The Narrative Structure

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Transcript The Narrative Structure

in every movie, the camera is the primary narrator
First-person narrator
voice-over narration (example)
direct-address narration (example)
Third-person narrator
• someone removed from the story provides info not accessible by
characters in the movie
omniscient (unrestricted access to all aspects of the story)
(example 1)
restricted (limits the info given, usually from only one
Almost all film narratives depend on two essential elements:
a character pursuing a goal
Each new character makes it possible to have a new take on
the same old story
• round characters – complex characters, change over course
of film
• flat characters – uncomplicated, few distinct traits, no change
(article, video)
Whatever type of character, narrative cannot exist if the character
does not have a goal
• gives the character something to do
• gives the audience a chance to participate/get involved
in the story by creating expectations
Protagonist – the primary character who pursues the goal
• sometimes referred to as a hero (not necessarily w/worthy
goals) (sample lists 1 2 3)
• as long as the protagonist actively pursues the goal in an
interesting way, viewer will be invested in the pursuit
• anti-heroes: unsympathetic protagonists chasing less than
noble goals
Narratives thrive on imperfect characters = imperfections
provide obstacles
• aka: character flaws
• character imperfections/flaws give characters more room to
→ a clearly motivated protagonist
→ pursues a goal
→ encounters obstacles
→ a clear resolution
Most narratives can be broken into three
basic parts: first act sets up the story,
second (and longest) act develops the
story, and third act resolves it
For a 120 minute film:
Tells what kind of story it is by establishing the “normal
• lays out rules of the universe we are about to experience
• a hook (think Indiana Jones)
• characters are established with something about the
protagonist’s current situation
Inciting Incident – something will occur to change the normal
world and set protagonist on pursuit/mission/quest…
• presents the character with the goal to drive the narrative
• most are easy to spot (w/in first 10-15 min) example (youtube)
• some goals shift (Star Wars: fist to rescue princess, then the
take on Death Star)
Second act is the story, or the pursuit of the goal (ie: Will
Dorothy ever get back to Kansas?)
• the impulse to learn what and how keeps the viewer engaged
• want the answer to be yes – but ironically, if goal was
quick/easily attained, the story is over: need conflict
• the story depends on obstacles
• Antagonist; nature of is varied, not always a villain, sometimes
not human (the rock in 127 Hours)
• the stakes need to rise – deeper we get in the story, the
greater the risk to the protagonist
• building toward a peak (rising action) building toward a turning
• at the peak, the goal is in its greatest jeopardy
Climax and solution, loose ends tied
• the climax comes when the protagonist faces this
major obstacle – it’s the most impressive event in
• best stories have an unexpected solution
• some continue to struggle in the third act but eventually
the story resolves
• resolution/dénouement
The King's Speech
The Matrix
Thelma & Louise
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
What’s wrong with the three act structure
But a good, brief explanation
Builds narrative structure and creates every
character, action, line of dialogue and the setting
• done with fewest lines possible
Each page of script represents one minute of
screen time
Must create compelling stories, engaging plots,
and fascinating characters, AND must understand
what is marketable
Story v. Plot
• stories may be common (Cinderella) but plots can change
(Pretty Women)
• bringing order to the events is one of the most fundamental
decisions filmmakers make
• with so little time, must decide what to include/not include
• plot can be manipulated so events are presented in nonchronological order (eg: Citizen Kane, Memento)
• despite this, most narrative films follow traditional
chronological order
• we infer the event’s relative significance through the director’s
selection and arrangement of details of action, character, or
Duration (Citizen Kane, story duration: 70+ years, plot duration: ~ 1
week, screen duration: 1hr, 59 min.
• story duration: amount of time the implied story takes to occur
• plot duration: elapsed time of the events within that story (the
time of the plot)
• screen duration: movie’s running time
• balancing the three is complex, presenting stories in a
relatively short amount of time
Surprise v. Suspense
• surprise: being taken unawares, can be shocking and our
emotional response to it is generally short-lived
• there are no repeat surprises; can be surprised the same way
only once
• suspense: more drawn-out experience, involves the audience
In a now-legendary 12-hour interview with Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock
explained the pivotal difference between surprising your audience and keeping
them in suspense. "We are now having a very innocent chat," said Hitchcock.
"Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath the table between us. Nothing
happens, and then all of a sudden, 'Boom!' There is an explosion. The public
is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene
of no special consequence."
"Now, let us take a suspense situation," Hitchcock continued. "The bomb is
underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen
the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to
explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that
it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this innocuous conversation becomes
fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is
longing to warn the characters on the screen: 'You shouldn't be talking about
such trivial matters. There's a bomb beneath you and it's about to explode!'"
"In the first case we have given the public 15 seconds of of surprise at the
moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with 15
minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the audience
must be informed."
• the number of times a story element recurs in a plot
• appearance more than once suggests a pattern = a
higher level of importance
Setting (time and place in which the movie takes place)
• provides essential contextual info that helps the
viewer understand story events and character
• adds texture to the movie’s diegesis
• the world of the film’s story