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Narrative Structure

Joel Peckham Reading Narrative:

Unlike sculpture or the visual arts, narrative integrates a clear temporal element into its artistic medium. That is, events unfold over time--both the time that it takes the reader to progress through the reading process, and the time sequence of the narrative itself. It is, therefore, extremely important to keep in mind that a story, regardless of the literary form or genre in which it is framed, is more than a collection of images, symbols, characters, etc. In fact much of the power in narrative derives from the expectations it sets up through dramatic action and the reader's understanding that those expectations will be addressed, if not satisfied, at some point through the narrative progression of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.

With this temporal element in mind, narrative form has long been associated with the following diagram:

frietag triangle

Of course, not all narratives comply to this strict conception of form. Contemporary narratives, in fact, often begin or end much closer to the climax than this diagram would indicate

One approach to reading however, may be to track your own responses to the piece as it unfolds over time. Try to explore how the author uses formal features such as backstory, characterization, figurative language, tone, etc. to set up tensions and expectations throughout the story. Ask yourself, where is the climax? How does the climax bring together tensions set up during the exposition? How were those tensions set up to begin with? How are those tensions resolved in through the falling action and resolution?

Another approach is to track the emotional, psychological, or moral growth of a character through the narrative. Ask yourself, how does this narrator want us to feel about the character at different points in the narrative? How do we know? Does the character reach an epiphany? At what point? 1