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Vids and the technical definition of narrative

I'm interested in vids as narratives, and in this post I'm going to try to talk about what that means, because the word "narrative" gets used quite a bit in relation to vids, but not usually in the specific sense that a narrative theorist would use it. In a fannish vidwatching capacity, we typically use "narrative" to mean a particular genre of vid: a vid that tells a story. And we may also talk about styles of narrative, different ways of telling a story, as bop_radar and various commenters did in the vidding chat post "Defining Vid Genres and Narrative Styles" a couple of weeks ago.

These are perfectly reasonable uses of the term, but they are not quite what narrative theory geeks mean when we talk about narrative.

At this point I would like to tell you what we do mean, but unfortunately we disagree about how to explain it concisely. In Figures of Literary Discourse, Gerard Genette says that narrative is "the representation of an event or of a sequence of events." This definition is tidy, but not as helpful as you might think, because it doesn't tell us much about the difference between a novel and, say, a recipe, which is also a representation of a sequence of events but which I think most people would not intuitively regard as a narrative (though I suppose this might depend on the recipe). There are also plenty of disagreements about sequence and causality and what counts as an event, and about… well, pretty much everything, really. Marie-Laure Ryan's "Toward a Definition of Narrative," published in 2007 (seriously, we still haven't figured it out!), offers what she calls a "fuzzy-set definition" or "scalar conception" of narrative, where basically we've got a series of concentric circles: at the center are prototypical narratives that everyone can agree on and then there's a continuum out to more marginal cases that are sort of narrative-ish in varying ways and which have many or some but not all (and not all the same) features from the fuzzy set.

(This is the point, I know, at which some people start thinking "For this you got a Ph.D.? You can't even define what you're claiming to study!")

Personally, my favorite definition is the one H. Porter Abbott offers in The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative: "the representation of a story." (This definition relies on an intuitive understanding of the difference between "sequence of events" and "story," which is actually kind of problematic, but I'm just going to go with it for now.) Abbott's definition may not sound all that different from the casual use of "narrative" as essentially a synonym for "story"; but for a narrative theorist there is a difference, and it lies in the word "representation." One of the central insights of narrative theory is that we can distinguish between a story and its representation; as Abbott puts it elsewhere, "a story is separate from its rendering." That separateness is important to the way I want to think about vids.

Narrative theorists take for granted that a narrative can be divided into two component parts: story and discourse. Story is a sequence of acts and events involving characters and settings; it's the what of the narrative. Discourse is the way a story is told; it's the how of the narrative.

Discourse can be divided even further, into plot and narration. It might seem logical that plot belongs to story, but no; story is the collection of events abstracted from the telling of them, whereas plot has to do with how and when those events are conveyed to the audience, and therefore is part of how the story is told. Think about suspense: suspense is produced and "managed," as Abbott says, by decisions about the order in which information should be revealed; those decisions are what make up the plot. The same story can be plotted in many different ways. Theoretically, the same story can also be narrated in many different ways. (I'm actually going to complicate this idea later on, but let's stick with the basics for the moment.) Narration, again, is a matter of choices about how to tell the story. A written narrative, for example, might be told by any of the characters in the story, or by a narrator outside the world of the story, and that narrator might be reliable or unreliable; the narrative might be told in the first or second or third person; it might be told in the present or past tense; and so on.

A filmic or televisual narrative is a little different. Movies and TV shows can have verbal narrative, whether it's a character telling a story to another character or the (often misguided) choice to provide a voice-over, but they don't have to. One of the reasons that such voice-overs often seem clunky (X-Files and Heroes come immediately to mind) is that the show is already being narrated. As Abbott says in "Story, Plot, and Narration,"
In film…much of the burden of narration is non-verbal, borne largely by the camera (the angles, duration, and sequencing of what it sees) and not uncommonly by music. (Cambridge Companion 49)


These elements of non-verbal narration are exactly what vidders alter. It's seldom possible to change the camera angles (though certainly there are choices to be made about which angles to keep and which to discard), but vidders often change the duration and sequencing of shots, and always add a soundtrack, usually music, that serves as what Coppa calls "an interpretive lens," or what in the context of this discussion we might call the key element of the vid's narration. Regardless of whether a vidder changes the story of a show, she is inevitably changing the discourse by changing the narration; she is always re-narrating, re-telling. Sometimes that "re" simply means telling-again; sometimes it means telling-against-the-grain. Either way, from a narratological point of view, a vid is always a new narrative, even when it seems to preserve the original story.

