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Introduction to Narrative

Introduction to Narrative

In VCE Media, the study of narrative involves an examination of how narratives are organised, structured and engage audiences. Most teachers of VCE Media choose to study two films. Popular narrative texts include Psycho, Run Lola Run, American Beauty, Rear Window and Memento. Narrative is one of the most fascinating and fun areas of study in VCE Media. Every time you’ve parked yourself in front of the television to watch a film, every time you’ve forked over a handful of cash for a movie ticket and popcorn combo, you’ve been immersing yourself in the world of cinema and preparing for this moment.Students who plan to make a video for their School Assessed Task also get to start thinking about how professional filmmakers structure narratives to engage audiences. The study of narrative is a specialised area and, as a consquence, has specific terminology. To confidently discuss the way a narrative is structured and how it engages an audience, you will need to become familiar with these phrases and terms.

During your study of narrative, you will examine how production elements contribute to narratives. Production elements include:

• camera techniques, technologies and qualities for film and television or technologies and qualities for radio
• lighting
• mise-en-scene
• acting
• sound
• editing of vision and sound for film and television or editing of sound for radio

You will also look at the contribution that story elements make to narratives. The story elements include:

  • Cause and effect
  • Opening, development and resolution.
  • Point of view
  • Multiple storylines
  • Establishment and development of characters
  • Setting
  • Structuring of time

You can recall these by remembering the acronym COPMESS.

When you are studying Narrative, it’s probably a good idea to familiarise yourself with Hollywood three act narrative structure. Click on the above diagram to take a closer look at the structure of a traditional three act narrative according to Blake Snyder from Save the Cat and David Howard in How to Build a Great Screenplay.

Opening. The opening of a narrative typically establishes characters, setting, themes and engages the audience. It also features an event that starts the chain of cause and effect in the narrative.
Screenwriters call the opening of a narrative Act One. By the end of the first act, the protagonist reaches a turning point, where they have to commit to the action, raising a dramatic question that will be answered by the end of the film.

Development. In the development of the narrative, the characters attempt to resolve the conflict established in the opening of the narrative. Screenwriters often call this Act Two. This stage in the narrative is charactererised by rising action. Characters are forced to change and develop as they grapple with the conflict. This is often called a ‘character arc’.

Resolution. The resolution of the narrative is when all of the storylines are resolved and tied up. The question raised in the opening of the narrative is resolved. Screenwriters call this stage of the narrative Act Three. In this stage, the narrative reaches its climax – the most intense point. The characters have changed or transformed as a result of the narrative.

Cause and effect. Narratives are a series of events linked by cause and effect. Cause and effect is inseparable from character and audience engagement. In a narrative, characters trigger and react to events. What characters do and how they react is determined by the character’s traits. Part of the enjoyment of narratives is speculating about what characters will do and anticipating what will happen next.

Point of view. In narratives, the audience is encouraged to identify with the point of view of one or more characters. This identification is often achieved through a combination of production elements.

Multiple storylines. In films, there is usually more than one storyline. In many films, the protagonist has to deal with both external and internal conflict. Storylines are often related and/or intertwined. In The Bourne Supremacy, Jason Bourne becomes involved in a shadowy conspiracy within the CIA while coming to terms with the terrible things he did as a spy. Storylines are often related and/or intertwined. In Skyfall, James Bond struggles against a rogue MI-12 agent while coming to terms with M’s betrayal.

Character. Narrative and character are inseparable. In narratives, characters react to and trigger events. Characters, and the relationship between characters, can be established and developed using a combination of production elements.

Setting. In Film Art, Bordwell and Thompson define narrative as a “chain of events linked by cause and effect and occurring in space and time.” The setting is where the narrative unfolds. Films might have more than one setting. Sometimes, setting plays an important role in character motivation or might take on metaphorical significance.

