Labov's narrative theory
Labov's narrative theory considers how the structure of most narratives follows a defined grammar. It's based on the study of real-world narratives after Labov noticed most discussions follow a set syntax. In this introductory article, I recount the major components of the theory and how it's applied to discourse.
Labov's theory of narrative structure considers the structural aspects of narrative formalised into a grammar which creates a legal structure for a text. The Labov theory rests upon an empirical basis of naturally occurring oral narratives and is not intended for use in written forms.
The explanation of the Labov theory is commonly associated with this now well-known passage (Harold Shambaugh, Tape A-304, Columbus, Ohio, 7/28/70):
- (What happened in South America?)
- Oh I w's settin' at a table drinkin'
- And - this Norwegian sailor come over
- an' kep' givin' me a bunch o' junk
- about I was sittin' with his woman.
- An' everybody sittin' at the table with me were my shipmates.
- So I jus' turn aroun'
- an' shoved `im,
- an' told `im, I said,
- "Go away,
- I don't even wanna fool with ya."
- An' nex' thing I know I 'm layin' on the floor, blood all over me,
- An' a guy told me, says,
- "Don't move your head.
- Your throat's cut."
In Labov's words:
"This brief narrative has been proven to be paradigmatic in the ability to transfer experience from narrator to the audience. The reader is invited to commit these twelve lines to memory, and re-tell the story to an individual or group of others. Many listeners report the experience of viewing in the scene in a smoke-filled room in lines (-); that with lines (-) there is a sudden change of perspective, looking up from below; and after (), about one third of the people in any audience make a sudden intake of breath, as if it were in fact their throat that was in question."
Labov set out to discover why the text has such an effect on its audience.
Labov describes narrative as having two functions: referential and evaluative:
- Referential: Orients and grounds a story in its contextual world by referencing events in their original sequential order.
- Evaluative: Describes the storyteller's purpose in delivering the story.
Labov analysed data from over 600 group interactions and conversation to form his theory of narrative. It's built on six elements, but not every narrative includes them all:
- Abstract: Gives an overview of the story.
- Orientation: The referential contextual elements of the story.
- Complication: The primary narrative where the main story pans out.
- Evaluation: The author adds self-awareness and provides an explicit or implicit purpose for telling the story.
- Resolution: Creates the sense of completion.
- Coda: The listener is returned to the real and present world, so lifting them from the story.
Labov argued that narrative units must retell events in the order they were experienced due to the temporal sequencing of narrative. Because events do not occur at random, the correct semantic interpretation of a narrative depends on the original order of events.
The study is important because it is based on actual data rather than abstract theorism. However, it has been criticised for only considering the textual structure of a narrative devoid of context and audience, which generally are critical to a text's production and theory.