Narrative Theory and the Dimensions of Systemic Modelling.
University of Sydney
In general, narrative has been understood to be about story-telling: the organisation of
time and the projection of a world (diegesis), but this paper suggests both concepts
should be plural. Using the systemic modelling of language as social semiotic I show
that three worlds/diegeses can be inferred (physiological, psychological and social
worlds). Using the theories of modern physics I show that six natural worlds, with
their associated six temporalities, can be described, the last three worlds being
comparable to those of systemic description. The paper discusses the analysis of
systemic dimensions (structure, system, stratification, instantiation, metafunction) in
different media, and concludes with introductory notes on the technical construction
of interpersonal meaning for narrative in film.
Interdisciplinary studies of narrative
The study of narrative is relevant to many disciplinary purposes. Thus Martin
Cortazzi, wanting to help teachers find useful techniques from various studies of
narrative, describes the modelling of narrative (through theory and practice) in the
disciplines of sociology and socio-linguistics, psychology, literary study and
anthropology (Cortazzi:1993). Each discipline has created models according to its
own purposes of analysis. This is an important point to remember when looking at the
present modelling of narrative in systemics. At the very least, however, all studies of
narrative assume it is a study of ‘story’ or the telling or interpreting of story.
Systemic theory has much to offer the literary, and wider, study of narrative,
though one use of the term ‘narrative’ in systemics as the name of a specific genre or
text type has limited this relevance. To quote the authors of one introductory
textbook: ‘when texts share the same general purpose in the culture, they will often
share the same obligatory and optional structural elements and so they belong to the
same genre or text type’ (Butt, Fahey, Feez, Spinks,and Yallop, 2000:9). In this use,
the term ‘narrative’ for a genre contrasts with terms like recount, procedure,
explanation, exposition, each of which is used to label a text with a specific sequence
of structural elements. This use of the word ‘narrative’ derives from the work of
William Labov, and his analysis of spontaneous oral narratives spoken by black
youths in Harlem, New York (1972:354-396). Cortazzi (1993:45-48) cites Labov’s
work as an example of the modelling of narrative in socio-linguistics. While it may be
useful to teach primary school children a structural sequence of Orientation,
Complication, Resolution, Coda, to help them write simple narratives, this is not an
adequate conceptual apparatus for studying the complex narratives of literary or
filmic discourse, and even effaces the potential application of systemic theory. My
approach, in contrast, has been to explore the wider contribution which systemic
modelling can make to narrative theory.
The study of narrative has been a particularly important focus in literary studies.
Literary study of vernacular languages, developing from about 1860 in the
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universities out of the earlier study of the classical languages, has included in
literature texts which are highly valued in the culture, rather than merely ‘texts which
are written’ (as the name might suggest). The literary study of narrative includes texts
which, though written down in manuscript, appear to have arisen out of an oral or
primarily oral tradition. This includes, for example, the Classical Greek Iliad, the Old
English Beowulf, the medieval romances in English and French. These early
narratives are frequently in what we’d understand as ‘poetry’, with various patterns of
versification, such as the poetic genre known as the epic. However, the development
of the new language technology of the printing press, and the many social effects
associated with its use, led to prose, rather than poetry, becoming the dominant
discourse for literary narrative. Within the discourse of prose fiction, developing from
the seventeenth to the twentieth century, the two dominant genres became those of the
novel and the short story.
In the twentieth century, the growth of new technologies for language and
image has led to new discursive realisations for narrative - film, radio, television,
digital media. (I’m taking the word discourse more generally to talk about semiotics,
meanings associated with different media, rather than limiting it to talk about
semantics, meanings in language - appropriately discurrere in Latin meant ‘to run in
different ways’.) The new awareness of the mass audience for these technologies led
to a new awareness of so-called popular culture, with its associated texts.
Departments studying such texts may be called Media and Communications, or
Cultural Studies or indeed still English. This leads to the question: to what extent (if
at all) can the techniques for analysing the narrative of one discursive medium be
extended to analysing the narratives of other media? A possible answer is suggested
in the concluding section of this paper.
