Distinguishing Two Types Of Narrative

Two common forms of narrative discourse during the preschool years are personal narratives and fantasy stories. In personal narratives children report their personal experiences in contexts like parent-child conversation and dinner-table talk (Aukrust & Snow, 1998; Blum-Kulka, 1997; Ochs, Taylor, Rudolph, & Smith, 1992; Peterson & McCabe, 1992). In fantasy stories children narrate fictional happenings in the context of everyday pretend play, initially with the support of mothers or other older family members, but with increasing autonomy as children get older (Haight & Miller, 1993; Sachs, Goldman, & Chaille, 1984). Competent renditions of these two forms of narrative generally share some important features: a focus on a protagonist or protagonists and a set of related actions that these actors carry out; the reporting of supportive details such as setting or character attributes; the use of a range of strategies for linking events together and tying actions to consequences; and the inclusion of the narrator's evaluative perspective on the reported events. Despite these structural similarities, stories of personal experience and fantasy narratives may show different developmental courses within individual children and may draw on a somewhat separate set of pragmatic and linguistic competencies. Factual narratives require that the child select a set of happenings from the flow of past experiences that cohere and together form a satisfying story. Successful factual narratives also require that the child take account of what information is shared and unshared with the listener, and use appropriate introducing, referring, and elaborating strategies for unshared information. Successful fantasy narratives, on the other hand, require skill at plot improvisation and the ability to create tension and interest through vivid action, reported speech, and sound effects. Joint attention to a play figure or object can substitute for the more elaborate referential strategies that are characteristic of other forms of narration. To illustrate both the similarities in these narrative types and their different development within individuals, consider the following narratives produced by two 5-year-old girls:

Margaret: Me and my sister went out for a snack.

Interviewer: Uh-huh.

Margaret: And Lizzie went over to the pond. And she saw a big snake. And she screamed.

Interviewer: Oh.

Margaret: And my mom didn't like it. So I went over and said, "What is it? Look, a big snake!" And then we stayed for a little while. And then, well we watched him go out of there.

Interviewer: Wow.

Margaret: Uh we ate some snack. And then we went home. And um we missed swimming lesson.

Margaret begins her narrative with a statement of the goal that initiated the events of the story (Me and my sister went out for a snack) and goes on to report an elaborated series of temporally linked happenings: going to the pond, seeing the snake, screaming, reacting, investigating, etc. Her narrative centers on a linguistically marked climax or high point (Look, a big snake!) and builds down from this high point with a final sequence of events that includes a practical consequence (we missed swimming lesson). Margaret's story makes use of a highly conventionalized narrative structure while situating its logic in the everyday world of snacks, sisters, moms, and swimming lessons. She uses orienting information to introduce the coparticipants, locate the story at a specific place, and situate the events in relation to each other with specific time markers (then, for a little while). These uses of orientation lend realism to the reported events and support Margaret's ability to tell the story to an audience unfamiliar with her experience. Finally, although Margaret's story is restrained in its depiction of a frightening experience, she uses a variety of types of evaluation (screamed, didn't like it, and the reported exclamation, Look, a big snake!) to construct a stance in relation to the narrated events.

Margaret's personal narrative is much clearer and more fully developed than a story told by another 5-year-old, Sarah.

Sarah: Well I swim pretty good and I like to do banzai!

Interviewer: Yeah? What is that? I don't know anything about it.

Sarah: Well first you have to run and then you dive in. And I was just practicing diving. And I also went off the life line in the deep end.

Interviewer: Wow.

Sarah: And I couldn't touch. But I swam over to my mom.

Sarah's story, like many personal narratives told at any age, begins in the context of general conversation, in this case Sarah's explanation of how to do her favorite dive, the banzai. She marks her move from explanation into narration with a shift in tense, I was just practicing diving, but she doesn't signal the initiation of the narrative with any other sort of framing. She reports a brief and unelaborated series of events (practicing, going off the life line, not touching, swimming to her mom), using simple and links to narrate the problematic situation and to set off the resolution. Her story isn't situated in a particular place, and the central coparticipant, her mom, only enters the story at the end. Sarah's story includes minimal evaluation; only the interviewer's interjected wow and Sarah's factual negative I couldn't touch elaborate on the stance she takes on the narrated events. However, while Sarah is not a particularly successful narrator of personal experience at age 5, she is much more skilled at fantasy narration:

Sarah: And the dragon said to all the other animals, "I don't like you. I'm gonna eat you all up." But they all hurried to get out of the way. But the dragon said, "I don't care cause I can eat you all up with my huge, I can burn you all up with my huge big breath of fire (makes blowing sounds)" He took a big breath and burned them all up. (Points to dragon's mouth.) That's fire. (Noise from other room.) That's just my sister.

