Story (fabula) and Plot (sjuzet or sjuzhet)

RELATED TERMS: In medias res; Genre – and Story (fabula) and Plot (sjuzet); Tragic theatre - Aristotle; Defamiliarisation, Ostranenie or making strange; Narratology

The design of narrative environments will have to consider the notions of story, plot, chronology, de-chronologisation and teleology (end, goal or purpose), in the contexts of narrative unfolding (intelligibility) and environmental navigation (sensori-motor movement, perception, orientation and horizon).

The term narrative covers both the act of telling or narrating of the tale and the tale itself as told, as a whole. Chronology is central to both the telling and the tale. Story, as whole tale, is the sequence of event in chronological order, from beginning to end. Plot is the sequence of events as unfolded in the telling or narrating. The plot’s sequence of events may mirror the story’s strict chronological order. This is a simple plot, sometimes called a linear narrative. However, the plot may de-chronologise the story, presenting events out of chronological order. This is a complex plot, sometimes called a non-linear narrative. Thus a plot may begin at any point in the story’s chronology.

Aristotle recommends complex plots because they maximise the poetic effect of the story, by beginning in medias res (in the middle of things) and by setting up surprising sequences of events. Conversely, stories, as Sternberg notes, always begin at the (chronological) beginning and proceed through (chronological) middle towards (chronological) ending. The effect sought by Aristotle is primarily that of catharsis, i.e. the act of releasing a strong emotion, such as pity or fear. Aristotle’s approach to narrative, as story (whole) and as plot (sequence), is teleological: both story and plot are subordinate to poetic end or telos. Telos determines the choice of story (whole), with its particular chronology, and the organisation of plot (sequence), with its specific de-chronologisation.

A Greek tragedy usually starts with a flashback, or analepsis, a recapitulation of the incidents of the story which occurred prior to those which were selected for the plot. The reader is plunged in medias res (‘into the middle of things’), and earlier incidents in the story are introduced artfully at various stages in the plot, often in the form of retrospective narration. (Selden, Widdowson and Brooker, 2005: 34)

The Aristotelian dichotomy of story (chronological whole) versus plot (chronological or de-chronologised sequence) has a strong affinity to such later pairings as the Renaissance opposition between the natural and the poetic (artificial) order; and the Russian Formalist distinction between fabula and sjuzhet as well as its assorted Structuralist offspring, such as Tzvetan Todorov’s histoire versus discours and Gerard Genette’s histoire versus recit.

Selden, Widdowson and Brooker (2005: 34-35) point out that for the Russian Formalists, only sjuzet (plot) is strictly literary, while fabula (story) is raw material to be organised by the writer. The Formalists concept of plot differs considerably from that of Aristotle. Through an analysis of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Shklovsky argues that the plot is not solely the arrangement of story-incidents. It also includes all the devices and stratagems used to interrupt and delay the narration. Thus, Shklovsky contends, digressions, typographical games, displacement of parts of the book, for example the preface and the dedication, and extended descriptions are all devices to make us attend to the novel’s form.

By frustrating familiar plot arrangement, Sterne draws attention to plotting itself, as a literary invention. Shklovsky, in this sense, deviates from the Aristotelian model. A carefully ordered Aristotelian plot discloses to the audience the essential and familiar truths of human life. For Aristotle, the plot should be plausible and have a certain inevitability, its telos. The Formalists, on the contrary, often linked theory of plot with the act of defamiliarisation, a process in which the plot prevents us from regarding the incidents as typical and familiar (Selden, Widdowson and Brooker, 2005: 35).

Instead, the audience is repeatedly made aware of how artifice constructs or forges, i.e. both makes and counterfeits, the reality presented to the audience. The plot, therefore, is a display of poiesis, i.e. of making, rather than a display of mimesis, i.e. of imitating or representing in a ‘realist’ modality. These insights anticipate, as does Sterne himself, postmodernist self-reflexivity. (Selden, Widdowson and Brooker, 2005: 35)

For narrative environment design, the insights of Aristotle and of the Russian formalists concerning plot, both as arrangement of elements with a specific purpose and the disruption of those elements through various techniques to engage the participant reflexively, could be valuable in considering how to arrange the narrative elements and the environmental elements (sequentially and disruptively) to yield complex, engaging plots.


Parsons, A. (2009). Narrative environments: how do they matter? Rhizomes, 19 . Available from [Accessed 1 October 2010].

Selden, R., Widdowson, P. and Brooker, P. (2005). A Reader’s guide to contemporary literary theory, 5th ed. Harlow, UK: Pearson Longman.

Sternberg, M. (1992). Telling in time (II): chronology, teleology, narrativity. Poetics Today, 13 (3), 463–541. Available from [Accessed 24 June 2016].