What is a narrative?

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  • Telling stories

What is a narrative?

  • A basic story or narrative consists of the following:
    • A plot - something interesting takes place
    • Characters
    • Chronological structure – references made to time
    • An opening
    • An ending which provides some resolution
    • A setting in time and place

Let’s work on our joke again…

  • right (.) three men sat in a pub (.) and er sat there having a quiet drink (.) and in walks this really drunken old man (.) and he staggers in and he's all over the place he's knocking drinks over (.) he's er standing on people's feet and (.) urn all the rest of it and urn he walks over to the bar this old man (.) and he orders a pint of lager (.) he er gets his pint (.) and downs it fast as he can in one (.) and then he staggers over to these three men (.) these three men are looking at each other nudging each other (.) right what does he want (.) and ur (.) this man walks over he says (.) I'vehadyermam I'vehadyermam and one of the men says (.) piss off! so (.) this this old man he staggers away and he goes to the bar and he orders another drink (.) another pint of lager and downs this even faster (.) he staggers back over to these three men (.) and he says I've had your mam I've put cream on her body and I've licked it off (.) guy stands up again he says look go away (.) so er this old man staggers back to the bar (.) all over the place he orders another pint (.) this one downs even faster and he comes and again again he comes back over to these three men (.) he says I've had your mam I've put cream on her body I've done things to her you wouldn't understand (.) well they've had enough so (.) one of the men stands up he says look dad you're drunk go home.


  • The joke displays the basic characteristics of a narrative.
  • Can you identify the elements of the narrative in this joke?


  • Now please suggest ways in which the speaker has attempted to make his story more alive and vivid for his listener.

Linguistic elements which make an oral narration more vivid

  • Word choice plays a fundamental role. At the LEXICAL level we have vivid descriptions, sometimes through informal lexical items:
    • Knocking drinks over
    • Standing on people’s feet
    • Listeners nudging to each other
    • The man stuggers

Linguistic elements which make an oral narration more vivid

  • The storyteller tries to reproduce the way the drunk man talks through graphological expedients:
    • I’vehadyermam

Linguistic elements which make an oral narration more vivid

  • Use of direct, realistic and in some cases vulgar expressions, which are nevertheless common in such a situation or which reproduce expressions typical of spoken English:
    • Piss off
    • Look dad you’re drunk
  • Linguistic elements which make an oral narration more vivid
  • The syntactic level plays its part too. The switch from the past tense to the present tense and the use of this man and these men contribute to bring the scene alive.
  • right (.) three men sat in a pub (.) and er sat there having a quiet drink (.) and in walks this really drunken old man
  • three men sat in a pub = elliptical dialectal expression three men were sat in a pub = three men were sitting in a pub

The structure of narration

  • The joke can be divided into 3 separated but repeated episodes which build to the final climax.
  • Can you identify them?

The role of repetition and structure

  • The repetition of episodes allow the audience to share the joke more fully with the teller.
  • Children enjoy the familiarity of a repeated episode in their bedtime stories and so in the same way a listener to this joke can “predict” the story.
  • The listener knows what’s coming next, until he’s finally surprised by the unexpected end and therefore amused.

The role of repetition and structure

  • A certain structure is recognizable in our conversational exchanges.
  • We need structure and predictability to a certain extent, so that the processing labour required to arrive to the intended meaning and to the intended effects does not “exceed our strengths”.
  • The way we structure communicative events is partly cultural/conventional and partly cognitive.

Oral Narration

  • When we speak, we often tell stories, even when they are not jokes.
  • Narration serves many purposes in conversation. In some cases it is used to reinforce one’s opinion on a topic.

Talk show story

  • Handout A
  • The following transcription is an extract from the TV programme This Morning, hosted by Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan. This magazine programme appears regularly on weekday mornings and is divided into several sections that deal with items such as fashion, cookery, advice giving and interviews with TV personalities. In this transcription, the hosts are talking to their expert psychologist Raj Persaud. They have been discussing how parents should deal with children asking questions. Raj has already said that parents should praise children for asking questions even if they don't know the answer to them.

