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Issue 6. Medium Theory

On Defining Narrative Media

Author: Marie-Laure Ryan
Published: February 2003

Abstract (E): Ryan's paper is a modified excerpt from the introduction to a forthcoming collection of essays. Starting from the entry for 'medium' in Webster's dictionary, she distinguishes a transmissive and a semiotic definition referring to the medium as a channel of communication and a means of artistic expression respectively. Both definitions are considered and problematized from a theoretical and a practical point of view and a compromise is proposed in which their inextricable nature is underlined. For narratologists then, medium as a category is significant to the extent that the choice of a certain medium, e.g. computer game vs. film, modifies the way in which the story is shaped, presented and received. These narrative differences can be situated in three grammatical domains: semantics, syntax and pragmatics. Genre differs from medium in that it is a form that is purposefully chosen with its limitations in order to evoke expectations and streamline signification, and medium is a form that is chosen for its affordances (strengths) while its limitations are obstacles to be worked around. Finally Ryan proposes a typology of 'narrative media' in which parameters like sign type and number of channels are used to tackle the multitude of possible material forms narrative can take. [jvl]

Abstract (F): Le texte de Marie-Laure Ryan part d'une analyse de l'entrée "medium" dans le dictionnaire Webster, qui permet de faire une distinction entre deux acceptions: le média comme instrument de transmission (qui permet la communication) et le média comme objet sémiotique (qui permet l'expression artistique). Ces deux acceptions sont interrogées du point de vue pratique et théorique, de manière à aboutir à une définition plus nuancée où les deux sens s'avèrent inextricablement liés. Pour la narratologie, le média est un concept clé, dans la mesure où le choix d'un certain média (par exemple le cinéma ou les jeux vidéo) modifie la manière dont un récit est conçu, élaboré et reçu par le public. Pour l'auteur, ces différences se situent dans trois domaines: sémantique, syntaxique, pragmatique. La notion de média n'est pas identique à celle de genre: un genre est une forme que l'on choisit en raison de ses limitations, qui permettent de jouer avec l'attente du public et d'induire des effets de sens; en revanche un média est une forme que l'on choisit en raison de sa force et dont les limitations sont vues comme des obstacles dont il faut s'accommoder le mieux possible. Enfin, l'auteur propose une typologie de médias narratifs qui s'appuie sur une grande diversité de paramètres, pour rendre compte des formes extrêmement variées que le récit peut assumer. [jvl]

Keywords: narrative media, narrativity, medium theory, semiotics


On Defining Narrative Media

This text is an excerpt from the introduction to a forthcoming collection of essays by various contributors, Narrative Across Media. The original text comprises three sections: an attempt to define narrative; an attempt to define media (the present text); and a brief history of the milestones in the emergence of the concept of medium in the study of narrative. The first section argues that the project of studying "narrative across media" presupposes the detachment of the concept of narrative from a verbal act of storytelling. Narrative is defined as a mental image, or cognitive construct, which can be activated by various types of signs. This image consists of a world (setting) populated by intelligent agents (characters). These agents participate in actions and happenings (events, plot), which cause global changes in the narrative world. Narrative is thus a mental representation of causally connected states and events which captures a segment in the history of a world and of its members.

In media theory, as in other fields, what constitutes an object of investigation depends on the purpose of the investigator. Ask a sociologist or cultural critic to enumerate media, and he will answer: TV, radio, cinema, the Internet. An art critic may list: music, painting, sculpture, literature, drama, the opera, photography, architecture. A philosopher of the phenomenologist school would divide media into visual, auditive, verbal, and perhaps gustatory and olfactory (are cuisine and perfume media?). An artist's list would begin with clay, bronze, oil, watercolor, fabrics, and it may end with exotic items used in so-called "mixed-media" works, such as grasses, feathers and beer can tabs. An information theorist or historian of writing will think of sound waves, papyrus scrolls, codex books, and silicon chips. "New media" theorists will argue that computerization has created new media out of old ones: film-based versus digital photography; celluloid cinema versus movies made with video cameras; or films created through classical image-capture techniques versus movies produced through computer manipulations. The computer may also be responsible for the entirely new medium of Virtual Reality. What should narratologists answer, when asked to list the media relevant to their field ?

