Lesson Plan

Narrative Form Lesson Plan

Chapter 4, pg. 65-90


Lesson Context

The students will have read chapter 4 in Film: A Critical Introduction, and learned about the basics of narrative structure in the lecture. This lesson is designed to further illustrate the points with film clips, and help the students see how narrative structure can create meaning. The students will be encouraged to see how knowing basic narrative structure will help them identify moments when films stray from that, and then make critical conclusions about narrative in relation to the film’s theme. Students will learn about various narrative forms and elements of narrative, with a focus on films that stray from these commercial principles.


Educational Objective

Students will become familiar with the role of narrative in order to be able to understand character development, recognize parallels and motives, and to build on those details to build an interpretation of a film’s themes.


Opening Activity/Hook

Ask the students to form groups of 3-4 and share a story about their childhood with each other. After they have shared the stories, ask them to identify the beginning, middle, and end of each of their stories. How did the kinds of beginning, middle, and end differ among students? Was there a lot of introduction? How much resolution was there?


Introduction/Why Study Narrative Form?


#1. Narrative is Everywhere

  • Ask the class: You’ve been around stories your whole life– Do you know how stories work?
    • Narrative structure is something you are familiar with already. Chances are, you already have a gut instinct and intrinsic understanding of how basic narrative structure works.
  • Slide: Narrative – “an account of a string of events occurring in space and time.” – pg. 66
  • EXAMPLE: Students will watch a film about a mundane part of life. A good example is the Oscar-Nominated animated short film “Fresh Guacamole” by PES, which can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNJdJIwCF_Y. This film will illustrate that narrative is part of every day life. After the film, ask the students: is this a narrative?


#2. Why Study Narrative Form?

  • Ask the class: At this point narrative seems pretty straightforward—so why should you study narrative form?
    • Films make meaning and enjoyment through the cinematic techniques of dialogue, music, visual effects, locations, costumes, colors, and editing. Narrative choices are another part of cinematic technique.
    • Slide: (Key Point) “Becoming familiar with the role of narrative as a structuring device allows viewers to grasp character change and development, to recognize parallels and motives, and, most importantly, to synthesize these details to build an interpretation of a film’s themes.” – pg. 66


Defining Narrative (category from Narrative Form chapter)


#1. Definition of Narrative

  • Narrative Form (key point). Slide – Narrative Form is “the organizing framework, regarding how and when to present information and the plot”
  • Slide: Narrative – “an account of a string of events occurring in space and time.”


#2. Types of Narratives

  • “Narrative films generally focus on human characters and their struggles… involve characters overcoming obstacles.” – pg. 67 (key point)


  • Slide: a list of narrative patterns in cinema. (Layne and Lewis).
    • Striving toward a goal
    • Overcoming obstacles in pursuit of a goal
    • Solving a mystery
    • Resolving a problem
    • Bringing order to chaos (return to equilibrium)
    • The journey
    • Flight and pursuit
    • Coming of age (from innocence to experience)
    • Personal growth


  • EXAMPLE: Have students refer back to the stories they shared with each other at the beginning of class. Ask them to identify what kind of narrative patterns apply to their story.


#3. The Screenplay

  • The screenplay is an important part of creating the narrative structure of the film.
    • Pass a screenplay around the class (Logan). Let them look at the structure of a screenplay
    • Put up the slide of a screenplay page. Show the class where the different elements of the story are listed within a screenplay (setting, characters, sounds, dialogue). Use these elements to lead into the next section of the lesson.


Diegetic vs. Non-Diegetic Elements (category from Narrative Form chapter)


#1. Diegesis

  • Narrative doesn’t just include the world of the story. The elements of narrative can be both diegetic and non-diegetic.
  • (key point) Diegesis is “the implied world of the story, including settings, characters, sounds, and events.” – pg. 67


#2. Diegetic Elements

Diegetic: elements that exist within the diegesis. (key point)

  • The characters in the film are aware of these.
  • Ask the class: What are some examples of diegetic elements?
  • List answers on the board:
    • Setting
    • Sounds
    • Characters
    • Source Music
    • Events


#3. Non-Diegetic Elements

Non-Diegetic (or Extra-Diegetic): elements that exist outside of the diegesis. (key point)

  • The audience, but not the characters, are aware of these elements.
  • Ask the class: What are some examples of non-diegetic elements?
  • List the answers on the board:
    • Score
    • Narration
    • Subtitles
    • Title cards
    • Non-character voice over (if the voice over is by a character, that’s considered to be in the world of the story)
    • Chapter headings


  • EXAMPLE: Students will watch a film clip and practice identifying the diegetic and non-diegetic elements. A good clip for this is the intro to Cinderella because it includes many non-diegetic elements, such as . It can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5VhAQsCNBrI. Preface the clip by reminding the students about the list they just made.
    • Ask the students to identify the different elements (narration, the storybook, music, characters, setting, etc.)


