How do serial narratives create a non-linear subjectivity?

To engage with the question, I will firstly provide a detailed explanation of the four key words in this question – serial; narratives; non-linear; and subjectivity. For this essay, I will then use contemporary television series/serials Desperate Housewives, Gossip Girl, Heroes, How I Met Your Mother, and 24 to illustrate some of my points.

Serial television has a very distinct set of characteristics. According to Christine Geraghty (1981: pp. 9-26), they include:

1) Organization of time
This includes the regular appearance in the same time every week of the year and within the show, the ‘unchronicled growth’ of the characters when the story shifts from a story to another.

2) The Sense of a Future
A very distinct characteristic of a serial is its “continual postponement of the final resolution” (Geraghty 1981: p.11).

3) The Interweaving of stories
Within a serial, though there may be a main story, several other storylines are always integrated into the episodes that may “reflect on and play off each other”. This keeps the show interesting in a method of “flexi-narrative” which I will explain later.

Heroes, an American television drama serial, tells the story of several ordinary individuals who discover their superhuman abilities, and their journey in adapting to these powers to ultimately save the world. The individual stories of these characters are interwoven as the story progresses, as you find out how they are connected to each other, and how they come together to achieve their final common goals.

4) Cliffhanger
To create anticipation and interest of the audience, the cliffhangers are the trademarks of serials.

In the case of 2005 television show, How I Met Your Mother, the lead character, Ted Mossby, has been telling his kids the story of how he met their mother for three seasons now, and is still in the process of finishing his story. He throws in bits of the “mother’s” appearance as a cliffhanger but never fully explains their meeting yet. This use of constant cliffhangers through the seasons is a great example of this characteristic of the serial.

5) Moments of Temporary Resolution
These moments of temporary resolutions of the story provide the audience with a suspension from the drama caused by the cliffhanger.

6) The Use of the Past
The use of the past is essential when a serial goes on for years, as it uses past information to update viewers who have just started watching the show with a little bit of history about the storyline and characters. However, the use of flashbacks in the show also aid the storyline forward, and this is very much used in How I Met Your Mother, where the show is fueled by the use of flashbacks to narrate the points of the story.

The use of flashbacks is also a significant introduction into new serials nowadays, with a collage of flashbacks introduced at the beginning of the show to illustrate the issues that they are touched on for the episode.

7) Gossip within the serial
Gossip is a great commentary for new information and details essential to the storyline without illustrating it. The use of gossip also helps to “create the feeling of day-to-dayness” (Geraghty 1981: p.24).

In the case of television serial based on a book by Cecily von Ziegasar, Gossip Girl’s storyline is narrated by an anonymous blogger, known as Gossip Girl, who reveals the secrets and lives of New York’s Upper East Side young socialites. Gossip Girl’s narration aids in the connecting of stories within the show, and provides more information on what the audience should know.

8) Gossip outside the serial
With the interesting plotlines and cliffhangers of the serial, it never fails to provide the audiences with curiosity, which in turn becomes speculation of what the story might become. This is highly evident in the adoption of seriality into reality television shows, where the gossip outside the reality serial is whether who wins American Idol or The Biggest Loser or Big Brother.

However, since this article by Geraghty in 1981, there have been major changes in the form of the classical serial television show, as “economic and commercial imperatives have developed and as tastes and styles have altered.” (Giddings & Selby 2001: p.1)

Television genres have collaborated and created hybrids of television serials, to create new and exciting shows to increase television ratings to bring in the cash. Therefore, the biggest hybrid now is the series and serial, where the “episodic series” with a main theme for each episode fuses with a continuous storylines that run through the entire season, like that of How I Met Your Mother. Other serial spawns have included miniseries, or episodic serial, sequential series and soap operas.

The integration of serialization into action drama is also depicted in 24, where it is based on “realtime production”, where each episode is an hour of the day, with the storyline continuing throughout the day and reaching the climax at the last few hours. (Cantor 2008: p.203)

The integration of seriality into shows nowadays is not only to keep audiences glued to the show, but is also a good way in producing character development, so that audiences can connect with the individual characters, like that of Sex and the City or Desperate Housewives, where women can connect with the character they feel most alike to.

The appeal of “serialization lies in its ability to construct ‘open’ rather than ‘closed narrative forms” and it is this “paradigmatic complexity” that helps to push the boundaries of television fiction (Creeber 2004: p.4). It is also the open ended-ness and sheer breadth of a serial that allows it to cross the visual mediums – the big screen.

