The Fabula and Syuzhet in Stories

Fabula and syuzhet in Memento
The fabula and syuzhet in Memento
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IN TODAY’S ARTICLE, I want to talk about the fabula and syuzhet, two relatively obscure but useful terms in stories.

Unpacking the fabula and syuzhet

The syuzhet is the story we encounter on the screen or page. It is the blow-by-blow account of the narrative events that comprise our tale, in the order set out by our book or film. These events may or may not make immediate sense to the audience or readers, and therein lies the fun and intrigue.

This is very much the case in Memento, for example, where the protagonist’s retrograde amnesia is mimicked by the syuzhet’s presentation of a narrative that is given in reverse order in the black and white sequences, and in normal order in the colour sequences. The effect of this on the audience is one of confusion and obfuscation, much like the confusion and obfuscation experienced by the protagonist.

The fabula, by contrast, is the product of an ongoing process of deconstruction and reassembly of the syuzhet during the act of viewing/reading, using accepted norms of coherence and inference so that the reordered story has a clear beginning, middle, and end—in short, a story, reordered in our minds so that it makes sense.

Without this reordering, films like Memento, Pulp Fiction, Donny Darko and Jacob’s Ladder remain confusing. Indeed, many of the films we see in the art-cinema circuit, demand such an active process of fabula construction if they are to make any sense at all.

The question now arises: Why should the syuzhet differ from the fabula? The answer is simple: Presenting events in their naturally occurring order, without hiding, withholding, or misdirecting the audience, robs us of the element of surprise and may result in a predictable and boring story. 

The point, in relation to writers, however, is that we need to have a thorough grasp of a coherent fabula, in the sense of knowing its beginning, middle, and end, before we can begin thinking about styling it into an effective syuzhet that can manipulate, misdirect, and surprise its readers and audiences. It is here that thinking about our story in terms of a fabula and syuzhet proves useful.

Summary

Thinking about your stories in terms of a fabula and syuzhet is helpful in constructing complex but coherent narratives that intrigue and challenge your readers and audiences.

Published by

Stavros Halvatzis

I'm a writer, teacher, and story consultant.

2 thoughts on “The Fabula and Syuzhet in Stories”

  1. Another way to put it, Gerhard, is that the fabula imposes a logical spatial-temporal framework to an otherwise discombobulated syuzhet.

  2. Fascinating read. I believe that most critical aspect of story telling is the choice of the writer’s perspective . In a previous post you mention the importance of first Person and third person perspective. Something like Pulp fiction is a third person limited perspective. What this means we are presented information the same time as the characters. In Pulp fiction Bruce Willis character is presented a watch by a man who tells the whole back story of this specific watch. The information of how the watch got to this place is told in first person from a third person perspective. ( The character – Bruce Willis is the one the story is being told to – the audience /viewer is observing from a third person perspective) If the same story was told from a narrator it would be first person.

    Summary : You need to choose a story perspective that will predetermine where the fabula and Syuzhet fits in the structure .

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