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Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte

Bachelorscriptie Taal- en Letterkunde

Bachelor Engel-TFL

What makes a narrative interesting?

Frederik Forger
Promoter: Luc Herman

Universiteit Antwerpen

Academiejaar 2015-2016
Frederik Forger Bachelor thesis 3rd BA English - TFL

Ondergetekende, Frederik Forger, student Taal- & Letterkunde Bachelor Engels-TFL
verklaart dat deze scriptie volledig oorspronkelijk is en uitsluitend door hemzelf geschreven
is. Bij alle informatie en ideeën ontleend aan andere bronnen, heeft ondergetekende expliciet
en in detail verwezen naar de vindplaatsen.
[Plaats + datum]


Frederik Forger Bachelor thesis 3rd BA English - TFL

Table of content

1. Introduction p. 4
2. Tellability in the field of narratology p. 4
3. History of tellability and the study of it p. 5
3.1. Origin of the concept: William Labov p. 5
3.2. From oral to all narratives: Mary Louise Pratt p. 6
3.3. The audience’s background: Bruce Bertram & Livia Polanyi p. 8
3.4. Context matters: Harvey Sacks & Livia Polanyi p. 9
3.5. From experience: Monika Fludernik p. 12
3.6. Narrative dimensions and Untold Stories: Elichor Ochs and Lisa Capps &
Michael Bamberg and Alexandra Georgakopoulou p. 14
3.7. Jokes and the dark side: Neal R. Norrick p. 16
3.8. The narrative not taken: Marie-Laure Ryan p. 20
3.9. Narrativity and narrativehood: David Herman p. 22
3.10. Between temporalities: Meir Sternberg p. 24
3.11. Cultural Negotiation: Luc Herman and Bart Vervaeck p. 25
4. Conclusion p. 27
5. Bibliography p. 29

Frederik Forger Bachelor thesis 3rd BA English - TFL

1. Introduction

Stories and the art of telling stories are as old as the human language. It is an intrinsic part
of human culture that can be observed throughout all of history and in every part of the world,
as is evidenced by the enormous body of literary texts we have, with the oldest ones dating
back to the 27th or 26th century BC. Oral history and the telling and sharing of stories date
back even further and stands out as being the most dominant communicative technique we as
humans have at our disposal. It is this observation that begs us to ask the question: why do we
tell stories? This question can have multiple answers depending on which field one would
choose to study it from. For the purpose of this bachelor thesis, I will look at the question
from the field of narratology and in doing so, I will narrow the initial question down to the
more suitable question “What makes a story worth telling?”

To answer this question, I will turn to the notion of tellability for tellability is the reason why
a narrative is told. In this bachelor thesis, I will situate the position of tellability within the
field of narratology as well as outline a history of the concept and its study according due to
the various scholars that have researched it.

2. Tellability in the field of narratology

Exactly where tellability falls in the field of narratology and its relation to other terms
and concepts is a topic that has some debate to it. Some scholars hold tellability to be a part of
narrativity (Bruner 1991) in such that narrativity can be defined as “that which makes a text
(in the widest sense) a narrative” (Fludernik 2009). Other scholars believe that tellability is
distinguishable from narrativity because on the one hand, tellability is perceived
independently from its textualization (Ryan 2005: 589; Baroni 2014), most likely stemming
from the fact that tellability has its origins in conversational storytelling and not every
narrative is written down and on the other, a story can fulfill the criteria of narrativity but still
fail to garner the interest of the audience it is told to (Ryan 2005: 589; Herman 2002). If we
go with what Fludernik states that the traditional view of narrativity is, in that it is defined in
terms of plot with the minimal definition being the presence of at least two actions or events
in chronological order which stand in some kind of relation to one another (2009: 158), then a
story or narrative about a person going to the baker (action one) and buying a loaf of bread
(action two) meets the criteria of narrativity but such a tale would more likely than not elicit a
“so what?” response from the audience, something that William Labov observes to be the

Frederik Forger Bachelor thesis 3rd BA English - TFL

worst reaction a storyteller can receive from his or her audience (1972) and thus have little to
no tellability.

This still leaves us with the question of what tellability exactly is. The idea of what it
represents, namely what makes a story worth telling, seems clear enough but a pinpoint
definition that can be applied consistently and without question is a bit trickier, seeing how
the various theories regarding tellability or each have a different stance on tellability. Or as
Baroni states:

Publications devoted to tellability differ according to the importance given to: (a) the
concept of narrativity; (b) the nature of the story told and its connection with narrative
interest; (c) the discourse features of tellability; and (d) the contextual parameters
determining the “point” of a narrative (2014).

Therefore I will address how tellability is defined according to each scholar and his or
her narrative theory in the next section.

3. History of tellability and the study of it

3.1 Origin of the concept: William Labov

While Labov and Waletzky already touch upon the idea of what later would be named
tellability (1997: 30), it is generally agreed upon that it was Labov who first coined the term
tellability. In his work Language in the inner city: Studies in the Black English Vernacular,
Labov (1972) states that the most important aspect of narrative, next to the basic narrative
clause, is what he terms the evaluation of the narrative: the various means by which a narrator
wants to indicate the point of his narrative (366). There are many ways in which the point of a
narrative can be conveyed to an audience but for Labov, it boils down to the question of why
the events of a certain narrative are reportable. Labov remarks that the narratives that are
reportable are the ones that are “terrifying, dangerous, weird, wild, crazy; or amusing,
hilarious, wonderful; more generally, that it was strange, uncommon, or unusual – that is,
worth reporting. It was not ordinary, plain, humdrum, everyday, or run-of-the-mill” (371).

This criterion of tellability, meaning that in order for something to be reportable, it has
to be different from normal, is a criterion that will be adopted and expended upon by later
scholars though this notion of tellability leaves much to be desired. One of the first remarks a
modern reader could make upon reading said definition of tellability is that it implies that
tellability is something inherent to the narrative without regard to the audience to whom the

Frederik Forger Bachelor thesis 3rd BA English - TFL

narrative is told nor to the context in which said narrative is told. After all, what is weird or
unusual for one person might not be so for someone else and telling a particular story at, for
instance, a family gathering will not garner the same interest when told at a family funeral.

3.2 From oral to all narratives: Mary Louise Pratt

While the study of tellability has its origins in oral and conversational storytelling, it
quickly expended to include all kinds of narratives. Pratt (1977) was a chief pioneer in doing
so and her first book Towards a Speech Act Theory of Literary Discourse showcases that the
structures found in oral storytelling and narrative can also be applied to written literary
narratives, stating that it “becomes necessary to consider literary discourse in terms of its
similarities to our other verbal activities rather than in terms of its differences from them”
(introduction xii). Furthermore, she claims, by using the research of Labov, that all narratives
contain common structures that can be found in both oral and literary narratives. What this
means for the notion of tellability is that Pratt applies Grice’s Cooperative Principle in
conversation to literary narratives. Grice’s Cooperative Principle (1975) is something that can
be observed in conversational storytelling and can be, in layman’s terms, be considered as a
set of rules for holding and contributing to a conversation. It consists of the following four
rules or “maxims” (45-46):

I. Maxims of Quantity
1. Make your contribution as informative as required (for the current purpose
of the exchange).
2. Do not make your contribution more informative than needed.
II. Maxims of Quality
Supermaxim: Make your contribution one that is true.
1. Do not say what you believe to be false.
2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
III. Maxim of Relation
1. Be relevant.
IV. Maxims of Manners
Supermaxim: Be perspicuous.
1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
2. Avoid ambiguity.
3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).