RAJ: and another good answer is I don't know the answer and let's go and find out together

  • RAJ: and another good answer is I don't know the answer and let's go and find out together
  • RICHARD: I'll tell you one thing when we moved to London and we'd been here for about a month and we were just driving around looking at the sights and we were driving past Buckingham Palace right and Chloe's in the back of the car right this is so funny urn and she said there it is there's Buckingham Palace woah woah oh we should open the window oh and the Queen lives there oh look the flag's up the Queen's in there now and she said is that the Queen's house then? and we said yeah she said ooh fancy building a palace next to the main road
  • RAJ, R & J: (laughter)
  • JUDY: on the main road (laughs) which is logical
  • RICHARD: which is very observant absolutely why did they do that she said and actually I couldn't think because the road was probably there when they built it although there wouldn't have been cars on it
  • RAJ: I hope you praised her for making a good point
  • RICHARD: well we fell apart

Some questions

  • How does Richard signpost to his listeners that he is about to tell a story?
  • With standard expressions such as…
    • I’ll tell you one thing
    • He signals that he’s going to interrupt the discussion and take a longer turn than usual to tell a story.

The metalanguage of narration

  • Certain expressions in English signal the shift between humorous narration and serious narration. They act as “special brackets” (Goffman 1974).
  • Narration is rich in formulae. Some other expressions, for instance, are common openers.

The metalanguage of narration

    • Kidding aside…
    • Now, I’m not really serious about this
    • Just kidding/joking
    • Have you heard the one about…
    • Have you ever stopped to think why…
    • Did you know that…
    • I’ll always remember the time…
    • Did I ever tell you about…
    • Then there was the time we…
    • I must tell you about…
    • You’ll never guess what happened yesterday…
    • I heard a good one the other day…
    • I had a funny experience last week…

Back to Richard’s story…

  • What function does the word right play in the telling of this story?
  • Richard gives background information to the story – the who, what, where and when. This background information is separated from the rest of the story by the use of the word right.
  • The rest of the story is told in rapid dramatic dialogue building up to the climax, i.e. Chloe’s unanswerable question.

Back to Richard’s story…

  • How does Richard want us to evaluate the story?
  • Just before the dialogue, Richard prefaces the story with the words this is so funny, which tells the listener how he wants them to interpret it.

Back to Richard’s story…

  • Why does Richard tell the story?
  • Richard explains that he couldn’t answer Chloe’s question and Raj picks this up, relating back to the previous discussion on children’s questions.

Narration to support one’s ideas

  • Richard’s reason for telling this story is to support his opinion. The general topic of the discussion triggered him into remembering a specific story and this illustrates how often narration provides specific examples to illustrate a general point, a way to make the general point more personalised and understandable.
  • Narration creates EMPATHY among the speakers.

Speakers’ collaboration

  • The fact that Raj picks up Richard’s point means that he is collaborating with him to show the relevance of the story.
  • Speakers’ collaboration can be expressed by several linguistic expressions

Speakers’ collaboration

    • Laughter
    • Acknowledgement: yeah, mmm, that’s right
    • Relevant comments:
      • “I hope you praised her for making a good point”
      • “[…] which is logical…”

Narration and argumentation

  • In many cases narration provides a light-hearted/serious way to learn and reinforce ideas on a topic.

Labov's theory of narrative structure (1972).

  • Labov's theory of narrative structure (1972).
  • According to Labov, in an essay entitled “The transformation of experience in narrative syntax”, narrative is natural to both written and spoken language and its structure can be divided into the following:
  • abstract (signals that a story is about to begin; it is a brief explanation of what the story is about);
  • orientation (context in which the story takes place, the who, what, where and when of the story);
  • action (the 'what happened' element of the story);
  • resolution (what finally happened);
  • coda (signals end of story and can link back to the present situation);
  • evaluation (comments, gestures running throughout the story to show how this is interesting).
  • All these elements are not always present, but this is a useful framework for evaluating oral stories. The elements usually occur in the order given, but evaluation can occur at any point.


  • According to Labov, the evaluation section is the most important section of oral narratives.
  • Speakers deliberately use strategies to create a powerful emotional effect on the listener (emotional impact).


  • Figurative language, descriptive details and repetition are some of these strategies to involve listeners emotionally.
  • Repetition is a very effective evaluation strategy to create emotional impact, it is evaluative.


