Narrative grammars

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IRIS Wiki - Narrative Theories - Narrative grammars



Histo-geographical placement

1960's, France

Type of story

All narrative.

Parent Theories

Vladimir Propp

Child Theories


Brief Description

Following the same methodology as Vladimir Propp, but with a different corpus, Todorov proposes 3 aspects that make up narratology.

  1. semantic aspect: The sense of the story, what is being transmitted in terms of content, values, messages.
  2. syntactic aspect: The combination of units (narrative propositions) and the relationships that link them. The notion of order like in Propp is introduced, but the rules governing how to pass from one proposition to another are revisited. While Propp proposed a strict sequencing order, with Todorov (as with Brémond) these rules are generalised.
  3. verbal aspect: The actual sentences used to convey the story.

Todorov considers a sequence to be a series of linked narrative propositions.

Two propositions can be linked by a logical, temporal or spatial relationship. The logical association links a cause proposition to an effect proposition. A temporal association links propositions in time. The spatial relationship is not developed.

The narrative proposition is made up of 3 main categories; proper name, adjective, verb. The proper name can be considered the agent and is represented by a capital letter from the end of the alphabet X, Y, Z. The adjective is an agent's state, property or status. A state can be changed over time for example a mood (happy/unhappy) while a property is more durable (tall, dark haired) and finally status refers to the agent's biologic, religious or social situation (a rich, protestant man) and is represented by a capital letter from the beginning of the alphabet A, B, etc. Lastly, the verb is the action of the agent or on the agent and can be of 3 types: state modifying verbs (noted a), disobeying verbs (noted b), punishing verbs (noted c). Todorov considers the verb (a) to be the most important of the 3 and says that an entire story can be reduced to this verb. The modifying verb can have several forms:

  • mask or unmask: while the situation might not actually be modified, someone is made to believe it is modified.
  • words - calm a situation, hurt a situation
  • physical - attack or resistance
  • seek help - by evoking compassion or asking for advice
  • change of location
  • exchange - through payment or giving freely

The next 2 verb types are closely related and often one is the consequence of the other. (b) characterised by a misdead is an action done by an agent and often followed by (c) punishment, an action done to an agent.

Temporally related propositions such as emphasis or inversion can be represented as follows:

emphasis -> XA + ........ + XA
the same proposition is repeated at a later moment in time

inversion -> XA + ........ + X-A
the opposite proposition occurs at a later moment in time

Causally related propositions such as renouncing or punishment can be represented as:

renounce -> (XA)optY + ....... (XA)-optY
an action is renounced at a later moment in time

punishment ->       Xb -> Y-cX
an action is either done or not done in response to a misdead

States and actions can be specified by a mode. The default mode concerns the actions that happen in the story. But additional modes (optative, obligative, conditional, predictive) convey information regarding suppositions, dreams, predictions, etc.

Relation with Interactive Storytelling

The grammar proposed by T. Todorov is relevant for the generation of narrative actions in IS, because:

  • As Brémond's approach, it departs from a linear description of narrative, as proposed by Vladimir Propp. It open the way to a more interactive narrative experience.
  • In the tradition of Russian formalism and structuralism, the model is detailed and to a certain degree formalized.
  • The description of narrative in terms of modes provides a richer account of the complexity of narrative. More complex stories can be implemented with the model.

Systems/Tools using this theory

The narrative logic in IDtension is inspired in part by the list of narrative actions proposed in the theory.




  • Todorov, T. (1969). Grammaire du Decameron. The Hague - Paris: Mouton.
  • Donikian, S. (2006). De l’écriture à la réalisation d’une fiction interactive : simplification de la chaîne allant de la création à l’adaptation. Chapter of the book « Créations de récits pour les fictions interactives », Hermès, October 2006.