When I was little, one of my favourite parts of the day was being tucked into bed and then drifting off to sleep to the sound of my parents reciting stories about fairies and elves and all things magical. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. As humans, we have a desire to be told stories and they introduced to us from a very early age.
Classical Narrative Models: The Forumla
The way a story is told is usually through a 3-act structure: beginning, middle and end. This “model” of storytelling was established in early civilisations and although is has been tweaked throughout the years, stories today still use a very similar pattern.
Begining (Act 1)
So at the start of a story, we expect a problem to be established which gives us an indication as to what the story is going to revolve around.
Middle (Act 2)
During this act, the problem usually becomes more complicated and therefore we expect the problem to be elaborated further. We might also come across unexpected turns which are used as a way to engage the audience.
End (Act 3)
At this part of the story, we expect to return to an equilibrium of sorts and expect he problem to be resolved. However, this is not always the case with cliffhangers which usually imply a sequel.
The Fantastic Structure
Tzvetan Todorov thought that the classical structure was quite limited. He decided to advance that theory and created what is known as the fantastic structure and is what is used mostly nowadays. Since most narrative tend to involve a mix of equilibriums & disequilibriums, he wrote a model that involves a 5-act structure:
1: A State of Equilibrium
This helps us to establish the status quo and also eases us into the story.
2: A Disruption
The equilibrium is broken and a problem is presented to us.
3: Recognition of Disruption
The audience has to recognize and understand that a disruption has taken place in order to move further into the story. One was of doing this through conversation between characters.
4: Repair the Damage
In a character-led story, it is usually the main character who would try to resolve the problem.
5: Return to Equilibrium
The problem is resolved and the status quo is regained. However, the story might not end as its original equilibrium. If it did, the audience would realise it is artificial.
Levi Strauss on the other hand believed that the we can understand what something means only if we know what that something’s opposite is. For example, we only know what cold is because we know what hot is.Narrative are very often structured around these binaries. Take for instance cowboy films there is a thematic idea of society vs wilderness that runs throughout the entire story.
A film is not limited to having one binary opposition but can contain ore than one. Some other examples are:
Good vs Evil
Hero vs Villian
Nature vs Technology
Insider vs Oustider
Understanding the Narrative Structure
During his studies, Vladimir Propp discovered a number of characteristics in the structure of narratives and noticed how stories borrow a lot from traditional folk tales. As well as having a very particular set of events, folk tales also tend to be driven by characters which we as an audience identify with, some of these characters being:
The Hero: the character seeking something
The Villian: tries to block the hero’s quest
The Donor: provides hero with an object to help him with his quest
The Dispatcher: provides hero with a message and send him on his way
The False Hero: disrupts hero’s hope
The Helper: aids the hero
The Princess: hero’s reward/ object of villian’s scheming
The Father: rewards hero for his efforts
This model still resonates today even though it was formed a long time ago. Nowadays, this model has been altered slightly due to the fact that in some cases we can no longer differentiate between heroes and villians and even if there is a difference it is not always so clear cut. An example of this would be the film Lord of the Rings in which Gandalf acts as a donor, dispatcher and also a helper.
Classical Hollywood Narrative
This narrative is a highly specific type of narrative which most mainstream Hollywood films follow because of its effectiveness. The essential traits for Hollywood films are:
The action and story of the narrative is driven by individual characters and revolves around person psychological causes.
This is often central to the narrative. The main character usually wants something and so the narrative sets out a course of development towards the goal.
This is what stands in the way of the hero achieving their goal.
This results from the cause and effect pattern. Had the main character not desired something to be different at the start, no change would occur.
This is used to bridge gaps and to leave out insignificant periods of time which are needed to suit the needs of the story.
This is subordinate to the narrative. Flashbacks are used to clarify the story and events if needed.
This is a strong element in Hollywood narrative as we usually have an answer to all our questions by the end of the film. No loose ends are left unresolved.