In VCE Media, the study of ‘Narratives and their contexts’ involves an examination of how narratives are organised, structured and engage audiences. We also consider the social, historical, institutional, cultural, economic and political contexts that might shape its constructions and representations within the media product.
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.
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.
Media codes and conventions
The media conventions, or story principles, that you need to be familiar with for this outcome include:
- 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, development and resolution. 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. 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’. 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.
- 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.
- Establishment and development of characters. 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 media codes – including camera techniques, acting, mise en scene, editing, lighting and sound. Character traits and motivations are usually established in the opening of the narrative.
- 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.
You can recall these by remembering the acronym COPMESS.
The media codes you need to be familiar with for this outcome include:
- Camera techniques
- The use of camera movement, shot size and camera angle to tell a story.
- Camera movement: crane, dolly, dolly in, dolly out, handheld, pan, pedestal, point-of-view shot, snorricam, static, steadicam, tilt, tracking, vertigo effect, whip pan, zoom.
- Shot size: extreme long shot, long shot, full shot, medium shot, medium close up, close up, extreme close up.
- Camera angle: overshot, high angle, eye level, low angle, undershot.
- Focus: deep focus, depth of field, pull focus, shallow depth of field, aperture.
- The scripted and directed performance of an actor. When writing about the contribution that acting makes to a narrative, ensure that you make specific reference to the way movement, gesture, facial expression and tone of voice all contribute to the narrative, character and audience engagement.
- Mise en scene.
- A term that refers to everything that’s put in the frame, mise en scene incorporates the set, make up, costume, props and colour. Mise en scene also refers to the composition of shots and the arrangement of elements within the frame. When writing about mise en scene, make specific reference to how these elements contribute to the audience’s understanding of the narrative.
- Visual editing. cut, fade, dissolve, wipe, cross cut, shot reverse shot, ellipsis, flashback, flash forward, montage, fast motion, slow motion, time-lapse, jump cut, reversed, freeze frame, flash frame, split screen, parallel editing, speed ramping, superimposition, wipe by cut, audio match cut, visual match cut.
- Audio editing: transitional sound, pre-lap, post-lap, fade, audio match cut, reverb, echo, flanger, phaser.
- The illumination of a scene, natural or constructed, that contributes to a narrative.
- Source: Key light, fill light, three point lighting, reflected, spot, flood, incandescent, fluorescent, daylight, ambient.
- Direction: Front light, back light, hair light, side light, rim light, under light.
- Quality: Hard, soft, diffuse.
Temperature: Warm, cozy, yellow, white, cool, cold, blue.
- Intent: Naturalistic, expressionistic, stylised.
- Shadows: Chiaroscuro, dark, inky.
- Sound. Sound involves everything that the audience can hear in a film, including music, dialogue and sound effects.
- On screen, off screen, transitional, pre-lap, post-lap, audio match cut, inner voice, remembered sound, distorted sound, spoken writing, personal narration, impersonal narration, diegetic, non-diegetic, music, score, song, contrapuntal, ambience, sound effect, foley, loud, soft, strong, melodic, eerie, rhythmic, percussive, shrill, piercing, harsh, heavy, deep, reverb, echo, flanger, phaser.
- When writing about sound, always make specific reference to what you hear and how it contributes to the narrative – remember the soundtrack, like every other aspect of the film, has been constructed.
You can recall these with the acronym CAMELS.
Thinking about context
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 views, values or attitudes in the context that they are produced. When you are studying the films, consider how the following story conventions might relate to ideologies:
- 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 values and attitudes.
- 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.
- 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 ‘Narratives and their contexts’, consider which characters the audience is encouraged to identify with and the beliefs and attitudes these character embody. Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist?
- 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?
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?