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Two of the Most Important Storytelling Concepts You’ve Never Heard Of

By Britton Perelman · April 28, 2022

One of the biggest challenges in writing a screenplay — in writing anything, really — is deciding how to tell the story.

I’m not talking about form; obviously if you’re writing a script, you’re going to adhere to basic screenplay format.

I’m talking about the order of events. How the story is going to unravel on the screen, or, in the case of your script, on the page. Because the matter of how to tell a story is not always simple.

This is when thinking about fabula and syuzhet can help.

What Are Fabula and Syuzhet?

You’ve probably never heard these story terms. Don’t panic — they are a little unusual.

Fabula and syuzhet are terms about narrative construction that originated as part of the Russian formalist movement in the early 20th century.

The first, fabula, refers to the raw content of a story. Fabula is the story’s events, ordered in the way they occurred.

Syuzhet is the way the author organizes the story for the narrative. In simple terms, syuzhet is the way the story is told.

I think the easiest way to think about it is…

Fabula = Story

Syuzhet = Structure

Synchronous Narratives

A lot of movies and TV shows play out chronologically.

Chronological stories start at whatever point the writer has deemed as the “beginning” and move forward in time until the end without any flashbacks, flashforwards, or alternating timelines.

Classical narrative structures follow chronological timelines, which means that the fabula and syuzhet of the story are synchronous. The story is structured in the way that it actually happened. The fabula and syuzhet are the same.

This kind of straightforward narrative structure mimics real life. While there may be montages or jumps in time from one scene to the next, the events of the story are revealed to the audience in the order in which they occurred.  

Here are some movies and TV shows that are great examples of synchronous fabula and syuzhet:

Asynchronous Narratives

If the fabula and syuzhet do not match, it’s considered asynchronous.

The raw material of the story — the fabula — is always chronological. Events happen in a certain order, that’s just the way the world works.

But when it comes to storytelling, the syuzhet need not always be chronological. The power in being a writer comes from your ability to manipulate the syuzhet.

Writers have the choice of how to tell the story, and often, the writer chooses to present the events of the story out of order.

This might mean starting the story at its end. It might mean using flashbacks or flashforwards throughout an otherwise chronological narrative. Or it could mean alternating between multiple timelines.

Classic films like Casablanca and Citizen Kane are great examples of asynchronous narratives.

Casablanca | Citizen Kane

Casablanca | Citizen Kane

Case Study: Casablanca & Citizen Kane

At first, the fabula and syuzhet of Casablanca appear to be synchronous — the audience drops in on Rick Blaine running his café in Casablanca when his life is disrupted by the arrival of a former lover. Everything moves forward chronologically… until the crucial flashback sequence.

If the fabula and syuzhet of Casablanca were synchronous, the movie would start with Rick and Ilsa in Paris and then catch up with the characters in Casablanca several years later. The screenwriters’ decision to punctuate the present storyline with an extended flashback creates a bigger emotional arc for both the characters and the audience.

The fabula of Citizen Kane is Kane’s life in the order that it actually happened. The syuzhet is the order in which those events are presented to the audience — not in the order in which they actually occurred, but in the order in which the reporter learns about them.

Asynchronous narratives are incredibly common in modern storytelling. Here are some examples from film and TV:

Even network comedies like New Girl and How I Met Your Mother also rely on asynchronous storytelling for entertainment value.

Using Fabula and Syuzhet in Narrative Construction

When thinking about fabula and syuzhet, you have to think about the story that is going to unfold on the page (and hopefully one day, on the screen) and how to have the biggest impact on the audience.

This decision doesn’t need to be complicated. Some stories are simply more powerful when told chronologically, while others are more meaningful — the events more impactful for the audience — if told out of order.

When constructing your narrative, try to identify the fabula first.

What are the events of your story in the way that they actually happened? What happened first? What came next? And so on and so on until the end.

Then, think about your possible syuzhets.

What organization of events will have the most impact on the audience? Does chronological structure make the most sense for the story you’re telling? Or could you create a deeper meaning by altering how the events of the story are presented?

Ultimately the ideas of fabula and syuzhet should be used to help you tell your story in the most powerful way.

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Britton PerelmanBritton Perelman is a writer and storyteller from the middle of nowhere, Ohio. She’s had jobs in travel writing, movie trailers, and podcasting, and is currently getting her MFA in Screenwriting at the University of Texas at Austin. When not writing, Britton is most likely belting along to Broadway musical soundtracks, carefully making miniature bookshelves, or napping with her dog, Indiana Jones. Find more of her writing on her website or follow her on Instagram.

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