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An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative


At least since Aristotle wrote “Poetics,” critics of literature have been thinking in structured ways about narrative structure. Many schools of thought have emerged over the centuries between then and now, at times hotly contesting each other’s interpretive frameworks. But broadly speaking, the structural analysis of narratives in any genre begins with careful thought about the text’s narrator, characters and plot.

Narrator

Writers have several options when deciding from which perspective to tell a story. They can use third-person narration, where a voice talks about all the characters by their names. Third-person narrators can be characters in the story, or they can be more objective commentators on the action. Similarly, the third-person narrator’s knowledge of the action and other characters can be limited to a single perspective or be all-encompassing. Second-person narration addresses a “you” and is far more rarely used in narrative texts. Finally, first-person narrators refer to themselves as “I.” They can be the central character -- the protagonist -- in the story, a more peripheral character or a voice incidentally observing the action and completely uninvolved in it. Some narratives frequently switch narrators or narrative perspectives. These choices influence not only how the story unfolds but also how readers identify with characters and anticipate events.

Characters

Almost every narrative revolves around one or more characters, the people whose actions and speech it represents. With every description of a character or an action, authors can either “tell” or “show” readers what that character is like or what’s happening. “Telling” generally speeds up narrative pace because it glosses over nuanced descriptions of thought or action. “Showing” slows down narratives by lingering over sensory details and dialogue. Identifying areas where the text tells or shows, as well as noting whether telling or showing is the dominant narrative mode, can help you articulate areas of narrative emphases and narrative pace.

Plot: Overall Structure

Aristotle’s “Poetics” (4th century B.C.) and Gustav Freytag’s pyramid (1863) remain the most widely taught frameworks for describing plot structure. Both writers focused on tragedy, but critics use their analyses to talk about narrative structures in all genres. Aristotle called for plots to have a beginning that initiates the story’s action, a middle that develops the action but doesn’t conclude it, and an end that satisfies the audience by resolving the action. He also valued unified plots that neither lacked nor had excessive information. Centuries later, Freytag characterized plots as arcs with rising action, a climax, and falling action, with further nuances for each section.

Plot: Similarities and Differences

Some schools of literary interpretation analyze narratives by looking at ways in which they reflect and depart from “archetypal narratives,” recurring plot patterns that appear in human experiences, including dreams and rituals, and texts, such as myths and folklore. Considering what common narrative structures underlie a particular text can help you think about how that text revises or reinforces readers’ assumptions about similar narratives. For example, the familiar plot “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again” has been reworked in countless narratives. Those that depart from the standard narrative create meaning and interest for the reader in part because of the contrast between the expected and the unexpected.

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About the Author

Elissa Hansen has more than nine years of editorial experience, and she specializes in academic editing across disciplines. She teaches university English and professional writing courses, holding a Bachelor of Arts in English and a certificate in technical communication from Cal Poly, a Master of Arts in English from the University of Wyoming, and a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota.

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