storytelling (narrative theory) The narration of a connected sequence of events with a temporal progression, set out in a narrative form, and in a medium of narration, is storytelling. This can be storytelling in performance, oral storytelling, staged performance with puppetry, shadows or actors, storytelling as part of religious or social ritual, or stories reproduced in intermediate mediums and transferable forms, sculpture in tableaux, tapestry, written literature, pictorial image, or moving image, the medium of photo-chemical film stock or digital data.
What is useful for film makers in relation to creativity and storytelling in narrative film is in considering storytelling, its creation and production, as a formulation of elements: conceptions of character and plot articulated through narration, to construct a coherent narrative form.
While a story is often summarised through its plot: what happened, who did what: to articulate this story as a dramatic narrative it is necessary and fundamental to indicate the intentions of characters: what they want to do or do not want to do.
To clarify what is meant here by a dramatic narrative, a news report can be illustrative of a non-dramatic narrative/narration: a news story will report dramatic, serious events, but it does not articulate character: 'There was a car crash on the London Road at six pm, Wednesday 22nd November, the crash involved a collision between two cars. The driver of one car was killed, the other driver and passengers suffered serious injuries.' This is a narrative in the form of a report: what happened is clear, what is not described is the characters of the drivers and the passengers: a dramatic narrative would render character and give a personal account of the car crash: naming the drivers and passengers, their social and individual identity, their relationships, what they did or didn't do during the crash, what they did or didn't do to cause the crash. The narration of the car crash as drama would depict personality, intention, choice, action and reaction, which is a primary element in dramatising a story.
What is essential to the concept and depiction of character is interiority: it reveals the inner life of the character, what they are like as a person: who they are. A dramatic story can use voice over narration to state internal thoughts, and so present character, but in the majority of film narrative voice over is not used, so character is indicated through a number of methods.
Character is embedded in action: what people do, through deliberate decision, through stated their intention and also acting without conscious intention, reacting, acting on impulse is all revealing of character. This may appear somewhat contradictory as action is plot, external action, not the direct articulation of interior thoughts. However, physical action can be described accurately, the person drinks a cup of tea, but interiority is inferred by action, through the action being significant, through the context being significant in the circumstances when it happens and through the context of the action as part of the story. A person can drink a cup of tea to show that they are calm and a person can drink a cup of tea to calm themselves down: the same action, and two different, opposing story actions. To example action and character in the narration of a car crash based on the report above.
During a motorway car journey the driver wants to drink a cup of tea, the passengers warn the driver of the danger of doing this, but the driver goes ahead. The driver takes one of the hot drinks that was bought from a service station, a short while back, and when the driver is taking a sip of this tea, they are distracted from their driving, and then when the tea is too hot they react, dropping their cup, and then swerve hitting another car. All of this is external action, but the choices of the driver and what they do and don't do indicates their character, their interiority, their intention: they want a drink, they are driving, and they are willing to take the risk of drinking a hot drink while driving: they do not ask one of the passengers to check that the drink is cool enough to drink. These decisions can be read as character, but they are not read without evaluation by the audience who read intention into the actions: the driver is unthinking, the driver is reckless, the driver is not very smart. What would give a greater sense of character is the narration of other events before this: does the driver behave recklessly by other actions they take while driving, and/or do they acknowledge or seem unaware of the risk of taking the hot drink when they are driving. So, action indicates character. This might be indicated as indirect action, no statements are made about character, but the action itself indicates character.
The direct representation of character is taken to be statements that characters make regarding their intentions actions and feelings and how they make them: the driver politely asks for the hot drink, the driver demands the hot drink. In these variations the character is a polite person, or a bossy person, or even an angry person: this bossiness can be connected to the notion of their recklessness, and their politeness indicating a timidity, or social respect. There is also how the other characters interact or don’t interact with the driver.
