Revision of Tellability from Wed, 12. June 2013

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Tellability is a notion that was first developed in conversational storytelling analysis, but which then proved extensible to all kinds of narrative, referring to features that make a story worth telling, its “noteworthiness.” Tellability (sometimes designated “narratibility”) is dependent on the nature of specific incidents judged by storytellers to be significant or surprising and worthy of being reported in specific contexts, thus conferring a “point” on the story. At issue is the breaching of a canonical development that tends to transform a mere incident into a tellable event. However, tellability may also rely on discourse features, i.e. on the way in which a sequence of incidents is rendered in a narrative.


Publications devoted to tellability differ according to the importance given to: (a) the concept of narrativity; (b) the nature of the story told and its connection with narrative interest; (c) the discourse features of tellability; and (d) the contextual parameters determining the “point” of a narrative.

Relation to Narrativity

Scholars generally distinguish tellability from narrativity (H. Porter Abbott → Narrativity) because, firstly, tellability is perceived independently from its textualization (e.g. tellability is involved when a potential narrator wonders whether his or her story—lived or invented—is worth telling) and secondly, because stories that meet formal criteria of narrativity may remain pointless and simply fail to raise the interest of the audience (cf. Ryan 2005: 589; Herman 2002: esp. 100–09). However, some scholars bring tellability and narrativity closer together by adding to the various formal criteria defining narrativity its “value” in specific contexts (e.g. Bruner 1991; Prince 2008: 23–5).

Interest of the Story

In light of the story/discourse distinction, it is generally assumed that tellability pertains only to the story level and that it should thus be dissociated from the broader concept of narrative interest as comprising both story and discourse features. Since a good story poorly told can be ruined or, conversely, the most insignificant incident can become captivating when told by a skillful narrator, some critics find it difficult to consider any aspect of narrative (sequence, plot, tellability, point, interest, etc.) independently from its discursive or textual manifestation. Consequently, narrative interest might be proposed as a term for tellability when dealing with the interconnection between story and discourse.

Semantic and cognitive studies have provided interesting insights into how salient events can transform a mere occurrence or a “something happens” (type I event) into a “tellable” or “reportable” one (type II event) (Peter Hühn → Event and Eventfulness; cf. Hühn 2007). Bruner has insisted on the fact that “to be worth telling, a tale must be about how an implicit canonical script has been breached, violated, or deviated from” (1991: 11). Such a “precepting event” can be linked to dynamic conceptions of plot, and in particular to its complication phase (see Baroni 2007: 167–224). At this level, it is assumed that there is a general human interest for stories reporting events that have a certain degree of unpredictability or mystery. Ryan’s (1991: 148–74) possible worlds semantic approach asserts that the more complex virtual outcomes are, the more tellable the story is.

Discourse Structures of Tellability

By combining formal and functional descriptions, sociolinguistic approaches to conversational storytelling have shown that the tellability and point of a narrative are reflected in specific features of discourse structure. Thus evaluation devices, for instance, form “part of the narrative which reveals the attitude of the narrator towards the narrative by emphasizing the relative importance of some narrative units” (Labov & Waletzky 1967: 37). In a functionalist interpretation of those formal attributes of tellability, evaluation devices are described as means avoiding a “so what?” reaction from the audience. Nevertheless, a number of recent studies have argued that evaluation devices are quite difficult to pinpoint as actual narrative structures, especially in cases of non-conversational or literary stories, and that they are not sufficient to guarantee the tellability of a story. As Prince puts it: “after all, claiming that (sequences of) events are unusual, extraordinary, bizarre, unfortunately does not suffice to make them so” (Prince 2008: 24).