  • … contributes to involvement.
  • …facilitates production, comprehension, connection, and interaction,

Repeating the words, phrases or sentences of other speakers

  • Repeating the words, phrases or sentences of other speakers
  • accomplishes a conversation,
  • shows one's response to another's utterance,
  • shows acceptance of others' utterances, their participation to them,
  • gives evidence of one's own participation.
  • (Tannen 1991)


  • …may show up as self-repetition or repetition of others, exact repetition or paraphrase, and as “repetition with variation” that is as “questions transformed into statements, statements changed into questions, repetition with a single word or phrase changed, and repetition with change of person or tense”

Types and functions of repetition

  • lexical repetition (used for intensifying, emphatic, imitation and purposive reasons).
  • syntactic repetition (exact repetition of a syntactic unit in the form of a substitute and syntactically parallel constructions)
  • thematic (discoursal) repetition, (paraphrase, repetition with variation, reverse paraphrase and rewording.)

Functions of repetitions

  • an essentially poetic aspect of language;
  • a cohesive device which links new utterances to previous ones (repetition ties ideas in a discourse together.)
  • repetition is a device of persuasion
  • repetition serves intensification, humor, control in conversation, expression of anger/pleasure/displeasure, cohesion/coherence, emphatic, evaluative and thematic functions.

Lexical repetition

  • Repetition of one word only:
  • lexical repetition of addition (the same lexical item is repeated by adding an intensifier or a modifier)
  • lexical repetition of substitution
  • reduplication
  • exact (lexical) repetition

Syntactic repetition

  • Two or more words or word combinations.
  • exact repetition of a syntactic unit (of addition [by adding a modifier or an Intensifier] or substitution [a lexical item is replaced by a syntactic structure])
  • by leaving out a modifier or an intensifier (syntactic repetition of units with missing lexical items)
  • syntactic parallelism

Discoursal repetition

  • Paraphrase and use of different structures through which speakers prefer to convey the same meaning:
  • single word paraphrase (synonymy and metonymy).
  • Paraphrase (rewording and reverse paraphrase [speakers provide opposing perspectives while repeating the content of their utterances])
  • Syntactic repetition with expansion
  • expansion with different structures
  • explanation with different structures

Functions: enphatic repetition

  • Repetition as a clarification device: The speaker may use words or word combinations to clarify/explain/ support the previous utterance.
  • Es. …then we realized that we were sharing the same fears, the same troubles
  • Repetition as an expanding device.
  • Es. …I’m in such a panic that I slapped the girl then, and I remember slapping that girl so that she would shut up, you know not to make any noise…

Functions: enphatic repetition

  • Repetition as a device to create immediacy: Repetition of specific details, time frame, location, and people contributes to the emphatic function since specificity creates immediacy.
  • Es. We were talking to my uncle in the telephone booth, just at that time while we were on the phone

Functions: thematic repetition

  • Forms of repetition which contribute to the theme of the story.
  • Repetition as a device to suspend action (so that the climax of the story could come in full power)
  • Es. …then we started running haphazardly, without knowing where to run, there was construction near the place during that period, I saw my father running toward the construction but in the construction a construction pit had been dug you know my father will fall…

Functions: thematic repetition

  • Cohesive repetition: it links referents together through repetition of words that mean nearly the same or exactly the same and thus builds the previously mentioned referents around a major theme.
  • Es. people leaning from the windows are looking down, they don’t know where to look.

Functions: artistic repetition

  • Syntactic repetition, lexical repetition or paraphrase can be used to create a poetic effect.
  • rhythm moves the listener emotionally and at the same time “convinces” them.
  • Es. I remember grabbing my father and hurling him with a child’s strength, I remember running together holding each other’s hands…

Functions: persuasive repetition

  • Reverse paraphrase, syntactic parallelism, etc., are used to provide different perspectives. Also repetition of words of emotion or perception.
  • Es. …and behind me you know some people were screaming, very very bad

Hands on work

  • Analyse Richard’s story according to Labov’s theory of narrative structure.
  • Then analyse this passage taken from About a boy.

