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.
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.
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?).
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.
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