Story vs. Discourse


Aug 7, 2020
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You know, understanding the structure and parts of narrative isn't the easiest or most straightforward thing in the world. There are elements to it that are complex and that require some good hard thought. There's even a name for the study of these things. The study of how narratives work and what they're for. This study is called narratology, believe it or not. Did you know that narratology was a thing? I sure didn't. Now I do.

I've been reading up on narrative lately and feel as though I'm making some headway. All my life, I've been simply reading things. I never knew there was such intricacy involved. I know none of what I'm saying makes any sense right about now, but please bear with me. I'll do my best at explaining down below.

Okay, we already have the term narratology. That word is used to describe the study of narratives. Narratology studies both the structure of narratives as well as the function of narratives. If you aren't sure what narrative is, please read through this post. Now, when I say that it studies narrative, what I really mean is that it systematically studies narrative. It pulls things apart, gives them names and then puts them back together. It treats narrative as a living being and respects its different pieces. There's actually quite a bit to narrative.

Within narratology, there are tools that we can use to gather intelligence on how narratives provide meaning for both readers and writers. And once the intelligence is gathered, it can be structured in such a way as to provide a framework or model for not only how one or two narratives came into existence or how they're received by readers, but how all narratives came into existence and how they're received. In more simple terms, there's a study of narrative called narratology. This study looks at the bits and pieces of narrative in general (semiotics) and tries to put a larger system in place to aid in the later discovery of how narrative production works as well as how narratives are received by the reader.

If that wasn't confusing enough, take a look at this. Did you know that within narrative, there are real authors and real readers, as opposed to implied authors and implied readers? I know. I didn't know this either. But if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. And by defining these authors and readers, we'll be adding to the model we'll be creating while engaging in narratology. Let me explain what I mean.

Let's pretend that Jack writes a letter to Mary. He begins like this: "To my dearest Mary. It's me, Jack..." Do you see how the real author is jack and the real reader is Mary? In this example, who plays these parts is very clear. If you read letters, short stories, novellas, or novels that are like this, you'll have a clear understanding of who wrote the actual piece and who precisely it was written for. Journals, diaries, etc...are like this. But what if we read a story that wasn't written by the actual author? I mean, yes, it was written by the author because someone had to write it, but what if that wasn't actually clear in the story? What if Dan Brown, the author of The Da Vinci Code, wrote a story where "Dan Brown" wasn't mentioned anywhere? Dan Brown is the real author of his books, but he's not the implied author anywhere. Let's pretend that one of the characters in a story claims to be the author. In cases like these, that character would be the implied author. Most books we read every day have implied authors. While reading, we rarely think about real authors. That's no fun. Implied authors are basically personas we can attribute styles and attitudes to. We need to read the actual story to find out who this "person" is.

When it comes to implied readers, we can get a general sense of who the author is writing for. We are not the actual reader because books aren't generally written for specific people. It's not like Charles Dickens begins his books like this: "Dear Barry..." No, he writes (or, he wrote) for a general audience. An implied reader, if you will. We can figure out who this implied reader is by the message given through the text itself. The reader of books is just as characterized as characters in stories are. You just need to know how to look at things and understand them. When you and I begin reading a book, we essentially take the place of the reader the author has created or implied.

Once it's clear who the implied author and the implied reader are, we can begin distinguishing between the discourse and the story, which is actually the point of this post. The problem with just jumping into these later terms without any background sometimes is that nothing will make any sense. I try to build up to the meaning by providing some sort of understanding of other terms and ideas before anything else.

Discourse: This is the message that the implied author relays to the implied reader. It includes such things as who the narrator and narratee are, what the point of view is, the language used, and the theme of the story.

Story: The story is the actual events that occur, the environments in which these events occur (setting), and the characters included in the text. The narrator of the discourse relays the story to the narratee. If you had two characters in a novel who spoke to one another, that conversation would be considered part of the story. The novel itself though, shared by the implied author with the implied reader, would be the discourse. The story doesn't always have to be shared between characters in a book though. If there's a overall narrative voice that's conveying the story, that's fine too. Authors have been quite creative through the years when coming up with ways for stories to be told.

So there you have it, the difference between narrative discourse and story. I know this isn't the most clear thing in the world, but just remember that these two ideas are on two different levels. The story is smaller and more precise than the discourse in general. The story is contained within the discourse. The story occurs between characters in a book. The book, or discourse, is the box the story was placed in. If you have any questions, please ask below.
Story vs. Discourse was posted on 08-29-2020 by Cameron in the Writing Forum forum.
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