Narrative temporalities, narrative diegeses
Two assumptions about narrative run through different disciplinary modelling: that
narrative organises time, and that narrative projects a world, a diegesis.
The first assumption is the most universal. Thus, to William Labov, ‘a
minimal narrative is defined as one containing a single temporal juncture’ (1972:361).
To the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, ‘Time becomes human time to the extent that it is
organized after the manner of narrative; narrative in turn is meaningful to the extent
that it portrays the features of temporal existence’ (1984:3).
The second assumption, that narrative in telling a story projects a world, is
particularly taken up in literary and film studies. This projected world is referred to as
the diegesis. Events within that world, the world of the characters, are diegetic events.
The literary scholar Gérard Genette (1980) developed an intimidating arsenal of
structuralist terminology (subsequently much used in literary narrative studies)
centred on the term diegesis - for example extradiegetic narrator, one outside the
world of the novel.
The two interdisciplinary assumptions, that narrative organises time and that
narrative projects a diegesis, are not however sufficient. In both these statements, the
word ‘time’ and the word ‘diegesis’ are singular. From my work on narrative, I have
drawn the conclusion that in each case, the words should be plural - that time is more
accurately temporalities, and diegesis more accurately diegeses. The first conclusion,
about time, I initially drew from the modelling of nature in contemporary physics.
The second conclusion, about diegesis, I initially drew from the modelling of
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language as social semiotic in systemic functional linguistics. These two conclusions,
this paper argues, turn out to be complementary .
The dimensions of systemic modelling
In the third edition of An Introduction to Functional Grammar, Halliday and
Matthiessen describe five dimensions, or forms of order, in language (2004:19-36).
These are the dimensions of structure, system, stratification, instantiation and
metafunction. The theoretical importance of these dimensions is foregrounded: this
five dimensional model is pictured, geometrically drawn on the two dimensional
page, as the front cover of the edition. The graphic is repeated in Figure 1.6 (2004:21)
in the text, and the information is repeated in tabular form at Table 1(3) (2004:20). I
reproduce that table below, here Table 1.
Table 1: The dimensions (forms of order) in language and their ordering principles
clause - group or phrase - word -
system (paradigmatic order)
grammar - lexis (lexicogrammar)
semantics - lexicogrammar -
phonology - phonetics
instantiation potential - sub-potential or
instance type - instance
metafunction ideational (logical - experiential)
- interpersonal - textual
We can see that the systemic use of narrative to name a text type, as in the socio-
linguistic modelling, places it on the dimension of instantiation - this is the cline or
continuum running between the potential and instance that Halliday and Matthiessen
illustrate by the now familiar example of climate and weather. Climate refers to the
patterns of weather observed on different days. A text-type or genre refers to similar
patterns observed in different texts.
However, the particular dimension which I find immediately relevant to the
more general study of narration is number 5, that of metafunction. As indicated, there
are three orders of metafunction: the interpersonal, the textual and the ideational, the
ideational having two sub-orders, the experiential and the logical. It was the
experiential metafunction which first struck me as having particular resonance with a
consideration of narrative.
Consider the coloured figure on the front cover of the second edition of
Halliday’s An Introduction to Functional Grammar (1994). The two-dimensional
circle models our experience as it can be interpreted through the grammatical system
of transitivity. The same diagram appears in black and white in the body of the text
with the caption ‘The grammar of experience: types of process in English’ (2004:172;
also 1994:108). Halliday and Matthiessen write (2004:172):
[the figure] represents process types as a semiotic space, with different
regions representing different types. The regions have core areas and
these represent prototypical members of the process types; but the
regions are continuous, shading into one another, and these border areas
represent the fact that the process types are fuzzy categories.
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Notice the reference to ‘core areas’ and ‘prototypical members of the process types’
or major process types - these are the three process types of material, relational and
mental processes. (A footnote comments that the minor process types appear to vary
more across languages than the major types, 2004:171.) These are choices of
experiential meaning in the clause, a structural unit of the lexicogrammar. Before we
can relate this to the more general study of narrative, we have to move along the
dimension of stratification, dimension number 3, for which the principle of relation is
that of realisation.
