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The Four Story Forms: Drama / Film / Comic Strip / Narrative

Author(s): George H. Thomson

Source: College English, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Nov., 1975), pp. 265-280
Published by: National Council of Teachers of English
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/375657
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The Four Story Forms:




the four story forms psychologically


to appropriate

subjective and objective modes of experience. These two modes of experience

in their creative tension determine some of the essential characteristics of each
story form. Experience which is private and mediated by the pleasure principle
comprises the subjective mode. It is the mode of wish fulfillment, though the
experience has not in the manner of fantasy cut loose from reality. Experience
which is public and mediated by the reality principle comprises the objective
mode. These two modes, complementary and contrasting, form the matrix for
each imitative story type. They are, in their counterpoise, the psychological
forces which underlie each story form. Thus for drama the subjective mode of
play with its spontaneous self-expression and the objective mode of purposeful
action with its deliberate self-expression are the bases of a dynamic tension which
is reflected in the special character of the events on stage. Part of that character
is the intentional quality of drama, a quality which in turn is related to the
dominance of clock time and the predominance of events arranged in a chronological-causal order, here defined as plot. I set these conclusions out in two tables
which the reader may refer to now or at the end of the essay.












Spontaneous self-

Deliberate self-expression






I-centered visual

Other-centered visual







Self viewed as omnipotent subject

Other viewed as
glimpsed subject


(of Events)

A recalling (telling)
to oneself


(of Events)

A telling (recalling)
to another

George H. Thomson is Professor of English at the University of Ottawa and author of

The Fiction of E. M. Forster (Wayne State Univ. Press, 1967). His special interests are theories
of fiction and story making.
Vol. 37, No. 3 * November






The first table specifies, under the modes subjective and objective, two categories of experience essential to each story form. In the first instance, if we ask
what subjective and what objective experience in life most resembles drama, the
answer will be play and purposeful action, defined from the point of view of
the participant as, respectively, spontaneous self-expression and deliberate selfexpression. Play and purposeful action are not the explicit subject matter of
drama. Rather they stand for an inherent tension in life which, when translated
into art, determines the unique character of drama. A similar life tension between
the subjective and objective modes, but arising from different categories of experience in each case, dictates the special character of film, comic strip, and narrative.

















(in units)






The second table specifies the defining quality, the prevailing time, and the
typical arrangement of events which are characteristic of each form. These three
factors are closely related. In addition, the prevailing time of the story form
applies to the subjective and objective modes of experience as specified in table
one. Thus in respect to drama, clock time dominates both play and purposeful
action; in respect to narrative, psychological time prevails in the personal memory
of events and in public discourse concerning events. One need not be conscious
of this temporal factor for one's experience to be structured by it.
The subjective mode of experience which informs drama is play; the objective
mode is purposeful action. The two can be seen to have in common an intense
self-involvement in which the existence of spectators is at once necessary and
irrelevant. Out of this emerges one of drama's most salient characteristics, the
impersonality of the relationship between the spectator and the stage. That is
why the spectator does not mind sharing the viewing space. Indeed, the fact that
typically an action is being deliberately carried forward without regard to the
individual observer practically demands an audience to justify the performance
and, what is more important, to guarantee to the observer that the creation proceeding on stage is indifferent to his individuality. The drama is most at home
in the context of the semi-impersonal group or the assembled community.
A cinema audience differs from a theater audience in that it is a practical
rather than an artistic necessity. Nevertheless in the cinema one may share the

The Four Story Forms 267

experience of the film in a way hardly possible in the theater. This is because a
kind of personal identification pertains between the viewer and the imaged life on
the screen. If at the same time a personal relationship exists between two viewers,
they will be able through their private communication to share in some degree
the screen experience with which they have identified. In the theater, the impersonality of the relationship between spectator and play does not encourage such
private communication.

I turn now to the tension between the spontaneous wish-fulfilling self-expression

