Please follow and like us:
RSS
Facebook
Twitter
YouTube
Pinterest
LinkedIn
Instagram

The truth and narrative of your story — also known as fabula and syuzhet — amplify each other to produce a satisfying read.

All stories have a “true” chronology of events and the one that is presented in the narrative created by the author. These two versions of your story are the “truth” and the “narrative.”

These two independent but inseparable features of every story were named by Russian formalists Vladimir Propp and Viktor Shklovsky and go by the beautiful names of “fabula” and “syuzhet” [syuu‐zhet].

The truth is called the fabula and the narrative the syuzhet. We will use these terms for the rest of the article for “truth” and “narrative.” Some describe these as “story” versus “plot.”

Fabula and Syuzhet

How you craft your truth and your narrative is up to you as the author. Both need to be airtight for your story to have substance.

The truth is only the truth, but you have endless ways to play with the narrative! You can have an unreliable narrator who messes with the facts — perhaps they are a guilty party, insane, or wildly jealous of the heroine. You can have more than one character tell their version of the “facts.” You can play out the story but be creative about how you order the events — perhaps leaving out a crucial scene at the beginning that leads to a fantastic plot twist for your climax. Something you thought was true all the way through is suddenly turned on its head. The fabula you thought you knew was an untruth. The trick of nailing a plot twist is that the fabula must be the most satisfying explanation of events.

When you are crafting your book, you need to be keenly aware of both, engineer them separately, and understand exactly how they match and how they don’t — and why.

Ask yourself:
1. What is the fabula?
2. Is the syuzhet crafted in the best way to convey that fabula?

Once they are wonderfully matched — the syuzhet channeling and amplifying the fabula — the book is ready.

Fabula

To grip readers, the underlying fabula must be rich and strong enough to incite interest and the syuzhet must be crafted in a readable way to keep readers focused on trying to discover the fabula while not tripping over any of the mechanics of the syuzhet.

Authors need to watch that readers are satisfied by the fabula when it is revealed. Sometimes this is when the floor falls out of a story. Perhaps the ending is not believable. Perhaps it is too shallow. Perhaps it doesn’t match the lead-up. The syuzhet must be true to the fabula in the end.

Differences in how readers see the world, and the fabulae that resonate with them, is what leads people to different genres, tropes, and endings. Perhaps you always want a happy ending. Then you’ll be disappointed by fabulae that deny the lead character an ending with catharsis and positive resolution. If you like certainty, you’ll be unsettled by an ambiguous fabula that leaves alternatives equally possible at the end of a story (was it a dream, or not?).

Syuzhet

The syuzhet must be crafted so the fabula isn’t predictable. You hope for readers to be surprised by your ending. If you can guess who the murderer is right when the body is found, there is little chance you will read to the end — unless to confirm your suspicions. In the best type of mystery, readers will suspect every possible character before the truth is finally inevitable and revealed. This is the skill of an author in using the power of the syuzhet to shine the spotlight and focus reader attention at will — often precisely in the opposite direction of the fabula.

The syuzhet is successful when it conveys the fabula to the reader by the end. Of course, the fabula can sometimes come across as ambiguous or be open to interpretation by readers. This explains why readers can often have very different reactions to the same book. This is the beauty of books: the fabula can be spelled out as explicitly as needed. Authors can leave the reader to fill in aspects of it.

The more the syuzhet makes us search for the fabula, the better. This is why we are sitting on the edge of our seats or turning pages at a furious pace: to find out what happens.

Your two timelines

It is possible to write a book with a technically stellar syuzhet and an awful fabula. It is also possible for a fantastic fabula to save a lackluster syuzhet. This is why “high-concept” is so revered. It the power of the fabula that truly matters in the end — and why so many drafts undergo so many revisions and rehashings.

One can draw two lines on a piece of paper and write out the timelines of events for both. Certainly, it should be possible to do after the story is complete, but this can help with brainstorming and getting past sections where you’re stuck. The fabula will be linear — time A to time B. The syuzhet will dip in and out of that time, mix it up in non-linear ways if it likes, tell multiple versions of the story as needed, or mix subplots with the primary story, bringing everything together in the end for the climax.

