2.1. Definition


Artistic narrative is a narrative of human action.  In this section we shall consider the nature of the narrated action, disregarding for the time being the analysis of the telling  of that action.  Our first level of analysis, action analysis, is therefore concerned with "what happens" in the story, not with the way the story is told.  Narrative is closely concerned with action and with everything connected with human action ‹desires, plans, choices, decisions, attitudes, norms.  Human life "consists in action"[1]‹largely, at least, and narrative is the representation of human reality from this perspective.  If art forms like literature or film strike us as peculiarly powerful in their renditions of life and behaviour, it is no doubt because of their narrative structure, which is absent from the plastic arts or music.

            An action is the complex of characters,  settings, and events (acts  or happenings ) which can be constructed from a narrative text , in a reconstructed chronological order and in all its massive array of unselected detail. It is the broad equivalent of Aristotle's praxis, of Genette and Bal's histoire  or of the Russian formalists' fabula.[2]

            The study of the action may be approached in a theorical, abstract and formalized way.  This approach to action analysis can be found in Propp (1968), Todorov (1969), Bremond (1968) or Prince (1982).  But the approach can also be intuitive, practical and concrete: this is the case, for instance, when we discuss the characters' moral attitudes or the twists of the plot.  Aristotle's analysis of the structure of the action in the Poetics  stands at the point when narrative analysis is born, and manages to be both intuitive and systematic.  We shall often begin the discussion of particular narrative issues through an examination of some Aristotelian concepts which have proved to be useful to narrative analysts of all times.

            The mythos,  "story" or "structure of the incidents" is for Aristotle the main part of the tragedy, and, by extension, of any narrative work of art:

But most important of all is the structure of the incidents.  For tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.  Now character determines men's qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse.  Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character; character comes in as subsidiary to the actions.  Hence the incidents and the story are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all. . . .  Besides which, the most powerful elements of emotional interest in tragedy ­-peripeteia or reversal of the situation, and recognition scenes- are parts of the story.[3] 

We may misunderstand Aristotle here if we forget his teleological and essentialist view of literature. He is not disparaging the portrayal of character; he is simply saying that the essence of tragedy does not consist in the portrayal of character.  An epigram, for instance, can portray character, but it is a "lower" genre than tragedy, it does not present character in motion, acting and changing.  The essence of tragedy and its greatness lies in that it allows the portrayal of an action, which an epigram could not do.  That ability is what defines a tragedy as a tragedy; it is appropriate that the making of good stories is more difficult than the portrayal of good characters, belonging as it does to a higher degree of the teleological development of literature; Aristotle sees the proof of this both in the achievements of early poets and in the difficulty which beginners have to build good stories: [4] "The story, then , is the first principle and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy: character holds the second place"  (Poetics  52, VI.14). 

            But there are other  reasons apart from purely literary or generic ones which determine why story should be more important than character. In Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics  we also find the view that in actual life, and not merely in literature, character is subordinated to action because it is the product of action; it is developed in particular directions by the nature of our actions from our earliest days, and a person's bent of character can be manifested only through the actions that person undertakes.  Similarly, in drama, "character" in its full sense can be manifested only in action, and must therefore play a subordinate part to the story.  The superiority of tragedy to other genres is no doubt partly due to this coincidence of the relation between action and character in real life and in the dramatic genres.

             Aristotle compares portrayal of character without a structuring action to the difference in painting between patches of colour and random and the superior organization of a sketch which represents something, even if it is colourless. "Thus tragedy is the imitation of an action, and of the agents mainly with a view to the action" (Poetics  52, VI.15).  The debate between the relative importance of story and character is revived in the age of classical realism in narrative.  Trollope, for instance, favoured the depiction of character, and seemed to regard the story as a convenient device to let character unfold itself.  Other theorists, like Walter Besant or R. L. Stevenson, hold that the art of narrative lies above all in telling a good story.  Thence the popular opposition between "novels of character" or psychological novels and "novels of incident" or story-novels (e. g. in Perry 141-142).   

