Narrative Filmmaking

Narrative filmmaking refers to the types of movies that tell a story. These are the films most widely screened in theaters, broadcast on TV, streamed in the internet, and sold as DVDs and Blu-rays.

Here’s a clip from Once Upon a Time in The West (1968), one of the greatest Westerns ever made and a perfect example of a narrative film:

Though fictional filmmaking is another term for narrative cinema, the word “fictional” doesn’t imply that such movies are purely based on fictional events. In some cases, reality and fiction blend together. To illustrate, one of the storylines in James Cameron’s Titanic is about the steamship RMS Titanic that struck an iceberg in her maiden voyage and sunk soon afterwards – a real, greatly documented incident that happened on April 14, 1912. However, the romance between Rose and Jack, another prominent storyline in the movie, is a product of Cameron’s imagination, just like both characters.

The terms “fictional cinema” and “narrative cinema” mean that the filmmaker has the freedom to create storylines and alter historical facts as he or she sees fit. This freedom allows the director to shape the movie and perfect the story. One of the many reasons why Titanic broke a box office record was because the audience could identify with Jack and Rose and root for them.

The Classic Elements of Narrative Films

Fictional films are made of a string of events and structured based on cause and effect. While the beginning of a movie and the introduction of certain characters can be arbitrary, the subsequent scenes must happen based on a clear logic; an identifiable motivation that justifies character behavior, action, and goals. The occurrences in narrative cinema are never random; rather, they are always organized based on a main line of action and connected through theme. To illustrate:

  • In The Shawshank Redemption (1994), when Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and unfairly incarcerated (cause), he begins to plan his escape (effect).
  • In Tootsie (1981), when Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) is confronted by his agent who says that he will never find job in show business, Michael decides to dress up as woman and prove that he is a great actor worthy of major roles, regardless of his gender.

The Movies According to Hollywood

 The Hollywood Style (or Classical Hollywood cinema) refers to a set of “rules” which most American films abide by. These notions, many of which originated during the Golden Age of Hollywood, have be adopted by filmmakers around the globe as a standard.  They are not necessarily rules, but perhaps guidelines that help the industry defines its stories:
  • On Characters:
    • Likable protagonists who the audience can love and cheer for. Think Will Kane in High Noon, and how he embodies values of honor, justice, and bravery.
    • Active, goal-oriented heroes who have goals and obstacles to overcome.
    • Character arc is how characters grow and evolve as the story unfolds. This often makes them more sympathetic because they can learn from previous mistakes and become better people.
  • On Structure:
    • A linear, chronological sequence of events is preferred by Hollywood purists because it doesn’t call attention to the mechanics of the medium (though nowadays this is no longer an issue since the audience has grown accustomed to it.)
    • A beginning, middle, and end is a oversimplification of the 3-act structure. This notion makes sure that the story is always progressing, while throwing twists and turns at the audience.
  • On Conflict:
    • On a narrative film, conflict or obstacles are expected on practically every scene.
    • Even “happy” scenes will generally contain an element of tension, which is designed to hook the audience and keep them engaged.

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