The realisation relations of stratification (sometimes called the ‘levels of
language’) are well-known: context encloses semantics, which encloses
lexicogrammar, which encloses phonology and graphology, which encloses phonetics
and graphetics (Halliday and Matthiessen, 1994:25). What is particularly pertinent
here is the realisation relation between context and semantics. Halliday originally
theorised that the clumping of semantic choices around three main metafunctions
evolved from the three principal purposes humans had in using language: to talk about
happenings, to interact and express attitudes, to speak coherently in the situation.
These three functions of language led him to theorise three aspects of the context,
each realised in one of the functions - the familiar Field, Tenor and Mode of the
context of situation.
Returning to the circle diagram on the cover of the second edition, we note
that, representing choices of experiential meaning in the clause, these choices of
Transitivity realise the Field aspect of the context of situation. Now consider the
dimension of instantiation: on the dimension of instantiation, the context of situation
instantiates the context of culture - a Field is one instantiation of the possible Fields of
social action in a culture, it is the world of social action in the culture. Accordingly, in
the centre of the circle, the Transitivity diagram summarises the prototypical process
choices of the culture as those of doing, being and sensing. And these experiential
choices are described as realising three prototypical worlds of social action: a physical
world of doing, a world of consciousness of sensing. and a world of abstract relations
of being. You could gloss these three worlds further as a physical world, a
psychological world and a social world, since it is in a particular social context that
aspects of experience are brought into semiotic equivalence.
The most complex of semiotic means used by humans, the means of language,
structures the experience of reality in this tri-part way - three worlds of doing, being
and sensing. We are familiar with the systemic idea of the three metafunctions being
realised in overlapping choices within the clause, despite our intuitive folk sense that
the clause is a unity. Now we see that our intuitive sense that we humans live in the
experience of one world is similarly misleading. Our language potential tells us that
we live simultaneously in the possible experience of three overlapping worlds: a
physical world, a psychological world, a social world. This is not to say that at times
one world or another may not be more dominant in our experience. Both these
statements: that we live simultaneously in three overlapping worlds, and that at times
one world or another may be more dominant, prove to be illuminating insights when
taken into the general study of narrative.
Systemic worlds, narrative diegeses
This brings me back, at last, to the earlier statements: that one persistent assumption
about narrative is that narrative projects a world, and that in literary and film studies
this world is referred to as the diegesis of the novel or film. But from considering the
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systemic model of language as social semiotic we can conclude that human semiosis
construes three overlapping worlds, three diegeses: the external and material world of
physical action and events; the internal and psychological world of individual
consciousness; the social world which is construed through human interaction and
convention, including social identities and attributes. This more complex
understanding of narrative projection actually simplifies, I suggest, the analysis of
narrative in different media, since one can focus separately on the realisation of each
world. It also enables one more readily to compare narratives of different historical
periods and from different social contexts. It has been one of my research findings,
for example, that literary narratives in English from different historical periods
typically differ in the dominance of one world or another.
Narrative worlds and their temporalities
I turn now to the other persistent assumption about narrative - that narrative is about
time, probably the most universal assumption in studies of narrative in any discipline.
Yet here language itself has misled us - because the word ‘time’ is a singular noun,
we talk as if time is a singular thing. Some writers in the Humanities, such as the
philosopher Elizabeth Grosz (2004:155-243, 205:93-130), using the early twentieth
century work of French psychologist Henri Bergson, have taken up a dual
understanding of time - time as a concept and time as our experience, which Bergson
called ‘duration’ - and medieval talk of theology pondered a duality of human and
divine experience (time and eternity), but it is in the discourse of modern physics that
the most explicit talk of temporalities takes place. (The following gives a fairly
perfunctory account, as I have elaborated on this material elsewhere.1 )
The physicist J. T. Fraser, founder of the International Society for the Study of
Time, has written (Fraser, 1999:26):
Nature comprises a number of integrative levels which form a hierarchically
nested and evolutionarily open system along a scale of increasing complexity.
