The distinction between the ‘fabula’ and the ‘syuzhet’ as it applies to storytelling was first made by members of the Russian Formalism school of literary criticism, popular during the 1910s and 1920s. The ‘fabula’ refers to the chronological order in which the events of a story take place: the timeline, in other words. The ‘syuzhet’ refers to the sequence in which the author chooses to relate those events, which we could describe as the storyline or the plot. In the film Citizen Kane, for example, the fabula is the story of Kane’s life, from birth to death. The syuzhet, on the other hand, starts with Kane’s death and continues as the story of a journalist investigating Kane’s life, interspersed with a series of flashbacks. By using this device the screenplay introduces a degree of mystery and tension that would otherwise be absent.
There is, of course, no reason why the syuzhet cannot be identical to the fabula, with the author simply relating the story in the order that the events occur. However, for most fabula there are many possible syuzhets – many different ways to tell the story – and it is up to the author to devise a syuzhet that grips the reader. Indeed one of the pleasures of reading is the satisfaction derived as the reader recreates the fabula from the syuzhet presented by the author.
This is why most crime stories start with the crime and work backwards. The narrative opens with a body, and the reader is invited to work alongside the detective in recreating the events that led up to the death. A particularly complex syuzhet is that of the film Memento, as analysed above by Dr Steve Aprahamian (click the image for more detailed information).
For the author, fleshing out the fabula can be very useful, particularly as the fabula often turns out to be the story told from the antagonist’s point of view. After all, it is usually the antagonist who instigates the story; without an antagonist to upset the balance, the protagonist would be left to live out his or her happy but boring life. Writing out the fabula in some detail can help you flesh out your antagonist and decide how best to tell the story. You can then start fleshing out the syuzhet, which effectively becomes your synopsis.
Remember too that not every event in the fabula need appear in the telling: often it’s enough simply to hint at it, or it may not need to be mentioned at all. The fabula is a chronological telling of all the events that might be relevant to the story; the syuzhet is a creation of the author, who can pick and chose and rearrange.