#4. Why would filmmakers use non-diegetic elements?

  • Ask the class: why would filmmakers use non-diegetic elements in their narrative?
  • List their replies, as well as the following:
    • Draw attention to aspects of the narrative, or to the film itself
    • Take on a perspective outside the story
    • Frame the diegesis, communicating information not available within that world.
    • Interrupt the diegesis for humor
    • Enhance the mood
    • Engage with viewers on an emotional level
  • Ask the students to refer back to the earlier clip of Cinderella. Why would the filmmakers use non-diegetic elements in this clip? What do they achieve? (The students should be able to identify that the storybook and narrator set up a sense of nostalgia and prepare the audience for a “story-time” mentality).
  • ACTIVITY: Play the students carious James Bond title sequences. Some good examples are from Goldfinger (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fy_PJODH3p0), Casino Royale (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nfc9GLxlhEw), and Skyfall (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uj94WTuv_Os). Ask the students to pay attention to how the sequence establishes the mood and reveals the character of Bond.
    • Have the students split into groups, watch the clips, and then make lists of what the title sequences communicate to the audience. Then have the groups share with the class.
    • Ask the students: What do these non-diegetic elements achieve for the film?


#5. How do diegetic and non-diegetic elements interact?

  • EXAMPLE: Play the students a clip from Casablanca (1942). Briefly overview the backstory of Rick and Ilsa’s affair and explain the context of this clip. Ask the students to listen specifically for the music, when it changes from diegetic to non-diegetic, and how the music changes. The clip can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7vThuwa5RZU (Start 1:21, End 2:26). The fact that the music changes to non-diegetic once Rick sees Ilsa, and also changes to a minor key, reveals the complicated feelings that Rick has for Ilsa.
    • Ask the students: how does this interaction between the diegetic and non-diegetic enhance the audience’s understanding of the film?


Narrative Structure (category from Narrative Form chapter)


#1. Three-Act Structure

  • A standard pattern for narrative films is the three-act structure. (key point)
  • EXAMPLE: Draw the three act-structure diagram on the board while explaining the plot points (inciting incident, rising action, climax, dénouement). Use a movie (Finding Nemo works very well) and then map out the movie using the three act structure.
  • ACTIVITY: Play the short film “For the Birds” (which can be found here: http://vimeo.com/61971077) and then have the students map out the story using the three act structure diagram.




Within the Diegesis: Selecting and Organizing Events (category from Narrative Form chapter)

#1. Fabula and Syuzhet

  • It’s impossible to completely represent reality on film. Filmmakers have to choose to present certain events and leave others out. In order to illustrate this point, Russian film theorists created two terms:
    • Slide: Fabula is the complete, chronological narrative, in its entirety, that implicitly stands behind the events depicted. (key point)
    • Slide: Syuzhet refers to the selection and ordering of the actions explicitly depicted on screen. (key point)


#2. Fabula and Syuzhet—differences in time

  • EXAMPLE: Play a montage for the class. A good example is the letter montage from Moonrise Kingdom, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HOKA6d35IIM
    • Ask the class what parts of the fabula have been left out to create the syuzhet.
    • “The significance of the difference between fabula and syuzhet is not simply that events are left out. Instead, the important question is: what is the effect of these choices? Does it change a viewer’s perception of a character or the flow of action that certain events are represented while others are not?” – pg. 69 (key point)
    • Ask the class why those parts have been left out.


#3. Fabula and Syuzhet—differences in order

  • The syuzhet isn’t just the narrative with events eliminated, but also the narrative with events re-ordered. (key point)
  • EXAMPLE: Play a flashback clip, such as this clip from Out of the Past: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7oTM9oaDmI. Prior to showing the clip, explain to the students the basic plot of the film, and afterward ask for them to think of why the event is being shown as a flashback.
    • “Repositioning events influences the way the audience understands them. In Out of the Past, Jeff tells his fiancée, Ann, about his former life of crime in several long flashbacks. Those flashbacks appear after the film’s opening scenes have presented Jeff as an ordinary man living in a small town. By manipulating the order of events… the syuzhet encourages the viewers to sympathize with Jeff. They see him as an upstanding citizen before they learn he once worked for a criminal.” – pg. 69
  • ACTIVITY: Ask the students to again return to the stories they shared at the beginning of class. Were there parts of the story that they told first, or parts of the story that they left out in order to enhance the narrative? Have them discuss this in groups.