Like Sex and the City, the television serial that ended in 2004, the 2008 movie that was just released on the 5th of June in Australia is a continuation of the lives of the four characters – Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha and Miranda, four years later. Despite the time lapse from the end of the television series to the movie, the audience still feels a sense of connection to the characters which is an epitome of the “unchronicled growth” mentioned above, where characters still live on their own lives in this “serial world”.

Sue Thronham and Tony Purvis define narratives as that which “concerns the way in which the stories of our culture are put together”, which is why John Fiske suggests, “it is not surprising that television is predominantly narrational in mode.” (2005: p.29)

Roland Barthes notes the origins of narratives, where it “can only receive its meaning from the world which makes use of it… no fictional narrative is wholly separate from the realities of the world in which the narrative circulates.” (Thronham & Purvis 2005: pp.37-38)

Serial narratives nowadays adopt a new complex form of “flexi-narrative”, where it introduces “intricate and sophisticated layers of plot and subplot narrative levels which gradually enhance character and narrative density beyond the scope of the single ‘closed narrative’.” (Creeber 2004: p.15) It is this “multi-dimensional narrative structure” (Creeber 2004: p.15), which keeps the story interesting and keep the audiences on their toes, which in turn pulls the ratings for shows up.

Therefore, since the “flexi-narrative” form is denoted by fast-cuts and a “rapid change of shots”, with “an average length of a shot on television only 3.5 seconds” compared to the “cinematic images of greater visual depth and complexity, the limited information of each shot [must be] readily accessible” to interpretation by the audience, and with the accelerated literacy of the educated viewers today, these audiences are able to “accept bigger jumps in visual narration and even to accommodate – through their very awareness of established patterns – occasional breaches of normative perspective conventions without undermining the illusionistic world presented.” (Nelson 1997: pp.24-26)

This use of the ‘flexi-narrative’ form is argued by Nelson that it “better responds to and reveals the complexity, ambiguity and lack of closure that typifies the contemporary world” (Creeber 2004: p.5), which is why it is easier for audiences to connect with these new television serials.

Linearity is connoted by proportion, thus, to be non-linear indicates the multi-dimensional aspect of the subject. However, in terms of the behaviour of a machine or program, which I will further elaborate later, non-linearity suggests that “said machine or program is being forced to run far outside of design specifications.” ( 2008: Internet)

In Creeber’s “Serial Television”, he comments that “Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin applied his notion of ‘heteroglossia’ to explain the multilayered intertextual possibilities of the novel, [and] such a theory could equally be applied to serial television.” (2004: p.7)

This term of subjectivity has multiple meanings. In, it refers to subjectivity as a “state or quality of being subjective”, referring to that of “relating to or of the nature of an object as it is known in the mind as distinct from a thing in itself” (2008: Internet). However, Michel Foucault refers to subjectivity as the “sense of self” with the importance of discovery “how subjects are constituted through a multiplicity of representations.” (Thronham & Purvis 2005: p.57).

With the shift of culture in the society, “television drama has [also] seen a shift away from the depiction of external social/political realities to a more self-reflexive, multidimensional and subjective form.” (Creeber 2004: p.14)

“Subjective narration” on the other hand, uses the camera and other televisual modes to create an internal perception of the character, where we can see the point of views of the characters to form our own perceptions on what is going on. This is depicted in dreams, and the use of close-up shots as an “instrument of propaganda” to decontextualize the personal on television (Nelson 1997: p.46). The use of the close-up and extreme close-up shots in these serial narratives aid in the formation of cliffhangers and is used as an “emotive power” on the audience (Nelson 1997: p.46).

The meaning of the question
Therefore, to put all these definitions together, the question, in layman terms, is asking how serial television narratives in terms of text and genre, creates a multi-layered/faceted/dimensioned and disproportioned sense of self.


Treating the whole television culture as Karl Marx’s notion of the commodity is to treat the television medium as a something transcendent.

If Neil Postman says that “A technology is merely a machine, a medium is the social and intellectual environment a machine creates” (Nelson 1997: p.26), then television is the machine, and the serial, is the environment that this machine creates.

He also contends though, that “technologies are not neutral, and that modern television is disposed to be a visual medium” (Nelson 1997: p.26). And as Thronham & Purvis believes that “narrative orderings of stories are never neutral” (2005: p.35), this suggests that the machine and its workings inside it are all not neutral, creating the subjective.

As the television reflects the culture of the people, thus this machine is an assemblage of cultures, and these “machines arrange and connect flows’ (Guattari 1996: p. 153). These flows are the inputs and outputs of information between the serial narratives and the audiences sucked into this machine.

