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The difference between description and narration

It is not a question of temporality, but of discoursive function

Description is normally defined as a kind of discourse, the one in which a scene is depicted. However, since narrative discourse also visualizes a scene, this naturally raises a question about the difference between a descriptive depiction and a narrative presentation of a scene. A typical answer would be that by description we specify spatially available, contiguous, and spatially shared qualities; it is entities that are described, and not events. For that reason, analysts sometimes deny the presence of an ’internal temporal dimension’ in depiction (Chatman). Description is ’dealing with objects as they appear at a single moment in repose’ (Thomas, Howe, O’Hair), so it is assigned a certain dose of a-temporality, while contrary to that, narration is characterized by temporality. For example, in the opening shots of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, every shot presents a different situation, but at the same time they all describe rush hour traffic, although the sequence of shots does not suggest the temporal sequence of screened events — depiction suggests that everything is happening approximately at the same time, but not necessarily in the order presented on film. However, when in the first shot of the film the camera starts following Cary Grant walking and dictating instructions to his secretary, the development of events and temporal sequence becomes important and that is what is tracked then.
When we talk about ’description’, we conceive it typically as ’state description’, i.e. description of a fairly unchangeable situation. But, there are also legitimate ’event descriptions’, such as is the sequence from Croatian documentary film Tuna Boat (Tunolovac, Branko Belan, 1948), in which a sequence of shots depicts how fishermen prepare lunch, the cook cooks it, and then they eat it. The description depicts the temporal order of the represented action; the presentation sequence of action phases indicates the real sequence of represented events. If temporality in itself is not the key distinctive feature between narration and description, what then could it be? The answer is: The central goal of description is to draw attention to constant and typical features of a particualr scene (or object) — those that allow us to identify it; to categorize it and to recognize it by its relatively durable features. Also, when an event is described, it is done by indicating its typical features, a typical sequence of its phases. In descriptive approach, we are interested in features that characterize a particular state or an event, i.e. which make them recognizable, identifiable, and which allow us to recognize that event, or such event, in entirely different circumstances, in different contexts from the one we observed them for the first time.
Although perception of typical features actively participates in narrative depiction of an event (description is an important implicit aspect of standard narration), in narrative discourse it focuses predominantly on the idiosyncratic, unique sequence of events. This is why temporality of narratively depicted events is obligatory in narration, while only optional in description.
The author claims that difference between description and narration lies in two different, very basic, cognitive mechanisms. Description corresponds to perceptual management of environment based on saccadic eye movements. The eyes hop around taking in various aspects of a scene, gathering information important for navigating the particular surrounding in a given moment, or any future moment. Such investigations allow us to get to know the unknown or insufficiently known aspects of the given situation and the type of situation in general, or in other words, they serve to maintain, update long term-knowledge of the situation. Contrary to that, narration corresponds to visual tracking characterized by focal attention and continual, smooth eye movements. Of course, we visually track only what strongly occupies our attention in a given moment, and it is precisely because of its unique space-time occurrence that we do not want to lose it from sight. In this sense, narrative tracking assumes perceptive focusing on an important current development, but the presence of visual tracking (for example, tracking movements of an isolated character with camera or a continual editing sequence) also suggests that tracked movement or event is uniquely important and will probably be followed up by something we should not miss. Filmic description epistemologically questions and elaborates orientating-informative relation to the world, while narration questions and analyses action-operational relation. Therefore, description is ’naturally’ characterized by ’jumpy’, discontinuous editing and ’non-tracking’ camera movements, while narration is characterized by domination of continuity editing and tracking camera movements, along with accentuated indications of concrete consequential relation among events that imply temporal connection of them. Of course, this is not all there is to narration, but it is the most basic point of departure for the definition of narration

Hrvoje Turković

Narratology and film story
Focalization and point of view in fiction film

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