Introduction to narrative :: Ruth :: Jonah

Hebrew narrative: Ruth and Jonah by Tim Bulkeley


Plot and Structure

Plot from Beginning to End

Aristotle in his "Poetics" provides the simplest possible analysis of plot. Starting from the deceptively simple recognition that:
"A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end." 
He goes on to draw attention to the necessary characteristics of these three parts:
"A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles."

Aristotle. "Poetics." Poetics by Aristotle. 12 May 2000. Online. Internet. 5 Dec 2000; 20:50 GMT +12. Available: #290

These axioms are not as useless as they seem. For if we notice that a beginning is something that does not need to come after something else and that an end naturally does follow something else yet is not itself necessarily followed by anything, then we have a way of distinguishing beginnings and ends, even relative beginnings and ends within a larger whole.

Also if we apply this "beginning, middle, end" idea specifically to narrative we find that stories have three parts of a more precise kind. These are often referred to as "exposition", "complication" and "denouement or resolution".

Stories begin from a certain situation which poses a problem or shows up something lacking. 

The presentation of this is the "exposition". Thereafter a series of actions produce transformations, which complicate the resolution of the initial problem, "complication". Finally the initial problem is overcome or the lack is filled, "resolution".

Such a simple schema lets us describe the basics of plot, but it does not suffice to list all the elements even in simple narratives. A number of details can be added to such an approach. 

Order and Speed of Telling

Russian formalists drew attention to the distinction between the order of events in the story told (fabula) and the order of events in the telling (sjuzet or syuzhet). Flashback is a clear example of such a distinction, the event being told (sjuzet) is some time, maybe years earlier than the place in the story (fabula) at which it is told.

A less extreme, but often interesting variation, is when the speed of telling becomes faster or slower. That is, the ratio of sjuzet "telling" to fabula "events told" may be faster or slower. When the telling slows down our attention is drawn to what is happening.

Noticing such phenomena can draw attention to the messages the text is communicating.

A Linguistic Approach to Plot

An American socio-linguist, William Labov, studied storytelling by ordinary inner city black people. His analysis of the content of their stories was found to be helpful in examining biblical narrative (Berlin, 101). He found six elements were commonly present in his informants "stories" though not all would be present every time and some were less common than others. (Cf. Clines)

The uses of such a functional approach can be seen if we look at a short biblical narrative, Gen 6:1-8.

The narrative framework of the book of Job provides an even better example: 

There are a number of more complex approaches, but these will suffice for introducing our study of Ruth and Jonah.


© Tim Bulkeley, 2008