Narrative Design Thematic Seminar: Narrative Practice

From XPUB & Lens-Based wiki
Revision as of 15:17, 12 January 2024 by Lrobbins (talk | contribs)
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)

Narrative Design Thematic Seminar: Narrative Practice. Facilitated by Kate Briggs.


Let me tell you a story. Another one, for I tell stories all the time. Perhaps this course description could be described as a kind of story? At least in the minimal sense that it tries to make one proposition follow on after another; it starts somewhere with the aim of arriving somewhere else. But certain arrangements and treatments of materials tend to feel more emphatically (or strategically) ‘story-like’ than others. It’s a felt quality, a set of techniques, even kind of attitude, which depends on a complex combination of contexts, intentions and decisions. ‘Narrativity’ is a useful general term for describing this sense of a work’s ‘story-ness’. The degree to which a work reactivates an ancient story-structure, for example. Or, by contrast, how a different work might present as deliberately ‘un’-storied: closer to a document, a direct transcription of life in the world. Through readings and group discussions and – crucially –short and often playful practical exercises, this thematic provides a general introduction to some key questions of narrative composition, approaching them first as practical options (available to us all); then, as consequential artistic decisions. ‘Narrative thinking’ is the phrase we’ll use to describe our active interest in the potentials of composition (the placing and treatments of materials) and their effects (aesthetic, rhetorical, ethical, political). A further tenet of the course is that ‘narrative practice’ necessarily involves ‘narrative participation’: rather than inventing new strategies from scratch (is that even possible?), we’ll be learning from existing works and interested in citing, repurposing, recombining, renewing and translating existing strategies of narration across time (traditions) and space (languages and cultures).

KB will be available for individual tutorials later on in the spring / summer.

*PART 1 // ARCS & ANATAGONISMS - ---> (download the reader for PART 1 here)

When and how to achieve something like momentum in a time-based medium – experienced as the interest on the part of a viewer or reader to keep watching or reading? Is it a basic plot problem? A pattern-and-beat problem? A tension-and-release problem? What part does genre play (memory and expectations)? Where exactly does this engaging energy come from? How to talk about it, visualize it and work with it, both at the interrelated level of the small part (the micro-interaction, the shot, the scene) and the duration of work as a whole? And when and why might an artist propose to do without it – cultivating disinterest, boredom, the partial viewing (as in an installed work))?

It was Aristotle who proposed that a narrative should begin with exposition, initiate a rising action or complication, reach a peak or climax, then ease: lower the tension (by way of a falling action) and end in resolution. It is a truism: narratives, to function and be received as narratives, require something like ‘conflict’ – there’s an intention and then there’s an obstacle, there’s resistance then change, force and counter-force. What to make of this basic energetic description? What effects (and satisfactions) can be achieved by reproducing it? What values are reinforced? Which narrative traditions might we look to for alternatives?

Throughout our interest will be in taking a measure of momentum, potentially described as tension, charge, suspense, excitement, rising action, falling action, quiet, lull, inaction, minor modulations, sharp contrasts… We will be inventing our own technical-affective vocabulary for the effects we observe and want to achieve. As part of this, we will improvise methods of ‘scoring’ our works and those of others as a diagnostic tool: from story-boarding to diagramming to tracking beats to other as yet uninvented forms of notation with the aim to achieve more precision than general terms such as ‘linear’ vs. ‘non-linear’ when speaking about narrative lines, breaks, patterns and shapes…


E.M. Forster, ‘The Story’ and ‘The Plot’ from Aspects of the Novel (1927)

Jane Alison, ‘Point, Line, Texture’ and ‘Movement and Flow’ from Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative (2019).

Kate Briggs, ‘Story the Story in It’ (

*Please bring with you a recent work of your own and a work (moving image or piece of writing) that you find interesting and inspiring in terms of its narrative construction.

*DAY 2: NON-ACTION (OR expanded conceptions of what counts as ACTION)

Ursula Le Guin, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction (first published 1981)

Jen Gish, Introduction and ‘My Father Writes his Story’ from Tiger Writing: Art, Culture & the Interdependent Self (2012)


Vladimir Propp, ‘The Method and Material’ and ‘The Functions of Dramatic Personae’ in The Morphology of the Folktale (1958)

Ursula Le Guin, Rhythmic Pattern in The Lord of the Rings from The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (2004)

R.D Laing, excerpts from Knots (1970)

Materials related to the ballad exercise, with Simon Pummell:

Amanda Petrusich, ‘Harry Smith’s Musical Catalogue of Human Experience’, The New Yorker (2020).

Bob Dylan, lyrics to ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ – a folk song, a narrative construction, an interplay of narrative players and forces, a Western in the genre of Westerns with all the narrative expectations that brings. How might it be translated to release alternative stories?

‘Oral-Formulaic Method’ (page from A Poet’s Glossary).

* Cancelled will be moved to a later date in Jan-Feb. (TBC) SCREENING 6.30pm: Sabine Groeneweg’s Odyssey

*PART 2 // STORYTELLERS AND STORYZONES ---> (download the reader for PART 2 here)

A story changes depending on who (or what) is telling it. Narrative point of view acts on the scope or zone of the story: what falls within its purview and therefore what is describable, what is narratable. On Days 1 and 2 we will try get to grips with the possibilities of different narrative positions & points of view, linked to the differences (the viewing and knowing capacities) of narrative agents (or ‘actants’), and develop our own vocabularies for describing them. This may lead us to consider important and timely questions around legitimacy and authority – the ‘right’ to tell stories, one’s own story or other people’s. Particular emphasis will be put on the voice-over, and the choice of language (and therefore also the work of sub-titling) as important narrative tools. On Day 3 we’ll consider how a story changes depending on the claims the teller makes about it: fiction, documentary, poem, essay. Does composition, the placing and treatment of materials, pre-exist or pre-empt an understanding or intervention of fiction? If so, what does ‘fiction’ bring in – what narrative possibilities does it open up, or close down? When working with fiction and / or ‘real life’, what responsibilities do we have to our materials -- to our (made-up or real-life) stories and their protagonists? To audiences?


Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’ (1936) -- in The Narrative Reader, ed. Martin McQuillan

Trin Minh-Ha ‘Grandma’s Story’ (1989) --- in The Narrative Reader, ed. Martin McQuillan

Will Harris, ‘Art doesn’t own it’ (2023) (


What happens when one story is framed by (or nested within) another? It’s one of the most ancient forms of narrative organisation. It is as a way of introducing a counterview, a way of staging or disrupting authority – frame or nested narratives as exercises in offsetting points of view and exploring their limitations. 

Screening of Weightless (2022) and Q&A with the artists.


Ursula Le Guin, ‘Point of View and Voice’ and ‘Changing Point of View’ from Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story (2015)

Jane Bennett, excerpt from Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2009)

End of day round up of the thematic: new vocabulary and questions to carry forward…