Prominent characters and events organize narrative understanding

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Readers understand a narrative by constructing a representation from a sequence of sentences. They must identify which parts of the narrative are most prominent in order to assign the appropriate referents to referring expressions and construct a coherent representation. The present experiments demonstrate that properties of the characters and events expressed by narratives are often more important for guiding referent assignment than the order in which these parts of narratives are mentioned. In particular, in congruent narratives, where the protagonist (i.e., the most important character of the narrative) participates in a foreground event (i.e., part of the narrative plot) and the nonprotagonist participates in a background event, readers chose the protagonist as referent for a subsequent pronoun, regardless of the order of mention of the events the two characters participated in. However, in incongruent narratives, where the protagonist participates in the background event and the nonprotagonist in the foreground event, readers were less confident and relied on the order of mention and status of events, choosing the nonprotagonist in a last mentioned foreground event and favoring neither character when the foreground event with nonprotagonist was mentioned first. When narratives more sharply delineated foregrounded from backgrounded events, readers were less confused and chose characters from foregrounded events. When narratives contained pronouns that referred to places rather than characters, readers chose referents from the last mentioned place regardless of the kind of character or event it was associated with. The results suggest that readers combine information about the characters, events, and places that narratives express with information about their order of mention in order to assign referents and that this process is part of the process of constructing a model that represents the world described by the narrative.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)304-319
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1985
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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