Formist Narratology

David Boje

June 30, 1999

  Our short list of narratologies ranges from realism to structuralist, social constructionist, poststructuralist, critical theory, and postmodern narratologies. Here we look at the Formist approach.

In formist narratology time, place and mind do not matter, only form counts. Formist (structuralist) narratology rests on three radical claims (1) that the sign (story) and the signified (context) have separated in some arbitrary ways, (2) a deductive analysis transparently reveals the form of narrative is its content, and (3) the narrator uses framing devices to make narratives appear real but they are just signs.

Background Material may be advisable before moving on.

Reviewing the structuralist traditions of Russian Formalists (Propp & Shklovsky) American structuralism (James, Lubbock, Booth, & Chatman), and French Structuralists (Barthes, Todorov, Bremond, Greimas, Pavel, & Prince) he spies the duality of narrative and story. Culler (1981: 169) notes: "if these theorists agree on anything it is this: that the theory of narrative requires a distinction between what I shall call 'story’ – a sequence of actions or events, conceived as independent of their manifestation in discourse – and what I shall call ‘discourse,’ the discursive presentation or narration of events."

Narrative paradigm theory, Burkean dramaturgy, sociolinguistics, semiotics, and other formalisms we have no space to mention, are colonizing storytelling work.

Walter Fisher’s (1984, 1987) narrative paradigm theory, for example, uses structuralist constructs of narrative rationality and coherence (fidelity and probability) to a priori decide which are good or bad stories. " Fisher (1984, 1987) argues that hum ans are storytelling animals, communicating through their stories, and that they construct "good reasons" for believing and acting upon some stories, while rejecting others. The reasons for accepting or rejecting a story come from logical and value-based reasoning (Fisher, 1984). Key concepts in narrative paradigm theory are a narrative’s "probability" and "fidelity" (1987: 5). Probability is the spectator’s evaluation of a story’s coherence; "does it hang together?" "Does it ring true?" Probability addre sses a story’s credibility by analyzing internal consistency, missing elements, and the consistency of character behavior given what the spectators know of the storyteller or character in similar stories. Fidelity analyzes the truthfulness of a story "doe s it ring true to other stories of the same type?" "Does it pass the spectator’s tests of rational and value laden reasons?" Fidelity gazes the story’s rational reasons (in rational argumentation theory) and assesses its value laden "good reasons" (in ter ms of ethics and validity or soundness).

Kenneth Burke’s (1945/1969) agent, purpose, scene, agency and act are the five elements of his formal theory of "scene-act ratios." The status of character analysis in formalistic approaches to narrative is to look at rhetorical devices by which the st oryteller controls the position of the reader in relation to story characters.

There is a structuralism that looks more directly at behavioral interaction. In sociolinguistics the studies by Harvey Sacks (1972a, 1972b) and his followers (Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson, 1974; Jefferson, 1973, 1978; Ryave, 1978) have investigated the contextual occurrence of stories in conversations. Their lab work shows convincingly that listeners and tellers co-produce the stories. When the meaning is in a quite fragmented performance process, for example, people fill in the blanks and gaps betw een the lines with their own experiences in response to cues, such as "You know the story!" What is said is only a fraction of the meaning-making in a co-production story performance as people help each other to unfold a story with utterances such as: "On e version I heard"; "Then, what happened?"

Table One: Metaphysics for Alternative Narratologies
Narratology Organization Studies  Ontology Epistemology Methodology
Living Story

Indigenous and behavioral folkloric.


TwoTrees (1997)

Toelken (1996)

Clair (1997)


Stories live and possess time, place, and mind. Knowledge is the story performed in time, place, and has a life of its own (mind); Story can not be dualized from context without imbalance and other consequences.  Restory the relation between dominant narrative and authors’ preferred story.

Peters & Waterman (1982)

Hammer & Champy (1993)


Early Martin lab & uniqueness studies;

Wilkens (1979); Lombardo (1984). 

McCall et al. (1989)

"Real" reality mirrored more or less imperfectly in narrative or case. Narrative is a cultural artifact, and object; Social facts.  Dualist: real is real, narrative is subjective interpretative knowledge; story is an object to know other objects (culture, etc.); managerialist; strategic. Experimental manipulation; interview with narrative as measures; narrate with rating scales; biography of narrative uniqueness.

Burke Sacks 

Barthes (early)



Propp Shklovsky

Fisher Frye

de Saussure

Peirce Pepper

H. White

Czarniawska (1997 in use of Burke scene act ratio);

Ford & Ford (1997 in use of speech act theory).

Emery’s Search Conference

"Real" is unknowable, but some forms are pragmatic or possess fidelity and probability, or scenes, plots, act, agency, purpose. Narrative is sign system separated from knowledge of the signified; Narrative is rhetorical device; Contextualist epistemology of historical event unfolding in the present.  Collect and contrast form of the narrative and coherence of narrative elements.
Social Constructionist

Burger & Luckmann






Boje (1991)

Boyce (1995

Czarniawska (1997 applying Blumer & Weick). 

Cooperrider & Srivastva (1987)

Individual and socially constructed realities Narrative is subjective account reified as objective knowledge. Narratives are acts of sensemaking.  Explore relative differences in narrative social construction.




White & Epston

Mumby (1984)

Boje (1995)

Kilduff (1993)

Martin (1991)

Martin & Knopoff (forthcoming)

There is no outside to inside text duality or originary narrative. Narratives are intertextual to knowledge of other narratives; narratives are ideological with political consequence Deconstructive reading of narratives.
Critical Theorist






Boje (1998a,b, 1999b,c)

O’Connor (1996, 1998a, b,c)

Clair (1993-1997)

Historical materialism (even dialectic teleology) shaped by class, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic values Grand narratives dominate local knowledge. But there can be local resistance to grand knowledge narratives. Hegemonic reading of narratives; ideology readings of narratives.

Best & Kellner




Deleuze & Guattari

Boje (1995)

Harju (1996)

Virtual and cultural hyperreal to affirmation of spiritual world. Knowledge and power are narratively fragmented; to affirmative knowledge living cosmos.  Polyphonic and juxtaposed readings and writing of a chorus of narratives


We can not explain all this. But, the other narratologists saw form-fixation of structuralism as an unnecessary reduction to complexity, heterogeneity, and slippage of narrative meaning.

Excerpt is from

Reclaiming Story in Organization Narratologies and Action Sciences

To appear in Robert Westwood and Steve Linstead

The Language of Organization


David M. Boje

Rossana C. Alvarez and

Bruce Schooling

New Mexico State University

To Return to Storytelling Organization Game