Frederik Forger Bachelor thesis 3rd BA English - TFL

4. Be orderly.
There are possibly others.

By adhering to these maxims, one would achieve what Grice calls “a maximally
effective exchange of information” (47). These maxims and rules are not to be understood to
be a rigid format for conversation for there are many exceptions where one or more
participants in a conversation would not adhere to one or more of these maxims. The example
Pratt gives to illustrate this is one of a soldier captured by the enemy: “[he] will be expected
to cooperate to the extent of giving his name, rank, and serial number but beyond that he can
be expected to try not to observe any of the conversational maxims” (131). But as the saying
goes “the exception proves the rules”, this helps to prove Grice’s rules as the soldier does not
cooperate because he would much rather not be engaged in the speech situation at all (ibid.).
Now one can make the obvious observation that there are many narratives, both literary and
conversational, that do not have the purpose of being a maximally effective exchange of

Turning back to the notion of tellability, Pratt examines how the Cooperative Principle
applies to narratives whose point or purpose is not the aforementioned maximally effective
exchange of information and in particular, she elaborates on the maxim of Relation as “it
applies to declarative or assertive speech acts in the hope of moving toward an understanding
of relevance in literary works and their extraliterary kin” (132). Information can be put
forward because it is new or to inform us but Pratt adds to this that there is information that
can be told simply because it is spectacular sounding to the audience and therefore can be
volunteered for that reason alone (135). In line with Labov and his claim that reportable
narratives must be “weird”, Pratt proclaims that “assertions whose relevance is tellability must
represent states of affairs that are held to be unusual, contrary to expectations, or otherwise
problematic” (136). As mentioned before, Pratt’s contribution to the field of narratology is
showcasing the common structures in oral and literary narratives. After all, “we expect
literary works to be tellable” (140). We expect that the stories and characters presented to us
in literary works deal with situations we would consider unusual or a break with the expected,
if not for us then unusual for the characters. Labov’s “unspoken permanent agenda”, topics
that natural storytellers presuppose to have inherent tellability (140), can thusly be said to be
much the same for literature as it is for conversation. Pratt even claims it to be some kind of
tellability index (ibid.) and that said agenda “is probably a fairly accurate indicator of what

Frederik Forger Bachelor thesis 3rd BA English - TFL

aspects or varieties of human experience a community holds to be wonderful, amusing,

terrifying, unusual, and problematic, that is, in need of interpretation and evaluation” (141).

Of special note here is the mention of a community as an evaluating body. I have so

far outlined what makes a narrative reportable or relevant but that does not mean that it also
has inherently the same degree of what would be interesting. For example the story of an
elephant showing up unexpectedly during dinner or the story where one’s mother
unexpectedly shows up during dinner are both reportable for they both deviate from the
normal but the former sounds more interesting than the latter. This leads me to the notion that
our view on what is “weird” needs to be adjusted to “involve[s] at least two things: the
deviation, no matter how small, from a certain norm, and the evaluation of that deviation by a
subject (the reader, the audience)” (Herman and Vervaeck 115). This interaction between
narrative and audience is something that will be explored further by future scholars.

3.3 The audience’s background: Bruce Bertram & Livia Polanyi

I have placed these two scholars together as I feel that both their ideas and theories
expand upon the above stated interaction between narrative and audience. In his article What
Makes a Good Story? Bertram provides an answer to the titular question by first establishing
what distinguishes a story from a mere collection of sentences. Though there are many
characteristics of good stories, Bertram focuses on continuity, for in a good story, ideas
connect with one another, and conflict, either within a character or between characters (461).
There is more to a good story than just those. A good story, according to Bertram, “draw[s]
upon the readers’ prior beliefs and expectations” (466). These beliefs and expectations can
then be organized within the framework provided by the structure of a good story (ibid.). A
tellable narrative, or good story, allows a reader to do so and what is more, the reader is
rewarded for doing so: “What makes this a good story is that the reader’s work is rewarded”

Polanyi (1979) takes this idea even further by proclaiming that it is the cultural
background of the narrator and the audience which decide what a narrative can be about. With
her answer to the question of what is worth talking about being that “stories (…) can have as
their point only culturally salient material generally agreed upon by members of the
producer’s culture to be self-evidently important and true” (207), she steps away from
narrative theorists adhering to structuralism. In what one could read as a departure from
Labov’s “unspoken permanent agenda”, she rejects the idea that there is a universally

Frederik Forger Bachelor thesis 3rd BA English - TFL

applicable set of things that are interesting and thus tellable, stating rather that “what is
‘interesting’ is culturally, socially, and personally determined” (211). Polanyi’s view on what
each of these three constitutes is that they are constraints on subject matter and what is or is
not an instance of generally agreed upon self-evident good (212). More specifically for
cultural restraints that these are “constraints on attitudes, beliefs, and crucially important key
concepts about the way things are or ought to be, and most especially about the way people
are, what they need, and how they should behave” (ibid.). In addition to that, these cultural
constraints are ones that are recognized and accepted by all people within that culture while
social and personal constraints may differ between groups and individuals (ibid.). While the
reportability of something “weird” still generates tellability, this point of view broadens the
concept of what we might find interesting. Interest no longer has to imply “new” or “unusual”
but also “matter[s] of deep going concern and importance to the members of a culture” (226).

To turn back to the question of what the point of a narrative is, a narrator has to rely
upon these three factors to decide whether or not the point of his or her story is to be
considered worth hearing or read. But there is a flipside to this as well: “for a story to be
accepted by a hearer [or reader], it is necessary that the point of the story be one he finds
storyworthy, and, furthermore, that the story itself be seen as a proper illustration for what is
being put forward as the point” (212). For Polanyi, the point of a story, its tellability, is
something that is to be decided between narrator and audience in what she names a
negotiation between those two (214). This is an important observation: while previous
theories on tellability (or narrative interest as it is also called) incorporated both the narrator’s
and the audience’s side of the narrative, Polanyi makes it an explicate point that there is a
back-and-forth negotiation between them and that the point of a narrative is derived from this
interaction, an idea that will be picked up and expanded upon by other scholars.

