InPoint, the online production resource at Pacific Cinémathèque, defines narrative structure in the following way: “Narrative structure is about two things: the content of a story and the form used to tell the story. Two common ways to describe these two parts of narrative structure are story and plot.”24
In other words, narrative structure is the way the story and plot are utilized in a movie. In the previous chapter, we discussed the format for stories based on the genre. Plot was just referred to as inner conflict. We will now take the story and plot, discussing them in general terms without a specific genre in mind.
The narrative structure, as the term suggests, is the structural framework for a movie. The story is the action of the movie, and the plot is how the story is told. The narrative structure can be either linear or nonlinear. Linear narrative structure is a movie that moves in chronological order. Nonlinear structure is a movie that begins in the middle, also referred to as “in medias res.” The story is told in flashbacks that proceed to the present day.
The formula for narrative structure so the parts and the function are easy to remember is: Story (Action) + Plot = Narrative Structure.
So, if this is a complete overview of narrative structure, why is it so important that a whole chapter is devoted to it? If the movie didn’t have any framework, would it make sense?
The framework provides the characters with something to accomplish and grow. Otherwise, they would have no beginning, middle, and end. Time would be meaningless to them. As pointed out above, time is one of the most meaningful parts of the narrative structure.
In order to discuss the narrative structure with meaningful detail, we have to discuss the two parts of the narrative structure, the story and the plot. We will discuss the plot first, given that the plot determines how the story is going to be told.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines plot as “a series of events that form the story in a novel, movie, etc.”25 Previously, we discussed only one type of plot: inner conflict. However, at this point, let’s expand the discussion of the plot. Many people have theorized the number of different plots, each arriving at a different number of plots.
Ipl2 (Internet Public Library) addressed this statement in a Special Collections article entitled “The ‘Basic’ Plots in Literature.”26 In the ipl2 article, four people are discussed and the number of plots that they have come up with based on their own theory. Each of their theories purports different reasoning as to their specific numbers of basic plots. Foster-Harris in “The Basic Patterns of Plot”, contends that there are three basic patterns of plot. IPL volunteer librarian Jessamyn West says there are seven plots. Ronald B. Tobias in “20 Master Plots”, proposes twenty basic plots. Georges Polti in “The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations”, translated by Lucille Ray, states there are 36 plots.
Based on the aforementioned the number of plots range from three to seven to 20 to 36. There is no specific number of plots. However, if you review their plot lists, how many plots are similar? Ronald Tobias’ 20 plots list contains two plots referred to as love and forbidden love.27 What is the difference between love and forbidden love? The plot of love can cover all love. In Polti’s list of 36 plots, the plots are very specific, such as slaying of a kinsman unrecognized.28
A plot should be general in order to not limit the story. So, overall, we will consider 10 basic plots besides the general plot of inner conflict. The 10 plots are: quest, pursuit, rescue, revenge, the riddle, underdog, temptation, transformation, love, and discovery. Each plot is different enough to yield different action in the story.
Any more than these 10 plots and inner conflict will narrow the scope of the plot. The narrower the scope of the plot, the more restricted the action of the story.
Plots, though, do stand alone because they fuel the story. But alone, they are of no value. So at this point, let’s take a look at the definition and parts of the story. Once the story has been defined, we will demonstrate how the plot fuels the story. Then we can discuss the narrative structure or the framework of the movie.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines story as “an account of incidents or events.”29
The story or the account of the events can be split up into six parts:
- The exposition is the beginning of the movie where the main characters of the movie are introduced and the viewer finds out something about the characters.
- The complication is the conflict that the protagonist must face, struggle with, and resolve by the end of the movie.
- The rising action is a series of sequences of action where the protagonist experiences advances and setbacks, moving toward the resolution of the conflict.
- The climax is the high point of the movie where the protagonist, based on the knowledge gained from the rising action, determines what the final action needs to be taken in order to resolve the conflict.
- The falling action ties up or resolves any minor loose story ends.
- The denouement is the ending of the movie.
We will diagram these six parts into more specific and familiar detail, so the parts form a continuous flow:
- The exposition and conflict form the beginning of the story.
- The rising action and the climax form the middle of the story, and
- The falling action and the resolution form the end of the story.