Before addressing this question let me take a look at the broadest definition of medium: the one we find in the dictionary. The entry for medium in Webster's Dictionary  includes, among many other  meanings only etymologically relevant to the present issue (e.g. "something in a middle position"; "an individual held to be a channel of communication between the earthly world and the world of spirits"), the following two definitions:

(1)     A channel or system of communication, information, or entertainment.

(2)     Material or technical means of artistic expression.

Let's call (1) the transmissive definition, and (2) the semiotic definition. Media of type (1) include TV, radio, the Internet, the gramophone, the telephone--all distinct types of technologies—, as well as cultural channels, such as  books and  newspapers. In this conception of medium, ready-made messages are encoded in a particular way, sent over the channel, and decoded on the other end. TV can for instance transmit films as well as live broadcasts; news as well as recordings of theatrical performances. Before they are encoded in the mode specific to the medium in  sense 1, some of these messages are realized through a medium in sense 2. A painting must be done in oil before it can be digitized and sent over the Internet. A musical composition must be  performed on instruments in order to be recorded and played on a gramophone. Medium in sense 1 thus involves the translation of objects supported by media in sense 2 into a secondary code.

In his groundbreaking work on the "technologizing of the word," Walter Ong avoids the term medium as a label for the various supports of language because he objects to sense 1:

[T]he term can give false impression of the nature of verbal communication, and of other human communication as well. Thinking of a 'medium' of communication or of 'media' of communication suggests that communication is a pipeline transfer of material called 'information' from one place to another. My mind is a box, I take a unit of 'information' out of it, encode the unit (that is, fit it to the size and shape of the pipe it will go through), and put it into one end of the pipe (the medium, somewhere in the middle between two other things). From the one end of the pipe the information proceeds to the other end, where someone decodes it (restores its proper size and shape) and puts it into his or her own box-like container called a mind. This model…distorts the act of [human] communication beyond recognition (176).

If indeed communicative media were the hollow pipes that Ong caricaturizes there would be little purpose in analyzing their narrative potential; any kind of narrative could be fitted into the pipe and restored to its prior shape at the end of the transfer. On the other hand, if we totally reject the conduit metaphor  and the notion that meaning—in this case, narrative—is encoded, sent over, decoded and stored in memory at the other end of the transmission line, if, that is, we regard meaning as inextricable from its medial support, medium-free definitions of narrative become untenable. What then would entitle us to compare messages embodied in different media and to view them as manifestations of a common narrative structure ? To maintain the possibility of studying "narrative across media" we must find a compromise between the "hollow pipe" interpretation and the unconditional rejection of the conduit metaphor (which itself is a concrete visualization of Jakobson's model of communication). The terms of this compromise are suggested, perhaps unwittingly, by Ong himself, when he writes in the above passage that information must be fitted to the "shape and size" of the pipeline. This amounts to saying that different media filter different aspects of narrative meaning. Far from being completely undone at the end of the journey, as Ong suggests in his critique, the shape imposed on the message by the configuration of the pipeline affects in a crucial way the construction of the receiver's mental image.

Because of the configuring action of the medium, it is not always possible to distinguish an encoded object from the act of encoding. Consider the cinema: what it records are not autonomous artistic objects, but a staging of action done for the express purpose of being filmed. It is the edited footage that forms the artistic object, not something that exists independently of the filming.  In the live broadcasts of TV, similarly, the object to be sent is created through the act of recording itself. Moreover, if communicative media encode and decode messages, they do not strip them of any material support at the end of the journey. After being decoded by the electronic circuits in the black box,  TV signals are projected on a small screen in the middle of a family room. The experience is very different from watching a film on a large screen in a dark theater, and it calls for different forms of narrative. Insofar as they present their own type of material support, channel-type media can be simultaneously modes of transmission and means of expression. It is in this second capacity that they impact narrative form and meaning.

