Marie-Laure Ryan
Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence and Narrative Theory

In this book, I attempt to forge new parameters for the study of narrative and the semantics of fictionality by combining the philosophical background of possible worlds theory with formal models of plot inspired by Artificial Intelligence research. The language game of fiction is characterized as an imaginative relocation of author and reader into an alternative possible world. Through this interpretive convention, the world projected by the text becomes in make-believe the actual world of a recentered system of reality. This definition clearly distinguishes fiction from other forms of discourse involving the creation of non-actual possible worlds, such as lies, errors, unreliable narration in fiction, and counterfactual statements. While fiction is characterized as a mode of travel into textual space, the trajectory of narrative can be visualized as a journey within the confines of this space. In the second part of the book, possible worlds theory is developed into a narrative semantics which transcends the borderline between fiction and nonfiction. In a classical ontology, the semantic domain of the narrative text is structured by the opposition of a singular "textual actual world" to the many possible worlds projected by the wishes, obligations, fears, goals, plans and dreams of the characters. This notion of a textual universe encompassing a plurality of worlds is developed into a theory of narrative conflict, an account of the forward movement of plot, a model of narrative framing and embedding, a heuristics for computerized story generation, a formalism for the semantic mapping of plots, and a hypothesis concerning their intrinsic tellability: the narrative potential of a given plot is a function of the complexity of the system of possible worlds necessary to its cognitive processing.

Table of contents


Part I: The Fictional Game
1. Fictional Recentering
2. Possible Worlds and Accessibility Relations: A Semantic Typology of Fiction
3. Reconstructing the Textual Universe: The Principle of Minimal Departure
4. Voices and Worlds
5. The Fiction Automaton

Part II: The Plotting of the Plot
6. The Modal Structure of Narrative Universes
7. The Dynamics of Plot: Goals, Actions, Plans and Private Narratives
8. Virtuality and Tellability
9. Stacks, Frames, and Boundaries, or Narrative as Computer Language
10. The Formal Representation of Plot
11. The Heuristics of Automatic Story Generation


The book was awarded the 1992 MLA prize for independent scholars. A Japanese translation is under preparation.