3.1. Definition


Action is narrative as content; story is narrative as form.  Narratology is not concerned with any action, but only with actions which are told, which have become stories.  A narrated action is by definition never perceived in itself: it reaches us mediated by a linguistic or iconic representation.  A story is therefore the action considered not in itself, but insofar as it is represented by a narrative discourse.  The story has a structure of its own which is not the same as the structure of the action.           The story is not the whole of the discourse, but only one of its aspects.  A verbal narrative tells a story, but it also has other aspects, such as euphony, rhythm, rhetorical devices, digressions, etc. which do not belong to the action.  They are, of course, a relevant part of the narrative act and the narrative structure, but they are not part of the story.  A literary narrative is a verbal construct, a text made of words. We have seen that the action is one referent of those words, not a verbal construct.  Likewise, the story is not made of words: it is "the structure of the events" (to use an Aristotelian definition), an abstract  structure, which manifests itself through words but which is not in itself linguistic. The story is, then, action as mediated through discourse. 

            "Discourse" will be used here in a wide sense, meaning the use of signs (linguistic signs in literary narrative; iconic, verbal and musical in the case of filmic narrative).  Linguistic discourse is the actual use of language: that is, the production of speech acts in specific discursive situations, such as everyday conversation, telephoning, broadcasting, reading, etc.  We shall also use the term text  in a wide sense, meaning discourse considered as a structure of signs.  The term is especially relevant in those semiotic activities where written or otherwise fixed linguistic material is central to the discursive process.  Literature is of course one such activity.  There are others, though, like letter-writing, advertising, journalism, law, etc.  Our main concern here, though, is with those literary texts which tell a story, that is, with narratives.

            Narrated actions are not represented in the text in their entirety.  Discourse involves a perspectivization, the expansion of some events and the compression of others, elisions, emphases, repetitions.  There are, as we see, a variety of ways in which the action is transformed by discourse, or, to put it differently, different kinds of operations relating action and discourse.[1] We can classify them under the headings of tense, aspect, mood and voice.  These operations define the structure of the story: its temporal, aspectual, modal and enunciative structure. We shall also study as a last category the status of narrated actions.  We follow here the structuralist tradition of establishing parallels between the categories of narrative analysis and verbal categories, though we must insist on the analogical nature of these categories.  The story includes the action as one of its aspects: all the structures of the action are therefore a part of the story.  But it also adds further structuring principles which do not belong to the action.  As we see, there is a whole array of operations which define the structure of the story as opposed to the structure of the action: the categories of tense, aspect, mood and voice intersect with each other, so that a given story structure may be looked at from a temporal, an aspectual or a modal viewpoint, but they do not wholly cover each other's ground.  We should therefore beware of hasty definitions of a story as simply "an action temporally restructured" or "an action focused from a specific viewpoint", since there are always more than one category at play.

            While defining the workings of these categories, we shall call attention to yet another link between action and story, a compositional one: realistic motivation. 

            Motivation has to do with  organization of information, the presentation of action elements to the reader.  But naturally enough the story (siuzhet ) often introduces those motifs following patterns which emerge spontaneously from the action.  This is clear above all with respect to compositional and realistic kinds of motivation.  Since the reader is in a way a character, the author can use the experience of other characters to guide and give shape to the reader's experience.  The concept of motivation could be expanded to include the restrictions of point of view and some narrative techniques (e.g. epistolary or memoir narration) which transpose perceptual or narrative structures from the action to the  story as a compositional technique. 

            If Tomashevski does not expand the concept in this sense, he does use it to deal with literary evolution and literary tradition, studying the interplay of new and well-worn motivation techniques (also in section 5, "The Vitality of Plot Devices").  This is a peculiarly Formalist perspective on literary history, and it should concern us here to the extent that we can reverse our perspective and see action elements no longer as a possible source for elements, but as constructions which are introduced at that level of the textual structure in order to provide motivation of some kind or other.  This is, essentially, the "scandalous" description of character given by Viktor Shklovski in his analysis of Don Quijote. 

            By "realistic motivation" we understand here the modelling of the story on the basis of a given action-level structure.[2]  An action pattern (temporal, perspectival, etc.) may be so to speak transposed to the level of the story and used as a compositional device.  In this way the narrative structures of the story seems to derive spontaneously from the action; they acquire thereby an air of appropriateness or even of inevitability, of obvious rightness.  The artificiality of motivation should be carefully analised.  To take an obvious instance: the sequence of events in the story is usually chronological, and this looks perfectly natural and fitting: the chronological order of the events in the action is used in this case to realistically motivate  the presentational order of the story.   Since we have started with this example, let us define first the temporal structure of the story. 






[1]          We use transformation here in a sense similar to that of generative-transformational grammar: as a convenient means of establishing relationships between descriptive levels, without implying, for instance, that a fictional action exists before it is "transformed."

[2]          Cf. Sternberg's definition of realistic motivation: "the explicit or implicit justification, explanation or dissimulation of an artistic convention . . . in terms of the referential pattern of the fictive world" (1978, 247).