In VCE Media, the study of Narrative and Ideology involves an examination of how narratives are organised, structured and engage audiences. We also consider how these narratives comment on, reflect on, develop, reject or ignore ideologies present in the society that created them.
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 narrative and preparing for this moment. This is your chance to develop a better understanding of how narratives are structured and become a better storyteller.
The importance of narrative
Narratives are a fundamental part of being human. They entertain, instruct, inspire and challenge. We understand narrative structure from an early age as we listen to the stories told by our parents. When we wake in the morning, we take the random images of our dreams and turn them into narratives. We use social networking sites to tell stories about our lives through words, photographs, video and sound.
We are storytellers.
In The Psychological Comforts of Storytelling, Cody C Delistraty notes the importance of storytelling from a psychological and evolutionary perspective: “Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years, sharing them orally even before the invention of writing. In one way or another, much of people’s lives are spent telling stories—often about other people…Stories can be a way for humans to feel that we have control over the world. They allow people to see patterns where there is chaos, meaning where there is randomness. Humans are inclined to see narratives where there are none because it can afford meaning to our lives—a form of existential problem-solving.”
The importance of storytelling in human evolution and society might explain our obsession with narratives: binging film, television and novels is the same impulse that helped our ancestors to share knowledge and survive.
You’ve experienced thousands of stories in your lifetime – everything from everything from fairytales to Hollywood blockbusters. You intuitively understand story structure. Now is the time to formalise this understanding by delving deeper into narrative structure.
Hollywood is an industry built on storytelling. As a result, there are hundreds of books explaining how narratives are structured. You can learn a lot about story structure by studying screenwriting books. Now is your chance to check out books like Story by Robert Mckee, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder and How to Build a Great Screenplay by David Howard. Although these books differ slightly in their approach, they all describe the essential elements of narratives.
Three act narratives
Stories have a beginning, middle and end. This three act structure is a fundamental element of all narratives. Screenwriters refer to these stages as Act 1, Act 2 and Act 3.
In How to Build a Great Screenplay, David Howard uses the following analogy: “…in the first act you tie a knot, in the second act you tighten that knot, and in the third act, you untie it again.”
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.
The opening of a narrative typically establishes characters, setting, themes and engages the audience. It features a catalyst that sends the character on their journey. By the end of the Act 1, the main character reaches a turning point where they commit to the action.
- Establishing genre and tone. The opening of a narrative plays an important role in establishing genre and tone. When filmmakers establish genre, they enter into a contract with the audience. If a narrative doesn’t deliver on the promise of genre, the audience will be dissatisfied and disappointed. In a horror film, for example, expects suspense, a few scares and a hefty dose of gore. Screenwriters are responsible for delivering on these promises in a fresh and surprising way. In Story, Robert McKee reflects on the “genre sophistication” of audiences. Anyone who has ever seen a film that is too formulaic or cliched will understand how tedious slavishly following genre conventions can be. The burden of a screenwriter is delivering what is expected in a new and interesting way. Likewise, the tone of a film should be evident from the beginning. The mood established at the beginning of the film is a promise to the audience. Is the story optimistic or pessimistic? The opening scene of Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, 2016) is a masterful example of establishing tone. In the opening scene, three black, female mathematicians breakdown on the side of the road while travelling to work at NASA. A police cruiser pulls up behind them with its siren blaring, a white police officer gets out and approaches with a baton clasped in one hand. At the end of a tense conversation, the police officer provides a high speed escort to get them to work on time. “Three negro women are chasing a police office down the highway in Hampton Virginia,” says Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). “Nineteen sixty-one. Ladies, that is a God ordained miracle.” The screenplay delivers spectacularly on this tone: despite enduring racism and bigotry, the characters prevail by making a groundbreaking contribution to the space race.
- Establishing character. All stories are about a character trying to achieve a goal. Narratives always establish characters – their traits, motivation and goals – within the first act. To become involved in a story, the audience needs to know who the characters are and what they want. Establishing character also means establishing their flaws. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder calls these the ‘Six Things that Need Fixing’. By the end of the narrative, the character has usually resolved these problems. Characters always change. Screenwriters often refer to this change as a ‘character arc’. As noted in Writing Movies: “Another mark of protagnoists is their ability change. In pursuing their goals, protagonists meet obstacles that force them to adjust and adapt and, in turn, they grow or transform in some way. This progression is called an arc.”
- Establishing setting. The first act of a narrative also establishes the 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. Setting often plays an important role in character motivation or might take on metaphorical significance.
- Building empathy. In the opening act of a story, the audience will be encouraged to empathise with the point of view of the main characters. Remember that empathy is different to sympathy. Heaping misfortune on characters doesn’t encourage the audience to empathise with them. Most narratives will build empathy by showing events through the character’s eyes, throwing the audience into their world and giving them worthwhile problems to grapple with.