With the connected flows, this serial machine is therefore known as “Body without Organs” (BwO), a notion by Gilles Deleuze, and refers to the machine as a body, which is organ-less, but works through the dynamics that work within it, and in this case, is the serial narratives and the self’s constant change in semiotics which moves in circularity.

As the culture within the society changes, audiences are affected in their behaviour, thinking and way of life, which is reflected in these serial television shows. When different aspects of other people’s lives are reflected in these shows, they affect the Other which thereby provides them with a different aspect and dimension into the realism of life. This is the process of the becoming, where serials and portrayal of people provide dynamism of life and the strong energy of change and alteration.

With serial narrative’s new forms, it now produces a “heightened form of realism that enable[s] it to explore and examine social and human issues in a more ‘authentic manner’.” (Creeber 2004: p.4)

When serials take their journey of equilibrium-disequilibrium-equilibrium in their storylines of problems and resolutions, it causes non-linearity in culture visualization (McKinley 1997: p.23).

This constant incarnation of the serial then creates a multi-layered or non-linear sense of self when these people reflect on their life and change accordingly. This thus causes the initial subject to be disproportioned like that of the machine, which is known in a term of “machinic heterogenesis” by Felix Guattari (1995: p.2). Where one part of the equilibrium changes, the proportion of the other changes as well, which is similar to that of the Chaos theory.

This machine of television is fueled by ratings and their audience (self) is on the constant state of becoming as it seeks cultural identity where it tries to distinguish between realism and naturalism from what it sees on television.

This realism, developed by Raymond Williams, is depended on “a belief in an objective reality which we can experience accurately, represent authentically, and understand.” On the other hand, naturalism is the descriptive method which “positions us as observers of the material details of reality.” (Thronham & Purvis 2005: p.62)

However, both these terms are the experiencing and observation of what is perceived as the truth, known as a term “verisimilitude’, used by Tzventan Todorov on a film by Steve Neale. Neale the makes a further distinction in this term: between cultural verisimilitude and generic verisimilitude, [where] cultural versimilitude means conformity with then norms, values and expectations of the social world outside the text (or society’s ‘dominant ideological discources’)” and generic verisimilitude which operates on one hand a narrow sense of conforming with the rules of a particular genre, and on a broader sense, playing with the fantasy “which might seem to be outside our expectations of ‘reality’.” (Thronham & Purvis 2005: p.64)

The self also goes through a state of mimesis and referentiality where referentiality “claims to tell us something about the world outside” and mimetic “when it makes appeal to the verbal conventions by which we ‘imitate’ the world outside.” Though the differences are subtle, the distinctions between them are crucial as “a mimetic text is one that borrows the strategies of imitation and may intend to be referential or it may not.” The textual strategy of the mimetic, with the “immediacy of television’s flow”, “may induce credibility by seeming transparently to offer a truth-to-life”, which appeals to the accessible and vulnerable mind of the self (Nelson 1997: p.102).

The self is also affected by when you live with the series, and with new technology being sucked into this machine, including the globalization and creation of the internet, where these serial narratives are readily available with the click of a button, and also the creation of DVDs, time (a characteristic previously mentioned in serials), has changed in a way that the serials can now be watched one after another, providing the self with an overload of naturalistic or realistic narratives to affect its own perception of its identity.
The continuous reception of seriality is also seen through the broadcasting of “uninterrupted stream of programs for up to twenty-four hours per day” (Nelson 1997: p.21), seven days a week, and even though an episode of the serial may take up only an hour a day, the quick succession into the next show with different storyline and new information can affect the audience’s interpretation of the ‘self’ again.

New technology also causes the self to participate even more closely with the serial machine by fansites on the internet. This is an environment where people who are involved in this serial machine, and when the machine becomes smaller into their own individual show machine, can come together to discuss their opinions about the show. This fandom allows the self to provide the serial machine with what they want to see and their own opinions on how the serial should go.

In Robin Nelson’s “Tv Drama in Transition”, he refers to Skovmand and Schroder, who says that “the conceptualization of television as flow rather than as strings of distinct texts further emphasizes that such notions as intertexuality and meta-fictionality are central to any conceptualization of what is happening between audiences and television screens.” (1997: p.22)

However, there is never one interpretation of the narrative to the subject. In Barthes’ model, it shows “how meanings encoded by producers are never simply decoded in any one way. Whilst these ‘dominant’ or preferred readings can never be ignored, there may be other readings which resist, contest or misinterpret the encoders’ ‘intention’ as it is realized in the program.” (Thronham & Purvis 2005: p.35)

Jennifer Hayward then ties this machine together by saying that “audiences’ social practices play an important role in helping to produce the narratives picked up and then naturalized by the mass media. To complete the circle, serial fictions, as mass-produced texts reaching audiences that in some cases number as high as one-fourth of a nation’s population, in turn work to shape the social practices of their audiences.” (1997: p.20) This is known as an “obsessive circularity” (Langford 2005: p.17).