Now that we have a diagram for the story and a list of plots, let’s see how the plot fuels the story to establish the narrative structure. We will use The Front Page and Cyrano de Bergerac as examples to demonstrate the construction of the framework for movies.
Examples of the Construction of Movie Framework
Using the two aforementioned plots, love and pursuit, we will analyze the story in The Front Page. How do the plots develop within the scene sequences of the story?
Do you remember the specific scenes from each of the six elements of the story and at what point the movie moves forward to the next element?
Exposition – The beginning of the movie introduces the viewer to the three main characters in the movie: newspaper reporter, Hildy Johnson; newspaper editor, Walter Burns, and Hildy’s fiancée, Peggy Grant.
Complication – While Hildy wants to get married, Walter tries to persuade Hildy not to get married but remain a reporter for the newspaper.
Rising Action –
- Hildy goes to the court house press room and becomes involved with the story of the hanging of Earl Williams.
- Earl Williams escapes, and Hildy uses his honeymoon money to bribe someone for the story on what happened (moving forward with a possible set back).
- Hildy hides Earl Williams.
- Hildy and Walter get arrested, and Peggy breaks off the engagement.
Climax – Hildy and Walter are released and Hildy proposes to Peggy again.
Falling Action – Walter lets Hildy go and gives Hildy his watch as a wedding present. Hildy leaves.
Denouement – Walter calls the police to have Hildy arrested for stealing his watch.
Remembering the questions that were asked when discussing the story of The Front Page, how would a similar analysis be done for Cyrano de Bergerac? The plots are love and inner conflict in Cyrano de Bergerac. How do the plots develop the scene sequences of the story?
Exposition – Introduced to Cyrano, who is both a writer and swordsman, and Roxane is introduced.
Complication – Cyrano states to his friend that he loves Roxane, but he will not tell her because of his nose. Roxane tells Cyrano that she loves Christian.
Rising Action – The series of sequences leading to the climax:
- Cyrano befriends Christian at the request of Roxane, because she loves Christian (moving forward).
- Cyrano tells Christian that Roxane loves him.
- Cyrano helps Christian write a letter to Roxane.
- Christian states that he does not need Cyrano’s help any longer (moving forward). Cyrano hides behind a bush and helps Christian. Cyrano gives an impassionate speech but Christian kisses Roxane (set back).
- Christian is ordered out to battle.
- Roxane visits Christian. Christian realizes Cyrano loves Roxane. Christian volunteers for a dangerous mission before Cyrano can proclaim his love to Roxane (set back).
- Before Christian dies, Cyrano states that Roxane chose him (moving forward).
- Roxane joins a convent. Cyrano visits Roxane at her convent each week for 14 years (moving forward and set back).
Climax – Cyrano is ambushed and run down by a carriage. He asks Roxane to read Christian’s last letter and Cyrano recites it. Roxane realizes she loved Cyrano all these years and not Christian.
Falling Action – Cyrano dies.
Denouement – Roxane mourns the death of her true love.
How Would You Present the Constructed Movie Framework
Using the plot of discovery and giving it a working title of Wanderlust: The Beauty of Discovery, let’s do a quick hypothetical example of the narrative structure.
For the plot of discovery, the story could begin with Jack graduating from college (exposition).
Jack is lost after graduation because his whole life has been planned up to this point by his family (conflict).
Jack decides there has to be a better life somewhere, so he leaves and wanders aimlessly to find this new life that he will be able to tolerate (rising action).
At this point, you have a period of rising action, which will tie the conflict/complication to the climax. First, though, there is a lot of moving forward and setbacks to progress through toward the climax, which is the ultimate decision and piece of action for the discovery.
In the mid-West, Jack stops at a rest area on the expressway. A girl about his age asks for a ride to the next state. This is the first rung of the rising action.
Jack does not trust her. Once they get to the next state, he drops her off at the first restaurant he sees, telling her to have a nice life.
Jack continues on but thinks that he should stop and get a job in a town that he has an interest in as he is driving through it. This is the second rung in the rising action ladder.
He finds a job in an office, which he thinks he may like for a short while until it becomes routine.
Jack’s job blossoms as the owners want to begin an export operation, and they ask Jack to run it. After long hours of development of the export operation, Jack realizes that he can establish a successful life of his own without parental interference (further rising action movement).
