The Four Elements of Narrative

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“All models are wrong, but some are useful.” –George Box, 1987

My model of narrative is wrong. It doesn’t include some things. It emphasizes some stuff over other stuff that other people consider more important. It’s got too much. It doesn’t have enough. It’s just wrong, but so is everything else.

Tens of thousands of movies, millions of books, and plays reaching back to antiquity all approach the basic issue of narrative in different ways. Some elements are emphasized over others. Sometimes, it can be argued, that certain elements don’t appear at all. But, through all of my reading and watching, I have boiled down all of the different pieces that go into forming a narrative into four major elements: character, plot, theme, and style. All four are present in every movie you’ll ever watch that’s trying to convey a narrative, but what do I mean? Well, here’s how I define them:

Character: These are the people who drive the action of the plot.

Plot: This is what the characters do, or have done to them.

Theme: This is the subtext of a narrative, i.e., the message or point.

Style: This is how the story is told. (This is also the most robust of the four with the most sub-elements such as cinematography, dialogue, sets, and prop design, but I feel that all of these factors can be concentrated into the general term style.)

In my model, all four elements are present in every narrative film, but they do not have the same level of importance in every film. Some movies prize character much more than plot, others do the opposite. Others still put style on the pedestal while theme takes second place. Which is correct?

To Each His Own

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Different directors approach these elements with different priorities.

Frederico Fellini was an Italian director born of Italian neo-realism in the 50s and 60s who became his own genre that emphasized style and character over plot. His later films often feel like dreams rather than stories. Is this correct? Is this incorrect?

Alejandro Jodorowsky is a crazy Spaniard who made such odd films as El Topo that placed theme and style over anything else. Is this correct? Is this incorrect?

Steven Spielberg is an American director who puts character and plot above theme while infusing it all with his own distinct style. Is this correct? Is this incorrect?

Michael Bay is an American director who puts plots and style above theme and character. Is this correct? Is this incorrect?

The answer to all is (I’m sure you’ve guessed): None are correct and none are incorrect. They are all just different ways to tell stories (I’d love to live in a universe where all four of those directors were given the exact same script, whatever budget they wanted, and to see the end result of all four). I like some more than others, other people like different combinations than me. Even if you’ve never thought of movies in this way before, I bet you could come up with a preference for which of the four you’d rather have over the others.

My Personal Ordering of the Four Elements

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As implied before, I do have a preferred order for these four elements. It’s not a scientific formula, though, and I don’t reject movies that don’t place their emphases the same way that I would. What it really means is that I look for certain things within a movie, and those things don’t always align with what almost everyone else seems to think. I’ll provide an example in a second, but first, my personal order of importance:

  1. Theme
  2. Character
  3. Style
  4. Plot

I place theme above everything else. What this means in practical terms is that when a movie does theme well, I’m willing to forgive “sins” of the other elements. A very good example of this is The Dark Knight Rises. There are two moments in the film that throw people: Bruce Wayne getting back to Gotham from the prison, and the Bat of fire on the bridge. “How did he get back?” and “Why did he take the time to do that?” are two common questions that movie receives, but I don’t care about them. It’s because plot, to the makers of the film and to me, is of a secondary importance to theme and character in that film. Including very short little scenes that explain both actions would add very very little to the film. But, we can understand the whys of them: Bruce Wayne spent many years running around the underworld, so he probably still knows his way around which is how he got back to Gotham. Symbols are important to the reality of Batman, so that kind of sight (a giant flaming bat) tells the citizens of Gotham, the police, and the bad guys what’s in store. It doesn’t matter how, but the why is implied by the overall theme.

Now, many people disagree and see the “plot hole” of Wayne’s return as a serious flaw and the inexplicable use of the giant bat symbol as the same thing. We can disagree, assign the same movie different levels of quality, and move on. However, that whole process is easier if me, and this fake person, know that we value different elements in different amounts. For me, read above. For this other person, they place plot above theme and character. That’s not wrong, it’s just different.

