Narrative Films


I.                    Foundations of Narrative Films

a.       Narrative:  the art and craft of constructing a story with a particular plot and point of view.

b.      Main Features of Narrative

                                                               i.      Story—the subject matter or raw material of a narrative, the actions and events, usually perceived in terms of a beginning, middle, and end, and focused on one or two characters.

                                                             ii.      Characters—those individuals who motivate the events of the story.

                                                            iii.      Plot—orders the events and actions of the story according to particular spatial and temporal patterns (i.e., in medias res), selecting some actions, individuals, and events, and omitting others.

                                                           iv.      Narration—refers to the emotional, physical, or intellectual perspective through which the characters, events and action of the plot appear.  Sometimes narration is associated just with the action of the camera and occasionally reinforced by verbal commentary of a single individual, usually (but not always) someone who is a character in the story (First person narration).  In still other films, such as Gone With the Wind (1939), the narration may assume a more objective and detached stance vis-à-vis the plot and characters, seeing events from outside the story (third person narration)

II.                 Characters

a.       Character Motivation—characters’ thoughts, personalities, expressions, and interactions, focus the action of most films and propel their narratives.  In this sense, characters motivate the actions of a film’s story.  Their wishes and fears produce events that cause certain effects or other events to take place; thus, the actions, behaviors and desires of characters create the causal logic of a film narrative, whereby one action or event leads to or “causes” another action or event to follow.

b.      Character Coherence—the product of different psychological, historical, or other expectations that see people as fundamentally consistent and unique.

                                                               i.      The character coheres in terms of one or more abstract values, such as when a character becomes defined through his or her overwhelming determination or treachery.

                                                             ii.      The character acts out a logical relation between  his or her inner or mental life and visible actions, as when a sensitive character suddenly acts in a remarkably generous way.

                                                            iii.      The character reflects social and historical assumptions about normal or abnormal behavior, as when a fifteenth-century Chinese peasant woman acts submissively before men of power.

                                                           iv.      Divided characters

                                                             v.      Character Doubling

                                                           vi.      “The Singular Character”

                                                          vii.      Character Grouping

1.      Primary characters:  Protagonists and Antagonists

2.      Minor or Secondary Characters (usually associated with specific character groups—i.e., stock characters or stereotypical characters)

3.      Social Hierarchies and Collective Character

c.       Character Types—share distinguishing features with other, similar characters.

                                                               i.      Figurative types—characters so exaggerated or reduced that they no longer seem at all realistic and instead seem more like abstractions or emblems.

                                                             ii.      Archetype—a figurative type appears as a reflection of a spiritual or abstract state or process, such as when a character represents evil or oppression

1.      Ex.  Pappy O’Daniel in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

d.      Character Development—the patterns through which characters move from one mental, physical, or social state to another.

                                                               i.      Character development follows four general schemes:

1.      External Change—Typically a physical alteration.

2.      Internal Change—Measures character changes from within

a.       Ex:  Thelma and Louise—social re-appropriation characterized by both internal and external changes

3.      Progressive Character Development—occurs with an improvement or advancement in some quality of character

4.      Regressive Character Development—indicates a loss or return to some previous state or a deterioration from the present state.

III.               Plot:  Narrative Times and Places

a.       Diegetic and Nondiegetic

b.      Temporal Schemes

                                                               i.      Plot Order—describes how events and actions are arranged in relation to each other to create a chronology of one sort or another.

1.      Linear Chronology—the selected events and actions proceed one after another through a forward movement in time.

a.       Narrative Opening and Closing—how a movie begins and ends and the relationship between these two poles, usually creating a sense of closure or completion as with a journey being completed.  Ex:  O Brother, Where Art Thou?

b.      Deadline Structure—accelerating the action and plot toward a central event or action that must be completed by a certain moment, hour, day, or year.  Works to add excitement and tension.  Ex: 24

c.       Parallel Plots—The implied simultaneity of or connection between two different plot lines, usually with their intersection at one or more points.  Ex:  Lost, Serendipity

2.      Nonlinear Chronology

a.       Flashbacks and Flashforwards

3.      Narrative Duration and Narrative Frequency

c.       Narrative Locations—Plot constructions also involve a variety of spatial schemes, spaces constructed through the course of the narrative as different mise-en-scenes (indoors, outdoors, natural spaces, outer space)

                                                               i.      Space may be developed in four different ways:

1.      Historical Location

2.      Ideological Location

3.      Psychological Location

4.      Symbolic Space

d.      Narration—plots are organized according to the perspective that informs them.  Narration is the point of view that emotionally and intellectually shapes how plot materials appear and what is not revealed about them.

                                                               i.      First-person narration

1.      Voiceover

2.      Narrative Frame—sometimes signaled by a voiceover, this frame may indicate the story’s audience, social context, or the time period from which the story is told. Ex:  The Usual Suspects

                                                             ii.      Third-person narration

1.      Omniscient Narration—all elements of the plot are presented from many or all possible angles

2.      Restricted Narration—organizes stories by focusing on one or two characters

3.      Unreliable Narration—Questions the truth of the story being told

4.      Multiple Narrations—Films that use different narrative perspectives for a single story.