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Narrative Structure

Craig Middleton

on 1 June 2017

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Transcript of STORYTELLING

Cloverfield (2007)
a note on

exemplifies what narrative theorists call restricted narration. In the narrowest case of restricted narration, the film confines the audience’s range of knowledge to what one character knows. Alternatively, as when the characters are clustered in the same space, we’re restricted to what they collectively know. In other words, you deny the viewer a wider-ranging body of story information...
Night of the Living Dead
(2002), and
War of the Worlds
(2005) do much the same with a confined group, attaching us to one or the other momentarily but never straying from their situation” (Bordwell 2008).
Restricted narration can be found in many thrillers, including
The Usual Suspects
(2006) and
(2000) ("one of the most novel and most conformist films of recent years).

Following the death of his wife,
’s protagonist Leonard Shelby is afflicted with anterograde amnesia, the inability to form memories. The film links this condition to a formal strategy of telling its main story backward. So one string of events first shows Leonard murdering a man, then shows the action that preceded the murder, then shows the action that preceded that, and so on.
The unreliable narrator in
Memento -

He spends the majority of the film confused, as does the viewer. The narrator, which takes the form of a few shady characters, is soon exposed as being unreliable, so we cannot trust or believe the information, as neither can he. The filmmaker uses restricted narration to take us on journey towards the truth, or at least a resolution. The unreliable narrator provides twists in the plot and helps to build tension and suspense.
Fight Club
(1999), the protagonist, who is also the narrator, manifests another
personality in the form of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). We learn this, as the narrator does, towards the end of the film, though we are given hints throughout. Upon multiple viewings the hints are rather obvious.

Narration in
Sunset Boulevard
"The film noir genre of the 1940s and early 1950s...stepped into a dark, immoral, and deviant world that was not displayed in other categories of films. Directors depicted villains full of deceit, paranoia, murder, and greed, crontasting the films' heroes who are weak, confused, and susceptible to the charms of a beautiful woman. In
Double Indemnity
(1944) and
Sunset Boulevard
(1950), director Billy Wilder uses a variety of noir themes. The entrapment of the male character, moods of claustrophobia and despair, as well as the power and greed of the domineering femme fatale in both of Wilder's films enhance the dark sinister appeal of film noir.

In both
Double Indemnity
Sunset Boulevard
, Billy Wilder uses the first person narrative device to accomplish several things. Initially it creates a distance between the narrator and the viewer as the events described have already happened in the past. In addition, the narrator guides the viewer through the labyrinth of deceit, manipulation, lust, and greed that he has already been a part of through a series of flashbacks or dreams. An aspect of film noir in both films is the focus on the inner psyche of the male character being trapped in a world of fear. His narration of the story relieves some of this burden from the audience.

Sunset Boulevard
, the narration takes on an existential form. Struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis tells this story of entrapment, greed, and deceit while dead, face down in a Beverly Hills swimming pool. Wilder uses Gillis' death as an even stranger distancing device, similar to that of
Double Indemnity
, as the story is told in first person and the viewer has a different perspective of the film to one that would be told either without a narrator in the film, or by with a third person narrative format (Ferdman 2011).
Restricted narration ties you to a limited range of knowledge about the story action; unrestricted narration expands that range, often presenting action that no single character could know about (Bordwell 2008).
To complicate things, another string of events, consisting mostly of Leonard brooding in his motel room and talking on the phone, unfolds in chronological order and alternates with the reverse-order scenes. The forward-moving sequences lead up to the last event we see in the reversed scenes (which is the first event in that string if we arrange the scenes in chronological order).

Nolan’s real achievement...is to make his reverse-order plot conform to classical plot structure and film-noir twists (Bordwell 2006).
We can consider a
to be
a chain of events in cause-effect relationship occurring in time and space
. Typically, a narrative begins with one situation; a series of changes occurs according to a pattern of cause and effect; finally, a new situation arises that brings about the end of the narrative. We make sense of the narrative then, by identifying its events and linking them by cause and effect, time and space.

As viewers, we do other things as well. We often infer events that are not explicitly presented, and we recognise the presence of material that is extraneous to the story world.

contains the set of all events in a narrative, whether they are explicitly presented or inferred. The
is everything that is visibly and audibly present in the film, during the actual time period one would watch the film. All the components of our definition-causality, time, and space are important to narratives in most media, but causality and time are central.

