The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (H. Porter Abbott) – Chapters 1-6


The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative approaches stories from a very different perspective than most of the game writing, novel writing, and screenplay writing books I’ve covered here before; instead, it’s an academic approach to describing what narrative is, based in the field of narratology.

I’m covering this one in some depth, because I think it’s interesting to compare the terminology it uses with the terms common in other types of writing and game writing and interactive fiction guidance. So this post will cover the first portion of the book, and I’ll cover (roughly) the second half next month.

Chapter 1, Narrative and Life, speaks to the idea that narrative is a fundamental human function, that we possibly can’t even form memories without making stories about the events that happened to us, and that we have an instinct to try to work out the history or past narrative of things when we encounter them. Abbott ends this section with a few paintings that challenge us to understand them narratively but also resist casual interpretation.

Among other things, the chapter rather inverts the idea of environmental storytelling as a technique by suggesting that we are constantly making up stories about our environments, and that any space we might enter in a game would be read in this way by players, whether we wanted that or not.

In chapter 2, Abbott takes on the problem of defining narrative, a point on which theorists disagree. He settles on two possible concepts of narrative, both useful: that anything describing even a single event would qualify; or that different works can be more or less narrative, and that we tend to look for some measure of continuity and coherence in order to call something narrative.  The sequence of events (story) is distinguished from the telling of them (narrative discourse). The distinction is close to the distinction between fabula and syuzhet — though, as Abbott explains it, the latter term covers just the ordering of story elements and not all the other aspects of narrative discourse.

From there, he investigates the idea that a story may be made of constituent and supplementary events, per Barthes’ noyaux and catalyses. The constituent events are those that must happen for the story to work, while the supplementary events may provide important thematic meaning but do not cause any of the subsequent events of the story.

I would add here: an interactive story complicates this idea further, because

  • events may appear in some play-throughs but not in others
  • events may have causative effect in some play-throughs but not in others
  • events may be subject to the player’s choice or not

Some authors of interactive work try never to make the protagonist do any constituent action that the player hasn’t had a chance to opt into, while others do allow the protagonist to be essentially possessed by the narrative from time to time. And it’s not uncommon in stories that branch heavily to find on replaying the story that an event that seemed unimportant the first time around actually was quite significant in a different pass through the story.

Abbott talks about the idea of narrative “thickening” in adaptations, where in a movie version of a story, or a rewriting, the creator of the second version chooses to add supplementary events that weren’t in the original, which leaves the structure of the story as it was but may significantly change the interpretation or experience of the story.

In chapter 3, Abbott takes on framing narratives, paratext (materials that appear alongside but perhaps significantly alter the interpretation of the narrative, from illustrations to jacket blurbs), and then hypertext and RPGs, in the book’s first attention to digital literature. The examples of hypertext he looks at are mostly of the 90s literary hypertext variety, and he’s not talking about narrative Twine at all — though there are still some Twine works of recent vintage that (in my opinion) produce the poetic effect he assigns to certain hypertexts. Tohu wa Bohu and Doggerland immediately come to mind, as works where the narrator is so much absorbed in their own state of mind that the story is largely or entirely internal.

Chapters 4 and 5 (“The Rhetoric of Narrative” and “Closure”) look at the power of stories, and the way we tend to assume that everything included in a story must be important; otherwise, why is it there? In stories we tend to

  • see causation between the events that are narrated to us, even if none is explicitly asserted or demonstrated
  • normalize the kinds of things that happen in the story (and here Abbott invokes historian Hayden White)
  • see the recasting of standard masterplots (“that’s a Cinderella story”, e.g.) and the fact that some genres are bound to specific masterplots (quest narratives, etc) while others are not (a novel could have pretty much any plot)
  • expect conflict “in which power is at stake”
  • develop expectations about likely closures for the story, which admit suspense (closure is delayed) or surprise (closure doesn’t occur, or the expected closure is replaced by a different one)
  • seek closure to the story’s thematic questions as well, such as, Brothers Karamazov, whether everything including murder is morally permitted

The business about expected closures strikes me as particularly relevant for interactive narrative. I’ve written before about the hypotheses we form while reading, and the way that interactive games allow us to pursue closure for ourselves. Often this is the primary activity of a narrative game, especially one where the narrative is embedded in an explorable space. (I deeply dislike the term “walking simulator” with its pejorative connotations and refusal to recognize what is actually interesting in the genre; but the games called walking simulators would count here, and so would research games like Her Story or Analogue: A Hate Story.)

Chapter 6, on narration, looks at the separation between author and narrator, and the concept of voice here.

On the topic of voice, Abbott explains that “We grow up telling stories in the first or third person. For this reason alone, second-person narration will always seem strange…”. Which is likely true for conventional literature, but second person is perhaps the most common person for interactive narratives, where the relationship of the player/reader with the story is used, warped, and problematized in all kinds of interesting ways which have often been discussed in the interactive fiction community. A few interactive fiction games also have narrators who explicitly refer to the fact that the game is a game — Ryan Veeder is particularly fond of direct address to the player alongside the main narrative.

From there, the chapter goes on to talk about focalization (whose view is being expressed?), distance (how close is the story to the narrator? to the reader?), and reliability (is the narrator being honest? does she perceive the whole truth?).

Interactivity tends to make all of these questions more prominent: first, because there are fewer established conventions to make a given narration approach seem “natural” or “transparent”; and second, because asking the player to take any action with regard to the world means that they have to actively understand that world and the parameters of acting within it. An unreliable narrator is likely to trip the player into doing something he doesn’t intend (and that’s part of the point).

Meanwhile, the presumed relationship between player and protagonist also affects what the player might choose to do. At a given choice point, are we being asked what we ourselves would do if we were in this situation (and often there are no options that correspond to our likely real-world response)? Or are we being asked to enact the responses of an imaginary character we’ve devised? If the latter, who has responsibility for that character, their motives and actions? Player characters are of course constrained to some degree by the affordances that the author has made available in the text, but it is extremely common for players to report coming up with personalities and motivations for their protagonist that were never intended by the game’s author, or even to invent motivations for doing things that the player regards as otherwise “out of character” for the persona they’re developing.

See also:

2 thoughts on “The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (H. Porter Abbott) – Chapters 1-6”

  1. Walking simulator originates as a pejorative, but perhaps it’s one worth reclaiming? Walking has many of the virtues of the genre – what actually is “interesting” in these games. It’s deliberately paced, exploratory, contemplative. It takes you on a journey (and possibly back again). It gives you time to pay attention to your surroundings, and to reflect on yourself. Many of the best “walking simulator” games put those elements in the forefront of their design – features, not bugs. So maybe it’s worth embracing the term, emphasising that the aspects that some adrenaline-addicted folk find so boring and worthless are exactly the point?

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