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IRIS Wiki - Narrative Theories - Discourse/story


Gérard Genette in Figure III (Genette, 1972) carried out a rigorous analysis of the three levels in narrative, and in particular the distinction between “récit” and “histoire”, which was reformulated later by S. Chatman in terms of discourse and story (Chatman, 1980). But the distinction was also introduced before by Russian formalists, in terms of Sjuzhet and Fabula.

Histo-geographical placement


Type of story

Genette’s analysis is mostly based on text narratives, even if other media are sometimes cited. It can be generalized (with adaptations) to other media.

Parent Theories


Child Theories


Brief Description

Several levels in a narrative can be distinguished:

  • The story: the list of events (real or fictive) that are concerned by the narrative. For example, that Little Red Cap goes into the forest makes part of the story.
  • The discourse: the narrative enunciation of the events or the succession of narrated events being transmitted to the audience, regardless of the medium.
  • The narration: the act of narrating a story and the concrete situation in which the story is conveyed through a medium: the storyteller, the book, the movie, etc.

In the following stage, we will focus on the distinction between the two first levels, especially the temporal relation between them. Three temporal relations should be considered: order, frequency and duration. Note: The notion of “plot” is also commonly used in the distinction between plot and story. However, the concept of plot does not always perfectly match with the concept of discourse.


The distinction between discourse and story leads to the distinction between the discourse time and the story time. These two times almost never match. The relation and distortion between these two times constitute interesting narrative phenomena that can be catalogued. For example, let us assume there are two discourse units A and B and the former occurs before the latter (the order of the discourse is A then B). If the order of the corresponding events in the story is different, there is what Genette calls an anachrony. Two types of anachrony can be logically distinguished:

  • Analapses: If B concerns a story event that happens before the story event of A, B is denoted an analepsis. In the course of the narrative (in the discourse time), a story event is evoked that happened before. The usual term for analepsis is flashback.
  • Prolepses: if A concerns a story event that happens after the story event of B, A is denoted a prolepsis. In the course of the narrative (in the discourse time), a story event is evoked that will happen, and then the discourse goes back to the “current” time. Prolepses are less common, and are equivalent to flash-forward in cinema.

In a sequence such as A2-B1-C2-D1 (the number represents the story time), B and D are analepsis (flashbacks) for A and C, while A and C are prolepses (flash-forwards) of B and D. Order distinctions are always relative, in reference to a given discourse event whose story time is considered as “current”. One can further distinguish between external and internal analepsis. An external (or extradiegetic) analepsis covers the case where the past event concerns an action sequence that is separated from the story. For example, one learns about the past of one character. On the contrary, an internal (homodiegetic) analepsis concerns events that interfere with (even sometimes repeat) events that have already been told. The same distinction can be made for prolepsis. Note that such temporal analysis of the narrative is not always easy to perform, because some events are simply undetermined and we do not have the time information for these events.


Another axis of analysis concerns the duration. It consists in comparing the duration of discourse units with the duration of the corresponding events in the story. Duration in the discourse time is often hard to evaluate. In a book, contrary to cinema, it is not possible to know the reading time. Only a coarse measure can be adopted, such as the number of pages for example. For a given event, we define TD the duration of this event in the discourse, and TS, the duration of the corresponding event in the story. The following cases can be distinguished:

  • TD>0 and TS=0, the pause: Nothing happens in the story, while the discourse takes time to describe the diegetic world.
  • TD > TS, the slow motion: A long time is taken to report a shorter story event.
  • TD = TS, the scene: One tells the story at the same speed as it should happen.
  • TD < TS, the summary: The discourse tells quickly some events that span a longer period of time. (E.g. Three years of the hero's life are described in two lines).
  • TD = 0 and TS > 0, the ellipsis: No discourse time is used, but some time in the story elapsed.

The interesting narrative effects about duration lie in the variation of rhythm, that is in the alternation of the various cases listed above.


This third temporal relation concerns repetition in the narrative. A repetition can occur in the discourse and in the story. Note that a repetition at the story level is never a true repetition, but a repetition of strongly similar events (e.g. if a character repeatedly eats an apple, it is never the exact same apple that is eaten). As for order and duration, one can formally deduce four cases:

  • Telling once what has happened once: this is the current case in narrative.
  • Telling n times what happened n times: as previously, there is a correspondence between the narrated events and the narration of the events, but it takes the form of a repetition.
  • Telling n times what happened once: In this case, the repetition allows not only to insist on a story event but also to offer various viewpoints on the same story event(s). This case is denoted “repetitive narrative”.
  • Telling once (or rather “at once”) what happened n times: This is possible with specific linguistic constructions: “each night, she would secretly visit her lover”. This case is denoted “iterative narrative”.

Relation with Interactive Storytelling

The core problem of IS, the dynamic generation of story events, is not concerned by the story/discourse relation. Most IS systems have taken a rather naive approach where the story time and the discourse are superimposed. This is the case for usual 3D systems because the paradigm of immersion consists in minimizing the distance between the story and the user. Less immersive systems leave room to some distortion between story time and discourse time, as suggested in (Szilas, 2006).

However the distinction between story and discourse is relevant for immersive IS systems regarding the camera point of view. The IS engine generates story events, but all story events cannot be seen, especially if the camera is controlled, even partially, by the user (e.g. if the user goes through a door, the system might not be able to show the action that is happening in the living room he is just leaving). This issue has been tackled within the mimesis project (Young, 2005).

It is interesting to note the use of the term “iterative narrative” by Genette, which nowadays inevitably evokes computer programmes. The replayability of IS creations directly refers to this notion: replaying a story such as facade consists in repeating some of the story events, but with new information, although it can of course be argued that the story is totally different each time. Inserting analapses and prolepses in IS systems raises some interesting challenges, from a narrative point of view. How do we accept the idea that the user “sees his future” (prolepsis), if the agency demands precisely that he has the control of his own future? To sum up, the story/discourse theoretical distinction and analysis presented above, though rather simple in principle, has been so far largely overlooked in IS so far. This could open the way to interesting new approaches in IS.

Systems/Tools using this theory

A recent research implemented Flashbacks within a story generation system (Bae & Young, 2008).




  • Bae, B.-C. & Young, R. M. (2008). A Use of Flashback and Foreshadowing for Surprise Arousal in Narrative Using a Plan-Based Approach. ]. In Spierling & Szilas (Eds.) Proc. Interactive Storytelling - ICIDS 2008 (pp 156-167). Springer Verlag.
  • Chatman, S. (1980). Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Cornell University Press.
  • Genette, G. (1972). Figures III. Paris : Ed. du Seuil.
  • Szilas, N. (2004). Stepping into the Interactive Drama. In Proceedings TIDSE'04, Lecture Note in Computer Science 3105, 101-112. Springer Verlag.
  • Young, M. R. (2005). Story and discourse: A bipartite model of narrative generation in virtual worlds.