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Narrative Comprehension And Production

Narratives convey causally and thematically related sequences of actual or fictional events. Narratives have a hierarchical schematic structure. At the highest level, they consist of a setting, a theme, a plot, and a resolution. The components of the setting are characters, a location, and a time. Thus, the typical opening sentence of a fairy-tale, "Once upon a time in a far-away kingdom, there was a princess who…" conveys the setting in a nutshell, as does the more colloquial "Last night I was at a restaurant when…". The theme can consist of a goal (the princess wanted to get married) or an event and a goal (a fire broke out at the restaurant and I was trying to call 911). The plot is a causally related sequence of events, usually describing the character's attempts to achieve his or her goal. The resolution describes the achievement of the character's goal. Of course, many literary narratives omit the resolution. An example is Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot (1953), whose main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, are waiting for a third character, Godot, to arrive. But Godot never arrives, thus spawning decades of literary analysis about the meaning of the play. However, most stories exhibit the stereotypical structure described above.

Aristotle in Poetics identified the plot as the major organizing structure of narratives and admonished poets to describe events only when they are relevant to the plot, just as Homer had done centuries before them. They were to refrain from giving a blow-by-blow chronological account of an episode. This Aristotle considered to be the province of historians.

Cohesion and Coherence in Narratives

In order to make sense, narratives need to be cohesive and coherent. Two successive sentences are said to be cohesive when they share information, as indicated by linguistic markers, such as pronouns or connectives. Thus, the sentence pair in (1) is cohesive because the pronoun he in the second sentence refers back to the runner mentioned in the first sentence.

(1) The runner jumped over the puddle. He did not want to get his feet wet.

On the other hand, the sentence pair in (2) is not cohesive; there is no word in the second sentence that directly refers back to the first.

(2) The runner jumped over the puddle. It is unpleasant to get your feet wet.

Yet, sentence pair (2) does seem to make sense: The second sentence provides a motivation for the action in the first sentence. Thus, the two sentences can be connected by generating a bridging inference. A sentence pair like (2) is said to be locally coherent. Now consider sentence pair (3).

(3) The runner jumped over the puddle. Airplanes seldom leave on time.

This pair is neither cohesive nor locally coherent (i.e., it is not easy to generate a bridging inference). Thus, the connection between successive sentences can be established through cohesion markers or through bridging inferences (or a combination of the two). Is this sufficient to produce a coherent text? Consider the following passage.

The runner jumped over the puddle. There were some frogs in the puddle. Frogs are often used as characters in fairy tales. Fairy tales are narratives. This entry is about narratives.

Although this "text" maintains local coherence–each sentence can be connected with its predecessor–it lacks an overall point. Thus, an important characteristic of narratives is that they have an overarching point or theme. This is called global coherence.

Empirical Approaches to the Study of Narrative

Cognitive psychologists have been able to uncover a great deal about how people understand narratives by assessing, among other things, what people recall from a story, how quickly people read certain words or sentences, or how quickly they respond to probe words. For example, it is clear that people use their expectations about the stereotypical structure of stories when understanding a story. It is also clear that people make inferences about the motives behind characters' actions and about the causes of events when these are not explicitly stated in the text in order to establish both local and global coherence. Consider the two sentence pairs below.

(5) The spy threw the report in the fire. The ashes floated up the chimney.

(6) The spy threw the report in the fire. Then he called the airline.

In sentence pair (5) the bridging inference that the report burned is needed to establish local coherence between the two sentences, but in (6) no such inference is needed because of the cohesive link between spy and he. In experiments, participants respond more quickly to the probe word burn after sentence pair (5) than after sentence pair (6), suggesting that the inference about the report burning was activated during the reading of (5) but not during the reading of (6).

There is a wealth of evidence that comprehenders do more than simply generate bridging inferences to connect sentences. What they do is construct mental representations of the situations that are described in the text, situation models, rather than just mental representations of the text itself. Consider sentence pairs (7) and (8).

(7) Mike started playing the piano. A moment later, his mother entered the room.

(8) Mike stopped playing the piano. A moment later, his mother entered the room.

Participants in experiments responded more quickly to the probe word playing after sentences such as (7) than after sentences such as (8). The reason for this is that in (7) Mike is still playing the piano after his mother has entered, whereas in (8) he is not. Thus, in (7) playing the piano is still part of the situation, but in (8) it is not. If the subjects were merely constructing representations of the texts, no difference should have been found, given that the word playing appeared in both texts.

