focalisation (narratology) established as a term within literary narratology, focalisation is the situating of the narrator in relation to their telling and their part in the story. An external narrator, telling the story but not participating in the events is externally focalised, which is also termed zero focalisation, because the narrator takes no part in the action of the story. While an internal narrator who is focalised participates in the story, as a central figure or an observer, giving their account of events as they witness and understand them.
The usefulness of focalisation is that it clarifies that narration in the prose writing is often complex and there are many possible variations of focalisation: an externally focalised narrator can tell a story about themselves when they were younger and the younger self is internally focalised because the plot of the story recounts the young person’s life: this twin focalisation enables the external older narrator to comment on their younger self. An epistolary novel based on letters or diaries can have the letters and diaries of different participants in the story: this is multiple internal focalisation. External focalisation may be omniscient and the narrator is able to narrate the actions, in terms of thoughts and deeds for all of the characters in the story, or instead, the external focalisation allows the narrator to narrate action for all of the characters in the story, but only the internal thoughts of some of the characters. Focalisation, which is often barely noticed by the reader, is a crucial and dynamic aspect of prose narration. The choice of focalisation is important to the story as it controls which events are depicted and how they are depicted. Focalisation is not a term that is presently in common usage in film making, but as a concept it supports an understanding of narration in film.
In film narration, unlike oral storytelling or written prose there is no implicit narrator: in speech and writing in order to tell a story there has to be narration, telling, but a film does not tell a story in the same way, it does not use language/speech: a film depicts events, showing them. In narratology, definitions and explanations of focalisation often make the claim, comparison, that the external narrator in prose writing is the camera eye in film narration, but this is misleading as it oversimplifies focalisation in the medium of film. For a film narrative to establish an external narrator, external focalisation, a person telling the story, the use of voice over narration needs to establish a narrator and then the film’s narrative can be understood to offer this external telling of the story: so a film without using camera viewpoint can have external focalisation.
The documentary film often has an external narrator, off screen, giving a narrative account of the events depicted on screen. In fiction film, external focalisation, a voice over narrator of events, can also be a character in the film, so their narration, even when it does not match the events shown in the film, has a validity: they are able to tell their story because they were a participant: the narrator can be seen in the story, so they are internally focalised. Most film drama does not have voice over narration, external focalisation, and the medium of film controls narration in two particular ways.
First, the plot of the film is constructed to follow the actions of one or more characters: this narrative focalisation gives story information from one or more specific viewpoints: a murder mystery can tell the story with the scenes following the investigator and only reveal the criminal at the end, never showing the criminal committing crimes, or the same story can be told from the viewpoint of the criminals and their actions, showing them committing crimes with the detective as a peripheral and secondary figure: each of these narratives is the same story but the focalisation is quite different and each significantly changes the narration. In film there’s no implicit narrator, no character tells their story, but the choice of plotting will follow different characters and this is focalisation because the viewpoint/s of the audience are determined by this structuring: it shows them a particular version, parts of the story, situating and placing the audience.
Secondly, and again particular and different from focalisation in written prose, the directing and filming of a film scene has focalisation. Filming can observe the action of the story, remaining unconnected to a character: so there is external focalisation, or the shots and editing can participate in the action, following one or more characters and this is internal focalisation. The filming, the dramatisation of the story, creates a focalisation because the story is being narrated through a range of viewpoints. What is very different from focalisation in film from written prose is that it can change from scene to scene, and even within scenes without disrupting the realism in the narrative. This is unlike prose where sudden changes of focalisation in a fiction novel would be perceived as bad writing, jumping characters, viewpoints in a random way: there are experimental and anti-novels that deliberately disrupt narrative and focalisation, but these are not constructed to be realist novels.
There are specific techniques to create internal focalisation in filming: for external focalisation the camera can be placed so that it views action, but does not take the viewpoint of any character. Alternatively, the camera can give viewpoint through point of view that internally focalises the scene with a particular character. It is not just the specific point of view shot that controls internal focalisation, the filming will travel with a character, giving them dominance in the scene in terms of their actions: the audience closely follows what this character says, what they do, how they react, unlike other characters in the scene. The flexibility of focalisation in films is that it will change frequently unlike the focalisation of written prose: a scene in a film may begin with external focalisation, not following any character or may begin with a specific character, or it may follow more than one character: part of the focalisation during filming will rest with the plot, what the scene narrates as action, and part will be how the filming of the scene shows the action of characters: the same action but from different focalisations. In relation to the camera being an eye, like a narrator, this is correct to some extent, but the camera can produce numerous focalisations within a narrative: internal and external. The camera offers many viewpoints, which is why focalisation is a useful term: one every shot the camera lens offers a single visual viewpoint, a literal viewpoint, but different shots may have the same focalisation and or may change,
In film narration, which has two distinct methods of focalisation we might introduce specific labels for these:
SCRIPTED FOCALISATION: this focalization can be understood from the script, the plotted narrative: following one or more characters to tell the story.
