Narrative codes

HERMENEUTIC AND PROAIRETIC CODES:

The two ways of creating suspense in narrative, the first caused by unanswered questions, the second by the anticipation of an action’s resolution.

These terms come from the narratologist Roland Barthes, who wishes to distinguish between the two forces that drive narrative and, thus by implication, our own desires to keep reading or viewing a story. The hermeneutic code refers to those plot elements that raise questions on the part of the reader of a text or the viewer of a film. For example, in the Star Trek: TNG episode, “Cause and Effect,” we see the Enterprise destroyed in the first five minutes, which leads us to ask the reason for such a traumatic event. Indeed, we are not satisfied by a narrative unless all such “loose ends” are tied. Another good example is the genre of the detective story. The entire narrative of such a story operates primarily by the hermeneutic code. We witness a murder and the rest of the narrative is devoted to determining the questions that are raised by the initial scene of violence. The proairetic code, on the other hand, refers to mere actions—those plot events that simply lead to yet other actions. For example, a gunslinger draws his gun on an adversary and we wonder what the resolution of this action will be. We wait to see if he kills his opponent or is wounded himself. Suspense is thus created by action rather than by a reader’s or a viewer’s wish to have mysteries explained.

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