Barbatsis, Gretchen. “Narrative Theory." Handbook of Visual Communication. Eds. Smith, K., Moriarty, S., Barbatsis, G., and Kenney, K. Mahway, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2005. 329-350.
In Gretchen Barbatsis’ 2005 work “Narrative Theory,” she asserts that stories permeate our lives and closely investigates how narratives are crafted within visual artifacts. When we hear the term narrative, we think literary and creative writing practices, but visual narratives are an important area of arrangement that fascinatingly compose our ideas, perceptions, and identities. She takes a decidedly interdisciplinary approach in her investigations to find out why and how our realities are transformed by visual narratives. Barbatsis breaks down narratives into two facets – “formal stories” and “personal narratives” (329) – and finds that vital to the work of visual communication is “how this storytelling experience is crafted pictorially (330).”
The visual component is often overlooked in how humans fashion our stories, though cave paintings belie the primacy of written or oral language. Barbatsis argues that visual narrative theory is not an alternative way of understanding – the story and the visual have and will always be connected as a way in which human knowledge is formed. She covers narrative theory with respect to the way it renders our lives in visual forms, stating, “By expanding the notion of narrative to include all symbolic forms of expression, visual communication scholars gain a valuable set of critical tools for examining this pictorial mode of sense making as a theoretical model of understanding visual communication (330).”
Storytelling is innate to humans worldwide, and Barbatsis makes this point with backing from theorists and scholars from multiple disciplines, as she points out that each discipline handles storytelling quite differently, but visual narratives in particular question what kind of expectations and assumption narratives allow and impose. With this, Barbatsis draws on many voices from areas such as psychology, anthropology, hermeneutics and semiotics to find a fitting approach for visual narrative analysis and methodology. She uses Walter Fischer’s concepts of "narrative fidelity" (“reliability of the world a story creates”), and “narrative probability” (“internal coherence or ‘integrity ... as a whole’”) to provide a pathway to investigate how an image’s content is distinct from its form as the image appeals to our emotional, intellectual and imaginative nature through narrative appeals (334).
Barbatsis also asserts that we must ask how narrative is structured visually through sequencing to carry meaning and derives a “pictorial narrative syntax” wherein narrative is a semiotic construct between story (content) and discourse (expression). Another theoretically methodology that she presents distinguishes what is being said from how it is being said. An image is a “two-part sign structure” in which we move between content and expression simultaneously to make meaning (337). Language biases/privileging are problematic to visual rhetoric, but Barbatsis makes clear that syntagmatic and paradigmatic structuring can be posited in a visual artifact in the same manner as in a textual or oral narrative analysis.
Other interesting theoretical facets that Barbatsis delineates are in-depth discussions of teller/listener relationships as well as visual narrative genres. She draws on a “discursive structure” of personage in regards to the reader of visual narratives as an analytic tool to examine the author/reader relationship involving implied teller and implied listener. Analysis of both positions reveals how we engage with visual sequences (341). In the case of visual artifacts, the author becomes the “imager” and the reader is the viewing audience. She stresses that it is important to evaluate the “narrating eye” not so much as an author but as a framer of events in space and time (343). In literature, “…a narrating presence comes from an audience's sense that it is being told something (341),” while with an image, an audience's sense of being told something comes from the way the picture is made – the use of the medium, the arrangement of elements, employed principles of design over composition, space and time. We must also take great care to investigate the pictorial point-of-view to understand how the imager is guiding spatial awareness and the focus of events for the viewer.
As visual artifacts are composed of narrative conventions, Barbatsis also makes a clear case for the study of genres of visual narratives; they are fairy tales recirculated again and again, crafted in new ways that evolve as we age, occurring time and again in visual narrative pattern and composition conventions. These are the visual narrative arches that convey powerful meaning within cultures whether through advertising, television, film, multimedia or photography, and each one “follows a distinct transformational structure of crisis and resolution that we come to recognize as the kind of story it tells, or more significantly, the kind of argument it makes about the nature of the world (345).”
Through her multidisciplinary approach to visual narrative theory, Barbatsis concludes that by employing these methods of visual narrative as an object of study, we as scholars can more fully delineate and realize the crafted nature of our perception and constructed cultural meanings. While she advises to approach a visual OoS “in a way that does not arbitrarily impose verbal constructs on them (347)”. She concludes, “Because we make our way in the world by structuring our experiences into stories, narrative structures are deeply revealing of how we think, what we value, and why we act (346).