During a narrative discourse, accessibility of the referents is rarely fixed once and for all. Rather, each referent varies in accessibility as the discourse unfolds, depending on the presence and prominence of the other referents. This leads the speaker to use various referential expressions to refer to the main protagonists of the story at different moments in the narrative. This study relies on a new, collaborative storytelling in sequence task designed to assess how speakers adjust their referential choices when they refer to different characters at specific discourse stages corresponding to the introduction, maintaining, or shift of the character in focus, in increasingly complex referential contexts. Referential complexity of the stories was manipulated through variations in the number of characters (1 vs. 2) and, for stories in which there were two characters, in their ambiguity in gender (different vs. same gender). Data were coded for the type of reference markers as well as the type of reference content (i.e., the extent of the information provided in the referential expression). Results showed that, beyond the expected effects of discourse stages on reference markers (more indefinite markers at the introduction stage, more pronouns at the maintaining stage, and more definite markers at the shift stage), the number of characters and their ambiguity in gender also modulated speakers' referential choices at specific discourse stages, For the maintaining stage, an effect of the number of characters was observed for the use of pronouns and of definite markers, with more pronouns when there was a single character, sometimes replaced by definite expressions when two characters were present in the story. For the shift stage, an effect of gender ambiguity was specifically noted for the reference content with more specific information provided in the referential expression when there was referential ambiguity. Reference content is an aspect of referential marking that is rarely addressed in a narrative context, yet it revealed a quite flexible referential behavior by the speakers.
Keywords: accessibility; collaboration; discourse; interaction; referential choices; referential complexity; storytelling; visual salience.