The chapter on narrative form in Bordwell and Thompson’s Film Art, which I go over every year for my introductory French film class, refers to the central distinction between story and plot, which the Russian Formalists called more impressively fabula and syuzhet. The story is what happens, the plot is how it’s told. More precisely, the plot is what is specifically given to us, the words of the novel, the images and dialogue of the film. The story, in contrast, is a second-level construct, whether that of the author, who creates the plot in order to “tell the story” in his own way, or subsequently, that of the reader, who reconstructs the story from the plot, whether or not his construction is quite that intended by the author.

The kind of narratological analysis that uses these categories is out of fashion, having given way to a straightforward empiricism that deals with accounts of fictional lives and times as thinly disguised historical documents. When, as in most of the literary works that get discussed in French departments these days, the characters are oppressed and the reality described is what is oppressing them, the reader is expected to extrapolate from this to the “human condition” in whatever postcolonial metropolis or ex-colony the novel is situated. Political considerations aside, one can regret the wholesale abandonment of what was for a few generations the defining professional skill of the no-longer-classically-educated humanities professor: the ability to analyze texts as vehicles of literary effects, to study and treasure the opacity of literary works rather than see through them to the “reality” they pretend to portray.

No doubt it was this regret that, by inspiring me with more fondness than in the past for the rather mechanical categories of formalism, made me realize that these categories are not simply “semiological” but anthropological. For story and plot are, in the narrative domain, the poles of the oscillation by which I have described the esthetic process. The spectator attends to the representation, let us say, the painting, and from it, constructs an imaginary world, but having done this, he must return to the painting to confirm and refine his construction. The imaginary world can exist only in the presence of the painting; it is not a remembered universe but one we construct before our eyes. Yet we cannot, omitting this construction, speak of what we see in the painting as though “seeing” it is all we do. Even the most realistic work obliges us not only to make use of perceptual mechanisms to construct a model of the world depicted, but in a further step, to inhabit this world. Without thematizing some specific role in the artist’s universe, it becomes ours, and for that purpose we engage in, if not quite a Fort-Da, a va-et-vient with the physical representation before us on the wall. When applying this model to narrative, I had not previously noticed how neatly the story-plot polarity describes the two poles of the oscillation—a bit too neatly, in fact, but even this is a discovery prompted by the terminology.

For one thing, the plot-story dichotomy provides a first-order understanding of the inevitability of interpretation or criticism. If the story we construct in our imagination can’t simply be read off from the plot, then people are bound to want to elaborate on it, argue over it, or find fault with it if, for example, one of the characters does something that seems incongruous with his or her prior actions, or with what we think we know about human nature in general. What we conceive as the “story” cannot simply be tested against what the author thinks or thought, and even if it could, our story might well be a better, or truer, reading of the plot than the story as imagined by the author. How do we know there even was a story previous to the plot? maybe the writer just started writing and the story came into being as he went along. And why should we care what he thought about it? The story we read is the one that we construct, and that we will defend against those proposed by others. Yet none of this would be possible without authorial intention, a conscious human or humanlike will to which we attribute the work and our faithfulness to which, even on occasion in contradiction with the views expressed by the author himself, is our ultimate criterion in deriving the story from the plot.

The formalists understood that the story was virtual and the plot, actual, but they didn’t concern themselves with the ontological basis for this distinction; instead, they treated the two elements as ultimately of the same nature. Thus, Bordwell and Thompson give the detective or mystery narrative as the exemplary case of the distinction between story and plot. In a mystery a la Agatha Christie, the story is about a crime, but the plot begins with the effects of the crime—the body in the library—and reveals only at the conclusion, in the voice of Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, the details of its causality and commission. This analysis has the admirable efficiency of defining a literary genre entirely by reference to its story-plot relationship. Yet it is misleading in treating story and plot as just two different ways of arranging the data. True, if you just “told the story” straight out beginning with the motivation of the crime, you would no longer be obeying the laws of the mystery genre, but even the most chronologically straightforward plot isn’t equivalent to a story; the latter, however unambiguous in appearance, is still a construction.

Indeed, the ontology of this construction is entirely different from that of the series of sentences or shots in a novel or film. The story requires for its imaginary existence an entire universe. If it is presumed to take place, say, in Paris, then all the historical reality of Paris, and France, and Europe, and the world, is implied in it. Science fiction, for its part, seeks to invent an entire new universe, usually but not necessarily attached to our own. The aspects of this universe that are specifically evoked by the plot can be written into something we might call the “story,” but then the latter would just be another, more elaborate plot. The information content of the imaginary universe cannot be fixed; it depends on our knowledge of the world, on the associations we have with it. The plot alludes to specifics, and our imagination focuses on these specifics, but as in real life, there is a world in the background. One thing critics argue about is what elements of this implicit background are necessary to provide the fullest understanding of the authorial intention.

