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Conversational Narrative. Universität des Saarlandes Dept. 4.3 English Linguistics Professor Dr. N. R. Norrick HS Narrative Summer semester 2008. Goals . Practical English n arrative conventions: prefaces, transitions, closings

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Conversational Narrative

Universität des Saarlandes

Dept. 4.3 English Linguistics

Professor Dr. N. R. Norrick

HS Narrative

Summer semester 2008


  • Practical

    • English narrative conventions: prefaces, transitions, closings

    • characteristic discourse markers, evaluation strategies, formulas

    • standard listener responses, response stories, patterns of co-narration

    • Narrative genres: personal experience, anecdote, life story, reminiscence

  • Theoretical

    • Narrative Terminology and general principles of linguistic description:

      narrative clause, temporal juncture, floor, telling rights, tellability, tense shift, evaluation, narrative formulas, reported speech-constructed dialogue

    • Analysis of narrative discourse and narrative passages in discourse

Issues and Topics

  • What’s narrative versus non-narrative discourse?

    • Narrative structures, story grammar, narrative frames

  • What are characteristic features of narratives?

    • Internal structure of narratives, tense variation in narrative, written versus oral narrative, dialogue in narratives: free indirect speech vs. direct speech

  • Who tells what to whom and when? And how do participants respond?

    • Topicality, tellability, telling rights; listener response, by-play, heckling; co-production, duetting, polyphonic co-narration; response stories, second stories, story topping

  • What’s the relationship of narrative and event, narrative and memory, narrative and thought, narrative and culture?

  • How does narrative competence develop?

    • narrative socialization, language learning and narrative, narrative across the lifespan

  • What kinds of narratives are there?

    • stories by children, personal stories, retold stories, narratives in conversation, narrative jokes, anecdotes, monologic vs. dialogic vs. polyphonic narratives

  • Where do narratives recur?

    • narrative as therapy, troubles telling, narrative and remembering, narratives in education, narrative in oral cultures, life stories

1. Introduction

  • Conversation is the natural home of narrative, and the most familiar context of storytelling

  • Conversational storytelling illustrates all the important features of narrative

  • Narrative is a standard, familiar part of conversation

  • We all tell stories:

    • to make a point

    • to catch up on each others’ lives

    • to report news

    • to entertain each other

  • One story opens the floor to others for similar stories of their own

  • There are many kinds of conversational narrative found in various contexts:

    • family dinner-table talk

    • self-revelation in troubles talk between women friends

    • talk between guys who have never met before at half-time in a sports bar

  • Each context has its own characteristic conditions on storytelling rights and tellability, and may elicit stories of different kinds

  • Conversational narrative is

    • always interactive and negotiated

    • not simply “audience designed” by a single “teller”

  • hard to determine even who is the primary teller, especially when the events were jointly experienced or the basic story is already familiar

2. Definition: story vs. narrative


  • narrative = representation of past events (perhaps a travelogue or a project report)

  • story = narrative with a point in context

  • also: event, story, performance

3. Floor, Tellability

  • How do you signal to others that you want to move from turn-by-turn talk into narrative?

  • Who is allowed to tell which story to which audience?

  • Intertwined with shared versus unshared experience,

    • A events, A-B events, O events, F events (and group events generally)

    • new versus known story, potential for co-telling, team performance

Teller and recipient cues:

  • signals like

    • “guess what?”

    • “You’ll never guess what happened”

    • “remember the time?”

    • “this one time”

    • “when I was a kid”

Floor, Topicality

  • Tellability: “it was so funny, so weird”

    “the first time, the most important”

  • Tellability without reportability

  • The dark side of tellability

4. Audience, Co-telling, Response

  • How can/should listeners respond?

  • How do they influence the trajectory and evaluation of the story?

  • How and in what ways can they become co-narrators?

