June 20, 2014

Narrative as Sequential Art

Stories, music & escalators will always be linear experiences. We shuffle playlists, but not individual songs. If we skip around in a novel, we aren't really reading that novel. If you jumble up panels from Peanuts or Dilbert, you will now be reading a comic jumble instead of a comic strip. When the Beatles recorded the Abbey Road Medley it was a sequential experience from start to finish, as it is when we listen.

When Homer recited his Illiad he began in medias res, and the "non-linear narrative" has thrilled critics since Aristotle at least. Film took a bit longer to do much with the options but recent hits like Pulp Fiction and LOST inspired new explorations of modular storytelling in the audio-visual domain. Still, the most complex "non-linear" narrative, in all cases, remains a linear experience for the audience. A flashback may work like a narrative time machine but the page count ticks on just like Marty McFly's wristwatch or Hermoine's time turner. And that brings us to my actual point.

The events of a story may not be sequentially narrated, but a narration itself is necessarily and absolutely sequential... which is why it confuses me when critics discuss "chronological narrative".

Either way, "chronological narrative" is a fairly imprecise term.

If a narrative sequence conveys story events in a straight temporal course, then those events are being narrated in their chronological order. Likewise, if a narrative sequence conveys story events apart from their temporal course, then those events are being narrated apart from their chronological order. However, strictly speaking, the narrative itself is automatically in chronological order by default because in the act of narrating, narrators always speak one word after the next. In that sense, all narration is chronological.

By contrast, I personally find the terms "linear" and "non-linear" to be helpful because the storyline (or the timeline) is the part that might be told either within logical sequence or otherwise. In short, the story may be told out of order, but we still tell each episode one at a time.

Granted, no one asked my opinion before now, but I may not be the one most confused.


For its part, a classic piece by Meir Sternberg, Telling in Time (part I, from the journal Poetics Today, Winter 1990) appears motivated to defend the possibility of straighforward "chronological" narrative, though I'm still working out what all Sternberg is on about. It may be mostly frustration that Narratology doesn't spend enough time on historical narrative. At any rate, it was in the course of Sternberg's discussing the relations between narrative and chronology that I found the following intra-field commentary.
the narrative field is parcelled up among several disciplines, which tend to work in casual or even studied disregard for one another's very subject matter as well as methods and findings... between a Genette's disposal of narratives articulated by chronology and a Labov's ruling out of narratives based on anachrony, the entire field of narrative vanishes. This is doubtless an exteme case, yet not atypical... 
Behind the special interest in anachrony, it would appear, there is something like a vested interest: the relevant corpus gets delimited, established, indeed canonized by fiat. [IP] If history-telling is passed over in silence because its temporal norm involves "correspondence between narrative and story" - because its discourse as well as its action adhere to the line of chronology - then the argument falls into a vicious circularity... chronology leads only a 'hypothetical' existence in the story... [privileging] a bias for disorder which Genette shares with most of his predecessors and, above all, contemporaries, not least his fellow Structuralists.
If the gist is that Narratology before 1990 was prone to some bias against dealing with straightforward historical narrative, well, I believe I can relate to Sternberg's palpable frustration. Genette being a big name I recognize, I take it the historical reticence must be typical indeed, which isn't surprising given the debates about Narrative in History in the decades before then and after.

From there it gets stranger.
Barthes [spurns objectivity] in his open contempt for "readerly texts," predictably characterized by their insistence on "internal chronology ('this happens before or after that')"... despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that "they make up the enormous mass of our literature," while the "writerly," properly reversible text would give one "a hard time finding it in a bookstore". 
This, I take it, means that Roland Barthes also prefers to avoid critical engagement with straightforward historical narratives, even though he himself suspects that might include most published literature (which is hotly debatable). It's almost hard to decide whether I've got that one straight. Either way, it really doesn't make *me* feel *I'm* the one most confused.

There seem to have long been be a great many theorists hard at work proffering theories, but while their terms of discussion diverge, Sternberg sees a consistent bias against "chronological narrative". (Bold words below are my own emphasis.)
Genette's "story" thus bears the same relation to "narrative" as (mimetic) content to (poetic) form, signified to signifier, what to how. The terms for the first pair of concepts vary widely - e.g., the Formalist fabula vs. sujet, Barthes's (1977: 79-124) fonctions-actions vs. narration, Ricardou's (1967) fiction vs. narration, Todorov's (1966) histoire vs. discours - but their antithesis persists... For anything like artistic status, "narrative" must supposedly break away from the lifelike "story" because art works by deviance and disharmony... Hence the imperative need for dislocating story into narrative, so that the one will be pushed underground and the other pulled to the foreground... [an] inversion of temporal into higher priorities...
Perhaps summarizing this position in a phrase, Sternberg elsewhere says that for these Narratologists, "breaking time counts as making art", and this phrase itself was the spark for my little blog post of the moment.