3.4 Context matters: Harvey Sacks & Livia Polanyi

Harvey Sacks (1995) is considered to be a pioneer in the study of conversational

storytelling, a field in which tellability plays a major role. While previous researchers
stipulated that tellability is related to or derived from an event’s deviation from the norm, its
“weirdness”, Sacks states that “the sheer telling of a story is something in which one makes a
claim for its tellability” (12). This is new in that it shifts that which is “reportable” to that
which is “tellable”, as in worth telling. It broadens the spectrum of tellability to include those
stories and narratives that do not fall under Labov’s category of being “reportable” but are
still tellable because the narrator works them up into something tellable: “if [one] can make it
Frederik Forger Bachelor thesis 3rd BA English - TFL

out as ‘local news’ then [one] also makes it out as something tellable, worthwhile” (13). In
regards to how tellability is achieved, Sacks puts the emphasis on its contextual parameters
and the dynamics of its co-construction in the conversation. Polanyi interprets these
contextual parameters as follows:

Each telling will be tuned to the circumstances in which it is told, delicately reflecting
the concerns of the participants and their relationships to each other, to the events and
circumstances treated in the story, and to the fact that the story is being told at a
particular point in a particular conversation to make a point relevant to the topics
under discussion at that time (1981: 319).

As Sacks’ work is quite substantial, I will instead choose to highlight two examples in
order to illustrate these concepts. It is important to remember that Sacks’ research is situated
in oral, conversational storytelling and that these are not so readily applicable to literary
narratives. As an example of such a dynamic in the conversation is the story preface. In a
typical conversation, the participants will take turns and go back and forth between who is
talking. But do you decide when to take your turn, i.e. when you have the right to talk, and an
audience to talk to? One such way, according to Sacks, is “to build a first sentence-utterance
that (…) asks for the right to produce extended talk, and says that the talk will be interesting,
as well as doing other things” (226). Common examples of this in everyday conversations are
“Have you heard that…”, “Did you know…”, “I have to tell you about…” and the like. After
one has put forth such an ‘interest arouser’ (ibid.), it is up to the other participants in the
conversation to acknowledge that the intended narrator does indeed have the right to present
his or her narrative and that they are interested in hearing it or no, that it is not okay or that
they are not interested. Story prefaces can also be formulated to indicate a particular a
particular story the narrator has in mind as to arouse more interest for it. The story preface
“Do you want to hear a funny story?” rather than “Do you want to hear a story?” offers the
recipient a glimpse of what might come, giving him or her a better idea whether or not they
will be interested in hearing it. One other function of a story preface is, again in relation to the
turn-taking in a conversation, to indicate that the story told is over. Sack states that “there’s an
obvious rationality to putting information about what it will take for it to be over, right at the
beginning so that people can watch from there on in to see when it will be over” (228). As
example he gives the story preface “I have something terrible to tell you”, which means that
the following story will be characterized as being “terrible” but also to “instruct hearers to use
that term to monitor the story” (ibid.). Once the narrative no longer can be characterized as

Frederik Forger Bachelor thesis 3rd BA English - TFL

being terrible, the hearer can take that as his or her cue that the story is over. Additionally, the
hearer can use this indicate that he or she sees that the story is over, in this example “How
terrible!”, i.e. “some utterance by a recipient that has something synonymous with the
characterizing adjective used, to say ‘I see the story is over.’” (ibid.).
A quick aside in regards to literary works: story prefaces do exist in literary narratives, e.g.
titles, small abstracts, a block of text on the back of a cover, etc. but only in their capacity to
arouse interest as they cannot interact with the reader, other than perhaps him or her deciding
not to read the story.

As an example of a contextual parameter for tellability, Sacks gives us the idea that a
story preface can be “designed for the recipient” (230). With this he means that a narrator can
formulate the story preface as a way to identify the recipient. This in turn can then be used to
“recipient design” a story so that the hearers can have the reaction the narrator would like
them to have by foregrounding or omitting certain aspects of the narrative. A teenager
recounting his evening out to his strict parents would choose to omit the part where he had
one drink too many but when telling the same story to his friends, he could choose to
foreground this as an important detail. As one can deduce, this aspect of tellability is absent
from literary narratives as the narrator of said texts, i.e. the author, has no way of knowing
who the recipient is beforehand.

The reason why I choose these two examples out of Sacks’ entire work is because
Polanyi (1981) uses these in her article Telling the same story twice to discuss whether one
can indeed tell the same story. As mentioned above, her interpretation of Sacks and other
ethnomethodologists would make it impossible to do so because each storytelling needs to
take into account those contextual parameters and thus each story told will differ from every
other story told. What she does, however, is to break down multiple tellings to reveal the
underlying structure of the narrative in which the same events, set in a similarly constructed
storyworld communicate the same global ‘point’. She breaks this down even further to a more
abstract level of different events set in different storyworlds exhibiting similar characteristics
that can be reduced to the same underlying ‘script’ (315). To illustrate her idea, Polanyi uses
the example of a woman entering a restaurant, ordering food and drinks, paying her bill and
then leaving. According to Polanyi, this can be reduced to a script of what we expect to occur
when we go to a restaurant, the Restaurant Script:

Frederik Forger Bachelor thesis 3rd BA English - TFL

A customer enters a restaurant. A waitperson brings a menu. The customer orders food
and something to drink. The waitperson brings the food. The customer eats. The
customer is no longer hungry as a result. The customer pays the bill and leaves (331).

In contrast with a story which has specific characters doing specific things, this script
is very generic. This script even be further generalized into a “higher-order script” (331). In
this example, the Restaurant script can be generalized into a higher-order Service Encounter

One has a problem, finds the service organization which deals with such problems,
put’s one’s problem in the hands of the people who can help, undergoes the helping
behavior, reaches a state of ‘helpedness’, pays for the service, and leaves (ibid).

From this point of view, each telling of a story would be a variation on said underlying
script and then yes, the same story can be told twice or multiple times even. A script can be
“recipient designed” with regard to the hearer to fit within a specific context. This might even
be considered a possible explanation as to why “the same old stories”, i.e. the monomyth or
hero’s journey, can be told time and time again just with different packaging. Polanyi does
nuance her conclusion by stating that the answer to “can you tell the same story twice?” is
dependent on what we might possibly mean by “story” (333).

3.5 From experience: Monika Fludernik

In her book Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology, Monika Fludernik (1996) argues that
narratological research is best done within natural narratives, meaning “naturally occurring”
storytelling. This mainly includes spontaneous conversational storytelling, in which Fludernik
distinguishes the following three categories: (a) experiential conversational storytelling,
which Fludernik designates as the prototype of natural narrative. This genre can be further
divided in stories of personal experience, stories of vicarious experience and stories of
observational experience; (b) narrative report, a narrative that does not fully develop into a
story but merely provides a summary of the narrator’s action, of certain events or
developments; and (c) the joke and/or anecdote, narratives that differentiate from most
experiential narratives in that they handle the ‘point’ of the story differently, the so called
punch line (58). Fludernik links tellability with her concept of narrativity, which is grounded
in experientiality. The essence of narrative, Fludernik states, is “the communication of
anthropocentric experience – the experientiality which is inherent in human experience – and
this means drawing on fixed patterns of behavior as well as conveying thoughts and feelings,

Frederik Forger Bachelor thesis 3rd BA English - TFL

and depicting perceptions and reflections” (2009: 59). She further states that the central thesis
of Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology is that “narrativity should be detached from its
dependence on plot and be redefined as the representation of experientiality” (2009: 109).