These reflections on the story turn us to the hitherto unexamined ontology of the plot. If the plot is not just the words of the text, then any attempt to embody it will make it already a story, a paraphrase of the imaginary world our reading leads us to construct. The only coherent way to understand the plot is as the point of departure and guarantee of the story we construct, in other words, as an undetachable part of a Saussurian maxi-sign constituted by plot and story as signifier and signified. But the obscurely felt anthropological truth that the meaning of every single word already implies an entire universe “for-us” becomes very nearly explicit when we begin to consider the story as the “meaning” of the plot.

The reason for the formalists’ lack of concern with the ontological difference between plot and story is that for them the plot is not a mere signifier but an intermediate construction between the text and the story. One is reminded of the operation of computer networks, where typically seven layers of destructuring and restructuring are necessary to get from a file on one system to a stream of pulses in a cable to a file on another system. In order to speak of a plot in this sense we must be able to interpret the words on the page or the images on the screen in a more or less coherent manner as providing a well-defined ensemble of information, so that a construction such as Bordwell and Thompson’s diagram of a detective story is at least conceivable. We know X happened because the novelist told us, and we infer from this that Y happened, and if required, we could put into words a new plot containing both X and Y.

The formalist emphasis on the constructed nature of both story and plot reduces to a secondary matter the absolute priority of plot over story in the work’s construction. On the contrary, for generative anthropology, the sign-imagination polarity is the originary foundation of all cultural activity. All the elements of human culture are “constructed,” but some are more constructed than others. The originary sign too is a construction, but as a gesture that we can make and understand, it picks out an element of “reality” and gives it meaning in human terms. In the case of storytelling, the plot offers concrete images and words from which we construct our imaginary universe, but we never complete our construction because we always return to the words and images of the plot.

In GA’s originary model of signification as an oscillation between sign and referent—an oscillation foregrounded explicitly in esthetic experience—the referent need not be imagined because it is present on the scene. Yet its mere physical presence does not define its meaning. I call the first ostensive sign the name-of-God to emphasize that qua referent of the sign, the object is no longer a mere object, not even an appetitively attractive one, but a significant-and-therefore-sacred object. The sign transfigures its referent in the eyes of its emitters. It is this transfiguration and its human context that formalism fails to take into consideration. If the difference between actual sentences and virtual realities concerns it at all, it is only to the extent that some literary technique might take advantage of this difference to subvert the “transparency” of the text. But “transparency” is not inherent in the semiotic process; it is an effect of the banalization of our habits of constructing imagined realities from signs.

How does this analysis help us understand why we enjoy hearing stories, or why the plots through which they are told have so little difficulty in conveying them to us? If we think of the originary event as “explained” by the sign that designates the central object as the sacred bearer of the “name-of-God,” then we can see all narratives, indeed, all artworks, as offering the same refuge of a world explained, made accessible to us through a sign that can be shared by all because it emanates from a central source. The individual will of the creator, which we intend as the intentional source of any artwork, however it may have been composed, grants us an experience, unavailable in the real world, of a universe under the control of a single, unified consciousness. The artist’s “will” expresses not his unique individuality but on the contrary, his role as spokesman for the community as a whole, something all of us are in potential.

Although we live surrounded by images, trips to museums are special occasions, yet we take in stories every day. What gives narration its particular appeal is that it constructs the temporality of our experience of it. We do not distractedly leave it and return to it, as nearly always with a work of plastic art; we are compelled to dwell within it for the time of the telling, whether read at our own pace or performed in a sacral interval removed from real time. To follow the story is continuously to fabricate it from the materials of the plot. This duration is real, yet its normal causal frame is suspended; the events and objects portrayed and their mode of portrayal have as their single cause the intention of their creator, modeled on the semiotic will that brought peace to the originary human scene. The narrative ends when that authorial will concludes, or feigns to conclude, that the individual desires it has depicted and whose shadows it has aroused in the reader or spectator will have been harmonized, whether tragically or comically, with the universal will of the community.

To offer a more specific definition of narrative would be to betray the openness of the originary hypothesis, which constructs an origin for the artifacts of human culture without presuming to predict their end. Yet the simple distinction between plot and story provides an insight into the constructions of the authorial will, and the beginning of an explanation of why we are so easily compelled to concern ourselves with just what story a given plot is attempting to tell. I think an understanding of narrative content that goes beyond the superficialities of victimage to its anthropological roots will provide a more hospitable environment than at present for the largely abandoned tools by which a previous generation sought to explain these phenomena.