audience knowledge (narrative theory) The audience’s knowledge of plot and character in a narrative. The audience will witness the actions of different characters and events in a story and have an understanding of the story that the participants in the story do not. Similarly, events can happen in a story, that the audience is not aware of until after they are revealed at later stages of the plot. The audience also constructs story elements that are not presented as action in the story: this process of narrative construction is understood as ellipsis or gapping.
Having parallel action and parallel storylines develop and progress a narrative, but also crucially this creates tension, suspense and anticipation, bringing the audience to involve themselves in the progress of the story, because they speculate on what is going to happen when the action of the story changes between story lines and the sense is that story events are happening off screen.
The audience can also be denied knowledge and not know who undertook a specific actions, and this can be controlled as a dramatic device rather than occur as a random and haphazard confusion in the narration. The control of audience knowledge is a technique of narration and this is used by filmmakers to create a dramatic narrative.
In life we gain knowledge from our singular experience, knowing that we don’t not have full knowledge of the actions and motives of others, that we can be mistaken, incorrect, prejudiced, deceived. It might be assumed that storytelling, narration should proceed with this same sense of experience, and this is possible, there are first-person narratives when the knowledge of the single central character is the knowledge as that of the audience, but the filmmakers will more often use audience knowledge as a dramatic device: storytelling changes focalisation, audience viewpoint is variable across the narration of the film: the audience can know that a character is in danger when the character does not. In film this can be done in two ways: through the plot, which scenes and events are used to tell the story, and through filmic narration: what is shown in the action on screen: the plot can make it clear that the character has a briefcase, but what is in the briefcase is unknown if the contents are not shown to the audience, and this viewpoint, where the audience only have limited viewpoint on a scene is often knowingly used by filmmakers to create dramatic tension.
There’s an assumption in inexperienced screenwriting that creating a mystery in a story, denying the audience knowledge, is a primary foundation in drama. There are many stories where a mystery or puzzle plot dominates a narrative, but giving the audience knowledge is equally important in a mystery as the mystery itself: what do different characters want to do, what has one character done that another does not know about. In planning a mystery story, in the early stages of plot development this will set out events so that some events are known, but how this story is narrated, how audience knowledge is controlled is then applied to the plot and this can be done well or badly done. There is a vital difference between the audience being confused, having no clear sense of plot and purpose to a story, and the audience being positioned so that its clear what they know and what they do not know: a story can be mystery about what has happened, but it is also about what will happen and for the audience to engage with this they need to have an understanding of events, the connection and progression of the plot will make sense. Even a very confused and deliberately unclear, even illogical narrative will establish some clear foundation to offer a premise for the story. The technique of mystery is having clues that suggest things, but do not fully clarify and then things that suggest other possibilities, which is misdirection: the narration gives the audience knowledge so that they construct a plot that turns out to be erroneous: they suspect one person of the crime and then it turns out to be another character.
In the murder mystery, there is a shifting and changing of knowledge rather than an absence. Often both detective and the audience don’t know who the murderer is but as the story progresses there are clues that lead to speculations and some of these are found out to be true and some to be false. In the murder mystery the prologue often shows the crime without fully revealing the criminal and so the audience have more initial knowledge than the detective: this use of audience knowledge prompts the audience to want to know who the criminal is and then this connects them to the actions of the investigator: the teaser at the start of the murder mystery and other narrative action gives vital but also partial information. The understanding that the audience has of a mystery story is that they may be led astray but the plot, but the telling of the story will be a ‘fair deal’, and the action that is narrated will be connected to the final revealed story. A mystery is not just random events that have never develop any meaning.
The audience is unlikely to consciously follow how their knowledge is constructed as a narrative progresses, carefully noting each plot point, but this construction does take place and is decided and controlled by the filmmakers. The screenwriter and the filmmaker needs to consider not only how the plot is laid out, what the sequence of events is, but how will the audience react in their understanding of the story: how does this telling of the story intrigue or surprise the audience: a story can seem significant in itself, in life having an accident, a confrontation will be an emotional event, but storytelling needs to provide the audience with knowledge so that they share secrets, private knowledge about specific characters.
A distinction is drawn between surprise, something happening without warning, and suspense, knowing that something might happen and feeling the tension that this causes. Suspense is a device where the audience is given knowledge.
When the temporality of stories is changed, by using a flash forward, to indicate an ending for the story, but not fully explaining it, the aim is to create dramatic tension. When an item is clearly shown in the story, but its not clear why this item is being mentioned or shown in relation to the plot, then this is a clue that it will have significance. Audience’s participate in a story through anticipation, they don’t just received one fact at a time. Temporal story order is changed so that there are mysteries between an event in the future compared to an event in the present, or the past.
A story might be considered as the presentation of events, with telling a story meaning that it is fully recounted, but this is not the case, and the sense of anticipating what might happen, and being given knowledge to speculate on this is often what connects the audience to the story. If a plot is established that a character has no money, but needs to take a train journey, this creates a suspense as they arrive at the station and travel on the train, but if this plot is not established, there’s no indication about the money or the need to travel, and then this is just showing a character on the train.
Foreshadowing is indicating what might happen in the narrative. Suspense is giving the audience an understanding that the characters don’t have: so the audience know what might happen and this sets up a tension. Plotting sets out an aim for the characters suggesting where the story might go. Reversals change the direction of the plot, because what was anticipated by the character and the audience doesn’t happen; its reversed. Complications mean that what was planned to happen has been made more difficult. Reactions are understood because the interiority of the character has been established: the audience has been given knowledge that lets them know what the character is thinking. All of these are storytelling techniques which are rarely considered when a person tells an anecdote, what happened when they went shopping. Here, in an anecdote, there is a story and it may have a significant event, but an anecdote, like personal diary, the recounting of events in life is not a dramatic form. The experience of the story is not just in the events, but how the events are narrated and how the audience is given knowledge of events.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019