Review of Narrative Progression in the Short Story
|AUTHOR: Toolan, Michael
TITLE: Narrative Progression in the Short Story
SUBTITLE: A Corpus Stylistic Approach
SERIES: Linguistic Approaches to Literature
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company
Marlies Gabriele Prinzl, Centre for Intercultural Studies, University College
Michael Toolan's Narrative Progression in the Short Story is a corpus stylistic
study that takes the question ''How does text 'guide' the reader?'' (p. 1) as its
starting point. It investigates narrative prospecting specifically within the
modern short story genre through corpus analytic methods and tools, including
Scott's WordSmith Tools, Rayson's Wmatrix and Youmans's Vocabulary Management
In Chapter 1, Narrative prospecting, Toolan states his aim to ''contribute to a
fuller understanding of how, in written narrative, material that is either
explicit or at least implicit in the text gives rise to such distinct
impressionistic reader judgements as ones of suspense, surprise, secrecy or
gaps, mystery, tension, obscurity, and even incoherence'' (p. 1). Although it is
immediately noted that factors such as genre, background knowledge, values and
mental scripts all will play a role, Toolan's exploration of narrative
progression is through linguistic theory and corpus analytical methods and
tools. Toolan also acknowledges that empirical reader response studies are
essential when making claims and descriptions about reader judgements, but
states that these are beyond the scope of his book. The first chapter briefly
sketches the research context and provides details about genre, relevance,
script and background, as well as explaining further what is to be understood by
'guided expectation' and 'predictive reading.'
The second chapter introduces Toolan's scholarly influences for his own study,
including Halliday and Hasan's work on cohesion in text (1976), Sinclair and
Coulthard's prospection in discourse (1975), with further reference to
Sinclair's idiom principle (1991). Hoey's theory of lexicogrammatical priming
(2005) is also mentioned as an important inspiration. Toolan then proceeds to
collocational stylistics, explaining several key terms (collocation,
colligation, semantic prosody), reviewing Bill Louw's position that ''the
bottom-up objectivity of collocational studies can enable it to uncover deeper
insight into the phrasings in literary texts than those of the best intuitive
critical reading'' (p. 21, see also Louw 2000, Louw 2006 and Louw 2007). Toolan's
own stance is less radical, as he emphasises that corpus technology facilitates
analysis but that human analysts are needed to ''uncover insights and disclose
things, using collocational analyses'' (p. 21). Finally, Toolan names the stories
he has selected for his study (James Joyce's ''Two Gallants,'' Katherine
Mansfield's ''Bliss,'' Raymond Carver's ''Cathedral,'' ''Boxes,'' and ''A Small Good
Thing,'' John Updike's ''A&P,'' and Alice Munro's ''The Love of a Good Woman'') and
describes the reference corpus (500,000 words, containing 20th century novels
and short story fiction) he compiled to use in conjunction with his project.
In subsequent chapters, Toolan uses various corpus methods, explaining
procedures and analysing results obtained primarily for ''Two Gallants,''
including their limitations. In Chapter 3, Lexical patterning in short stories,
he looks into type-token scores (for the whole text and individual paragraphs),
lexical innovation as revealed through programmes such as Mason's Paraword and
Youman's Vocabulary Management Profile (VMP), foregrounding through repeated
multi-word sequences (via WordSmith's n-grams function) and unique phrasings.
For the latter, a phrase from ''Two Gallants'', 'achieved through the stern task
of living', is discussed at length. Toolan also runs a KeyWords analysis based
on his fiction reference corpus for the whole short story as well as segments of
it, concluding that although little is revealed in terms narrative progression,
a more specific use of WordSmith's Keywords will provide more insight.
Chapter 4, Top keyword sentences as story waymarking, and Chapter 5, Keywords
and the language of guidance in ''The Love of a Good Woman'', then exclusively
focus on keywords, with the former looking at top keywords. Analysing only
sentences which feature the top keyword ('Corley') of ''Two Gallants'', Toolan
finds that these construct a shorter version which ''lacks much of the texture of
Joyce's story'' (p. 56) but still results in a ''semi-coherent narrative'' (62).
The procedure is tested with two further stories, with similar results, except
when a lot spoken dialogue is involved. Toolan concludes that top keywords are a
kind of ''signposting carrying the reader forward along the way of the story'' (p.
74). Chapter 5 continues with the keywords focus, paying particular attention to
language of guidance -- that which leads to readers' judgements of the
'expectable' versus the 'surprising' --, now with subsections of ''The Love of a
Good Woman''. Readers' responses from small groups of informants are included to
see if notions singled out by readers match those that emerge from
The sixth chapter moves onto lexical repetitions, including partial repetitions
and similarities in wording that may serve as a partial guide to story structure
and progression. Again, keywords data is analysed, but this time in even smaller
text sections and with grammatical words included and log-likelihood.