of play and the deliberate reality-oriented self-expression of purposeful action.
This tension is a root element of drama. On the one hand, the players come
before us committed to the now of a spontaneous enactment, facing an unknown
future which they and we are about to see happen. On the other hand, all the
characters in their stage world intentionally create what is for them a finality and
for us a revelation. Neither we nor they are there by accident. All are there by
appointment, and for the actors it is an appointment with destiny. They deliberately present themselves that they may meet that destiny. And we deliberately
present ourselves that we may behold it. The total effect is ritualistic.
I specify the defining quality of drama as intentional. The self-expression and
repetitiveness of play have a kind of wilful commitment to the spontaneous. This
intentional quality is the deeper source of the ritual character of the drama.
Moreover, wilful commitment to the spontaneous in combination with deliberate
commitment to an action of set purpose (deliberate self-expression) defines in a
satisfactory way the dual basis of drama's special quality. This quality is related
to the simple fact, insisted upon by Brunetiere, that in a play it is necessary for
someone to exercise his will. But I am suggesting that the intentional quality
goes deeper than this obvious need, that it is the direct outgrowth of drama's
roots in the psychic counterpoise of wish and will.
Each story form, as well as having its distinctive quality, such as intentionality
in the case of drama, is marked by a special embodiment of time and a characteristic arrangement of events. There are four categories of time: the future; the
present, not yet perceived; the immediate past, perceived as present; and the
past. The "past" of immediate awareness has been called many things. E. R. Clay
named it the specious present. William James in The Principles of Psychology
said that
the practically cognized present is no knife-edge, but a saddle-back,with a certain
breadth of its own on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two
directions into time. The unit of composition of our perception of time is a
duration, with a bow and a stern, as it were-a rearward- and a forward-looking

This unit of composition, which is forever changing as new perceptions enter

forward and old ones drop away rearward, does not extend beyond about a
dozen seconds. Anything further away in time appears not as fading present but
as the past recalled.
From this follows the important rule that in perception and in temporal art,
1New York: Henry Holt, 1927,I, 609.



past and future can be recognized as such only when they have entered the
specious present. Except in hallucinatory experience and sometimes in dream,
we are always aware of past memories and future imaginings as encroaching upon
the durational unit of the specious present. The same law holds for our perception
of the experience represented in stories, but with this proviso. If our attention
is directed from a now event to a past event and does not return quickly to the
now, then in our perception the past will, for the time being, become the present.
All stories of whatever type, whether drama, film, comic strip, or narrative, are
inexorably tied to the specious present. They differ in the ease and flexibility with
which reference to past or future is available and in the capacity to shift the
representational now from one time to another.
The passing of time is indicated by change. Change is recognized when two
perceptions which were not experienced simultaneously are simultaneously present
to the mind. Though the passing of time is not observable in itself, it is fundamental to all four story forms. What distinguishes one from another is the
character of the time passing.
The time of drama is the stage present. Viewed as a whole the action of a play
is a continuum stretching from past to future and subject to the laws of clock
time. Some modification is, of course, the rule; the continuum is usually broken
into pieces, often with distinct time lapses in between, and the pieces are not
necessarily arranged in a chronological progression. Nonetheless, the temporal
order of purposeful action and of more or less causal sequence is fundamental. The
ritual character of drama relates to its presentation by arrangement before a
communal audience; it has little influence on drama's treatment of time. Ritual,
though it must utilize time as a medium, refuses to be dominated by it. But drama
accepts the rule of time and the pervasive sense of temporal and causal sequence.
Knowing this, some contemporary writers have exploited the time-bound character of drama by radically distorting it to create special effects.
I have included the future as part of the dramatic continuum because at any
point in a play all that is to come has the character of futurity. (There are, of
course, technical exceptions to this.) Susanne Langer has suggested that drama
is future oriented, whereas narrative points to the past and film to the present. I
would rather say simply that in the normal case drama invites us to expect that
the immediate future in our experience will coincide with the immediate future
of the persons on stage. Film, comic strip, and narrative, in their looser treatment of
temporal sequence, do not so strongly encourage such an expectation.
In giving a name to the arrangement of events in each of drama, film, comic
strip, and narrative, I have tried to be plain and descriptive: plot, scenario, layout,
story. As far as possible I have distinguished between plot as the logical order
of events in time and story as the actual order of the events as told or acted. The
logical and actual order are rarely identical, whether in a play, a film, or a novel.
So both words are needed in describing any specific work. But the fear of adding
to the terminological clutter of narrative theory has induced me to use the terms
plot and story in a second and somewhat different way. Plot refers generally to
the order of events found in drama. Though by no means always the same as the
logical order in time, the events of drama are typically much closer to such an

The Four Story Forms 269

order than the events of film, comic strip, or narrative. Moreover, drama frequently achieves a logical arrangement of a secondary kind. The chronological
plot of Oedipus Rex, beginning with the prophecy at the time of the hero's birth,
can be reconstructed from Sophocles' text. But the actual play has its own plot,
telling how Oedipus searches out the truth about the plague and about his own
past. It is a plot moderately logical in development and strictly chronological in
order. This secondary kind of arrangement asserts itself not so much because the
dramatist intends it as because the theater requires it. Thus, without doing too
great violence to the terms, one may regard plot as the best word to designate
the characteristic arrangement of events in drama. With similar rough justice,
story may serve for narrative.
At the same time story must serve for all four forms here discussed. We speak
of pictures, facts, actions, and persons "telling" a story. We have no other word
that applies in all those contexts where a sequence of events takes place.

