Thursday, 24 June 2010

Happily ever after

Still on our journey through Genette's elements of narrative, we'll finish up by a quick look at frequency and voice, and think a bit about why we should care how narratives are constructed.

Frequency is about the relationship between the number of times something happened in the story and the number of times it happens in the narrative. A singulative narrative tells once what happened once: 'And God said, let there be light.' An anaphoric narrative tells n times what happened n times; so the creation story in Genesis says six times 'and there was evening, and there was morning - the nth day, because that's how many times there was evening and morning. A repeating narrative takes something that happened once and tells it multiple times: the Gospels do this with the life of Jesus, telling it four times over even though it only happened once. And an iterative narrative takes something that happened more than once and tells it once. I can't think of a Biblical example of this - can you?

Voice is about the point from which the story is told. Most narratives are subsequent to the story, but some are simultaneous (live blogging, for example), and narratives which predict what is going to happen are prior. The narrator might be inside or outside the story; and they may or may not be a character in the story. The narrator might point out connections between different elements of their story, or explain the significance of particular bits of it, and they might have a whole range of different reasons for telling their story.

Why should we care? If you remember, all of this comes from Gerard Loughlin's book Telling God's Story, which is all about what it means to treat the Bible as the story of God's work in the work. If it's a story, rather than just an instruction manual or a love letter or a rule book, then when we're reading it it's worth thinking about how the story is being told. Why are there four gospels? What does that do to the story of Jesus that's being presented? How does it affect the story if we decide to keep the Apocrypha (the set of books set in the bit of time between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New) or chuck it out? Why do particular stories miss bits out, or tell bits more than once? If we are going to hear the story of the Bible and take it seriously, we need to be able to think about narrative

The End

Photo credit: cobalt123 on Flickr.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Are you sitting comfortably?

Then let's talk some more about stories. In my last post, we looked at Genette's ideas about how stories work, and particularly the different ways that order gets changed in different tellings of a story. But we didn't look at duration, mood, frequency, or voice. For now, we'll look at duration and mood, and save frequency and voice for another post.

Duration is all about the relationship between the time the events in the story take, and the amount of time it takes to tell them, and whether the narrative speeds up or slows down. A narrative that stays the same speed all the way through would be isochronous, but no one can actually produce a perfectly isochronous narrative: all stories speed up to skip over boring bits or to summarise things that happened, and all stories slow down to focus on important bits. Let me tell you about the icecream I had for dinner last night: I went to the freezer to pick up an icecream. As I opened the door, cold air whirled out, freezing my eyebrows. I looked in the drawer, and there it was: my icecream. How shiny its wrapper. How sweet the promise of frozen goodness it held out to me. I breathed in, summoning up the courage to brave the cold, and plunged my arm into the freezer, grasping the cone through the crackling wrapper. It was mine! I ate it lasciviously. Four years later, I was fat. The speed of that narrative varied between the fastest possible speed - ellipsis - where you just skip bits (four years later), and the slowest speed - pause - where time stops (there it was). In-between speed are scene, where the time of the story corresponds to the time of the narrative, and summary, where the narrative goes faster than the story.

Mood is about the distance and the perspective of the narrative from the story. In diegesis, the narrator is just themselves, the narrator; in mimesis, the narrator tells the story as if they're a character within the story. Diegesis is further away from the story; mimesis feels like it's in the story. If you want to tell a story so it sounds like you're in it, one way is to chuck in random details that aren't really relevant to the story: that way it sounds like you were really there, because why would you relate an irrelevant detail if it didn't happen? For example, in Genesis 37, the story of Joseph, there's a bit where Joseph goes looking for his brothers. Jacob tells him they're in Shechem, so off Joe goes, except his brothers aren't there, so he talks to a random guy: "They have moved on from here," the man answered. "I heard them say, 'Let's go to Dothan.'" So Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan. It's totally pointless, from a narrative point of view (why add boring bits that don't contribute to the story), and so it makes it sound more like something that really happened. Perspective is all about where the narrator is in relation to the story. In a narrative with zero focalisation, the narrator knows everything, even the bits the characters don't know. In a narrative with internal focalisation, the narrator doesn't know everything - perhaps they know everything that one character knows; or maybe a couple of characters; or maybe they know even less than the characters know.

Photo credit: Pensiero on Flickr