Interviewer: Mmhm. And then what happened ?

Sarah: The trees fell over. But then something said, "Tum!" That was the fire drill because there was a fire getting closer and closer and closer. And so they all had to get out of the way of the fire. Even the dragon. Then they saw a fire. Cause it was burning up all the city. All everything. But that wasn't the dragon's breath. It was a match. So they all had to get out of the way. But then they tickled each other. I tickle my sister sometimes. She tickles me the most. I like to tickle her cause it makes her laugh.

Interviewer: What's happening in the story?

Sarah: The dragon had to go home. So he just went home to his cave. But then they all got back in place. Where they should be. In the jungle, of course. So that's the end.

With the help of an adult partner who provides a skeletal plot (a fierce dragon threatens a group of jungle animals), models narrative technique, and provides toy props to enact the fantasy, Sarah builds up a fantasy narrative. The focus of her storytelling is the elaboration of the compelling elements of the fantasy: the dragon's exaggerated threats, the menacing fire, and a satisfying resolution, they all got back in place, where they should be, in the jungle, of course. In the fantasy narrative, Sarah isn't burdened by the need to recapitulate a detailed real chronology of events; in fact, she can challenge typical story sequence with her side move into tickling. When reporting events would slow down the action or tax her skills of verbal improvisation, Sarah can enact events by manipulating the toys. Freed of most of the requirements of realism and with the basic characters and plot collaboratively constructed with the adult partner, she can focus her verbal art on evaluation, producing expressions like the dragon's huge big breath of fire and the fire getting closer and closer and closer.

Margaret, the skilled narrator of everyday happenings at age 5, is at a loss, however, when confronted with the demands of fantasy narrative:

Interviewer: Boom-boom boom-boom. It was the dragon. Closer and closer he came. Splash! (places dragon in pond). And he sat right in the middle of the pond. Then what happened?

Margaret: He blowed fire.

Interviewer: Yeah? (longpause) Make more story happen.

Margaret: Um (longpause). I don't know (touches animals).

Interviewer: Here, make the elephant and dragon talk with each other (hands elephant and dragon to Margaret).

Margaret: I don't know what to say.

Interviewer: You can say anything.

Margaret: There's nothing to say.

Interviewer: What happened?

Margaret: The dragon blowed fire on him. The elephant.

Interviewer: Oh, then what happened?

Margaret: The elephant told the other animals to hide.

Interviewer: Oh. And then what happened?

Margaret: They hided down (puts animals in between cushions on the couch).

Interviewer: Oh? Even the elephant hid?

Margaret: Uh-huh (picks up dragon and turns it around).

Interviewer: What's happening?

Margaret: I don't know (drops dragon).

Interviewer: What's happening?

Margaret: The dragon didn't find the other animals. The end.

In this fantasy narrative, 5-year-old Margaret resists making up events, perhaps because she feels she lacks authority for reporting things that she hasn't witnessed or experienced. With repeated prompts from her adult partner, she produces a logical but limited chronology of events: the dragon blows fire, the animals hide, the dragon is unsuccessful in finding them. This sketchy narrative meets minimal expectations of a story, but lacks all the elements of elaboration that make Sarah's narrative a compelling fantasy. Margaret's skills at introducing characters and situating events in real places are irrelevant to the demands of fantasy narration and her focus on logical ordering misses the elements that make fantasy satisfying. Thus two very common types of oral narrative appear to impose rather different demands on young narrators. Both personal experience stories and fantasy stories require the ability to set off the narrative from the surrounding talk, to report and link happenings, and to evaluate their meaning to the story participants or to the narrator, but each genre imposes different emphases on these narrative tasks. While assessing the listener's information status is crucial for a clear rendition of a personal narrative, skills at plot improvisation are at the core of effective fantasy stories. The contrasting characteristics of relatively mature, 5-year-old factual and fantasy narratives reflect both the different courses of development of these two genres in the preschool years and the possibly separate contributions of different types of early communicative experience to their success. What kinds of communicative experiences in the first three years of life might one expect to be relevant to the narrative skills children are developing at age 5? In the next section of this chapter, we investigate possible connections between children's conversational and narrative skills.

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