Narrative Elements in Film

What is a Narrative Element?

Man has been telling stories much before he learned to write. Through cave paintings, through epics passed on to generations as an oral tradition, and then subsequently through different forms of the written word, poetry, plays, novels, operas, songs, comic books, photo features, and eventually cinema, the human urge to tell stories has never been satiated, nor has our desire to listen to one. Between all these forms or media of communicating a story, there have been some common elements, and then there have been story elements unique to a certain medium.

Similarly, what type or kind of stories will work on one medium vis a vis another is also something we have been discovering all this while. For me, personally, it has been a matter of great fulfillment to try to understand the dynamics of cinematic storytelling and how telling a story on film is different from other forms of human expression. In this post, I have tried to briefly summarise some elements of storytelling with respect to the motion picture. This, in my opinion, is only an introduction to the world of cinematic storytelling. So here they are, the eight narrative elements of the film:

1. Character

If there is one element of good stories that is common through all ages and narrative forms, and if there is one unbroken rule of successful storytelling, it is this – creating compelling characters whose story the world would want to listen to. We, and our society, are obsessed with this incorrigible need to create heroes whom we can look up to, heroes whom we can admire, and care for, whose wins matter to us, and whose losses we hate to endure.

Creating an unforgettable, relatable, likable protagonist, and making him or her face a ruthless, mean, unforgiving antagonist has been the most common recipe of several great stories. And then, you need to add to the mix an interesting ensemble of supporting characters, an ‘orchestration’ where the individual parts complement each other like different musical instruments playing together to create a moving symphony.

Think of any film you love, and you can be certain that it has great characters. Even writers who have broken different rules of film writing, read Quentin Tarantino et al, have not been able to break this one absolute rule. Do you want to write a film that the world loves? Make the audience invest in your characters, and the sooner the better.

2. Plot

A story is always a journey that its characters take. Whether it is a self-reflective, internal monologue of a novel, or an adventure ride of a movie – the characters, especially the protagonist(s), undertake an emotional or physical journey that causes some change in them by the end. The course of this journey is marked by events – incidents and experiences that the protagonist faces.

The plot is the series of these events, from the beginning, through the middle, until the end, that gives us the feeling of the forward motion (or motionlessness) of the story. The most important events of the plot are often significant irreversible incidents that change the course of the plot and push it further ahead. These events are called Plot Points.

When Neo Anderson takes the red pill and decides to understand what is wrong with him, when Bhuvan accepts the challenge from the British Captain on behalf of his village, when Simran meets Raj on the first day of her Europe trip, when Jack saves Rose from committing suicide over the deck of the mighty ship – we know their respective stories have changed irreversibly and moved ahead. These are all examples of Plot Points. The plot can be thin or thick, but it is this that forms the body of your story.

3. Conflict

Imagine what would have happened if Bhuvan and the villagers already knew the game of cricket and easily defeated the British to get rid of their taxes. If Jack were of the same social status as Rose and the ship had sailed smoothly to reach its destination, if Simran enjoyed absolute freedom and she and Raj had no friction whatsoever when they met and her Dad had no problem with him as his son-in-law, or if Neo had a doubtless, riskless journey of realizing that he was ‘the One’ – these stories would be as dead as logs of wood. Conflict is the bread and butter of drama.

The more you can involve the audience in the conflicted situations of your characters, the more problems you can create for your protagonists and make them overcome that one by one, and the more successful your storytelling will be. Also, any level of conflict or drama starts appearing redundant, repetitive, or lukewarm unless you keep increasing the stakes and keep coming up with bigger conflicts.

Especially as a storyteller on film, we need to keep raising the tension and thickening the action to make sure the collective attention and interest of hundreds of people watching the film stays with us. How to do it without making it look manipulative or convenient is something we have been trying to learn for all these years. And this is something that each film writer struggles with, even after years of experience.

4. Resolution

So how does it end? If you have told a gripping story, it better end well, or the audience will feel terribly cheated. In cinema, particularly, the ending is very important because hundreds of people are going to react together to it as they exit the theater. And their ‘Exit Door Reaction’, or EDR – a word that I have coined, can make or break your movie on which crores of rupees are riding. I have read several good novels that have a weak final act, but perhaps none of the great movies suffer from this.

A climactic resolution to the already thickening plot, a final confrontation of the protagonist with the antagonistic forces, and a final Plot Point, that is emotionally, dramatically, and visually the high point of the film is very important to complete your movie experience. And this closure, this resolution of the primary conflict of the film, or the lack of it (as is the case with tragedies), often brings forth the ‘point of the movie’.

The resolution should also, generally, cause a significant change in the life of the protagonist. After all, is a story worth telling, if it is not significant for its own protagonist?