What this means for tellability within naturally occurring storytelling varies,
depending on which category the storytelling belongs to. All three follow Labov’s
reportability requirements: “the speaker must attempt to get to the point as fast as possible,
postponing background information to a later point (…), and she has to evaluate the
significance of the experience recounted, clarifying the story’s ‘point’” (63). In the case of
recounting a narrative of personal experience, the experientiality comes about due to the
interrelation between the description of the personal experience and the evaluative and
rememorative transformation of this experience in the storytelling process: “tellability and
point of the story dialectically constitute each other” (70). To put it more elegantly: “the
narrative is a narrative, not because it tells a story, but because the story that it tells is
reportable and has been reinterpreted by the narrating I, the personal storyteller” (ibid.). For a
story of observational experience, where the narrator recounts something he or she has
observed as a witness, “it is the narrator’s surprise, dismay, shock, fear or frustrated
expectation that constitutes the tellability of the story” (73). Stories of vicarious experience,
where the narrator recounts a story about something that has happened to someone else, are a
bit more complex. Truly vicarious experiences are rare. After all: how can someone truly
experience what someone else has experienced in exactly the same manner? Because of this,
“there tends to be a connection between the storyteller and the experiencer which explains
how the narrator came to learn of the experience and came to empathize with it” (ibid.). This
bond of empathy between the narrator and the experience is key for the tellability of the story,
for it “depends on the interest afforded by the described experience, which needs to have been
especially funny, weird, exotic or outrageous. The emphasis is therefore on the effect of this
experience, which has been undergone by another person, on narrator and listener alike”

For the narrative report, tellability is a nonfactor. A report’s aim “is to provide
information, not to tell a story” (71). A mere summary of facts or experiences does not need
to bother with to balance tellability with narrative point and “the whole intonational
differentiation of narrative levels is rendered functionally irrelevant” (ibid.).

For the third category, jokes and anecdotes, Fludernik says these can be analyzed in
terms of condensed stories (81). They foreground the point, whether by means of witty
Frederik Forger Bachelor thesis 3rd BA English - TFL

repartee, a punch line or an unexpected resolution but in their condensation of the narrative,
jokes tend to eliminate the evaluation section that is so prominent in the experiential story
(82). In contrast to this, anecdotes tend to expand the evaluation section, therefore providing
the audience with an explanation or interpretation of the text. Fludernik does not dwell long
on anecdotes as it is frequently used as a form of oral history within written text while she
wants to ground her research in spontaneous conversation storytelling. The anecdote, she
says, “that most natural form of oral history, therefore marks the threshold into the symbolic
realm of écriture, and it defines that threshold at its most treacherous” (91). Her final thoughts
on jokes ends with the hopeful remark that “narratological analyses of the joke therefore
promise to be a fruitful area of research” (85), a topic that shall be greatly expanded upon by
Neal R. Norrick.

3.6 Narrative Dimensions and Untold Stories: Elinor Ochs and Lisa Capps & Michael
Bamberg and Alexandra Georgakopoulou

In their work Living Narrative: Creating Lives in Everyday Storytelling, Ochs and
Caps (2002) identify several dimensions that they feel are always relevant to a narrative or,
more specifically, a narrative of personal interest. These dimensions each establish a range of
possibility to form some kind of scale with two poles where a narrative can fit in-between.
There are five of these dimensions and they are the following: (a) tellership, (b) tellability, (c)
embeddedness, (d) linearity, and (e) moral stance (20). At the beginning of their book, they
remark that there is an important difference between telling a story to another and telling a
story with another (2). The first instance, of a (usually) single active narrator with a passive or
receiving audience is taken to be the default narrative of personal experience with the
narrative dimensions being characterized as follows: (a) one active teller, (b) highly tellable
account, (c) relatively detached from surrounding talk and activity, (d) linear temporal and
casual organization, and (e) certain, constant moral stance (20). These are the kind of
narratives that have been systematically analyzed over the years by previous scholars but, as
they observe, “much less is known about narratives whose characteristics fall at the other ends
of the continua on the chart of narrative dimensions: [a] multiple, active co-tellers, [b]
moderately tellable account, [c] relatively embedded in surrounding discourse and activity, [d]
nonlinear temporal and causal organization, and [e] uncertain, fluid moral stance” (23). These
are the kind of narratives where a story is told with another.

This usage of narrative dimensions and their fields of possibilities would be a novel
thought as for now we can gauge the quality of the tellability of a story in terms of high and
Frederik Forger Bachelor thesis 3rd BA English - TFL

low tellability. In particular “personal narratives vary in their quality as tellable accounts, that
is, in the extent to which they convey a sequence of reportable events and make a point in a
rhetorically effective way” (33). Highly tellable narratives would be “of such interest that they
can be told again and still be appreciated” (ibid.). Ochs and Capps further state that tellability
not only relates to the sensational nature of events, its reportability, but also to the
significance and relevance of the events told for particular interlocutors and how these events
are rhetorically shaped in narrative (34). Personal narratives give personal relevance to events
and so we can say that “a highly tellable narrative of personal experience relates events of
great interest or import to interlocutors” (ibid.). On the other side of the spectrum, this
approach to tellability draws attention to narratives with low tellability. This is to say that
narratives with low tellability do not have events that are not reportable but rather that the
narrator does not bother to “dress up the events as particularly important” (ibid.). The notion
of tellership and the organization of it can also be partly linked to the degree of tellability. A
single narrator that recounts highly reportable events in an effective manner to a receiving,
passive audience can be regarded as a narrative with high tellability and thus a successful one.
Opposed to this, a story with multiple tellers can suffer from low tellability when, for
instance, one teller takes the narrative in a direction not intended by the original teller or
brings up unrelated and irrelevant points. These narratives rank low on the tellability
dimension but should be regarded as failed narratives. Some narrators tell a story primarily for
the hearer’s interest, i.e. performance, while others do so primarily to gain insight into events
and to build a perspective along with their interlocutors, i.e. dialogic sense-making (36, 55,
76). This ties back into the notion of other scholars that tellability is achieved through
negotiation and co-construction in conversational storytelling.

One other interesting contribution made by Ochs and Capps is their reflection on
“untold stories.” Untold here means narratives that cannot be told due to various reason, i.e.
inappropriate for the other interlocutors or not relatable by anyone participating in the
conversation other than the narrator. With regards to tellability, Ochs and Capps claim that “a
sequence of events may not be reportable, because the would-be teller cannot access his or her
memory of the events” (252). The reasons they give here for this occurrence are childhood
amnesia, in that the reportable events happened to early in the narrator’s life for his or her to
remember, and trauma, where the reportable events are too painful for the narrator to recall
(256). Baroni remarks here that, in these cases, it would be more appropriate to distinguish
between what a narrator deems worthy of being told and what is accessible for narration, as

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both instances are highly context-sensitive, with the latter being dependent on psychological
and cultural conditions (2014). A man might not narrate the events of his childhood from
when he was bullied not because the memory is too painful but because he could see it as a
sign of (admitting) weakness.

