What is narrative?

A narrative is a ‘chain of events in cause-effect relationship occurring in space and time’ (Bordwell & Thompson 2004, p.69). This may seem like a rather technical definition, but all it really means is that a certain number of events occur that can be linked together to form what we usually call a ‘story’. In most stories, there is a clear beginning, middle and end. Central to almost all stories are characters, who often come into some form of conflict with one another and then attempt to set out to resolve that conflict. Their actions usually drive the story forward.

In film, we can refer to the plot as those parts of the story that we directly get to see on the screen. The story itself includes all the elements we see on screen, as well as all the inferred elements that are left out of the film. Probably without realising it, we are inferring things all the time in films. Seeing as films generally only run for 90 minutes, the director cannot possibly include everything that certain characters do – otherwise the film could run for days, weeks, or years!

When we are viewing a film (or reading/hearing a story) we connect events and actions through cause and effect. Usually the characters in a film drive the story forward by performing certain actions (the cause) that in turn creates a response in other characters (the effect). When we see an event on screen, we naturally attempt to understand it – that is, we look for a cause and we may also ponder what the effect of the action may be. Of course, in many films we are left in the dark for a while as to what certain causes or effects are, which provides mystery, curiosity and suspense.

The plot of a film may show events that are not in chronological order in time, causing the viewer to re-arrange the elements into a proper temporal order. And of course, the duration of the story may be short or long – perhaps only a twenty-four hour period, or it may chronicle a whole lifetime. The plot selects certain parts of the story to form a duration (usually 90 to 120 minutes).

Classical Hollywood Style

The ‘classical Hollywood narrative’ refers to a style, or a mode, of filmmaking that was prevalent in the American film industry during the early to mid part of the twentieth century. As the name suggests, it was prevalent during the ‘classic’ or ‘golden age’ of Hollywood cinema, which began after the end of the silent era in the late 1920’s and lasted up until around the early 1950’s. This was a period in which a prolific amount of movies were released under what is known as the ‘studio system’ in Hollywood, most of them firmly based on one genre and highly regimented and standardised. The goal was to make profit, and the industry was dominated by the ‘big five’ studios – MGM, 20th Century Fox, RKO, Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers. Nevertheless a large number of films that are today considered to be classics were released during these decades, such as Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Gone With The Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and Rebel Without A Cause. During this time the ‘star’ system was also born, which was a method of selecting young actors, cultivating a certain image or persona for them and selling it to the public. These actors were bound to certain studios by lengthy contracts.

It has been recognised by some film scholars (typically David Bordwell) that there were enough similarities between films of this period to enable a certain ‘style’ to be identified. There are a number of characteristics that define this style of the classical Hollywood narrative:

–       Based on the principle of continuity editing

–       Entirely shaped by cause-and-effect

–       Equilibrium/Disturbance/Re-Establishment of equilibrium pattern

–       A heterosexual romantic element takes place alongside some other form of  quest, task or goal

–       Psychologically defined individuals take action (decisions, choices, traits) and drive the story forward

–       Central character(s) strive to achieve a clear-cut objective, coming into conflict as they do so

–       The end of the film provides a resolution, either in victory (achievement of objective) or defeat (non-achievement of objective)

‘Continuity editing’ refers to a process that attempts to provide a smooth and logically coherent flow between shots. Its aim is to tell the story clearly and understandably, and it is considered to be the dominant way of editing films. This style can also be thought of as ‘invisible’, as its purpose is to draw the viewer into the film world without calling attention to the fact that they are watching a film.

In a typical classic Hollywood film, the film world generally begins in a state of equilibrium or harmony, whereupon a disruptive force enters society and does something ‘bad’ (perhaps a murder). The central protagonist is given the goal of setting things right. The characters in these films are psychologically defined, and take the form of clear-cut heroes and villains who have set goals. Often there is a single protagonist, or a ‘leading man’. The story is pushed along by these characters that make decisions and take actions, often as a result of a certain desire that they have. A character desires something (they have a goal) and they go about attempting to bring this desire into realisation – such as ridding society of the evil force. Standing in the way of their achievement is this opposing force. Often this comes in the form of another character (an enemy) that has different traits and goals than the protagonist. When the film starts, the good and bad characters are separated, but events unfold to a climax where they face each other directly. The protagonist struggles and overcomes the evil force and restores a sense of harmony. The plot is usually objective, showing us mainly what characters say and do (their external behaviour) as opposed to their inner thoughts and feelings. Of course, some degree of subjectivity is not uncommon – for example: shots of character’s memories or dreams, an internal dialogue outlining their thoughts etc. The plot is also tends to be quite unrestricted, which means that it gives the viewer access to things that the central character would not see, hear, or know about themselves. Also, these narratives have a strong sense of closure. Often, there is a final effect where the goal is achieved, balance is restored, and the heterosexual romance that has been building throughout the film is brought into realisation. However, it is important to note that not every classic Hollywood film features the typical ‘happy ending’.

Alternatives to the classical Hollywood style

Section currently being updated…

References used:

Bordwell, D & Thompson, K 2004, Film Art: An Introduction (7th ed.), p.89-91

Redmond, S 2008, Studying Blade Runner,  p.36-37

Bordwell, D, ‘Classical Hollywood Cinema: Narrational Principles and Procedures, accessed at:


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