Roland Barthes’s structural work was translated and published in 1977, but I maintain that this iconic book is essential for writers of any age – including in 2013. If you have yet to pick up a copy of ‘Image, Music, Text’ I recommend you to now take a pause in reading this post and hit whatever online book shop you prefer most. Or, if you’re of that conviction, you continue reading and go out first thing tomorrow morning to a physical shop. See bottom for online links.
In ‘Image, Music, Text’ (original in French) Barthes provides lucid and cogent expositions on topics such as the “Rhetoric of the Image” and an “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives” among others. He works, as the title suggests, through the three media of communication and addresses issues relevant to any narrative, whatever form it may take.
In his structural analysis, the very atoms of narrative are broken down into their microparts: catalysts, nuclei, cardinal functions, informants and indices for example. For each part, Barthes spends some time explaining its appearance, its function, and its place in the sentence and narrative overall. Whoever claims that storytelling isn’t a craft must reconsider after reading this book.
For it is precisely the craft of storytelling Barthes emphasises here. Of characters, for example, he writes: “as units of the actional level, find their meaning (their intelligibility) only if integrated in the third level of description, here called the level of Narration.” He breaks down characterisation into basic parts of action and derivation and suggests a tripartite division of all character types, or as he calls it, “a paradigmatic structure”: Subject/Object, Donor/Receiver, Helper/Opponent. Furthermore, Barthes stresses that the type of character is defined depending on its interaction in the action: desire, communication, and struggle.
Later he touches on the function of time and distinguises between real time and fictional time, suggesting that a narrative follows a sort of internal logic in terms on temporal movement. What we would denote ‘time’ in real life, simply does not exist.
Towards the end of the book he provides a “Lesson on Writing” through a parallel with Bunraku, Japanese doll theatre. Japanese theatre is self-conscious about its audience and an explicit performance. Forget Stanislavski and method acting: the puppeteers are visible although disguised in black. Barthes gives here an interesting and compelling discourse on the act of storytelling.
Sources for ‘Image, Music, Text’:
I recommend buying it so you can make notes and highlight significant passages. The book has now become my new bible in terms of fiction writing and as I move towards editing in my final year fiction project, I will re-read and absorb every word Roland Barthes has to say.