Contextual Parameters of Tellability

General features of tellability remain on a level of description aimed at singling out the universals of narrative. However, contextual approaches tend to insist on the importance of genre, historical or culture- specific constraints, and for oral stories, on the role of the actual interaction in which storytelling takes place (Polanyi 1979). For Polanyi, describing the violation of a norm necessarily involves giving a minimal account of the canonicity that has been breached. Bruner has pointed out that even breaches “are often highly conventional and are strongly influenced by narrative traditions” (1991: 12). Similarly, Polanyi maintains that tellable materials can stimulate interest culturally, socially, personally or with some combination thereof. In a different vein, Hühn stresses the fact that eventfulness, which confers a “point” on a story, is “context- sensitive and consequently culturally as well as generically specific and historically variable” (2008: 143). Moreover, genre, as Ryan points out, can also come into play: “whereas popular literature invests heavily in the tellability of plots, high literature often prefers to make art out of the not-tellable” (2005: 590). Other researchers (e.g. Norrick 2000, 2005; Ochs & Capps 2001) insist more on the actual negotiation of tellability in oral storytelling performance and have also extended the concept to include “low tellable” and “untellable” stories.

History of the Concept and its Study

A forerunner to functionalist approaches of tellability can be found in Aristotle’s discussion on what kind of events a drama should imitate. Aristotle recommends portraying events that produce emotions such as pity or fear (1449b); events with the greatest “cathartic” effect are those whose development, even though causally connected, are unexpected by the audience (1452a). However, such considerations are related only to a specific genre of dramatic representation and cannot be incorporated as such into a general theory of tellability.

In their pioneering article published in 1967, Labov & Waletzky stated that the formal properties of narrative should always be related to the functions they fulfill in narrative communication. “Labov’s great credit,” notes Bruner, “is to have recognized that narrative structures have two components: ‘what happened and why it is worth telling’” (1991: 12). By stressing narrative performance (Ute Berns → Performativity), they addressed questions left out of account by the structuralists, showing that narratives which serve only to recapitulate experience “may be considered empty or pointless,” but that they also serve “an additional function of personal interest determined by a stimulus in the social context in which the narrative occurs” (Labov & Waletzky 1967: 13). The authors showed that “most narratives are so designed as to emphasize the strange and unusual character of the situation” because a “simple sequence of complication and result” does not necessarily suffice to indicate the relative importance of the events told or the “point” of the story (34). This led them to single out phrases and words that contribute to fulfilling this contextual function, those parts of narrative being named “evaluation devices” (37; cf. Labov 1972: 366−75). They showed that evaluations can appear in various forms, such as direct statements bearing on the unusual nature or significance of certain incidents, lexical intensifiers, suspensions, repetitions, judgments, etc.

Although the study of tellability has its roots in the analysis of conversational storytelling (Monika Fludernik → Conversational Narration - Oral Narration), the concept was quickly broadened to include all kinds of narratives. Pratt (1977; see also van Dijk 1975) played a significant role in expanding the pragmatic approach developed by Labov & Waletzky to literary narratives. Stressing the context-dependency of narrative left out of account by the structuralists, she demonstrates the pertinence of point for “artificial” narratives. Furthermore, in applying Grice’s Cooperative Principle to literary discourse, she showed that the maxim of “relevance” can be associated with the notions of “evaluation” and “point” (the unusual, the amusing, the terrifying, etc.).

Given the importance of situation of discourse, context, and cultural conventions in the degree of tellability a story might possess, Polanyi emphasized that “stories, whether fictional or non-fictional, formal and oft-told, or spontaneously generated, can have as their point only culturally salient material generally agreed upon by members of the producer’s culture to be self-evidently important and true” (1979: 207). For Polanyi, instead of “how” people structure their stories in order to make them interesting, tellability raises the more basic question of “What is worth telling, to whom and under what circumstances?” (1979: 207). She further contended that the point of a story “may change in the course of the narration” and that it is subject to negotiation. She developed a simple methodology for “identifying and investigating beliefs about the world held by members of a particular culture” (213) by analyzing the negotiation between participants “about what is to be taken as the point of the story” (214; cf. Prince 1983; Rigney 1992).

