Plot, Theme, the Narrative Arc, and Narrative Patterns

PLOT AND THEME

In the world of fiction, just as in the world of your life, events occur. In life, people often try to determine what events mean in their own life and in the life of others. In fiction, authors will create meaning by introducing conflicts in the life of a character. The way a character responds to these conflicts is part of what gives a story meaning. Understanding plot, conflicts, structure, and their relationship will help a reader understand the meaning in a story.

Plot is not just what happens in a story. Rather, plot is a pattern of cause and effect or conflicts upsetting the equilibrium of a situation. Plot is characters responding to those conflicts into some form of resolution, even if that resolution is incomplete, inconclusive, or unsatisfying to the reader.

Similarly, the plot in a film is not just what happens. The plot is the series of conflicts or obstacles that the screenplay author and director introduce into the life of the characters onscreen. The theme or message is the main point or points that the viewer draws from the way the characters respond to the obstacles or resolve the conflict in the film.

THE NARRATIVE ARC

The pattern for narrative was largely handed down from the Greek tradition in drama. So many plays today are written in three acts because the pattern reflects the three-stage nature of the traditional narrative arc: Exposition yields Rising Action yields Resolution

Exposition

In section one of a narrative, viewers are exposed to information that will later be necessary for them to have if they are to understand the unfolding story. It is no surprise, then, that this segment of the narrative is called the Exposition phase of the tale wherein the reader is exposed to some important information. Exposition primarily consists of these elements:

  1. Characters: The lead character in the narrative — the character who faces the conflict — is called the protagonist. In children's literature, he or she is referred to as the hero, but in interpretive literature and modern film, the name is misapplied because stories, films, and narrative poems can have protagonists who are antiheroes.

    If a character is the source of the conflict, that character carries the title "antagonist." However, some stories have "nature" or "self" as the antagonist, so one must be careful in the search for an antagonist.

    Other characters usually abound in fictional works and film. In studying such characters, the observer/reader/viewer should ask these questions: Is the character flat or round? By this, we mean the following: Does the character drive the plot, or does he or she serve as little more than a background character? Round — drives the plot; flat — exists in a lesser, non-essential role.

    Is the character static or dynamic? A static character is unchanged by the events of the narrative; a dynamic character undergoes change — sometimes dramatic change such as death.

  2. Setting: Time, place, and social climate are elements of the setting.
    • Time can refer to time of day, time of year, even time in the chronology of the life of the individual.
    • Place, simply put, focuses on the geographic backdrop against which the characters are placed and the physical world in which they exist.
    • Social climate often has later importance in the tale. In varying the social climates in stories, authors/directors are allowing readers/viewers to visit realms with which they may have no familiarity.

  3. Mood: Often, the descriptive elements that surface early in a story establish a mood that can foreshadow the events of the story. Thus, a reader might leave the opening passages — the exposition phase of the tale — expecting suspense or lightheartedness or dire peril. A filmgoer may notice specific lighting, settings, or visual and auditory elements that suggest that mood.

Rising Action

In section two of the tale, the reader/viewer moves into the Rising Action of the story. Usually, there is no clear boundary between exposition and rising action; rather, there is a gradual merging of the two — like crossing the divide between the coast and the mountains with a gradual indication that you are leaving one realm behind and entering another. In drama (be it print, theatrical, or film), on the other hand, the shifts between chapters/acts/scenes mark that transition. In this section of the story, complications emerge and eventually a dominant conflict becomes clear. The range of conflicts looks like this:

  1. In early literature, the conflicts were Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, and Man vs. Self.
  2. As fiction evolved and psychological theories, technological advances, and urbanization occurred, the list expanded to include Man vs. Society, Man vs. Technology, and Man vs. Alter Ego. These emerging types were the result of many factors, but the theories of Freud and Jung, the Industrial Revolution, and the move from Agrarian to Industrial society were major factors.
  3. In the age of film, these others exist, but as the 20th century unfolded, the list expanded yet again. Today, we add Man vs. Alien Society, Man vs. Biotechnology, and Man vs. Cloned Self to bring the number of major types of conflict to at least nine (9). Modern filmgoers have probably encountered all nine of these types.