For students of narrative, the semiotic definition should thus prevail over the transmissive one. What counts for them as a medium is a category that truly makes a difference as to what stories can be evoked or told, how they are presented, why they are communicated, and how they are experienced. Narrative differences may concern three different grammatical domains: semantics, syntax, and pragmatics. In narrative theory, semantics becomes the study of plot, or story; syntax becomes the study of discourse, or narrative techniques; and pragmatics, an area still relatively unfamiliar to literary critics, becomes the study of narrative as performance. More specifically, narrative pragmatics studies the uses of storytelling and the mode of participation of human agents (authors, actors, readers) in the narrative event. On the semantic level, media may thus create different variations on the basic cognitive structure. On the discourse level, they may produce different ways to present stories, which will necessitate different  interpretive strategies on the part of the user. On the pragmatic level, finally, they may offer different modes of user involvement and different "things to do" with narrative. A medium will be considered narratively relevant if it makes an impact on at least one of these domains.

This approach implies a standard of comparison: to say for instance that "radio is a distinct narrative medium," means that radio as a medium offers different narrative possibilities than television, film, or oral conversation. "Mediality" (or mediumhood) is thus a relational rather than an absolute property. To test the thesis of the relativity of mediality with respect to narrative, let us consider the respective status of the gramophone and of daily newspapers. From a technological point of view the gramophone stands as a prototypical medium. When it was developed at the end of the nineteenth century, it did to sound what writing had done to language. Thanks to the new technology sound could now be recorded, and it was no longer necessary to be within earshot of its source to apprehend auditory data. From a narratological perspective, however, the purely transmissive medium of the gramophone does not seem to entail significant consequences. It wasn't until the development of wireless telegraphy that a purely auditory type of narrative was developed, namely the radiophonic play. Daily newspapers represent the opposite situation: historians of technology would regard them as a manifestation of the same medium as books, since they rely on roughly the same printing techniques, but narratologists would defend their  medium status with respect to books by pointing out that the daily press promoted a new style of reporting news, which gave birth to an autonomous narrative genre. Daily newspapers also differ pragmatically from other types of communication channels in that they must be delivered regularly at 24-hour intervals. The coverage of a time-consuming crisis must therefore begin before the crisis is resolved, and the daily reports lack the completeness and retrospective perspective of other types of narrative. All these characteristics suggests that newspapers support indeed a distinct type of narrativity.

Where however does medium end and where does genre begin ? I would suggest that the difference between medium and genre resides in the nature and origin of the constraints that relate to each of them. Whereas genre is defined by more or less freely adopted conventions, chosen for both personal and cultural reasons, medium imposes its possibilities and limitations on the user. It is true that we choose both the genre and the medium we work in. But we select media for their affordances, and we work around their limitations, trying to overcome them or to make them irrelevant. Genre by contrast purposefully uses limitations to channel expectations, optimize expression and facilitate communication: tragedy must be about the downfall of a hero and use the mimetic mode of narrativity; symphonies must comprise four movements,  the second preferably a slow one; novels must be long and novellas short, and both must possess some degree of narrativity (far more for the novella). These conventions are imposed as a second-order semiotic system on the primary mode of signification. Genre conventions are thus genuine rules specified by humans, whereas the constraints and possibilities offered by media are dictated by their material substance and mode of encoding. But insofar as thy lend themselves to many uses, media support a variety of genres.

