Film School – Narrative

At the start of 2010, I attended an evening film course at Edinburgh Uni, and as part of that decided to review the ten films we looked at.

Last week I started another course called Introduction to Film Studies. The structure of the course is that we looking at different themes in film each week: from Editing to Ideology. This week it’s Narrative

show and tell.jpgNarrative, or the story and how it’s presented, is fairly fundamental to film. Our favourite movies tend to be the ones with the best stories: stories that appeal to us for a variety of different reasons. Whether it’s the characters, the twists, or the emotional rollercoaster we are taken on.

Within the context of narrative, I believe there are two main ways to present a story: showing and telling.

Telling is the most common form of narrative. Here, the director has a clear story to convey, and a clear sense of how the audience should feel at various points in the film. For me, the masters of this form would include Hithcock, Spielberg, and more recently Christopher Nolan.

All know the importance of pacing a story properly: introducing the audience into their character’s world, and ramping up the tension as and when required to entertain the audience in a very clear, direct and well realised way.

This form of storytelling is deceptively simple, but without the right creative mind to see the story through produces movies devoid of themes, emotion or interest. (cf. Transformers 2, Pirates 2 or X-Men 3).

For the same reason I don’t like comedies designed simply to make me laugh , I don’t like movies which are made with the sole intention of keeping me entertained for two hours. Strong movies, in my opinion, produce strong, emotive feelings from their audience and challenge the way they view the world. It’s unlikely directors like Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich with their limited creative ambitions, will ever produce such a movie.

The much more difficult, and often less popular, way to ‘do’ narrative is to show: a narrative which gives less signals to the audience abut how to feel at any one time. These movies tend to be much slower-paced, and often more character-orientated – so that it’s not always clear what the premise is or what the movie is about, until the final act (or sometimes even after the credits roll).

It could be argued The Godfather is an example of such a movie: with its array of characters in the first act, slowly focussing in on one as we move into its second and third acts. As such, instead of being entertained in the opening forty minutes or so, it can be difficult to follow everything that’s going on. However, on second or third viewing there’s much more to come back to in this type of movie than most of this summer’s blockbusters.

united93_39372.jpgPaul Greengrass’ two documentary-style movies United 93 and Bloody Sunday likewise take their time to set-up the main characters before showing us their famous and familiar events in the final acts: with a much more devastating emotional punch as a result. However, in another director’s hands, or if it had been done in a different style, the actual story at the centre could have had a completely different impact than the one Greengrass manages to create.

You see, it’s not that these types of movies don’t have a story. It’s more that they rely on the audience stay with the movie despite being kept in the dark in large parts as they are shown events without a clear sense of what they are supposed to take from them, without a clear sense of what they are being told.

Perhaps it’s best put like this, a familiar narrative structure which tells its story, allows one’s movie to be digested and enjoyed by as many people as possible. Often at the expense of giving the viewer something to come back to later.

A more difficult, complex structure which shows its story will not appeal to everyone. As a result many will refuse to watch the film, or stay with it beyond the first act. However, the benefits are a movie which ‘holds up’ to repeat viewings and allows for different viewer interpretations each time.

Narrative is often considered the most important of filmmaking techniques. The ability of a movie’s story to hold our interest often relies on the tale it is trying to spin. However, my favourite movies are often the ones that perhaps don’t have a clear plot which moves from A to B to C, but instead explore a theme or character. It’s not the case that showing = good and telling = bad. It’s just that the best examples of the latter are the ones that have had the greatest impact on me – long after the final credits have rolled.


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