Narrative Elements

You should be able to
differentiate between story and plot
differentiate between diegetic and non-diegetic
appreciate the role order plays in narration
understand the relationships between screen
duration and story duration
distinguish between major and minor
characters and appreciate their roles in story
appreciate the difference between surprise
and suspense
understand scope as relates to narrative
understand the difference between narration
and narrator
◦ It is the telling of a story, a structure
where the events are arranged in a causeand-effect relationship over time.
◦ “The king died, then the queen died of grief.”
◦ The filmmaker is the guiding hand that
determines which aspects of the narrative
will be presented, as well as the manner of
that presentation
Aristotle: three-part structure:
Beginning, Middle, End
Today: five-part structure
Exposition (including inciting incident)
Rising Action (development)
Climax (turning point)
Falling Action (transition - winning or losing)
Denouement (resolution/conclusion)
Jean-Luc Godard: “Yes, to the beginning, middle
and end – but not necessarily in that order.”
Todorov suggested that conventional narratives are
structured in five stages:
a state of equilibrium at the outset;
a disruption of the equilibrium by some action;
a recognition that there has been a disruption;
an attempt to repair the disruption;
a reinstatement of the equilibrium.
This type of narrative structure is very familiar to
us and can be applied to many ‘mainstream’ film
The total world of the story-including events,
characters, objects, setting, and sound that
form the world in which the story occurs is
called its diegesis; elements that make up the
diegesis are diegetic
The things we see and hear that come from
outside the world of the story are nondiegetic, such as background music, titles,
credits, voice over from omniscient narrator
Story (as opposed to Plot)
◦ All narrative elements explicitly presented on
screen, PLUS
◦ All the implied events that are not presented
directly, but which the audience infers (consider all
the time Andy spends in Shawshank that we do not
see, but which we can imagine)
◦ All diegetic elements (the world of the story)
◦ Plot is a structure for presenting everything we see
and hear in a film
◦ All diegetic material presented in certain order
◦ All nondiegetic material (outside the world of the
story, but available to the audience)
◦ (For instance, the music Andy plays for the men is
diegetic, while the score music accompanying red’s
quest is non-diegetic)
◦ Red’s voice-over in Shawshank is non-diegetic. It is
part of the plot of the film.
Plot, for the filmmaker, is the job of selecting events
that tell the story.
As an example, consider Cameron’s Titanic and how
the plot focuses on the story of Rose Calvert’s
diamond as a way of setting up and narrowing the
scope of the story. Everyone knew the story of the
Titanic, so he invented a back story to tell of Rose’s
diamond and how she came to possess it. THIS is the
plot of Titanic.
Consider how Shawshank compresses 20 years of
story time-from Andy’s arrival to their reunion in
Mexico- into a little over 2 hours of plot time.
While story order flows chronologically, plot
order can be manipulated.
◦ To emphasize importance or meaning
◦ To establish desired expectations in the audience
◦ To challenge, puzzle and delight the audience
Experimental narrative
from Christopher
Nolan that essentially
tells the story
backwards, at least in
The narrative structure
disorients the viewer,
just as Lenny, the
protagonist, is
disoriented by his
inability to make new
Citizen Kane begins
after Kane’s death, and
seeks to piece together
the puzzle of his life.
The story consists of a
series of accounts
related in flashback
(and flashback within
flashback) by those
who knew him
At the heart of the plot
is rosebud, his
mysterious final word
Quentin Tarantino
weaves 3 separate major
storylines together into
an overlapping tapestry
He then re-structures the
plot, boldly re-arranging
the order of the acts
The effect is to leave the
viewer disoriented and
sometimes confused, but
The Usual Suspects begins with a
simple premise: A man with a
powerful will can bend others to
his purpose.
But who is this man?
Who is Keyser Soze?
Every aspect of the story- told
out of sequence- serves this
central mystery. The film’s
ultimate resolution not only
resolves the story, but fulfills the
central premise.
Trainspotting follows
the life of Renton and
his relationship to
both his friends and
his drugs.
It employs an
episodic, picaresque
narrative structure,
but also a more
traditional narrative
In any plot, events have a logical order, and a
logical hierarchy.
Some are more important than others, and we
infer their significance through the selection and
arrangement of details of action, character, and
Even events that seem relatively minor can be
significant. We need to accept that every event
included in the narrative is there for a reason.
