The fabula and syuzhet are important narrative concepts, yet few writers know exactly what they mean.
The syuzhet is the story that unfolds on the page or screen. It contains all the gaps in information, obfuscations, and complications that help make the story gripping to readers and audiences.
The fabula, by contrast, is the sequence of events readers and audiences reconstruct in their minds while the story unfolds in order to make sense of it.
Think of the fabula as the all-revealing, areal perspective of a story. It affords full discloser, offers no surprises and grants no unsolved puzzles. It is replete.
The syuzhet, on the other hand, represents the subjective, ground-level discombobulation of the fabula. It is intended to generate a kaleidoscope of puzzlement and intrigue to keep us engrossed. Arguably, the syuzhet contains the artistic fingerprints of its creators. It is the level where most of the art and craft happens.
Memento, for example, has an extremely convoluted syuzhet. The hero, who suffers from short term memory loss, has to constantly try to understand events that make no sense to him, since he has forgotten the intentions and motives that have preceded them. The creators of the film offer a story that unfolds from present to past. this approach captures the disorientating subjective experience of the hero.
“The fabula reorders a discombobulated syuzhet in the mind of the reader or audience in order to make sense of the overall story.”
Most films, even conventional ones, routinely hide information from us. This is in order to build suspense or interest. In Manchester by the Sea the protagonist is unable to form relationships. He seems content to remain in an abusive, low-paying job is explained through a series of flashbacks later in the film.
Other more ontologically complex films reveal information at a more formal level. The result is the existential surprises of the sort we see in films such as Donnie Darko, Vanilla Sky, Jacob’s ladder, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and many others. Such puzzle films present the audience with two or more levels of existential reality. This makes it harder to construct a fabula from a stubbornly uncommunicative syuzhet.
In my own novel, The Level, the syuzhet withholds crucial information from the readers, challenging them to build a coherent fabula before they can understand the meaning of the story.
The benefit of fabula construction for writers lies at the initial stage of story-creation. In planning a complex tale it is best to build a clear fabula before attempting to shift, hide, and surprise through an artful syuzhet. Failure to do so will leave writers as confused as the readers and audiences they are attempting to woo.
Establish a cogent fabula before attempting to write a convoluted and artful syuzhet.