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Narrative via Fabula, Story via Syuzhet

Exploring story-telling by splitting it into fabula and syuzhet. The focus is the split and not the created parts.

 

This article was written to promote Narratorika’s narrative design course. It’s not like it’s a bad article, but hey, manners cost nothing. Check out the course here:  http://narratorika.com/nd101winter 

 

Fabula and Syuzhet

The reason I’m using these terms is that they are rare Russian words found in the English dictionary. 

You may know these terms as

 

Story and Plot

Story and Narrative

Story and Narrative Discourse

 

Scholars remain divided on nomenclature and I’m not helping.

These terms come from Russian Formalism and have certain connotations. Int he context of this article these terms help to tell apart the raw chronology and its representation. Fabula being the former and syuzhet is the fabula strangened. It might sound unnecessary, but it opens up so many possibilities which we will talk about here.

 

Fabula

This is going to be quick. Like I’ve said it’s just the raw sequence of events.

 

  • Jim wakes up.

  • Jim goes to the kitchen.

  • Jim turns on the stove gas.

  • Jim doesn’t light the stove.

  • A phone rings.

  • Jim answers the phone.

  • Jim talks to his partner.

  • Jim talks for a long time.

  • Jim says mean things.

  • Jim hangs up.

  • Jim lights a cigarette.

  • Jim’s apartment explodes.

 

Everything is in perfect order. Time is just like in real life. Linear and perfect. Also, it’s damn boring. Just try to recite anything like a series of facts. No. To tell the story you need to get more creative. 

 

Syuzhet

Even if you’re doing a documentary or a game based on real facts you will have to create syuzhet. (It’s called ontological adaptation, by the way.) And what fun it is! 

Remember that famous quote from Godard? 

 

“A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end... but not necessarily in that order.”

 

Here’s what it can mean in relation to fabula-syuzhet:

You can rearrange stuff for a better impact.

You can also omit stuff. You can add stuff. You can even expand fabula to accommodate branching.

You can obscure, you can change POV, you can make more specific beats, you can strangen it so much it’s no longer recognizable.

 

https://youtu.be/iMa4q1ADRSU

This is from Twin Peaks S03E08. 

The idea obviously — or, well, not obviously — was that we'd never done anything close to what you might describe as a "Twin Peaks" origin story, [showing] where this pervasive sense of darkness and evil had come from. On the page, we wrote it in great detail. I think it was maybe 12, 15 pages. But as we were putting down the descriptions, I knew David was going to take that as the blueprint for something extraordinary. He ran with it and elevated it to a whole other level [...] the atomic explosion was probably half a page as written, but I knew that, in David's hands, it could run as long as 10 or 12 minutes, and it would be riveting. It was certainly a narrative departure from what we had done before. There was no question about that. But it needed to stand apart, and it needed to blow your mind. So mission accomplished.” Mark Frost

 

It’s better to show an example using our fabula.

 

  • We see the kitchen clock reading 09:52.

  • We hear a phone ringing.

  • We see a man answering the phone.

  • We hear the voice on the other end saying “Jim, we need to talk.”

  • We see a clock turning at 4x its speed until it’s 10:52.

  • We see Jim hanging up.

  • We see Jim sitting down at the kitchen table.

  • We see Jim’s head lowered, his fists clenched and shaking, he is crying. 

  • We see Jim take a lighter.

  • We see kitchen clock reading 09:50.

  • We see Jim entering the kitchen.

  • We see Jim turning on the gas stove.

  • We see and hear gas escaping the stove burner.

  • We see Jim with a lighter, crying.

  • We see Jim lighting a cigarette.

  • We see Jim burned and crushed by the gas explosion.

 

So much stuff has changed, but the sequence of the events is mostly the same. We just show them in a different order. Specifically, we arranged them in accordance with Kishōtenketsu structure. The twist before the resolution, without which the resolution is meh. Structures are kind of templates to arrange fabulas into pleasing syuzhets.

I’ve also omitted stuff that’s insignificant. Like showing the guy waking up or the whole conversation.

Because I mixed up the order, I also had to put some roadsigns so that you know what IS the order of events.

Finally, I played around with the specificity of the beats. I set up the POV and focal points.

 

All in all, it became a syuzhet. For like a minute-long short. I’d also like to emphasize that whatever ways we have to produce that script are also the same syuzhet. The lighting, the sound, the acting, the everything.

 

At this point, you should be scoffing or - even better - screaming at your device that it’s not that relevant for video games. Your intent is correct, your justification not so much.

 

Narrative Design

Fabula and syuzhet come from Russian Formalism, a literary critique theory. It can clearly be used for audiovisual media. All of them have non-linear examples (although their non-linear and game non-linear is kinda different) and can still be read within these terms. The consumption of these media is enriched by it. A fabula may even be different depending on the interpretation of the fixed syuzhet.

 

The relationship between them may look like this.

 

Or, if we get ambitious and weird, like this.

 

In video games, it WILL look like this.

 

Players WILL affect the fabula and it still has to shape up into a decent syuzhet. Then syuzhet will affect the player’s next decision. 

Wrangling the feedback loop between the game’s fabula and its syuzhet to make sure the player experiences the best syuzhet possible is narrative design

This includes limiting the extent to which players interact with fabula, giving meaning to their actions, training them to play the game the way you want, etc.

 

Basically, every action the player takes influences that fabula. Let’s assume that in our example we can walk and interact with objects by pressing a button.

 

  • We see the kitchen clock reading 09:52.

  • We hear a phone ringing.

  • We see a man answering the phone.

 

Wait. 

The player needs to answer the phone. I.e. walk to the phone and press the button. 

It’s kinda important. 

It’s easy to dismiss this example as picky, but there are interesting solutions to this. 

A phone may keep ringing indefinitely. The ringtone can be super annoying. Won’t the player project on the caller the fact that they’ve been ringing for 10 damned minutes? We can even change the first line to adapt to that with a variable tracking the response time. That’s dynamic.

The day may repeat itself with the phone ringing every time. Since we don’t show the date, the player has no idea whether it’s the next day or not. This is weird. Weird speaks to me.

Now the explosion depends on way too many things, so let’s just talk about ways to make sure the player lights a cigarette. That’s an important part of the fabula and provides an explosive piece of syuzhet. Ahem.

Problems are what designs solve, so let’s. 

 

First, we implement a value of the PC, say nerves. 

Next, we make it so the cigarettes benefit this value.

Lastly, we dramatically reduce nerves after the call thus creating a need to smoke.

 

Of course, by the rules of the digital games medium, that would be a fail state and game over. Making it into a satisfying game is another challenge.

 

Narrative via Fabula, Story via Syuzhet

I haven’t told you anything new. Hopefully. However, this framework of splitting the player and game’s design does provoke interesting thoughts and solutions.

 

It creates a design framework of push and pull. You view players’ actions as prompts and nudge the flow of their decisions into interesting directions. They make a fabula, you adapt it into a syuzhet. The syuzhet influences them and lets you tell players even a better story. Their actions become problems to solve, not hindrances to your master plan.

 

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