Probably most literature that is read today is written in prose, that is in non-metrical, ‘ordinary’ language. This has not always been the case. It is only with the growing popularity of the novel and a corresponding expansion of the market for literature throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that prose gained this prominent position as a suitable language for literature. In this section the focus will be on narrative prose, that is, prose literature which tells a story

Story and Discourse

Theorists of narrative have long been in agreement that there are at least two levels in a narrative text: Something happens and this something is related in a certain way. There is, in other words, a WHAT (What is told?) to be considered and a HOW (How is it told?). These two levels have been given different names by different critics (for an overview of various terminologies see Korte 1985). The distinction made by a theory of criticism called structuralism has proved one of the most influential ones in recent years. In structuralist terminology the WHAT of the narrative is called story, the HOW is called discourse (see Chatman 1978: 19, who follows structuralists like Roland Barthes, Gérard Genette, Tzvetan Todorov).

  story (What is told?)
  discourse (How is it told?)

For analysis, these two levels need to be further subdivided.


The story consists of events (things that happen) and so-called existents, the characters that make things happen or have things happen to them and the setting, meaning the place where things happen. Events can be either brought about actively, in which case they are called actions (one character kills another one), or they just happen (someone dies of a heart-attack).

narrative   existents  

Each of these elements can be approached with different tools of analysis (story/plot, character, space).


Discourse is the category that comprises various elements of transmission. Strictly speaking, it is only discourse that is directly accessible to us, since we only learn about the story via discourse. Elements of discourse thus determine our perception of the story (what ‘actually’ happened). In the analysis of discourse one tries to determine how certain effects are achieved.

The focus of analysis are questions such as: What is the narrative situation? Whose point of view is presented? Which narrative modes are employed? How are the thoughts of characters transmitted? How is the chronology of events dealt with? How is style used? These elements are always used to certain effects. For instance, how it is that the reader tends to identify with one character and not with another? The analysis of elements of discourse reveals how the reader is ‘manipulated’ into forming certain views about the story.

narrative   narrative voices (who speaks?)
    focalisation (who sees?)
  discourse narrative modes
    representation of consciousness

Each of these elements will be explained in detail under their respective headings.