The Tales We Tell: Perspectives on the Short Story

By Barbara Lounsberry; Susan Lohafer et al. | Go to book overview

17
Short Story Structure and Affect: Evidence from Cognitive Psychology

William F. Brewer

This chapter is the preliminary report of the results of an experiment examining the psychological properties of a sample of short stories. Most work on stories in the area of cognitive psychology and cognitive science has focused on problems of text comprehension and text memory (for a discussion, see Brewer 1982; Brewer and Lichtenstein 1982). However, it seems to me that an adequate psychological theory of stories must incorporate such constructs as plot, suspense, and resolution. During the last decade a group of us at the University of Illinois has been developing a structural-affect approach to the study of stories which attempts to capture a much broader range of characteristics of texts ( Brewer 1980; Brewer and Lichtenstein 1982). 1 This research has been strongly influenced by work in the humanities, particularly by literary criticism, narratology, and by rhetorical and structural approaches to text. Within the structural-affect framework we have carried out research on artificially constructed texts ( Brewer 1996a, 1996b; Brewer and Lichtenstein 1981); on Hungarian and American short stories ( Brewer and Ohtsuka 1988a, 1988b); on children's responses to texts ( Jose and Brewer 1984, 1990); on fables ( Dorfman and Brewer 1994); and on cross-cultural studies of texts ( Brewer 1985). It should be noted that the structural-affect theory attempts to capture the structural and affective properties of texts designed for entertainment and has only limited application to the literary and aesthetic properties of texts.

The structural-affect theory relates particular structural features of narratives to particular affective responses in the reader and then relates these structural- affect relationships to story liking. The structural-affect theory is based on the assumption that there is a distinction between the events that underlie a narrative and the linguistic presentation of these events. We refer to the organization of the events in the underlying event world as event structure, and we refer to the temporal arrangement of these events in the text as discourse structure.

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