The motion picture is outside of nature. It offers a perceptual experience-and
I speak now of structure rather than content-which could not be encountered
without mechanical contrivance. The uniqueness of the experience centers in the
relation of the viewer to the screen images. The question to ask is: What
phenomena in life help the film maker to create and the viewer to interpret this
unique experience?

On the subjective side is dream; on the objective, voyeuristic viewing. The

second half of this proposition may seem bizarre; but it is not improbable in
view of the following reflections: first, Peeping Tom, though perverse, is universal in his inclination to glimpse the forbidden; second, film as an artificial art
form can be expected to rely on a somewhat unusual mode of experience; and
third, since the subjective mode of dream is abnormal by waking standards, a
similar quality can be expected in its objective counterpart.
The contrast between dream and voyeuristic viewing is expressed in film as a
tension between I-centered and Other-centered visual experience. An outstanding
feature of dream is the way the subject, the sleeper in his visual imagination, has at
all times a direct relation to the dream material. This relation is not affected by
whether or not the subject is himself the principle character in the dream. No
matter the content, he is always in a special way central. The voyeur, too, is in
a peculiar way central. What he sees would be hidden, forever lost from sight,
were it not for his deliberate effort to bring it within his view. Yet the point of
his enterprise is the apartness, the inacessibility, the otherness of what is seen.
Film expropriates the I-centered immediacy of dream (which in waking life
can only be experienced unconsciously) and the fascination of looking secretly
at what one feels to be "other." The tension between these elements is heightened
in our experience by the special nature of visual perception. Taste, smell, and touch,
we know, take place inside or on the surface of the body; hearing, though the
outside source of the sound is important, is recognized as a process within the
head; but sight is experienced as complete projection. The object, looked at, seems



to be apart from the viewer and, in its absolute existence, to compel his attention.
All the story forms make the best use they can of this fact; the film wholeheartedly
capitalizes on it. The compelling quality of the visual in film brings together in
a waking state the unique experiences of dreamer and voyeur.
The dreamer, though he participates in an awareness of the self, feels totally
enclosed and absorbed within his illusory world. The voyeur, aware of his own
secret presence, is precariously located outside his compelling visual world. Film
exploits this tension between dreamlike total absorption and voyeuristic otherness. Yet it is difficult to give a useful account of the tension since it does not
correspond to any one thing in our normal experience.
What the I-centered nature of dream and the Other-centered nature of voyeuristic viewing have in common is the compelling power of the visual. This power
is so intense that the defining quality of film can best be described as compulsive.
The word does not exaggerate. It is well known that a person cannot maintain
deep concentration for a long period and that even the normal attention span of
a well adjusted adult is quite short. The film, with stunning virtuosity, defies
this kind of personal weakness and, by fixing the viewer's gaze on perpetually
moving images, relentlessly holds it there.
Drama, too, is a visual medium, but one that must accommodate itself to normal
human limits. It must not attempt to keep its audience intensely involved through
a whole act, for if it does they will turn resentful or collapse in irritation. It must
rather let them off, let them down from time to time, allow for casual moments
between the peaks. What are the reasons for this difference from film? First, one
of the rarest phenomena in the theater is silence. Drama devolves into dialogue,
into sound, and aural attention is more difficult to sustain than visual. Second,
movement is limited in drama, not only because it interferes with dialogue but
because the stage is inherently restrictive. Hence the spectator's attention is prone
to fixate and soon tire.
Film as a medium is far more visual. The screen becomes a defined universe
of movement by persons, by things, and by the camera itself in all its incomparable flexibility and range. The viewer seems one with the camera. "It is the
spectator's mind that moves," says Ernest Lindgren in The Art of the Film.2
This is true so long as one stresses the word mind. In dream there is perfect
freedom of movement though the actual body of the sleeper is at rest; in film
there is unqualified freedom of movement by means of visual perception though
the body is at rest in a seat. But in dream, knowledge of the actual body is
unconscious or pre-conscious whereas in the cinema it is conscious. The result
is a peculiar sensation in which vision tells the spectator he is moving while other
organs of perception tell him he is not. I relate this sensation to the unique tension
of film and its paradoxical nature for the viewer, who is both master and slave of
the screen images, at once observer of them and absorbed in them.
Faced with the experience of moving yet not moving, of being one with the
images of the screen yet an observer, and faced with the irreversible sweep of
pictorial movement, the viewer is kept busy formulating new gestalts to accommo2London: Alien and Unwin, 1948, p. 92.

