story world (narrative theory) The setting of a story. Its physical, social and historical environment as a function of plot, and also, of character: the story world establishing and developing plot in relation to the period and locations where the story events take place, and also depicting the characters’ personal, social, moral, psychological and emotional experience. As an example of this, film genres have conventions of story world, how places and times are depicted and familiar characters to match these conventions: the story world is not just a place and time where the story action occurs. The genre of the melodrama has a story world that presents a carefully, overtly designed and formalised domestic and social environment, which is a representative of the social and moral restraints that the characters are understood to experience, and as a melodrama progresses the depiction of the story world can develop: indicating psychological restriction and oppression, and if there is an eventual change in the character’s experience this will be matched by a change in environment: sometimes shifting from the urban social to the natural and idyllic.
As an example of when story worlds are mismatched, illustrating how story world and character are usually combined to create a unified realism, there are stories where the narrative deliberately breaks established story world conventions by placing a character from one particular story world into another for comic effect, this plotting being put in place by the narrative device of magic or science fiction. Here, the character has to learn their new environment and this is not just a question of operation, how things work, but of morality and identity. The character is out of place, not just as a change of location, but as a conflict and difference between the person and their unfamiliar story world.
While, initially it may be counter-intuitive that story world and character are intertwined, and the falseness of any joining in this way is recognised in literary terminology as prophetic fallacy, where the features of human experience is given to places, animals and phenomena in the natural world is understood as fallacy, what is true in actuality and in narrative is that environment and person are closely interconnected.
In lived experience the social environment of a person is part of their history and their social identity, and this can be portrayed in narrative form. Also, societies through religious and spiritual practice understand their existence as inhabiting places and objects. So, in actual life, without reference to formal narrative structures, place and person are interdependent, and a narrative form is an aesthetic construction, so that as a unity of action, the story represents character through the story world. Film Noir is an example of film making where environment is seen to dominate character and events: the lighting and camera angles, indicating psychological states and a particular immoral environment. In actuality, in life, environments are carefully designed and controlled to provide a particular social experience and those who inhabit a particular place can understand themselves as connected to it: the place gives them moral authority, belonging and self hood.
In written prose story world can be divided between setting, what exists in the setting, its time and place, and atmosphere, how the setting is presented. The atmosphere can be narrated as separate to any of the characters in the story, because the narrator is external to the action or the atmosphere can be depicted as the perception of a character in the story, which might be read as their objective description of setting or as a particular psychological perception of setting and events, a subjective experience. Some stories have a character’s internal viewpoint: the narration is the thoughts of the character, and while this depiction of mental thought might not be thought of as setting as it is not physical, it does create setting because the story takes place in the mind, as a focalisation of the character and this will have particular features: the reliability of the narrator, the state of their emotions. The world of the story is the world as they perceive it.
In prose, moving between objective description, apparently un-inflected by character, and the narration of psychological perception, thoughts and feelings; this flow and change of narration, describing, seeing, feeling, is part of the form of the novel and one which the writer puts in place by establishing focalisation: who is narrating the story, what are they narrating, what viewpoints, descriptions and emotions is the reader given access to. In prose metaphor and analogy are recognised as descriptive devices to make an object or an event more than it is.
Prose writing has a range of techniques implicitly linking story world to character, which are accepted as conventions in prose fiction. When authoring a story the writer might rule that a story in written fiction only describes objects and events externally, refusing to provide any connected expressive meaning between place and character, and such a story, its form, would be like a neutral report of facts. Literary fiction is not limited by this sort of rule, and a story in prose is given character viewpoint, which offers focalisation: not just the events but the experience of these events and the story world in which they take place.
In the medium of film story world and character can be understood or assumed to be separate because of two factors. First, a photographic image is taken to be a representation of the world produced by a device that reproduces an objective realism, and so, a photographic image is not declarative like a statement in language: I went to the mountains and they looked very sad. The camera image, at a primary level of the image, showing something, does not have a narrative viewpoint, and showing a mountain in shadow does not make it sad. However, what changes in a narrative film is that an image, the place of a shot in the narrative will have a contextual meaning.