What I would argue, though, is that changing the discourse does change the story--and here's where I complicate the idea that the same story can be narrated in many different ways. It is theoretically possible to abstract the events of the story from the way in which the story is told; but in practical terms, all we know of the story is what we know through the discourse. TV provides many terrific (often comic) examples of this inextricability. My personal favorites are from The X-Files: What "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" and "Bad Blood" demonstrate is that when you get a different perspective on events, the events themselves change--we see those changes right there on our screen!--and ultimately we as viewers cannot always judge which of those events are "more true" or "more real"; we can sometimes make an educated guess about what is "more likely," but our ability to make that kind of guess can be fairly easily baffled if all the options are equally (im)plausible. (Sometimes we can judge the truth or likelihood of a story—this is how we know that unreliable narrators are unreliable; in the case of these particular X-Files episodes, however, I would argue that the point is not that a particular narrator is unreliable or even that everyone is unreliable but simply that people see things differently, which is not quite the same thing.)

One of the things that interests me about texts of any kind is the interaction of multiple narratives; I wrote my dissertation about novels that are rewritten versions of other novels--Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, J.M. Coetzee's Foe, Peter Carey's Jack Maggs, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children--and specifically about what responses the interaction between two texts is intended to (or likely to) produce in an audience. (Here we start getting into rhetoric, about which I will write more in a separate post.)

Vids seem to me to be doing something similar. To break it down: we've got (a) the narrative of the vid, which is responding in some way to (b) the narrative in the original source text. The meanings of a vid, I would argue, are not located solely in the vid, but in the interaction between the vid and the source: meanings emerge in the space (which may be wide or quite narrow) between the show's narrative and the vid's narrative. In some cases, the situation's even more complex; a vid like obsessive24's "Climbing Up The Walls" generates meaning in the space between the vid, three source texts, and an extratexual fandom phenomenon (interest in and discussions of incest in the shows)--which is one reason why that vid is so mind-blowing.

The vid, or rather the vidder, is doing interpretive work, but that work is never completely under her control, not simply because the meaning of any text is never entirely under the creator's control but specifically because in the case of vids there's always a second narrative, the source narrative, exerting some sort of pressure on viewers' perceptions. (Of course people can watch vids without knowing the source material, and vidders can create recruiter vids that have exactly the effect of making the source accessible and appealing to people who don't already know it; these are points I'll be coming back to in the post about rhetoric.)

This gap between narratives is one way of thinking about where people unfamiliar with vids (let alone unfamiliar with fandom more generally) go astray when they watch vids. To take one particularly clear-cut example: when non-fans and/or non-vidwatchers see killabeez and tjonesy's Star Trek vid "Closer," there's apt to be a fair amount of inappropriate laughter, and I would argue that this is because they either read the narrative gap as parodic (think Brokeback trailer parodies) rather than seriously speculative, or they read it correctly and are profoundly uncomfortable with what they're being asked to see.

The last thing I want to write about in this post is still very tentative, but I need to start sorting through it somewhere, so here goes.

There's a paradox at the heart of the idea of narrative: most narratives aspire to appear complete and coherent (in science fiction and fantasy it's called "worldbuilding"), and the extent to which they do so is one of the criteria by which they are often judged. But that completeness is an illusion; no representation is ever a complete picture or facsimile of reality. A narrative pretends to be a closed system, even though it is never really a closed system. The illusion is achieved by excluding whatever elements the creators deem extraneous.

To go back to my dissertation for a minute: in it, I examined contemporary novels that rewrite other novels in order to critique them. Part of what each of them critiques is the earlier novel's illusion of being a complete and coherent story, a complete and coherent world. The contemporary novels do not critique their originals by saying "that's an inaccurate story and this is the real story"; what they do is take apart the illusion that there can be a complete truth, that any representation can be total. They show that the earlier novels are partial, but they also foreground their own partial-ness in various ways (which I will not get into here).

Now, obviously vids don't work quite the same way as these novels. But I do think that the net effect of vidding is very similar: by reinscribing and reinterpreting and re-seeing the source, by constructing overlapping and alternative narratives, by offering lots of different ideas about what's important in the source, vids and vidders collectively take apart the illusion that the original text is coherent and unified. It's like the Derridean supplement: vids supplement texts that are already complete, but always with the shadow meaning, the possibility, of adding in order to complete. Vids take what appears to be a closed system and… not just force it open, but show that it was already open.

