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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:

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”.

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:

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:

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.

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