The fact that a narrative relies on causality, time, and space does not mean that other formal principles cannot govern the film. For instance, a narrative may make use of parallelism, which posits a similarity among different elements.
The Wizard of Oz
made the three Kansas farmhands parallel to Dorothy’s three Oz companions. A narrative may cue us to draw parallels among characters, settings, situations, times of day, or any other elements (Bordwell & Thompson 2008).
Pulp Fiction
(1994) begins and ends with stages of a restaurant hold-up – seemingly a conventional frame story. Yet in fact the final event to occur in the story – the Bruce Willis character fleeing Los Angeles – happens well before the last scene. The reordering of events is startling and confusing at first, but is dramatically effective in the way the conclusion forces us to rethink events we have seen earlier.
As the screenplay’s subtitle, “Three stories… About one story,” suggests, Tarantino and Avery are interested in exploring the intersections and interpretations between people, places, and actions...
Pulp Fiction
‘s emphasis on story and story telling indicates a discernable interest in time or, more precisely, different aspects of time in cinema.

With its fractured narrative structure, for example,
Pulp Fiction
exploits film’s unrivaled facility for temporal construction and (re)ordering. As Ralph Stephenson and J. R. Debrix observe “the cinema can repeat, prolong, abbreviate, or reverse the events on the screen. Past, present, and future time can be mixed in any order. A film breaks up the continuity of time in the real world, and out of the physical time of reality creates an abstract
film time
.” (Stephenson and Debrix, 1976: 124) Pulp Fiction explores this abstract film time in a provocative, yet accessible and thoroughly enjoyable fashion.
Pulp Fiction
revels in cinema’s ability to upset, reorder, and erase time. In Jack Rabbit Slim’s, and even more dramatically in the film’s closing moments, Pulp Fiction does nothing less than raise the dead. Visual culture in general, and film in particular, are particularly adept at creating this timeless present: a temporal order that conflates the past with the present (Howley 2007).

Pulp Fiction
introduces a startling shift in temporal order without warning or motivation and it brings its two main characters (played by Bruce Willis and John Travolta) together only for one fleeting encounter in a bar before the long-delayed moment when one kills the other. (Thompson, 1999).

Having diffused a potentially lethal situation and successfully retained Marsellus’ briefcase, Jules and Vincent exit the coffee shop triumphantly; notwithstanding the fact that Vincent was killed by a fatal shot gun blast in the previous reel. No doubt acknowledging his audience’s nostalgic attachment to John Travolta...Tarantino resurrects the beloved star...Thus, by rearranging the temporal order of his story/stories, and especially with Vincent’s dead man walking routine that closes the film, Tarantino treats his audience to that most time-honored of Hollywood conventions: the happy ending. Viva Vincent Vega! (Howley 2007).
"In the first section (of
Reservoir Dogs
), up until Mr.Orange shoots Mr. Blonde, the characters have far more information about what's going on than you have - and they have conflicting information. Then the Mr. Orange sequence happens and that's a great leveller. You start getting caught up with exactly what's going on, and in the third part, when you go back into the warehouse for the climax you are totally ahead of everybody - you know far more than any one of the characters."
- Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino reflects on the original 'non-linear structure' of his script for Tony Scott's
True Romance
(1993). It's interesting how Tarantino's original script followed the same 'restricted to unrestricted narration' structure as his
Reservoir Dogs
Tarantino uses this prop to discuss cinema as an art form (from 2.14)
Films such as
Lost Highway
Fight Club
Donnie Darko
(2010) and
Source Code
(2011), in their use of multiple draft plotting...represent a new form of narrative structure in Hollywood (according to Warren Buckland 2009).

Mind game films at the narrative level, offer - with their plot twists and narrational double-takes - a range of strategies that could be summarised by saying that they suspend the common contract between the film and its viewers, which is that films do not lie to the spectator, but are truthful and self consistent within the premises of their diegetic worlds, that permit, of course, 'virtual worlds, impossible situations and improbable events (Elsaesser 2009).
David Bordwell describes the spectator’s activity in constructing a narrative in the following terms:

Presented with two narrative events, we look for causal or spatial or temporal links. The imaginary construct we create, progressively and retrospectively, was termed by the Formalists the fabula (sometimes translated as ‘story’). More specifically, the fabula embodies the action as a chronological, cause-and-effect chain of events occurring within a given duration and spatial field. … The fabula is thus a pattern which perceivers of narratives create through assumptions and inferences. It is the developing result of picking up narrative cues, applying schema, framing and testing hypotheses. … It would be an error to take the fabula, or story, as the profilmic event. A film’s fabula is never materially present on the screen or soundtrack. … What is given? … The syuzhet (usually translated as ‘plot’) is the actual arrangement and presentation of the fabula in the film. It is not in the text in toto. It is a more abstract construct, the patterning of a story as a blow-by-blow recounting of the film could render it (Bordwell 1985: 49-50).
This sort of unreliable narration has become an increasingly common cinematic narrative strategy since the 1990’s. Because of its “mainstream” status,
Fight Club
stands as a key text in a developing narrational mode of cinema that radically departs from classical Hollywood narratives through the use of dramatic deception of the spectator––yet manages to straddle both art-house and mainstream acceptance (Church 2006).
Martin Scorsese on Storytelling:
Documentary vs. Narrative
The three-act structure is an old principle widely adhered to in storytelling today. It can be found in plays, poetry, novels, comic books, short stories, video games, and the movies. It was present in the novels of Conan Doyle, the plays of Shakespeare, the fables of Aesop, the poetry of Aristotle, and the films of Hitchcock. It’s older than Greek dramaturgy. Hollywood and Broadway use it well.

Though quite simple, the three-act structure has proven to be a valuable weapon in the arsenal of any screenwriter. Yes, there are alternatives to telling a story. But the three-act structure is a highly accepted and greatly successful method.
Act I: Setup
Act II: Confrontation
Act III: Resolution
The point of the acts is to make sure that the story evolves and the stakes get higher.
Kristin Thompson on the Four-Act Structure

Act One: The Set Up - 25-30 minute segment
Goal is conceived OR circumstances that lead to formation of goals is introduced
Capped by a turning point that introduces the complicating action

Act Two: The Complicating Action - 25-30 minute segment
Turning point may introduce a counter-setup--a new situation with which the protagonist must cope
Capped by a turning point that sends the plot in a new direction

Act Three: The Development - 25-30 minute segment
Protagonist's struggle occurs (many incidents create action, suspense, delay)
Typically, very little progress is made toward narrative closure
Ends when all premises regarding goals and lines of action have been introduced
Capped by a turning point that leads to the climax

Act Four: Climax - 25-30 minute section
Action shifts into straightforward progress toward final resolution
Key question: Will protagonist achieve goals or not?
Paul Schrader on the writing process:
First, you have to have a theme, something you want to say. It doesn’t have to be a particularly great thing, but you have to have something that’s bothering you. In the case of
Taxi Driver
, the theme was loneliness.

Then you find a metaphor for that theme, one that expresses it. In
Taxi Driver
, that was the cabbie, the perfect expression of urban loneliness.

Then you have to find a plot, which is the easiest part of the process. All plots have been done; they’re fairly easy, you just work through all the permutations until the plot accurately reflects the theme and the metaphor. You push the theme through the metaphor and you should come out with the plot.
the man who is constantly surrounded by people, yet has no friends. The absolute symbol of urban loneliness. That’s the thing I’d been living; that was my symbol, my metaphor. The film is about a car as the symbol of urban loneliness, a metal coffin.
I saw the script as an attempt to take the European existential hero...and put him in an American context. In so doing, you find that he becomes more ignorant, ignorant of the nature of his problem. Travis’s problem is the same as the existential hero’s, that is, ‘should I exist?’
The Limey
presents a straight-forward revenge plot, but uses an expositional montage technique that eschews continuity editing (Bordwell & Thompson 2008)
The Limey
(Soderbergh, 1999).
Sunset Boulevard
(1950) by Billy Wilder
We often infer events that are not explicitly presented, and we recognize the presence of material that is extraneous to the story world. In order to describe how we perform such activities, we can draw a distinction between

The set of all the events in a narrative, both the ones explicitly presented and those the viewer infers, constitutes the story.

The term plot is used to describe everything visibly and audibly present in the film before us. These are
elements because they are assumed to exist in the world that the film depicts. The film’s plot may contain material that is extraneous to the story world. The totality of the film can bring in nondiegetic material. Credits and extraneous music are
Story and plot overlap in one respect and diverge in others. The plot explicitly presents certain story events, so these events are common to both domains. The story goes beyond the plot in suggesting some diegetic events which we never witness. The plot goes beyond the story world by presenting nondiegetic images and sounds that may affect our understanding of the story.

From the standpoint of the storyteller, the filmmaker, the story is the sum total of all the events in the narrative. The storyteller can present some of these events directly (that is, make them part of the plot), can hint at events that are not presented, and can simply ignore other events.