Processes characteristic of each of these levels function with different types of
causation and must be described in different languages.
Each level determines a qualitatively different temporality, and each level adds
new, unresolvable conflicts to those of the level or levels below it.
Fraser describes six integrative levels, or worlds, each with its associated type of
causation and temporality. The following Table summarises these associations.2
Table 2: The ‘natural’ worlds described in physics
1. world of electromagnetic radiation
2. world of particle-waves
3. world of galaxies
4. world of life
5. world of the human mind
6. world of society
1 For an account of my modelling of narrative temporalities, see ‘Relating SFL to narrative theory -
widening the scope of both’ in E Swain (ed), Thresholds and Potentialities of Systemic Functional
Linguistics as a Descriptive Theory (Trieste, forthcoming).
2 This summary is made from Fraser’s writing in The Genesis and Evolution of Time (1982:22 & 181)
and Time, Conflict, and Human Values (1999:21-43).
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From the point of view of human existence, all these worlds co-exist, but from the
point of view of everyday human experience, only worlds 4, 5 and 6 exist. 3
If there are (at the present stage of description in physics) six types of world,
each with its associated type of temporality, and the characteristic of ‘narrative’ is that
it is organises ‘time’ and tells a ‘story,’ then we can talk of six types of story, each
with its associated type of temporality.
Table 3: Temporalities and the Worlds of Stories
World of Story
1. a world/ story of becoming
2. a world/ story of possibility
3. a world / story of matter
4. a world/ story of life
5. a world / story of human individual life
6. a world / story of human social life
The first world/story could be described as a world of ‘Heraclitean flux’, where
‘everything happens at once’. The second world/story is one where the instant cannot
be uniquely identified; you may know, or at least think, that something happened, but
you can’t make a confident identification. The third world/story has identity and
sequence, but it is reversible - what you see depends on where you stand. The fourth
world/story is the familiar one of organic life, the organism moving sequentially from
past birth to future death, and satisfying its organic needs in its present (the
temporality of chronological sequence). The fifth world/story is that of the mental life
of the individual human; its principle of sequence is associative, so that its
temporality accommodates memory, prediction and fantasy. Finally, the sixth
world/story, that of human social life, is one in which social identities, attributes and
socially symbolic relations generally are told. Its principle of sequence is equative,
relating what is understood to be socially significant, and similar or dissimilar.
It is now clear that students of narrative who talk about ‘time’ as a singular
concept have homed in only on the temporality of world 4, the world of chronological
succession, where one physiological action necessarily follows another. Yet we
humans live in all these worlds, though we can sensibly experience only the last three.
Systemic modelling and ‘natural’ worlds
It is at this point we see how complementary are the insights given by the modelling
of nature in physics and the modelling of language as semiotic in systemic theory.
The last three worlds, those of life, human individual life and human social life,
correspond to the three overlapping worlds previously inferred from the systemic
3 World 1 is that described by the Theory of Special Relativity, where particles with zero rest mass are
always on the move at the speed of light. World 2 is that of Quantum Theory, where particles of non-
zero mass travel at speeds less than that of light. World 3 is the world described by the General Theory
of Relativity, also referred to as Space/Time Theory.