While I strongly suspect these opponents of "chronology" were largely more interested in justifying the practical boundaries of what they found to be politically feasible for academic work at the time, it still seems worthwhile to stop here and remember the illustrations with which I began this reflection. Songs, novels, playlists, comic strips, medleys, Homer and Pulp Fiction are all linear experiences for the reader, if not entirely "straightforward". The critics essentially seem to say these are not sequential, or they are not artistic. But really, now, I must protest their expertise with my own viewpoint.

Can art not be linear?


In movies, I've become a big fan of the new explorations in modular narratives, the creative non-linear storytelling. In history writing, also, I'm of the studied opinion that narrative accounts of the past can indeed utilize flashbacks and in media res. History can be taught in random segments. Annals can be read individually like encyclopedia entries. More practically, oral histories are frequently narrated in achronally segmented phases, with flashbacks within flashbacks, or by retracting gradually away from the familiarity of our present day into "What happened before now?" inevitably starting from "How did things get to be like they are?" and ultimately working towards "What was the distant past actually like in those times?"

In such atemporal retractions there is both selectivity and non-linear temporality, with creative decisions on periodicity. Yet, in such oral histories, there are unambiguously segments of straighforward non-fiction narrative. Most importantly, once again, the entire narrative itself is, as always, deliberately sequenced.

Historiography is neither purely art nor science but it definitely needs to rely upon both at some times. I've no doubt there's currently much more creativity in our historians than we might be prone to acknowledge or to look for, perhaps much less to encourage. The linguistic turn in the humanities has thus far only adjusted our vision for research and made us fearful of writing. It hasn't yet urged many people to attempt new styles of historical writing with boldness. More crucially, it has not retroactively altered our historical texts. For example, Suetonius' biographical style remains temporally mixed up in its study of character, just as much now as it was two millenia ago. And was Matthew not artful in his presentation of Jesus' bios, set in his audience's recent past? And was Josephus' narrative critique of the Herodian dynasty not artful in its presentation under the Flavians? And what of Livy? And so on and so on...

Historical narrative has never been non-creative. There are many more such examples.

Perhaps Sternberg's defensive-aggression on behalf of "chronological narrative" is because of his faith based working interest in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) but I'm not sure Genesis 1-2, or the Psalms and Solomon, or Isaiah, are "chronologically sequenced" in the entirety of their content. For that matter, when Daniel quotes Gabriel's prophecies, is that not ostensibly an achronal flash-forward? Personally, I'm a New Testament student, and while I do tend to think the Gospels and Acts are mostly straightforward in their relation of temporal events, no one can deny that John the Baptist's death happens in flashback as does the founding of Antioch, and so on.

Instead of straightforward narrative being possible or impossible, one might instead merely ask whether it's really so common. Depending on what counts as a flashback, there might not be many narratives (set in past times) that don't include one or two temporal digressions, or belated references at the least. I can easily believe that both Genette and Labov might make solid arguments defending their position. That does not convince me, however, that neither is missing the point... because they do seem to lack concern for the major point I do agree on with Sternberg.

In the end, I've a hunch it may not be that "chronological narrative" is what Genette and those like him are so much against, as "historical narrative". For that category, my personal definition is "a story set in the past", but for Genette (etc) it might be more like "stories with potential historicity issues". Truly, I do understand. One thing at a time is a reasonable defense, and this piece only brings me to 1990. More to come, posts to follow, I promise. But rest assured I am not a fan of neglecting historical narratives. To that end, I will continue happily working my way through Meir Sternberg's three articles about Telling in Time. If nothing else, I expect it to help direct me towards others who do and don't give much thought to these issues, to all and any issues that arise when considering narrative and chronology. Not that they consider these issues like I consider these issues... but on that point, of course, time will tell.

To close this little blog post, however, I will repeat - can art not be linear?


Frank Miller's 300 was a graphic novel, a brilliant artistic rendition of a historical saga, and it was not purely sequential, in the temporality of its content, but it was entirely sequential in its gorgeous splash panel progression.

The Beatles' Abbey Road Medley is a hodge podge of sorts, but Sequential Art nevertheless. From "Once there was a way" to "Carry that weight" to "And in the end", the absurd sequence builds up as art. A different sort of logic presents itself in the progression of feeling.

My favorite TV show will always be LOST, which succeeded for so many reasons but not least because it merged plot and character so effortlessly, because it introduced modular segues with clear temporal contingency but *also* tied the segue itself so clearly to dynamic themes and observable character development. The nonlinear aspect was temporal but the thematic tensions were drawn out right in line with the viewers' discovery of character. That's what drove each progression in storytelling, while a logical sequence of material (theme and/or contingency) was always being presented to viewers - one episode, one segment, one contingency and emotional segue at a time.

In their own ways, each of these narrative experiences was both linear and non-linear. From the Illiad to Pulp Fiction, the writer jumbles her content but sequences her presentation as a chronological gift for the audience.

I repeat my idiosyncratic protest. All narratives are "chronological" in that sense.

