This is one of two articles by Taisuke Akimoto on Narrative Structure  and is a great overview of 

Narrative structure in the mind: Translating Genette’s narrative discourse theory into a cognitive system

Taisuke Akimoto

Kyushu Institute of Technology, 680-4 Kawazu, Iizuka, Fukuoka 820-8502, Japan

 2019 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier B.V. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license ( licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).

1. Introduction


E-mail address:  1389-0417/ 2019 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier B.V.

Bo¨lo¨ni (2011) presented an episodic memory model including this is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license

In psychological studies on memory, an episodic memory is generally defined as a memory that enables the recollection or remembrance of past events or experiences (Tulving, 1983, 2002). It is not assumed as a copy of the past events themselves and is instead assumed as corresponding to mentally encoded or constructed information including reinterpretation, sensemaking, abstraction, generalization, errors, and forgetting. However, the mechanism that constructs episodic memory has not been systematically formulated in previous studies on cognitive architecture and system. For example, in the Soar cognitive architecture, an episodic memory is considered as sequential snapshots of the agent’s working memory (Nuxoll & Laird, 2004, 2012). Faltersack, Burns, Nuxoll, and Crenshaw (2011) presented an episodic memory structure that involves a hierarchy from lower primitive elements to higher compound elements. In the ICARUS cognitive architecture, an episodic memory is encoded via generalization based on similarity with previous episodes (Me´nager & Choi, 2016). The aforementioned episodic memories involve only few linguistic aspects. On the other hand, ing conceptual information. Recently, several studies focused on narrative structure in an episodic memory. Anderson (2015) discussed the mental processes of constructing an episodic memory including temporal segmentation of event and creating a relationship between events. Leo´n (2016) formalized the relational structure of a narrative memory that connects narrative objects in terms of kernels and satellites. Although the aforementioned studies captured a partial aspect of episodic memory, it is necessary to explore a unified computational theory of episodic memory construction.

In this study, the term ‘‘story” is used, rather than episodic memory, to refer to a mental representation of temporally and linguistically organized events and entities. The main difference between a story and an episodic memory is that a story involves the form of the mental representation, while the definition of an episodic memory is generally based on the function or content (i.e., it enables the recollection of past events). As described in Akimoto (2018), a story is considered as a uniform mental representation involving episodic memory, autobiographical memory, current situation, prospective memory, planned or imagined future, and fictional or hypothetical story. They include long-term, short-term, and working memories. Hence, the generative cognition of story constitutes a common basis for a cognitive system or an integrative autonomous artificial intelligence. The importance of story cognition in artificial intelligence was explored by Schank (1982, 1990). Winston (2012)’s strong story hypothesis also argues for the generality of story in an intelligence.

In order to ensure a systematic formulation of the storyform memory construction, this study introduces Genette (1980)’s narrative discourse theory. It is a representative work in narratology (which is a discipline that examines fundamental structures, principles, and properties of narratives). The theoretical background of narratology includes structuralism, semiology, Russian formalism, linguistics, and literary studies. Narratological theories are applied in artificial intelligence studies on narrative generation (Gerva´s, Lonneker-Rodman, Meister, & Peinado, 2006; Lo¨nneker, 2005; Ogata, 2016), interactive narrative (Montfort, 2007), narrative analysis (Mani, 2013), and cognitive architecture (Anderson, 2015; Leo´n, 2016; Akimoto, 2018; Szilas, 2015; Samsonovich & Aha, 2015).

Genette’s narrative discourse theory is characterized by its systematicity. He provided a hierarchical classification of terms to describe a narrative structure, with particular focus on how a narrative is structured on a text instead of what is told. The aim of this study involves formulating the methods of story-form memory construction via analogically applying Genette’s systematic theory. Furthermore, the narratological methods are rearranged using cognitive terms.

The rest of the paper is organized as follows: Section 2 provides an overview of Genette’s narrative discourse theory including the analytical framework and structural categorization. In Section 3, Genette’s analytical framework is translated into the structure of a cognitive system. In Section 4, Genette’s categories are reinterpreted as methods of story-form memory construction. Section 5 rearranges narratological methods using cognitive terms. Finally, Section 6 concludes the study.