  • When a “teller” starts to tell a story, the audience becomes active in many ways

    • signaling attention, expressing judgments, interrupting, correcting, co-narrating

  • Conversational storytelling is always interactive, and more or less polyphonic

  • By-play, heckling

  • Retelling and retold stories

  • Co-telling, duetting, team performance

  • Response stories:

    • second stories

    • story topping

5. Sections, Features

  • Internal structure

  • Conversational narrative same as elsewhere, but needs regularization

5.1 Opening, Elicitation

  • Prefaces

    • Formulaic prefaces: “you’ll never believe what happened”

    • Discourse markers: “well, this ONE time”

    • Initial disfluencies: “so, anyway, these- this one girl”

5.2Complicating action

  • Narrative clauses with temporal juncture

  • Non-narrative clauses

    • Evaluation

    • Repetition

    • Details

    • Dialogue

5.3 Closing

  • Characteristic formulas:

    • “and I lived to tell about it”

    • “and the rest is history”

  • Formulation

  • Summary

  • Coda

6. Functions

  • Narrative construction of identity

  • Functions of conversational narration

    • getting story straight

    • group rapport

    • ratifying group membership

    • conveying group values

7. Examples


Ann:sewing is,

something I want to go back to.

I acquired an absolutely magnificent sewing machine

by foul means.

did I tell you about that?


Ann:well when I was doing freelance advertising,

the advertising agency

that I sometimes did some work for

rang me


Shel:{laughs} I guess I better go.

Cal:you don't have to.

Shel:na, I don't have to,

but if I want to get up tomorrow morning I do.


oh I couldn't believe it,

I was so happy.

I wanted to go home Friday morning, right?

this guy's leaving early early Friday morning.

well I have an eight o'clock class

that I don't want to miss because . . .

BACK TO SCHOOL (closing)

Conrad:so at least they knew that my heart was in it.

Ellen:that’s right.

Conrad:and uh and so I did that

and- and here I am.


Jim: Well I think y'know

here were two sisters

who didn't have a brother

and two brothers who didn't have a sister

and I think the idea was an exchange of a kind

Vera: You were being an educator.

Jim: Yeah.

SPIN OUT(closing)

Marsha:and he doesn't remember too much about it.

Patricia:you never do,

because it takes seconds for it to happen.

Marsha:he- I can-

he fought the car for a good ten, fifteen seconds

before we lost total control.

Patricia:well the only thing you can both say is

thank God you're safe.

that's all.

Analyzing conversational stories

  • Look for discourse markers, disfluencies, formulaic chunks, evaluation


    1Ned:what about this flying?

    2you had a pilot’s license?


    4Ned:when- how did you- learn to fly?

    5Winifred:well {laughing} my first s- serious boyfriend became a pilot.

    6and I got really interested,

    7I flew with him a lot.

    8so I decided I’d like to learn to fly myself.

9I just love to fly.

10so ah-

11Ned:was this still- in the thirties, before the war ?


13so- I went out to the airport

14and- just met some people out there

15and started taking flying lessons.

16 and the day-

17 I went up to- with the-

18 the first- the last flight with a- pilot


20Winifred: he said uh did I ever do a barrel roll in a plane?

21and I said “no.”

22and he said “you wanna try it?”

23and I said “sure.” {laughter}

24so he- flipped that thing over {laughing}

25I had- my eye on the odometer

26and it kept going down and down

27and I thought “oh well, this is it” {laughter}

28I knew I was gonna die that time

29‘cause he couldn’t get that thing back over.

30and all of a sudden he got that thing turn back over

31and started climbing

32and didn’t say a word for about five minutes {laughter}

33and finally he said

34“Winifred, you do know how to pull that

35thing on your parachute, don’t you” {laughter}

36and I didn’t say it

37but what I thought

38at five hundred feet

39the parachute wouldn’t have done much good.


Reducing performance to narrative

  • delete listener input

  • eliminate disfluencies

  • consolidate narrative clauses

1well {laughing} my first s- serious boyfriend became a pilot.