All narrative art must be linear... even if, content wise, its almost impossible to stay perfectly straightforward.

Consider three popular fictions - Harry Potter, Les Miserables, Lord of the Rings. Each was a series of novels and movies (okay, Hugo's wasn't serialized, but it probably should have been!) and each proceeds with a straightforward outline that advances clearly from beginning to end. Harry Potter grows up, as does Cozette, and Frodo walks from the Shire to Mordor. But each "historically paced" or "chronologically oriented" storyline is chock full of exposition, digressions, introductions, and (yes, even) flashbacks. These devices nod respectfully to the undaunted flow of the storyline, making their narrative contributions straightforwardly, for the most part, and yet, also not.

When Hermoine remembers an important clue from much earlier, when Samwise pines for the Shire, or when Val Jean reveals that he still has the candlesticks, such a moment is every bit as non-temporal as any flashback, because memory is narrative time-travel also. Still, the remembered experience of these popular books is (I contend) entirely focused on the primary action, on the foregrounded narrative, on the basic plot and straightforward progression of characters proceeding apace through their series of challenges, rising to each occasion and developing new depths of personal character at each step of the way.

In these works, the non-linear aspects are largely extended pockets of reference material, plainly subordinated to the overall thrust of straightforward linear storytelling, and yet these pockets of temporal zig-zagging aren't what makes them "artistic". I've not found critics acclaiming Rowling, Hugo or Tolkien for their innovation or their daring choices in narrative style. Rather, the very powerful artistry of these works is that they do what they do well, and with great passion for telling about dear companions embroiled together in testing fate, striving honorably, engaged in a meaningful saga. In short, the art of straightforward works like these three is in their representation of  these true aspects of real life. They are not less artful due to reliance on classical techniques or their predominance of temporal sequencing.

To narrate *IS* to sequence. The selectivity of sequencing - words in a sentence, sentences in a paragraph, concepts in a discourse, episodes in a story - represents a series of artistic decisions, arranged in hopes of producing a particular and poetic effect on an audience. That same selectivity is what makes all narrative writing an artistic and creative act, but that's precisely my point. This applies equally to *ALL* acts of narrative writing. A narrative that selectively 'plods' through contingent events (perhaps in an attempt to represent under appreciated aspects of chronological experience) is no less an artistic creation than any non-linear narrative. Therefore, sequence is not automatically suspect. To sequence is not necessarily to gerrymander chronology. Sequence is presentation. It is narrative's chief mode of artistic presentation, the mode of realism being one viable option.

Speaking of realism and art, I suspect Andy Warhol was being sincere in his work because those Campbell's Soup cans actually did a good job of highlighting the "glory of the mundane" for a large number of people. Others felt there was no point in seeing "art" if it was merely going to shine an admiring light on the everyday aspects of our normal surroundings.

As the saying goes, there's no accounting for taste, but the plodding straightforwardly temporal narrative is an artistic expression as valid as any other, perhaps even worthy of greater attention.


The art of narrative is not exclusively to be found in whether its temporal content is sequenced temporally or not. The art of narrative is in the way it sequences the vicarious experiences for an audience.

All narratives are "chronological" for an audience. All narrative art is "sequential".

Scott McCloud has popularized the term "Sequential Art" after borrowing it from Will Eisner, who apparently had conceived of its meaning as a way to differentiate comic books and graphic novels from other types of primarily visual imaging. McCloud, for his part, took a broad view of words and images juxtaposed as an artistic medium, from cave paintings to hieroglyphics to medieval manuscripts to triptychs to the Sunday funnies to Superman. McCloud brilliantly showed that all of Art can be traced on a triangular continuum between the abstract, realistic and ideological aspects of expression. But for my part, its worth pointing out that the term "Sequential Art" may as well be expanded to Narratology and Music and perhaps even speech making and stage drama.

Sequential Art is any representation of life or any expression of feeling that presents its artistry partly by how it arranges its components into a deliberate order of presentation.

By that token, all sequencing of presentation is artistic. All narrative is, indeed, art.

In any stringent analysis, there may not be too many novels or histories that technically fail to break temporal progression of content at some point or another. Again, the slightest reference to memory or prior knowledge could be considered a flashback of sorts, and this includes all exposition. Where the critics go too far is in their exclusion by fiat. Where the critics do wrong is in refusing to take up the more difficult challenge.

However, if its also fair to surmise that Sternberg's Narratological antagonists have been wantonly lax in considering History, and grossly negligent in considering Time, then these are major deficiencies that we ought not to tolerate. At some point, the study of narrative must engage with attempted non-fiction narratives of the past, or else it cannot properly continue to label itself as a study of all narrative.

As I continue to explore this perplexingly diverse field of Narratology, now with the help of Sternberg (and hopefully soon, also Genette), I will hope to find the studies that engage in practical ways with Time and History in Narrative.

I will find such a way of proceeding, or else I will do my best to create one...

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