1.Genette’s narrative discourse theory

This section provides a brief overview of Genette’s narrative discourse theory (Genette, 1980). The theory was developed based on analyzing a novel Ala recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) written by Marcel Proust. The basic analytical framework is explained in Section 2.1. Subsequently, categorization of narrative discourse structure is described in Section 2.2

    1. Analytical framework

In order to deal with the structural analysis of a narrative, Genette distinguished a narrative into three aspects, namely discourse (narrative), story, and narrating. A discourse refers to the text of a novel or narrative itself. A story refers to the content information recounted in the discourse. Thus, it contains chronologically organized events. Narrating refers to the action of producing a narrative by a narrator(s) and narratee(s). In this context, a narrator and narratee correspond to persons inscribed in the narrative text and not the author and reader of a narrative. In the aforementioned three aspects, only a discourse exhibits a materiality while a story and narrating are interpreted from the discourse. Hence, the object of the analysis corresponds to a discourse.

The categorization of structural properties of a narrative discourse is constructed based on the relationship among the discourse, story, and narrating. Specifically, it consists of the following three broad categories (see also Fig. 1): tense refers to the relationships between the temporal aspects of a discourse and story; mood refers to the modalities of expressing the story in the discourse; and voice refers to the situation of narrating, in the relationships with the discourse and story.

2. Categorization of narrative discourse structure

Genette established hierarchically organized terms to describe a narrative structure. The terms are arranged as


Fig. 1. Analytical framework of the narrative discourse theory.

subcategories of the aforementioned three broad categories. The hierarchical categorization of structural terms and their brief explanations are provided below (see also Prince (2003) for more strict definitions of the narratological terminologies):

 Tense: Relationships between the temporal aspects of a discourse and story.

  • Order (anachronies): Relationships between the chronological order of events in a story and the order in which the events are recounted in a discourse. There are two major subcategories as follows:
    • Analepsis: Going back to past events from a present temporal position via a flashback, recollection, or other methods.
    • Prolepsis: Going forward to future events from a present temporal position via a flashforward, prediction, or other methods.
  • Duration (anisochronies): Relationships between the length of a discourse (for e.g., words, lines, and pages) and amount of time of the recounted events (for e.g., seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, and years).
    • Summary: A sequence of events is briefly recounted via relatively short text. Scene: A sequence of events is recounted in detail via relatively long text.
    • Pause: The story’s temporal progress is stopped in a discourse via the narrator’s commentaries or descriptions of objects, things, or situations. Ellipsis: A certain time period in a story is explicitly or implicitly omitted in the discourse (for e.g., ‘‘some years passed”).
  • Frequency: Relationships of frequency between the occurrences of an event(s) in a story and recounted number in a discourse.
    • Singulative narrative: An event is recounted once, i.e., a normal narrative.
    • Repeating narrative: The same event is recounted two or more times.
    • Iterative narrative: Similar events are recounted once (e.g., ‘‘every day of the week I went to bed early”).

 Mood: Modalities of expressing a story in the discourse.

  • Distance: A mode of regulating narrated information in terms of the degree of the narrator’s mediation. The notion can be understood as a contrast between mimesis or showing (smaller distance) and diegesis or telling (larger distance).
  • Focalization: A mode of regulating narrated information based on a choice or not of a restrictive perspective. It should be noted that Genette distinguished a perspective from a narrator because a narrator can narrate a story via considering another character’s perspective. The three basic types of focalization are listed below.
    • Zero focalization: A non focalized discourse without information regulation based on a specific perspective.
    • Internal focalization: A discourse is composed from a character’s perspective including the character’s mental actions.
    • External focalization: A discourse presents only the external behavior of characters (i.e., characters’ mental actions are not recounted).

 Voice: Situations of narrating in the relationship with the discourse and story.

  • Time of the narrating: Relationships between the temporal positions of narrating and the narrated story.
    • Subsequent: A past-tense narrative. Prior: A predictive narrative (generally presented in the future tense).
    • Simultaneous: A present-tense narrative. Interpolated: Temporal position of the narrating is interpolated between the moments of action.
  • Narrative level: The notion can be understood as the nesting structure of narrating and is explained as ‘‘a narrative narrated within a narrative.” A first-level narrative is produced in its external level (extradiegetic position).
  • Person: Relationships between a narrator and characters in the story.
    • First-person: A narrator appears in the story as a (central or secondary) character.
    • Third-person: A narrator does not appear in the story.