Ryan (1991) postulates that in addition to the features focused on by traditional pragmatic studies on tellability (evaluation devices and unusualness of facts placed in the speech situation), it is possible to articulate a purely semantic and formal conceptualization of tellability. For her, the fabula is a network of embedded narratives that can be both actual and virtual. A character’s goal might be actualized as successful, but its tellability depends on the fact that, virtually, it might have been unsuccessful. Ryan concludes that “some events make better stories than others because they project a wider variety of forking paths on the narrative map” (2005: 590, cf. 1986).

Recently, the connection between narrativity and tellability has received more attention. Herman has linked the degree of narrativity to the degree to which expectations regarding the storyline are violated, the former aspect being closely related to tellability (2002: 90–2). More extreme is the position of Fludernik, who grounds her conception of narrativity in “experientiality”: “For the narrator the experientiality of the story resides not merely in the events themselves but in their emotional significance and exemplary nature. The events become tellable precisely because they have started to mean something to the narrator on an emotional level. It is this conjunction of experience reviewed, reorganized, and evaluated (‘point’) that constitutes narrativity” (Fludernik 2003: 245, cf. 1996: 70). On the other hand, Sternberg has grounded his conception of narrativity in suspense, curiosity, and surprise which contribute to “the three universal narrative effects/interests/dynamics,” asserting that they necessarily rely on the interplay between the temporalities of actional and discursive sequences (2001: 117). Following his position, narrative interest may well be an appropriate term for tellability when the concept embraces both story and discourse instead of trying to single out only the discourse-independent features of tellability.

Ochs & Capps (2001) distinguished two different poles in conversational narratives. The first is identified with highly tellable accounts and generally involves a single active teller with a passive audience. This corresponds to the prototypical narrative studied by Labov & Waletzky that involves, for example, a near-death experience. In such cases, the story conveys a clear point and is more or less detachable from its context of realization. The second pole can be exemplified by a moderately tellable story which is embedded in surrounding discourse and activity, is co-constructed by several active co-tellers, and conveys an uncertain fluid moral stance (Ochs & Capps 2001: 18–24). This approach draws attention to conversational narratives with a low degree of tellability in which “partners are grilled about their day’s activity and reel out what happened reluctantly, without bothering to dress up the events as particularly important” (34). The authors insist on the fact that conversation “creates an opportunity to launch a personal narrative whose storyline is not resolved” (35). They argue that the point of a story and its relative tellability are not always characteristics found by the narrator in the potential story before it is performed, but rather variables that must be factored in during the process of narrating, involving several co-narrators cooperating in construction of the storyline.

Another interesting development of the notion by Ochs & Capps is their reflection on “untold stories.” Here, tellability serves to explain negatively what cannot be narrated due to a selective memory that filters experience, childhood amnesia or trauma, i.e. events that “remain inaccessible for narration because they are too painful” (2001: 257). In a related development, Norrick has defined what he calls the “dark side of tellability,” exploring the untellable in stories that are too personal, for instance, or too embarrassing or obscene to be told. He concludes: “Tellability is, then, a two-sided notion: Some events bear too little significance to reach the lower-bounding threshold of tellability, while others are so intimate (or frightening) that they lie on the dark side of tellability” (2005: 136). Instead of understanding tellability as a “two-sided notion,” however, it would be more appropriate to separate these two notions as radically different definitions of tellability and distinguish strictly between what is worthy of being narrated and what is accessible to narration. Both phenomena are highly context-sensitive, the latter depending specifically on psychological and cultural conditions (such as psychic resistance or taboos).

Topics for Further Investigation

Based on studies such as Ochs & Capps (2001) and Norrick (2000, 2005), topics calling for additional research on tellability are descriptions of untellable or low-tellable stories, i.e. the dark side of narrativity or its progressive elaboration during the narrative performance. The distinction between low and high tellability also suggests that the concept should be more clearly associated with generic and pragmatic parameters of narrative discourse. It is clear that parameters defining tellability differ completely when a story is told to captivate the audience, explain a fact, justify a behavior, reflect on a life trajectory, or assert one’s identity. The breach of a canonical order is more relevant in popular fiction or in personal anecdotes told to amuse than in experimental literature or in testimony before a judge (see Baroni 2009: 66–71). On the other hand, despite Sternberg’s (2003) reservations, there is a need to further clarify the relation between tellability and narrative interest. Finally, tellability is a key concept for exploring the interface between experience (or its semantic description) and its narrativisation because it addresses directly the question of how and why some incidents become the object of a narration and others do not.


