Thursday, October 1, 2015

What is Narration? - The Main Difference between Prose and Other Narrative Art Forms

There is much media that is narrative, but only prose has a narrator.

There are many art forms out there, and some of them have one thing in common: They tell a story. - Yet isn't narration inseparable from prose? What about stories that are filmed, drawn or carved in stone? What about Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture?

Can other art forms than prose have narration? The answer is: yes and no.

Let's look at what the discipline called narratology has to say: First of all, there's the classical definition of narration as something that is produced by a narrator, meaning that the narration has to be an oral or written text. When there's something that has to be narrated, you need a narrator. Period.

The narrator can be explicit as well as implicit: There are narrators making their presence in a text pretty obvious, and there are narrators who pretend not to be there at all. Yet in any case, if something is narrated there's always a narrator, no matter what form and shape. And as long as there's a narrator a text is classified as narration, even if the narrator describes nothing more than a spot on the wall.

And here lies the problem: While something that doesn't have a story (spot on the wall) is classified as narration other art genres as movies, theatre, visual novels and so on are not. (The voiceover doesn't count as a narrator in a literary sense, because its main purpose is to comment the pictures. Without them it's useless.) This is why the structuralists came up with another definition: Narration is the description of a change of state. The description of something happening, no matter what medium is used to show this change. By this definition the structuralists got rid of plotless spots on the wall, yet on the other hand you can't argue that narration has much more to do with prose than with movies.

As it often happens, smart people decided to keep the golden mean and make a fusion of these two definitions: They speak of narration in a broader and a narrower sense. Narration in a broader sense is how structuralists define it. Narration in a narrower sense is both the structuralist and the classical definition combined: Narration is the description of a change of state through a narrator.

With this definition of narration it becomes obvious what makes prose different from all the other narrative art forms: While movies, visual novels and so on can have a narrative without a narrator a written story can't. Because text is the classic, original form of narration, it can't exist without a classic narrator. If you want something narrated with words, you need a narrator to produce these words. The narrator is what makes a prose text what it is, and so he's much more important than all the characters, the plot and everything else, because he's the connection between the author and the reader, he's what holds the whole narration together, and this is why a messed up narrator can mess up a per se great story while a good narrator can make a boring plot highly entertaining. It's just the same as in many other areas of life: It doesn't matter what but how. With the right strategy and the right words you can convince many people of the greatest crap ever.

So please, dear prose authors, choose your narrators wisely. And dear creators of other narrative art, feel free to call yourselves storytellers.

And dear everyone: How do you define narration? What narrative art forms do you like most? Would you feel bad for movies & co. if they couldn't be defined as narration? Do you think it would be legitimate to return to the classical definition of narration and consider the description of a spot on a wall a narrative? Do you think there can be a better definition of narration than the "golden mean" between the classical and the structuralist definition?

Please let me know in a comment below, and if you liked this article, don’t forget to share it. Feel free to use the buttons at the end of this post.

Where my knowledge on this topic mainly came from, i.e. a really good book that's also translated into English:
Wolf Schmid: Elemente der Narratologie, Berlin & New York ²2008, pp. 1-7.
(Wolf Schmid, Narratology: An Introduction, 2010, translated by Alexander Starritt.)

(This text is partially a translation of a part of an essay I wrote in 2011. You can find the original German three-part essay on narrative perspective here: Der Erzähler und seine Perspektiven.)

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