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What Is the Relationship between Story and Discourse?

By Micah MacBride
Updated May 23, 2024
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Prose, be it a work of fiction or non-fiction, can be broken down into two major components: story and discourse. The story refers to the events that a piece of prose conveys, be they the real events of a news story or the make-believe ones of fiction. Discourse, on the other hand, refers to the techniques and methods an author uses to present those basic events so as to shape the reader's perception of the events in a narrative.

The events detailed in a written work are generally simplistic and amoral, in other words, neither good nor bad in and of themselves. A piece of prose can speak of one country invading another, but the event itself is neither right nor wrong, it simply occurred. For instance, the event itself does not usually tell readers if the country was justified in invading the other.

Discourse is the element of the prose that frames events to address questions of ethics, and sets the connotations of the action inside the reader's mind. The author can achieve this by using adjectives, adverbs, metaphors, and other descriptive devices to set connotations of good and bad for the reader. For example, an author might talk of a “mighty” country invading a “weak” or “defenseless” one. In doing so, the writer frames the event as a situation of injustice against the country that was invaded, casting that nation as a protagonist and the invading one as the antagonist. Alternatively, the author could reverse this perception by referring to an “oppressed” country finally attacking its “cruel” neighbor.

A story is typically a series of events that occurred in chronological order. Another form of discourse is choosing to either relate stories in a similar order or to select which events to include, which to exclude, and the order in which to tell the events. In this way, story and discourse combine to produce a particular version of a basic series of events.

Using the earlier example of warring neighbor nations, an author may decide to create sympathy for the invading country by beginning a story with a terrible event that had befallen it. If written in this way, the actions of the invading country may seem justified to the reader. The author could then turn the tables on his readers by including a flashback to an event that takes place before the beginning of the story. This information could provide justification for the original event, which had seemed so repugnant to the reader, that it recasts the roles of protagonist and antagonist.

The way in which an author uses story and discourse can depend on the author's goals for the narrative. If the writer is trying to create an objective and informative piece, such as a news article, he may focus on presenting the events of the story and discourse plays little, if any, role in shaping the reader's interpretation. Conversely, if the author tells a tale to evoke a particular feeling in the reader — by presenting events so that the reader sees them in a particular light — then the creator may use methods of discourse to shape the story to evoke a desired reader reaction. The latter technique is often employed by persuasive essayists and writers of fiction.

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