I'm not sure yet where I'm going with this idea, but I think it's neat.
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These elements of non-verbal narration are exactly what vidders alter.

I think my brain just grew three sizes. Wow.

And I'm fascinated by the way your dissertation relates not just to vidding but to fandom in general -- not to mention the fact that you don't care for fanfiction and yet you kind of wrote your diss on it. (:

Mostly I'm just rolling around in all the delicious connections you're making between Thing A and Thing B here. More than ever I see how my education has led me inexorably to both my career and my hobby, and how directly they all relate to each other. ::whirly cartoon eyes::
I think my brain just grew three sizes.

That was kind of my reaction too. I came across that line and wrote "OMG VIDS" in the margin.

...you don't care for fanfiction and yet you kind of wrote your diss on it.

Kind of. Except for the part where not really. :) Seriously, fannish folks like to say that (and often to say it with a "Ha! See? You really DO like fanfiction!" inflection), but despite the surface similarities (which, yes, I grant) my argument would be that from a rhetorical point of view these novels really aren't much like fic at all, because they aren't intended for the same purposes, don't do the same work, and don't produce the same effects, and fic seems to me to be a genre where those conditions of production and reception are even more than usually important.

I have never bothered to actually make that argument with any specificity, mostly because hey, if it makes folks happy to think I wrote my diss on fic, I got no problem with that. :)
I totally get what you're saying about the differences between the novels you focused on and fanfiction. I'm not sure I agree 100%, inasmuch as there is plenty of fanfiction out there that IMO is trying to do exactly the same sorts of things as, say, Wide Sargasso Sea. But I'm not particularly invested in trying to convince you -- I'd rather talk about vids!
I'd rather talk about vids!

Just one of the many reasons I like you. :)
:D
Regardless of whether a vidder changes the story of a show, she is inevitably changing the discourse by changing the narration; she is always re-narrating, re-telling. Sometimes that "re" simply means telling-again; sometimes it means telling-against-the-grain. Either way, from a narratological point of view, a vid is always a new narrative, even when it seems to preserve the original story.

Ooooh. YES.

The meanings of a vid, I would argue, are not located solely in the vid, but in the interaction between the vid and the source: meanings emerge in the space (which may be wide or quite narrow) between the show's narrative and the vid's narrative.

That's a really lovely way to frame that. Yes, absolutely. This speaks to why some vids are more successful for insiders (people who are in the fandom, will recognize the clips or references or tropes) than they are for outsiders (who are missing the context necessary for that foregrounding of one narrative against the other.) When it comes to a fandom I don't recognize, anything that relies on my awareness of the tension between the show's narrative and the vid's narrative is likely to pass me by.

But when it comes to a fandom I know well, I'm a lot more alert to the nuances of that tension and how the vidder plays with it -- how the narrative of the vid coexists with, or aligns with, or subverts, the narrative of the source footage. And, of course, one of the really fun things about becoming a fan of vids qua vids (rather than just a fan of vids in my fandoms) is that I'm starting to encounter vids for fandoms I don't know well, but where the tensions between narratives are clear to me because of general fannish osmosis or because I recognize the techniques the vidder is using in telling her story.

Vids take what appears to be a closed system and… not just force it open, but show that it was already open.

I love the idea that the system is always already open.
When it comes to a fandom I don't recognize, anything that relies on my awareness of the tension between the show's narrative and the vid's narrative is likely to pass me by. But when it comes to a fandom I know well, I'm a lot more alert to the nuances of that tension and how the vidder plays with it -- how the narrative of the vid coexists with, or aligns with, or subverts, the narrative of the source footage.

Yes, exactly!

I think now that I really should have said "meanings emerge in the space...between the vid and the source and the viewer," because -- okay, maybe it's obvious that the viewer's involved, that she's interpreting, but it occurs to me that another source of tension or difficulty when it comes to watching vids is looking at a vid and saying "...but that's not how I see the source AT ALL."

one of the really fun things about becoming a fan of vids qua vids...is that I'm starting to encounter vids for fandoms I don't know well, but where the tensions between narratives are clear to me because of general fannish osmosis or because I recognize the techniques the vidder is using in telling her story.

Yes! And this is part of what's fascinating to me, the emerging... I don't know even know what to call it -- vid grammar? -- where we can identify the structural logic or rhetorical moves of a vid even if we can't quite invest it with meaning.

I love the idea that the system is always already open.

