Literature and philosophy have been inseparably entwined in the thoughts of humankind since we first had such thoughts about such things. Almost all our modern thinking about narrative structure and form has its foundations, at least in part, in Aristotle’s famous examination of story, Poetics, which itself was a product of centuries of development of dramatic art and narrative experimentation.
The stories we tell have impact far beyond narrative content and plot elements such as character, place and time. Indeed the way we say something is just as important as what we are saying when it comes to the influence and interpretation of meaning in narrative art.
Form is a many-faceted concept for just this reason. When we try to list form or define it in some way, we inevitably find a myriad of cross-overs between other literary elements, most particularly structure and genre (even Wikipedia has trouble). These techniques and concepts become indelibly linked in our cultural consciousness as a byproduct of the way we develop certain constructions around certain types of stories.
Literature can be said to be divided into the grand dichotomy of poetry and prose. But even there we have problems when we start to identify the way in which these two literary metrics can be presented.
Then we may try to list the grand narrative media in an exhaustive and mutually exclusive list of constructs, from longer narratives:
- Epic poem
To shorter narratives:
- Short story
- Folk tale
And then we should consider the performative arts who often have their own distinct formal constructs:
And then we ask, should dance be included or is it non-literary, even though it is also a narrative form?
Then consider informative texts. Do they have their own structural conceits? Do they classify as separate forms of writing?
- Historical novels
- Literary non-fiction
- Biography and autobiography
- Persuasive arguments
- Thesis & analysis
What about functionality and purpose? Does that play into the divisions of form?
- Fairy tales
- Morality tales
- Teaching parables
- Analogy & symbology
And of course broad-spectrum genre is a major form qualifier:
And the many derivative narrative structures that have sprung up over the most recent decades as technology plays into the way we communicate our stories to each other:
- Music videos
- Short films
- Status updates
- Flash fiction
All of these forms, from the grand multi-volume works to the one-hundred and forty characters, have intricately linked cultural associations attached to the way they are presented. A play in the Shakespearean style may have five acts, employ poetic metre, follow the conventions of tragedy or comedy, and even include songs and musical numbers. A fantasy narrative may take the form of either a multi-volume novel or an epic poem, media themselves bound in pre-conceived structural nuance, employing well-rehearsed act-divisions and conventional literary techniques such as catalogue, dialogue, monologue, and even deeper formative layers of allusion to legend and myth.
Narrative form as a classifiable entity came under specific academic study in the 1950s, after the great revolutions of the Modernist period threw all previous conventional understandings of form into flux. Since then several schools of thought have sought to demystify the question of form for philosophical and technical reasons, in aid of both the audience and the auteur.
Clearly this is a topic too vast for one discussion, or even one series of discussions. So over the coming weeks we will explore the modern concepts of form and structure and how they apply to narrative art in contemporary practice, examining the theories of narrative form developed since the 1950s. We will touch briefly on the works of structuralists such as Joseph Campbell and Northrop Frye, to that of post-strcuturalists like Michel Foucault and then on into the most recent decades where the advent of screen culture has brought about the revival of the oldest known form of story-telling, the ubiquitous and oft-bemoaned three-act narrative.
To get yourself started, have a look at the seasonal myth theory of Northrop Frye and then this brilliant introduction to Joseph Campbell’s hero narrative.
Look close enough and you will see these monomythic stories everywhere, leaving us to wonder whether there are a myriad of different forms as diverse and nuanced as life itself, or if there is really only one true story, told over and over again in many different guises, tracing back over all narratives since the beginning of time.