2and I got really interested,

3I flew with him a lot.

4so I decided I’d like to learn to fly myself.

5so- I went out to the airport

6and- just met some people out there

7and started taking flying lessons.

8 and the last flight with a pilot

9he said uh did I ever do a barrel roll in a plane?

10and I said “no.”

11and he said “you wanna try it?”

12and I said “sure.” {laughter}

13so he- flipped that thing over {laughing}

14I had- my eye on the odometer

15and it kept going down and down

16and I thought “oh well, this is it” {laughter}

17I knew I was gonna die that time

18‘cause he couldn’t get that thing back over.

19and all of a sudden he got that thing turn back over

20and started climbing

21and didn’t say a word for about five minutes. {laughter}

22 and finally he said

23“Winifred, you do know how to pull that

24thing on your parachute, don’t you” {laughter}

Tagging sections

  • Orientation: background information

  • Narrow frame: transition into main action

  • Main action: only active verbs in past tense; no negatives, no continuing actions

  • Evaluation: interrupts main action for thoughts & feelings

  • Result: direct effects of main action

  • Resolution: what finally happened

  • Coda: final comment, later or present perspective


1I decided I’d like to learn to fly.

2so I went out to the airport

3and just met some people out there

4and started taking flying lessons.


5and the last flight with a pilot


6he said uh did I ever do a barrel roll in a plane?

7and I said “no.”

8and he said “you wanna try it?”

9and I said “sure.” {laughter}

10so he flipped that thing over {laughing}


11I had my eye on the odometer

12and it kept going down and down


13and I thought “oh well, this is it” {laughter}

14I knew I was gonna die that time

15‘cause he couldn’t get that thing back over.


16and all of a sudden he got that thing turn back over

17and started climbing


18and finally he said

19“Winifred, you do know how to pull that

20thing on your parachute, don’t you” {laughter}


21and I didn’t say it

22but what I thought

23at five hundred feet

24the parachute wouldn’t have done much good.

Cringe Stories

1. Mind the gap.

1. I went to an Indian restaurant with my family to celebrate my’s GCSE results. When we sat down, I noticed some really fit

3.boys sitting at the other side of the room. I tried to look cool all night

4.and it seemed to be working. But when I was about to get up to

5.leave, I slid along the bench towards the end of the table – and fell

6.into a gap between two seats. I tried to get up but I’d got totally

7.stuck! The waiters came rushing over to pull me out and everyone

8.was staring. The fit lads were crying with laughter. I’ll never go back

9.there again!

Sneak’s number one fan, Kent (Sneak, Issue 82, 2nd-8th Dec. 2003. P. 25)

2. Dinner disaster.

1.My family and I went for a meal. On the table next to us was this fit

2.boy. I couldn’t keep my eyes off him. When my food came, I was

3.really hungry so I stuffed a huge bit into my mouth. But it was so hot, burned my tongue and I had to spit it out. The lad was looking over

5.right at that very moment. I couldn’t look him in the eye again after


Fenella, London. (Mizz No. 464, Feb 26th – March 11th 2003. P. 16)

3. Gone off the boil.

1.I popped over to the local chemist to pick up some stuff for my nan.

2.When I looked at the list, I realised she wanted me to buy some

3.cream for her boils. I was just paying for it when my crush walked

4.into the shop. How embarrassing? I haven’t spoken to him since.

Mizz fan (Mizz No. 464, Feb 26th – March 11th 2003. P. 16)

4. Pyjama palaver.

1.I went to the supermarket with my dad recently, but I couldn’t be

2.bothered to get dressed up properly. So I put my long coat on to

3.cover up my Winnie-the-Pooh PJs. By the time we got to the till, I

4.was feeling really hot, so I took off my jacket. I’d totally forgotten

5.what I was wearing underneath. The shop assistant couldn’t stop

6.laughing. I’m never going back there again.

Chloe, London (Mizz, op.cit. page 16)

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