This minor event reveals the callous nature of the men, implying
that incarceration is dehumanizing; later, we will see them
evolve, under Andy’s influence
It shows the cruelty and indifference of the guards (particularly
Handley, an important minor character)
It establishes the strength of Andy by contrasting his strength
and silence to Fat Ass’s weakness
Establishes a connection between Andy and Red, who is forced to
re-consider the man he has bet on; this also sets up their
Finally, when Andy asks. “What was his name?” it sets up Andy’s
basic humanity, a thread developed throughout the film.
Events take time to occur. In most mainstream
films, plot duration and story duration are stable,
that is, the same.
Story Duration: the amount of time the implied
story takes to occur (Shawshank: 20 years)
Plot Duration: the elapsed time of the explicitly
Screen Duration: the movie’s running time
onscreen (Shawshank: 2:22 minutes)
presented events – the elapsed time of the plot.
(Shawshank: 20 years)
Plot Duration: Approximately 1 Week
(Thompson’s Research)
Story Duration: 70 Years (Kane’s life)
Screen Duration: 1 hour 59 minutes
Story duration = 1 week
Plot duration: 3 days out of that
Day 1
Day 4
Screen duration: 90 minutes
Day 7
Summary Relationship: screen duration is shorter than plot
duration (most common)
Example: Kane’s first marriage
Stretch Relationship: screen duration is longer than plot
duration (second most common)
Example: Odessa Steps scene of Battleship Potemkin
Real Time: screen duration corresponds directly to plot
duration (least common)
Example: High Noon (1952) and Rope (1948)
Surprise: the audience is taken unawares.
Suspense: the audience experiences anxiety
brought on by partial uncertainty.
Two men sit at a table. Unbeknownst to them,
there is a bomb under the table, set to go off at 1 o’clock. We
were shown the bomb before the men sat down. There is a
clock in the decor. It shows 15 minutes to one. The, as the clock keeps the time. The audience,
meanwhile, is in agony! (Hitchcock to Truffaut)
An incident that occurs once is accepted as just
part of the plot.
Repetition, however, suggests a pattern and a
higher level of importance. It encourages us to
pay attention.
It can signal that a particular event has meaning
or significance that should be acknowledged.
Can be done in several ways
◦ A character may remember something several times
◦ Flashbacks
◦ Slow-motion sequences (mythical quality)
defined as any image, audio or visual, that a
director periodically repeats in a movie to
help stabilize its narrative. By its repetition,
the image calls attention to itself.
Allows for some variation of pattern, but
should retain the integrity of the original
Shawshank uses this motif a few times:
Red has 3 hearings, followed by 3 “stamps”
the last of which varies the pattern
Red’s journey echoes Brooks’, and
consciously acknowledges it (so was Red)
We see an alternative version of Andy’s
planning of his escape, this time with the full
story revealed
Another critical aspect of narrative is scope,
that is the limitation placed upon the range, in time
and place, of the story.
Stories can range from the distant past to the
narrative present, or they can be narrowly focussed
on a short period of time, even a matter of moments.
They can take us from galaxy to another, or they can
remain inside a single room.
They can present a narrow perspective on their world,
or they can show us the world from a number of
Tree of Life took us back to the dawn of time
Shawshank showed us 20 years in prison
Cloud Atlas took us across place and time
Chaplin showed us 60 years in Charlie’s life
The Girl focused on the just the making of The Birds
The Truman Show gave us 30 years in Truman’s life
Saving Private Ryan focused on the larger narrative of the
Band of Brothers episodically sought to capture the
Normandy Invasion, and the smaller story of the attempts
to save Ryan.
American experience in Europe from before the Normandy
invasion to the last days of the European theatre
We instinctively understand that the camera is a
visual recorder – a visual narrator.
It can be omniscient or restricted (limited) in that it
reveal information to us only when a character
discovers it (Chinatown)
It can be limited to a physical point of view (what a
character may see) or it can be subjective to the
point if revealing mental processes such as
dreams, fantasies, etc.
Films may also have auditory narrators:
First-person narration from character in the film
(Shawshank or Terence Malick’s Badlands )
Voice-over narration from a detached voice who
is not a character in the film (Lemony Snicket)
Direct-address narration occurs when a character
breaks the fourth wall that separates us from the
film (Fight Club)
Round characters vs. flat characters
Frodo and Indi – flat or round characters?
Don’t think of the term “flat character” as
necessarily critical or derogatory.
Protagonist vs. Hero
◦ While some protagonists have virtuous qualities,
others may have a darker, more hostile nature.
 Opposes the protagonist
 Can be an individual or part of a larger group
 Or a force of nature
◦ All characters need motivation in order to be
believable, but occasionally some characters – often
the antagonist – have eccentric actions for which we
can identify no motivation…
… and with whom we (hopefully) do not have
any familiarity.

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