Structuring of time. Films rarely occur in real time. Filmmakers often manipulate time – expanding and contracting it in ways that serve the narrative. You will be familiar with the following terms from Year 10 Media: linear narrateive, non-linear narrative, montage, fast motion, time-lapse, slow motion, jump cut, reversed footage, freeze frame, flash frame, split screen, smash cut, speed ramping, superimposition, whip pan, wipe by cut, audio match cut, visual match cut. You can read more about these techniques here: http://lessonbucket.com/media/year-10/day-in-60-seconds/

A good way to remember production elements is using the acronym CAMELS (camera techniques, acting, mise-en-scene and visual composition, editing, lighting and sound). It’s important that you can recall production and story elements quickly, particularly during the Unit 3&4 VCE Media Exam.

During your study of narrative, you will also look at:

• the relationship between texts and the genre/s, styles and techniques they may reference
• the interrelationship between production and story elements in the narrative organisation of fictional narratives to structure and communicate ideas
• appropriate media language and terminology.


Years of watching films and television means you have a sophisticated understanding of genre. Genre is simply a word that means ‘type’. Films are classified into different genres, such as: action, adventure, comedy, crime, horror, musicals, science-fiction, war, westerns and film noir. Each of these genres has particular narrative conventions. Audiences are very knowledgeable about the conventions of these genres. So familiar, in fact, that it’s easy to identify the genre of a film just by watching a few seconds.

Imagine this: It’s late at night and there is a car parked on the side of the road, wreathed in mist and surrounded by trees. Its sole occupant – a woman – looks around, panic stricken. “Rich?” she cries desperately, hoping that her boyfriend is responsible for the mysterious noises outside the car. Her breathing is ragged as she peers through the windshield. Trees rustle ominously in the darkness. She panics, fumbling with the locks and closing the windows. Intense, non-diegetic music builds towards a crescendo.

This twenty-five second clip is from an episode of the television program Supernatural. Although they might not identify the text, everyone who watches this clip easily identifies the genre. Horror. The low key lighting, intense non-diegetic music, mise-en-scene and setting are all conventions of the horror genre.

Consider the relationship between the narratives you are studying and the genres that they belong to. Some filmmakers deliberately play on expectations of genre to engage audiences. There are other cases when audiences enjoy narratives because they conform closely to genre conventions. In the case of romantic comedies, for example, audiences enjoy the resolution provided by a predictably happy ending.


The reception of a narrative is influenced by three factors: physical environment, technology, and audience knowledge and expectations.

The expectations and knowledge of an audience plays an important role in the way they engage with narratives. Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror film Psycho, is a great example of a filmmaker deliberately subverting the expectations of an audience. Midway through the narrative the main character, Marion Crane, is brutally murdered. This was particularly shocking because audiences conventionally expect characters to survive until the end of the film.

Audience expectations of a film are usually generated by the marketing campaign for a film. M Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable was marketed as a thriller, similar to his previous film The Sixth Sense. The film’s poor reception can possibly be attributed to audiences expecting a thriller when they were, in fact, watching a superhero narrative.

Reception, the conditions under which a narrative is viewed, also plays an important role in audience engagement. Movies are increasingly downloaded and watched on portable media players, such as iPods. Surely a viewer will have a different experience watching a film on their smart phone compared to the all encompassing experience of seeing it in a cinema. Likewise, audience engagement with a film might suffer if they view a poorly recorded bootleg copy of a film.

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is another example of how reception context can influence audience engagement with the narrative. The movie had six scenes filmed on an IMAX camera. According to numerous reviews, the print screened at IMAX cinemas was more dramatic and engaging than the original.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho also presents us with another interesting example of reception context. When the film was released, it was regarded as truly horrific and shocking. Modern audiences, however, respond to the film very differently because they have generally been exposed to much more graphic and shocking violence in more contemporary narratives. Psycho, therefore, often isn’t as engaging for modern audiences compared to when it was first released.


Rewatch the films you are studying for narrative. What did you expect the films would be like? What did you know about the genre of your films? Did the films fulfil your expectations? Were you surprised or engaged if they didn’t? Did you enjoy the predictability of the narrative? What were your favourite scenes? Often, these can provide interesting inroads into how your texts engage audiences.