Plot and Emplotment

David M. Boje

June 7, 2001; revised July 29, 2002

Summary and Notes from Boje (2001) narrative Methods for Organizational and Communication Research. London: Sage Publishing.



Frames are ideologies (world views). In his writing on Frames, Burke talks about Big Plots (not the small plots that come below as part of corporate plans, and that kind of thing. There are two types of frames that stand in dialectic opposition. These are Frames of Acceptance (we accept Tragedy and we accept Comedic frames. And there are Frames of Rejection (these are more Marxian frames, ideologies which reject the Grotesque and the Burlesque). Burke accused Marx of focusing on the Grotesque and Burlesque frames of Rejection, and not developing a true Dialectic theory, which allows for the Acceptance of Tragedy and the Acceptance of the Comedic. 

Smith's frames also rejected the Grotesque (the exploitation of monopoly the unethical practices of corporate leaders). Yet, Smith does seem to accept some quite tragic circumstances.

Taylor's scientific management is an ideological Frame. What does it do? It rejects the Grotesque forms of exploitation, such as quota wages and sweatshops, while embracing an acceptance of a more romantic view that science wisely applied can move beyond the dialectic of labor and capital (note that this is outside Burke's use of Frame).  

When I hear the word Burlesque, I think if Enron, its exploitative sexist practices towards the Women of Enron (see June issue of Playboy) or read the Enron paper on the web. Enron pursues the Grotesque (hyper-competitive exploitation) and embraces the Cowboy Capitalism of the Burlesque. 

Burke wanted to move beyond the Grotesque/Burlesque, but looking to the more Comedic. For Burke this was a turn towards Nietzsche. Nietzsche in The Gay Science (1887: see paragraph #86) writes about Theatre. He speaks of the business-person who has "blind and tired eyes." "Men whose lives are not an 'action' but a business, sit before the stage and observe strange creatures for whom life is no mere business?" Nietzsche observes, in his ironic style, that the business-person says upon gazing, lets say a Shakespeare-type theatre production,  "that is entertaining; that is culture."  And Nietzsche says he finds the "spectacle nauseous" meaning the business person saying that's culture/entertainment. Nietzsche's ironic reply is, I often lack culture" and gives this remarkable advice (which by they way echoes Plato's distrust of theatre): "Whoever finds enough tragedy and comedy in himself, probably does best when he stays away from the theatre." I think Nietzsche is concerned that the business-person may not get the point of the play on stage, nor its message about Characters and such things Aristotle writes about, such as tragic flaws (e.g. the leader/heroic character flaws that led to their reversals of fortune by the end of the play; this is what Aristotle calls the cathartic lesson of tragedy). If the business-person does not get the plot and characterization of the play, and only sees it as "culture" or as "entertainment" then the that business-person is only finding passion in the "intoxification" with the spectacle, not with the tragic flaw message.  


Themes are about what Freire calls "themes of oppression," the material conditions of life and work that are exploitative, predatory, and hyper-competitive (e.g. competing not just to win, but to drive the other out of business). Themes of oppression include workaholism, racism, sexism, etc. Themes can be part of frames, but they are much smaller packets than Frames (which are grander and more ideological). 

Themes of oppression play a grand role in Marx and Boje, a somewhat lesser one in Smith, who accepts tragedy as part of life, but not monopoly and not a lack of ethics. 


Plots are more about emplotment, than about classifying something as comedic, tragic, ironic/satiric, or  romantic.  Rather than this, I am looking at plot more in Ricoeur's sense of the three mimetic moments.  The first mimetic is what we have discussed as the pre-story or antenarrative. The second mimetic is emplotment, the grasping together of characters, events, dialog, etc. into an emplotment. The third mimetic moment is when the plot gets contextualized or decontextualized, realized or unrealized, understood or not understandable at all. 

Example - think about plans. Are they real? Not until they enroll characters into them (as in emplotment of the characters with the actions and events), and not until the plans change the context (the 3rd mimetic moment). Plans can gain and loose supporters, gain and loose cast members, move in and out of reality. Most plans do not get beyond an antenarrative (first mimetic) moment of some piece of paper written without anybody's participation except an executive or planner or consultant. 


For Smith there are internalized characters. What Boje calls the Theatre of the Mind. That is the looking glass self, internalized characters, the ones you talk to all day long. There are internalized spectators in our minds, the others. Boje writes of this in the Four Voices of leadership. First voice is the self (bureaucratic); second voice is the call of the Other (quest); third voice is an internalized ethical voice (chaos/complexity); and fourth voice is more postmodern - hearing the voice of the silent (the voiceless people in any organization or some kind of call from the aesthetic). Boje sees characters as schizophrenic, able to exhibit one or another internalized voice in a particular situation. 