            Aristotle draws a similar distinction between different types of tragedies, but that does not prevent him from holding that all tragedies must consist in the representation of an action.  Strictly speaking, it is the mythos, the story of the tragedy which is the representation of an action. Aristotle speaks of "a story giving an ordered combination of incidents", of story being "the arrangement of the incidents" or "the  imitation of the action" (Poetics  52, VI.6).  Let us note in passing this difference between the action as considered as a series (práxis)   and the individual incidents which make it up (prágmata),  between the fabula and the single events or actions that make it up.

             So, we have three possible ways of looking at a tragedy, two possible levels of analysis of the story which is being represented.  First, we have the tragedy itself, which allows us to separate the text as a whole and the narrative elements of the text we isolate for analysis.  In this way we can draw, for instance, an opposition between story and character.  Second, the tragedy is an action (práxis), just as our daily activities may be described as actions. Third, it is a story (mythos), an artistic structure which the poet builds out of the action; on the one hand we find mere incidents, on the other, the disposition  of incidents. This sense of mythos  as something which is made  by the poet, as opposed to the action or story, which is inherited by him (although he may invent it as well) is something new in Aristotle.  It did not exist in the Greek language before he defined it. The poet is the maker not of verses or of actions, but of this important intermediate structure whose presence had not been identified before Aristotle: stories.  This distinction of Aristotle's will remain largely undeveloped until the twentieth century, when it is rediscovered by the Russian Formalists and developed by the Structuralists.        

            Aristotle clearly conceives his mythos or story as an abstraction to deal with the narrative aspect of tragedy, and other aspects of the text are comprised under the heads of thought  and diction.  Aristotle himself did not pay much attention to this opposition between action and story ‹we may note that he does not include "action" as one of the six constituent elements of tragedy.  He probably he felt that the presence of story or mythos  in that list accounted for both action and story, as the action would only be seen through the story.  He seems to think that action is something in some way previous or external to the tragedy: it is only action-as-imitated, a story, which is a central concept of poetics.  This may be due in part to the Greek custom of using already known myths as the basis for the story in their tragedies; those myths are clearly enough something different from the tragedy.   

            So far we have been using the term "story" to translate Aristotle's mythos.   However, most translations use the word "plot" instead,  a choice which is obviously acceptable.  "Plot" is certainly a common term in popular narratology: we immediately tend to ask about the plot of a film, whether a thriller or a sword-and-sorcery novel is well plotted, etc.  We could arguably use both terms to refer to the level of analysis which lies between the textual surface and the action itself.  But there is a shade of difference between the terms story  (as we have defined it) and plot.  A plot is, in E. M. Forster's words, "a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality" (Forster 97).  We might further specify: on causality as related to human projects, purposes and desires.  A plot is a web of intentions and partial knowledge on the part of the characters, a conflict of interests which is usually resolved favourably according to the desires of one of the parties.  The plot is a construct which yields good results on stage: no wonder that the earliest analyses of plot structures are found in Aristotle and later dramatic theorists.  A plot unfolds in such a way that the desires and expectations of the audience identify with those of a character or a group of characters, and the interplay between the unfolding of the plot and the expectations of the audience is and important element in the experience of a work.  Therefore, the concept of plot is usually associated with the analytical level of the story: a plot is an elaborated  action, since the audience has been given a role to play in the plot, through the selection of information and the manipulation of point of view.  This is what Forster refers to when he says that mystery is essential to a plot.  It is clear that he means mystery for the audience, not only mystery for the characters, and that involves already a specific choice of point of view.  At the level of the action each character has of course his own point of view, but none is structurally privileged.  A story, on the other hand, already defines a hierarchy of perspective, giving the audience a specific knowledge and position; this is the more so if the story is the kind of story we usually call a plot. 






[1]          Aristotle, Poetics  VI.

[2]          Aristotle 1450a; Genette 1972, 72; Bal 1977, 4; Tomashevski 1982, 182-188.

[3]          Poetics  52, VI.9.  This conception is contrary to that of Henry James in The Art of Fiction.  James considers that plot is indissociable from character, and in any case would privilege character over plot.  In a literary work, character is the determination of the incidents of the plot, and the incidents are the illustration of character.

[4]          Individual achievement would therefore seem to maintain a philogenetic relationship to the development of literatureæa curious by-product of Aristotle's teleological conception.