Tag Archives: Narrative Theory & Techniques

Seymour Chatman – Novels and Films

Chatman begins outlining a salient property of narrative which is “double time structuring.” Involves the time sequence of plot (story-time) and the time sequence of how the events are presented by the media (discourse-time). This concept accounts for a time difference between real time and related time life of a person == 80 years and a biographic representation in film over 90mins. It also captures concepts of nonlinear time flash backs, flash-forwards; side-shadowing and the like. Chatman’s opening point to the common narrative ground across media. However here he seeks to discuss some differences between novels and films and what they are capable of. In particular he contrasts the idea of ‘description’ in both media and questions whether it is possible for film to provide description without also serving to carry the plot along. In the novel through language he argues the action is put on hold while spaces and object are described. He refers to descriptions in ‘early fiction’ by quoting terms used by critics such as “block”, “islands”, or “chunks” and has been utilised prominently for picturing the scene.  This is only part of the use since description of mise en scene excludes inter alia which shows an abstract state of affairs or a characters mental posture. What happen during description is related to double time whereby the plot does not move forward as the passage of description is being articulated.

Chatman uses a comparison between a story originally written by Maupassant and reworked by Jean Renoir in his work with the same title, Partie de Campagne, 1936. He introduces the opening sequence which involves the description of a milk cart which carries the Parisians to a country location where they intend to eat in a restaurant for the day. He compares the Maupassant’s description which references three items of the cart from which the reader constructs the rest. The film version, because it is visual, references a large, but indeterminate no of feature but the viewing time which is approximately one minute constrains the details that can be captured by the viewer. Chatman used the term “assert” to emphasis the manner in which these media depict the milk cart. In this way the text must assert, that is state as a fact, the properties from which the cart is visually constructed. While film can assert by explicitly pointing out features this tends to be distained by modernist film makers and critics who rely on information being implicated in the image. The film requires a special effort to assert properties which might be achieved by way of a voiceover narrator, since in its dominant visual form it depicts rather than asserts properties. The key point is that even though some may argue the close-up acts in such a way as to describe, story-time continues to tick away in a film in the way it does not in a novel. Therefore sequences of detailed close-up images cannot stop to describe since the pressure of ‘sequence’ is to continue to move the plot along.

“And if it is the case that story-time necessarily continues to roll in films and if description entails precisely the arrest of story-time, then it is reasonable to argue that films do not and cannot describe.”(p 125)

Establishing shots are treated in a slightly different way with reference to works by Hitchcock in particular. The point emphasised here is that establishing shots, birds-eye shots for example, may be interpreted as descriptive prior to the plot being initiated at the beginning of a film. Establishing shots for a scene in media res do not enjoy the same descriptive status. Once the characters have been introduced what is subsequently shown or depicted tends to be subservient to the motivations and actions of characters:

“[…] when Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are flying into Rio de Janeiro. We see shots of the city from the air, typical street scenes, and so on. Yet our sense is not of a hiatus in the story-time but rather that Rio is down there waiting for Cary and Ingrid to arrive.” (P. 126)

Chatman goes on to comparatively examine other passages in Maupassant’s short story with Renoir’s work. The description of Mademoiselle Dufour as a “pretty girl of about eighteen” is not only descriptive but also evaluative. This can easily be reconstructed by the reader of the story to conform with his/her own mental model of prettiness but the girl (Sylvie Bataille) in Renoirs film may not be everyone’s pretty. Describing the girl as pretty says something about the narrator view of her and the camera according to I.A. Richards labelled this function of the speaker “tone”[i]. The camera, according to Chatman is powerless to invoke tone since it can only show and such a tone is often focalised through the implied narrator other characters in the scene.

“The erotic effect of her appearance explicitly described by the narrator of Maupassant’s story is only implicitly depicted in the film by the reaction shots. Something of her appeal is caught by the looks on the faces of four ages of gazing men – the pubescent peekers in the hedge, the seminarians, Rodolphe, and the older priest leading his students.” (P.135)



[i] Deborah Tannen might refer to this as ‘register’.

“Partie de Campagne” (1936) by lemans88