As events accrue in a story, then character emerges, and the audience piece together indicators, clues about character: this construction of character by the audience is why there can be distinct differences in the understanding within the audience of the characters: the car driver was selfish in their action, the passengers were selfish in their actions because they had their hot drinks when the driver did not. Audiences take different viewpoints to the story.
What needs to be signalled as a major challenge for film making is in the assumption that the audience will read the meaning of the action and the statement in a drama in terms of interiority, and that screenplay, performance and camera angle will ensure that character, personality and intention are understood. Action does not necessarily show character: A character is ironing their shirt, they are depressed, they sit at the bus stop, they are unhappy about having to go to work. These actions, ironing, sitting at a bus stop, might indicate this interiority, but only as part of a set of actions. An important part of the establishment of a story is to state intentions clearly in some way, through an action that offers a clear representation of interiority of the character or through a statement by the character or other another character that continues to be relevant and valid to the narrative.
The writing, the narrating at the story is crucial to a sense of character, even if the decision is to hide the full intentions and personality of a character by not revealing it to the audience until a later stage in the story. In screenwriting, if the action of ironing is shown to indicate depression or unhappiness then this needs to be stated, if the person is unhappy about going to work or instead frustrated about the bus being late then this needs to be shown. It won't just be assumed by the audience what the character is feeling, and showing an actor slumped, sitting at a bus stop could mean that they are lazy, don't pay much attention to themselves, are unhappy, are fed up, or just don’t like taking the bus. Film narration appears natural, naturalist, but it is a carefully constructed narration: filming everyday events is not storytelling.
In screenwriting, as the story is established, a statement by the character, about a character or a deed establishes what is termed their super objective: what their central aim is and what drives and dictates the character’s actions in a story. This objective usually states an external objective that a character wants, a need, so the super objective predicts action, but it also puts in place their internal personality: I will never get married. I think it’s important to get married. I may get married, but a marriage will always fail. The establishing of the story sets out the situation for the character, not just in terms of place and setting, but also their attitude to their circumstances and what they want to do. The super objective is an impetus for the story and also a reason for it: events just happening, showing someone going about the day, ironing, catching the bus is not a story in dramatic terms: it’s a set of events. In a personal diary or journal this sets out events, what a person has done in their day, it is not the same form as a dramatic narration.
There's a temptation in screenwriting, to feel that characters should be unclear, because this makes them more interesting, intriguing, mysterious, but this articulation of the character requires a story event to indicate that the character is withholding something, and this articulates the characters and their situation: a character is silent because they don't like talking, a character is silent because they won't answer. Just being silent doesn’t indicate character, it needs some context to articulate the meaning and purpose of this silence. Story makes events meaningful: there is what happened and why it happened. Sometimes a filmmaker is frustrated that the audience don't understand the story, the film they are being shown, but this can be a case of the story not articulating the meanings that the filmmaker assumes are present in the story, because they have over read what an action or a statement will convey. This can happen because in writing the screenplay or making the film, the character can be discussed and understood, but then these elements aren’t carried into the narration of the film, they are assumed to be in place.
The storyteller needs to create a clarity at the start of the story that is then complicated because the character faces a challenge or a conflict based on this situation. The development of the story, carefully told, well told, will create depth of character as the story progresses and involve the audience in assessing and judging the characters, and also in terms of connecting to the characters emotionally or rejecting them: loving or hating a character. The notion of stereotype indicates familiar devices that indicate a type of person or a character, and these can be used, but then they still have to develop for a story to have character depth, but relying on a stereotype to articulate character, and doing no more than this, is by definition superficial.
This notion of stereotyping can be seen when the aim in pre-production is to cast the right person for the part, as though just the actor's physicality and voice will articulate what is needed for the audience to understand the story. This is not an effective method to construct and control narration: character has to be carefully articulated in the storytelling so it is understood by the audience: it’s not just there in the presence of the actor. In life we participate and witness events and action, and we make judgements on the interior life of others based on this: the person did this, so that is their character, but a story constructs meaning, making events coherent and purposeful: and this clarity for storytelling and the complexity of character in the story is the work of the storytelling, the screenwriter, the film makers.
