TO PLOT OR NOT TO PLOT: Part 8 – Defining Narrative Structure and Conclusion

Be sure to read the first seven parts of this essay:

Defining Narrative Structure:

We’ve determined that plot structure is a type of story structure.  Similarly, story structure is a type of narrative structure. However, narrative structure does not have to include either a plot or a story. In essence it’s a kind of umbrella term for any structure related to narrative (which is something pertaining to the semblance of a story).

The work of structuralist Roland Barthes is an example of someone who’s developed narrative structures. The structuralism movement was very interested in creating “a model of a universal narrative structure, or a system of recurrent patterns and motifs” (Wikipedia). M.T. Anderson describes their pursuits as follows:

They sought to uncover the unspoken submerged rules of the way we live. In particular, they studied the way smaller units of meaning congregate and form larger units. They tried to break units down and find the smallest particles of meaning. Then attempted to come up with unified theories of how those units related to one another. How they were substituted or exchanged. They tried to define not just the rules of linguistic grammar, but essential grammar, and narrative grammar. (Anderson)

In his work, Barthes developed five Lexia or narrative codes for narrative. These included: the code of action, the code of connotation, the symbolic code, the cultural code, and the code of enigmas. Each of these codes is used to analyze and break down the grammar of a narrative. These codes, however, are used both on the grand “big picture” stage as well as on the smaller word by word, sentence by sentence arena (Anderson). Therefore structuring narrative is not based solely on plot or even story. A structure can be based upon the grammar of imagery (code of connotation) or a pattern of delayed answers (code of enigmas), and could be applied to the small units (without events and thus story) or the larger units of the whole.

As such, we can now see the key differences between narrative, story, and plot structures. Noting that plot does fall under the umbrella of story, and story under the umbrella of narrative, but the terms are not reversible to say all narrative includes stories and all stories include plots.

In Conclusion

It’s important for an author to know the differences between narrative, story, plot, and structure in order to make the best choices for his or her writing. The prevalent myth within film, literature, and storytelling circles that there is one type of structure and one type of plot, and though the details may change the underlying structures are the same. This is not true, and if it was narratives would become as static, cliché, and lifeless as a paint-by-number image of a kitten. The ability to distinguish terminology empowers the writer to make informed choices on what type of narrative they wish to present and what options are available to them. An Na warns that “when a story and a structure are not synced for a very purposeful and necessary reason then you are violating a very fundamental notion of story. You’re forcing the story to become something it doesn’t want to be.” The prevailing plot and structure myth gives authors the impression that there is only one way to tell a story and they may often find themselves trying to force their round-shaped story into a square-shaped plot structure. By understanding the differences, writers are empowered to make the best choices for their work so that they may keep the trust and faith of their readers.


Thanks for sticking through this long blog series to the end! A full bibliography of this series will be posted shortly and can be found HERE!