Resolution

As the story draws to a close, the Narrative Arc descends into the realm of Resolution. This essential question is usually answered: How did the protagonist resolve his or her conflict? There are at least four points to remember here:

  1. Comic resolution: The conflict is resolved favorably for the protagonist; he or she is better off than when the tale began.
  2. Tragic resolution: The conflict is one in which the protagonist loses ground. He or she is worse off than when the tale began.
  3. Linear resolution: Despite the ensuing complications and conflicts, the protagonist is largely unchanged by the events of the story.
  4. Dénouement: In some tales, a portion of the story at the end is devoted to tying up the loose ends. Think of Murder, She Wrote, in which each episode includes a segment at the end during which Jessica Fletcher fills in her audience on how she figured out the identity of the real killer.
Clearly, you can see how this pattern applies to most stories and visual tales that you have encountered thus far in your life. From the simplistic children's tale to the complex psychological thrillers, writers and directors rely on the narrative arc to shape their tales.

NARRATIVE PATTERNS

Characters and Goals
Film critic John Belton argues that filmmakers focus on characters and their goals. And why do they? Together, the screenplay author and the film director create an opening scene, also known as an establishing scene. The establishing scene also serves as the exposition section of the narrative arc. In the exposition or establishing scene, the director introduces the time, place, cultural context, and characters within that context. Sometimes the film begins in a state of equilibrium, but the screenplay and director upset the equilibrium of an environment or of a character within an environment. The film audience's attention becomes rooted in a character who moves through time and space to reach a goal or return to a state of equilibrium.

Problem Solving and Movement Through Time and Space
Is it no wonder that movies are popular forms of entertainment? We want to see if the main character can solve the problem, "do the right thing," find the answer, find safety. All of these are issues that people find in their own lives, but cannot easily resolve within the 90 or 120 minutes of a film. Many films emphasize the common themes of problem solving and movement through time and space.

Narrative Structure in Popular Films
In 1997 the Hollywood films Titanic and Good Will Hunting made money at the box office, especially Titanic, and both films won Academy Awards. Both of these films, although different in scope, use the technique of parallel editing to emphasize parallel stories. That technique is useful, especially since Titanic begins by telling the story of a group of people who have located the ship Titanic and are going to try to salvage it from the bottom of the ocean. They know that the ship sank when it struck an iceberg, but they are also trying to determine exactly what caused the ship to sink even though it was "unsinkable." They also want to retrieve the gold and jewelry that was supposedly lost when the ship sank. That is the first story. The second story is the one of a much older woman who is brought to the salvage vessel by her grandchild. The director of the film uses a series of flashbacks to tell the salvage crew and thus the audience this woman's story and in the process the story of the ship itself. As she tells her story, the audience sees several other stories, especially as all those stories affect each other and as they all become part of the bigger picture. From time to time we forget, but are reminded, that the salvage crew is also listening to the heroine's narrative, which we view as a flashback. We move back in time and forward in time together as the heroine and ship move forward in time and space toward their destiny. And of course by the end of the film we, the audience, become aware of details that the salvage crew will never know. Only the heroine knows the final story, and the director conveniently allows the audience to share in her special knowledge, thus building identification with her character.

Although Good Will Hunting is a different kind of story from Titanic, all of the major characters are looking for something, although they are not necessarily aware that they are at the beginning. As they become aware, through their relationships to each other as they move through time and space toward goals or problems, they have an opportunity to learn about themselves and to act upon that new knowledge. What do they have a chance to learn? Will they learn? Will that knowledge matter in their lives? You will have to see the movie and decide for yourself.

Narrative Patterns
Many motion pictures follow a pattern in which characters are introduced in their usual, everyday surroundings, which are then interrupted or disrupted by some problem. The characters are then challenged to solve this problem. Often, however, in attempting to solve this problem, they must overcome obstacles. Sometimes that process is further complicated by conflicts within their environment or within themselves. In the film The Wizard of Oz, for example, Dorothy is introduced in the setting of her family's Kansas farm, but Dorothy is not happy with her everyday life and longs for escape. She is granted her wish when she tries to escape a tornado, only to find herself in another land. There she continues in living color on the yellow brick road to find the Wizard of Oz. Along the way she encounters challenges or obstacles that she must overcome.

This film also uses another classic narrative technique, the journey. This journey is also populated with companions or buddies who share Dorothy's concerns and adventures. The companions have to work together to overcome obstacles, and in the end they understand or achieve their true potential and thus overcome their obstacles and their inner conflicts or uncertainties. Thus their journey is both a physical and a psychological one. The audience, unless it falls asleep, is taken on this journey. As it follows the characters, it begins to identify with their goals and wants them to meet their challenges and reach their goal. This type of journey is often used in combat films in which characters set out to achieve a goal but along the way have to overcome obstacles. Through the process their courage and even their identity is challenged.

