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What Is The Narrative? - Lesson 2

What’s the narrative? What’s the story? What’s the difference? I’ll ask a student “what’s the story?” and I’ll invariably get a laborious account of the plot. “No, the story. What’s the ‘story?'” “Oh,” they say… and then their eyes glaze over as they fall into a repose that I assume is thoughtful contemplation. I work with them endlessly on being able to tell me what their story is about in three sentences or less. Not easy. Changes often. But necessary. Narrative is a whole different story.

nar·ra·tive [nar-uh-tiv] –noun

  1. a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious.

  2. a book, literary work, etc., containing such a story.

  3. the art, technique, or process of narrating: Somerset Maugham was a master of narrative.


  1. consisting of or being a narrative: a narrative poem.

  2. of or pertaining to narration: narrative skill.

  3. Fine Arts . representing stories or events pictorially or sculpturally: narrative painting. Compare anecdotal ( def. 2 )

Okay, kind of a broad word, but powerful. A story, or account of events or experiences, can refer to many aspects of the storytelling process. There is more than one narrative in play that “accounts” for the events in cinematic storytelling.

1. Story narrative – in the broadest sense, the “story” and the entirety of the events that constitute that story.

2. Plot narrative – the design behind how a storyteller reveals the story to an audience so that they are always engaged in the promise of answers.

3. Audience narrative – an account (or crafting) of the audience’s experience of the storytelling

4. Any cinematic element that is narrative in its design – from the “lens plot” Sidney Lumet designed for 12 Angry Men to Jacques Tati’s narrative use of mise-en-scene in his 1967 Playtime.

The narrative that is most misunderstood, underdeveloped, and overlooked is the audience’s narrative. Even though the point of the cinematic tradition is to craft an experience for the audience, this aspect is often blunt. What is the audience thinking and feeling? How can we take command of what they think and feel? If Hollywood executives could do that, everyone would walk out of the theater feeling like they needed to see the movie again. Then buy the DVD. And then the Blu-Ray with the digital copy.

Despite the Hollywood executives’ earnest efforts, this responsibility doesn’t rest with them, or simply the screenwriter for that matter. In fact, it’s most critical that the director and editor translate a screenplay into cinema with a clear and thoughtful command of the audience’s narrative. A great deal of intuition and vagary surrounds how decisions are made in the crafting of it. There are certainly broad strokes we can use like: make them laugh, make them cry, get them on the edge of their seat, etc. These are emotional objectives to the narrative, requiring active consumption of the storytelling on the audience’s part.

Step One: Engage the audience in active participation. How do we do that? Get them wanting to know “what’s going to happen next?” In my post on Story vs. Plot, we left off with this very subject. How do we get the audience asking a specific question? Let’s examine the narrative element called the “hook,” that scene at the beginning of a film designed to grab the audience’s attention.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind opens in the desert where a group of researchers converge on a mystery. A squadron of planes that went missing in 1945 suddenly reappear half-way across the world, as if no time had passed. Then, the scene’s most central character utters, “Where’s the pilots? I don’t understand. Where’s the crew? What are they doing here?” The question we want the audience to ask is directly stated by a central character.

Let’s call this technique “direct solicitation” of the question. In this example, the scene requires exposition without which we’d have just a bunch of planes in the desert. There’s a conflict, the planes don’t belong in that place or time, and the direct solicitation of the question clarifies for the audience where the story is going –> plot –> “engage the audeince in the promise of answers.”

This example also illustrates the much broader narrative element called the dramatic question. But let’s save that for later. Suffice it to say for now, we can reliably anticipate what our audience is now thinking. We know what they want to know! And like any good storyteller, we delay the answer.

Step Two: Escalate the tension. Tension refers to the anticipation the audience feels as they get closer and closer to answers. Linda Cowgill, in her book The Art of Plotting, categorizes several kinds of tension into “genres” that audiences tend to relate to easily: tension of the task, tension of the relationship, tension of the mystery, and tension of the surprise. Each of these tensions focus on soliciting specific questions regarding a particular type of conflict. We can really begin to put these tensions to narrative use when clarifying specific questions we want the audience to ask. For example, romantic comedies (a genre) typically revolve around the tension of the relationship: “Will the relationship work out?” Then, we design a plot around leading the audience toward the answers. We expect the central romantic relationship in such films to end happily ever after. We know what the audience is thinking. In the film As Good as It Gets, the relationship between Melvin and Carol (as well as Melvin and Simon) promises a resolution and we have expectations that are constantly manipulated by the storytelling to create tension. As we get to know the characters better, we empathize with their objectives and come to want what they want: a fulfilling relationship. But be careful, avoiding the question isn’t the same as delaying the answer.

Step Three: Lines of Conflict. How do we keep the question alive and relevant throughout the entire plot? What exactly is conflict? Problems? Confrontation? An antagonist? Not so fast. Narratively, we can’t understand conflict as simply a noun. It’s a dynamic! And it has three key elements:


The audience has to do the math! They MUST know who the character is. The audience must be clear that the character has a strong objective. And if we don’t see an objective, we can’t appreciate any opposition that stands in the way of that objective. This dynamic leads the audience to form a general question: will the character achieve his/her objective? In this way, the key to any narrative question is to clearly define conflict! A line of conflict follows a character in pursuit of an objective through a number of scenes, featuring one or more forms of opposition. We keep the question alive in this way, scene by scene, as the character hurtles obstacles, antagonists and complications until the question is finally answered.

Using these simple steps, storytellers can begin to take command of what the audience is fundamentally thinking, or questioning. Their curiosities hinge on their interest in “what’s going to happen next?” Their emotional connection to the plot resides in their ability to understand the character, identify an objective, and invest in an increasing desire for that character to overcome opposition. There are certainly more elements to address, and many other approaches to storytelling. The various methodologies may all say the same thing to some degree. But, making this approach the core to your storytelling process ensures from the beginning that the audience and their expectations come first! And as every Hollywood executive knows, the audience is always right!

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