Importantly, Toolan discusses what he calls 'para-repetitions': lexical items
that are expressed through different, but related words in different parts of a
text. Such para-repetitions clearly play a role in a narrative but elude easy
capture through automatic means - active readers must work them out. After
presenting para-repetition examples, Toolan notes that semantic tagsets, such as
Wmatrix's UCREL tagset, may help identify potential candidates, but not without
raising serious methodological issues. He also acknowledges that not all
keywords -- whether established through direct or partial repetition -- are
indicative of narrative progression and that some may change or even be
displaced through the course of a story, concluding that ''an exclusive focus on
lexical frequency and repetition is too narrow an approach, and disproportional''
(p. 112) and that ''a multi-factor modelling of narrative progression is needed''
In Chapter 7, Toolan distinguishes between ''narrative expectation'' (on part of
the reader) and ''prospection'' (textual elements that cause expectation) and
discusses, over the next two chapters, the phenomenon of narrativity that both
describe. He proposes and details eight important parameters of narrative
prospection: core parameters (covered in Chapter 7) of 1) the named, top-keyword
main character, 2) narrative-tense finite words in character-depicting action
clauses, 3) paragraph-initial sentences, 4) fully lexical frequent keywords and
clusters, and embedded parameters (Chapter 8) of 5) characters' represented
thought, 6) prospective direct speech, 7) clauses with negations (lexically
autonomous negations and words with negative morphemes) and 8) modal or mental
process narrative verbs. The model is then applied to ''Two Gallants'' and a story
abridgement consisting of only those sentences with the proposed narrativity
cues is presented. Toolan concludes that the abridgement is still too long and
that refinements are still needed for his semi-automated model to identify high
narrativity sentences. Finally, he emphasises that the model is specific for the
modern short story and that it is still at a preliminary stage, with questions
such as ''Are all parameters equally important to narrativity?'' still needing to
In Chapter 9, the discussion turns to elements of suspense and surprise, which
are ''powerful exploitations of narrative prospection'' (188). Several pages are
devoted to explaining the terms and the necessary textual conditions allowing
their identification and disambiguation from related elements such as tension,
mystery, etcetera. Analyses -- on the basis of abridgements derived from the
previous chapter's eight parameters -- of suspense in ''Two Gallants'' and
surprise in ''Bliss'' and ''A Small, Good Thing'' follow. The latter two stories
provide new, if not entirely unproblematic, testing ground for the parameters,
as the ''Bliss'' abridgement consists of 70% of the original story. As Toolan
himself notes, this aspect again highlights that refinements are still needed
for the model. These observations and results however do not distract from the
chapter's primary argument, namely that narrative suspense and surprise ''are
deeply rooted in the texture of the story'' (188), they are ''in the text... so
entrenched that it often persists though [sic] multiple readings'' (171).
Finally, in Chapter 10, Next steps, Toolan reviews what he set out to do and
comments on study limitations. He considers possible directions for future
research, including testing the narrative prospection model against readers'
responses and determining the degree to which external real-world and
story-schema knowledge might play a role in progression expectations. He also
proposes further testing of improved corpus linguistic resources, such as the
added 'concgrams' feature of WordSmith Tools' latest version.
With this book, Toolan offers a valuable contribution to the field of corpus
stylistics. It is a dense work that is probably not aimed at novices, but is of
interest to researchers with at least some background knowledge of corpus tools
and/or narratology. It should persuade at least some readers that using tools
from corpus linguistics can benefit and expand literary studies, both in terms
of speeding up text processing, as well as by raising new and important
questions about narrative progression and narratology more generally. Toolan's
stance is moderate and sensible: he does not consider corpus tools as the be-all
and end-all, but equally emphasises the role of the human analyst in evaluating
The fact that reader response testing -- with exception of a small study in
Chapter 5 -- is not really part of Toolan's investigation is somewhat
disappointing, given that such empirical data is essential when making claims
about reader expectations and judgements. Although it is understandable that
Toolan limits the scope of his study in this manner, it is something that is
sorely missed, and I hope that the author will follow up with empirical findings
in future publications.
Toolan himself views the book as a ''work in progress'' (p. 199), in part because
of the missing reader response studies and other data that indicate the need for
further refinements (such as short story abridgments still amounting to 70% of
the original text). Readers are likely to agree with this observation, but are
still offered a work that points to the possibilities of corpus-based
narratology and takes initial, but essential steps towards further research in
the field, something that can only be welcomed.
Halliday, Michael and Ruqaiya Hasan. 1976. Cohesion in English. London: Longman.
Hoey, Michael. 2005. Lexical Priming: A New Theory of Words and Language.
Louw, Bill. 2000. ‘Contextual Prosodic Theory: Bringing Semantic Prosodies to
Life.’ in Chris Heffer and Helen Sauntson (eds.), Words in Context [ELR
Discourse Analysis Monograph 18]. Birmingham: University of Birmingham, 48-94.
Louw, Bill. 2006. ‘Literary Worlds as Collocation.’ in Greg Watson and Sonia
Zygnier (eds.), Literature and Stylistics for Language Learners: Theory and
Practice. London: Palgrave, 91-105.
Louw, Bill. 2007. ‘Collocation as the Determinant of Verbal Art.’ in Donna R.
Miller and Monica Turci (eds.), Language and Verbal Art Revisited: Linguistic
Approaches to the Study of Literature. London: Equinox, 148-180.
Mason, Oliver. n.d. Paraword. (http://www.phrasys.net/service/paraword.html).
Rayson, Paul. 2007. Wmatrix: A Web-based Corpus Processing Environment.
Lancaster: Computing Department, Lancaster University.
Scott, Michael. 2004. WordSmith Tools version 4. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sinclair, John. 1991. Corpus, Concordance, Collocation. Oxford: Oxford
Sinclair, John and Malcolm Coulthard. 1975. Towards an Analysis of Discourse:
The English used by Teachers and Pupils. London: Oxford University Press.
Youmans, Gilbert. 1994. 'The vocabulary management profile in two stories by
Faulkner,' Empirical Studies in the Arts 12(2), 113-130.
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Marlies Gabriele Prinzl is an MPhil/PhD candidate at the Centre for
Intercultural Studies, University College London, UK. Her research
interests include literary translation, particularly with regard to
creativity and experimental writing, retranslation and corpus linguistic
approaches to literature and translation. Further details can be found at: