Fabula and Syuzhet are a set of Russian terms where, as far as English-speakers are concerned, their Russian-twang handily outweighed their usefulness. Formalists Vladimir Propp and Viktor Shklovsky coined the terminology in the early 20th century, when very few forms of theory weren’t overly complicated and conversely too rigid to survive the coming decades without being bent. Let’s try to get to grips with them (and their significance to a modern screenwriter) here:
Fabula equates to the content, the events of a story, everything that you know happens in your work of fiction. The Syuzhet is the structure or chronology, or in a film’s case, you might say the edit. The material (Fabula) and how it is shaped into what the viewer sees (Syuzhet). This distinction between the reality of events and how they are referred to is attuned to the nature of written literature, where the Fabula is basically the narrative while the order in which the narrative is presented (the chronology) is the Syuzhet, but these can be a useful distinction in the realm of screenwriting. In all cases, Fabula is told, Syuzhet is telling.
A straightforward chronology where we follow events from beginning to end involves a synchronous fabula and syuzhet. Developments like flashbacks complicate matters but help to make the distinction clear. The Social Network plays out through a lawsuit concerning our key characters and their involvement in the founding of Facebook, flashing back to the characters in the past as events are being recalled.
Pulp Fiction plays hopscotch with the fabula, keeping a ‘pulpy’ crime anthology refreshing not only through its contemporary edge but by reordering the timeline of events. If a flashback provides context to communicate the themes pertinent to the conclusion of a film, Tarantino turns his thematic content into a prism, peering into it at odd angles, completely out of order.
As a theory in narratology this of course gives the upper hand to the fabula, as if the telling of a story is only a manner of reshaping the underlying fabula, rather than a means to an end. However, sometimes there are parts to the fabula that are left out in the syuzhet or concealed, most especially in crime stories where a case’s revelations are doled out with suspenseful precision. Consider a film like Memento, entertaining and enigmatic the first time you see it, as the fabula is worked out in reverse, but satisfying on subsequent viewings as well. The intrigue of the film comes down to Memento’s syuzhet (see the impossible to decipher diagram below, which additionally reveals one of the many, many spelling variations of syuzhet).
As creators fight to draw an audience in oversaturated media market full of viewers who’ve grown accustomed to traditional storytelling, complicated narratives have become more and more common. So, if you think you’ve got a fabula you’d like to work with, one with potential waiting to be crafted into a screenplay, it’s worth remembering that there are many, many syuzhets to consider for each story.