The Difference Between Story and Discourse

What Is Discourse?

‘Discourse’ is a conveniently loose term, and can refer to:

1. Linguistic Discourse — generally refers to specific discourse types such as the discourse of parent-child conversations, boss-employee conversations, dinner table conversations versus schoolyard conversations…

2. Narratological Discourse — the means by which a story and its significance are communicated. Aspects such as temporal sequencing, focalization, narrator’s relation to the story and audience come up when talking about this kind of discourse.

The Difference Between Story and Discourse

Focusing now on ‘narratological’ discourse (related to storytelling), I’ll offer explanations from several sources. See which one best makes sense.


Whereas ‘story’ comprises what we might roughly think of as ‘what certain characters do in a certain place at a certain time,’ the word ‘discourse’ comprises the complex process of encoding that story which involves:

  • choices of vocabulary
  • syntax
  • order of presentation
  • how the narrating voice is to be orientated towards what is narrated and towards the implied audience
  • etc

Story = the ‘what’ of the narrative.

Discourse = the ‘way’.

Seymour Chatman

The theory of narrative requires a distinction between what I shall call ‘story’ — a sequence of actions or events, conceived as independent of their manifestation in discourse — and what I shall call ‘discourse’, the discursive presentation or narration of events

Jonathan Culler

Let’s take an example of a common plot. Well, this plot was super common 150 years ago, not so much now: The Harlot’s Progress narrative.

In the Harlot’s Progress narrative, the sequencing of ‘story’ goes like this:

  1. Girl loses chastity
  2. Falls into deeper and deeper vice
  3. Eventually dies.

That’s the story. But if we’re talking about the ‘discourse’ of the Harlot’s Progress narrative we’ll be talking about things like this:

  • The amount of narrative time between story elements (“boundaries of duration”)
  • How the narrative might open up at the point of death, at which point the narrator returns to memories of an innocent time many years before then finish by narrating the heroine’s fall into vice.
  • How closely the narrator’s voice emulates the girl’s voice
  • Whether the girl is viewed from other characters’ point of view (focalisation)



Terms ‘fabula’ and ‘sjuzhet’ are similar to ‘story’ and ‘discourse’. These terms were used by the Russian Formalists.

Fabula refers to the chronological sequence of events in a narrative. 

Sjuzhet is the re-presentation of those events (through narration, metaphor, camera angles, the re-ordering of the temporal sequence, and so on). 

The difference between story and plot.

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

The Snowy Day, Ezra Jack Keats, 1962

The Snowy Day (1962) is a famous American picture book by American author Ezra Jack Keats. The Snowy Day was published in 1962. Assuming the character of Peter was five or six, Peter would be a man of 62 this year, so 2020 is the year to revisit this iconic book.

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Zog by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

Zog (2010) is a picture book by best-selling British team Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. Zog is regularly held up as a great feminist story for young readers. Zog interests me as an excellent example of a children’s story which looks feminist at first glance. As I often say: Inversion does not equal subversion. Dig a little deeper, and Zog is pretty far from a feminist text, unless by ‘feminist’ we mean ‘a successful subversion of essentialist masculinity’. It’s something, all right. But let’s raise the bar. A story which challenges prescribed rules about masculinity while simultaneously reinforcing essentialist ideas about femininity cannot count as a successful feminist text.

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Blueberries For Sal by Robert McCloskey (1948)

Blueberries For Sal (1948) is a picture book written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey, also well-known for Make Way For Ducklings. Both stories are thrillers for the preschool set, especially this one. In fact, I’m about to try and convince you that Blueberries For Sal is the inspiration behind Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, with blueberries swapped out for drug money.

McCloskey makes use of a number of established thriller genre techniques in this story, yet creates an exciting yet cosy tale. How does he accomplish that? Let’s take a look.

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The Monster At The End Of This Book

The Monster At The End Of This Book

The Monster At The End Of This Book by Jon Stone and Michael Smolin (1971) is possibly the most successful Little Golden Book starring Sesame Street characters. I grew up with it myself, though I can’t put my hands on it right now so I’ll be talking specifically about the app, which came out decades later, soon after the first tablet computers hit the market.

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The Treatment of Curiosity Across Storytelling

Are we supposed to be curious, or aren’t we? From reading stories, I just can’t make up my mind. If I open the box to find out what’s inside I risk unleashing evils across the entire world. But if I don’t open the box, there might be a bomb inside. If only I’d opened that confounded box, I could’ve saved everyone!

Today I’ll take a closer look at some popular narratives which seem to discourage curiosity as a valuable character trait, some which encourage it, and some which do both.

Without the resources to do an actual count up, punishment for curiosity in fiction does seem gendered. It’s possible that if we took every single story in which a character is punished for their curiosity, more male characters than female characters are punished for it. But then, most stories are historically about men so we’d have to adjust for that first. It’s certainly the case that in the best-known myths and fairytales young (and beautiful) women are punished for poking their noses into affairs that don’t concern them, which would be fully in line with the ancient rules of patriarchy.