The Four Story Forms 271

date the continual changes before him. Since the discovery of visual pattern and
significance is usually experienced as a projection, as the apprehending of a form
inherent in the things looked at, it would be logical to suppose that the film would
leave the impression of being entirely independent of the response or contribution
of the viewer. Yet this is not so. Indeed Eisenstein thought the film unique in
that "the spectator is drawn into a creative act."3 What made Eisenstein think
viewing a creative act? What saves the spectator from the sensation of drowning
in an unending sea of images? First, the absorption, the sense of being taken up
into the film and sustained, so that the viewer is one with his projections. Second,
the dislocation in his sensations of movement which establishes a quite unique
awareness of the self. And third, the unrelenting need for new gestalts, a need
which stimulates attention.
From this discussion has emerged the answer to the question of how the film
holds our attention decisively for long periods of time. In contrast to drama,
film institutes rapid change in the visual point of fixation; the spectator's own
mind moves, and the angle of vision changes frequently. The effect of one gestalt
following fast upon another and of the eye moving quickly from one focus to
another sustains attention vividly for a longer time than is usual in life or art.
Though this attention is made possible by the continuous relief of change, the
quality of the attention, far from being changeable, is compulsive.
What is equally striking, the persons on the screen share this imperative quality.
Because the viewer is so ruthlessly gripped by the now of film time, the characters
who participate in that now appear to act not out of the past, as they would do
in drama, but out of the urgent needs of the present. Their responses, though
compatible with their already established patterns of behavior, give the impression
of being dictated by the immediate situation and hence of being compulsive in
nature. I may add that this is a general statement. A specific film may make a point
of showing that a character acts out of his past. In that case there will be a
sustained and possibly a creative tension between the subject matter and the
inherent tendency of the medium.
In the arranging of episodes and of the shots which make up an episode, film
has much of the flexibility of narrative, though it cannot move about in time
with comparable ease. I have called this cinematic arrangement of events a
scenario. When a film is set down in print, it seems bare and abstract. When
it is translated to the screen by a creative director, it takes on that incomparable
fluidity characteristic of motion picture order and sequence. As a result of this
fluidity, film is wholeheartedly committed to the specious present. Persons and
objects move; the camera (the eye of the beholder) moves; and the combination
of the two is intensified by the fact that the body is at rest. The viewer, occupied
in making sense of a continuous stream of images, has scarcely a moment to
reflect on past or future except in so far as they are directly brought to his
attention by the immediate events on the screen. And because he has no choice
but to shift in time as the stream carries him, even a flashback loses its pastness and
becomes the present.
3The FilmnSense (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1942), p. 33.



Our normal perception of duration is extremely vague, and in moments of

excitement or deep attention it may entirely disappear. We have a lively awareness of duration only when we urgently wish our present state to change or
self-consciously wish it not to change. The film resembles life in the way it gives
rise to durational perceptions ranging all the way from non-awareness to the
intense consciousness of agonized suspense. But the typical quality of the viewer's
awareness of film time is influenced by two special considerations. The first is the
fact that the eye and mind of the spectator move while his body remains at rest
which, though it has nothing directly to do with time, contributes a peculiar
motor-sensory quality to the experience as it takes place in time. The second
factor is the compelling, attention-fixing movement of the screen images, movement which narrows and heightens the normal time span of the specious present.
The viewer is impelled to give all his attention to the flying wedge of the present.
The past falls rapidly away. We may say, then, that the film is dominated by the
continuous durational flow of the specious present, that this perceived present is
more sharply and narrowly focused than in life, and that it is colored by a unique
motor-sensory quality.
The compulsive quality of film action and of our response to its narrowed and
intensified present time makes it especially appropriate for representing irresistible
irrational states and hypnotic dreamlike behavior. When compulsive action is
attempted by other story forms its irresistible quality runs the risk of appearing
frenzied on stage and exhausting in narrative. (Faulkner takes this risk and usually
wins.) When the hypnotic is essayed by drama the danger is trancelike boredom
as the spectator's fixated point of view makes contact with a fixated subject.
(The dreamlike, being thoroughly subjective, is admirably suited to narrative.)
Film has an inherent defense against all these dangers-it is the motion picture.
By its irresistible onward flow, it spares us alike from frenzy and sleep. And if
the director stops the flow in an attempt to hold our attention unwaveringly
before some horrendous or some hypnotic action, the process will be effective
for a short time only. Then we will grow indifferent. Having experienced the
continuous variety and heightened awareness of the specious present, we will
not for long settle for anything less exhilarating.
In sum, film is used to most advantage in dramas of psychological disorder,
tragedies of fate, and historical spectacles implying irresistible destiny. It is also
good for fast-paced action, either serious or slap-stick, and especially for comedy
exploiting the mechanical and compulsive. It is not so well suited to humor,
which requires generosity in the matter of time.
Comic Strip

Of all the story forms, the comic strip seems the most visual because it is so
nearly pictorial in presentation. The subjective mode of experience on which it
relies is day-dream, the objective mode glimpsed action in which the Other is
viewed as glimpsed subject. The result is a sequence of glimpses with stereotyped
projections. When a person catches momentary sight of an action he involuntarily
completes the action in his mind, filling out what must have come before and after.