SCENIC FOCALISATION: this is the articulation of focalisation in the filming where viewpoint is shifting and any event in the script and the action of the story can be filmed in different ways to establish different viewpoints: some will be external focalisation, not connected to a character, and some are internal focalisation: connected to a specific character.
With the two distinctions above it possible to see the difference between the film screenplay and the film direction in terms of narration: the screenwriting decides on the focalisation of characters in terms of the plot following characters, and the film direction is effectively deciding on the cinematic focalisation of every scene and event in the film.
The concept of focalisation is valid for any storytelling medium, not just a narrative film and a story can be objectively told or told from the viewpoint of one or more characters, but the techniques of narration differs from medium to medium: comic books with their use of still images, page layout and caption text have their own versions of focalisation as do video games. In video games there are first person games where the player occupies a single viewpoint, they are a specific character, the player, which is an internal focalisation. There are top down video games, which look down on the overall action, external focalisation, and in a game there is internal focalisation for the game player in terms of the character they control. There are side scroll games which follows a particular player, which is internal focalisation, because the player is always with the character, and games that allow players to pick which characters they want to be in a game, changing the internal focalisation, and also players can change focalisation within the game, switching from first person perspective, to a third person perspective. This change of focalisation in video games operates in similar ways to that of film narration, but in a video game the choice of viewpoint can be a player option unlike a narrative film on a single screen where viewpoint is constructed by the filmmakers. When a video game is recorded as a play through so that it becomes a fixed narrative this is how film fixes narration: during film making, while playing the game and recording, the focalisation can change but it then becomes an audio-visual story text, a recorded narrative film. Because video game player can change viewpoint to help them play the game successfully focalisation can change in a game, and this will have a narrative component, it happens for a reason.
By using the terms, scripted focalisation and scenic focalisation for film, it’s clearer where and how viewpoint is established during the creative process of story creation: plot focalisation in the scripting and scenic focalisation in the filming. In prose writing focalisation will be controlled throughout the story, staying with a single character for the whole story or changing to different characters for different chapters or several chapters, and this is similar to plotted narration in a screenplay, plot follows characters, but a film is far more flexible than script, and its possible for scenic focalisation have a dominant focalisation, particular characters, but it can change at different points in the narrative: there are several characters in a scene, trapped in a building trying to run and escape from a fire, there is external focalisation, seeing the building and the fire which is not connected to any particular character, and there are multiple internal focalisations, the actions of different characters, and this can shift to one individual experience of a single character for a particular event: jumping from a window to escape, and this focalisation will present both the physical action and the psychological experience of the action. The screenplay is written in a form that presents only external focalisation, what can be shown on screen, when the screenplay is filmed, the filmic narration expands the range of focalisation.
To cover some issues related to the development and discussion of focalisation in literature based narratology. The term was coined in part so that visual terms were not used for literary texts, viewpoint and perspective relating to vision, seeing, but prose writing is narration in words telling the story and the two should not be confused for a proper understanding of narrative in written text which are read. The usage of the terms viewpoint and perspective which are used in literary theory is unlikely to be ended by the coining of the new term; focalisation within the field of narratology, and these everyday ‘seeing’ terms, viewpoint and perspective, do encapsulate what is meant by focalisation. Prose writing also uses the grammatical terms, first, second or third person that are major aspects of focalisation. Perhaps what is important here in terms of creativity and storytelling, rather than terminology, is that prose writers, screenwriters, and filmmakers understand with precision what focalisation is and the usefulness it has for narrating a story. Just stating viewpoint and thinking that what the camera shows is viewpoint does not explain how viewpoint/focalisation works in film narration.
