Film Narrative

In our discussion of form, we said that a film’s form included both narrative and stylistic elements. In this session we are going to focus on the narrative elements.

Humans are ‘the storytelling animal’ – it is through stories that we make sense of ourselves and the world around us. When we speak about films we, more often than not, mean narrative films – films that tell a story. Because stories are all around us (in life, literature, other films) we will approach a narrative film with a great many existing expectations. Further expectations will be aroused as we actively participate in creation of the film’s form: the ending has the task of satisfying or cheating the expectations prompted by the film as a whole. This session will consider how narrative form engages the viewer in this dynamic activity.

What is Narrative?

A narrative is defined by David Bordwell as ‘a chain of events in cause-effect relationship occurring in time and space’. Although causality (and time and space) is central to narrative, films may also make use of different principles, such as parallelism, whereby two separate lines of action are intercut in order to allow us to compare and contrast. Network narratives (Pulp Fiction, Babel, Crash, etc) – which show parallel lines of action and conceal causal links – are also increasingly popular.

In order to make sense of narrative, it is first essential for us to clarify the distinction between story and plot.


Story and Plot

The plot of a film is the explicit presentation of narrative (story) events along with additional non-diegetic material (credits, score, etc.). In film, diegetic elements are things within the ‘film world’ and non-diegetic elements are things outwith that world.  [A good way to think about this is to determine whether the film’s characters have access to the elements in question.] The story, then, consists of all of the explicitly presented events as well as additional things which we infer on the basis of the plot.

Cause and Effect

Usually the agents of cause and effect are characters. Characters – who may be flat or well-rounded – have particular traits (attitudes, skills, habits, tastes, psychological drives, etc.) which play causal roles in the story action and, as such, have a particular narrative function. Although characters usually provide the causal impetus in a film this is not always the case: some films (e.g. disaster movies) are set in motion by particular events. As human beings, we naturally seek to connect events by way of cause and effect – we look for causal motivation. Sometimes apparently minor details can, in fact, play major causal roles. Filmmakers can choose when to suppress causes (detective films, etc.) and provoke curiosity or whether to withhold effects and provoke suspense. Indeed, some films can deny us knowledge of causes or effects even at the end (leading us to speculate).

Time

In attempting to construct a film’s story from its plot we attempt to establish the chronology, duration, and frequency of events. As such, time is one of the central components which the filmmaker has at his disposal. Unlike in the real world, time can be compressed, stretched, and can run both forwards and backwards.

Temporal order: film plots can present events out of story order by way of flashbacks or flashforwards. Often past and present are alternated and flashbacks may themselves be presented out of chronological order. Indeed, even entire narratives can be presented in reverse chronological order (e.g. Memento, Irreversible). This reordering of events, by way of the plot structure, can can add elements of surprise, suspense, and emphasis to a story.

Temporal Duration: there is a sometimes complex relationship between story duration, plot duration, and screen duration. At a more specific level, screen duration can expand (stretch relationship), contract (summary relationship), or remain faithful (real time) to story time. By far the most common of these is the summary relationship whereby a particular plot event (e.g a train journey lasting several hours) will be conveyed on screen in just a few minutes.

Temporal Frequency: story events are generally presented only once in the plot, however, sometimes story events will be repeated in the plot treatment. At times this repetition can provide us with additional/ conflicting information: for example, in Rashomon (Kurosawa, 1950) the same event is shown from multiple perspectives. Repetition can also be employed to emphasise the significance of a particular event.

Space

Plot can lead us to infer other story spaces than those presented to us on screen. Screen space bears a similar relationship to plot space that screen duration does to plot duration.


Openings, Closings, and Patterns of Development

Films don’t just start and stop – they begin and end. A narrative’s use of causality, time, and space usually involves a change from an initial situation to a final situation. A film’s beginning (possibly medias res) provokes expectations and our search for causal motivations by setting-up a specific range of possible causes and effects. The portion of the plot that lays out important story events and character traits in the opening situation is called the exposition. Most patterns of development depend on how causes and effects create a change in a character’s situation. There is no set pattern of development but some common ones are the goal orientated and investigation plots. Time and space can also provide plot patterns. E.g. deadlines, flashbacks, single locales.

Films can combine various patterns of development – as a film trains the viewer in its particular form, viewer expectations become more and more precise. The middle portion of a film may cause suspense or surprise by delaying or cheating our expectations: a particularly fine example of the latter is From Dusk Till Dawn (Rodriguez, 1996). The ending of a film will typically seek to resolve causal issues that have run through the film by way of a climax, creating tension or suspense and formal resolution, which will result in emotional satisfaction. Some films, however, are intentionally anticlimactic. In such films we do not receive causal closure and are left uncertain about causes and effects. This particular form may encourage us to imagine for ourselves what happens next or to reflect upon other ways in which our expectations have been fulfilled.