The Four Story Forms 273

And when he sees an object very briefly, if it arouses any interest at all because
of its incipient attractiveness or repulsiveness, he then projects onto it an additional
glamor or horror according to the needs and wishes of his own mind. A glimpse
is inherently tantalizing and invites completion. Something glimpsed always
appears dynamic-even though it may be a static object-because the action of
completion in the viewer's mind is transferred to the thing perceived. That is why
with respect to the comic strip the objective mode of experience is glimpsed
action. The viewer's mind creates action.
The mind also involuntarily transforms things glimpsed into images of desire or
horror. It therefore relies on what is most readily at hand, the familiar and
typical. For this reason glimpsed action proceeds by means of stereotypes. Even
when such images are subject to unconscious influence and are on that account
charged with an unusual intensity and significance, they will still maintain their
surface appearance as stereotypes.
The daydream portrays the self or those who are intimate projections of the
self as omnipotent subject. It is a narrative of fulfilled desires, with minimal
accommodation to the reality principle. It is not concerned with details, unless
they are gratifying. It cannot afford to insist on careful development such as is
found in the action of drama. Instead it is a sequence of highlights with stereotyped characters.
All the same, the daydream does not give the impression of being casually
organized. It conveys a strong impression of sequence and a peculiar feeling
that the sequence is both arbitrary and inevitable. One does not seem to determine
the course of events or choose one action in preference to another; yet the events
of the daydream, far from being haphazard, move towards a destined fulfillment
in accordance with one's subjective inclinations. The word to describe this course
of events is involuntary. Daydream is involuntary because it is determined but
not consciously willed. It exploits the familiar and the accessible, only requiring
that these conform to the images of desire. The characters and events are stereotypes, even including the omnipotent self who is at the center of the action. Such
stereotypes are socially conditioned patterns by means of which we simplify,
comprehend, and master the complexities of experience. The stereotypes of daydream are more personally mediated and subjective than the reality-tied projections
of glimpsed action.
The comic strip itself takes over the sequence of highlights typical of daydream structure and proceeds to represent them as a sequence of glimpsed actions.
A typical comic strip panel resembles a glimpsed action in that it is not static. It
presents its characters at one or more stages of a process which is not otherwise
represented. Often it will show a first character in an early phase and a second
in a later phase of a complex process of interaction. Or again, such a process may
be represented through a single character by showing his facial expression at one
stage and his bodily expression at another.
The comic strip divides action into a series of arbitrary units and each panel
aims to represent not just the most important moment in that unit of action but
as much as possible of the process of action making up the unit. In other words,
the comic strip artist gives pictorial representation to the involuntary projections



which characterize the mind's response to glimpsed action. The representation

is acceptable because the process is familiar to the reader and because the reader
is invited to continue the process, to carry out his own involuntary projections
which will complete the glimpsed action. In the nature of things, the reader is
not usually aware of the involuntary character of his responses.
Because the comic strip works principally with highlights it has no satisfactory
means of handling intricate actions, and lacks the resources to develop complex
characters. The comic strip must depend on clearly articulated plot lines and
strongly marked character types. This makes it suitable for stories of suspense
and adventure and for the sustained variables of domestic trauma (soap opera).
On account of its well defined unchanging characters, it is also suited to comic
art, but that is a topic I cannot enter into here.
Comic strip action of the serious kind has a peculiar quality very like that of
daydream. The characters are stereotypes, relatively simple and rigidly unchanging. Their behavior, which is essentially involuntary, appears both decisive and
spontaneous, deliberate and casual. It seems spontaneous because the actions are
immediate and unpremeditated; it seems deliberate because it expresses fixity of
character and leads-without the characters being themselves aware of it-to an
inevitable conclusion.
This may seem to put the case too strongly. After all, the comic strip thrives
on the unexpected, the sensational, the exaggerated. But these things, it seems to
me, are no more than the exuberant flourishes made possible by the unqualified
certitudes of the well conducted strip with its discernible plot lines and with its
unalterable heroes and heroines (subject only to temporary changes such as
amnesia) who carry, through all their vicissitudes, that magic counter-good luck,
good looks, good will, good something-which saves them, no matter how devastating the dangers, from permanent grief.
Varied yet unchanging, full of surprise yet inevitable, spontaneous yet determined, casual yet deliberate: such are the paradoxes of the comic strip created
in the mode of daydream and characterized by involuntariness. Not only are the
actions of the characters involuntary and the end towards which they move
involuntarily achieved but the reader in looking at the individual panels involuntarily fills in the action on either side of the glimpsed moment and, where necessary, between the time units represented by the panels.
The comic strip resembles painting in that the individual panel, like the
individual picture, is not a snapshot capturing a single moment but a subtle
representation of several phases in a time unit. We react to these phases within the
panel as though they were glimpsed actions which we imaginatively complete. The
act of projection is dependent for its content on our previous perceptual experience, but the projection is not itself subject to the usual law of perception, namely
that motion is a sequence of differing states. The projection, freed from the
limitations of the eye, assumes the quality of passage. It creates the illusion of
movement and the flow of time.
In this respect the comic strip resembles the film and for the same essential
reason. "It is the spectator's mind that moves." But in the comic strip only a few
moments of a time unit are objectified and from these the mind creates the move-