Can you draw these two timelines for your book? How detailed and solid are the chronologies? Are there missing parts? What are each of the characters doing “off-page” and why? Why are you choosing to reveal certain events and not others? How are you playing with time in your narrative and why? Both need to be rock solid for readers to buy the story you present on the page.

 

BookBaby Editing Services

 

Related Posts
Narrative Structure, Part One: What It Is and How To Use It
Narrative Structure, Part Two: It’s OK To Stray (or: Don’t Forget Your Cockroach Races)
The Three-act Structure: Formulaic or Foundational?
Words That Carry Maximum Weight: Tropes In Storytelling
Literal And Figurative Language In Your Writing

 

Dawn Field

About Dawn Field

Dawn Field has written 66 posts in this blog.

Dr. Dawn Field is a book lover interested in what makes great writing. After a 20 year career as a research scientist, her first book, Biocode, was published by Oxford University Press. Now a columnist of The Double Helix, Dr. Field is exploring new writing venues and writing a second book. Based in Virginia, Dr. Field is looking to collaborate with a range of fiction writers as a writing coach, editor, and consultant on the publishing process: fiedawn@gmail.com.

9 thoughts on “Truth and Narrative: The Two Timelines Of Your Story

  1. Has Dawn Field written any books on writing fiction?

    1. Lynn O'Brien says:

      Finally I understand the origin of the expressions Fabula and Syuzhet. I thought I understood the meaning from the context and accepted these as the appropriate names for the idea of both existing and complementing each other. The Syuzhet is the ingredients used to enhance the basic. I didn’t get the terms mixed up because of a picture in my mind about the use of the word Syuzhet as a type of pancake called crepe-syuzhet. I had always thought it was some awesome kind of culinary desert. So to see it applied to writing made sense. A most wonderful way to write the Fabula – the basic truth. But now I see it is more mysterious. The Syuzhet is seen and the Fabula is harder to detect. Maybe a crepe-syuzhet that looks like it is a desert but is a corn fritter underneath. But it would need to be a gourmet one of course. A surprise rather than a disappointment.

      1. Lynn says:

        Well what a laugh. Had only ever heard of Crepe Suzette but didn’t know how it was spelt. Not the Russian way for sure. The analogy above makes no sense except for a play on words perhaps. Not what was intended. It’s a case of the sound of the word meaning something entirely different in another language. At any rate it served to help me define the Fabula and Syuzhet as different but complementary.

  2. I have seen truth (theme) and narrative (plot) discussed in many other articles, and find the word substitution–Fabula, Syuzhet–to be such a constant and artificial distraction that much meaning is lost. Creativity in one’s choice of words can make a pleasant difference in a fiction. However, for an informational article, simple, clear, straightforward language is more useful and far more effective.

    I think this piece could have delved much deeper into the relationship between “truth” and “narrative” with the same economy of words, and more strongly held reader’s interest.

    1. Alyce Miller says:

      Actually, the dessert is Crêpes Suzette. Wikipedia has several different versions of the ‘origen story’ but in French it is pronounced [kʁɛp syˈzɛt].

    2. Annelisa says:

      I’m afraid I have to agree. I spent half the time trying to remember which was which before applying what was being said to each of them. It would have been enough to define them in the beginning and end, but while actually describing their role in the art of writing, stick to familiar language. I think it would’ve been a good article otherwise.

  3. Marilyn Carvin says:

    HUH??? Guess I need words in the definitions defined . . . and maybe some examples?

    1. Chris Watkins says:

      Made two attempts to make amends but apparently can’t put in two posts. So will do so via another writers email address. Hope I have not muddied the waters through lack of culinary knowledge. Made perfect sense to me but mainly as a play on words it seems. Suzette the crepe is a word sounding like the Russian word, pronounced the same. But they are not the same in meaning. Oops.. At the time It enabled me to make an analogy and not mix up the difference in meaning between Fabula and Syuzhet. Loved this article. There are many ways to write the same story. POV chosen can be altered, for example. Maybe a writer has several attempts to get a story written. Different starting points, vital facts included at different times for more suspense and mystery perhaps, a protagonist with a name change, a gender change (don’t mean the operation), a different back story. Hopefully the way it all comes together in the end is a type of magic best defined by the words above so beautifully explained. Fabula and Syuzhet.

  4. Why not just use the terms ‘story’ and ‘plot’?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.