Storyworld (225/310/425/485)


In research on natural language processing, the terms mental model (Johnson-Laird 1983) and discourse model (Webber 1979) are used to refer to non-linguistic representations of the situation(s) described by a sentence or set of sentences, i.e., a discourse (Stevenson 1996; see SITUATION MODEL). Models of this sort are global mental representations enabling language users to draw inferences about items and occurrences either explicitly mentioned or else implicitly evoked in a discourse. Storyworlds, in turn, can be defined as the class of discourse models used for understanding narratively organised discourse in particular. In this sense, narrative comprehension requires reconstructing storyworlds on the basis of textual cues and the inferences that they make possible (Herman 2002).

Storyworlds are thus mental models of who did what to and with whom, when, where, why, and in what fashion in the world to which interpreters relocate (Ryan 1991) as they work to comprehend a narrative. Like Jahn’s (1997) cognitive frames and Emmott’s contextual frames (1997), storyworlds function in both a top-down and a bottom-up way during narrative comprehension. Top-down, they providethe presuppositions guiding readers to assume that fast food restaurants and electron microscopes are not components of the world of Proust’s Recherche. But, bottom-up, a given story-world is also subject to being updated, revised, or even abandoned in favour of another with the accretion of textual cues, as when the reader of a text featuring an unreliable homodiegetic narrator gradually realises that the storyworld is not at all the way its teller says it is (see RELIABILITY).

More generally, when compared with cognate narratological terms such asfabula or story, storyworldbetter captures what might be called the ecology of narrative interpretation. In trying to make sense of a narrative, interpreters attempt to reconstruct not just what happened but also the surrounding context or environment embedding storyworld *existents, their attributes, and the *actions and *events in which they are involved. Indeed, the grounding of stories in storyworlds goes a long way towards explaining narratives’ immersiveness, their ability to ‘transport’ interpreters into places and times that they must occupy for the purposes of narrative comprehension. Interpreters do not merely reconstruct a sequence of events and a set of existents, but imaginatively (emotionally, viscerally) inhabit a world in which things matter, agitate, exalt, repulse, provide grounds for laughter and grief, and so on — both for narrative participants and for interpreters of the story. More than reconstructed timelines and inventories of existents, then, storyworlds are mentally and emotionally projected environments in which interpreters are called upon to live out complex blends of cognitive and imaginative response.