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.

EXPLANATION ONE

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
EXPLANATION TWO

Story = the ‘what’ of the narrative.

Discourse = the ‘way’.

Seymour Chatman
EXPLANATION THREE

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
EXPLANATION FOUR

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)

RELATED

FABULA AND SJUZHET

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.