Summary of David Bordwell on Fabula / Syuzhet

Formal systems both cue and constrain the viewer's construction of a story. 

We can analyse the film as consisting of two systems and a remaining body of material

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Fabula / Syuzhet / Style 

  • There is a difference between the story that is represented and the actual representation of it, the form in which the perceiver actually encounters it. 
  • This distinction goes back to Aristotle, but it was fully theorised by the Russian Formalists.


  • Fabula embodies the action as a chronological cause-and-effect chain of event occurring within a given duration and spatial field.
  • It is a pattern which perceivers of narratives create through assumptions and inferences. 
  • The viewers builds the fabula on the basis of prototype schemata (identifiable types of persons, actions, locales), template schemata (the canonic story) and procedural schemata (a search for appropriate motivations and relations of causality, time, and space). 
  • A film's Fabula's is never materially present on the screen or soundtrack. 


  • Often translated as "plot"
  • The syuzhet is a system because it arranges components 
  • "Syuzhet" names the architectonics of the film's presentation of the fabula. (hence rightward arrow in the diagram)
  • Syuzhet patterning is independent of the medium; the same syuzhet patterns could be embodied in a novel, a play or a film. 


  • "Style" simply names the film's systematic use of cinematic devices. Style is thus wholly ingredient to the medium. 
  • Style interacts with Syuzhet in various ways; (hence two-way arrow in the diagram)

We tend to construct certain patterns among events. We can now see how the film's syuzhet provides a basis for this activity. There are three sorts of principles relate the syuzhet to the fable. 

I. Narrative Logic

  • In constructing a fabula, the perceiver defines some phenomena as events while constructing relations among them. These relations are primarily causal ones. 
  • The syuzhet can facilitate this process by systematically encouraging us to make linear causal inferences.  (In comics, composition also facilitating such process) 

II. Time

  • Narrative time has several aspects. 
  • The syuzhet can cue us to construct fibula events in any sequence (order).
  • The syuzhet can suggest fibula events as occurring in virtually any time span (duration).
  • The syuzhet can signal fibula evens as taking place any number of times (frequency).

III. Space

  • Fabula events must be represented as occurring in a spatial frame of reference, however vague or abstract. 
  • The syuzhet can facilitate construction of fibula space by informing us of the relevant surroundings and the positions and paths assumed by the story's agents. 

Our schematising and hypothesising activities are guided by the syuzhet's cues about causality, time and space.