Narration: the Flow of Story Information

Narration can be defined as ‘the moment-by-moment process that guides us in building the story out of the plot.’ It is the plot’s way of distributing story information in order to achieve specific effects: it may , as we have seen, withhold information for the sake of curiosity or suspense, or supply information to create expectation or suspense. The most important factors that enter into narration involve the range and depth of story information that the plot presents.

Range of Story Information: narration can be unrestricted (omniscient) or restricted and can achieve powerful effects by manipulating the range of story information. Unrestricted narration is when the viewer knows more than the character (but seldom everything), which helps build suspense. Restricted narration limits the viewer to what characters know (or less?), which helps create greater curiosity in the viewer and can lead to surprise. Films often utilise both restricted and unrestricted narration to a greater or lesser degree.

Depth of Story Information: narration can also manipulate the depth of our knowledge, depending on how deeply they delve into a character’s perceptual/ psychological states. Films which confine us only to knowledge of characters’ external behaviour are said to be objective. This can aid to withhold certain information from us – the character’s perceptions, feelings, and thoughts. When a plot gives us access to what characters see and hear (e.g. point-of-view shot) this gives us perceptual subjectivity. We might even hear a character’s mental thoughts or see images representing his thoughts, dreams, memories, etc.  When a plot plunges more deeply into the psychological states of a character this gives us what can be called mental subjectivity. Subjectivity can lead us to feel sympathy for a character, while access to inner thoughts can help us account for later behaviour or create expectations, etc.

Restricted narration need not mean greater subjectivity, nor does omniscience necessarily entail objectivity – range and depth of knowledge are independent variables. Most films insert subjective moments in an otherwise objective framework. Flashbacks may be motivated as mental subjectivity but once inside, events will typically be presented objectively and may even be unrestricted in conveying information that the character could never know (is this a flaw?). Some films effectively mix objectivity and subjectivity to create ambiguity.

The Narrator: narration may employ a narrator – some specific agent who purports to be telling us the story. A narrator may be a character narrator (popular from literature) or a noncharacter narrator (usually in documentary). Sometimes the identity of a narrator may be played upon. Both kinds of narrator may present different types of narration. For example, a noncharacter narrator need not be omniscient and might plumb subjective depths, while a character narrator may tell of events that he did not witness and relay little of his inner thoughts. Most films, however, do not employ a specific narrator (character or noncharacter); rather, films provide their narration by way of a camera narrator.

The Classical Hollywood Cinema

Classical Hollywood film depends on the assumption that action will spring primarily from individual characters as causal agents. Protagonists will have desires, which will set up goals, and counterforces (e.g. an antagonist) will oppose these goals, creating conflict. These forces will have to be overcome in order to reach resolution. As cause and effect imply change, characters’ desires for something to be different are an important factor here. Time, in Hollywood cinema, is subordinate to the causal chain: what is shown; omitted, chronology; etc. will all be dependent on expressing the cause-effect chain most effectively. Hollywood narration tends to offer an objective framework against which levels of subjectivity are measured. It is generally fairly unrestricted – even when focusing on individual characters we will be party to things they do not see, hear, or know. Also, most Hollywood narratives provide closure: causal chains are completed, questions answered, mysteries solved, and loose ends tied up, almost always with a happy ending. However, as we will see, not all films follow Hollywood conventions – there are many examples of films that include superfluous information or deadtime, or that play with chronology to puzzle us, or leave endings loose, open, or ambiguous.

Summary

In looking at any narrative film, such questions as these may help in understanding its formal structures:

  • Which story events are directly presented to us in the plot, and which must we assume or infer? Is there any nondiegetic material given in the plot?
  • What is the earliest story event of which we learn? How does it relate to later events through a series of causes and effects?
  • What is the temporal relationship of story events? Has temporal order, frequency, or duration been manipulated in the plot to affect our understanding of events?
  • Does the closing reflect a clear-cut pattern of development that relates it to the opening? Do all narrative lines achieve closure, or are some left open?
  • How does the narration present story information to us? Is it restricted to one or a few characters’ knowledge, or does it range freely among the characters in different spaces? Does it give us considerable depth of story information by exploring the characters’ mental states?
  • Who is the narrator in the film? Does it have a character or non character narrator? Or should we consider the camera as narrator?
  • How closely does the film follow the conventions of the classical Hollywood cinema? If it departs significantly from those conventions, what formal principle does it use instead?

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