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Table 4: Complementary modelling of physics and systemic theory:
1. a world/ story of becoming
not linguistically realised
2. a world/ story of possibility
3. a world / story of matter
4. a world/ story of life
the physical world (doing)
5. a world / story of human individual life
the world of consciousness (sensing)
6. a world / story of human social life
the world of abstract relations (being)
It is not surprising that the semiotic sphere of the Transitivity System only
encompasses the last three worlds, since these are the worlds of human experience on
this planet, the environment in which human needs emerged, and in which human
language evolved. However, from the late nineteenth century, the new epistemologies
of worlds beyond sensible human experience have influenced aesthetic
experimentation. It has been part of my research to observe how particular worlds are
realised at different historical times of literary narrative, from the dominance of the
world of abstract relations (world 6) in the Old English narrative poem Beowulf, to the
tightly coherent interweaving of the last three worlds in the (so-called) classic realist
novels of the nineteenth century, as in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, through the
dominance of worlds 5 and 3 in the so-called modernist text, as in the novels of
Virginia Woolf, to the postmodern novel’s use of worlds 1 and 2, as in Thomas
Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, where events and characters do not necessarily
‘make sense,’ since these worlds are not sensible, cannot be sensed in direct human
experience, and have no transitivity choices in natural language by which they can be
meant.4 In physics, their meanings are realised directly only in the contrived language
In summary, bringing together the concepts of systemic linguistics and
contemporary physics considerably enlarges our understanding of what narrative
theory can talk about. It shows the flaw in narratology, the still dominant approach to
analysing literary narrative, and by extension, film narrative: that it assumes the
chronological sequence of biotemporal time as experienced in the physical world is
the time and the world of the narrative, and constitutes the ‘story’. This assumed story
is then contrasted with the plot or discourse (variously called), that is the actual
sequence of telling in the narrative, so that elaborate theoretical categories have to be
devised to describe ‘deviations’ from the assumed time and world of the ‘story’.
Instead, whatever the semiotic medium, we can consider the various worlds realised
in the narrative, and the different kinds of sequence appropriate for their different
Conclusion: narrative and the dimensions of systemic modelling
Because of its particular relevance to diegesis in narrative, I’ve concentrated initially
on Field as the instantiation of the culturally possible worlds of doing, being and
sensing. However, all parameters of the context of situation are relevant to the re-
evaluation of narrative concepts, Tenor as the instantiation of possible social relations,
roles and attitudes, Mode as the instantiation of the potential for organizing coherent
messages in a given medium. The latter is a particularly important concept for modern
technologies of communication, where the technical possibilities for constructing a
4These remarks may also describe the interplay of recent philosophy, literary criticism and cultural
studies; for example, the Deleuzian ‘lines of flight’ used to enable accounts of ‘becoming’ in
postmodern literary and gender theory. See, for example, Grosz, 2005.
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message are explicitly taught and manipulated. The general point here is that,
whatever the semiotic medium, the systemic concepts of Field, Tenor and Mode, and
their related concepts on the dimension of instantiation, can be put to use in the
analysis of narrative in that particular medium. In addition at this stage of
investigation I also assume, though with a certain degree of caution, that the
dimension of metafunction, as the meaningful realisation of Field, Tenor and Mode,
also applies to all semiotic media.
In contrast, the analysis of the other three dimensions of systemic modelling,
of structure, system and stratification, must be specific to the semiotic medium.
Although analogies may be helpful, simply importing concepts from linguistic study
into these three dimensions is counter-productive. To illustrate these assertions, I add
here an Appendix with some introductory notes contrasting the study of narrative in
language and film, and suggest some systemic choices in filmic discourse.
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Narrative in Film and the Dimensions of Systemic Modelling
Constructing ‘reality’ in film
Julian Murphet emphasizes an important difference between story-telling in language
and film (Fulton, Huisman, Murphet & Dunn, 2005:75):
It is important to emphasize … the radical distinction between film as a
narrative medium, and any of the language-based forms of narrative. In a novel,
a long poem, a fire-side story or a verbal drama, the fact that what is being
presented to us comes in the forms of words makes it almost ‘natural’ that we
should posit a human consciousness as an agency behind the narration.
In the verbal narrative, the first order Tenor of giving information is readily realised
in the speech function of statement, specifically telling, associated with the speech
role of narrator, or teller. The second order Tenor will then be associated with the
interaction of the characters in the subject-matter (one of whom may also be the
However, with film, ‘it is the machine [the camera] that tells the story’ (Fulton
et al., 1975:75). This is not our everyday human way of telling a story. In
consequence, Murphet explains (Fulton et al., 2005:76).:
We tend not to recognize a narrator in commercial cinema…much of the
narrative power of the cinema depends upon the erasure of a subject position
from the narrative. Narrative cinema strives to be overpowering in its diegetic
realisation; it overwhelms us with ‘realistic’ visual information, kinetic energy,
sound and the rapid pulses of frequent cutting.
