U26: Film Studies
Harrow College User
Barthes & Narrative codes
Barthes suggested meaning is made in fiction texts by the use of five codes:
• ‘The enigma code’: things within the text that make the audience ask themselves
questions about what will happen. The answers to the questions can be found by consuming
the text. For example, will Charlie Bucket find a golden ticket?
• ‘The events and actions code’: each action and event within a text can be linked to
nameable sequences operating in the narrative. Barthes asserts that each effect could be
‘named’ giving a series of titles to the text. These are often made very explicit on the DVD
casing – the chapter titles are generally based on events or actions.
• ‘The symbolic code’: the process of representing an object, idea or feeling by something
else. For example, a fence between two characters may symbolise their emotional distance.
Some have suggested that the infamous ‘adrenaline shot’ in Pulp Fiction is the symbolic
penetration of Mia by Vince.
• ‘The semic code’: refers to the use of connotation to give the audience an insight into
characters, objects or events. For example, conventional car advertisements feature the car
in an open, green landscape. The connotations created by the setting are of freedom and
• ‘The cultural code’: concerns all the culturally specific knowledge used to make meaning
in a text. For example, the Coronation Street title sequence features stereotypically
‘northern’ streets and houses, connoting traditional communities and family values. The
audience must be familiar with such northern typification to associate particular meanings
with the text.
Propp’s Narrative Action & Stock Character theory
During the 1920s, Russian analyst Vladimir Propp discovered that a story’s format was key
to its success. Basing his studies on traditional Russian fairy tales, he argued that a
successful story had 6 stages of narrative action:
1. Preparation (the scene is set)
2. Complication (a problem / evil occurs)
3. Transference (hero gets help and leaves on quest)
4. Struggle (there is a fight between hero and some kind of villain)
5. Return (the hero returns, his quest fulfilled)
6. Recognition (villains punished, hero rewarded)
Proppalso discovered that Russian fairytales often involved much the same stock characters:
Propp’s seven spheres of action:
Hero: Individual(s) who’s quest is to restore the equilibrium.
Villain: Individual(s) who’s task is to disrupt the equilibrium.
Donor: Individual(s) who gives the hero(s) something, advice, information or an object.
Helper: Individual(s) who aids the hero(s) with their set task.
Princess (Prince): Individual(s) which needs help, protecting and saving.
Dispatcher: Individual(s) who send the hero(s) on their quest.
False Hero: Individual(s) who set out to undermine the hero’s quest by pretending to aid
them, often unmasked at the end of the film.
Todorov’s Conflict & Resolution theory
The conventional narrative structure pointed out by TzvetanTodorov as a rule has five
stages though this can be rudimentary broken down to three stages; a beginning (state of
equilibrium), middle (disruption to the equilibrium) and end (reinstate the equilibrium).
What I mean by equilibrium its simply just a state of balance, normality in which the
characters find themselves at the begining.
Below is TzvetanTodorov conventional narrative structure complete with five stages:
A state of equilibrium is defined.
Disruption to the equilibrium by some action or crisis.
The Character(s) recognition that there has been a disruption, setting goals to resolve
The Character(s) attempt to repair the disruption, obstacles need to be overcome to restore
Reinstatment to the equilibrium. Situation is resolved, a conclusion is announced.
With the five stage layout the narrative becomes more comprehensive. However its
essential to remember films need to be seamless as the chain of events unfold, with all the
questions raised answered and all the loose ends tied up unless you want to break the
conventions, induce a cliff hanger or intentionally create doubt in the minds of the audience
and leave them questioning.Remember a film should have clear goals with believable
characters if its to maintain a sense of credibility and to help keep the audience captivated.
Visual texts adopt different ways of constructing stories, called narrative structures and
these fall into five main categories:
1. Open / Closed narratives
Stories that are part of a series are open narratives (eg Soaps).
Stories with endings are closed narratives (eg Documentaries).
2. Single / Multi-strand narratives
Stories developing same plot are single strand narratives (egMany dramas).
Stories with more than one plot line are multi-strand narratives (eg Soaps).
3. Linear / Non-linear narratives
Stories following chronological order are linear narratives (eg Soaps).
Stories jumping around in time are non-linear narratives (egMany who-dunnits).
4. Investigative narratives
Stories involving investigations of some kind are investigative narratives (eg Whodunnits, Documentaries).
5. Realist & anti-realist narratives
Stories featuring real life situations are realist narratives (eg Soaps, The News).
Stories that do not feature real life situations are anti-realist (eg Cartoons).