Sometimes the narrative technique of the journey is characterized by flight from someone or something and then pursuit by that person, persons, or things. This pattern is used in the Star Wars films, in the romantic comedy Some Like It Hot, and in hundreds of other films. In all these films, the theme is developed or the message conveyed through the manner in which characters reach their goals or overcome their obstacles or pursuers.

Singin' in the Rain Poster Singin' in the Rain begins in the days of silent films. The opening scene introduces a state of equilibrium or status quo for the film stars Lockwood and Lamont and their film studio. They appear outside the premiere showing of what they think will be another box office hit. What appears to be another triumph is suddenly interrupted by another film that introduces the new technique of talking pictures. Then the studio begins the task of overcoming the challenge only to discover another challenge: Lamont's voice is not suited for the new film medium.

Parallel Stories and Editing
The plot line is then complicated by introducing a parallel story: the young actress Kathy Seldon is beginning her own film career just as the film industry is beginning its new venture into talking pictures. That plot line is also complicated by the pursuit of Seldon by Lockwood and of Lockwood by Lamont. The star male actor is pursuing the ingénue while the star female actor is pursuing the same star male actor. The audience is drawn into this plot shift by knowing something that Lamont doesn't know about Seldon and Lockwood, by knowing what the studio is planning for Lamont, and by knowing what Seldon and Lockwood don't know about Lamont's behind-the-scene attempts to get rid of Seldon. Through these parallel stories, the audience is drawn into the story.

The director cuts between these parallel stories with parallel editing. Another example is the cutting between Lina Lamont's lessons with her voice coach and Don's and Cosmos' lessons with their voice coach. Both are trying to learn to enunciate words as their coach instructs them, with humorous results on both sides. In one, however, Lamont is made to appear foolish while Lockwood and Brown make fun of their coach.

The film also conveys another parallel story, that of the modern dance that Lockwood choreographs for the new talking film. This story told through the dance parallels Lockwood's career in film, but it also makes an ironic comment about Lockwood's pursuit of Seldon and of the film studio's treatment of Lamont. Looking on at all that happens is the character of Cosmo Brown who always steps in at the right moment to save the day for everyone. The audience, without realizing, sees much of the action through his eyes.

The film technique of parallel stories told through parallel editing is used effectively in the 2002 film Changing Lanes with Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Affleck. The film begins with one man making a speech before the recipients of a charitable organization. The film then cuts to another man making a speech before an AA group. The two men are each scheduled for meetings later that same morning at the same courthouse but not with each other. One man is a lawyer, the other a defendant in a custody suit. On the way to the courthouse, they run in to each other. Each one responds differently to the accident and then goes his separate way. The film follows each man's story and cuts back and forth between the two stories (parallel editing). The two stories are parallel to each other in that each man has problems confronting and accepting the truth of his own life, and each person has problems resolving conflicts. Both their stories merge, however, as each character responds to the other's part in and response to the accident.

Point of View
Point of view has a triple meaning in films. It is the main idea or theme conveyed by a film, but it is also the angle from which the audience views a scene. It is also a camera and film editing technique in which the audience sees one character's face. Then the film itself is cut and spliced together with another piece of film to show another character's face. The film then cuts back to the first character's face to show the audience the reaction of the character's to each other's words or actions. Sometimes point of view shots, also known as reaction shots, and point of view editing are used to show a character's response to some other action. Donald O'Conner's character Cosmo Brown in Singin' in the Rain Responds to the words and actions of Lina Lamont, Don Lockwood, and Kathy Seldon throughout the film. Through his responses to their words and actions, the director conveys subtle messages to the audience members to shape their responses and attitudes toward the characters. Throughout this course, we will focus on narrative patterns, parallel stories and editing, and point of view - both as a technique and a message - in order to understand our responses to films.

Summary of Narrative Patterns
The following list summarizes some of the major narrative patterns or devices used in motion pictures to move the plot and develop the theme, especially those made by the American film industry. In all of these narrative devices, the director and screenplay author may also use parallel stories and parallel editing to contrast the way different characters attempt to reach their goals or overcome obstacles.

  • Striving toward a goal
  • Overcoming obstacles in pursuit of a goal
  • Solving a mystery
  • Resolving a problem
  • Bringing order to chaos (return to equilibrium)
  • The journey
  • Flight and pursuit
  • Coming of age (from innocence to experience)
  • Personal growth

Note: Several of these patterns may be combined in one film.


By Professors Ron Layne and Rick Lewis
English & Humanities Department
Sandhills Community College
September 11, 2009