A different kind of “untold stories” can be found in Bamberg and Georgakopoulou’s

(2008) article Small stories as a new perspective in narrative and identity analysis. In it, they
recount the story of a group’s discussion between an adult moderator and four ten-year-olds
of which one is named Victor. At one point, Victor engages in negotiation with his fellow
interlocutors by making a bid for the floor and the right to talk by using a story preface (Sacks
1995) and following up on it by remarking on its weirdness, which is most likely to be
interpreted as wanting to boost his story’s tellability. But in a subversion of Sacks’ structure:
the teller putting forth a story preface, the recipient’s request to hear the story, and the teller
telling the story, Victor withdraws his bid by claiming “I can’t tell it though” (383) as he had
promised a friend he would not tell. “He announces a story and upgrades the story’s tellability
by two interactive moves: evaluating the story as a clear break from the mundane and
everyday (‘weird’) and then withholding it” (388). According to Bamberg and
Georgakopoulou, this bait and switch of alluding to the potential of a story and then
foreshadowing its potential content as relevant and highly reportable moves Victor in the
position of having the potential to contribute to the topic at hand in a relevant way, all without
a single mention of the event he could tell (ibid.). The conclusion Bamberg and
Georgakopoulou draw from this is that “while traditional narrative analysis relies heavily on
the story’s content (e.g., reportability of events and the breaching of expectations; Bruner
2001, 2003) to reason for its tellability, Victor’s interactive moves show tellability as
something that is interactively achieved” (ibid.). This observation also ties back to the idea
that tellability is achieved through negotiation, as mentioned by previous scholars.

3.7 Jokes and the dark side: Neal R. Norrick

In a related development to these “untold stories”, Norrick (2005) has researched the
kind of stories that are tellable, even highly so, but that, for one reason or another, are not
being told. He refers to these stories as being located on the dark side of tellability. In his
article The dark side of tellability, he examines how tellability is defined by previous scholars
and concludes that there is need of a two-sided notion of tellability. On one side, we have the
lower-bounding side or the bare minimum that a narrative needs to possess in order to be
tellable. On the other side, there lies the upper-bounding side or the point beyond which
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narratives are no longer tellable in the current context. Similarly, Norrick notes, one can tell a
story in such a way that it fails to bring across the point and thus not reach the threshold of
tellability while a different telling of the same story could make the event out to be so
frightening or intimate that the story is no longer tellable. This forms an odd dichotomy as,
when looked at from the lower-bounding side of it, a story becomes more tellable the
“weirder” it is or is made out to by while at the same time becoming less tellable when
viewed from the upper-bounding side as the story could potentially transgress cultural, social
or personal taboos (327). This distinction harkens back, according to Norrick, to the
distinction made in Grice’s Maxim of Quantity, where one should “make your contribution as
informative as required” and “do not make your contribution more informative than needed”
(1975, 45).

The interesting question then becomes how, in conversational storytelling, the

interlocutors determine and negotiate this upper-bounding side of tellability within their
conversation. To illustrate with an example, someone could recount a story which one could
regard as “dirty” in a conversation among friends with everyone enjoying the tale told while
telling that similar story among work colleagues might result in losing face among peers. For
Norrick, this has much to do with the identity construction that occurs in storytelling. In
constructing an identity, a teller needs to pay attention that his story passes the lower
boundary of tellability, or else his listeners would not be interested in the story, as well as the
upper boundary to avoid turning away his listeners by transgressing certain norms and taboos:

The truly tellable narrative is one which accrues to just the sort of identity a teller
wishes to project in the current context – interesting in itself and personally revealing
enough to engage listeners and to project a particular identity, but avoiding
transgression due to overly gruesome or overly personal detail, presenting a positive
self-image without seeming to praiseful etc. (329).

In his conclusion, Norrick summarizes that, in wishing to make their story out to be as
interesting as possible to their listeners, tellers naturally orient themselves towards the upper
boundary of tellability by negotiating with their interlocutors just how far they can encroach
upon it. Not only that but this negotiation can also be used to overcome the upper boundary,
to “push the limits” of tellability in the pursuit of intimacy between the interlocutors and for
mutual enjoyment (339).

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Another major contribution Norrick made to the study of conversational storytelling

and tellability is his research into familiar stories, reminiscing, jokes and humor. What is
remarkable about reminiscing and jokes is how they deviate from what we have, so far,
defined as tellability: a story must be “reportable” according to Labov (1972) or “tellable”
according to Sacks (1995). Yet reminiscing, the telling of familiar stories, has nothing to
report if every participant in the conversation already knows the story and jokes are, more
often than not, not newsworthy or relevant. Telling such a narrative would usually result in a
“so what?” (Labov 1972) or a “what’s the point?” (Polanyi 1979) yet it does not. More so,
familiar stories and jokes, or humorous narratives, appear regularly and naturally in
conversational storytelling, which makes one wonder just what they constitute for tellability.
In the case of familiar stories, Norrick deduces that they derive their tellability not from the
content of the story but from the dynamics of the narrative event itself (2000: 84). Recounting
a familiar story invites the other interlocutors to participate in the co-narration of it. This co-
narration has three effects on the narrators: “first (…) it allows participants to re-live common
experiences, second (…) it confirms the long-term bond they share and third (…) the
experience of collaborative narration itself redounds to feelings of belonging” (2000: 91). The
telling of a story already known is not for the content of the story itself but for the sense of
community the story brings about among its narrators. Another reason for doing so is a simple
one: it is amusing. This leads Norrick to consider that there is a special relationship between
humor and tellability. This has led him to his research on the role of humor and jokes in
narrative. Norrick first touches on this by singling out the facts that, while “narrative jokes are
probably the largest and most typical genre of conversational joketelling” (2000: 170), jokes
themselves “are not conductive to co-telling like many other types of stories we considered”
(2000: 195) and that unlike stories where we expect a certain narrative structure, i.e.
beginning, middle, and end, “the narrative structure of jokes can be fairly loose” (ibid.).
Exactly what the interrelationship is between humor and tellability is further explored in
Norrick’s (2004) article Humor, tellability, and conarration in conversational storytelling. In
it, he makes the claim that humor rather than reportability can fulfill the requirements of
tellability, as is often the case in reminiscing. Both reportability and humor require a break
from the norm or our expectations so “what makes a story tellable ipso facto makes it
potentially funny as well” (90). “Because it is funny” is a legitimate claim to the tellability of
a story.

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Another way to investigate this relationship between humor and tellability is by

looking at the listener’s influence on the humor in a story where both the (original) teller and
interlocutors are concerned with making the story funnier. What Norrick finds, using the
example of a story of a marriage proposal and the subsequent retelling of it at a later point, is
when “someone tells a story with an orientation toward its humor, and a listener finds some
way to make the story funnier, the teller will naturally go on to incorporate the suggestion in
future tellings, in order to increase its tellability” (98). This is an interesting observation:
rather than decreasing in tellability as one would suspect with each retelling, humor can add
to the tellability, increase it and alter the performance of the story in subsequent performances

A final observation made by Norrick is that (co)narrators who orient towards the
humor in the story can seek to maximize the humor in the performance of it. This is especially
true for narratives of which the entire “point” is humor. Someone who tells a joke will do
anything in his or her narrational power to maximize the humor of it in order to garner the
most desirable outcome, which in this case means the most laughs. This can also be seen, to
greater effect one might argue, in a joint or team performance by conarrators. Using his earlier
example of a marriage proposal story, Norrick gives us the retelling of it when a new listener
who does not know the story joins in the conversation. The conarrators, an old and happily
married couple, adopt the personae of a bickering husband and wife in order to maximize the
humor aspect of the story (as opposed to the first telling where it was only the wife narrating
it). What is important to notice here is that the narrators present a different personality solely
to enhance the humor and, consequently, the tellability of the story. Norrick deduces from this
that “an orientation toward humor in a team performance affects the mod of telling a story and
the interaction of the conarrators” (104).

