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
- "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: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.1.1.html
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
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
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
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.
- Abstract: one or several phrases, at the start, which sum up the
- Orientation (= Exposition): indicates the place, time and
characters - thus situating the action.
- Action (= Complication): the "story" itself,
telling "what happened".
- Evaluation: a justification of the story, explaining why it was
worth telling - points out the unusual or astonishing in the storyline or
in e.g. the Bible the theological significance.
- Result (Resolution): ends the action of the story and tells
how the problem was overcome. Sometimes, even often, though the storyline
ends here the discourse will continue (see 6.).
- Coda: phrase(s) indicating the end of the story, often bringing
things up to date.
The uses of such a functional
approach can be seen if we look at a short biblical narrative, Gen 6:1-8.
- In this little story there is no abstract, in fact these are rather
rare in biblical narrative style.
- Orientation is present in v. 1-2. There the situation is presented,
note that to some extent since this story forms part of a larger story this
- In this little story the action takes place initially through God's
words and conclusions.
- Evaluation is present in a sense for the phrase "these were
the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown" v. 4b links the story
(with its rather unusual cast) to figures known by the audience. In fact
evaluation in this technical sense is not common in biblical narrative,
perhaps because from early times these texts had a quasi-canonical, authoritative,
- The resolution is not present because this story forms part of
a wider whole, the last phrase however suggests the eventual resolution
by its introduction of the well known figure of Noah.
- In a certain sense this last phrase is like a coda too, for it
brings the story forward to its next episode "Noah and the Ark".
- The narrative framework of the book of Job provides an
even better example:
- Orientation in 1:1-3;
- Evaluation: by repetition, enumeration 1:3 "the greatest of...",
and comparison 42:7 "you have not... as my
servant Job has";
- a Resolution is offered when Job receives double what he lost 42:10-15,
whilst the "friends" must humble themselves before him 42:7-9
- a Coda, 42:16-17, which leads the reader to the third generation and
Job to his death.
There are a number of more complex approaches, but these will suffice for introducing
our study of Ruth and Jonah.
© Tim Bulkeley, 2008