However, the rising action hits a snag (first setback) as Jack nears the official opening of the export operation. The girl he gave a ride to earlier in the movie shows up in this town.
Jack states that maybe he should leave (setback solution to the development that is near the climax).
Climax – Jack continues working on the export operation, but he cannot get his mind off of Betty. He finally realizes he needs someone like Betty, along with a business he established on his own, to create the life he desires. Betty sees him and begins to run away. He catches up to her and kisses her, telling her he made a mistake. He needs her.
During the falling action, Jack finds out that Betty is the owner’s daughter. This scene makes for a quick resolution and a movie ending for Wanderlust: The Beauty of Discovery.
At this point, a good exercise is to develop a narrative structure for a movie with the plot of revenge. Use the hypothetical example characters, Jack and Suzie, to do this.
Summary of Narrative Structure
Outside of the characters, the narrative structure is the movie. Narrative structure is not only the framework of how a movie is told; it provides an avenue for the characters to grow. The narrative structure consists of the plot and story being portrayed in chronological (linear) order or in a combination of flashbacks and present time (nonlinear).
Narrative structure is a vicious cycle that begins with the plot telling the story how it is going to be told. The story goes through various changes from the exposition to the complication or conflict. As the protagonist or main character progresses through trying to resolve the complication, the protagonist moves the story along so we have rising action. The rising action comes to a climax where the protagonist has to make the ultimate decision of how to handle a situation to push it toward the end. After the climax, comes the falling action, because the main incident just occurred. At the end of the falling action, the viewer has arrived at the resolution/denouement, ending the movie.
We have established ten different plots plus the plot of inner conflict. Now that the framework for the movie has been constructed, we will discuss what goes over the framework to bring out the style and beauty of the movie—the characters.
With the completion of this chapter, movies to watch that that are excellent examples of narrative structure are:
- Citizen Kane, 1941, directed by Orson Welles, starring Joseph Cotton, Orson Welles, and Agnes Morehead. The narrative structure is nonlinear as it starts with the protagonist’s death, and the viewer sees the life of the protagonist through flashbacks.
- Double Indemnity, 1944, directed by Billy Wilder, starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson. This movie also has a nonlinear narrative structure starting with the wounded protagonist telling how he got shot.
- The Big Country, 1958, directed by William Wyler, starring Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, and Charlton Heston. The narrative structure is linear. As the movie moves forward chronologically, the viewer witnesses the thought processes and actions of the main characters as they change.
- Sophie’s Choice, 1982, directed by Alan J. Pakula, starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, and Peter MacNicol. The narrative structure starts linear as the writer narrates his story. But the movie, in the second half, becomes nonlinear as Sophie tells of her past experiences.
- The Hurt Locker, 2008, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty. This movie has a linear narrative structure, showing how the protagonist begins to change after each action sequence.
Exposition: Alec hires Jack to find his wife Betty. Jack states that Alec’s wife will show up. But Alec is nervous about her well-being. Jack agrees to take the case.
Complication: When Jack finds Alec’s wife fairly quickly, he decides to do surveillance on her to make sure he has not missed anything during the hiring process. Jack watches her as she goes to her house and then goes shopping. She buys unusual items that clearly have no purpose for a rich housewife. Jack believes whatever Betty does is none of his business as long as she is not in any danger. After watching her for a while, Jack determines everything is all right, gives up on the case and returns home.
Jack’s wife, Suzie, tries to convince Jack that he should not have given up the case because something is going to happen to Betty. Jack tries to ignore her, but she keeps after him to continue the surveillance. Jack tells her he has to find new work to make money. After hearing that, Suzie stops nagging. Later, the telephone rings and Suzie answers it. The caller is Betty.
The above are two pieces of the framework for the story. What could the rising action be? What type of plot would it be?
24 “InPoint,” www.thecinematheque.ca/inpoint/index.html.
25 “Plot,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/plot.
26 “The “Basic” Plots in Literature.” Special Collections Created by Ipl2. October 13, 2010. Accessed September 16, 2016. http://www.ipl.org/div/farq/plotFARQ.html.
27 “The “Basic” Plots in Literature.” Special Collections Created by Ipl2. October 13, 2010. Accessed September 16, 2016. http://www.ipl.org/div/farq/plotFARQ.html.
29 “Story,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/story.