Narrative – Structuring Stories

Table of contents

Story, plot, inference and diegesis.

Restricted and non-restricted narratives

Frame shot
and sequence

Narrative emphasis

Narrative story and plot

Narrative structures our interpretation of stories, and thus can be used by those studying films as a tool in analysis
of film texts.

This is achieved by;

  1. determining the starting point and finishing points of
    a story
  2. shaping the order in which we see events
  3. and incorporating some
    events while excluding others.

The delimiting of story time by defining the plot within the starting and
finishing points of the story, has the effect of controlling the range of
information included, to that which is dealt with directly in the plot, and
that which is inferred in it.

Bordwell and Thompson (film Art pp. 93) constructed a simple diagram which
seeks to explain this.


Inferred events

Explicitly presented events

Added non-diegetic material


They offer the example of the crime story to illustrate how story events can be inferred in a detective film plot:

  a Crime Conceived

STORY b Crime Planned
c Crime Commited
d Crime discovered
PLOT e. Detective investigates
f. Detective reveals a, b, & c. (inferred events)

Stories and plots have some common elements, but also some which are exclusive
to each other. Stories may include events and incidents which are only alluded
to in a plot (in a novel or film).

This aspect of narrative also structures our interpretation of stories, by determining

    • The
      starting point
      ie emphasising one set of events at the beginning of a plot rather than others which may only be inferred,
      a clear example of this is where characters have a back story;the selection of the starting point of the plot emphasises some of a character’s traits over others;
      and other may only be alluded to through inference to their back story, which could provide fuller
      interpretation/explanation for their actions,
    • The finishing point
      where the main conflicts in the plot are resolved;
      it is in the nature of this resolution that one can discover the ideas about the world that are being communicated,
      either overtly or as part of a broader ideology, for example romantic comedies tend to be
      resolved in the implication that enduring happiness/contentedness for the protagonist and antagonist
      is found in marriage or a long-term heterosexual relationship.This cuts the story off before problems that occur in marriages and the sheer hard-work it sometimes requires for
      them to be happy, ie the adjustment from the habits and routines from a single, to married life
      (this may also relate to the starting point limiting interpretation of a character’s behaviour).It also reflects a dominant ideology towards successful long-term relationships; ask yourself this, have you
      ever heard of a Rom Com where these characters find self-actualisation in a continued single life.
      or for that matter a Rom Com with gay protagonist or antagonists.

In addition to determining the starting point and finishing points of a story,
narrative also shapes our interpretation by;

  • the order in which we see events, and
  • incorporating some while excluding others.

This is not necessarily sinister; for example; a detective story will tend
to be a more restricted narrative (Bordwell) as the story information is released slowly,
after all we wouldn’t want to know the perpetrator of the crime being investigated
too soon in the movie. Conversely
non-restricted narratives
reveal a great deal of their story information.

NB. This is not a case of either one or the other, but more like a continuum
(see diagram.


little story info revealed much story info revealed
Detective story Thriller Historical drama
The big sleep North by north-west The birth of a nation

Diegesis/Non-Diegetic elements
But films can contain material that is additional to a story, such as incidental music, a particular lens choice,
editing technique or special effects, this is called non-diegetic material.
(diegesis [greek in origin] – means from the world of the story. Non-diegetic
is therefore material which is in addition to the world of the story.
Non-diegetic material is invaribaly the means by which audiences
attention is drawn to object event or incident, this could be described as narrative emphasis

Frame Shot and Sequence

Narrative are constructed from the following units:

Frame, shot, sequence and plot.


Film (unlike video) is comprised of individual frames, which (at sound speed)
represent a 24th of a second.

Video tape editors have adopted the film formats,

PAL and SECAM (the original UK and European standards) video operates at 25 frames
per second

NTSC (the US original video standard) video operates at 29.97 frames per second.



A shot is an unbroken series of exposed frames. A shot can last from the
duration of a single frame to the entire length of a reel of film (about between
twenty and thirty five minutes depending on the shutter speed).

Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’ and ‘Under Capricorn’ were both made experimenting
with shooting each scene on a single reel of film, each shot is about twenty
minutes long.

Most movies which use the so-called ‘continuity system’ (the dominant narrative
form of American movies) are constructed from a range of shot types usually

  • A Long-shot to establish the scene and the setting or location, then
  • A group shot (two shot, three shot or four shot, depending on the number
    of people in the frame) Used to establish the spatial relationship between
    characters, then,
  • Close-up’s to illustrate a conversation or to reveal characters reactions
    or to.

While most movies won’t necessarily follow just this pattern, it often provides
a useful basis from which most entertainment-led movies tell their stories.


A sequence in a movie might most often be described as a ‘self-contained’
series of shots, it might represent a scene, but equally represent a number
of scenes.

For example in a thriller the opening sequence is used to establish the main
questions and puzzles which the plot needs to be set up.

The sequence is usually a series of significant incidents in the plot used
in each of the phases of a narrative.

In commercial entertainment movies, these usually follow temporally related
incidents in the cause-effect chain story pattern:

Disruption. Complication and Resolution.

In other types of movie a sequence may provide specific evidence in support
of a hypothesis (documentary).

As sequences are constructed from shots, movie plots are constructed from
sequences. However in order for the movie to be coherent these building blocks
need to work together, Graeme Turner (in film as social practice) provided
an excellent description of this process which he called “suturing”, also known as ‘stitching’ a movie

Narrative emphasis

Non-diegetic material is one of the methods through which emphasis can be
placed on an event or incident within the narrative to draw the audiences attention to it, favouring it above other elements of the story