Plot: The plot as a description of a film narrative sets out a story in a concise form. It can be produced in written or diagrammatic form before the writing of a script or the filming of a story. There is the outline plot, the major events of a story without necessarily all the plot points needed to fully indicate how these major events are linked, and then there is the full plot: setting out each event in the story so that they make a coherent temporal sequence. Both can be used to develop a story and they can both be extracted, distilled from a completed story. Plot will indicate action, what happens and who does what, but it will not set out character, their motivations and relationships in any detail: action is simply stated. To some extent a plot outline tells the story, but it is not the narration, the actual telling of a story: a plot can be lost to poor storytelling or rendered meaningless: certain things happen in a story, but why they happen and how they are connected to make a coherent plot is unclear.
Plot sets out the story events, but this is not specific in terms of medium or narration. The description of the plot of a story in a novel does not differ significantly from the description of the plot of a film or a play and plot does not necessarily indicate viewpoint, focalisation: who is telling the story and from what place in the story they are telling it from. A plot document is a form of verbal or written summary, written story without literary narration. A plot can be narrated as a novel, a drama, a film, a television episode or series, and this is why it is used to develop a full story: its simplicity as a form allows for it to be easily changed to develop a detailed story. If a feature film script consists of eighty to ninety scenes, a hundred or so script pages then restructuring or changing the plot to any significant degree would mean re-ordering, re-writing and changing the majority of the script which is a complex and time-consuming task. In comparison a plotting document, a story outline, a story treatment is one or two pages of simply stated plot points, or index cards, or a diagram, and this is all that needs to be changed to rework the plot: working with a plot document is a manageable task and an effective way to consider one element of telling a story. Character may be set aside for the development of plot, but character must underpin and motivate the story.
A specific confusion for neophyte writers in relation to plotting their story is that the plot summaries in film reviews and the plot synopsis that offer an overview of a film for public reading don’t present a fully coherent plot: they avoid plot spoilers and deliberately obscure the actual plot of the film. For the creation and creative planning of a story the plotting needs to clearly set out the story events. Writing a plot like a review, the hiding of the crucial aspects of events can seem to add mystery and intrigue to a plot outline, but it actually just makes the plotting obscure and difficult to follow. In creative writing plotting differs from plot summaries written for consumers and the public and limited versions of the plot, hiding key events, are aimed to entice people to see a film, to create a story for a film. New writers will have read many plot summaries that advertise films or other types of story and it often creates the assumption that this is the correct way to approach a plot summary for creative writing: it is not.
When a plot summary is set out this either indicates that there is already in place a pre-existent and fully articulated story in some medium, book, play, film from which a plot has been summarised, or alternatively the plot outline is an initial and tentative document, the plotting in progress as one part of the creative work of developing a full story. These are two entirely different states of plot: one is complete and one is unformed. This can lead to a false assumption that can conflate and obscure the difference between plot as a type of story development and the complete and fully narrated story. There’s a conceit in story pitching for film production that a successful story can be presented as a high concept, a few words that make the story idea compelling. This is a challenge to meet when trying to gather interest in a story, it is an important selling technique, but it would be a mistake to assume that a limited set of plot points, however intriguing, will simply fill out to make a complete detailed story. Also, in everyday usage what is labelled, a story, might recount a single incident, like a news story, or else be a short story of personal interest, an anecdote. These types of stories have a kind of plot, a significant event, but they are not complex stories and they do not require the storytelling skills that are needed by a creative writer who wants to be able to develop and write stories for film.
So, with all this criteria confusing plot, what represents a good plot? The above indicates what a plot does, it's the essential events of the story, but how is a plot assessed or valued?