To the viewer of the film there typically appears to be only a first order Tenor of
giving information realised in the mechanical function of ‘showing’. ‘Showing’ is as
if viewers were watching a game of football, as opposed to ‘telling’, having a
conversation later in which the game of football is the subject-matter (Halliday,
1978:144). With ‘showing’, there is no speech role of ‘narrator’.
Of course film can introduce a narratorial presence in various ways - the most
obvious is the voice-over, whether external or internal to the characters, but the
Hollywood or ‘realistic’ film narrative need not. Yet this apparently directly
apprehended reality is totally constructed. In terms of the five dimensions described
by Halliday & Matthiessen, the first question about film must be about the dimension
of structure. The second question is how that structure can be construed as coherently
The structure (syntagmatic order) of film
The basic unit of structure is the shot. This is a unit at the expression level, the level
of technical production. The shot is taken with a continuous placement of the camera.
A shot is usually fairly short, but it can be extended; the picture Russian Ark is
famous for being made entirely with one shot.
The Mode of film is its organisation into a coherent message; this is the
purpose of the textual metafunction, or textual meaning. Such meaning is realised in
the individual shot and in the sequence of shots; the filmic terms ‘mise-en-scène’ and
‘montage’ are traditional terms related to such organisation.
‘Mis-en-scène’ has been used loosely for everything constructed in the
individual shot. The specifically texual meaning of ‘mis-en-scène’ refers to the
framing of the individual shot, the choices which bring one aspect into more or less
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prominence. It could be compared to the systems of Theme and Information in
‘Montage’ has been used for the construction, through editing, of the sequence
of shots. It could be compared to the choices of cohesion in language.
At the expression level, differentiated by the principle of rank, the structural
units of film, resulting from editing, may be compared to the (graphic) structural units
of the novel.
rank: novel/text chapter paragraph sentence word
rank: film act/episode sequence scene shot
The scene, like the sequence, act and film itself, is an edited montage, cut by various
conventions designed to encourage the viewer interpreting a coherent story. (For
example, the scene is constructed of shots which maintain the same temporal and
Unlike language, but like other semiotic means of realisation, in the
stratification dimension of the medium film there is no lexicogrammatical level
between the expression and the semiotic level. The links between units are links of
meaning, rather than structure, so that the scene is not a ‘shot complex’ comparable to
the way a sentence is (usually) a punctuated ‘clause complex’.
The organisation of units of structure as coherently meaningful
The question about meaning now becomes: how can this film narrative, which is a
technical construction from the shots taken by a machine, be constructed so that it
appears to derive from human consciousness, as narratives realised in language
naturally appear to do? As Murphet puts it:
this ‘becoming machine’ of our cinematic spectatorship is repressed and
translated into a ‘human’ perspective by a host of conventions designed to
comfort and flatter us… mainstream cinema developed means for encouraging
our belief that what we see projected on the screen is a matter of human
psychology, human desires and human sense perception. … What specific
technical devices have allowed film narratives to project their worlds through
the imagined eyes and thoughts of their characters? (Fulton et al. 2005:86-7)
We see here the integration of experiential and textual meanings through interpersonal
meaning: the coherence (textual meaning) of the worlds of the film (experiential
meaning) may be promoted through the subjective positioning of the narrative
(interpersonal meaning). The narratological word for this is ‘focalisation’. In
Murphet’s words,‘focalisation is the anchoring of narrative discourse to a specific
subject position in the story; the projection of a diegesis through the interested “point
of view” of a given character’ (Fulton et al., 2005:89). Focalisation then is a system
of choices of interpersonal meaning.
Considering the metafunction of interpersonal meaning, along the dimension
of stratification, takes one further than focalisation. A battery of filmic technical
choices (expression level) which are conventionally associated with choices of
‘meanings’ (semiotic level) can be understood as choices of interpersonal meaning in
filmic discourse. The following table suggests possible system names for such
choices, systems at the expression, not the non-existent lexicogrammatical, level
(comparable to ‘Key’ in phonology, though Halliday describes all systems as
lexicogrammatical, Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004: 142).
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