Me too. Because of course it IS -- it's not exactly news that, hey, novels are finite! No TV show can never represent the whole of the world! But one mark of a good narrative is that it DOES seem to contain so much more than itself. And so to encounter a text that wants to have it both ways, to preserve the pleasure of the text and refuse the illusion at the same time, is just... really cool.
And this is part of what's fascinating to me, the emerging... I don't know even know what to call it -- vid grammar? -- where we can identify the structural logic or rhetorical moves of a vid even if we can't quite invest it with meaning.

Oh, yes. I have tried to articulate this in the past and I just can't seem to make the words come out. And it came up this year at VVC, when we were talking about the GG vid, and how somebody read it as slashy. IMO, that's at least as much about vid grammar as it is about slash goggles. What do hugs mean? What does a series of hugs mean? What does a series of hugs set to music mean?
And I don't mean, I hasten to point out, that there's anything wrong with the GG vid or the way its message is executed. But viewers bring expectations to the table, and a lot of those expectations come from what they've seen other vids do, and the way those other vids have done it.
But viewers bring expectations to the table, and a lot of those expectations come from what they've seen other vids do, and the way those other vids have done it.

I think that's absolutely true, and I think that the GG vid is an example of an instance in which several conflicting expectations are being raised by different textual and extratextual elements of the vid. If vid grammar and slash goggles are dictating one set of responses and the narrative of the show is dictating a separate set of responses, how does the audience (or the vidder) negotiate those competing demands? And in this case the whole thing is further complicated by fandom's current interest in incest pairings, which is a piece of the rhetorical situation that is outside either the show or the vid. Would so many people in the audience have been willing to go to a slashy place with that vid if it had shown five years ago? We can't know, of course, but the question represents an interesting theoretical and rhetorical problem.
I hadn't even considered the growing popularity of incest pairings -- my assumption was that the people who read the vid as slash didn't know the characters were mother and daughter. But of course you're right, that adds yet another filter to the viewing experience.

It would be interesting to find out numbers on this: how many proponents of the slash reading knew the show, or at least knew the relationship between the characters going in. Not that I'm big into statistical analysis, but now I'm very curious whether you could be a fan of GG and still read the vid as slashy/incesty. And what would *that* say about our vid-viewing filters?

Chiming in very late


one of the really fun things about becoming a fan of vids qua vids...is that I'm starting to encounter vids for fandoms I don't know well, but where the tensions between narratives are clear to me because of general fannish osmosis or because I recognize the techniques the vidder is using in telling her story.


Yes! And this is part of what's fascinating to me, the emerging... I don't know even know what to call it -- vid grammar? -- where we can identify the structural logic or rhetorical moves of a vid even if we can't quite invest it with meaning.



I'm to a point in vid viewing where while I may be unfamiliar with the story, I can follow the narrative fairly proficiently. Even to the extent of spotting not only is there tension between the source narrative and the vid narrative but having a fairly clear of idea of it's general shape and texture.
wow, this is quite fascinating as we've had a both academic and not so academic talk about what is a narrative 2 days ago at vidukon. So seeing this post is like meant to be. I will reread when my brain can process.
Oh, I would love to hear about that panel!
This is really amazing. I think your points about how vids operate are spot on.
Thank you; I'm glad it made some sense outside my head! :)
I really like this post, especially the clarity with which you describe the academic concepts. And I'll be interested to see where you go with it. A quick question:

Either way, from a narratological point of view, a vid is always a new narrative, even when it seems to preserve the original story.

Are you saying here that all vids are narratives -- or at least can be read/viewed as narratives -- from a narrative theory perspective, including ones that wouldn't be classified as narrative vids under fannish vidding genre terms? I don't know that I'd disagree, I'm just curious to hear more.

If not all vids count or function as narratology-style narratives, what would constitute a non-narrative vid in narratological terms -- or does narrative theory have a limit point beyond which X is no longer a narrative? Or are vids necessarily entwined with narrative, even when they're not (in fannish vidding genre terms) narrative vids, because of their relation to the narratives of their sources? And for that matter, would all of the songs that vidders use also be considered narratives, or only certain kinds of songs with lyrics that tell or imply a story?

Sorry, that's a much bigger question than I intended to ask -- and I'd totally accept "it depends" as an answer! But thanks for a really thought-provoking post.
Wow, terrific questions; thank you!

Are you saying here that all vids are narratives -- or at least can be read/viewed as narratives -- from a narrative theory perspective, including ones that wouldn't be classified as narrative vids under fannish vidding genre terms?

