the following example: Colourless green ideas sleep furiously. The listener’s knowledge tells him that the utterance is non-sensical.
  • Intentionality means that writes and speakers must have the conscious intention of achieving specific goals with their message, for instance, conveying information or arguing an opinion.
  • Acceptability requires that a sequence of sentences be acceptable to the intended audience in order to qualify as a text. For instance, for a teacher it is not acceptable to be told: “You sit down and shut up”.
  • Informativeness is necessary in discourse. A text must contain new information. If a reader knows everything contained in a text, then it does not qualify. Likewise, if a reader does not understand what is in a text, it also does not qualify as a text.
  • Situationality is essential to textuality. It is important to consider the situation in which the text has been produced and dealt with. For instance, you don’t speak about football in church.
  • Intertextuality means that a sequence of sentences is related by form or meaning to other sequences of sentences. For instance, a chapter is a text related to other chapters of a book.

In order to be regarded as a text, any stretch of language must meet all these standards. However, not all texts are the same. Primarily monologic spoken or written discourse may be organized in ways that reveal similar underlying “templates” or “scripts”. Those which have the same or very similar template may be said to belong to a particular “genre” or type of text. Part of a speaker’s communicative competence involves the ability to recognize and manipulate the features of a particular type of text. There are four main genres which are usually mentioned by genre analysts as distinct types: narrative, descriptive, explanatory, which can be either expository or procedural, and argumentative texts. Although these may exist in different languages, there may be important differences between their templates, and in the kind of language that is typically present in each.

Before concentrating on what narrative texts are, I would like to show what they are not, by giving an overview of the three other text types. A narrative text is not a descriptive one, because a descriptive text is defined by being a spoken or written representation or account of a person, object, or event that can both be connotative or denotative. The former happens when the writer reflects what is suggested to him/her by the object presented to the reader, independently of whether s/he adjusts the description to reality. Literary writing is characterised amongst other things, by connotative description, in which subjective sensations are transmitted. The latter happens when the author adopts an impartial attitude towards what s/he describes; limiting himself or herself to carefully detail the characteristics which best define the object. Scientific writing, for example, is distinguished by its denotative or objective descriptions, due to the universal character that science possesses.

A narrative text is also different from an explanatory text (expository or procedural). The procedural text can be defined as the “how to” discourse, i.e. explains how to do something. Procedural discourse normally consists of a set or ordered steps which will be marked with enumerative or temporal markers. Goals will be expressed in terms of purpose or result which can be accompanied by illustrations. Typically the agent is neutral and imperative or passive constructions will be used. On the other hand, an expository text gives a simple explanation of an idea or fact; defines a concept from an objective point of view and summarise a series of ideas or facts. Some key language used is existential clauses, additive connectors, relative clauses or cohesive devices among others.

Finally, a narrative text is not an argumentative one since this is defined as the process of weakening or supporting another statement whose validity is questionable or contentious. In it, two or more contrasting opinions are discussed. So we need to present both sides equally, discussing the advantages or disadvantages of either argument and take sides and state our view, providing evidence to convince our readers. The most common structure of argumentative texts is presentation of the argument, evidence, conclusion and instruction. The writer will tend to end with the view s/he defends. Part of the key language present is attitude markers, additive connectors, the potential ‘would’ to offer comments and give suggestions for future actions and so on.

However, the frontiers between these text types are not clear-cut, and any piece of discourse can have details of each type of text. For instance, narration and description complement and combine with each other in literary works. It is impossible to narrate with brilliance and effectiveness without possessing a great sense of observation and description.

After having presented what a text is, what criteria a piece of language must fulfil to be regarded as a text and the main text types, I am going to move to my third section, in which I will look at the main features of narrative texts. A narrative text is a text in which the encoder communicates information about phenomena within the framework of time. The author expresses in words events which have taken place at a particular time, in a particular setting and under particular circumstances. A narrative text is used to arrange actions and events in a particular sequential order, it is a meaningful sequence of events. A narrative is sequential in the sense that events are ordered, not merely at random. Sequence always involves an arrangement in time. A straightforward movement from the first event to the last constitutes the simplest chronology. However, chronology is sometimes complicated by presenting the events in another order: for example, a story may open with the final episode and then flash back to all that preceded it. Moreover, a narrative is meaningful in that it conveys an evaluation of some kind. The writer reacts to the story he/she tells, and states or implies that reaction. This is the meaning, sometimes called the “theme” of a story. Meaning must always be rendered. The writer has to do more than tell us the truth he sees in the story; he must manifest that truth in the characters and in the action.

After defining narrative texts, it is important to mention that students of literature tend to think of narrative as a literary genre typical of prose fiction or epic poetry. Nevertheless, not only do we find narratives in literary texts, both fictional and non-fictional, but in non-literary texts as well: letters, court testimony, news reports, math problems, advertisements, speeches, jokes and all manners of conversations.

