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Open secrets of classical storytelling: Narrative analysis 101

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After nine years, over 700 entries, and many essays and other stuff, this contraption of a website has started to intimidate us.

If we’re intimidated, you might be flabbergasted. Although a set of categories sits on the right to guide your exploration of this tangled databank, those too loom large and discouraging. So we’ve decided to tidy up by–how else?–adding another entry.

We’ll occasionally offer a stripped-down guide to our writing on certain topics. We’ll steer you to entries that we think represent the core of our thinking on a problem, and then add some that probe more deeply, for those who want to go beyond the basics. Since one of our areas is narrative theory and analysis, a good first effort, we thought,  would be to produce a sort of DIY syllabus that systematically surveys the topic as we’ve explored it. And since we’ve often written about classical Hollywood storytelling, and since many of our readers are interested in that…well, the syllabus sort of wrote itself.

We call these ideas open secrets of storytelling because by and large they aren’t acknowledged in the screenplay manuals that aspiring writers read. In most cases, we’ve had to devise our own concepts and terms, based on watching hundreds of movies. Yet these observations are wide open, available in our books and on this site.

Now comes our chance to pull them together. The result isn’t an utterly comprehensive theory of classical Hollywood narrative, but it does give a fair sampling of the range of questions we’ve tried to answer about it. The topics, linked to essays and blog entries, are arranged in three layers.

The most basic layer is an array of key ideas about story worlds, plot structures, and strategies of narration. These ideas are introduced in the first entry, “Understanding film narrative: The trailer.” Discussions of other basic concepts follow. Just reading the entries pegged to those topics, you could get a solid sense of what we’re aiming at. For most of those, we also propose a film you might view to test how the ideas work.

At a second level, for some topics we include some entries that dig deeper. They’re either more complex and advanced, or they provide some historical background.

Finally, after we’ve reviewed the key topics, we add a batch of case studies that use several of the tools we’ve laid out. These are usually very deep dives into particular films. They aim to show how the analytical ideas can bring out distinctive features of particular movies. The case studies are pretty wide-ranging, but they tend to hover around specific problems, such as adaptation or the creation of fantasy worlds.

How could you use this resource? A teacher in high school or college could draw on it as a partial syllabus or just a thumbnail list of supplementary material for a course. Teachers using Film Art: An Introduction could treat it as a supplement to our section of Chapter 3 on classical narrative. Or a student might find an idea for a paper in this vicinity.

Since we’ve always tried to link film studies and filmmaking, we hope that practitioners might be interested too. For example, an aspiring screenwriter could take this as a weekly reading/viewing agenda, treating it as a free course in story analysis. General readers who simply want to know more about the mechanics of cinematic storytelling should find something provocative here too. For everybody: Feel free to use it as Narrative Analysis 101.

We thank our many loyal readers of this blog, as well as the many more who have just dropped by once or twice. Your continued interest has helped us keep going.


Open Secrets of Hollywood Storytelling

The basics

Understanding film narrative: The trailer [2]. Suggested viewing: The Wolf of Wall Street.

Advanced: Three Dimensions of Film Narrative [3]: Narration, plot structure, and story worlds. Suggested viewings: The Godfather, Jezebel.

Advanced: Stories beget stories. [4] Suggested viewing: American Hustle.

Actions and agents

Introduction to classical plot structure [5]. Suggested viewing: Many possibilities listed.

Historical background: Is there a 3-act structure? [6]

Action films: Did spectacle kill classical plotting? [7] Suggested viewing: Mission: Impossible 3.

Advanced: Block construction [8]. Suggested viewing: Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction.

How many protagonists? [9] Suggested viewing: The Big Short.

The importance of coincidence [10]. Suggested viewing: Serendipity.

Narrative parallels among characters and periods [11]. Suggested viewing: Julie and Julia, Enchantment.

Advanced: Fine-grained parallels between scenes [12]. Suggested viewing: The Prestige.

Time shifts: How flashbacks work [13]. Suggested viewing: The Power and the Glory.

Advanced: Time shifts without flashbacks [14]. Suggested viewing: Exodus.

Advanced: Nested flashbacks [15]. Suggested viewing: Passage to Marseille, The Locket.

Historical background: Flashbacks and plot problems [16]. Suggested viewing: The Great Moment, All about Eve.

Replays [17]. Suggested viewing: Mildred Pierce. 

Advanced: The auditory replay [18]. Suggested viewing: Sudden Fear.

Network narratives [19]. Suggested viewing: Grand Hotel.

Forking-path plotting [20]. Suggested viewing: Source Code.

Advanced: Film Futures [21]. Suggested viewing: Sliding Doors.

Historical background: What-if narratives [22]. Suggested viewing: Dangerous Corner

Beginnings and endings: Molly Wanted More [23]. Suggested viewing: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Silence of the Lambs.

Telling more or less

Visual storytelling [24]. Suggested viewing: Mission: Impossible.

The hook between scenes [25]. Suggested viewing: Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler; National Treasure.

Narration: omniscient versus restricted [26]. Suggested viewing: Cloverfield.

Historical background: Hitchcock, suspense, and surprise [27].

Alignment and allegiance [28]. Suggested viewing: House by the River.

Character subjectivity, optical and mental [29]. Suggested viewing: The Silence of the Lambs.

Historical background: Subjectivity and sound [30]. Suggested viewing: Nightmare Alley, The Fallen Sparrow.

Voice-over narration [31]. Suggested viewing: All about Eve.

Advanced: Dead narrators [32]. Suggested viewing: Laura, Confidence.

Historical background: Inner monologue [33]. Suggested viewing: Strange Interlude.

Case studies in narrative analysis

These are exercises in film criticism that utilize several of the tools laid out above.

Boyhood and Harry Potter: The actors’ lives as part of the narrative [34].

Eastern Promises: Thematic echoes in an auteur’s narratives. [35]

Gone Girl: Suspense and thriller conventions in fiction and film [36].

Gravity:  Narrative innovation within mainstream cinema [37].

Inception:  Goals and parallel construction [38]; managing multiple plotlines [39].

Moonrise Kingdom: How to make a modern fairy tale (with some help from merchandising) [40]; furnishing alternative worlds [41].

Premium Rush: How goals and deadlines create tight construction [42].

Side Effects and Safe Haven: Fragmentary flashbacks and patterns of suspense [43].

Slumdog Millionaire: Adapting a novel to classical norms [44].

The Bourne Ultimatum: Plotting across franchise installments [45].

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Ghost Writer: Classical structure in genre fiction [46].

The Hobbit: Adaptation and length [47]; adaptation and change [48].

The Magnificent Ambersons: How to manipulate time without flashbacks. [49]

The Prestige: Using sound to enrich flashback construction [50].

The Walk: Each act a different genre.  [51]

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Elliptical narration: The viewer’s responsibility [52].


As we write more entries relevant to narrative, we’ll revisit this DIY syllabus.

Needless to say, we consider these matters more closely in several of our books. See The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, by Kristin, Janet Staiger, and me, and Kristin’s Storytelling in the New Hollywood and Storytelling in Film and Television. For my part, there’s Narration in the Fiction Film and The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies. I’m at work on a book on narrative innovations in 1940s Hollywood, the central source of much that we encounter in today’s films.