The Four Story Forms 275

ment and flow which comprise the complete duration of the time unit. The mind,
by means of a projection which is the more powerful for being involuntary,
attributes motion to the images on the page. The prevailing time in the comic
strip as in the film is the specious present with the sense of duration heightened and
So far, however, only the effect of the individual panel has been considered.
No reader of the comics can have failed to notice how the transition from one
panel to the next is often drastic. Characters are regrouped, the angle of vision
is reversed, or a completely new scene is sprung on the reader. In other words,
the comic strip does not attempt continuous passage. Taking its cue from daydreams, the strip creates a series of highlights. It is the spectator's own mind that
moves or at least projects motion within the individual panel, but between panels
the reader is as immobile as a spectator in the theater. The scene is changed before
his eyes; the angle from which he sees is determined for him. Here the comic
strip with its sequence of fixed points of view offers a parallel with the drama.
This factor is greatly outweighed, however, by the illusions of motion and
duration within the individual panel,which show the comic strip to be far more
significantly related to the film.
When the specious present of comic strip and film are compared, one difference
is apparent. In film we are compulsively drawn into each present moment by the
changing nature of the screen images. Their visual impermanence is the source
of their power. In comic strip we are involuntarily gripped by each panel or by
each phase of action within a panel. On top of that, nonetheless, we have the
satisfaction in "reading" the comic strip of seeing before our eyes its sequential
layout, we have the pleasure of beholding slabs of the present. The pictorial
nature of the strip, its visual permanence, reinforces the sense of presentness.
One conclusion to be drawn from these facts is that neither comic strip nor
film is as suspense-oriented as has commonly been supposed. Though they both
utilize suspense, they typically involve us more in the question of what is coming
now than in the question of what will be coming next.
A similar point may be made about narrative, but for precisely the opposite
reason. Narration concerns what has happened. It is mediated by the human voice
of a narrator, by psychological time, and by implicit analogies with memory. It
is more concerned to explore, to show, to interest, than to arouse suspense. No
one would deny that narrative may be excruciatingly suspenseful. But that is not
its forte. After all, it's possible to read the last chapter, and just as possible to
realize that one is being deliberately manipulated by the narrator who all the
while he is stirring up intense curiosity has the future instantly within his
That leaves drama as the only inherently suspenseful story form, an appropriate
conclusion since it is the one form dominated by clock time. The quality of suspense is balanced in the theater by the ritual sense of events being deliberately
acted out. Drama has in its incentional nature a force to counterbalance the cheap
exploitation of suspense. Because the other story forms lack this inherent safeguard,
they may more easily abuse their medium and their readers or viewers by cultivating an anxious regard for what will happen next.




By virtue of its non-visual character, narrative belongs to a much larger category