However, narrative doesn’t track along one linear progression from ‘super misogynistic’ to ‘super enlightened’. (We haven’t seen super enlightened yet.) All too often, those ancient tales, when retold for children, are repackaged with extra blame heaped upon curious young women.

Let’s see how that works.

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The Cat At Night by Dahlov Ipcar (1969)

The Cat At Night by Dahlov Ipcar cover

The Cat At Night is a picture book written and illustrated by Amrican Dahlov Ipcar (1969). Like many children’s authors and illustrators, she lived a long life (1917-2017).


Join the farmer’s cat on his fascinating nighttime journey through fields, farms, forests, and even the city to see what only he can see after the sun sets. Legendary artist Dahlov Ipcar mesmerizingly alternates between dark night scenes and vivid color to deliver a beautifully illustrated children’s classic.


Ipcar’s paintings are described as ‘kaleidoscopic’. Take a look at these ones and you’ll see why:

But in this particular story, Ipcar makes heavy use of the silhouette, putting me more in mind of Lotte Reiniger, the underrated animator whose technology was ‘borrowed’ by Walt Disney.

In The Cat At Night, the silhouette is used as part of a game, designed to get young children talking with their adult co-readers in a go-to-bed story.

Below is an example of how Ipcar creates a spread of silhouettes then, after a page turn, reveals the scene in full colour.

“What do you think he sees?” asks the text, and also the adult co-reader, eliciting a response from the young child.


I’ve seen scholars of children’s literature use the word ‘hypnogogic objects’ to describe certain kinds of children’s books. The O.G. hypnogogic object is the fob watch dangled before the eyes, designed to lull a person into a hypnotised state. Some picture books appear to have a similar aim in mind, especially those in which the main character goes to sleep themselves, modelling what the child is supposed to do. This picture book is an early example of what we now call an ‘interactive book’, though the word most often now refers to books read on a digital device. This silhouette-to-colour transition is exactly the sort of ‘device’ perfectly suited to digital technologies.


The cat is not any cat in particular, but stands in for all cats. We know this because of the ‘universal he’. (A contemporary picture book would be more likely to replace the singular with the plural and avoid gendered pronouns altogether.)

The whole premise of this story rests upon the idea that cats can see in full colour at night. The more modern misconception is that cats can’t see colour at all. In fact, cats do see some colour, but their world is nowhere near as colourful as our own (nor as colourful as this picture book). Cats are like colour blind humans.

  • Cats can see shades of blue and green.
  • Reds and pinks may appear more green.
  • Purple can look like another shade of blue.
  • To cats, none of these colours are as saturated.

The idea that other animals see the world completely differently is a fascinating one, and we know more about cat vision now than we did in the mid 20th century. I suspect that in 1969, readers really did believe that cats have a magical ability to see at night. The cat in this story is black for several reasons: It matches the silhouette artwork, and also puts us in mind of a witch’s cat.

Despite assertions in the text, humans are much better at detecting colour than cats are. They can’t see distant objects as well as humans can, so a scene such as the rooftop spread below would not be what a cat sees at all, despite the folk art treatment. A cat has to be at 20 feet to see what an average human can see at 100 or 200 feet.

The double spread is a good feline choice though, because cats have a slightly wider field of vision than we do (200 degrees compared to 180.)

However, Ipcar is not wrong about cats and their night vision. Cats do far better than we do at night, partly because they’re making use of their other senses (and whiskers), but also because they only need one sixth of the light that we need. They have more rods in their retinas.

As this picture book progresses, reference is made to the mirror-like effect at the back of a cat’s eyes, and which I’m sure has contributed to their reputation as witches’ familiars. This glowing-eye effect is caused by cells in the tapetum, which helps them to pick up any light in the environment.

Picture books rely heavily on the (human) sense of sight, so it’s inevitable that a picture book can’t come close to conveying how a cat experiences the world. We’re unlikely to ever know that.


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Fun Things Subverted For Horror

Here’s the thing about horror: It can so easily turn into accidental comedy. Watch the original 1960s Twilight Zone series and what was once genuinely scary now offers a family-night laugh.

An inverse is also true: What we once considered fun, innocent, cosy and child-friendly will morph over time into something sinister.

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Wheel On The Chimney by Wise Brown and Gergely 1954

Wheel On The Chimney

If you haven’t read Wheel On The Chimney (1954) by Margaret Wise Brown and Tibor Gergely, the Internet Archive has a video of a man reading it, against a backdrop of the most unsettling, grating, unpleasant muzak you’ve heard in your life.

Worse, this retro children’s story evinces a troubling conflation between blackness and villainy which publishers more commonly avoid in contemporary children’s books.

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