Seminar in Narrative Theory & Criticism: Decoding & Recoding the Power of Stories

Decoding and Recoding the Power of Stories

“The truth about stories is that that’s all we are”: in this course we will take Thomas King’s assertion seriously and focus on Euro-American narratology in relation to indigenous studies and the study of adaptations in order to explore how the power of narrative shapes our lives and relationships to the world. We will address the questions “how are stories understood as such?”; “how are stories adapted across media?”; and “why and to whom does this matter?” in ways that account for multiple, historical and contemporary, approaches. As I hope this description conveys, this course could be useful—as long as you are interested in the power of stories—to creative writers as well as scholars of literature, cultural studies, and rhetoric.


Based on their understanding of narrative as a language or system of signs, 20th-century precursors of narratology such as Vladimir Propp, Algirdas Greimas, Roland Barthes and Mikhail Bakhtin focused on different plot dynamics (function, opposition, sentence, voice) to identify the deep structure of narrative. Emerging in the 1960s, narratology—which is classically associated with the work of Tzvetan Todorov, Gerard Genette, Julia Kristeva, and Mieke Bal—studied “the logic, rhetoric, principles and practices of narrative representation” (Meister in, meaning it theorized the construction of narrative providing heuristic rather than interpretive tools. For instance, establishing the general distinction between how a story is told (récit, discourse or story) and what is told (histoire, plot or fabula) allowed narratologists to provide many new insights into the techniques of storytelling.


Learning about “what was narratology” (to adapt John Zuern’s course title in spring 2017) is an integral part of this course. But we will do so in light of how it matters to the poetics and politics of storytelling today. Narratology’s postclassical avatars from the 1980s into the present continue to build on classic concepts (metanarration vs. metafiction, paratext, chronotope) but are also, thanks to varied influences, giving rise to many “narratologies”: cognitive, feminist, contextualizing, intermedial, indigenous, and more new approaches to the subject. At the same time that narratologists are addressing new questions and developing new methodologies, in line with the “narrative turn” in the humanities, the use of narratological concepts has spread to other media. We see this early on in film studies (Seymour Chatman, David Bordwell, and Robert Scholes) where the multimedial nature of cinema gives rise to work on the interplay of audiovisual and verbal narration (Markus Kuhn, Robert Stam). But broader discussions of intermediality, multimediality, genre, and adaptation are now also inflected by what narratology has become. Furthermore, critical folklore and fairy-tale studies as well as indigenous studies in different ways pursue questions of how and to what ends stories are produced and experienced in and for the everyday, representing varied conceptions of the world, the place of humans in the world, and our potential to enact change in it. Unlike narratologists, practitioners and scholars in these fields focus on the appeal and power of stories within specific cultural, social, and political contexts. Thus much of our work will consist of combining the analysis of narrative worlds with situated interpretation, world building, and ideology.


The course, then, has two aims. First, to familiarize you with the concepts of classical and contemporary narratologies and to enable you to make use of these methodological tools in pursuit of varied interpretive or creative projects. Second, to explore related contemporary approaches to narrative from two different angles: how narratological tools inform adaptation studies and apply to film and comics; and how artists and scholars across cultures have developed their own metaphors and analytical tools for indigenous and other non-canonical or counter-hegemonic forms of storytelling.


Course SLOs:

Ability to map, historicize, and contextualize approaches to narrative across media and cultures. Ability to demonstrate advanced critical analysis of narrative in written and oral formats. Ability to make precise use of critical vocabulary in framing and supporting analysis. Experience with collaborating to brainstorm and develop ideas in groups, and delivering concise, informed, and focused presentations. Ability to conduct independent research that intervenes in discussions about the power of narrative in contemporary culture.



Five individual/group activities doing narratological work on, e.g., narrative representation of time and space, extra and intradiegetic narrators, actors and narrative functions, use of dialog and indirect discourse, focalization in one or more texts (30%).


A collaborative oral presentation analyzing a comic book/graphic novel or a film from the angle of adaptation or narrative studies (15%).


Takeaways from Why Indigenous Literatures Matter and Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing (15%).


Final essay informed by some aspect of narratology/narrative studies and applied to the adaptation of a narrative text (40%).



Texts (ordered through the bookstore)

Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. University of Toronto Press, 2017 (4th edition).

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. Routledge, 2013 (2nd edition).

Justice, Daniel Heath. Why Indigenous Literatures Matter. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2018.

King, Thomas. The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative. University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing. New York: Columbia University Press 2012.

Simpson, Leanne. Dancing On Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence, and a New Emergence. Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2011.


In addition to The Living Handbook of Narratology that you can access online, there will be a number of critical readings available on Laulima by Chad Allen, Keith Basso, Monika Fludernik, Candace Fujikane, Gerard Genette, David Herman, ku‘ualoha ho‘omanawanui, Lisa King, Karin Kukkonen, Susan Lanser, Scott McCloud, Brandy Nālani McDougall, Jon Kamakawiwo‘ole Osorio, Hiapokeikikāne Kichie Perreira, Marie-Laure Ryan, Robert Sullivan.


We will also read and analyze a few short narrative texts. What follows is a preliminary list (in alphabetical order): “The Color Master” by Aime Bender, “The Company of Wolves” by Angela Carter, “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, “The Tale of the Rose” by Emma Donoghue, “Of No Real Account” by Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada, “Kahalaopuna” by Emma Kaili Metcalf Beckley Nakuina, “Fairytales for Lost Children” by Diriye Osman, “Vela’s Beginnings” by Albert Wendt.


We will agree on at least one comic book and 2 films to analyze as we read the theory.