Barthes’ theory of inoculation, is applicable to Deleuze’s “Body without organs”, where “inoculation is the process in which the physical body takes into itself a controlled dose of a disease that threatens in it order to strengthen its defences against that disease.” (McKinley 1997: p.26) Therefore, the serial narrative texts represents the disease that affects the self’s perception of its own identity which then affects culture.

Therefore, with reference to the works of Barthes and Foucault, the serial narrative text are “bound up with ideologies, histories and myths that are never neutral… but the particular inflections and emphases of the text’s form (its signifiers) are always unstable, never able to contain a final meaning.” (Thronham & Purvis 2005: p.43)

In conclusion, with this ever changing serial narrative, there is never one constant output this machine produces, and due to differences in reception, it creates a multi-layered and constantly changing influence on the subjectivity to the self.

References & Bibliography

American Psychological Association (APA): non-linear. (n.d.). Jargon File 4.2.0. Retrieved June 02, 2008, from website:

American Psychological Association (APA): subjectivity. (n.d.). Unabridged (v 1.1). Retrieved June 02, 2008, from website:

Cantor, Paul A. 2008, ‘Jack in Double Time’, in 24 and Philosophy: The World According to Jack, Jennifer Hart Weed, Richard Davis & Ronald Weed (eds), MA, Oxford, Victoria: Blackwell Publishing.

Dolan, Marc 1995, ‘Peaks and Valleys of Serial Creativity’, in Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, David Lavery (ed), Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Geraghty, Christine 1981, ‘The Continuous Serial – A Definition’, in Coronation Street, Richard Dyer, Christine Geraghty, Marion Jordan, Terry Lovell, Richard Patterson, John Stewart (eds), London: BFI Publishing.

Glen, Creeber 2004, ‘Introduction. From small to big drama’, in Serial Television: Big Drama on the Small Screen, London: BFI Publishing.

Giddings, Robert & Selby, Keith 2001, ‘Definitions, Early History: the Classic Drama Serial’, in The Classic Serial on Television and Radio, New York: Palgrave.

Guattari, Felix 1995, ‘Machinic Heterogenesis’, in Chaosmosis: an ethico-aesthetic paradigm, P. Bains and J. Pefanis (trans.). Sydney: Power Publications.

Hayward, Jennifer 1997, ‘Introduction’, ‘Mutual Friends: The Development of the Mass Serial’, in Consuming Pleasures: Active Audiences & Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky.

Kaveney, Roz 2002, ‘She saved the world, a lot’, in Reading the Vampire Slayer: An Unofficial Critical Companion to Buffy & Angel, London & New York: Tauris Parke Paperbacks.

Langford, Barry 2005, ‘Our usual impasse’, in Popular television drama: Critical Perspective, Jonathan Bignell & Stephen Lacey (eds), Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press.

McKinley, E. Graham 1997, ‘Watching Beverly Hills, 90210’, in Beverly Hills 90210: Television, Gender & Identity, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Meehan, Eileen R. 1990, ‘Why we don’t count: The commodity audience’, in Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism, Patricia Mellencamp (ed), Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Nelson, Robin 1997, ‘From Electronic Theatre to… Cyberspace?’, ‘Flexi-Narrative from Hill Street to Holby City: Upping the Tempo;Raising the Temperature’, ‘TV Drama Forms: Tradition and Innovation: Gradual (Un)realizations’, in TV Drama in Transition: Forms, Values & Cultural Change, Great Britain: Macmillan Press Ltd.

Self, David 1984, ‘Genres and Media’, in Television Drama: An Introduction, London: Macmillian Publishers Ltd.

Thronham, Sue & Purvis, Tony 2005, “Stories & Meanings”, in Television Drama: Theories and Identities, New York: Palgrave Macmillian.

Youtube 2008. ‘How I Met Your Mother 3×18 – Lilys flashback’. Retrieved 05 June 2008 from

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Youtube 2008. ‘How I Met Your Mother in 3 Minutes!’. Retrieved 05 June 2008 from

Youtube 2008. ‘Gossip Girl Official Teaser Trailer’. Retrieved 05 June 2008 from

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