Narrative Strategies

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Narrative strategy is a use of certain narrative techniques and practices to achieve a certain goal. The approach adopted and the intended goal, which presuppose certain competences (creative, referential, and receptive), characterise the author of the artistic text. However, the category of narrative strategies may also be used for the analysis of non-artistic narrative discourses where a distinction between the biographic author and the implied author is usually not important.


Each narrative is an utterance and thus a communicative act. In accordance with Aristotle’s “rhetorical triangle,” somebody tells somebody about something. Thus the theory of narration belongs to the field of the general theory of communication; consequently, narrative strategies comprise a certain class of communicative strategies of culture.

Narrative strategies are often reduced to the writer’s techniques. However, the notion of strategy, taken from military science, correctly describes the speaker’s preferences that direct his creative behaviour after he makes a strategic choice and determines the final result, as opposed to various tactical actions. Applied to narrative practices, this fundamental distinction avoids identifying the author with the narrator. The author’s strategic position provides unity of the communicative aim which the narrator’s (sometimes several narrators’) discourse leads to. This position may be either homogeneous with regard to the narrating subject’s position or distanced and even ironical in relation to him.

The aim of speaking or writing is the interaction of consciousnesses in a communication event (see van Dijk 1988): choral harmony or provocative dissonance, monologic dominance or dialogic concordance (see Тjupa 2010). Difference in communicative aims generates a variety of strategies. A strategic choice is made by the biographic author (scriptor). Working consciously with the tactical means of narrative writing, however, he does not always adequately reflect on the narrative strategy of his own text. Any communicative strategy, narrative in particular, being “a speaker’s active position in an objective and semantic sphere” (Baxtin 1996: 187), cannot be reduced to “a speaker’s speech will” because “a subjective moment when an utterance is produced is inseparably combined with its objective and semantic side, limiting and connecting it with […] the situation of speech communication” (180). “Strategic choices do not emerge directly from a worldview or from predominance of interests peculiar to this or that speaking subject” (Foucault [1969] 2002: 81). Rather, they are made “on the basis of the position occupied by the subject in relation to the domain of objects” (ibid.) and in relation to an addressee or a circle of addressees. This “situation” may be and usually is connected with the implied author. The latter may be thought of as a complex of discourse competences which are virtual by nature, analogously to Saussure’s langue (cf. Greimas & Courtès 1979: 249), but they are more or less consistently and successfully realised by the biographic author.

It is crucial that the narrative strategy correlates not with the narrator, who is free to adopt one narrative tactic or another, but with the implied semantic entity of the abstract author (Schmid [2003] 2010: 36–51). The narrative subject (narrator) is positioned in relation to objects and recipients of narration by the cognitive subject of communication (author), which consists in adopting a strategic choice. Thus understood, narrative strategy is a configuration of three aspects of a single utterance that influence each another: 1) narrative modality (the speech subject’s rhetorical competence); 2) narrative world picture (the sphere of objects that are of narrative interest); 3) narrative intrigue (the aspect of plot that correlates the story with the recipient’s expectations). These three aspects correlate with the three aspects of any utterance as a communicative event.

Aspects of the Phenomenon and History of its Study

Narrative Modalities

The rhetorical modality of the narrator’s speech behaviour determines what kind of “witness and judge” (Baxtin 2002b: 396) of “eventful being” (Baxtin) the narrator is. The category of modality is linked with the categories of focalization (Niederhoff → Focalization) and perspective (Niederhoff → Perspective – Point of View), but it is not identical to them. Explaining the term “focalization,” Genette ([1972] 1980) refers to the degree of the narrator’s awareness and the extent to which his knowledge is restricted. However, the narrator does not always represent knowledge: medieval Christian narrators, for instance, were guided by sacred conviction and tended to ignore or transform empirical facts. A chain of events (a story) can be recounted in the modality of a) neutral knowledge, b) an unreliable narrator’s personal opinion (Booth [1961] 1983: 158–59), c) authoritative conviction that does not need approval, or d) in the modality of understanding that is not subjective (e.g. an opinion) but is also not neutral or objective and that can be characterised as inter-subjective (sharing of a common understanding among subjects).

The modality of knowledge presupposes the narrator’s principal “outsideness” (vnenaxodimost’ [Baxtin 2003: 72]) in relation to a recounted story. Homer could not witness the events of the Trojan war; nevertheless, the narrator of Homer’s epic, relying on legend, tells about these events in the narrative modality of knowledge. This knowledge is a content of consciousness that does not depend on consciousness itself (pure knowledge is not personified and is reproductive). Such a narrator is analogous to the leader of a ritual choir who recounts commonly known things more expressively than others. The strategy of impersonal narrative omniscience adopted by a teller can be characterised as choral. Writers of the early modern period may adopt a similar narrative strategy (cf. the narrator’s position in Gogol’s Taras Bul’ba [1842]).