Narrative Production as a Window into Comprehension

Writing involves cognitive operations that are the result of thinking, such as collecting information, generating ideas, turning these ideas into written text, and reviewing the text for its meaningfulness. In narratives, the thoughts, perceptions, fantasies, and memories of the writer are incorporated in a coherent narrative structure, either in oral or written language.

Knowledge of the prototypical structure of a mode of discourse is important for its construction and comprehension. A narrative about a major disaster, such as the explosion of the Challenger shuttle, will be written and processed in a different manner than a newspaper article about it. Whereas a newspaper article will focus on the facts, a narrative would include other elements, such as a plot and a narrator or a character-based perspective leading the reader through the sequence of events. The comprehension strategies of a narrative or a newspaper article about the explosion will be different as well, with a stronger focus on stylistic aspects and smaller focus on criteria of truth when using literary comprehension strategies than when using expository text comprehension strategies.

Although the boundaries between narratives and other forms of discourse are not clear-cut, narratives share certain features, such as a narrative structure that enables the reader to seek meaning and generate meaning from the narrative, and a potential to have an emotional impact on the reader or listener.

Affective and Esthetic Aspects of Narrative Comprehension and Production

Most narratives possess a dramatic quality that is created from an imbalance between narrative components, for instance different characters with opposing goals or a sequence of events leading to a tragic outcome for one of the characters. The dramatic quality as well as the style of the narrative will draw the reader into a convincing fictional world of goals, emotions, and motivations. Narrative style will stir the reader's imagination. For example, foregrounding of narrative elements, such as references to the devil in Elizabeth Bowen's The Demon Lover (1959), will aid the reader in imagining the true nature of the relationship between the main characters.

An imbalance in the sequence of events can affect the emotional response of the reader, in particular suspense, curiosity, and surprise. According to the structural affect theory, suspense is evoked by postponing the narrative's outcome, thereby creating uncertainty for the reader on the issue of what is going to happen next in the narrative. Curiosity arises when the outcome of the narrative is presented before the preceding events, whereas surprise occurs as a result of an unexpected event in the narrative, such as the sudden appearance of the pawn-broker's half-sister when Raskolnikov kills the pawnbroker in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866).

The kinds of emotions that readers experience while reading or listening to a narrative can be the result of being drawn into the fictional world of the narrative and identifying with the characters. These emotions are called "fictional emotions." Reader emotions can also be the result of analyzing and appreciating the narrative structure and techniques, called "artifact emotions" by Eduard Tan. The overall enjoyment of reading the narrative is based on both types of emotions. Narrative techniques, in particular switches in the role of narrators, can be used to make the reader go from observation to identification in different parts of the narrative or throughout the narrative.

Comparisons of Narratives in Different Cultures

Apart from being entertaining, many narratives also reflect moral values as a commentary on a society, include the preservation of events central to a culture, or aim to create an identity of a group. A culture is a shared perspective regarding ways of life and symbolic systems maintained within a social group. Narratives can help to establish an identity in a multicultural context, such as postmodernist literature, or preserve or create a group's identity within one culture, such as feminist poetry or Navajo narratives. Group identity is especially important for minority groups within a multicultural society. These groups share common interests and customs that act as a basis for constructive memory to be passed on to future generations.

The preservation of cultural elements from a group and the manner in which they are delivered can be one focus of narratives in cultural groups. Many Native American narratives preserve and transfer cultural traditions and tribal discourse through oral techniques of pause, pitch, and tempo. Another focus of narratives in cultural groups is the reflection of moral and aesthetic values within those groups. This can be the result of exclusionary mechanisms from a dominant cultural group that urges minority cultures to develop their own means of literary production and aesthetic norms with their own unique features. The incorporation of blues lyrics in African-American poetry is unique to that group, as is the inclusion of the native or modified language into poems and narratives in Chicano, Caribbean, and African-American cultures.

Narrative production and reception in one culture will strengthen and preserve the aesthetic norms and traditions within that culture. For individuals from other cultures, reading or listening to these narratives may help to translate these specific cultural elements into their own experiences and provide a better understanding of cultures and cultural issues other than their own, such as the dual personality issue in Chinese-American and Japanese-American culture. The narrative structure and the elicitation of fictional and artifact emotions will help this process. As Eileen Oliver suggests, part of the reception process may be that readers and listeners become more aware of the dynamics of cultural exchange in which assimilation, retention, and transformation of new cultural features are in constant progress.


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