Narrative texts show a number of common elements that are known as universals. These are not always present in all the texts. Some of them do, whereas others are optional. Text universals are:

  • Abstract is the title or introductory topic. It is an optional element, though it is usually present. E.g. This is the story of Victoria Beckham.
  • Orientation, where time, setting and characters are introduced. It is an obligatory element.
  • Goal: the main characters have to face a problem, and this constitutes the goal. It is an obligatory element.
  • Action consists of problem-solving procedures: the hero attempts to attain the goal. It is also obligatory.
  • Resolution, which is also called climax. The goal is attained. The element is obligatory whatever the result may be.
  • Coda: this constitutes a bridge from orientation to reality, as sometimes the setting is not real. It may contain moral or evaluation.
  • Evaluation: in the narrative text, evaluation may appear in different phases, as the narrator usually comments along the story. This is an optional element. Evaluation may appear:
    • During orientation, aimed to involve the audience.
    • During the action, helping to reason the story.
    • During the resolution, summarizing the story.

When dealing with narrative texts, it is important to point out that we can find different levels of meanings. Meaning in narrative is a complex and difficult matter, and it may operate on at least three different levels: Allegorical, Realistic and Symbolic. In some stories the meaning is an abstract truth -moral, political or religious -which the characters, plot and setting are designed to carry. Such stories are called “allegories”, and sometimes the literal events do not make a great deal of sense in themselves. The real meaning emerges only when the reader steps up from the narrative surface to the more abstract level of ideals.

At the other extreme, the meaning of a story exists on its surface. “Realistic” stories do not require us to read the characters or plot as standing for categories of thought or feeling, for those characters and events correspond to real life as we know or imagine. Stories which partake of both levels may be called “symbolic”. This is what happens in most stories, in which meaning is neither purely allegorical nor realistic. It falls somewhere between those extremes: they are realistic in that characters and events conform to life as we glean it, and thus we can generalise from them to real people. At the same time, these stories -like allegories -point to another, more abstract and inclusive level of significance. Whatever its mode, the meaning of a story has to be rendered in the characters, plot and setting.

As for the tones in narrative, writers are always present in the stories they tell, either implicitly or explicitly. They may be apparent in the “I” view, in the first person view, or it may be hidden in the detached third person view. According to the function and context of the narrative, writers can have a variety of ways of expressing views through their stories, the tones of which may range from very detached and objective to emotive and touching commitment. Moreover, through their personal style -the words chosen and the sentence patterns into which they are arranged – writers of a narrative can imply a wide range of tones: amusement, anger, horror, shock, disgust, delight, or objective detachment. Some authors affirm that style is not merely a way of conveying the meaning of a story; it is a part of meaning, sometimes the vital part.

It is very difficult to establish the grammatical, syntactical and morphological features of narrative texts, as narratives can do almost everything with language, varying from a very simple narration by a young child to a complicated novel. Consequently, narratives will have different levels of structural complexity. However, there are some aspects that should be taken into account because of its importance. One of them is sequencing people and events in time and space, which usually includes action verbs and temporal conjunctions. On the contrary, in reflections and evaluations mental verbs predominate. It has to be considered that recounts and stories are typically written in the past unless quoting direct speech, and that the active form is usually preferred. It is also very important to pay attention to elements which emphasise cause and effect relations among events, and conceptual relations for cause, reason, purpose, enablement and time proximity.

Up to this point I have dealt with the criteria for textuality, the main text types, and some features of narrative texts. Now I am going to deal with a further aspect which is closely related to narrative texts: the narrative point of view. The narrative point of view is connected with the position that the narrator takes in relation to the story. The main narrative points of view available to an author are:

  • Omniscient narrator: omniscient narrators stand in their stories in a Godlike position above their characters, knowing what each of them thinks and feels at every single moment. The omniscient narrator refers to his characters in the third person, and on occasions he can adopt the form “we”.
  • Limited point of view: when an author has decided to tell his story by means of a narrator who is not omniscient, he has to make a further decision. He has to decide whether he is going to tell his story in third or in first person.
    • A third person narrator appears when the author tells a story in the third person but he does not control his characters, he does not know their feelings or emotions. The third person limited point of view picks one character and follows him or her around for the duration of the book. The narrator may be more observant than the character, but is limited to what that one character could theoretically observe. In a minor variant on third person limited, narrator may “travel” with a single character, but the point-of-view conventions may be extended to allow the narrator access to other characters’ thoughts and motivations. Another common variant is for a novel to have different third person limited point of views in different sections. Thus, Chapter One might follow Jane, while Chapter Two follows Dick, and Chapter Three follows their dog.
    • First person narration: in first person narration the story-teller usually invents and then impersonates a character who tells his own story from his point of view, referring to himself throughout as I. In this way, the author dresses up as one of the main characters of the narration, and from that position he conducts the threads of the story. However, we have to remember that it is not always true that the narrator is voicing the opinions of the author. Very often, indeed, it is just the opposite.

To sum up, in this topic I have dealt with narrative texts. I have divided the topic into four sections. In the first section I have defined what a narrative text is and the criteria that a stretch of language must fulfil to be considered a text. In my second section I have presented the main text types, and in the third one I have concentrated on the characteristics of narrative texts, dealing also with the meaning and tone of narratives. Finally, in my last section I have dealt with the point of view of narratives. As a final word I would like to mention that narratives play a very important part in foreign language teaching, as learners will have to use them over and over again. For this reason it is important to provide our learners with appropriate models of narrative texts and guide them through the process of producing their own narratives. Reading may be a very useful tool for developing their writing abilities.