How to use narrative structures to identify a plot and tell a story
The Essential Element
One of the most essential elements of filmmaking is the art of telling a story and, in order to do that, a filmmaker must have a plot. The plot is what emotionally charges and binds the audience to a film. The struggle of a character to overcome adversity or the quest of a hero to save their world are all plots we know and love.
When breaking down this essential element of filmmaking, it is important to distinguish between plot and story. And, once you understand the difference, we can then dive deeper into the types of narrative structures that often are seen on the big screen and how they influence us as audience members.
Without a story and a plot, there is no purpose to a film. There is nothing for characters to accomplish or overcome– there is no beginning, middle, or end. In order to understand if a movie has successfully told a story, we have to first understand what a story is, how a plot complements and expands on the story, and how narrative structures are the formulas for how different plots are told.
Story and Plot
Storytelling is the oldest art form there is, so it’s important to recognize it and appreciate its significance. In order to best do that, we can study the difference between a story and a plot. E.M. Forster, an English writer and essayist, provides the clearest explanation between a plot and a story.
According to Forster, a story is a basic sequence of events. He provides the example, ‘“The King died and then the Queen died next” is a story. It demonstrates a sequence of events that the audience can follow and watch logically progress. However, Forster goes on to explain that, ‘“The King died and then the Queen died of grief” is a plot.’
This small change in execution has provided a plot to the story. Not only is there a sequence of events, the king dying and then the queen, but the plot has added causality. The queen died as a result of grief.
Diving Into A Story
A story, in its rawest form, is a series of events. While this may seem simple, Forster explains that a story ‘can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what comes next.’
The story is like the skeleton of a film. It is the basic series of events as seen in the example above with the full story being the King’s death and then the Queen’s. The story is the basic sequence of events, it does not, however, have the detail or emotional dimension that comes from the plot.
When identifying the story of a film, try breaking it down into the most essential elements by answering the questions who, what, and where. In the example of the story above, the ‘who’ would be the King and the Queen, and the ‘what’ would be their deaths.
Maybe not all of these questions will be answered, but they will help you be able to identify the story as the most fundamental events of the film. Just as in Forster’s example of the death of the King, and then the death of the Queen, try identifying in your favorite flicks what their story-or basic sequence of events is.
Identifying The Plot
If the story is the skeleton or the foundation, the raw data of a sequence of events, the plot is the flesh on the bones. The plot contains sequential information just as a story does, but it focuses on the causes of the events.
As Forster writes in his book Aspects of the Novel, ‘“The King died and then the Queen died of grief” is a plot…Time sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.’
The story provides the who, what, and where, but the plot provides the how and the why. The plot is why a sequence of events moves us or stirs emotions within us. A great sequence of events may be exciting, but it becomes riveting and engaging only when we care about the story. And that binding emotional attachment is fulfilled through the plot which fleshes out the story.
In Forster’s example of a plot, the pivotal difference between the example of the plot versus the story is that we have a cause for the Queen’s death or a ‘why.’ Her death due to grief adds an emotional depth and dimension that the basic sequence of events of the story didn’t have.
Without a story, nothing happens. Without a plot, we don’t care what happens.
What Does It Matter Anyway?
Most people use the terms plot and story interchangeable, you may even be guilty of it yourself. But once you understand the difference between a plot and a story, it will help you be able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each within a film and how that impacted the experience of viewing that film and the audience’s emotional connection to it.
Being able to identify the plot of a film, as opposed to the raw details that compose its story, also brings you one step closer to being able to identify the narrative structure of the plot and how the narrative relates to a film’s genre, and what expectation you may have for a film before you even watch it.
The plot of a film adds the details to the sequence of events that is the story. These details the plot adds are the motivations and desires of the actors and their reactions to the events that make up the story.
The goal of the plot is to move the audience, either emotionally or intellectually. To determine whether or not a movie has been successful in doing that, we have to first be able to identify the plot, story, and narrative structure a movie is utilizing.
Being able to identify these elements at play within a film will also help to identify where, if any, weaknesses lie. Maybe the story the film tells is fine, but the plot, the motivations, and reactions of the characters to the events of the story don’t make sense or are not explained well. This can make the audience unable to relate to the characters and undermine any intention the filmmaker had in telling the story.
Introduction To Narrative Structures
The plot of the movie is the aspect of the film that drives our emotional response to it. The reason we relate to a character’s struggle or find ourselves at the edge of our seat is that the filmmaker or writer has written a successful plot. They’ve given us characters and motivations that we care about and relate to. So what makes a plotline successful?
A great plotline successfully utilizes narrative structures. Narrative structures provide a framework for how the plot is told.