Works Cited

  • Baroni, Raphaël (2007). La Tension narrative. Suspense, curiosité et surprise. Paris: Seuil.
  • Baroni, Raphaël (2009). L’œuvre du temps. Poétique de la discordance narrative. Paris: Seuil.
  • Bruner, Jerome (1991). “The Narrative Construction of Reality.” Critical Inquiry 18, 1–21.
  • Fludernik, Monika (1996). Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology. London: Routledge.
  • Fludernik, Monika (2003). “Natural Narratology and Cognitive Parameters.” D. Herman (ed.) Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences. Stanford: CSLI, 243–67.
  • Herman, David (2002). Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P.
  • Hühn, Peter (2007). “Event, Eventfulness and Tellability.” Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology No. 4 <>.
  • Hühn, Peter (2008). “Functions and Forms of Eventfulness in Narrative Fiction.” J. Pier & J. Á. García Landa (eds). Theorizing Narrativity. Berlin: de Gruyter, 141–63.
  • Labov, William (1972). Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P.
  • Labov, William & Joshua Waletzky (1967). “Narrative Analysis: Oral Versions of Personal Experience.” J. Helm (ed). Essays on Verbal and Visual Arts. Seattle: U of Washington P, 12–44.
  • Norrick, Neal R. (2000). Conversational Narrative. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
  • Norrick, Neal R. (2005). “Conversational Storytelling.” D. Herman (ed). The Cambridge Companion to Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 127–41.
  • Ochs, Elinor & Lisa Capps (2001). Living Narrative: Creating Lives in Everyday Storytelling. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
  • Polanyi, Livia (1979). “So What’s the Point?” Semiotica 25, 207–41.
  • Pratt, Mary Louise (1977). Towards a Speech Act Theory of Literary Discourse. Bloomington: Indiana UP.
  • Prince, Gerald (1983). “Narrative Pragmatics, Message, and Point.” Poetics 12, 527–36.
  • Prince, Gerald (2008). “Narrativehood, Narrativeness, Narrativity, Narratability.” J. Pier & J. Á. García Landa (eds). Theorizing Narrativity. Berlin: de Gruyter, 19–27.
  • Rigney, Ann (1992). “The Point of Stories: On Narrative Communication and Cognitive Functions.” Poetics Today 13, 263–83.
  • Ryan, Marie-Laure (1986). “Embedded Narratives and Tellability.” Style 20, 319–40.
  • Ryan, Marie-Laure (1991). Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory. Bloomington: Indiana UP.
  • Ryan, Marie-Laure (2005). “Tellability” D. Herman et al. (eds). Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory. London: Routledge, 589–91.
  • Sternberg, Meir (2001). “How Narrativity Makes a Difference.” Narrative 9, 115–22.
  • Sternberg, Meir (2003). “Universals of Narrative and Their Cognitivist Fortunes.” Poetics Today 24, 517–638.
  • van Dijk, Teun A. (1975). “Action, Action Description, and Narrative.” New Literary History 6, 273–94.

Further Reading

  • Schmid, Wolf (2007). "Eventfulness as a Narratological Category". Amsterdam International Electronic  Journal for Cultural Narratology  N. 4 <>.
  • Wilensky, Robert (1983). "Story Grammars versus Story Points." Behavioral  and Brain Sciences 6, 579-623.

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I recently published a book on Tellability for teachers of English language learners. In it I link the successful use of picture books as prompts for instructional conversations with beginner ELLs. "Teaching Beginner ELLs with Picture Books: Tellabilty" (Lado, 2012) Corwin Press.