As another small confusion in narratology is that external focalisation is sometimes identified as zero focalisation. ‘Zero’ possibly suggesting that an external narrator is not focalised in any way. This is not the case and the zero can be taken to mean that there is no internal focalisation present in the narrative. A summary news report is typically written with only external, zero focalisation, but it is focalised. Within semiotics there is a phrase, returning to zero, which indicates that its possible to return to a point where a sign, signifies no meaning, and this may have been the factor that led to the use of zero focalisation: it’s not an indication of nothing, but of a basic state.
Once focalisation is understood filmmakers can make active use of this to define how they tell stories and the varieties of focalisation that are available to them. What occurs with screenwriting at a foundation level is that writer’s are prone to choose a scripted narration where there is only a single central character and this character is followed in every scene apart from occasional establishing scenes for locations: this is a story with a single focalisation in the scripted narrative. This choice occurs, often without conscious decision, because we perceive our lives, ourselves as having a single focalisation, first person (unless we have multiple personalities) so that this single focalisation, single character approach seems right for a film narrative. Also, we watch a film from a spectators viewpoint, which can seem to indicate how films narrate, we watch them as a viewer and have this viewpoint, but this does not explain focalisation in the narration of the story. Some films do narrate their stories with a single character, but it is a limited focalisation. Most film narratives will have multiple scripted focalisations, giving plot and narrative to different characters: the antagonist and the protagonist, or a main story line and secondary story line, or multiple-storylines each with a different focalisation, or one story with a different focalisation for different parts of the story.
As a story is created, and as it’s developed, it can be told in different ways and this will effect the drama and the narrative, creating a sense that the story has complexity, that the actions of a range of characters have agency in the story: this sense of depth of complexity in the story creates uncertainty, tension and intrigue for the audience: so focalisation is a narrative device and it’s a vital method for creating dramatic form in a story: focalisation engages the audience by connecting the story to different characters, and a skilled screenwriter will be able to use this: one is familiar with a potentially engaging, very entertaining story being told in a dull and uninteresting way: focalisation can be used to address this issue: how to tell a story effectively.
The concept of focalisation explains what a director does in terms of filming on set. Directing is not just a question of showing action, and there is scenic focalisation which is central to the process of directing. As with screenwriting a limited understanding of cinematic focalisation effects foundation level directors: scenes will be filmed with external focalisation: observation showing characters arriving and leaving and there is often little understanding of internal focalisation: filming a character so that their part in the scene is understood as the principal action of the story. A skilled director will we be able to involve the audience in the action of the scene, shifting and changing focalisation, which is a far more precise and dynamic approach to the narrating of a story.
The work of blocking, directing actors, choosing shots, with a clear understanding of what this means in terms of focalisation will clarify how the audience will understand and experience the story. This process continues in editing where the choice of shots and their editing further refines the focalisation. One can study films to consider focalisation and then use this to develop skills in camera, sound, direction and editing. Film narration is not a sequence of moving images, but changing viewpoints giving insight into the story.
If one is looking for a psychological explanation for focalisation: how we are able to take a character’s viewpoint in a novel or read a novel as though we can oversee the actions of the characters, and how in a film the narration can change viewpoint through the directing and editing of scenes, then one can indicate that focalisation is also a continuous mental process, it’s a cognitive function of mind that is present in lived experience and this underpins the articulation of focalisation in storytelling across a range of mediums. As part of lived experience we consciously reflect on our actions ‘seeing ourselves’. We undertake actions, having intention and knowing what we are doing, but not reflecting on them, we are ‘in the moment’, and also, we witness the actions of others, observing them from an external viewpoint, and we also see the action of others and attribute to these actions, the mental states, the thoughts, feelings, intentions of minds which we actually have no direct access to. As cognate beings we are constantly shifting focalisation: in lived experience we shift viewpoints even though we are rarely aware of this. When we look at someone we almost instantly start to construct a sense of how that person is functioning in terms of their thoughts and personalities. This is also one fact that appeals regarding stories: trying to figure out the characters, what they are like internally, their personality, and from this consider what actions they will take.
Considering focalisation as a cognitive function is not addressed as part of a theory of film narration, it’s not a term in psychology, but what can be related to focalisation has been theorised by Lisa Zhunshine in Why We Read Fiction (2006). Here the terminology is Theory of Mind, how minds are able to understand story, and here the term is mind mapping, how we are able to ascribe internal thought, goals and intentions, to the external appearance of others is considered in relation to fiction writing
The origin of the term focalisation is attributed to Gérard Genette in Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (1980) Narrative Discourse Revisited (1988)
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019