3. Translating the analytical framework into a cognitive system

This section translates the relationship among discourse, story, and narrating into a cognitive system. Fig. 2 illustrates an overview of the framework. First, the three aspects of a narrative are replaced into representational and procedural elements of a cognitive system: the story corresponds to a mental representation containing information of structured events; discourse corresponds to an expressive structure of a narrative; and narrating corresponds to the action of producing stories and discourses. With respect to the aspect of narrating, the narrator essentially corresponds to the agent itself. The narratee is unspecified although it corresponds to an environment or an objective that directs the production of a story and discourse.

In the relationship with physical and social environments, a story that forms a temporal structure of a current situation constitutes a foundation of a higher-level action– perception system (Akimoto, 2018). Conversely, narrative communication with another person or agent is always mediated via a discourse.

Physical and social environments

Fig. 2. Framework of story construction in a cognitive system.

Genette’s theory does not clarify whether a story refers to events and things themselves (in an external world) or a mental representation of events and things. In this study, a story is clearly positioned as a mental representation. Hence, it can be considered that a discourse as well as a story is linguistically constructed. The aforementioned perspective blurs the boundary between a discourse and story. However, the matter appears to constitute the essential nature of the mutual relationship between the memory (story) and expression (discourse).

In the framework, a cyclic relationship exists between a story and discourse, i.e., a story is reconstructed via structuring a discourse based on that story. The cyclic relationship involves the following three cognitive processes of story construction: construction of a story via interaction with the environment; reconstruction of a story via externally or internally narrating it; and construction of a story from a narrative via another person or agent. Various aspects of the discourse structure are reflected into a story via the aforementioned cycle.

4. Translating the narratological categories into story construction methods

In this section, the categories of narrative structure are translated into methods of story construction in a cognitive system. In dealing with the issue, we focus on processes wherein a relatively raw (simple) story is reconstructed by narrative methods. In order to provide a formal description of the methods, we define a minimal representation formalism of a memory containing stories.

In this study, the order is not applied to the construction method for a story itself; instead, it exhibits a close relationship with a memory organization. Therefore, we start with duration, and the relevance of temporal ordering to a memory is discussed in the last subsection.

4.1. Duration

4.2. Frequency

Table 1

4.4. Focalization

In a story construction process, focalization works as a perspective-based regulation of information to be contained in the story. In an agent’s cognitive system, a natural focalization considers the internal focalization of the agent itself. Hence, an important issue in focalization involves taking a different perspective from the agent’s internal perspective. It generates a different version of a story. For example, a different version of s(i.e., s20 ) is produced via simulating the internal focalization of the old friend, e.g.,

‘‘e20;1: An old friend met me at a park. e20;2: He felt nostalgic about me. ...”. A perspective is distinguished from the narrator, and thus the first-person character does not change in this version.

4.5. Voice

In Genette’s theory, voice considers the aspect of narrating and not the structure of a discourse and the story itself. As shown in Fig. 3, subcategories of voice (i.e., narrative level, time of the narrating, and person) can be translated into a set of elements to form a meta-story structure via interpreting the notion as background conditions in the cognitive action of constructing a story.

Narrative level corresponds to an essential aspect of the meta-story structure to create a division between a story and cognitive action to produce the story. It is represented via a nesting structure and a first-level story is produced in its external (extradiegetic) level by the narrator.

Time of the narrating corresponds to the temporal relationship between a story’s temporal position and present time of producing or remembering the story. The information is essentially reflected in the linguistic tense (i.e., past, future, or present) when a story is expressed as a narrative.

Person corresponds to whether the narrator appears in a story as a character. In an agent’s cognitive system, the basic narrator corresponds to the agent itself. However, another person or agent (as a character in a story) can become the narrator of a second-level story. For example, if s20 (the friend’s internal focalization presented in Section 4.4) is nested as the friend’s story, then it changes to ‘‘I met K at a park. I felt nostalgic about K. ” (K refers to the original ‘‘me”).