The modality of opinion is characterised by an apparently personified position and thus an emotional and moral, rather than factual, involvement in the flow of events. Such tellers present their own version of a recounted story and “make stronger demands on the reader’s powers of inference than do reliable narrators” (Booth [1961] 1983: 159). Thus the narrative strategy of unreliable narration adopted by Nabokov in Lolita (1959) “consists in inviting the reader with the help of the textual structure to guess the potencies concealed in the text; the reader is a co-creator and takes over certain authorial functions (carefully and jealously measured by the implied author)” (Ždanova 2008: 61).

The other two modalities correspond to an intermediate position of “evaluative outsideness” (Baxtin 2003: 72) that does not presuppose omniscience but provides a wider conceptual horizon of the narrator than a participant in events may have. A profound difference between modalities consists in the convinced and convincing narrator’s monologic axiological domination, on the one hand, and in the understanding narrator’s dialogically open position, on the other. The word “conviction” is intended to focus on “a definite set of values […]. It is unipolar. Only one voice sounds in it […]. It exists in the ready-made, stably differentiated and evaluated world” (Baxtin 1986: 513). The narrative of conviction is subjective in terms of values (the narrator is not only a witness but also explicitly judges what goes on), but it is not personified. This is the narrative strategy frequently adopted by Tolstoj.

The convergence of two (or even several) viewpoints in a narrated story that belong to a narrator and a character or to a narrator and an addressee establishes the modality of understanding. Such narration deepens the sense of the related story, but it does not bear the marks of absolute truthfulness of knowledge or of the absolute value of conviction. The truth of understanding is not relative but “principally exceeds the limits of one consciousness […] and is born at the junction point where different consciousnesses meet each other” (Baxtin 2002a: 92), as it occurs in Dostoevskij’s polyphonic novel. The narrative of understanding is personified but aims at overcoming the limits of the subject’s horizon. Such is the narrative strategy in the late works by Čexov. These texts are characterised by the same narrative strategy, even given the difference in narrative tactics employed in Dostoevskij’s novels and in Čexov’s short stories.

Narrative World Pictures

The referential competence of narration consists in the actual “world picture which provides the scale for determining what an event is” (Lotman [1970] 1977: 234). From the perspective of narratology, the general notion of world picture represents the basic structures of narrative experience, the experience of eventfulness (Hühn → Event and Eventfulness). Constituting original assumptions about the general premises of our being, the world picture determines the “relevance” of transitions between situations that constitute a subject matter of the story (Schmid [2003] 2010: 9). The degree of eventfulness motivating the possibility and justifiability of a story is not an abstract value but depends on the idea of event formed in the given epoch, the literary genre in question, the model of eventfulness put forward by the work itself and the reader’s position (Šmid [2003] 2008: 24). Like a conventional mathematical space, the narrative world picture “guarantees a possible meaningful unity of possible judgements” (Baxtin 2003: 55) about what Baxtin calls the “event of being (sobytie bytija).” The inter-subjective “topos of agreement” (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca 1958), necessary for understanding the text, limits the breadth of the world outlook with a certain conceptual horizon and creates a virtual space in which consciousnesses communicate in an addressee’s mind. Developing Perelman and Olbrecht-Tyteca’s conception of “rhetorical world pictures,” we can single out four experience structures basic for narrative practices, corresponding to the four narrative modalities:

1) precedental world picture (typical for myths and fairy tales) that does not allow characters to avoid their status destiny: an event is “always a fact which takes place, though it need not have taken place” (Lotman [1970] 1977: 236); it may set a precedent for succeeding facts of the same sort;

2) imperative world picture (of the parable type) that presupposes an unquestionable axiological system of the world order in which a character always has freedom of choice, even though this choice is objectively assessed in terms of good and evil; an event consists of fulfilling or failing to fulfil a duty, of observing the moral law of the world or of breaching it;

3) occasional world picture (of the anecdote type) in which a character existing in a flow of eventualities is granted the freedom of self-presentation, each of them claiming the status of eventfulness due to its uniqueness. Here, an event is any change in the static plot situation which is vitally important for a character (Tamarčenko 2008), but not for the world order;

4) probabilistic world picture (based on synergetics), concentrating on bifurcation points at which the story “forks.” Such points result from an unstable condition of the fictional world demanding a change that can, however, be different from the one reported in the story, meaning that the story could have unfolded in another way. Here, “an event is what could have been done differently” (Ricœur [1983] 1984: 97). At the same time, narrative “temporal schemes” may be only multiple virtual perspectives that unfold in the heart of the story in the direction of a possible but undefined horizon (Baroni 2010: 212). Eventfulness of this kind is based on a character’s responsibility for choosing one of the possible directions of the further course of life; however, in comparison to the imperative strategy, the unfolding of the chain of events cannot be assessed unambiguously because it correlates not with the norm of being but with its mystery.