Another Other Model

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Mr. Plinkett of Red Letter Media (actually Mike Stoklasa) presents another model in this video explaining part of his response to the movie Rogue One. In this model, there are three elements: Character, Story, and Emotion.

This model is wrong, but then again, so is mine. And yet, it is useful. I would never use the model myself for a few reasons:

  • Story is too broad a term that encompasses too many important individual elements like plot and theme.
  • Emotion, to me, is a result of good character, not an element itself.

However, while the model is wrong, it is useful. What it does is provide Mr. Plinkett with a way to quantify, to a degree, why he feels that one movie is good and another is not. His examples in that video of Star Wars, The Force Awakens, and Rogue One fit quite neatly into his model and provides him a way to explain why Star Wars is superior to The Force Awakens which is superior to Rogue One.

Now, you can argue within his model, or you can approach it with another model out there, but at least if you ever met Mr. Plinkett and got into a discussion of Rogue One, you could approach the conversation in a constructive way that addresses his concerns while also finding a way to explain your own view in a way that he accepts.

And that’s ultimately the point of thinking of movies like this: Figuring out how to explain why you like a movie to someone else. That person may have never seen it, or may have seen it a disagree with your assessment, but if you can provide a framework from which you see movies, you can explain it more clearly and intelligently.

Take Aways

So, what do you think of my model? Yes, it’s wrong, but do you find it useful? Do you have another model that you can think of that would help to demonstrate your own priorities in movies? (Explosions divided by dialogue multiplied by hot girls might be a model Michael Bay came up with, but who knows?)

The next time you watch a movie, watch it with my model in mind and see if you can identify those parts of the film that you are most entertained by or interested in. Do you get turned off at any plot hole? Is it character actions that don’t make sense that piss you off? Do you ever notice theme? If a movie is poorly made, will you care or not?

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Movies are Lies

Movies are lies.

Narrative feature films are all lies. The actors lie to you about who they are. The director lies to you about what’s going on. The screenwriter wrote pages and pages of fake stuff. The sets are fake. The props are fake. The lighting is fake. It’s all fake and lies. So, why care?

My first professor at Virginia Tech was in a literature and film class (he also ended up teaching several creative writing courses that I took while there), and he paraphrased Albert Camus, who said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” So, yes, the effects, the actors, the words are all fake, but there’s an endeavor on the part of everyone involved to tell some truth. What truth, though? That depends on the efforts of the specific creative team making the film.

Movies are Made for Everyone, and No One.

When I was growing up, my mother had a book of 500 reviews written by Pulitzer Prize winning film critic (as it said on the book’s cover) Roger Ebert. That Pulitzer Prize notification did a lot to convince me that Ebert knew what he was talking about when it came to films. I focused on movies that I already loved (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, etc.), but as I watched new movies that my mother showed me (Stalag 17, for example), I’d go back to Ebert to see what he said. I didn’t read them before I watched the movies, but afterwards. If a film review is meant to either persuade you to see a movie or dissuade you of the same thing, then what possible point was I making in reading them after the fact? I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was learning HOW to watch movies.

One theme in Ebert’s writing that you can dig out after reading hundreds of his reviews is that he’s very deferential to the makers of the films. He always seemed to start from the place of asking the question, “What was the director/screenwriter trying to accomplish with this film?” And only after having addressed that internally did he ever begin to ask, “How successful was this film?” Because, to him, you can’t answer the question of how successful a film is without understanding what it’s supposed to be.

Imagine a conversation with someone who has just seen The Godfather for the first time:

A: “That movie was terrible!”

B: “What do you mean? It’s a classic.”

A: “I didn’t laugh once! It was the worst comedy ever!”

B: “But, it’s not a comedy. It’s a drama.”

A: “That doesn’t matter! I wanted to watch a comedy!”

