Textual cooperation

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IRIS Wiki - Narrative Theories - Textual cooperation


Umberto Eco

Histo-geographical placement

Italy, 1960's

Type of story

The theory is based on written text, but can be extended to other media.

Parent Theories


Child Theories


Brief Description

According to Umberto Eco, an author-written text is an unfinished work and requires a reader to complete the effort. A text lives for the value added significance introduced by the reader. More specifically, a text is emitted for someone capable of actualising it; i.e., the text needs to be correlated to an accepted code system. The code system in question needs to be part of the reader’s set of competencies, and to achieve a fair match (between intention and result) the author must consider what Eco calls the Ideal Reader. The author must make a plan for all possible reader interpretations for the Ideal Reader to be able to interpret meaning into the text. More than a set of competencies possessed by a reader, the Ideal Reader is the set of felicity conditions/success conditions that need to be satisfied for a text's potential content to be fully actualised (Eco U., 1965, p.77)

A text should be represented by a system of nodes, indicating which node requires cooperation from the (ideal) reader (Eco U., 1965, p.84). If, when faced with one such node, the reader experiences divergence between the world of their experience and the world of the text, he may momentarily suspend belief (or disbelief) until the next clue (as to the appropriate interpretation) is presented. The reader has to turn to the linguistic rules and competencies offered by the language of the text and their own mastery of the possible interpretations. By choosing for the reader the author shapes their text and defines more specifically, what/who the Ideal Reader is. The language in which the text is written provides (linguistic) rules and expects a certain encyclopedic competency for its interpretation (again the level of mastery of these two desired by the author are what makes the Ideal Reader, ideal).

The following list describes various cooperative passages where the author and the reader accept a common understanding necessary for the message and the interpretation to coincide:

  • base dictionary
    • what the words imply: positioning. The story landscape drawn by our understanding of the words.
  • rules of co-reference
    • subject-verb agreement from sentence to sentence. The link between the second and first sentence exists only in the second, the first does not need to mention something that will be found in the second.
  • circumstantial and contextual selection
    • what experiences of the past allow to derive or reinforce an interpretation ("jurisprudence")
  • rhetorical and stylistic hypercoding or ideological hypercoding
  • shared scenario inferences
  • intertextual scenario inferences

Relation with Interactive Storytelling

In interactive narrative, recognising moments of (possible) divergence and the different types of "clues" that can be offered to the reader can provide an appropriate framework for where to provide a reader with options and indicate on what level (and in what direction) the different options will take the story. Depending on a reader's interpretation, potential outcomes vary. As a linear story unfolds the room for interpretation on the reader's behalf needs to narrow to successfully capt the author's intended message. In IS, these possible interpretations can be used as eventual story paths. Understanding where the reader's interpretation and the author's intention can deviate, opens the way to provide alternate story paths.

According to (Louchart, Swartjes, Kriegel and Aylett, 2004) an emergent narrative establishes a cooperative contract with the interactor, and it is his decisions (interpretations) that determine the story landscape, and possible actions. Within the paradigm of emergent narrative, the denser the landscape the better (more story options). Eco considers the more a text is open and the less the contract of understanding is specified (between author and reader) the more possible worlds will result from the reader assuming the author's intention. In IS this is ideal especially concerning emergent narrative.

Systems/Tools using this theory

  • Within the mimesis project, in the context of story generation (no interaction), a computational model of suspense estimates the reader's inferences according to the story so far (Cheong & Young, 2008). This corresponds to the readers' above. But the reader's encyclopedic knowledge is not modeled beyond the knowledge of the domain's plan operators.
  • The idea of encyclopedic knowledge is implemented in some approaches for story understanding, using common sense reasoning (Mueller, 2004).
  • The Ideal Reader concept has been borrowed by IDtension to design the "model of the user".



  • Eco, U. (1965). L'oeuvre ouverte. Paris: Le Seuil.
  • Eco, U. (1985). Lector In Fabula: Le rôle du lecteur. Grasset.
  • Louchart S., Swartjes I., Kriegel M., and Aylett R. (2008). Purposeful Authoring for Emergent Narrative. Proceedings of the 1st Joint International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling: Interactive Storytelling. LNCS vol 5334. pp. 273 - 284.
  • Mueller E. T.(2004). Understanding script-based stories using commonsense reasoning. Cognitive Systems Research, 5(4), 307–340.