‘Where are your shoes?’ she shrieked when he came home. (Will had given him a lift, but it was November, and wet, and during the short walk across the pavement and up the stairs to the front door of the flats he had soaked his socks through again.) He looked at his feet, and for a moment he didn’t say anything: he toyed with the idea of acting all surprised and telling her he didn’t know, but he quickly realized she wouldn’t believe him.

  • ‘Where are your shoes?’ she shrieked when he came home. (Will had given him a lift, but it was November, and wet, and during the short walk across the pavement and up the stairs to the front door of the flats he had soaked his socks through again.) He looked at his feet, and for a moment he didn’t say anything: he toyed with the idea of acting all surprised and telling her he didn’t know, but he quickly realized she wouldn’t believe him.
  • ‘Stolen,’ he said eventually.
  • ‘Stolen? Why would anyone steal your shoes?’
  • ‘Because…’ He was going to have to tell the truth, but the problem was that the truth would lead to a whole lot more questions. ‘Because they were nice ones.’
  • ‘They were just ordinary black slip-on shoes.’
  • ‘No, they weren’t. They were new Adidas trainers.’
  • ‘Where did you get new Adidas trainers from?’
  • ‘Will bought them for me?’
  • ‘Will who? Will the guy who took us out to lunch?’
  • ‘Yeah, Will. The bloke from SPAT. He’s sort of become my friend.’
  • ‘He’s sort of become your friend?’
  • Marcus was right. She had loads more questions, except the way she asked them was a bit boring: she just repeated the last thing he said, stuck a question mark on the end of it and shouted.
  • ‘I go round his flat after school.’
  • Or:
  • ‘Well, you see, he doesn’t really have a kid.’

Fiona: Marcus! What happened to your shoes?

  • Fiona: Marcus! What happened to your shoes?
  • Marcus: They stole them.
  • Fiona: Why would anyone want to steal your shoes?
  • Marcus: I could see I had to tell the truth. The problem was, the truth would lead to a lot more questions.)
  • They were nice ones.
  • Fiona: They were just ordinary brown lace-ups.
  • Marcus: No, they weren't. They were cool new trainers.
  • Fiona: Where did you get cool new trainers?
  • Marcus: (She had loads more questions.)
  • Will bought them for me.
  • Fiona: Will? The guy who took us to lunch?
  • Marcus: Yeah. He's sort of become my friend.
  • Fiona: He's sort of become your friend?
  • Marcus: (She kept repeating the last thing I said. Except she shouted it.)
  • I go round to his place after school.
  • Fiona: You go round to his place after school!
  • Marcus: You see, he doesn't really have a kid.
  • Fiona: He doesn't really have a kid?

Will:I have a 2-year-old. Ned. He's got blue eyes and sort of sandy-coloured hair...

  • Will:I have a 2-year-old. Ned. He's got blue eyes and sort of sandy-coloured hair...
  • ...and he's about 2'3. And his mum left.
  • -Really?
  • Will:Yeah. Yeah, I mean, obviously it was a very big shock... because we were so happy, you know? Sandra's neurology practice was just up and running... and then one day her bags were packed, and my best friend was waiting outside... in his Ferrari. Yeah. You know, the Modena? The one with the supercharged engine, where you can see it through the back back window?
  • Spat:You got dumped then?
  • Will:Yeah.
  • Spat:May I ask, does your ex see Ned at all?
  • Will:Sorry, I didn't catch your name.
  • Spat:Suzie.
  • Will:Suzie. She doesn't see much of him, no.
  • Suzie:How does he cope with that?
  • Will:You know, he's a very good little boy. Very, very brave. They've got amazing resources, don't they? Just the other day I was thinking about my ex. He came crawling up, put his little pudgy arms around my neck, and he said: "You hang in there, Dad."
  • Suzie:God, that's amazing for a 2-year-old!
  • Will:Is it? Yeah, well, he's very special. Very, very special. Sometimes I think, you know, he's the one taking care of me. Teaching me the ways of the world. Oh, sorry. Thank you.
  • (My God, what a performance! I was even fooling myself.)
  • Suzie:There you go. You okay?
  • Will:Yeah. Perfect, thanks. Trust me?
  • Suzie:Of course.
  • (By the end of the evening, I had a date lined up.)

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