The conclusions Norrick draws broadens once again the idea of tellability by stating
that not only reportability but also that humor can be grounds for tellability when the group
dynamic, laughing or reminiscing together, takes precedence over the content of a story.
Humor and tellability share the same initial conditions, a break from the norm, and it is in this
capacity that an orientation towards humor has a (profound) impact on tellability and

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3.8 The narrative not taken: Marie-Laure Ryan

In her view on tellability as written in her entry “Tellability” for the Routledge
Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory, Ryan (2005) distinguishes tellability from narrativity by
claiming that tellability is a quality that makes a story inherently worth telling, independently
from its textualization (589). She challenges the literary dogma of the inseparability of form
and content by stating that the concept of tellability presupposed that a story exists in a virtual
state within the mind of a would-be teller before this story is actualized either in a storytelling
performance or writing (ibid.). Whenever a storyteller claims that he or she has a story to tell,
that story does not actually exist yet except for in the mind of the storyteller as he or she
intends to tell it. This separation is exemplified by the observation that a poor telling of a
tellable story can ruin the story for the audience, i.e. a badly told joke just falls flat, and
conversely, a brilliant performance of a mediocre tellable story can still manage to captivate
an audience (590). For Ryan, a successful narrative involves two components: the rhetorical,
discourse features with which narrators display a storyworld for the audience to respond to,
and the tellability component, what correlates with the point of the text. Tellability can then
be split up into three categories: context-free and context-specific tellability, culture-relative
and universal tellability, and semantic and pragmatic tellability (ibid.). Ryan gives as an
example of context-specific tellability stories that depend on their newsworthiness, in that
they are unusual or defy expectations, an interpretation of tellability that harkens back all the
way to Labov. Culture-relevant tellability is something that we have already encountered
before. After all, what is relevant for the members of one culture might not be so for the
members of another. Ryan humorously illustrates this by way of using an old French advice
that recommends to use the following in order to write a bestseller: religion, sex, aristocracy,
and mystery, which is then turned into the ultimate of tellable stories: “My God, said the
Duchess, I am pregnant. Who done it?” (ibid.). On the subject of universal themes of
tellability, there is debate. Should there be such a list, it would merely consist of a catalog of
themes and why they are appealing. There is perhaps room to argue that there is at least one
universal theme, namely conflict. The notion of conflict is encountered in stories of all ages
and in every part of the world that a general guideline can be made that states that: “a good
plot must present a conflict and at least one attempt at solving it” (1991: 154). But conflict is
so fundamental to stories, Ryan claims, that it could also be regarded as a condition of
narrativity and not merely tellability (2005: 590). Regardless, universal themes are not very
interesting for Ryan as she wants to outline the formal properties that support tellability. One

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of these, and arguably the one she is most known for, is a narrative’s ability to deploy a rich
field of virtual narratives (ibid.).

To better explain this idea, we turn to Ryan’s earlier work Possible Worlds, Artificial
Intelligence, and Narrative Theory (1991). In this work, Ryan states that “some
configurations of facts present an intrinsic “tellability” which precedes their textualization”
(148). Configurations of facts here means plots, so the previous sentence can be rewritten in
layman’s terms as “not all plots are created equal” (ibid.). In the footsteps of Wilensky, Ryan
regards tellability as a part of the story’s external and internal points of interest. External
points are “what is usually meant when someone refers to ‘the point of the story.’“ (151).
They link up with the narrator’s intent in telling his or her story such as convincing a listener
of something, giving out information, etc. This suggest that external points are located in the
relationship between the story and the context. Ryan goes on to note that external points have
their limitations when it comes to present interest for narrative fiction. This is due to the
pragmatic approach presupposing that there is a concrete speech situation and a personal
connection between speaker and hearer (152), something that is evidently absent when
dealing with narrative fiction. On the subject of internal points, Wilensky and Ryan make a
distinction between dynamic and static points. “A dynamic point is one in which a story event
violates a previous expectation” according to Wilensky (153). When a dynamic does so with
the expectation of the reader, Ryan further specifies it as a “strategic point” (159). These
strategic points skirt the border between theory of performance and theory of tellability as this
violation comes not only from the plot evens but from how they are presented to the reader.
This is a kind of fuzziness she wants to avoid and is an argument she does not pursue. The
remaining internal points, the static ones, are also called substantial points and they correlate
to the above mentioned principles of tellability and universal themes. These two levels do not
automatically produce a tellable story and here comes into play a certain degree of semantic
complexity (2005: 590). One such form of semantic complexity that enhances tellability is
that of a narrative’s diversification of possible worlds within the narrative universe: “the
complexity of a plot depends on an underlying system of purely virtual embedded narratives”
(156). These embedded narratives, Ryan says, “are the story-like constructs contained in the
private worlds of characters,” including, but not limited to: characters’ hopes, dreams and
fantasies, potential plans for future events, etc. Thus a story’s tellability is directly
proportional to the amount of virtual embedded narratives it has in configuration with the
amount of alternate possible worlds it intertwines with, its “network of virtual sequences”

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(162). To give a minor illustration for this idea, suppose the story in which a man looks
through the window of a flower shop. This event generates the following potential sequences:
he goes in and buys flowers or he does not. This seems rather simplistic but let examine some
potential embedded virtual narratives, For instance, the man plans to surprise his wife but
notices he has no money on him. This in turn opens up more potential sequences in addition
to or expanding on the ones already mentioned. This adds to the complexity of the story and
thus to the tellability of it.

3.9 Narrativity and narrativehood: David Herman

For his work Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative, David Herman
(2002) was in the fortunate position to draw upon the work of all the scholars that came
before him. As tellability has been defined again and again by those scholars, the question on
tellability shifted from “what makes a narrative tellable?” to “can certain kinds of stories meet
the minimal criteria for narrative yet lack other features required for stories to be deemed
valuable, interesting, or “effective” (Labov 1972a: 370) as narratives (cf. Bruce 1978; Labov
and Waletzky 1967)?” (87). Herman goes about answering this question by using artificial
intelligence research on the knowledge structures variously termed schemata, scripts, and
frames (87). The definitions Herman provides are the ones given by Dennis Mercadal in his A
Dictionary of Artificial Intelligence (1990):

A script is a description of how a sequence of events is expected to unfold. (…) A

script is similar to a frame in that it [a script] represents a set of expectations. (…)
Frames differ from scripts in that frames are used to represent a point in time. Scripts
represent a sequence of events that take place in a time sequence (89).

