RELATED TERMS: Architecture; Structuralism; Actantial model - Greimas; Reception theory and reader-response criticism; Story (fabula) and Plot (sjuzet or sjuzhet); Telos and Teleology

Narratology: Origins in the 1960s

If a date of birth could be given to narratology, Marie-Laure Ryan (2006) suggests, it would fall on the publication date of issue 8 of the French journal Communications in 1966, which contained articles by Claude Bremond, Gerard Genette, A. J. Greimas, Tzvetan Todorov, and Roland Barthes.

For Barthes (1975: 237),

“ … there is a prodigious variety of genres, each of which branches out into a variety of media … Among the vehicles of narrative are articulated language, whether oral or written, pictures, still or moving, gestures, and an ordered mixture of all those substances; narrative is present in myth, legend, fables, tales, short stories, epics, history, tragedy, drame [suspense drama], comedy, pantomime, paintings (in Santa Ursula by Carpaccio, for instance), stained-glass windows, movies, local news, conversation. … Like life itself, [narrative] is there, international, transhistorical, transcultural.”

Equally, for Bremond (quoted in Ryan, 2006: 3-4), story,

“may be transposed from one to another medium without losing its essential properties: the subject of a story may serve as argument for a ballet, that of a novel can be transposed to stage or screen, one can recount in words a film to someone who has not seen it.”

As these quotes from Barthes and Bremond demonstrate, narratology was conceived initially as a field of study that transcends discipline and medium. However, in the subsequent decades, under the influence of Genette, narratology took a different direction, and developed as a project almost exclusively concerned with written literary fiction.

Narratology: Expansion in the 1980s onwards

More recent work has repositioned the study of narrative back onto the transmedial and transdisciplinary track, as envisioned by Barthes. Narrative environment design extends this study of narrative beyond the transmedial and transdisciplinary into the environmental and the experiential lifeworld.

It was not until 1980 that narrative theory took centre stage in North American literary contexts, ushering in the beginning of the narrativist decade of the 1980s, Martin Kreiswirth suggests. Kreiswirth points out that during the 1980-1981 academic year there were five special journal issues devoted solely to questions of narrative. Four of them, New Literary History‘s narrative sequel and the three issues of Poetics Today, examined various aspects of literary narratology and flowed along with the structuralist literary mainstream. The fifth, Critical Inquiry‘s special issue “On Narrative” offered, a rather different approach, pointing, in many ways, toward the kind of interrogation of narrative that would become increasingly prominent during the rest of the decade.

As outlined by David Herman in Narratologies, the expansion of narratology in the 1980s can be traced along three paths which he defines as, firstly, the increase in digital and communications technologies’ and associated methodologies of narrative; the progression of narrative beyond the domain of the literary; and the growth of narratology into new ‘narrative logics’. Herman sketched a shift from classical to post-classical narratology, in the process highlighting new queer, ethnic, postcolonial and feminist narrative perspectives, as well as the expansion of narrative theory into new media such as the performing arts, computer games and film (Jamieson, 2014)

Marie-Laure Ryan, extending Herman, defines narrative as ‘a cognitive construct or mental image, built by the interpreter in response to the text’. From this definition, it is possible to substitute a range of semiotic objects and constructs, including architecture, for the word ‘text’. In this way, Ryan posits narrative as an active process on the part of the reader or viewer, similarly to reader response theory and reception theory. Werner Wolf describes this active process as ‘narrativisation’.

Narrativisation is the application of a narrative frame, i.e. a cognitive construct that is culturally acquired, which describes the way that we use narrative to organise and structure information. Applying the narrative frame to information, whether it be a text, a moving image, a painting, an object or a situation, causes us to ‘narrativise’ the information. This, for Wolf, is an active process which is an essential part of human thinking

Ryan (2006: 15-16) herself discusses the possibility of narrative environments as an example of metaphorical narration when she outlines the extention of narration to architecture. Thus, she argues,

“In the case of architecture, a metaphorical interpretation would draw an analogy between the temporality of plot and the experience of walking through a building. In a narratively conceived architecture, the visitor’s discovery tour is plotted as a meaningful succession of events. This occurs in Baroque churches, where the visitor’s tour is supposed to reenact the life of Christ.”

Other key figures in the theory and the study of narrative and narrative structure, and the ways that these affect our perceptions and actions, include Plato, Aristotle, Shklovsky, Bakhtin, Ricoeur, Foucault and Bal.


Barthes, R. (1975). An Introduction to the structural analysis of narrative. New Literary History, 6 (2), 237–272. Available from [Accessed 4 April 2016].

Jamieson, C.A. (2014). NATO: Exploring architecture as a narrative medium in postmodern London [PhD thesis]. Royal College of Art. Available from Claire Thesis %28REDACTED VERSION%29.pdf [Accessed 4 February 2019].

Kreisworth, M. (1992). Trusting the tale: the narrativist turn in the human sciences. New Literary History, 23 (3), 629–657. Available from [Accessed 4 February 2019].

Ryan, M.-L. (2006). Narrative, media, and modes. In: Avatars of story. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 3–30.

Wolf, W. (2003). Narrative and narrativity: a narratological reconceptualization and its applicability to the visual arts. Word & Image, 19 (3), 180–197. Available from [Accessed 4 February 2019].