Internalized spectators for Smith is the Second and Third voices Boje writes about (e.g. the Internalized-Other and the Internalized-Ethical spectators). Do a search on Smith's writing for the word "spectator" and you will find this for yourself.

In Marx there are two main characters, the capitalist owners of firms and the workers who no longer own anything. 

Taylor's characters are the scientific manager, the planning clerk who carries out the plans, and the worker who does what he or she is told to do. 


Taylor's most famous dialog is with Schmidt, the worker who loads pig iron onto his shovel and then onto the train car.  Each pig iron weighs about 90 pounds; that is one strong shoveler. The dialog is written in theatrical style.

Boje, we know always sees dialog and the theatric in every social situation.

Smith wants to create a dialog between the moral internalized voice, the internalized other voice, and the capitalist; this is Smith's marriage of the Moral Sentiments to the Wealth of Nations. With Enronitis, we need this now.

Marx seeks a democratic dialog between workers and capitalists.


Rhythm is about time. How are various patterns of time affecting the organization? How do people use time. In workaholic influence, something strange and grotesque has happened to time; time had become PERFORMATIVITY. Performativity is defined as working until you drop dead of exhaustion. Taylor wanted rest periods in the rhythm of the day; so he was against sweatshop performativity. Smith does not want workers exploited with the performativity demanded by an unethical capitalist who has only one internalized voice: work harder till you die.  Boje obviously wants to reduce the work week to 33 hours like the French and take weeks and months off to travel, and find a more convivial and festive use of time. 


There are four types. The concentrated spectacle of the bureaucratic (or quest or postmodern or chaos firm). The diffuse spectacle that diffuses as the corporation interpenetrates with its market and niches in around the globe to those local conditions.  Integrated spectacles integrate the concentrated with the diffuse.  Finally, those little scandals can erupt into megaspectacle scandals, like with Enron. See Enron paper on the web to see the Rhizomatic relationships between these genres of spectacle.  Or see the Metatheatre Intervention Manual for what to do about the socioeconomic aspects of spectacle. 



-classic typology of plots as comedic, tragic, romantic, and ironic (or satiric) was adapted from Frye (1957). Plot has a simple definition:

Plot - the sequence of events or incidents of which the story is composed. 

A. Conflict is a clash of actions, ideas, desires or wills.

a. person against person.
b. person against environment - external force, physical nature, society, or "fate."
c. person against herself/himself - conflict with some element in her/his own nature; maybe physical, mental, emotional, or moral.

B. Protagonist and Antagonist - the protagonist is the central character, sympathetic or unsympathetic. The forces working against her/him, whether persons, things, conventions of society, or traits of their own character, are the antagonists.

Yet, in its attempt to capture life and story it, plot takes on more complex forms.  Paul Ricoeur's book Narrative and Time, moves beyond plot to the world of emplotment.

EMPLOTMENT - Emplotment can be defined as the grasping together of characters, plot, scenes, etc., that plays its mediating role between time and narrative. Emplotment is stage two in the trilogy, a bridge between what I call antenarrative, and the hermetic circle.  For Ricoeur "emplotment" encompasses plot as an aspect of the second of three stages of mimesis. Here is a brief summary of the three stages (Boje, 2001):

M1 MIMESIS ONE - Plot in this first mimesis is defined as the ordering of action events, symbolism, and temporality. And there are prenarrative experiences that refuse to be narrated (antenarrative). We look to the pre-understanding of networks of action, symbolism, and narrative time that are required to be able to employ. This is the stage of prenarration, what we need to know to have affix a plot. In short this is antenarrative (pre-narrative plus the (ante) bet that a story can be crafted to emplot the prenarrated elements. For storytelling to be possible, requires pre-understanding by teller and spectator of the comprised of action network, symbolic mediation and narrative temporality. More on antenarrative - for example, Holocaust witnesses present us with a "hole in the narrative that cannot be filled in" (Frank, 1995: 98). Some life is just to horrid to story, there is no sense to make. Those living in chaos, only through retrospective and reflective glance turn chaos into narrative.    Ricoeur's (1984: 74) reply is the concept of "prenarrative" events and the untold story of episodes in our lives where stories are (as yet) prenarrated or demanding to be told. Yet, modernity has to make sense, and those who do not make sense are sent to therapy.  The psychoanalyst for example constructs a more intelligible story (or case history) out of bits and pieces of our lived (or repressed or untold) stories, dreams, and episodes that clients then believe is constitutive of their identity (p. 74). Out of antenarrative, comes story. The judge, jury, attorneys and witnesses unravel the tangle of plots and background in the prehistory of an emergent story a defendant is caught up in (p. 74-75). And attorneys get paid to make a lived story more obscure and ambiguous. This emergent story constructs the subject as entangled in untold or prenarrated stories. This unplotted antenarrative pre-storytelling presents us with a "hole in the telling" (p. 102).