Schema is borrowed from psychology literature where it is used to refer to memory

patterns that humans use to interpret current experiences. In that capacity, the term can here
be defined as “a synonym for framelike structures”. (ibid.) Herman’s research suggests the

The mind draws on a large but not infinite number of “experiential repertoires,” of
both static (schematic or frame-like) and dynamic (or script-like) types. Stored in the
memory, previous experiences form structured repertoires of expectations about
current and emergent experiences. Static repertoires allow me to distinguish a chair
from a table or a car from a bread box; dynamic repertoires help me to know how

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events typically unfold during common occasions such as birthday parties and to avoid
mistaking birthday parties for barroom brawls or visits to the barber (ibid.).

In the case of stories, one would require access to a multitude of scripts in order to
comprehend the story.

Herman uses these narrative structures along with linguistic form and world
knowledge to analyze the interrelation that occurs between these three. From this analysis two
terms spring forth. The first is what Herman calls narrativehood, which contains the factors
that are critical for narrative: “what makes readers and listeners deem stories to be stories”
(90). For Herman, narrativehood is a binary predicate: either something is a story or it is not
(ibid.). The second term is narrativity, a function of “formal and contextual features making a
narrative more or less narrative (G. Prince 1987: 64)” (91). For Herman, this makes
narrativity a scalar predicate: a story can be more or less prototypically story-like (91). When
the two are paired together, they suggest the contrast between, on one hand, the minimal
conditions for narrative sequences and, on the other, the factors that allow narrative sequences
to be more or less readily processed as narratives.

Now what this means for tellability. Narratives that are more or less tellable can have
different degrees of narrativity. Narrativity is here used as the degree to which a (tellable)
story can be made into and processed as a narrative. So when there are two representatives of
a story, the example given by Herman is a robbery with one version of the story given by an
outside witness and the other version by a shocked victim, the one with a higher degree of
narrativity can be more easily processed by the listeners or readers and thus be considered to
have a higher degree of tellability (100). This does raise the question of what makes one
version of a story more narrative than another. Is there a set of formal or contextual variables
that correlate with the differing degrees of narrativity? Herman does not give a full-blown
analysis of all the variables but by way of a thought experiment, comes up with a scale of
narrativity to grade stories on: “the continuum stretching from sequences that are nearly
impossible to process as narratives to those immediately identifiable as such” (101). This
scale of narrativity has, like Norrick’s scale of tellability, a lower limit of narrativity, past
which a “story” is no longer processed as a story because it fails to be arranged into a
narrative structure that draws on pre-stored scripts and frames, as well as an upper limit of
narrativity, past which the tellable ventures off into the realm of the stereotypical and the
point of the narrative, the very reason for which the story was told, gets lost or at least
obscured (103).
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3.10 Between temporalities: Meir Sternberg

In regards to the notion of tellability, Sternberg’s (2003) two articles Universals of

Narratives and Their Cognitivist Fortunes (I) and (II) read as a critique on Ryan’s work and a
rejection of her view on tellability. Whereas Ryan locates tellability mainly within
(pre)textual elements such as plots and themes without any regard to the reader, a school of
thought harking back to classical structuralism, Sternberg claims that the universals of
narrative interest, thus tellability, are grounded in the reader’s processing of the text.

These universals come about in the following way. In his article How Narrativity
makes a Difference, Sternberg (2001) asks the question, now that scholars bring to narrative
texts problems and interests other than narrative, whether or not narrative theory still has
bearing on their concerns. In order to do so, Sternberg remarks that narrative theory must
acknowledge and come to terms with the simple fact that “not everything in narrative
discourse is intrinsically narrative” (116). Using that fact as basis, he therefore distinguishes
the constants of narrative in its narrativity from the variables in its textuality. Narrativity,
according to Sternberg, is situated between actional and communicative time, otherwise
known told and telling/reading sequence. “This interplay between temporalities generates the
three universal narrative effects/interests/dynamics of prospection, retrospection, and
recognition – suspense, curiosity, and surprise, for short” (117). These universals as applied to
the reader gives us the following: suspense arises from rival scenarios about the future, from
the discrepancy between what the reader knows about the events, conflicts, happenings in the
telling and those that are still uncertain or unresolved in the (story)world; curiosity comes
from the reader knowing that he or she does not know and by going forward he or she tries to
infer that which he or she did not know in retrospect; for surprise, the narrative first
inconspicuously twists or gaps its chronology and then suddenly discloses to the reader his or
her misreading, enforcing a corrective rereading in late re-cognition (ibid.). Or as Herman and
Vervaeck put it: “suspense implies the reader’s guesswork about rival scenarios for the future,
curiosity implies the reader’s acknowledgement that he or she does not know something, and
surprise unexpectedly discloses to the reader that he or she did not know something” (ibid.).

By putting the reader up as the central element to determine tellability, Sternberg

delivers a critique on Ryan’s lack thereof and her attempts to locate “interest-ladenness” in a
context-free pre-textuality (Univervals II: 605). Ryan finds the potential for tellability in a
diversification of possible worlds within a narrative where for Sternberg, it is a matter of
interpretation by the reader. Combined with the above, we can conclude from Sternberg that
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any narrative is tellable, depending on the way it is told, i.e. the interplay between
temporalities, and how the reader interprets it.

3.11 Narrative Interest as Cultural Negotiation: Luc Herman and Bart Vervaeck

In their article Narrative Interest as Cultural Negotiation, Herman and Vervaeck

analyze and critique much of the above scholars and their theories. In their goal of broadening
the scope of the debate, they provide their own theory on narrative interest that that suggests
that “narrative interest arises as the result of a continuous mutual adjustment or negotiation
between the two domains” (112), the two domains being the idea of intrinsically interesting
textual properties (Ryan) and that narrative texts can induce narrative interest thanks to the
network in which they circulate and in which the reader takes part (Sternberg) (ibid.). To
specify this process of negotiation, they turn to Stephen Greenblatt’s notion of “cultural
materials” that circulate between various cultural domains (ibid.). By combining the above,
they set out to provide an answer to the question of “why is something interesting in the eye
of the beholder?” (117).

Their theory states that the negotiation between a text and a reader involves four
elements: topic, assets and liabilities, field and audience. The first of these, the topic, is the
subject of the negotiation. To start a negotiation, both parties, the narrator and the audience,
need to recognize this subject as being mutually interesting to the both of them. If one of the
parties is not interested, negotiations will not begin. A narrator who is not interested in telling
a particular story will not do so and an audience that is not interested in hearing the story will
choose not to do so. Once it has been established that both parties are interested in the topic
and willing to enter into negotiation, said negotiation will commence.

