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Notes on Narrative

Some notes on narrative that, in best Blue Peter tradition, I made earlier. 16 years earlier:

Narratives are made up of units of information. In Roland Barthes’ ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives’ he states:

“…narrative is never made up of anything other than functional units … This is not a matter of art (on the part of the narrator), but of structure…”

Barthes goes on to deconstruct these functional units, outlining two distinct types of narrative component.

The first type are referred to as ‘functions’, which are essentially the narrative elements of the structure, the units that constitute ’story’. Functions are “…units of content…”, they are statements that describe actions, (eg: Oswald shot the President) or provide information which is key to the narrative (Oswald had spent some time in Cuba). Barthes’ ‘Functions’ are similar to Hallorans’ ‘Message Vehicles’, which take meanings in terms of codes and sub-codes. To use an example from Barthes; the sentence “He saw a man of fifty” can render several meanings according to the context of the narrative and the position of the reader. It is firstly a description of age. In the context of other message vehicles that would define the text as a ’spy thriller’, the man is unidentified and signifies a ‘possible threat’. In the context of the eighteen year old reader he is a significantly older man, and so on. Barthes also points out that functions are correlative to one another, contribute to the meaning of one another. The function ‘he replaced the receiver’ only gains meaning in relation to its correlate ‘he picked up the phone’.

The second units given a term are ‘Indices’, which locate the ’scene’ of the text. Such units provide information about atmosphere, character, time and place. While these units do not directly contribute to the narrative, they serve to place the text into the ‘real’ world. For example, the indice “The night was stormy” gives us information about the temporal context of the narrative (it is night-time) and the atmosphere (stormy – foreshadows ‘doom’).

If narrative can be broken down into ‘units’ it follows, that these units can be ordered into a structure; a structure of messages that relate to each other. In books and films this structure is linear, is the Classic Realist structure of the text.


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