- The catalyst. At the beginning of a narrative, something occurs that throws the character’s world into turmoil. Most people don’t like change. Characters are no different. Something dramatic happens that starts their journey. This is often called the ‘inciting incident’. In The Big Lebowski (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998) The Dude becomes embroiled in a mystery when two men break into his apartment and pee on his rug. In 127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010), Aron Ralston is trapped underneath a boulder at the bottom of a ravine.
- Debate. In most narratives, the protagonist doesn’t immediately pursue their goals or commit to the narrative. Most go through a period of indecision. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder calls this stage The Debate. In Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell calls this stage refusing the call. In Aliens (James Cameron, 1986), Ripley initially refuses to join the team sent to investigate why Weyland Yutani lost contact with LV426. In Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995), William Wallace wants to continue being a humble farmer and refuses to take up arms against the British.
- Turning point. In Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell calls this moment crossing the threshold. It’s the moment when a character commits to the action and enters a dangerous or unknown world. In Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), this is the moment that Luke Skywalker discovers that his aunt and uncle have been murdered by stormtroopers and decides to follow Obi-Wan to Alderaan and learn the ways of The Force like his father. In The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001), Frodo Baggins crosses the threshold when he decides to leave The Shire with Gandalf the Grey.
Act 2 of a story is characterised by rising tension. Your characters pursue their goal but encounter setbacks and obstacles of increasing difficulty. When it seems all hope is lost, they find a solution to their problems which propels the story into its final act.
- Multiple storylines. Act 2 in a narrative usually involves multiple storylines. These subplots help to engage the audience in what is often referred to as the ‘sagging middle’ of a story. In narratives, the main storyline often deals with the main external conflict in a film wheres subplots often deal with relationships or romance.
- Rising tension. Act 2 is characterised by rising tension. Stories are fundamentally about characters who want something. In the second act, they go about achieving that goal but run into obstacles and setbacks of increasing difficulty.
- Midpoint. The middle of the film often includes what screenwriters call the ‘mid-point disaster’. It’s a dramatic event that raises the stakes. It can be a victory, defeat or combination of the two. If you skip to the middle of any film, chances are that you’ll find yourself in the middle of an incredibly suspenseful or dramatic scene.
- Dark night of the soul. As the narrative pushes relentlessly to the end of Act 2, characters often endure what Blake Snyder refers to as the ‘Dark night of the soul’. This is the moment when, after suffering a terrible defeat, it looks like their goal is as elusive as ever. From this desperation, the character often finds the solution to their problem and the narrative hurtles into its final act.
Act 3 is the most important part of a story. It is when the story reaches its most dramatic most intense point and the story is resolved. Typically, the resolution includes two important parts: the climax and the resolution.
- Climax. The climax is most dramatic scene in your film. The stakes are high and the character takes action to achieve their goal. What will they do to triumph? In a horror film, this is the most suspenseful scene. In a comedy, it’s the funniest. As McKee notes in Story: “If this scene fails, the story fails. Until you have created it, you don’t have a story. If you fail to make the poetic leap to a brilliant culminating climax, all previous scenes, characters, dialogue, and description become an elaborate typing exercise.”
- Resolution. Following the climax, the storyline is resolved. The end of a story doesn’t have to be happy but it must be satisfying. The resolution of a narrative – happy or sad, triumphant or bittersweet – should deliver on the promises of genre and tone established in Act 1.
Thinking about storytelling
When it comes to narratives, story conventions are only one part of the equation. You can learn a lot from professional filmmakers in terms of how they use cinematic codes – including camera techniques, acting, mise en scene, editing, lighting and sound – to tell stories. The structure of representations in narratives can also reveal a lot about ideologies in society. Consider how the following codes contribute to narratives:
Thinking about ideology
Narratives are a product of the society in which they are created. They often implicitly or explicitly comment on, reflect on, develop, reject or ignore ideologies. When you are studying the films, consider how the following story conventions might relate to ideologies:
- 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.
- 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. The establishment of the setting, characters, protagonist and antagonist is often revealing about society.
- 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. The events in a narrative are often revealing when it comes to ideology.
- Resolution. The resolution of the narrative is when all of the storylines are resolved and tied up. In this stage, the narrative reaches its climax – the most intense point. The characters have changed or transformed as a result of the narrative. The resolution of narratives, often implicitly, reveals a great deal about society and ideology.
- 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 cinematic codes. When you’re studying Narrative and Ideology, consider which characters the audience is encouraged to identify with and the beliefs and attitudes these character embody.
- 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. These subplots can often reveal a great deal about society.
- Character. Narrative and character are inseparable. In narratives, characters react to and trigger events. Characters, and the relationship between characters, are established using a range of cinematic codes. What do characters, their relationships and character arcs reveal about ideologies in society?
- Setting. The setting is where the narrative unfolds. What does the setting of the narrative suggest about society? How does it reflect beliefs and attitudes?
- 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.
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? What ideologies are reflected by the characters and storylines?