There is internal story coherence: if the plot makes sense in terms of temporal progression: circumstances change over time and this has a narrative continuity that can be successful or can be broken and fail due to temporal inconsistency: a character has a broken arm, then has no broken arm. Plot continuity can be broken by confusing gaps, temporal ellipsis that progress the story but which loses plot coherence: the house is on fire, the dog is trapped by the fire, the dog is outside the house. The plotting has not made it clear how the dog got outside the house.
There is external coherence, which judges a plot in terms of mimesis and verisimilitude and this links plot to historical, social and cultural criteria. There are plot structures which are conventionalised over a period of time and these will often narrate a socially specific form of story: a tragedy, a drama, an epic, a satire, a fantasy. Cultures differ greatly in relation to what is accepted as valid in terms of verisimilitude: people can turn into animals or not, people can fly or not. Forms of fiction differ in form and format: there are stories of a thousand pages with a thousand story events, a saga, and there is the single short incident story, the sketch. Functionally plot summarises events, but plots are judged as true or false, good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, tasteful or tasteless in relation to established story conventions, social judgement and individual subjective judgement. A successful plot will have internal coherence, but whether it is understood as a valid plot, a good or bad plot, will vary in relation to wider social values and individual subjective judgement: taste and convention are highly controlling influences on plot and form.
Story and Narration: There is the plot, what happens, and there is the telling of the plot, how it is narrated (film production has made use of the term narration to describe the use of expository voice over, a specific technique of narration, which is not the use of narration as it is applied in literary theory and the telling of a story) Narration, using the literary usage, can be conceived and discussed without reference to plot: it is the method, mode or technique of telling a story. For example: the story is narrated following a single character. The story is narrated in the past tense, recounting events that the narrator has already experienced. Narration differs from medium to medium: literary narration is not the same as dramatic stage-based narration or filmic narration.
Narration is not commonly understood or referred to because it's a technique of construction. It’s not needed for comprehension. Listening to music, enjoying music requires no formal training or understanding of how composition or musical theory works and it is the same for story construction: films can be watched and understood without any specialised knowledge of screenwriting or film making. There’s the proposition that stories are universal, we all share and tell stories, but this claim is deceptive. A person can hum a tune or sing a song, but that does not provide the understanding or skills needed to be a composer, a musical arranger or a musician. Story writing, narrative film making needs developed skills: it's a specialised activity and needs an understanding of storytelling as it relates to plotting, narration and form.
There is narration in screenwriting, ensuring that plot develops, that characters and motivations are clear, and from these story develops. Narration is the successful depiction of setting, character and plot, but not all events that can be imagined for the characters are part of the story. When novelists start without a clear plot, they will often write a very long novel, and this is because with no clear plot the significance of events to the story is not clear: the main character meets someone while they are at the shops, the main character buys a coffee. This is meandering storytelling, it is not dramatic storytelling. Narration takes disparate elements and makes them into a whole, a form. In this process what is taken to be essential to the story is included and what is redundant to the story is set aside.
There is narration in filming. A scene in a film can be well filmed or badly filmed. Poor filming may show all the physical action of a scene, someone arriving, doing something and leaving, but it will fail and not show the story, the moments of decision for the character, the interaction between the characters, their actions and reactions. Precise and successful filming will show each plot point that needs to be narrated for the story to be clear, it will show each articulation of character that needs to be narrated for the story to be clear, and this precision of storytelling will be taken by the audience to be a natural and realistic flow of action and story: something happening. The precision of successful film making, successful narration, makes a story easy for the audience to understand and to engage with the characters, and the techniques of film making, framing, composition, sound, blocking, cinematography, camera movement, production design, costume, hair, make up, and acting, all need to be supportive of the narration, telling the story. A good looking shot does not necessarily tell the story, a dramatic gesture does not necessarily tell the story. So, film direction is the channelling of all the elements of the film narration to convey the story. This is the skill and judgement that a director needs to make: it’s not a question of the director liking or not liking some aspect of the film, a location, a choice of costume, but whether or not this element fails or succeeds in telling the story.