which extends from lyric to rhetoric. The subjective mode of experience informing this large verbal grouping is memory of all kinds, including the useful; and
the objective mode is discourse, which by definition is intentional. But in this
place we are concerned with a specific verbal form, narrative. It has for its
subjective mode a personal memory of events or a recalling to oneself, and for
its objective mode a discourse concerning events or a telling to others.
The two modes of telling involve a contrast between personally mediated recalling of events and publicly mediated recalling of events. The schemata of
memory are conditioned through language, custom, and institution. In personal
memory the social stereotypes concerning the self and others are subject to
individualizing personal mediation, especially as time more and more removes the
recalled event from the actualities of its origin. In public discourse concerning
events, the stereotypes are submitted to the view of others. Such public medliation encourages conformity to social expectation. Narrative as a literary type,
whether oral or written, is sustained by this tension between private and public
telling, between the personally mediated wish-oriented memory and the publicly
mediated socially oriented memory.
Memory is the way we accommodate our experience to our self-image. This
is true not only for private life but for historical and cultural life as well. Without
memory, there can be no history and no group consciousness. Memory filters
our private or our group experience and gives it the human shape of a self telling
or a public telling. Language, which could not exist without memory, is one of the
principal ways we conceptualize and communicate this human shape. And language, as an instrument of shaping, is so powerful that it exerts a pervasive
formal influence in its own right. This filtering and shaping character which
memory and language together give to story-telling is one of my reasons for
proposing as the distinguishing feature of narrative its intimate quality. My
other reason for designating it as intimate is even more compelling. As a wholly
verbal medium, it is the only form of story-making that communicates to us
exclusively with a human voice.
This does not imply that narrative is chummy or underdistanced. Rather it is
intimate because in its non-visualness it is open to our imagining, because the laws
of psychological time are built into it just as they are built into our subjective
experience, and because its story structures often parallel the structures of personal memory. These factors, in conjunction with a human voice, shape our
Even more important, the characters and events by reason of the medium of
their presentation are in their very natures distinctly intimate-more intimate
than they would be for instance if we could imagine them translated to the stage.
In all four of the story forms the mode of presentation has a direct influence
on the characters and events portrayed. The intentional quality of drama describes
not just the theater medium but the nature of the characters and their actions.
The compulsive quality of film and the involuntary quality of comic strip are in

The Four Story Forms 277

each case similarly correlated with the nature of character and action. The intimacy of narrative, inherent in a form which speaks exclusively with a human
voice and which takes its patterns from personal and public memory, is likewise
expressed in the persons of the story and the manner of their actions.
Narrative is marked by its ability to encompass an amazing range of subject
matter. Why, we ask, is it so much more effective than drama in representing
on the one hand the multifarious and intricate details of visible reality and on the
other hand the improbable, the bizarre, and the utterly fantastic? J. R. R. Tolkien,
in his essay on the fairy story, answers the question by contrasting drama with
pure story-making. At the same time he points to the way the scope of narrative
is directly related to its intimacy.
The radical distinction between all art (including drama) that offers a visible
presentation and true literature is that it imposes one visible form. Literature

works from mind to mind....

It is at once more universal and more poignantly
particular. ... If a story says "he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley
below" . . . every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be

made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has even seen.4

The personal way a hearer pictures each element of a story according to his
own experience and imagination and fantasy life may explain the great freedom
of narrative and its capacity to treat an extraordinary range of material in a rich
variety of styles.
We may look at this freedom from another angle too. Drama is a transaction
between the stage and the audience in which the actors are both the principal
subject matter (the characters) and the principal instrument of the transaction.
Hence, if the subject is improbable, the instrument must be improbable. The role
of the story-teller is very different. In the transaction between him and his listeners, he is the instrument whereby the narrative reaches them, but he is not
himself the subject of his own discourse. (The reader will be aware of certain
complications which are here left aside. He will notice also that from a linguistic
point of view the narrator is indeed the subject of his discourse.) Hence the
events recounted may be unlikely or even fantastic without detracting from the
convincing presence of the story-teller or from the reality of his relations with
the listener. This is most obvious in oral narrative where the social presence of
the singer is real and constant, however much the value of his performance may
fluctuate according to the worth assigned to his individual songs. But in written
fiction too, the author-narrator-though he may be hidden from view-is always
a felt presence.
It is undeniably true that the author-narrator may strike the reader as inconsistent, unreliable, trivial, or any number of other unappealing things, and
that recent fiction has exploited this possibility for a great variety of effects. But
the essential point remains, that the reader can make such judgments because
he has a sense of the narrator as distinct from his story and as existing in his own
right. This awareness is often unconscious and that may explain why recognition
is followed by an impression of the story-teller either as strangely all-pervading
4Tree and Leaf (London: Alien and Unwin, 1964), p. 67.



