Have you ever wondered while watching a film or playing a video game “why is this happening now?” or “how is this relevant to the story?” or even “what are all these about?” We have! And this is the reason that we decided to write these article(s), with the intention to provide a toolbox containing simplified theoretical principles and most of all, practical tools, to any storyteller or narrative designer that has a great story to tell.
Narrative Structure: The Essentials (part one).
While every story is different and there are many forms of discourse that allow us to narrate our stories in various ways, depending of course on the media we use, the structure of almost all narratives is consisted of the same elements:
- The subject (the hero)
- The object (the hero’s goal)
- The sender (the instigator of hero’s action)
- The receiver (the one who benefits from the hero’s goal)
- The helper (is helping the hero in achieving his goal)
- The opponent (the hero’s enemy the one that prevents the hero reaching his goal)
(Algirdas Julien Greimas Actantial Model)
Every narrative contains at least one narrative program, which is structuring the story/action of the hero, but it may have multiple narrative programs, as heroes are changing their goal, or secondary plots unveil. This methodology is not only useful a posteriori, namely in analyzing narratives, but most importantly, it is a very useful tool in the process of designing the narrative. It is very important to define the narrative program for each one of the narrative’s basic characters, even if it is not fully presented in the narrative and additionally to clearly delineate the role that each character plays in the other characters’ programs, even if their role seems minor or secondary.
In addition there are three basic axes that should be taken into account, that are defining the relationship between the basic roles/characters:
• The axis of desire: The relationship between the subject (hero) and the object (goal).
• The axis of power: The relationship between the helper and the opponent (enemy).
• The axis of knowledge: The relationship between the sender and the receiver.
The axes’ analysis and its practical applications in narrative construction will be discussed in the second part of the article (forthcoming).
Case study:The main narrative programs of the film: Finding Nemo
(Narrative programs in Finding Nemo)
In the table are presented the two fully developed narrative programs. Additionally, in the film exists a partially developed narrative program (Dory’s program). As we can observe, a character might be assigned with multiple roles but we should take into consideration that some roles are contradictory per se. In Nemo’s program, he is the subject (the hero), the sender and the receiver and very interestingly, while Marlin wants to save Nemo, he is acting as his enemy!
Dory acts as a helper for both Marlin and Nemo. Also, Nemo is the one who benefits from both Marlin’s and Nemo’s goal achievement. It should be mentioned that during the film Marlin benefits too by overcoming his fears and as a consequence, the relationship between the father and the son is improving drastically at the end of film. Our intention is to concentrate in the basic narrative programs, as an example, so we will not refer to these issue here.
It is important to highlight that fear is the enemy of both Marlin and Nemo, an enemy that is present from the beginning of the film. Hence, Finding Nemo is not only a film about the “coming of age” but, among others, it discusses also the overcoming of fears.
In conclusion, when creating a story and designing a narrative, it is of great importance to define all of the characters’ structural roles and of their relationships, even if they are not manifested in the text, not only for creating solid narratives but more importantly, to communicate effectively the meaning of the story.
Greimas, A. J. (1983). Structural semantics: An attempt at a method. Lincoln, NE; London, UK: University of Nebraska Press.