In order to represent the meta-story structure, story formalism is expanded into s¼ ½vðsiÞ. The term v denotes a tuple hnarrator;narTime;leveli, where narrator indicates the narrator by its identical symbol, narTime corresponds to a temporal position of srelative to the time of the narrating (e.g., ‘‘past,” ‘‘present,” or ‘‘future”), and level indicates the extradiegetic level of s(e.g., it corresponds to ‘‘zero” when sdenotes a first-level story, and ‘‘first: sx” when sdenotes a second-level story contained in sx). The meta-story structure is dynamically generated when a story is remembered or focused.


Fig. 3. Meta-story structure including narrative level, time of the narrating,

4.6. Order

Events in a story are chronologically organized, and thus the temporal order of events can be essentially manipulated only in the discourse dimension. Hence, we do not apply temporal ordering to a story construction method. However, the mechanism of forming a connection between events or stories over the chronological order and a temporal gap is relevant to the organization of stories in a memory. Therefore, we provide a short consideration on a structure underlying temporal ordering in a discourse. 

We use only one example that associates swith an event in s3 via a flashback: ðe3;1;e3;2;ðe2;1;e2;2;e2;3Þ;e3;3Þ. The structure is expressed as ‘‘Today, e3;1: I woke up early in the morning. e3;2: I took a walk in a park. (Yesterday, e2;1: I met an old friend at the park. e2;2: We went to a coffee shop. e2;3: We chatted over our coffee.) e3;3: I ate breakfast.”. The structure can be explained as an association mediated by the ‘‘park.”

It is considered that association among stories in the human mind is mediated by various types of similarities and relatedness including semantic, structural, non-verbal, and instance-level. In order to generate these types of phenomena, it is necessary to organically organize stories in a memory. The issue is relevant to memory retrieval including index- and similarity-based approaches (Schank, 1982; Kolodner, 1983; Thagard, Holyoak, Nelson, & Gochfeld, 1990; Forbus, Gentner, & Law, 1994), and our initial idea about story association is presented in Akimoto (2019).

4.7. Summary of story construction methods

Story construction methods including meta-story structure and temporal order as derived from Genette’s theory are summarized in Table 2. Fig. 4 lists their graphical explanations excluding the meta-story structure.

5. Rearrangement in cognitive terms

The aforementioned narrative methods and structures are relevant to various cognitive issues and are categorized as follows:

Temporal segmentation and abstraction. Stories are constructed in different degrees of duration between scene and summary. The phenomenon arises from flexibility in abstracting events with different densities of temporal segments of the world.

Generalization. Similar stories are compressed into a story via iterative narrating. The phenomenon corresponds to generalization that captures a shared information or structure among stories.

Non-verbal memory. Processes of story construction include verbalization of non-verbal memory such as detailing events via remembering an experience by scene and constructing a scenery description accompanying an event by pause. In order to enable this type of cognition, it is necessary for non-verbal (or unverbalized) memory to be associated with linguistically structured stories.

Memory organization. Temporal ordering of events including remembering a story over the chronological order and temporal gap is underpinned via an organic memory organization.

Sensemaking and relating. Stories are constructed in different degrees of distance. The process of increasing a story’s distance via the creation of relationships among story elements is similar to subjective sensemaking.

Theory of mind and point of view. In an agent’s cognitive system, a story is essentially constructed from its own perspective. However, different versions of stories are generated via simulating another individual’s internal focalization (perspective). The phenomenon is relevant to the theory of mind, i.e., the ability to imagine another individual’s mental state.

 Table 2

Narratological terms

Operation or structure


Generating a comprehensive event from two or more events


Generating two or more detailed events from an event


Adding a situational or scenery description or commentary associated with an event


Discarding part of a story

Iterative narrating

Compressing two or more similar stories or events into a single story

Distance (increase)

Adding a relational information to a story

Distance (decrease)

Removing a relational information from a story

(Internal) Focalization

Generating a different version of a story via simulating another individual’s perspective

Narrative level*

Division between a story and its production via a nesting structure

Time of the narrating*

Relationship between the time of a story and time of producing or remembering the story


Whether the narrator appears in a story as a character


Associating a part of a story with another part or story over the chronological order and a temporal gap

Meta-story structure.