I think so, yeah--I mean, I think that's the implication of what I'm saying here, although wow, put like that it looks really... definite. Maybe one way to think about it is that when we use narrative in the vidding genre we're usually thinking about PLOT, whereas the narrative theory perspective lets us think about it in terms of NARRATION--maybe this is why the idea that the camera and the music do so much of the narrating really struck me. Vids don't have to worry about story, because the story is already there in the source, to be borrowed or subverted or undone; vids are not meant to stand alone. I mean, obviously they do get encountered that way, in the same way that one can read Wide Sargasso Sea without having read Jane Eyre--and can even get something out of it!--but vids are just not BUILT for that. (...I think I'm going to have to get to that post about rhetoric sooner rather than later.) So I think--to answer your next question--that yeah, vids are so inextricably bound up with narrative source that from a theoretical perspective they can't entirely un-narrativize, to coin a really appalling neologism.

I think this raises the larger question, actually, of where or to what extent narrativity inheres in a text. How much pattern does the text have to provide in order for the audience to find a narrative in it? (Suddenly I'm thinking about Beckett novels. Eeek.)

If not all vids count or function as narratology-style narratives, what would constitute a non-narrative vid in narratological terms -- or does narrative theory have a limit point beyond which X is no longer a narrative?

I think this is where Ryan's idea of a fuzzy-set or scalar definition gets really useful. Some vids FEEL more like narratives than others, which is a really imprecise but not unimportant point. I mean, thinking about the genre sense of the word, we'd get broad "yes, that's a narrative" consensus about some vids and have disagreements about others--I've seen that before, where a vidder thinks of her vid as non-narrative but a viewer found a narrative in it. So it makes sense to me that in the narrative theory definition, too, we might have some vids that are intuitively or paradigmatically narrative and then we'd have some that are more marginal or further along the continuum. Which, uh, is kind of a complicated way of saying "it depends." ::facepalm::

And for that matter, would all of the songs that vidders use also be considered narratives, or only certain kinds of songs with lyrics that tell or imply a story?

I hadn't thought about this at all! Hmmm. Okay. My sense is that they wouldn't all be narratives, no--they're part of the narration, part of the discourse; divorced from a story, they're not a narrative. But of course some songs ARE narratives, in the way that some (but not all) poems are narratives. And now I'm going to hypothesize that the extent to which a song is a narrative by itself is one of the things that most strongly affects our perception of narrative as a vid genre: if the song tells a story, that helps us (forces us?) to interpret the images as a story.

[edited because I fail at copy & paste...]
Thanks for taking the time for such a thoughtful response. That all makes a lot of sense.

Vids don't have to worry about story, because the story is already there in the source, to be borrowed or subverted or undone; vids are not meant to stand alone. I mean, obviously they do get encountered that way, in the same way that one can read Wide Sargasso Sea without having read Jane Eyre--and can even get something out of it!--but vids are just not BUILT for that. (...I think I'm going to have to get to that post about rhetoric sooner rather than later.) So I think--to answer your next question--that yeah, vids are so inextricably bound up with narrative source that from a theoretical perspective they can't entirely un-narrativize, to coin a really appalling neologism.

Are you familiar with strangefandom? Reading this part of your response reminded me of the comm, and how even in vids with completely unfamiliar sources, we impute or extrapolate some kind of story (or maybe just the idea that there is a story, even if we don't know it) as a point of reference or interpretive backbone.
Ahahahaha. Yes, I do know strangefandom; the round on Dante's Cove remains one of the most hilarious and disturbing things I have EVER SEEN. I may never entirely recover.

...even in vids with completely unfamiliar sources, we impute or extrapolate some kind of story (or maybe just the idea that there is a story, even if we don't know it) as a point of reference or interpretive backbone.

Yeah, that's it exactly. Even if we don't know the source material, we know that there IS source material; the transformation of that material is the whole point of vidding. We assume that that source material has a narrative, and we spend at least some of our energy trying to reconstruct that narrative based on the clues (we think) the vid is giving us. Which, as strangefandom demonstrates, doesn't always work. :)
Bookmarking. This is really nifty, as well as beautifully lucid. Thanks.
Thank you! I do try to be lucid, so it's nice to hear that it's working. :)
Mmmmm, nice chewy meta - thanks! I came from your link in vidding, and I think I'll stick around.
Glad you liked; hello and welcome!