5. Structure

“A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order.” This wonderful quote by Jean-Luc Godard is perhaps the simplest way to put across the importance of structure. Also, the pleasures of the structure are more apparent and impactful in a movie than in any other form of narration. From ‘Citizen Kane’ to ‘The Killing’, from ‘Mystery Train’ to ‘Pulp Fiction’, ‘Irreversible’ to ‘Memento’ to ‘Amores Perros’ and ’21 Grams’ – playing with time, twisting the plot, and constantly challenging the audience has been a wonderful game moviemakers have been indulging in.

But I would also like to insist that a simple, linear narrative is at times equally powerful, if not more. Imagine the timeless story of ‘Bicycle Thieves’ told in flashback when the last scene has already been played and then the entire film is an explanation of that. Would that ever cause the heartbreak that the film’s simple, the linear design does?

Determining the correct structure for your story is like deciding on how to dress for a certain ceremony. Your reputation to the impact you can make may depend so majorly on that. Personally, I find this, determining the structure of a film I am writing, the most exciting stage of film writing.

6. Scenes

A scene is the building block of a screenplay, it’s the most basic unit that has its own independent, whole existence. Technically speaking, everything happening at one place at one time in the film is a scene. The moment you change the location or jump time, you have entered a new scene. It is this wonderful ability of a scene to actually make you feel that “you were there” is that makes cinema a “live” emotional experience. Unlike all other forms of narrative, cinema is very much a “real” experience, even when it is telling an outright fantastical tale. So the importance of scenes as its units can never be stressed enough.

When the scene begins (it may enter the ‘event’ or the ‘incident’ a little late) or when it ends (we may leave earlier, abruptly, leaving something for the imagination) is as important as the internal dramatic structure of the scene and how the events unfold in it. Also important is the transition from one scene to the other. If scenes are stitched together to form one seamless whole, we very willingly lose ourselves in the universe of our characters.

Scenes from great films also create unforgettable moments that gain iconic status in cinema history. Rose and Jack standing together with her arms wide open on the bow of the ship as it pierces the heart of the mighty ocean is an image that will live forever. A moment or scene as cinematically powerful as this can also be among the biggest motivations for the creative talent involved in the tedious filming process.

7. Dialogue

From creating characters that we worship forever to conveying the biggest plot truths, from bringing out the internal and external conflicts to establishing the significance of a powerful resolution, from constructing the internal drama of the scenes to being wonderful transitional devices, dialogue, or spoken lines are one of the most conspicuous elements of film narrative.

Each line spoken in a film may serve several functions – from entertaining and seducing the audience to making them empathize with even the coldest of characters, and dialogue, as well as conscious and economical lack of it, forms a major part of our movie-viewing pleasure. However, more often than not, bad dialogue also completely ruins the film. “Show, not tell” and “Less is more” – these rules are perfectly apt for film writing.

“In a novel, a character thinks. In a play, he talks. In cinema, he does” – this is another broad generalization that I love. Cinematic dialogue is so different from any other narrative medium. And if done well, smart and tasteful dialogue becomes an inseparable part of popular culture more successfully than any other story element of films.

8. Visuals

Perhaps the most unique of all narrative elements discussed above is something that is most integral to motion pictures – the visuals. It is no wonder that cinema is the youngest human expression – it had to wait hundreds of years until photography was invented. And thanks to this “real” reproduction of images, cinema could actually become this powerful and impactful form of mass communication. Apart from making the story appear real and inviting, the visuals in cinema transcend time and cultural boundaries.

I so often feel thankful to the cinema for having shown me different cultures and lands and people when I have never stepped out of my country. Well-done compositions, purposefully designed color palettes and metaphoric use of images not only enhance the aesthetic pleasure of watching a film, but also give the film its own unique grammar, form, and expression. It is important to mention ‘visuals’ as one of the narrative elements of cinema, although its depiction mainly depends on how the film is shot because a film writer has to understand the visual potential of this medium.

And unless the film writer imagines it, great and unforgettable visuals will never be created. And if not for the visual splendor that cinema is, we would remain contented with the good old novels and fables, and folk tales.

Final Word

Apart from these eight basic elements of cinematic storytelling, there is one more that some writers and many viewers put a great deal of importance to. It is the ‘theme’ of the film, the ‘moral of the story’. Often during discussions on a film, we tend to emphasize so much on its philosophical message or its socio-political implications. I, personally, do not consider this as an essential element of film narrative. I do not believe in making films to change the world, although I accept the power this medium possesses.

I also do not find it an obligation to tell stories with certain moral obligations. For me, the only approach to take while creating a screenplay is to find interesting characters who have got something going on in their lives that is so universally appealing that it will always find an audience. And also, I believe, each story that is well told, carries a moral or a theme, whether the writer intends to convey it or not.

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