** Association among stories.

 Iterative narrating                         Distance   Focalization

Order (as association among stories) s: Story 
d: Description of situational or scenery information
: Commentary r: Relationship
Fig. 4. Graphical explanations of story construction methods derived from Genette’s narrative discourse theory.

Fig. 5. Narrative-based interpenetration between an agent’s cognitive system and a society.

Metacognition and consciousness. The self as narrator (narrator-self) and self as character (character-self) are distinguished based on meta-story structure derived from voice. The distinction constitutes the basis for structural modeling of metacognition, namely cognition about one’s own cognition. This structure may also lead to the organizational understanding of consciousness.

Self-formation. In psychological and philosophical studies, narrative and autobiographical memory are often regarded as the foundation of self-formation. The proposed narrative methods and structures, particularly voicebased metacognition and sensemaking, will be the basis for computational modeling of self-formation.

Sociocultural aspect of cognition. Narratives (discourses) consist of social information communicated in various social fields such as education, art, mass and social media, and family. Styles of narrative composition are developed by an individual mind and societies via co-creative communication among individuals. Therefore, the proposed theory involves a sociocultural aspect of cognition. In the proposed framework (see Fig. 2), the relationship between stories and discourses is formulated as a cyclic relationship. Based on this structure, the interaction between an individual mind (cognitive system) and societies (social systems) can be understood as an interpenetration built on narratives, as illustrated in Fig. 5. This system view on societies and the relationship between societies and minds is rooted in Luhmann’s social systems theory (Luhmann, 2012–


Computational modeling of generative cognition of stories exhibits potential to lead to an integrative view on the collaboration of the aforementioned different cognitive aspects.

6. Conclusion

In search of a unified computational theory of storyform memory construction, this study analogically translated Genette’s narrative discourse theory into a cognitive system. First, the three basics of a narrative, i.e., discourse, story, and narrating, are replaced by representational and procedural elements in a cognitive system. Second, story construction methods and meta-story structures are formulated based on Genette’s systematic categorization of narrative structure. Further, the proposed narratological methods and structures are interrelated with cognitive issues, including temporal segmentation of the world, generalization of stories, theory of mind, point of view, metacognition, self-formation, memory organization, and sociocultural aspect of cognition. Thus, a story can be considered as integrative, multifaceted, and multifunctional information in one’s mind. Hence, a story-centered approach to a cognitive system exhibits the advantage of capturing integrative working of the mind. Our proposed theory acts as the foundation to develop a story-centered cognitive system or architecture.

The proposed theory describes the general aspects of a story structure in the mind. However, it does not provide the cognitive process and knowledge underlying the production and manipulation of stories. In computational narrative generation studies, various approaches such as goal-oriented planning, case-based reasoning, analogical reasoning, schema-based top–down cognition, and combination or transformation of existing stories have been suggested. We consider that generative story cognition is a combination of various cognitive processes, including the ones mentioned above. Hence, in a future study, we will explore fundamental principles for the unification of generative story cognition.


This work was supported by JSPS KAKENHI Grant No. JP18K18344.


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[1] In narratology, a description of situational or scenery information and a commentary by a narrator is distinguished from an event. However, in this formalism, they are treated as the same type of representational element for purposes of simplicity.

[2] Singulative narrative is a normal form of story construction. The act of repeating can be considered as a memory rehearsal although it does not produce a copy of an event into a story.

[3] Luhmann (2012–2013) incorporated the autopoiesis theory, which was originally developed in the field of biology by Maturana and Varela (1980), into a theory for describing modern societies. In Luhmann’s social systems theory, a person and the society are divided into different autonomous systems, i.e., mental and social systems. The modern society is characterized as a complex interrelationship among functionally differentiated subsystems including politics, economy, art, education, science, religion, and family. The only element forming a social system is communication, whereas the communication is basically conducted via mental systems. A social system autonomously operates through recursive chains of communication in which communication produces new communication. Each of the social and mental systems is operationally closed, however, it incorporates stimulations from other systems (i.e., environments). Hence, mental and social systems are closely coupled in the form of interpenetration.


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