How to teach Narrative

Narrative theory is familiar and a relatively easy concept for teachers and students of literature. Narrative structures can be studied in works of literature, journalism, theatre, and all time based media like movies or television adverts. While many media text can be analyzed according to 'classic' narrative principles of storytelling, moving images and digital forms require also a new critical framework.

Film Narrative

What is narrative?
Narrative is the art of storytelling, something we all do every day. It is an important part of our lives and something that we value highly, if you consider the amount of time we all spend in front of television and cinema screens receiving narratives.

What makes cinema different from other forms of Media?
People often talk about film and television as if they are the same thing, but in fact they are very different in a number of ways.

In the cinema we are generally in a state of intense and relatively sustained attention. Think about this for a moment. The average film is about two hours long- a very long time to concentrate and yet there is something about the cinema which gives a film in this setting the power to take us over for this amount of time. Again think about the situation at home in front of the TV when you probably have all kinds of things distracting you from what you are trying to watch.

Where we see it:
We go into a large room with lots of strange people and they turn the lights off! There is an obvious sense of occasion about going to see a film. We are surrounded by lots of people so there is a sense of community, like at a football match or a concert, but at the same time we don’t know who most of them are and even if we are with friends we are unlikely to talk to them as much as normal. It’s a strange mix between loneliness and belongingness. This may all sound ridiculous but there is obviously something enjoyable about the cinema itself rather than just any particular film.

What do the filmmakers expect of you?
To summarise, because of all of these things, the makers of the film can expect you to be in quite a different state of mind to someone who just happens to be watching the film on TV at home. You will be expectant and curious, anxious to find out the solutions to the problems the characters face (the resolution of the problematic)

What effect does all of this have on the film makers?
Because they have you stuck there, excited and concentrating, they want to keep you in this same state as long as they can so the narrative of the film needs to be tightly organized and based around a single problem that will interest you and keep your concentration.

Syd Field the American screenwriter has said that in any good film, the audience will be grabbed by the first ten minutes- in that short time it is up to the film-makers to interest the audience while at the same time alerting them to what the film will be about and giving them a sense of what kind of film they have let themselves in for.

Short units of narrative- sequences of shots
We call a series of shots a sequence and it is a part of the language of film that we are all very used to- this is why we all see the same story in the pictures. We are used to seeing sequences which move back and forth between two characters and making the connections between them. Think about an example- we watch a man getting out of a car and looking up at a building, we then cut to another shot from inside a building of the same man walking in. No-one could doubt that it is the same building, the sequence of shots implies this.

All of these different sequences are joined together into a general structure of the film. They are joined together in a pattern which is called causality- one thing leads to another which leads to another. As you watch any film, you should be able to plot the pattern of causality throughout it, watching a structure develop of events providing the seeds for other events throughout the film. The best account of how this works to produce an overall structure for a film is given by the American screenwriter Syd Field in his book Screenplay.

Syd Field’s Three Act Plot Structure
Syd Field is an American Screenwriter who has made a lot of money during the last few years out of the theory you are about to read. This is because, unlike the other theories in this booklet, his ideas are not just intended as a way of analysing existing films, but also as a set of advice for potential film makers.

The typical Hollywood film, according to Field can be separated into three separate dramatic sections or acts: the setup, the confrontation and finally resolution. To move the action on from one act to another there are what he calls plot points- particularly important pieces of the plot, which turn around the lives of the characters, change their relationships with others and alter the tone of the film. Of course, films often have a number of plot points such as these, but Field points to two major ones between the acts and a less important one at the middle of the film.

The first act- setup
In many ways this act is the most important for Field. He claims that within the first ten minutes in particular, the audience will decide whether they like the film and will normally be unwilling to change their minds later. It is therefore vital for the film-maker to give the audience a sense in those ten minutes what the film is going to be about, who the main character is and why they should care about him/her and what they can expect in terms of style. In the rest of the first thirty minutes, the audience should learn the nature of the problem facing the hero although this can be left all the way to plot point one.

The second act –Confrontation
In this longest act of the film we see the main character in a number of more and more extreme problem situations where they confront their enemies normally quite helplessly. Often there will be a mid-point where they begin to turn things around and win what looked like a helpless struggle, but there is still a long way to go and at plot point two they will realise that the way they have been going about things is not working and they will be ready for…

Act three- resolution
The hero will finally take control in the struggles with their problems (often by going to confront the enemy on their own home territory) and will achieve a final, decisive victory.

adapted from Steve Baker "Film & Narrative"
Key Questions

Structure. How is the narrative organised and structured?

Characters. How are characters delineated? What is their narrative function? How are heroes and villains created?

Audience. How is the audience positioned in relation to the narrative?

Identification. What techniques of identification and alienation are employed?

Theme. What are the major themes of the narrative? What values/ideologies does it embody?

Other. What is the role of such features as sound, music, iconography, genre, mise-en-scene, editing etc within the narrative?

adapted from Julian McDougall, Programme Leader, Newman College of Higher Education, Birmingham, The Media Teacher's Book (Hodder, 2006) and co-author of A2 Media Studies for OCR (Hodder, 2002).