Networks of Action - A network of actions imply goals, refer to motives and have agents responsible for various consequences. Pre-understanding networks questions of "what," "why," "who," "how," "with whom," or "against whom" in regard to a given action.

Symbolic Mediations - Plots require a practical understanding and knowledge of the symbolic resources and processes of culture, the signs, rules, and norms of a given context. Symbolic mediation is a focus on the symbols of a culture that underlie networks of action as meaningful articulations. Texts are dialogues (co-references) with other texts (we have something to say) and anticipated readers (we may hear back). We may omit details of intertextual reference, but a reader can fill in the gaps and missing links (be extralinguistic) or not (invent referential illusion).

Temporal Narration  - Plot requires a pre-understanding of time and temporal structures. But linear plot is only one emplotment. The structural time devices of narrative are not always linear and may include flashback, flash-forward, repetition, and ellipsis. Plot is a bridge constructed between "Care" and the "narrative order" of plot. Plot confers a sequential interconnection and integration on agents, deeds, and their sufferings into temporal wholes, but does so with a sense of "Care."


M2 MIMESIS TWO - or emplotment, the grasping together of selected events, characters, and actions into a plot line. This can be romantic, tragic, comedic or ironic. Emplotment is mediation of pre-understanding, event and story. And a plot is one among many alternative plots. Barry and Elmes (1997) have applied the concept of narrative plot to organizational strategy.

"Accordingly, a narrative approach can make the political economies of strategy more visible (cf. Boje, 1996): "Who gets to write and read strategy? How are reading and writing linked to power? Who is marginalized in the writing/reading process?" (Barry & Elmes, 1997: 430).  

"A story the strategist tells is but one of many competing alternatives woven from a vast array of possible characterizations, plot lines, and themes" (Barry & Elmes, 1997: 433). In emplotment, the plot is not just a chronology of events or the schematic of a causal chain that links events and episodes together into a narrative structure. Emplotment is also the intertextual arrangement of events within the text, and the epistemology of time and being-within-time. There are three mediations to accomplish emplotment.

Mediation between individual Events and Story as a Whole - A diversity of events or succession of incidents are constructed and grasped together into a meaningful story. An event has meaning in its relation to other events and incidents in the development of a plot within the meaningfulness of the whole story.  Stories are more than a chronology of events in serial order because of plot, which organizes and (re) configures event networks into an intelligible whole.

Mediation between Heterogeneous Factors - Factors as heterogeneous as "agents, goals, means, interactions, circumstances, unexpected results" get emploted and embellished. Plot (re) configures heterogeneous events and factors into a whole story and into one grand "thought, "point," or "theme."

Mediation Allows a Synthesis of the Heterogeneous - The episodic dimensions of narrative is chronological while the narrative of time is not. Plot (re)configures chronological time into storied and teleological time. Emplotment grasp together configuration from mere succession. The synthesis can occur in the conclusion of a story where all the contingencies, factors, and events are given a point of view and formed into a whole understanding.

M3 MIMESIS THREE - Ricoeur (1984: 700) says narrative "has its full meaning when it is restored to the time of action and of suffering in mimesis3." Story text meets reader and 'real' action.  In the Circle of Mimesis the end point (temporality) leads back to (or anticipates) the starting points, our pre-understandings (semantic structure of action, resources for symbolization, or temporal character) across the mid-point (emplotment). Ricoeur adds that our fascination with the unformed (or the horror of chaos) in temporal experience is a feature of modernity (p. 72). So emplotment must happen.  We can assert we do not have access to temporal experience outside stories others and we tell.

From a critical postmodern perspective, I have one challenge to Ricoeur (1984). That is, the M3 does not take into account the critical aspects of the system. For example, a system without integrity, as in the case of Enron is out of control.


Romantic - Romance is a drama of self-identification symbolized by a heroine's victory over the world of experience. A good example of romantic is the quest narrative, a heroic journey.  The hero is redeemed and/or liberated. Romance is the hero's transcendence through some progress quest to bring back what Joseph Campbell calls "boon."  In Tom Sawyer, there is a considerable amount of respect for tales of heroism and for the conventions described by Frye. Tom is the imaginative source of mythological stories. At his instigation, the boys become robbers, pirates, clowns, and knights, taking blood oaths, pledging undying loyalty, and facing danger with stout heart and a wooden sword. But these are always characters of the heroic type, never villainous.