From the perceiver’s standpoint, things look somewhat different. All we have before us is the plot - the arrangement of material in the film as it stands. We create the story in our minds on the basis of cues in the plot. We also recognize when the plot presents nondiegetic material.
Story - plot distinction affects all three aspects of narrative:
, and

Usually the agents of cause and effect are characters. Most often, characters are persons, or at least entities like persons. Characters also often possess character traits. In a film’s opening minutes, a character’s essential traits can be presented straightforwardly, and we come to know and sympathize with them. These traits are often, but not always, designed to play a causal role in the narrative.

Not all causes and effects in narratives originate with characters. In the so called disaster movies, an earthquake or tidal wave may precipitate a series of actions on the parts of the characters. See
as another example.
Any film's plot can withhold causes and thus arouse our curiosity. (See Horror and science fiction films). In general, whenever any film creates a mystery, it suppresses certain story causes and presents only effects in the plot. The plot may also present causes but withhold story effects, prompting suspense and uncertainty in the viewer.
In constructing the film's story out of its plot, the viewer is engaged in trying to put events in chronological order and to assign them some duration and frequency.

Temporal Order
We are quite accustomed to films that present events out of story order. A flashback is simply a portion of a story that the plot presents out of chronological order.
Temporal Duration
The filmmaker can manipulate screen duration independently of the overall story duration and plot duration. For example, North by Northwest has an overall story duration of several years (including all relevant prior events), an overall plot duration of four days and nights, and a screen duration of about 136 minutes. At a more specific level, the plot can use screen duration to override story time. For example, screen duration can expand story duration (time can be stretched or compressed).

Temporal Frequency
. Most commonly, a story event is presented only once in the plot. Occasionally, however, a single story event may appear twice or even more in the plot treatment. See
Pulp Fiction
(1994). (Also flashbacks and flashforwards apply).
In film narrative,
is usually an important factor. Akin to the concept of screen duration, besides story space and plot space, cinema employs screen space: the visible space within the frame. (framing as a cinematographic technique).

The flow of story information.

A plot presents or implies story information.
, is the plot’s way of distributing story information in order to achieve specific effects. Narration is the moment-by-moment process that guides us in building the story out of the plot. Many factors enter into narration, but here we’ll look at the range and the depth of story information that the plot presents.
Range of Story Information

Narration can be very
: We know more, we see and hear more, than any of the characters can. Such extremely knowledgeable narration is often called

Throughout certain films, a character can be present in every scene. With hardly any exceptions, we don’t see or hear anything that he/she cannot see and hear. The narration is thus
to what that character knows. This can be applied a number of characters in the same space.

Unrestricted and restricted narration are not watertight categories but rather two ends of a continuum. Range is a matter of degree.
In fact, across a whole film, narration is never completely unrestricted. There is always something we are not told, even if it is only how the film will end. The plot can shift constantly from character to character to change our source of information. Similarly, a completely restricted narration is not common. Even if the plot is built around a single character, the narration usually includes a few scenes that the character is not present to witness.
Restricted narration tends to create greater curiosity and surprise for the viewer. In contrast, a degree of unrestricted narration helps build suspense. Our superior range of knowledge creates suspense because we can anticipate events that the character cannot.
Depth of Story Information

A film’s narration also manipulates the depth of our knowledge - how deeply the plot plunges into a character’s psychological states. Just as there is a spectrum between restricted and unrestricted narration, there is a continuum between
A plot might confine us to a character’s external behavior. Here the narration is relatively objective.
Or we have access to what characters see and hear - from a character’s optical standpoint, the point-of-view shot, or hear sounds - sound perspective. We might call this
perceptual subjectivity
The plot can plunge deeper into the character’s mind - internal voice - or the character’s inner images, representing memory, fantasy, dreams, or hallucinations. This can be termed
mental subjectivity
. In such ways, narrative films can present story information at various depths of the character’s psychological life.

Range and depth of knowledge are independent variables.

Incidentally, this is one reason why the term point of view is ambiguous. It can refer to range of knowledge (as when a critic speaks of an “omniscient point of view”) or to depth (as when speaking of “subjective point of view”). It can also to refer to perceptual subjectivity, as in the phrase “optical point-of-view shot.” One final point about the depth of knowledge that the narration presents: Most films insert subjective moments into an overall framework of objectivity.
The Narrator

Narration, then, is the process by which the plot presents story information to the spectator. This process may shift between restricted and unrestricted ranges of knowledge and varying degrees of objectivity and subjectivity. Narration may also use a narrator; some specific agent who purports to be telling US the story. The narrator may be a character in the story. We are familiar with this convention from literature. A film can also use a noncharacter narrator: Noncharacter narrators are common in documentary.
Note that either sort of narrator may present various sorts of narration, restricted or omniscient.
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