Narrative Intrigue

A place that an addressee is strategically given by the author is determined by a narrative intrigue, i.e. narrative interest of the plot, a “human, sublunary” way of understanding what goes on (Veyne [1971] 1984). It connects the beginning of the story with its end and is based on our ability to trace a chain of narrated events. “In this sense, the Bible is a great intrigue of world history, and every literary intrigue is a sort of a miniature of a big intrigue that connects the Apocalypse with the Book of Genesis” (Ricœur 1984: 40; trans. V. T.). Understood as tension in a chain of events that arouses and realises certain readerly expectations, an intrigue is a configuration of episodes addressing the reader and implying familiarity with the narrative tradition. Intrigue in Ricœur’s understanding of the term is analogous to White’s (1973) “emplotment” and is linked to the category “plot.” Intrigue is not plot (sjuzhet) distinguished from story (fabula), as proposed by the Russian formalists, but an aspect of plot that addresses the reader’s receptive intentions.

When correlated with narrative modalities and world pictures, the basic modifications of narrative intrigue can be grouped as follows:

1) the retrospective intrigue of realisation takes place in a fairy tale or in a mythical narrative with the precedental world picture related in the modality of knowledge whose end is already known; the narrative interest at reception results from nuances of detail and the fabric of speech;

2) narrative with the imperative world picture presupposing the modality of conviction is paired with the didactic intrigue of necessity; narrative interest is concentrated on a positive or negative outcome of the sequence of events;

3) the occasional world picture of narrations in the modality of opinion motivates the intrigue of adventure; the receptive intention consists in the reader’s paradoxical expectation of the unexpected events that are supposed to occur in this kind of plots;

4) the heuristic intrigue of revelation of the unobvious is generated by the probabilistic world picture of narrations in the modality of understanding (cf. Doležel 1998).

The Unity of a Narrative Strategy

Discovering and analysing the generating mechanism of the communicative unity of the text requires a wide variety of narratological concepts. Basic complexes of discourse characteristics underlying a particular communicative aim include the above-mentioned strategies of choral harmony, monologic dominance, dialogic discordance and dialogic concordance. At the same time, the creative, referential and receptive characteristics of each of the strategies stipulate one another and reject alien characteristics of other strategies. Thus earlier narrative practices, up to the time of the literary classics of the 19th century, are monostrategic and the unity of a narrative strategy is provided by its uniqueness for the given text. In contrast, the non-traditional narrative practices of the 20th and 21st centuries are characterised by a trend towards polystrategic symbioses and eclectic unities of the narrative act. Unity is preserved thanks to the dominance of one of the complexes of narrative characteristics (i.e. complexes of a narrative modality, a narrative world picture and a narrative intrigue).

History of Study of the Phenomenon

It was Souvage (1965), in his study of the English novel, who first wrote about narrative strategies. A short but not quite clear definition of this category was proposed by Prince ([1987] 2003: 64): “In recounting a narrative, the set of narrative procedures followed or narrative devices used to achieve some specific goal.” This definition concerns not only narrative strategies, but also tactics. More recently, the term has become widespread, especially in Russian narratology. Narrative strategies are usually considered in the context of a given literary material (Kovalev 2009), sometimes less clearly named “authorial” (Andrianova 2011) or “literary” (Kibal’nik et al. 2008) strategies. However, this fundamental theoretical category is used in many studies on this topic merely to indicate particular features of the investigated text. On the other hand, Western narratology examines differences that can be characterised as strategic, using other terms such as “narrative modalities” (Doležel 1973; Ryan 1992), “suppositions” (Roussin 2010), etc. These various terms can be used to cover such fundamental characteristics of narrative discourse that are denoted with the widely used term “strategies.”

Each of the three interconnected aspects of a narrative strategy may be studied separately, and indeed, each of them (narrative modality, narrative world picture, narrative intrigue) has its own research history.

Scholarship devoted to “the illusion of skaz” (Ėjxenbaum 1924) and to the imitation of oral narration in literary form opened the way to interest in the unreliable narrator (Booth [1961] 1983), a narrator whose opinions cannot be taken at face value. Development of the categories of point of view (Doležel 1967; Uspenskij 1973) and focalization (Genette [1972] 1980; Bal 1977, [1985] 1997) has significantly broadened insights into narrativity (Abbott → Narrativity), while the emergence of the “new rhetoric” has contributed to a greater understanding of the broad spectrum of narrative modalities.

