Narrative units

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IRIS Wiki - Narrative Theories - Narrative units


R. Barthes

Histo-geographical placement

The reference text for this theory was the introduction of the journal "Communication 8", in 1966, which gathered important texts from French narratology. Roland Barthes is a main figure in French Structuralism.

Type of story

General to any story, but more focused on literature. Examples range from Flaubert to Flemming.

Parent Theories


Child Theories


Brief Description

The analysis proposed by R. Barthes is a broad model of narrative, in the sense that it does not provide detailed rules regarding the structuring of the narrative. It is contemporary to other more detailed narratological studies and provides a kind of abstraction of the works of Brémond, Greimas or Todorov.

The model is guided by the following three main principles:

  • The narrative can be decomposed into narrative units, each of which have a meaning in the narrative (there are no useless parts)
  • Each unit has a different function in the narrative, which is described by associating a type to each unit.
  • The meaning of a narrative, the meaning of the corresponding units and their relations, is hierarchical. A micro organisation is included in a larger organisation, up to the most global units' organisation.

Two types of units, each decomposable into two further subtypes, can be distinguished:

They are the most significant units. A function is systematically correlated to another unit. For example, a telephone ringing event is correlated to the action of someone answering the phone. Functional analysis can be qualified as “horizontal”, because they relate two chronological distant units. Functions are then subdivided into:
  • Cardinal functions (or nuclei): They open and close significant possibilities. They are like “dispatchers”, because they drive the story to one direction rather than another. They are qualified as “risky”.
  • Catalysis: They “fill the blanks” between cardinal functions, and contain a limited degree of risk or uncertainity. They are expansions of cardinal units.
Not being correlated with another unit like functions, they have a diffuse meaning. They expand a cardinal function by providing useful information. Two types of indices are distinguished:
  • Pure indices: Their signification is implicit. It includes all connotations regarding a description for example.
  • Informants: Their signification is explicit. They provide a piece of information, for example the age of a character, that help the story refer to the real world and improve its realism.

Cardinal functions are organised into sequences, a sequence being a set of cardinal units that are not only temporally ordered but organized such that each function is correlated with an antecedant unit and a consequent unit, with the exception of the first one, which has no antecedent, and the last one, which has no consequent.

Sequences are hierarchically organised, the highest level sequence constitutes the main narrative structure.

The classification of narrative units is also related to the story vs discourse distinction. The cardinal functions and the sequences they build cannot be altered without altering the plot itself. But modifying the catalysis and indices changes the discourse.

Relation with Interactive Storytelling

This typology of narrative units can constitute a first step in the design of an IS system. The definition of cardinal functions as “dispatchers” is a clear indication that they can consitute the user choice points in an interactive narrative. The distinction between cardinal functions and catalysis can also correspond to the distinction in IS systems between narrative actions and behaviours, usually organised hierarchically.

Current planning-based formalisations are hierarchical and can reproduce the different levels discussed by R. Barthes. The polysemy of each unit is however not implemented in current systems. The concept of indices is interesting, as it tends to be discarded when designing an IS system. If a system could dynamically compute certain indices (in the form of a specific animation, dialog line, lighting, etc.) to inject into the narrative, it would improve both variability and quality of interactive storytelling experiences.

Systems/Tools using this theory

I-Storytelling explicitely refers to this theory to describe the hierarchical decomposition of goals and subgoals.




The reference paper, "Introduction à l'analyse structurale des récits" by R. Barthes can be found from different sources:

  • Communication, 8 - 1966. Online version
  • in Poétique Du récit, Seuil Points, 1977.
  • English version: Introduction to the structural anaylsis of narrative. in Image, Music, Text, Transl. Stephen Heath.
  • Italian version: L'analisi del racconto.