A narrative structure is a storytelling tool that is used to tighten the plot of a story and make us as an audience care about the characters on the screen and what is happening to them. Maybe, a writer wants to tell a story about the housing market crash, but how do they choose what characters’ perspective to tell this story from?
Should this story be told from the perspective of a stockholder or homeowner? Should it show the events leading up to the crash or the fallout from it? A narrative structure is a tool for telling a story from a specific place and time and from a specific perspective. It also provides a structural framework for the sequence of events in the story.
Types Of Narrative Structures
There are 5 main types of narrative structures that are commonly used in films: Linear, Non-Linear, the Quest, Voice-Over, and Point of View. These narrative structures drive the audience’s emotional response to a plot and help set expectations for a film.
Would it shock you to learn that Shrek and The Lord of the Rings both share a Quest narrative structure? While these movies may not share many similarities on the surface, the plot of these films both utilizes the same structure while making the characters and their motivations unique.
Narrative structures function as a tool to be wielded like any other cinematic technique and can be used to analyze a film and identify its strengths and weaknesses.
The Linear Narrative
A narrative is a tool used by screenwriters to strengthen the plot of their screenplay. The most common narrative form is the linear narrative. This linear form follows a chronological series of events from start to finish, like an arrow shooting straight across time.
These chronological events are linked causally and logically follow from one to the other, sticking to a clear timeline and ordered series of events. For example, telling a story of your own life, you could begin from the moment of your birth, through school, and up to this exact moment. Or it could be more specific to a period of time, such as telling the story of your high school years.
Examples of linear narratives in films are seen easily in romantic movies, such as Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice. This linear narrative shows the romantic progression of 2 characters from the first moment they meet and the subsequent series of events lead to their eventual romance.
The Non-Linear Narrative
Narrative techniques are how a storyteller chooses to place a story in time and what characters it chooses to tell the story about. A non-linear narrative is a way to tell a story that does not follow a chronological progression. It tells a story not from one set point in time and shows the events that follow by jumping around in time.
Common examples of non-linear narratives are the use of flashbacks in films. These flashbacks are glimpses to other points in time that have an impact on the story although they do not chronologically follow in order. Oftentimes, non-linear plots are used to emphasize the emotional or mental state of the characters within the plot.
Examples of non-linear narratives are Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Each of these films is character-centric and manipulates how the audience experiences time, either to disorient and confuse or to shock and awe.
All stories are narratives, in fact, a narrative is just a tool to tighten the plot of a story and drive the audience’s emotional reaction. A common type of narrative structure is the quest. In this plot, the protagonist is driven by a specific goal. The plot is centered around this goal with the tension and conflict stemming from the obstacles the characters face that slow them down or divert them from their goal.
The progression of the plot in a quest narrative comes from a specific sequence of events. In these plots, the protagonist is introduced to its quest or given its goal, agrees to work toward this goal, and they face conflict and obstacles along the way until they (hopefully) reach this goal.
Good examples of the quest narrative are The Lord of the Rings, Interstellar, and even Shrek. These are stories with a specific goal that the protagonist goes on a journey to meet, whether it’s across a kingdom or a galaxy.
A New Viewpoint
The viewpoint narrative is one that fully immerses the audience into a specific point of view. This narrative is sometimes referred to as perspective narrative where the audience is being told a story from the specific, and often limited, perspective of a character. What the character knows, the audience knows, and what the character doesn’t know, the audience doesn’t either.
This narrative focuses on creating a new perspective for the audience to live through. The moods, knowledge, feelings, and mentality of the viewpoint character are what emotions or knowledge are meant to be conveyed to the audience. Much of the tension or conflict in the plot comes from limiting the perspective to just one character.
Some great examples of viewpoint narratives are in the films The Others, Gone Girl, and Knives Out. Each of these films brings the audience into a specific character’s point of view so that the audience shares in the fears and delights, triumphs, and losses of that character.
The Voice In Your Head
The voice-over narrative is a technique used by films to draw a direct line from the plot of the story to the audience experiencing it. This technique is easily recognized in the film as a voice that is not a part of the action onscreen that is letting the audience know something that they may not be able to learn strictly from the plot.
The voice-over invites the audience deeper into the action of the plot by giving them knowledge of the character’s emotions, motivations, or even a glimpse into events that happened in the past or have not happened yet. A voice-over in a film can be the protagonist themselves speaking to the audience or it may be another character that is providing this insight to the audience.
Some examples of voice-over narratives are A Clockwork Orange, The Big Lebowski, and Fight Club. Each of these films has a certain amount of subjectivity built into them as the protagonist talks to the audience and allows them the information they wouldn’t otherwise have the privilege of knowing.