On set, during a film’s production, a room built in a studio is filmed with no one in it. That is the image that is produced. In editing, in the narration of a film this fabricated set can represent many different things: for instance, the room where the mother died, the room is empty and the mother has left this space. So, an empty room offers particular meanings in the context of the narrative, and the filming of the room can work to articulate a particular reading: the dressings indicating that the room has been left without preparation, the lighting being distinct from other times when the room was occupied, the camera angle clearly showing that the room is unoccupied. An image of a room can be just the image of a room or it can highly emotive because of its narrative use. In these circumstances, the plot can develop the significance of the room, the production design of the room can personalise it to a character, and the lighting of the room and the framing and composition can focalise an understanding of the room. As a contradiction to this narrative usage, giving a place meaning as part of a story, a photographic image of a room, will be perceived as having a realism, a connection to external objective reality, but at the same time it can also be part of a narrative form: an aesthetic construction. The representation of a place has a constructed meaning in a story, and this is also experienced in life: we can look at a photograph or visit a place and this will be evocative of different experiences and memory: locating the place as part of a personal narrative experience. This construction of meaning in a story is the challenge that filmmaker’s face: narrating a story so that the meaning they intend is carried to the audience. Problems occur when a filmmaker uses their personal understanding to read a film rather than being able to understand how the audience will read the film.
Two reasons why story world and character can assumed to be separated from character is in relation to how films are described in terms of plot outlines and in terms of the layout of script format. The basic plot of a story, in film, in prose, in drama, can be summarised as an outline without any reference to storyworld and character being linked: the storm blew up and the small boat nearly capsized. This is an impersonal account without any emotive or expressive element, so implicitly separating storyworld from character. The film screenplay functions in the same way.
In the format of the screenplay, the locations, the story world information is set out by the device of a slug line. EXT. BUS STOP/CITY CENTRE DAY. This makes no link between place and character and in the directions of the script, the information about the place of the action in the screenplay is limited to what the characters do, with places and objects being described without literary usage. The conventions of the film script is to limit the form of narration to action which can be filmed and the dialogue to be spoken. The plot of a script will have focalisation because it follows a particular character or a range of characters, but what can be developed through production design, set design, set dressing, lighting, framing, visual editing, sound design and music, are not set out in a screenplay. The result of this is that different aspects of narration in film making are understood as discrete: the script sets out the action of the story and the dialogue, the production design provides the setting, the story world, the places in the story, and the actors through performance and costume show action and character. This is the production process with each seen as a specialisation but not necessarily understood as all being essential features of a film narration. Often the setting and the characters, the story will be integrated, but this can be absent, especially when there is little ability to control production design: the film is shot without being able to craft locations to the characters.
A film can be explained, recounted as a plot, its action and events can be set out in the written format of the script, but the film narrative is a total experience where all aspects of narration are joined to create a narrative. At a conscious level a story in a film might be principally understood as the actions of the characters, the events of the plot, but as an experience of story, all elements are combined in the narration: A film narrative opens with a shot of a forest, the music indicates how the forest can be understood emotionally, the shot of the forest shows a character inside a car, driving and the forest outside the car: the music continues and the narration now links the emotion of the forest to the experience and viewpoint of the driver, making story world an aspect of character.
Prose fiction states what the story world is and who perceives it, while film narration shows different elements and the relationship between character and setting can appear to be discrete and separate, but this is not the case. In the low budget film, the B movie, it’s understood that the finances are not in place to fabricate the storworld, and the effect of this is not just to undermine the realism of the setting, but of the story as a whole, and the actions of the characters become unconvincing, because the story world is not ‘real’. Conversely in stage drama, where there is no expectation of photographic realism a character can walk onto an empty stage or a stage with minimal props and this can be understood and accepted as the setting for a story world of fantasy, of a historical period. The conventions of realism for film and stage narrative differ with film drama, having an element of mimetic realism: representing places as though they might actually exist.
In film making the role of the director is often understood as being to control and direct, to decide on camera angles, to direct actors, but the aim and the crucial purpose of the role overall is to unify the narrative, to connect the story of the screenplay to the design of the production, the design of the costume, the performance, the cinematography, the sound and the score. This is control of narration, storytelling integrating elements of narration which might otherwise remain separate and aesthetically incoherent. In life there is a connection between person and place and in film narrative there is a careful design and connection between character and story world.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019