Satiric (ironic) - Satire/irony is the opposite of Romance.  It is a drama of apprehension symbolized by the heroine's captivity in the world.  He/she is never able to overcome the darkness, get out of the abyss. Satire exposes the "ultimate inadequacy of the visions of the world" that posits harmony (White 1973:10). Postmodern ironic testimony is witness "to a truth that is generally unrecognized or suppressed" (Frank, 1995: 137). That is, harmony is fictive illusion. t should not be confused with sarcasm which is simply language designed to cause pain. Irony is used to suggest the difference between appearance and reality, between expectation and fulfillment, the complexity of experience, to furnish indirectly an evaluation of the author's material, and at the same time to achieve compression. Irony of situation - discrepancy between appearance and reality, or between expectation and fulfillment, or between what is and what would seem appropriate.

Comedic - In Comedy, there is hope for the heroes in a temporary triumph over darkness. Comedy offers temporary reconciliation or harmony. Reconciliations are symbolized by a festive occasion and harmony can be achieved between conflicting parties. Comedy, Northrop Frye has said, lies between satire and romance. Is the comic mask laughing or smiling? We usually laugh at someone, but smile with someone. Laughter expresses recognition of some absurdity in human behavior; smile expresses pleasure in one's company or good fortune. The essential difference between tragedy and comedy is in the depiction of human nature: tragedy shows greatness in human nature and human freedom whereas comedy shows human weakness and human limitation. The norms of comedy are primarily social; the protagonist is always in a group or emphasizes commonness. A tragic hero possesses overpowering individuality - so that the play is often named after her/him (Antigone, Othello); the comic protagonist tends to be a type and the play is often named for the type (The Misanthrope, The Alchemist, The Brute). Comic plots do not exhibit the high degree of organic unity as tragic plots do. Plausibility is not usually the central characteristic (cause-effect progression) but coincidences, improbable disguises, mistaken identities make up the plot. The purpose of comedy is to make us laugh and at the same time, help to illuminate human nature and human weaknesses. Conventionally comedies have a happy ending. Accidental discovery, act of divine intervention (deus ex machina), sudden reform are common comedic devises. "Comedy is the thinking person's response to experience; tragedy records the reactions of the person with feeling." - Charles B. Hands

Tragic - In Tragedy, the hero is defeated by the experiences of the world, yet, hope exists for those left behind by their understanding of the limits of overcoming the abyss. Liberation is possible, but the hero falls into the abyss. Who better to understand tragedy than Shakespeare and Aristotle:

Aristotle's definition of tragedy:

A tragedy is the imitation in dramatic form of an action that is serious and complete, with incidents arousing pity and fear wherewith it effects a catharsis of such emotions. The language used is pleasurable and throughout appropriate to the situation in which it is used. The chief characters are noble personages ("better than ourselves," says Aristotle) and the actions they perform are noble actions.

Central features of the Aristotelian archetype:

1. The tragic hero is a character of noble stature and has greatness. If the hero's fall is to arouse in us the emotions of pity and fear, it must be a fall from a great height.

2. Though the tragic hero is pre-eminently great, he/she is not perfect. Tragic flaw, hubris (excessive pride or passion), and hamartia (some error) lead to the hero's downfall.

3. The hero's downfall, therefore, is partially her/his own fault, the result of one's own free choice, not the result of pure accident or villainy, or some overriding malignant fate.

4. Nevertheless, the hero's misfortune is not wholly deserved. The punishment exceeds the crime. The hero remains admirable.

5. Yet the tragic fall is not pure loss - though it may result in the hero's death, before it, there is some increase in awareness, some gain in self-knowledge or, as Aristotle puts it, some "discovery."

6. Though it arouses solemn emotion - pity and fear, says Aristotle, but compassion and awe might be better terms - tragedy, when well performed, does not leave its audience in a state of depression. It produces a catharsis or an emotional release at the end, one shared as a common experience by the audience.

This ancient typology is relevant for contemporary organizational analysis. Think about the pre-story understanding necessary to plot and emplot a story. Then the story is told, and enters collective memory, part of the hermetic circle, and the restorying never ends.

Caution - Again, let me stress that when it comes to plot, I am more interested in the three mimetic moments, and in Frames (i.e. dialectic of Frames of Acceptance with Frames of Rejection). Frames of Acceptance is the acceptance of tragedy and the comedic (think Dilbert) without a motivation to do anything about it. Frames of Rejection are rejecting the Burlesque (think Enron Cowboy Capitalism sex scandals or Playboy's Women of Enron) and rejecting the Grotesque (think Chapter 10, the Working Day in Marx's Das Kapital, the werewolf and vampires who such the blood out of labor); See Marx (Ch 10) and you will know the meaning of Performativity and the meaning of Grotesque frames (ideologies) infested with Themes of Oppression.


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Boje, David M. (2001) Chapter 7: Plot Analysis. In Narrative Methods for Organizational and Communication Research. London: Sage.

Boje, D. M. (2000) The Four Voices of Leadership 

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