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Introduction to Narrative

  • Narrative is simply the way that stories are told. It is not the facts of a story but the way in which it is presented and developed
  • All Narrative have four things in common

1. A sequence of events

2. A link in these events

3. They cover a period of time

4. They start at a state of order which is somehow disrupted and (usually) resolved

Narrative and Short Films

  • In Short Film we have a small length of time to get to know the plot and the characters
  • Short filmmakers often need to decide whether they will focus on a plot driven film or a character driven film.
  • Some short films (like 'The Platform') have a circular narrative and end up where they began

TO THINK ON WHILE YOU ARE VIEWING: Is the film you are studying plot driven or character driven? How can you prove it?

Narrative Conventions

  •  When we study narrative we look for common features which present or develop the story
  •  These are called narrative conventions. Some common conventions are listed below:


Narrative Structure

How the plot events are organised into a story. The structure is the scaffold with which the events are held together. Most short films follow this pattern:

Exposition – where the events, setting and main character is introduced

Catalyst – the event that ‘sparks’ the plot

Complications/Turning points/intensifications - plot points that either change the direction of the plot or intensify the previous action or complicate the plot

Climax – the high point of the movie where all the previous events come to fruition.

Resolution – how the film is tied up, sometimes with a surprise or something left unresolved, so that the audience has something to think about.

You could also look at structure in a short film as starting with a state of order (equilibrium), leading to disorder(disequilibrium) and the final resolution of order (Todorov was the narrative theorist that developed this idea).

Other ways of structuring a narrative:

The director, in order to make the narrative more interesting for the audience may manipulate events that occur in the film. For example an event that is crucial to the understanding of the story as a whole may be held back from the audience (this is called narrative retardation) or hints of things to come will be given but not fully revealed until later in the film, This is called foreshadowing. Events or information that is set-up, but not immediately apparent will result in pay-off for the audience once they discover it.

Suspense is often created by giving a character a deadline they must reach and the audience is encouraged to support them in their quest. If the quest is well set up we invest our attention and really engage with the character and the film 

Manipulation of time

Time is nearly always manipulated in film. The manipulation of time is how time is shown and compressed or drawn out. Sometimes filmmakers cross time and space, going forward or backward in time to present or develop the narrative (eg. Flashback, flashforward). Production elements such as fade to black, blue hued lighting, black and white or sepia can be used to show that the order of time has changed. Temporal Order is the name for time structure.

Often time is shortened because it would take too long to sit through the entire series of events shown (the flash name for this is ‘ellipsis’). Audiences must be able to read the ‘shortcuts’ created when time is compressed (made shorter). These short cuts include:

  • Fade to black
  • Change of scene
  • Change of location
  • Some events or steps in a process not shown 
  • Speeding up the film.
  • Changes in light
  • Use of a montage
  • Cuts to the same scene at a later time (eg from full plates to empty, the same people in different clothes
  • Seasonal differences – winter to summer

Sometimes we see time passing in different locations by the use of cross-cutting (sometimes called parallel action)

When time is drawn out, it is often to focus the audience on a particularly important or tense part of the story. Time can be drawn out by the use of these techniques:

  • Slow motion
  • Repetition of important shots
  • The use of music to create suspense and tension



The presentation and development of a character is shown in many ways, through costume, actions and reactions to others, production techniques (such as shot choice, lighting, music, dialogue).
The main character makes the story move forward, and often sets off a cause and effect chain of events. The motivations of a character can be important when thinking about how characters add to or develop a story. The narrative may be presented from the point-of-view of a character or characters and this will effect how we see the story unfolding.

Some narrative theorists say that characters have a series of problems to be solved before the film can end. In short film that will most often be one problem. Joseph Campbell put forward the theory that all main characters embark on a hero’s journey, with common highs and lows on their way to eventual success in gaining what they were looking for (Mostly! Sometimes characters don’t get what they want, they get what they need!).


Conflict of some kind drives the plot forward – it can be internal conflict (within the character) and/or between characters, or it can be conflict with an external force.
Conflict can often be seen in binaries (opposite forces that are present in the text)
For example light/dark confusion/clarity fear/joy. These conflicts are then often part of the problem that the character has to solve before the film can be resolved.


Setting can be important in some short films if it is crucial to the events of the story. It might be the time period and social setting which affects the character’s actions or the storyline. For example, the time and place setting in ‘Tama Tu’ is crucial. Without it the story would not be taking place and the characters would not be together as a group. The place in which short films are set needs to be built up quickly so the audience can understand easily the situation.


When you write about narrative conventions you will use production elements such as cinematography (camera work), lighting, sound (natural and non-natural), editing techniques, costume, performance, set, props etc to prove your points.

The Media Studies moderator (who tells us how to assess internal achievement standards), says that the production elements should be examples that support your discussion of the narrative conventions NOT the other way round.

For example if you are telling me that a character is shown as an idiot throughout the film and therefore causes a disaster in the narrative, you might mention their actions, the way the camera is often in low angle and the shot choice to discuss how they are shown contributes to their part in the narrative.

If you just show me HOW he is presented as an idiot (low angle, actions etc) WITHOUT connecting it to the narrative reason that he is an idiot, then you are close reading the character, not discussing the narrative.

Description: heros journey.jpg

Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey

From english-blog.com

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