The diversity of criteria that enters into the definition of medium makes it very difficult to establish a typology of media, and to draw a dividing line between medium and genre. I will nevertheless give it a try, fully aware that my decisions will not meet with unanimous acceptance. If the table of figure 1 helps readers  refine their own notion of medium and understand the complexity of the problem at hand, I will have reached my goal, no matter how many amendments they make to my taxonomy. I propose two main criteria for classifying a form of expression / communication as a narrative medium: (1) As suggested above, it must make a difference as to what kind of narrative messages can be transmitted,  how these messages are presented, or how they are experienced. (2) It must present a unique combination of features. These features can be drawn from five possible areas: (a) senses being addressed; (b) priority of sensory channels (thus the opera will be considered distinct from drama, even though the two media include the same sensory dimensions, because the opera gives the sound channel higher priority than drama); (c) spatio-temporal extension; (d) technological support and materiality of signs (painting versus photography; speech versus writing versus digital encoding of language); (e) cultural role and methods of production / distribution (books versus newspapers).   Table 1 uses spatio-temporal extension and sensory dimension as primary taxonomic categories.  These criteria seem indeed more relevant to the issue of narrativity than distinctions relative to technological support, though the latter are not negligible. The drawback of this prioritization of sensory dimensions is that a given technology or cultural channel needs to be listed twice when it is used to transmit different types of sensory data: digital writing  is distinguished from multi-media applications of computer technology; silent film is distinguished from multi-sensory movie productions. The examples that illustrate the various categories can be either submedia or genres. I used the heading of submedium rather than genre when the members of the category exploit different aspects of the same technology. The decision between genre and submedium was particularly difficult in the case of digital technology, because of the unique bi-levelled structure of the medium: an invisible digital code—the sofware protocol—producing different forms of communication and visible expression. I regarded the code as a technological platform in its own right, and listed e-mail, chat-rooms and hypertext as submedia rather than subgenres of digital writing.

It would be beyond the scope of this paper to justify the categorization of each medium on the table as capable of making a difference with respect to narrativity, but let me give some examples of  the type of evidence that motivates my decisions. TV is narratively distinct from the cinema, even though it presents the same sensory channels,  because its technologically-based ability to broadcast live (or in deferred real time) allows different type of narratives, such as the "reality show." Moreover, its permanent presence in the household, which makes it available on a daily basis and for many hours per day, favors the creation of serials which may last for years, serials with an epic structure and multiple plot-lines, while the cinema, visited on special occasions for a couple of hours, specializes in highly condensed, fast moving, climax-reaching Aristotelian plots. Or take the designation of the telephone (a transmissive medium)  and of face-to-face  storytelling (a semiotic one) as narratively distinct media: both rely on spoken language, but face-to-face storytelling enables storytellers to complement their narration with gestures, while telephone conversations rely on the voice exclusively. This difference may not affect story structure (fabula), but it certainly affects the strategies of its discourse presentation. On the other hand, I did not list standard and digital photography as distinct media because the difference in technology does not seem to affect the storytelling ability of the medium. It could be argued that digital photographs, being easily manipulable by the computer, increase a picture's ability to tell lies, thereby diminishing the testimonial value that has been traditionally associated with photography. While this difference would be a sufficient ground for regarding the two technologies as offering distinct narrative possibilities, I don't think it derives from the original mode of capturing, but from what happens to the picture after it has been taken. A scanned and digitized negative-based photograph can be just as easily manipulated as one that is taken with a digital camera.

The narrative potential of some of the media listed on the table may appear dubious; I am using here a broad definition of narrativity, which includes the ability to both recall or retell known narratives, and to create new ones. Media such as music, dance  and painting—media without language channel—specialize in the retelling function; but as they give new semiotic bodies to familiar stories, they do much more than bring these stories to mind: they recreate what they recall, and end up producing original versions. My listing of architecture as a potentially  narrative medium is certainly the most controversial on the table. In doing so I take my clues from writers (among them Celia Pearce) who have drawn an analogy between the temporality of plot and the experience of walking through a building. In a narratively conceived architecture—found for instance in Baroque churches, where the walk-through reenacts the stages of the Passion—the visitor's discovery tour is plotted as a meaningful succession of events.


Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy. The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen, 1982.

Pearce, Celia. The Interactive Book. Indianapolis: McMillan Technical Publishing, 1997.


Bio: Marie-Laure Ryan is an Independent Scholar specializing in how (new) media influence narrativity. Her Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media (2001) has won the MLA Comparative Literature award. She is the editor of the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Narrative (forthcoming 2005) and member of the editorial board of the book series Frontiers of Narrative, published by the University of Nebraska Press. She has published widely on narratology, possible worlds theory and cyberculture. Marie-Laure Ryan was born in Geneva, Switzerland and currently resides in Bellvue, Colorado.



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