Story and Form: There is a distinction drawn between content and form. This is the difference primarily between the topic, the subject of the story, which is its content and the telling of the story: the format, duration and specific mode of narration, which is its form.
One can state form without reference to story. There is the duration of the storytelling: long form or short form, single drama or drama series. There is form as dramatic structure: three acts, one act, stories with an A story line and a B story line. Here form is concerned with telling a story within a format: the length of scenes, acts. The plot is worked to fit the form and vice versa: a story with a brief story-time, a hour in terms of story events, can be a drama that lasts an hour, a real-time story and a story that depicts the major events of a life, a fifty year story-time can be a ninety minute film: plot is matched to the duration and dramatic structure of the form. Content is managed and designed to match the form.
The concept of form is not just structural it relates to types of literature, in drama and film: tragedy, comedy, satire, horror, fantasy, suspense. Form is the cultural and historical shaping of story into recognised and conventionalised story types.
In the medium of film the initial form of film was the single shot, developing into a series of shots showing related events or places. This developed into more complex storytelling forms through the one reel short films of the silent era, which were short form stories, sometimes simply filming in a single shot or with a limited number of shots the recording on film of a stage story or as a different approach, using editing as a technique of narration to link story events. The long form single drama feature film developed as a realist form, through the development of the continuity system and as a form in a length that was suited to film viewing in a society where there were relatively short periods of leisure time and a single short film might be shown to multiple audiences to bring in revenue.
As part of the development of the feature film form, film genres, forms with reference to the treatment of subject matter, their content and they way they narrated story, developed with audience expectations regarding story conventions and styles attached to each form, with genres such as the Westerns (cowboy films), thrillers, comedies, horror. These forms, recognised genres, were and are never entirely consistent or coherent as concepts or forms, and they develop and change over time. Film genres can be cross-cultural, culturally specific and even community specific where they may be labelled as sub-cultural forms. The present forms of narrative film, in cinema, on television, in festivals, galleries and available through streaming and downloads have evolved from early cinema through economic and cultural practices, using the form of the theatrical play, the novel and the magazine serial.
Form is temporal structure and form is the social construction of storytelling developing into narrative types. In terms of teaching and understanding screenwriting this had led to a strong preference for the manuals that teach writing to foreground form as structure: How to Write a Screenplay, and this even extends to the concept of form to claim that there are universal forms of story structure: The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. Both of these approaches are useful but they are limited. They attempt to describe film storytelling with their being no connection to social specificity of form: what a story is about and how it represents the society in which it is conceived or what the form aims to depict. This is like describing a set of vessels what they look like, their shape and size, but not indicating their social use: what are these objects and forms for? What do they do? A story cannot be written based on form, a story needs content, and this is what connects it to the audience: the form is what helps the story be told well.
When the subject of genre writing is set out in teaching manuals then a broad and general approach is used: How to Write a Murder Mystery, How to Write a Romance. These manuals are informative about form, but they still only offer a simplistic model, they don’t engage, discuss and debate the complex relationship between genre and society, genre and individual authorship. The generalities that these How To Write manuals offer may seem to be true at the time of writing, but then as time passes they become noticeably anachronistic and obviously out of date. If one were to look at a How To Write a Romance book from the 1950’s then this would not describe contemporary relationships. It would only describe the conventions and understanding of a genre’s form at the time when the manual was written.
To try and overcome this problem of a manual going out of date because genres change, some manuals opt for a supposedly ahistorical, supposedly universal terminology to describe form with character and story functions: the guardian, the avenger, the first challenge. The language used suggests ancient knowledge and wisdom, but these terms are vague, so that two stories which are quite different and distinct in terms of subject matter and social representation offer supposedly the same story: a story based on a pupil starting at a new school, supposedly matches the story of a family emigrating because the story because both have a challenge. The idea of archetypal plots avoids the connection to the society in which the writer is working or that the writer wants to depict which is a clear limitation to the idea of using archetypes.
