Critical Ideas in Television Studies

By John Corner | Go to book overview

5
Narrative

THE narrative dimension of television, its various ways of putting stories together through words and images, has attracted a great deal of attention in recent research and even where it has not been the subject of primary interest it has figured as a factor in much commentary about the medium's character and social significance. It is worth noting straight away the difference between discussion of narrative as an aspect of television fiction and discussion of it as an aspect of other television forms, including news and documentary. While in the former case narrative is taken as a prerequisite of programme construction, the focus of analysis and debate then being its precise nature and effects, in the latter case even its very existence has been a matter of dispute and concern, signalling a possible erosion of informational and expository values.

'Narrative' means story-like and since there are a great many ways of telling stories and a number of different components which stories can have, it is not surprising that the application of the term in analysis shows variety and sometimes disagreement. No one would want to argue about the importance of the narrative in, for example, a dramatic series like Friends but they may well want to question its importance, or even its existence, in a current-affairs programme.

What are the key components of narrative? Talking primarily of cinema, Bordwell and Thompson ( 1990:55) say that 'a narrative is a chain of events in cause-effect relationship occurring in time and space'. It might have been useful to add 'a representation of at the start of this definition, since narratives are a cultural and discursive phenomenon not properties of real world circumstances and acts. Even then, we have what is only a core definition, one which applies, in part, to discursive forms not primarily appreciated for their narrative value (laboratory reports, for instance, or university lectures). Bordwell and Thompson would readily agree that the chain of events does not have to be chronological, so 'cause-effect' relations may not be linear in their presentation. Of course, it is an important part of fictional plot development precisely to ensure that they are not. Distinctions between the internal elements and mechanisms of narrative are important and I shall return to them later. Before proceeding to look in more detail at how television narrative has been conceptualized and studied I want to put forward two distinctions of my own (though ones doubtless paralelled in the work of others) which I think might be helpful. These are the distinction between spoken narrative and enacted narrative and the distinction between affective and informational narrative functions. Like most distinctions in this book, the second of these is analytic more than substantive and indicates a separation

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