Narrative Across Media edited by Marie-Laure Ryan

by stronged

Marie-Laure Ryan has written extensively upon the topic of New Media’s impact upon narratology. In her chapter titled “Will New Media Produce New Narratives?” (pp. 337-359) she discusses her criteria for what makes a narrative become distinctly a new media digital work. I have noted down particular excerpts that I find are relevant to my research this year.


  • Katherine Hayles, who equates digital meaning with complexity, fragmentation, fluidity, resistance to totalization, aporia, paradox, emergence, or self-organizing capabilities…(Ryan, 337)
  • According to Ryan, there are five digital media properties that affect narrativity:
    1. Reactive and interactive nature – interactivity is a response to a deliberate user action.
    2. Multiple sensory and semiotic channels – “multimedia capabilities”
    3. Networking capabilities – digital media connect machines and people across space and bring them together in virtual environments.
    4. Digital texts can be refreshed and rewritten, without having to throw away the material support.
    5. Modularity – self-sufficient parts of an operating system that Manovich terms “fractal” (51). They can operate as stand-alone entities or function within a system of operation.
  • Korsakow seems to seep into the Ontological Involvement dichotomy, as the accumulation of each viewed SNU assembles a world that is completely distinct from your first or last time of viewing. The interactant has the choice of which SNU to select and therefore decides how they will create this world. It is clear they play out the external mode of interactivity, but Korsakow fulfils both the Exploratory and Ontological briefs when it comes to Ryan’s categorisation.
  • Global patter-making in one’s mind is strengthened from being exposed to narrative discourse. As each SNU is experienced a spatial representation begins to manifest in one’s mind, connections forging between similar or paradoxical imagery, etc. A type of place-making occurs in the “game of narration.”
  • Many scholars (for example, Davenport and Sloane) have indeed observed that hypertext is not a good medium for the creation of compelling plots that live from suspense and emotional participation in the fate of characters. (Ryan, 342) This is still achievable at a micro-level in the episodic nature of hypertextual narratives.
  • The type of topic and structure best suited to this idea of searching an archive will be collections of little stories, such as family sagas, narratives of cultural memory, local history (for instance, the communal story of a village) or biography. (Ryan, 343)
  • Grammatical elements:
  1. Semantics
    • Study of plot or story.
  2. Syntax
    • Study of discourse, narrative techniques
  3. Pragmatics
    • Study of the uses of storytelling and of the mode of participation of human agents in the narrative performance.
  • [A] matter of finding the right fit between the medium and the form and substance of the narrative content. (Ryan, 356)



David Bordwell has also participated in this publication, submitting a chapter titled “Neo-Structuralist Narratology and the Functions of Filmic Storytelling” (pp.203-219). Bordwell’s criticism about recent cinema theorist’s notion to perceive cinema in a neo-structuralist manner centres upon three main points of debate:

  1. An ‘excessively atomistic conception of narrative devices’
  2. An ‘assemblage based approach to the films that manifest those devices’, and
  3. ‘An implausible conception of how spectators make sense of narrative.’ (204)

Bordwell makes a convincing argument in his first chapter, illustrating that a shot is not necessarily a narrative unit by using the single-shot manipulation of time in both Playtime (1967) and The Only Son (1936)as an example.

In the second chapter Bordwell highlights the narrowing of particular theorists (Metz, Gaudreault and Jost) view, imploring that film analysis must look across a broad range of film in order to formulate particular narrative assemblages and functional systems. There is no use in just analysing one stand alone film for a canonical context is as important as the deconstruction of specific features.


Neo-structuralist narratology is in this sense “feature centred.” It thereby differs from a family of narrative theories I shall call “formal/functionalist.” (203)

Once we understand that it [the fork] serves to spear food and cut it into morsels, we understand certain design features better. (203)

— Ready-at-hand functionalist approach

…[A] functional explanation: we analyze the artifact’s overall form and explain it in light of the purposes we take it to be trying to fulfil. (204)

— Holistic, functionalist, systemic (205)

Gaudreault calls a ‘micro-narrative’ a single shot (205)

A shot is a series of images; a narrative is a series of events and states of affairs. (205)

“Focalization” ‘is at times optically subjective, at times independent of character knowledge.’ (205)

[A] shot as a material unit carries no commitments to the sort of narrative relations it might represent. (206)

[D]isjunctions of time and space are often covered by cuts. (206)

Gaudreault and Jost suggest that the isolated shot is limited to mere monstration…”The film in a single shot…does not and cannot engage with problems of linearity and continuity of action…It is only when the film presupposes more than one shot that it must resolve problems relative to the homogeneity of the plot” (Francois Jost quoted by Bordwell)

These instances suggest that we do grasp a film’s temporality not wholly through shots and sequences but also through relevant action schemas – the knowledge structures that enable us to recognise and categorise what we see on the screen. (208)

[T]reat films as agglomerates of distinct moments in which those figures get instantiated. (208)

[E]nunciation is “the semiological act by which certain parts of a text speak to us of this text as an act” (Christian Metz quoted by Bordwell, 208)

[A] formal/functionalist approach can usefully start from the premise that a film operates as a whole, its individual parts playing determinate roles in a larger pattern. (209) + there are ‘holistic patterns recurring across a body of films. (209)

— Time-criticality

If the individual figure is not graspable in isolation, then only by assuming some sense of functionality can the spectator infer its meaning “from context.” (210)

[T]heorist needs to consider the possibility that some narrational functions are features of entire texts. (210)

[T]he beginning of any scene or sequence is likely to be more self-conscious in its narration than the middle portions of that unit. Thus, the spectator is guided to move from overt, self-conscious presentation to covert, character-centred presentation. (210)

As the narration becomes more covert, it distinguishes between the background exposition and the particular events that initiate the plot. (211)

[T]he neo-structuralist perspective…tends to look for isolable aspects of the film, treating it as a static array whose elements and relationships may be subsumed within a paradigm of differences. (212)

[D]evices that might seem anomalous from a feature-centred perspective may make sense from a design stance. (212)


– Aarseth, Espen. Cybertext. Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

– Davenport, Glorianna. “Your Own Virtual Storyworld.” Scientific American (November 2000): 79-82.

– Koskimaa, Raine. Digital Literature. “From Text to Hypertext and Beyond.” Ph.D. diss., University of Jyvåskylå (Finland), 2000.

– Landow, Ray. The Age of Spiritual Machines. New York: Viking, 1999.

– Sloane, Sarah. Digital Fictions: Storytelling in a Material World. Stamford CT: Ablex, 2000.


– Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space.