Overview: a look at key narrative theories

As mentioned in previous posts, the way to approach any new subject is to think about different forms which each have a different languages. So for example, there are different forms of literature, music, painting, photography, film and so on. An earlier post looked at the LANGUAGE OF PRINT, this post looks at NARRATIVE and is linked to my post on the LANGUAGE OF MOVING IMAGE. In other words, I am primarily linking narrative as a way of thinking about moving image, but it is possible to link narrative to print products, on-line products, audio products and so on.

Narrative Theory

Structuralism has been very powerful in its influence on narrative theory. Its main virtue is that it is most interested in those things that narratives have in common, rather than in the distinctive characteristics of specific narratives.

Turner p.85 ‘Film as Social Practice’

When looking at moving image products, it is therefore possible to look for patterns, codes, conventions that share a common features. In other words, narrative theories look at recognisable and familiar structures, that help us to understand both how narratives are constructed and what they might mean.

For example, it is clear that narratives are a combination of many individual elements (sound, image, text etc) which are edited (connected) together. Narratives are organised around a particular theme and space and are based in an idea of time. So for example, many narratives (Film, TV, Radio) are usually LINEAR and SEQUENTIAL, in that they start at ’00:00′ and run for a set length. This means that they normally have a beginning, middle and end. “A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end” Aristotle Poetics (c.335BC).

However, as with all creative work, it is possible to break, alter or subvert these rules and are subject to other CONVENTIONS, CODES or RULES. For example, narrative media structures (ie film, TV drama, music video, advertising etc as opposed to theatre, drama, live events etc) do not generally play in real time. As such, they employ elision or ellipsis in that some elements are missing. Similarly, time often moves backwards (flashbacks) or forwards (flash forwards) at moments which break the linear sequence. Time can also run simultaneously, in that it is possible to play-out different narratives at the same time: simultaneous or parallel narratives. Narrative strands are even able to be flagged up as something that needs to known (or will be fully developed) later, known as foreshadowing. This raises the concept that the audience are then given some information, feelings, ideas or logic that the on-screen actors do not have access to, which is called dramatic irony.

Narrative theory can be applied to moving image texts but in many ways, narrative theory transcends a specific media form, such as, film and television and is able to take on a much greater significance in terms of how we organise our lives, our days, our weeks, our years, how we interact with each other, how we organise our memories, our ideas, aspirations and dreams.

So once again, looking at theory allows students to think beyond a particular subject and beyond the learning framework into their own existence! For now, we will stick with looking at some theories that will help students to understand, discuss and construct narrative structures.

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