In media terms, narrative is the coherence/organisation given to a series of facts. In
everything we seek a beginning, a middle and an end. We understand and construct
meaning using our experience of reality and of previous texts (link back to genre
In media we need to be able to engage with texts without too much effort. From
what we know about genre, we have expectations of a text’s repertoire of elements
in order to provide us with familiar pleasures. In the same way we have
expectations about the way in which a text is structured.
Basic elements of a narrative, according to Aristotle:
"...the most important is the plot, the ordering of the incidents; for tragedy is a
representation, not of men, but of action and life, of happiness and unhappiness -
and happiness and unhappiness are bound up with action. ...it is their characters
indeed, that make men what they are, but it is by reason of their actions that they
are happy or the reverse." (Poetics - Aristotle(Penguin Edition) p39-40 4th century
Successful stories require actions which change the lives of the characters in the
story. They also contain some sort of resolution, where that change is registered.
Narratives are not just those we encounter in fiction. Even news stories,
advertisements and documentaries also have a constructed narrative which must
“Narrative involves the viewer in making sense
of what is seen, asking questions of what we see
and anticipating the answers. In particular,
narrative invites us to ask both what is going to
happen next and when and how will it all end.
Narrative operates on the tension between our
anticipation of likely outcomes drawn from
genre conventions and the capacity to surprise
or frustrate our expectations.”
He stated that texts can be open (Variety of
different meanings) or closed (Dominant
Barthes decided that the processes we use to
unravel meaning are called narrative codes and
that they could be categorised in the following
•Action or proiaretic code and enigma code (ie.
Answers & questions) to integrate the viewer
•Symbols & Signs (semiotics)
•Points of Cultural Reference (your culture’s
value and belief system – your interpretation of
the text is dependent on this)
•Simple description/reproduction (Ideas or
reproductions of things we’re already familiar)
Very few screen stories take place in real
time. Whole lives can be dealt with in the 90
minutes of a feature film, an 8 month siege be
encompassed within a 60 minute TV
documentary. There are many conventions to
denote time passing, from the time/date
information typed up on each new scene of
The X-Files to the aeroplane passing over a
map of a continent in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Other devices to manipulate time include;:
different characters' POV
real time interluds
pre-figuring of events that have not yet taken
Todorov ‘s Theory – The
structure of a narrative
Tzvetan Todorov, suggests that all narratives follow a three part structure. They begin
with equilibrium, where everything is balanced, progress as something comes along to
disrupt that equilibrium, and finally reach a resolution, when equilibrium is restored.
We can usually apply this to all linear narratives and draws Aristotle’s theory that all
narratives have some for of conflict or disruption to them.
Application of Todorov’s
Think about your own trailers. Do the initial few shots have a longer
duration and serve to orientate the viewer introducing character and
setting? If so then they are from the equilibrium of the narrative.
Then is the majority of the trailer, despite being non-linear, made up
of short shots that highlight disruption to the narrative, showing
binary opposition and characters attempting to overcome
Is the majority of the trailer made up of complications or disputes?
Thus does it confirm what both Aristotle and Todorov argue?
Vladimir Propp came up with the theory that there are only a certain number of
characters, who crop up in most narratives. It is easy to spot the hero and villain in most cases,
but here are some others:
Hero : Leads the narrative, is usually looking for something (a quest) or trying to solve
something (a mystery)
Villain : Conflicts with the hero
Heroine: Is usually some sort of prize or reward for the hero.
Father :An authority figure who offers a reward to the hero for completing their quest.
Helper: Helps the hero - often acts as a sidekick
Donor: Gives the hero something - a clue, a talisman, a special power - which helps
them complete their quest
Mentor: Teaches and guides the hero
Application of Propp’s Theory
Just like genre – character’s need to be broken down by the micro element
presents. This leads us to make an assumption about them (stereotyping).
View the following – deconstruct the characters and then state whether they fit
Propp’s theory. Remember not all character types will be present in all narratives.
• Hero vs. Villain
• Princess (love) vs. Siren
• Villains who are really good
vs. False Heroes/Heroines
Berger (1997) showed how it was possible to adapt
Propp’s characters and functions to form binary
Levi Strauss’s Theory of Binary Oppositions
Levi Strauss concluded that all narratives were based around or contained a
binary or series of binary oppositions.
E.g. Good Vs Evil
What binary opposition is evident form this trailer?
Such binary oppositions may not be as apparent on first glance of a media
text. However, all texts are based upon a level of presupposition on the part
of the viewer/consumer. For example, they rely on us using our knowledge of
narrative and genre and filling in the gaps of the prior events that have lead
us to this point.
Peter Wollen has distinguished a tradition of counter-cinema.
He suggests that the role of mainstream cinema is to produce pleasurable
fictions. Hollywood films are created to be consumed and enjoyed, and the
contradictions of everyday life magically resolved in the happy ending.
Counter-cinema, by contrast, is designed to give an ‘unpleasurable’ reality,
presenting a non-narrative, non-escapist world, whose contradictions have
to be resolved in real life.
Have you produced a film trailer that would be made by an independent film
producer hence the narrative moves away from the Hollywood mainstream
that isn’t built upon universal hopes and fears?
Or have you produced a film trailer that does exactly what Wollen suggests?
Select one of your productions and discuss how
narrative theory applies to it.
Remember that for some productions this may be
tricky and take a lot of critical reflection. However, it is
acceptable to show that you understand narrative
theory by discussing how your production does not
fully fit it – think about the non-linear structure of
Tarrantino films or Peter Wollen’s theory of counter