Person A may have a point that he was in the mood for a comedy, but is his criticism of The Godfather valid? No. It’s not. The Godfather isn’t meant to be a comedy, so it should not be judged as a comedy. Whether the movie is successful or not depends on the kind of movie that Francis Ford Coppola was trying to make, not what the audience wants to see. The audience may not like what the artist intended, but if the audience can’t address the intention of the artist, then the audience’s reaction, no matter how visceral or genuine, isn’t a valid criticism of the work. That does not mean that the artist is always successful at attempting their goal, just that valid criticism has to start from the assumption that the artist is trying to do something and go from there.

Movies Fail. Movies Succeed. It’s all a matter of Taste.

Continuing with the example of The Godfather, we can reimagine the conversation from earlier:

A: “That movie was terrible!”

B: “What do you mean? It’s a classic.”

A: “I didn’t believe that Michael would suddenly be able to take charge of the family. He didn’t seem to have the skillset required to pull that off.”

B: “I disagree. I think that Michael’s time in the Army, as well as the growth that we observe through the film, demonstrates that Michael is very capable of becoming Don to the family.”

So, what to think of Person A’s reaction now? You may agree or not (I certainly hope not. I just made that up on the spot.), but at least it’s based on the idea that The Godfather was a drama that was trying to tell the story of a character and family. It’s valid as a criticism, no matter what Person B thinks of it. It’s an argument that can be had about the nature of truth within the film. About the truth of Michael as a man.

Which brings me back to where I started: Movies are all lies, but they tell a truth.

Michael Corleone is not a real person. He may have some inspiration in the real world, but he’s ultimately fake. He’s a creation of Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola, and Al Pacino. And yet, we’re asked by these same people to care for Michael as a person, as well as his journey. Whether that cadre is successful or not is entirely up to the audience, so long as the audience understands what the creators are trying to do.

Because Movies are Fake, Certain “Sins” Don’t Matter

Have you tried to show the original King Kong to a millennial? I have. I have a sixteen year old half-brother who I showed it to, and he couldn’t get past the fakery of the effects. The effects were cutting edge in the 30s but woefully out of date now. Does that mean that my half-brother was wrong in not liking the movie because of those effects?

Yes and no.

If your tastes demand only the most up to date special effects when used, then fine. You are limiting your ability to enjoy quite a bit of cinema’s history. But, the question isn’t really whether a special effect looks real or not, but whether it is effective. Looking real is only part of being effective.

Look back at Kong in his cinematic debut. He’s obviously a puppet being manipulated frame by frame by hand. But you know what also looks fake? Anything animated. The Little Mermaid doesn’t look real. Roger Rabbit doesn’t look real. Nemo doesn’t look real. But, despite the unreality of Ariel, or Roger, or Nemo, we can find a way to identify with all of them because they each are real characters with understandable desires. Ariel wants love and to move away from home. Roger doesn’t want to be framed for a murder he did not commit while trying to save his way of life. Nemo wants to be his own person (fish) and not live completely shielded from the world by his father. These are understandable desires.

What does this have to do with King Kong? Kong is a character in the movie as much as Ann Darrow. In fact, Kong’s desire for some kind of interpersonal connection is very easily understood by many people. The fact that he can’t get the time of day from the pretty blonde is the tragedy that leads him to his ultimate ruin. The fact that Kong looks fake, changes size depending on what set he’s on, and never says a word, doesn’t change the fact that we can understand him and feel for him. In the end, it’s a fake looking monkey dead on the streets of New York, but it’s a fake looking monkey that we’ve grown to love in some small way.

The effects in Kong are no longer believable, but they are effective. In the specific instance of King Kong, the “sin” of unrealistic effects don’t matter because of the work that went into the character of Kong himself. Was the movie’s intent to convince you that a giant gorilla was real or that we should sympathize with him? It was definitely both, but the fact that they succeeded in getting the audience at large to feel something for Kong is why the sin of unrealistic effect becomes a non-sin.