in the narrative or as mysteriously both present and absent. To be more precise

than this about the effect created by the story-teller's existence would require one
to pass from the psychology of the author-reader relationship to a linguistic
The consequence for the reader of recognizing the story-teller as a pervasive
presence is readily illustrated by a comparison with the theater. The universe
of drama exists only through the action and the action exists only through the
characters. The universe of narrative exists only through the narrator, whether
he is the omniscient author, the less than omniscient observer, or his mask, one or
a series of characters within the narrative. The action of drama determines our
point of view. We see for ourselves what is. The narrator of fiction determines
our point of view. We see for the narrator what is. The dramatist may place a
commentator on the stage, he may obviously designate one of the participants
in the action as his spokesman, but he cannot alter the basic convention of the
theater. The narrator may strive for supreme objectivity, he may use dialogue to
the exclusion of almost everything else, but he cannot alter the basic convention
of the narrative. The one displays an action; the other tells a story. The dramatist
has no alternative but to project a universe through action. The story-teller has
no alternative but to project a universe which embraces action, a universe of
which his own inclusive perspectives are the defining edges.
Drama catches up its audience in the inexorable sweep of clock time; film
(and comic strip too) confines its viewers to an intensely focused durational
present; but narrative invites its readers to enter a private world in which time
is entirely flexible. The story-teller may intervene whenever it pleases him. The
future, so far as our experience goes, is what he chooses to say next. As a consequence his narrative is an expression of psychological time. A chapter may be
consumed in representing a minute or two of experience; years may sift by in a
few pages; descriptions may be essentially timeless. As for the reader, he may
spend an hour with a story and have no notion of the passing seconds. Narrative
is significantly free of the world's time. For this reason concentration is not, as
it is in drama, first a question of two or three hours in the theater, and next of
compactness and intensity of action. The quality of concentration in narrative
is much more subjective. If a story can hold the reader's attention, its length,
elaborateness, or looseness of structure need not detract from the illusion it creates
of significance and emotional power and climax. (As for the oral singer, his
performance is before a much more casual and social audience than that assembled
for drama; and he adjusts the length and detail of his story to the situation and
mood of his listeners.)
Narrative freedom from time is related to a deeper freedom. A reader can attend
to a story whenever he likes and for however long he likes. But when he is part
of an audience in the theater, his response is not entirely within his own will. He
cannot ignore what others are paying excited attention to, he cannot absent
himself even in thought because the play will not stop at those points where he
would like to reflect. His will is not his own. For that reason he is more insistent
that his attention should at every moment be commanded and rewarded. As the
member of an audience which has given up its freedom, he feels a stronger right

The Four Story Formns 279

and a more compelling urge to be exacting than does a solitary reader. It is the
relation of the individual will to the story presentation rather than the superior
comforts of the closet or any other such marginal consideration that dictates the
greater intensity and concentration of drama and the more spacious and leisurely

of narrative.

Drama, film, and comic strip purport to open a door onto the act of happening,
but narrative undertakes to tell about events by arranging them in an effective
way. That way may be in accordance with causal and temporal logic in which
case the order will be primarily like that of drama, or it may be in accordance
with emotional logic in which case the order will be lyric and the prevailing time
psychological, or it may be-and most often is-a combination of these two. In
any event, the narrative, unlike the other story forms, does not reach us objectively
through the visual medium of characters in action, but is entirely verbal and
directly mediated by the voice of the story-teller. The story, the narrator's
arrangement of events, is personal and stands in intimate relationship to the
reader. The subject matter, too, participates in this spirit of intimacy. Yet the
personal and lyric quality of story-telling is counter-balanced by the fact that the
narrating of a story is a publicly mediated act. It is this which saves narrative
from emotional and psychological self-indulgence, for the honest story-teller is
licensed in accordance with an implied contract by which he is responsible at
all times to his audience.
Drama permits far less intimacy than narrative. Characters on the public stage
who among themselves indulge in close emotional contact and innermost confidentialness soon appear silly or sentimental. As for the relationship between the
stage and the audience, its impersonality makes any attempt at familiarity disastrous, unless the interplay is exploited for deliberate and usually ironic effect.
The same impersonality is typical of the comic strip where the visual nature of
the medium gives the story a public character and the pictorial conversations establish a barrier between layout and reader.
Film, as the voyeuristic nature of its substructure would imply, is excellent in
portraying close and delicate relations between characters. It has in this respect
an almost unlimited capacity so long as the subject can be represented visually.
Though dialogue may further expand the scope, speech is in its effect more public
than physical gesture or expression. There are things that film characters can
not say without appearing indiscrete or foolish, though the same words may
without embarrassment be attributed to the non-visual persons of narrative. But
film characters have at their disposal incalculable intricacies of physical expression which the narrative artist can no more than touch upon.
Film can establish relations of intimacy within its pictorial world but not
between this image world and the viewer. The screen with its motion pictures
is a kind of mechanical device and as such is mercilessly exclusive. That is why
film stars are so spectacular. They are larger than life because they exist outside
the audience's normal experiences of relationship. This does not go counter to the
prevailing theory that the darkness of the cinema and the compulsive immediacy
of the screen induce the viewer to identify strongly with the hero. There is an
important difference between identification and intimacy. The first is an act of



introjection characteristicof film; the second is a recognition of proximaterelationship. Such a recognition of closenessis not characteristicof our experience
of the visual story forms, drama,film, comic strip. Intimacy is characteristicof
our relationshipto narrative and to no other form because only narrative is
entirely subject to the personalmediation of the story-teller and only narrative
has an inherentbarrieragainstthe self-indulgenceof intimacyin the responsibility
of the narratorfor his public act of story-telling.