Narrative and sequence

These set of notes were written whilst I was researching for a book on information design. I think of the audience as being first year undergraduate graphic designers.

A narrative is a written, spoken or visual account of connected events. A narrative can best be understood in terms of the tradition of storytelling. A story can be factual or fictional. It can be conveyed through books, magazines, newspapers, comics, film, television, exhibition and the web. Designers have adopted the form of the story or narrative as an engaging and efficient method of sequencing information.

A sequence is the specific order in which a series of related events proceed. Designers consider the story that is to be told and make decisions regarding the order in which key information is to be seen or heard. A sequence of information may flow continuously or be punctuated with silence, noise, space or time. Clear segmentation of information that can be reconnected back to an overall concept allows an appreciation of the individual parts as well as the whole. The division of a book into pages, sections and chapters allows for natural breaks to occur within information. Progressive disclosure is a term to describe the sequencing of information for example on motorway signage.

Comics demonstrate the concepts of narrative and sequence well. In the book ‘Understanding Comics’, Scott McCloud describes comics as ‘juxtaposed…images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information’. A comic uses space to unfold its story whereas film or television sequences images and sound in time.

Once upon a time – a brief history of comic art narrative
Information has been conveyed in sequence as a narrative form from early civilisations onwards: Egyptian hieroglyphics; the Trajan column, ancient Greek paintings; Japanese scrolls; pre-Columbian picture manuscripts; the Bayeux tapestry; stain glass windows; Hogarth’s satirical commentaries; Rodolphe Töpffer’s introduction of panel borders; Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel’s woodcuts; and Japanese manga comics.

Audience involvement
For a story to be successfully conveyed, an audience needs to be able to relate to the key characters. Characters in comics are often drawn in an iconic fashion so as to broaden the potential viewer identification. Books and dramas use archetypal characters to identify with.

Words and pictures
Words are described as perceived information in that it takes time to decode the abstract symbols of language. Pictures are received information in that the message is received immediately. We more readily understand pictures of things rather than textual descriptions of things – early words were stylised pictures. See also World Without Words by Michael Evamy.

Transitions between sequential events
Scott McCloud identifies six categories of transition within the comic art. Moment-to-moment transitions are like the individually drawn stages of an animation with little differences between frames. Action-to-action transitions show a distinctive re-action to a previous action involving a single subject. Subject-to-subject is a transition from one subject to another but within the same idea for example a winner crosses the line and the camera pans to the stopwatch. Scene-to-scene transitions require a level of deductive reasoning making connections across time and space for example if we were wondering where to go on holiday we might envision three separate shots of different locations. Aspect-to-aspect transitions are where a series of images convey various aspects of a scene. The non-sequiter transition is a series of unrelated events. Karen O’Neil has produced an interpretation of these six narrative transitions which can be viewed at her website.

Literary theory and the function of stories
A ‘Story’ can be defined in terms of a news broadcast, a written article, a sequence in an exhibition or a series of navigated links on a website.

Narratology is the theory of narrative structure and describes: notions of plot; types of narrators; and narrative techniques. The basic structure of a story has a start, middle and end. The phrase ‘to have lost the plot’ indicates that the sequence of a story has been disturbed.

The literary theorist Jonathan Culler has stated that stories are the way in which we primarily ‘make sense of things, whether in thinking of our lives as a progression leading somewhere or in telling ourselves what is happening in the world’. Everyone loves stories, both telling them and hearing them. Unexpected twists, turnarounds in fortune, good triumphing against evil are all satisfying resolutions in plot. Stories operate as educational devices and we are often driven by the desire to discover and acquire knowledge. We can see ‘experience’ through the various vantage points literature provides us. Novels are representations of social reality and allow us to act out scenarios through vicarious experiences. Culler suggests that ‘we become who we are through a series of identifications, novels are a powerful device for the internalisation of social norms’. See also Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction.

Representations of narrative
A narrative is influenced by who the narrator is. The events of a story may be described in the first or third person. The narrator could be a central character who conveys their perspective or an observer of events. Audience and tone of voice are key narrative concerns. Many radio and television broadcasters imagine addressing an individual. Narration can occur live as the events unfold or after the event in retrospection.

The type of language used may change depending on the perspective of the character conveying the story or the audience being addressed. The language of a particular age group, gender, culture or class may be adopted to convey certain narrative sequences.

Stories or events may be seen through the eyes of a key protagonist. This is called focalisation. The focaliser may envisage events at the time or reflect through hindsight.

The authority of the narrator and credibility of their message is vital to an audience’s belief in what they are being told. When information is tainted with bias the receiver of the information may question the particular interpretation.