Negotiation also involves assets and liabilities. These are the strengths and
weaknesses that the parties involved see as desirable or unwanted. These are highly variable
as not every party holds the same strengths and weaknesses in the same regard. For instance,
the name of an author attached to a particular text can be an asset for one reader, prompting
him or her to pick it up and start reading while for another, the name of said author can deter
him or her from reading the text. The function of assets and liabilities in the negotiation is to
convince a potential reader of its value, its worthiness. Herman and Vervaeck do note that, if
the assets and liabilities for a reader lie with his or her own predisposition to them and those
of a text are contained within textual elements, substance, form, and possible worlds for Ryan
and the “constellation of story-like constructs” for David Herman (59), then the successful

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usage of a teller’s assets can only be so if the teller’s view on assets is close to those held by
the audience (118). A teller can be as enthusiast as can be about, for example, a text by author
James Joyce but if the targeted audience does not like said author, the use of that particular
asset is considered a failure. As a result from this, “[Herman and Vervaeck] do not believe
there are universal assets of liabilities” (ibid.).

The third aspect of negotiation is field, where the negotiation takes place, loosely
defined as “[a] more or less organized domain[s] of communicative activity” (119). Each field
has its own customs and tradition and these in turn exercise influence on narrative interest. In
the example given, the field of literature, this tradition may be literary genres where every
genre imposes some form of limit on what is interesting and what is tellable (ibid.). While
stories generally do not transgress these genre norms, Herman and Vervaeck do mention that
genre norms, as influences exerted by the field, can be regarded as assets. With reference to
David Herman’s upper and lower limits of tellability and narrativity (103), just how far these
transgressions may go, are up to the reader’s evaluation. For some, breaking genre constraints
can have a wow-effect while for others, this can be off-putting (119).

In their conclusion, it is still up the audience to determine for themselves if any limits
have been transgressed or not. The reader is however not completely free to do so. From the
moment he begins the act of reading, he is engaged in a negotiation with the three other
elements (ibid.).

The final step Herman and Vervaeck take in forging their own theory is to integrate
the above: negotiation involving topic, assets, field, and audience, with Stephen Greenblatt’s
ideas of text and culture to produce the concept of negotiation as a cultural process, “which
combines the impact of the (narrative) text with the activity and the cultural embeddedness of
the reader” (111). In order to do so, they first give a brief rundown and explanation of
Greenblatt’s ideas. The central idea here is, for Greenblatt, that the power of texts is not some
inherent and pregiven property but a form of “aesthetic empowerment” (Negotiations 5) that
arises in a process of “structured negotiation and exchange” (6). “According to Greenblatt”,
they say, “literature transmits culturally dominant ideas, experiences, and practices, all of
which he calls “cultural materials” (“Culture” 230). A first link is made as they clarify that
what they call assets and topics are specific examples of such cultural materials. Continuing
Greenblatt’s idea, “narrative interest is just one part of “the collective production of literary
pleasure and interest” (Negotiations 4; emphasis added by Herman and Vervaeck). The
question then becomes: “what form of collective recognition and production are we talking
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about when we are talking about narrative interest?” (122). In Greenblatt’s words: “we can
ask how collective beliefs and experiences were shaped, moved from one medium to another,
concentrated in manageable aesthetic form, offered for consumption” (Negotiations 5). The
next question Herman and Vervaeck pose is “how interesting narratives, as examples of
manageable aesthetic form, carry these socially empowered materials into the realm of
literature” (122). The answer is that they do so by obscuring the collective recognition and
production upon they are dependent: “the power of literature (…) lies in the transmission and
transformation of socially dominant “materials” that are never presented as social but purely
as literary” (ibid.). This is most effective when a reader experiences this as an aspect of the
text itself, as an asset. To determine where this power “to transform social and cultural
materials into materials that carry aesthetic force – in our case: into interesting narratives”
(ibid.), Greenblatt investigates “the negotiations through which works of art obtain and
amplify such powerful energy” (Negotiations 7). Some of these negotiations are described as
“complex, ceaseless borrowings and lendings” (ibid.) which Herman and Vervaeck link up
with Ryan’s literary themes of absolute interest, David Herman’s generic preferences, and
other so-called inherently interesting narrative components (122). In their own theory, they
call these assets that function in particular fields (ibid.).

“Narrative interest is one of those constructs that succeed in passing themselves off as
a given – which is precisely what the “aesthetic power” of any narrative boils down to” (123).
For Herman and Vervaeck, the construction is a given and the conventional is something
natural: “so-called textual assets, such as a brilliant style, are embedded in the social, cultural
and ideological context” (ibid.) When talking about negotiation, Greenblatt “describes this
more accurately in terms of circulation and exchange” (122). To finish their theory, Herman
and Vervaeck conclude that “the wider the circulation, the bigger the impact” (123) and that is
this impact that can turn into interest if the audience is inclined towards the circulation and
exchange (ibid.)

4. Conclusion

As stated at the beginning of this thesis, it is difficult to offer a definition of tellability

that fits into the framework of various theories of narrative interest as each theory attributes
more importance to a certain factor than another. Narratology, as any other field of research,
keeps on evolving and putting forth new hypotheses. This is reflective of the ideologies that
are dominant in narratology at the time when a particular theory is formulated. Much has
changed over the forty years since Labov first pioneered the concept. An example of this can
Frederik Forger Bachelor thesis 3rd BA English - TFL

be seen when Sacks mentions in Lectures on Conversation in 1992 how: “we can begin to get
an idea, then, about how it is that not anything is a story, and that people don’t figure anything
is a story, and see that even in a scene where there is a story, it’s not just any story that could
be made out of it” (1995: 233) but twenty years later, Ochs and Capps state that: “tellers can
transform just about anything that happened into a tellable account” (2002: 253). This is
clearly evident in literary, a field that has made an art about telling the untellable with an early
example being Madame Bovary (1856), a novel of which the author Gustave Flaubert said
that it is “a book about nothing” or Waiting for Godot (1953) by Samuel Becket, a play of
which literary critic Vivian Mercier once famously said that it is a play “in which nothing
happens, twice” (The Irish Times, 18 February 1956, 3).

Starting out with its roots in the sociolinguistics of Labov, the concept of tellability
has gone through many changes over the years. It started out with merely the idea of “what is
interesting” and “what is the point of the story?” before scholars began to examine other
potential factors to determine what is to be considered interesting. As mentioned by Baroni in
the beginning of this thesis, the notion of tellability depends on which aspect one attributes
the most importance. I therefore think that there will never be a complete, unifying theory on
tellability because as long as people have different opinions on the matter, different theories
and interpretations shall be put forth. Ryan stated that conflict is a fundamental part of stories
(2005: 590) so it is no surprise that in the story of tellability, there would be an astounding
amount of conflict contained within. As American physician and cellist Ronald Heifetz once
said: “conflict is the primary engine of creativity and innovation”, it should come as no
surprise that the theories of narrative interest are so broad and diverse.

So while I do not believe that there ever will be a complete, unifying theory on
tellability that will satisfy everyone’s interpretation of the concept, I did notice that there is
seemingly one constant variable throughout all the various theories that I have examined: in
order for a telling, text, conversation, story, or in its broadest term, a narrative to qualify as
being tellable, it needs to be interesting. It is just a matter of personal interpretation of how
one would go about it achieving this interest that is up for debate.

Frederik Forger Bachelor thesis 3rd BA English - TFL


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