A significant role in developing the category of world picture was played by Lotman’s turn to the theory of eventfulness (Lotman [1970] 1977) and by Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyca’s (1958) typology of “rhetorical world pictures.”

By adopting the notion “implied reader” (Schmid → Implied Reader), narratology was able to turn to the analysis of modelling the addressee of narration by the text of the story. Significant input into this turn has been provided by historiography. By the term “emplotment,” White (1973: 7–8) meant imparting meaning to a story by combining the events comprising it into a single, universal or archetypical form. Following the same line of thought, Ricœur ([1984] 1985: 165) developed a system for examining the structure of a narrative against the reader’s life world. With reference to Baxtin, Genette, Lotman and Uspenskij, Ricœur ([1984] 1985: 159) adopted the notion of plot as proposed by the historian Veyne ([1971] 1984). Broadening and deepening this notion, Ricœur integrated into Aristotle’s “muthos” Augustine’s reflections on time, White’s “emplotment” and Frye’s (1957) “modalities.” At the same time, he stressed the addressive (Aristotle’s “catharsis”) and explaining functions of the plot, describing it as a “configuration” of episodes that calls for a responsive “refiguration” of the narrated story by a receptive consciousness.

Close attention to the receptive side of narration has resulted in putting the problem of its strategic purpose in the foreground. However, the study of narrative strategies as three foundational aspects of the communicative effectiveness of narrative has only recently begun to develop (Тjupa 2001, 2011, 2012; Žyličeva 2013). The term “narrative strategies” has not yet become widespread, but a need for this concept is becoming more evident.

Topics for Further Investigation

Systematic study of narrative strategies will show that their emergence and establishment in the communicative practice of telling stories is consistent and follows a historical pattern. A better understanding is required of the phases of narrative in the evolution of human thinking (e.g. Herman ed. 2011). This will serve as a basis for sound comparative research on the parallel historical lines of the development of oral and written works in different national languages. Addressing the category of narrative strategies may thus significantly broaden narratological knowledge by complementing its theoretical and analytical aspects with historical and comparative factors. Adopting the comparative methodology of Veselovskij’s historical poetics (Kemper 2013) would be an effective way to develop a research branch of historical (comparative) narratology.


Works Cited

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  • Тjupa, Valerij I. (2010). Diskursnye formacii: Očerki po komparativnoj ritorike [Očerk 5]. Moskva: Jazyki slavjanskoj kul’tury.
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  • Тjupa, Valerij I. (2012) “Narrativnaja strategija romana ‘Master i Margarita’.” Michail Bulhakow, jego czasy i my. Kraków: Scriptum, 337–47.
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  • Žyličeva, Galina A. (2013). Narrativnyje strategii v žanrovoj structure romana (na materiale russkoj prozy 1920-1950-x gg). Novosibirsk: NGPU.

Further Reading

  • Christoffersen, Rikke (2006). Narrative Strategies in the Novels of Erich Maria Remarque: A Focus on Perspective. Stirling: U of Stirling P.
  • Dunne, Michael (1995). Hawthorne’s Narrative Strategies. Oxford: U of Mississippi P.
  • Gillespie, Michael P. (1989). Reading the Book of Himself: Narrative Strategies in the Works of James Joyce. Columbus: Ohio State UP.
  • Morton, Peter (2006). “Narrative Strategies in the Fictive Diary.” Life Writing Symposium, 13–15 June 2006. Flinders: Flinders UP.
  • Niati, Justin S. (2012). Narrative Strategies in African Folktales: Revisiting the Russian Formalism Theory. Frederick: PublishAmerica.
  • Pollheide, Jens (2003). Postmodernist Narrative Strategies in the Novels of John Fowles. Bielefeld: Bielefeld UP.
  • Roston, Murray (2006). Graham Greene’s Narrative Strategies: A Study of the Major Novels. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Тjupa, Valerij I. (2006). “The Communicative Strategy of Chekhov’s Poetics.” J. Douglas Clayton (ed.). Chekhov: Poetics – Hermeneutics – Thematics. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 1–20.
  • Тjupa, Valerij I. (2009). “Communicative Strategy of the Anecdote and the Genesis of Literary Genres.” Russian Journal of Communication 2.3/4, 161–70.
  • Trieloff, Barbara A. (1984). “Absence supreme”: Narrative Strategies in Beckett’s Post-trilogy Prose. Hamilton: McMaster UP.
  • Weese, Katherine L. (2006). “The ‘Invisible’ Woman: Narrative Strategies in the Stone Diaries.” Journal of Narrative Theory 36.1, 90–120.
    (Translated by Inna Drach)

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