Narrative Theories


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. When we watch a film or TV or read we are receiving narratives.

We are going to look at narratives in Film & Broadcast Fiction although there are narratives in ads. and news items.

The narrative begins with the opening of the film or TV drama.

We are used to watching TV and films and getting meanings out of them and working out the plot or story is a key way we do this.

Plot and Story.

In Media Studies there is a difference between the meaning of plot and story.

The plot is what is present (visibly & audibly) in the film and in the order in which you get it.

E.G. Lord Pasta is found dead. Detective Bolognese is called in to investigate. She discovers the murderer was his nephew Douggie Spaggs who was next in line for the title and inheritance.

The story is all the things that happen in the narrative, both the ones that we see in the film and the ones we infer or are referred to. The story includes things that we can assume are happening (like eating and sleeping) which are not shown because they would be boring as part of the plot. It might include things we only find out later, such as Norman’s mental condition in Psycho.

E.G. Douggie Spaggs is short of money and kills his uncle to inherit but is caught by Bolognese of the Yard.

The plot of a thriller might include things in the wrong order – it might include flashbacks for example – and yet we try and work out the ‘solution’. We can only use the evidence in the plot. We would feel cheated if parts of the story were suddenly revealed at the very end that we couldn’t have possibly guessed.

The story of Pulp Fiction would be the film reassembled in the right order.

Think about:

  • Do we (as viewers) know more that the characters in the film or the same? (About some things, irrelevant to the plot, we obviously know a lot less.)
  • In a thriller or detective story, do we know who did it or are we working at the same pace as the detective? Do we try to get to the solution before Morse/Frost/Rebus/Poirot? Do we use the clues in the plot to work out who did it or media conventions? (e.g. the murderer is always the least likely suspect)
  • Give examples of dramatic irony.
  • How is suspense built up in a plot?
  • What is the effect of flashbacks on the building of suspense?

The Voice.

Another part of the construction of narratives involves the ‘voice’ telling the story.

A first-person narration will use “I” as the voice of the teller. Such a narrative cannot give the reader access to events that “I” could not have seen or been told. In a film or TV narrative they will need a voice-over to tell the story from a personal point of view.

A third-person or impersonal narrative is a story which seems to be written by God/Goddess. This is common in film or TV narratives where events seem to be unfolding before us.

  • Blade Runner was made in two different versions – with a voice-over and without (The Director’s Cut) Do you know why?

Narrative theories suggest that stories (in whatever media) share certain features (but particular media tell stories in different ways.)

Narrative theory 1: Propp

Propp looked at folk tales and saw some structures they shared in common. He found 8 character roles and 31 functions that move the story along.

The 8 character roles can also be types of action because they are not the sort of roles which appear in the cast list. One character in the film or play can occupy several of his character roles or types of action. They are:

  1. The villain
  2. The hero (not always good but always carries the story along, the central character and not always male)
  3. The donor (who provides an object with some special property)
  4. The helper (who helps the hero)
  5. The princess (the reward for the hero and object of the villain’s schemes)
  6. Her father (who rewards the hero)
  7. The dispatcher (who sends the hero on his way)
  8. The false hero

The 31 functions include events such as:

The hero is prohibited from doing something

The villain learns something about the victim

The villain is punished, etc.

  • Does this work for your favourite film? A Bond Movie? A news story? Star Wars?

Narrative Theory 2: Todorov

Todorov also saw underlying structures to narratives.

He argued that stories all begin in “equilibrium” when all forces are in balance.

This is disrupted by a problem to cause “disequilibrium”. Then more events take place before a “new equilibrium” is established.

Many film makers today don’t bother setting up the normal world in order to disrupt it with a problem (a killer shark, etc.) and go straight for the problem and disequilibrium. However, there will always be a sense in the film of what life was like before the problem came along and therefore what the characters can return to if they can only sort the problem out.

  • Does this work for your favourite film? A Bond Movie? A news story? Fatal Attraction? Jaws?

Narrative Theory 3: Barthes

Barthes suggested that narrative works with different codes which the reader tries to make sense of. The most obvious is the use of enigma codes. These are little puzzles which the audience needs to solve throughout the plot. This makes us work but gives us pleasure when we solve them correctly. The plot might need the solving a big enigma code but there will be little ones along the way.

Narrative Theory 4: Lévi-Strauss

He argued that all meaning-making, not just narratives, depend on binary oppositions – a conflict between two sides/qualities which are opposites.

E.G. Westerns where there can be many binary oppositions such as:

Cowboys Indians
settlers natives
Christian Pagan
domestic savage
weak strong
garden wilderness
The law outlaws
helpless dangerous
clothed naked
whites redskins
telegraph smoke signals

Ads. also use binary oppositions such as spots/Clearasil

Dirty/Persil, Daz/Brand X, young/old, dandruff/Head & Shoulders, etc.

Myths use binary oppositions all the time such as God/Devil, Good/Evil.

  • Make a grid, as above, for Sci-Fi films

Narrative Theory 5: Syd Field

Syd is a practicing screenwriter and his theory is more of a piece of advice for potential film makers. He is interested in the way one thing leads to another or causality. As you watch a film you should see a structure of events develop as things lead to other things.

Field says a typical Hollywood film can be separated into three separate dramatic sections or acts.

Act 1 is the setup. The first 10 mins is very important to grab the audience. If they like it in the first 10 mins they are unlikely to change their minds later. The film maker should show the audience who the main character is and why they should care what happens to him/her. They should see what style and genre the film is going to use. The next 20 mins show the audience the nature of the problem the hero has to face or this can be left to plot point 1.

Act 2 is the confrontation. The longest act shows us the hero in more and more extreme problem situations. He/she is helpless against the opposing forces. There may be a mid-point where they start to turn things around but not until plot-point 2 will they realise the way to succeed…

Act 3 is the resolution. The hero wins out (often by confronting the opposing forces on their own territory)

Where Act 1 becomes Act 2 and Act 2 becomes Act 3 there is a plot point – a particularly important piece of the plot which turns around the lives of the characters, change their relationships and alter the tone of the film. Films often have a number of plot points like these but Field points to two major ones between the acts and a less important one in the middle of the film.

  • Does this work for your favourite film? A Bond Movie? Speed? Fatal Attraction?

Narrative Theory 6: Stanley Kubrick

Director of Dr Strangelove, The Shining, 2001, and others had the theory that all you needed for a captivating narrative was seven Non-Submersible Units. These were scenes, images, actions, sounds or a combination of these that created a strong impression on the audience that they couldn’t ignore, shrug off or forget.

This is similar to the claim of a script writer of The Avengers that he thought of ten really good scenes and then found a plot that would link them up!

(Kubrick won lots of Oscars and got bums on seats and is viewed as a very important director if not an artist, so maybe he should be taken more seriously!)


6 Responses to Narrative Theories

  1. Pingback: Narrative Theories « Reniermedia's Weblog

  2. Bernie says:

    This really helped with my AS coursework, thank you 🙂

  3. Pingback: G325 Narrative | Media Studies

  4. Pingback: What Makes Something a Story? | MessageMakers

  5. Pingback: 25. Narrative Theory | Story of a Media Student

  6. Pingback: Tell a story – Sam Lyne – Blog

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