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Classic Narrative Patterns and Theories Bulgarian theorist TzvetanTodorov discovered that folk tales and fairy stories all followed a similar structural pattern. This is known as the Classic Narrative Pattern, and is directly applicable to mainstream films and TV dramas today. Vladimir Propp proposed that there are distinctive character types and actions in all fairy tales and this is often applied to other stories as well although both theories are not always applied successfully.
The Classic Narrative Pattern works like this: Equilibrium Disruption Resolution Restored order New equilibrium
It may be a false state of order or equilibrium at the end of the film to allow for a sequel.
Before resolution is achieved, there will be many thwarted attempts by the hero to resolve matters
FOR EXAMPLE In horror, the equilibrium is typically represented by either an American middle-class family, or by a young heterosexual couple. The disruption is always in the form of the monster (wide definition). Thwarted attempts are made to catch or kill the monster, by the hero. Resolution is brought about by its capture or death. Order is restored when the family or couple are reunited, and a new equilibrium is achieved that is similar to the opening but different in that nothing can be the same again as loved ones have died along the way and/or everyone has been affected by the process. In Horror, the manner in which the order can be false is when the monster may not really be dead and will/can rise again for the sequel. This may be signified to the audience at the end of the film, but is often hidden from the characters.
Classic Narrative Patterns and Theories In the same vein of STRUCTURALIST ideas about narrative, Claude Levi-Strauss, a French anthropologist, considered how storytelling is used as a means of coping with the fundamental contradictions and irresolvable difficulties of a society. Each culture therefore produces its myths: a story which is not true, but something which is repeated so many times it becomes part of a culture’s reality or ‘common sense’ He developed Propp’s theory a stage further by looking at the structure of stories. He analysed how meaning might be derived from narrative structure not by looking at a connected series of actions (as Propp did) but by looking at connections between story elements (e.g themes, characters). He also proposed that if one element is identified as giving one meaning, there must be another element which is not that meaning. More specifically, the meaning must be the opposite.
Levi-Strauss Levi-Strauss said that story elements which give meaning will usually appear in pairs. For example a story will typically be organised into binary opposites such as: hero/villain rich/poor male/female fear/happiness. If one considers a typical western film the binary opposites could be: Cowboys/Indians/native Americans Sheriff/outlaws Nature/the railroad Wilderness/cultivation Peace/fighting
Classic Narrative Patterns and Theories Although Roland Barthes was initially a structuralist thinker, as times changed and thought and philosophy about language, culture and existence progressed, Barthes changed his ideas and in relation to narrative theory. He wrote an essay on a French novel. The essay was called S/Z.. In it he identified a number of codes (sets of rules) which he proposed are linked together in the production of all kinds of stories. Therefore he postulated that all stories use the same five codes and that all genre signifiers can be grouped under them to create narrative.
codes These codes are: Action code: depicts the events which take place in the narrative – the who, where, when of the story. Action codes are sequential. Semantic code: refers to character and characterisation. The actions in the story are explained by the character’s viewpoint on events. Enigma code: involves the setting up of a mystery, its development and its resolution. Referential code: involves explaining or informing. Mise-en-scene is a referential code. Symbolic code: involves the reading of the connotations of signs which transforms them into symbolic representations. e.g a character can symbolise bravery.
Classic Narrative Patterns and Theories The ones we are most concerned with are the ACTION CODE and the ENIGMA CODE. There have been other theorists since such as Vogler, Syd Field, McKee although they mostly follow in the ‘structuralist’ tradition – trying to impose order and rules onto narratives. As media students and ‘deconstructers’ of texts, we need to utilise ALL of their ideas to arrive at some sense of meaning, taking the best, the most appropriate and/or most useful for the deconstruction in hand. Imagine you have a toolbox with many tools in it, you don’t use a hammer to saw wood or a screwdriver to drive in a nail…so it is with these theories. The most important thing is that you GAIN A GENERAL GRASP OF THE UNDERLYING IDEAS – it’s not a test of who thought, wrote or did what, when but to have an understanding of how these ideas contribute to how we might make sense of narratives now.