It’s actually not possible to create a story using this type of story-function terminology: one can craft a story to match the terminology which can support writing, helping to structure form, but it is not the basis of a story, it offers no setting, characters, events, or action. There are computer-based story generating tools, that supposedly create stories, but they are actually ordering plot points: what makes a story meaningful is the experience and value the story has for the writer and the audience.
The idea of a self-help or training manual for writing is to make them appeal to as many consumers as possible and this leads to a simplification in their teaching methodology. This is not just a feature of writing manuals: the reductive idea of essences, principals, truths, universals, is a method for codifying a topic, and this existentialism is often presented as analytical thought, as being rigorous or even scientific, but a reductive process is by definition a simplification that can help or hinder, codify or limit understanding and practice. It’s fine to plan a story, simplifying plot points, character can be defined through essential qualities, but a story, in its narration brings all these together and develops them, and this complexity of narration is the narrative that engages the audience.
A writer, a storyteller can use the screenwriting manuals to consider their craft, the techniques of storytelling, but what they choose to write is individual and unique, even when they knowingly choose to write within a genre form. If a writer uses the manuals as a definitive guide to their writing then they will be following the form and content that the manual offers, which is a limitation to personal creativity: most stories based on manuals will be derivative and cliched.
Story and Medium: The medium in which a story is told does not dictate plot or form but it does place parameters on narration. The script is a form of storytelling that stands between literary narration and film narration, and so evidences the difference in narration between written story and film. The directions in a script avoids metaphor, analogy, figures of speech, idiom and vernacular language. For a screenplay the intention is to state in the direction only what can be filmed, so that the literary practice of commentary, the story narrator offering an interpretation of the characters, events and places in a story is not present in a screenplay as this can’t be produced in a film image.
As an example of literary narration, commentary: Tom Brown had an uncommon attraction to malice and violent action. There is no story event stated that shows this, it cannot be filmed: the screenwriter working from this sentence would need to create a scene, actions to show the character of Tom Brown to match the commentary. The words could be stated as voice over in a film, but this would be literary narration as part of the film form.
The screenwriter and the filmmaker face the challenge of writing a script and making a film that will tell the intended story on screen. To do this there needs to be an understanding of film narration, storytelling as having a distinct medium-based mode of narration. A habit of emerging filmmakers is to over read what is being narrated in the screenplay, during filming, when in editing and in the finished film, and after doing this they assume that the audience will read significant story events from on screen action, visual clues: the person is sitting alone, they are lonely and they want to end their life. This over reading occurs, sitting alone implying being suicidal, is because in the watching of a film the process of exposition is often transparent, plot points are set up, so that later in the film as the story progresses a particular character action or story viewpoint is highly significant for the development of plot. However, this significance is not embedded in the shot itself but in the shot’s placement in the story events of the film.
On set a shot is filmed of an actor reading a text on their phone: this shot is a recording of a person reading a text. It will have significance in the story if the shot is placed so that the reading of the text has importance for the plot: the shot itself does not carry the story meaning: the sequence of events in the story changes the meaning of events. Filmmakers can easily over read the meaning of an image or event because they know what it is meant to convey. The teaching manuals which emphasise construction, How to write a script, How to direct, have a tendency to assume that this reductive formulaic methodology and approach will produce a successful storytelling process: it’s actually successful narration that tells the story, communicating the character and plot to the audience.
Character, plot, story are familiar words, often used when discussing a book, a play, a film, but the creation of each aspect of a narrative and their combining to create and tell a story is a skilled and detailed endeavour. Character is the basis for story, plot clarifies events and enables the story to be written to the format, the form for the narrative, form is the dramatic structure of the form and also a conventionalised cultural form. The writer tells a unique story, and so needs to establish and present character, show character development in plot, to develop plot with significant events. The writer is the narrator of the story and needs to understand their medium so that they can narrate successfully. The story needs to connect to personal and social issues, because a story needs to have content. Storytelling uses events to present a rhetoric, giving a version of world: what happens when….
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019