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  • Double TroubleOn Film, Fiction, and Narrative
  • Murray Smith (bio)

“When I was small,” said Frog, “my mother and father and I went out for a picnic. On the way home we lost our way. My mother was worried. “We must get home,” she said. “We do not want to meet the Old Dark Frog.” “Who is that?” I asked. “A terrible ghost,” said my father. “He comes out at night and eats little frog children for supper.”

Toad sipped his tea.

“Frog,” he asked, “are you making this up?”

“Maybe yes and maybe no,” said Frog.

— “Shivers,” in Arnold Lobel, Days with Frog and Toad

Edward Branigan once noted that, while fiction and narrative are distinctive phenomena, they do—rather like Frog and Toad—frequently consort with one another: “Narrative and fiction are quite different things even if they often appear together in public” (Branigan 1992: 192). Indeed, like Frog and Toad, they are often [End Page 1] mistaken for one another; the confusion is widespread in ordinary usage, and in recent times it has been compounded and reinforced within theoretical discourse. Notwithstanding the weight of such authority, I argue that this is a mistake. The distinction between fiction and narrative is a real and important one, and as David Gorman suggests, “the synonymous usage of the terms is loose at best and confused at worst” (2005: 163). Moreover, as we will see, by conflating fiction and narrative we obscure the boundaries of each of these phenomena taken individually. We also compound the problem of the historical emphasis within narratology on fictional narrative. If we want to shed light on the relatively “poorly understood nature of factual discourse” in narrative form (Gorman 2005: 167)—without presuming that nonfictional narrative can be treated as a form of disingenuous fictional narrative—we must first disentangle fictional from nonfictional narrative.

My focus throughout this discussion is on narrative as it is manifest in motion picture media—in the cinema, but also on television, on the Internet, and in the museum gallery, in the form of installations and video art. Motion pictures in general have certain special attributes, and each of the more particular motion picture media has certain defining features; I take note of some of these “medium-specific” matters along the way. But my overarching assumption—as signaled by the starring roles accorded to Frog and Toad—is that the fundamental processes and phenomena connected with narrative operate identically or similarly across literary, depictive, and performative media. Before it is anything else, narrative is a form of cognition arising from our evolved need to track agents through time and space. The characteristics of narrative cognition determine the fundamental shape of narrative, conceived as a form of external or public representation, across the various media.

Fiction and narrative can each be defined by reference to their respective contrast classes: fictions and nonfictions, narratives and nonnarratives. We can begin with some concise but widely accepted definitions. A narrative is constituted by a set of agents and events linked in a cause-effect fashion. Every one of the terms in this apparently innocuous characterization, however, can be subjected to critical scrutiny, and less demanding definitions of narrative have been advanced. Do the agents need to be human, or human-like? Do these agents merely need [End Page 2] to be present, or do they have to act? Is “pure causality”—causality without intentional action—sufficient for narrative? Perhaps the most minimal definition would stipulate only that, in a narrative, events must be represented in time. Sam Taylor-Wood’s Still Life (2001), a film in which we see a bowl of fruit rot in accelerated, time-lapse fashion over a duration of roughly four minutes, would then be a work of narrative. Here we see the first of our two related problems coming into view: is a definition of narrative with such broad extension plausible? Does it leave us with a hopelessly vague and slack concept of narrative? Or does it accurately represent the near ubiquity of narrative, or least of the human propensity to search for narrative (Aumont et al. 1992: 71)? Call this the “pan-narrativity” problem.

Fictions, meanwhile, are part of...


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