Alternatives to Conventional Narrative (category from Narrative Form chapter)


#1. Principles of Commercial Hollywood Narrative

  • Put up the slide and discuss these principles of commercial Hollywood narrative (pg. 77):
    • Viewers should not be confused about setting, time, events, or character motivations.
    • Connections between cause and effect must be direct and complete.
    • They should invite viewer identification, be active, and seek goals.
    • Third acts and epilogues should tie up loose ends and answer all questions.
    • Unobtrusive Craftsmanship. Stories are told in a manner that draws viewers into the diegesis and does not call attention to the storytelling process.


#2. Alternatives to Three-Act Structure

  • Some narrative films don’t adhere to three act structure, but if you pay attention to shifts and details that signal turning points, you can still identify a structure within the film. (key point)
  • Frame Narration
    • Slide: “Frame narration consists of a character who narrates an embedded tale to onscreen or implied listeners.” –pg. 73 (key point)
    • Story-within-a-story
    • EXAMPLE: Play the students a clip from The Princess Bride, found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gbX1U1tx9aw&list=PLt2pZ7LhKgHMW4C4qF3v2HMzIkuLqEn6w. The narrator acknowledges the story, changes the pace, and even skips over parts. Ask students to look for how the narrator affects how the story is being told.
      • How does the narrator influence the story?
      • How does this clip reject the principles of classic Hollywood narrative we listed earlier?
      • Why does this clip reject those principles?
    • Episodic Narrative
      • Slide: “In episodic narrative, events are not tightly connected in a cause-and-effect sequence and characters do not focus on a single goal.”- pg. 73 (key point)
      • Episodic narrative emphasizes the patterns of everyday life.
      • EXAMPLE: Play students two scenes from Napoleon Dynamite. Ask them to see if they can find a way the clips relate in goal or cause-and-effect. The clips can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3LHAlcrTRA https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5G3XKsq7Ic. The fact that the clips have no relation depicts the episodic nature of the film, and makes the movie less a story and more portrait of a character and a particular lifestyle.
        • Why would the filmmakers use this type of narrative?
        • How does this clip reject the principles of classic Hollywood narrative we listed earlier?
        • Why does the clip reject those principles?


#3. Other ways filmmakers reject classic Hollywood narrative:

  • List on the board and discuss (pg. 78):
    • Lack of clarity. Multiple, conflicting lines of action, inconsistent characters, or extreme degree of character subjectivity. (Think found-footage films, Citizen Kane, Donnie Darko)
    • Lack of unity. Broken chain of cause and effect.
    • Open-endedness. Questions are left unanswered or conflicts unresolved.
      • EXAMPLE: Play the students this Prada Candy commercial by Wes Anderson, found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9Le-lYPQHg
        • Has the conflict been resolved?
        • What is left unanswered?
        • How does this clip reject the principles of classic Hollywood narrative we listed earlier?
        • Why does the clip reject those principles?
      • Unconventional characterizations. Audience is distanced or characters are lacking goals and action. (Napoleon Dynamite)
      • Moments that call attention to the narrative as a process.
      • Why do films stray from conventional Hollywood narrative?


Perspective & Meaning (category from Narrative Form chapter)

  • You know what first-person narration, third-person narration, and omniscient narration means in terms of literature. Films treat narration differently.
  • Most films use Restricted Narration, “which conveys external events as well as the knowledge, thoughts, and feelings of one or two major characters without the intervention of an explicit narrator. The story seems to unfold rather than to be narrated to the audience.”


#1. Omniscience

  • Sometimes the film takes a step back from the restricted narration and shares information with the audience that the characters do not possess.
  • An example would be if we saw someone placing a bomb somewhere—the characters do not know, but the audience does, creating dramatic irony.
  • EXAMPLE: Play clip from Top Hat (1935), found here http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x21vleg_top-hat-1935_shortfilms or in the HBLL (DVD 2009). Play from 00:29:05- 31:52. Preface by explaining that Ginger Rogers has met Fred Astaire earlier on in the film, and that they are now romantically involved. However, she does not know his name. Tell the students to notice the moments that they have more information than the characters.
    • The moment of omniscience is when Ginger believes that Fred is the husband of her friend. Ask the students how this moment of omniscience creates comedy within the film.
  • A simpler example is Titanic. The audience knows that the ship will hit the iceberg, but the characters are unaware.


#2. Character Subjectivity

  • Even though it’s not specifically first person, the ways we view certain moments from a character’s perspective changes the audience’s interpretation of the film.
  • Point of View
    • Point of View shots show character subjectivity (key point). “Point of view shots occur when the audience temporarily shares the visual perspective of a character.”
    • EXAMPLE: Play students a clip from Vertigo (1958) that contains a point-of-view shot (when Scottie—Jimmy Stewart—sees the stairs in a vertigo affect). Tell the students to look for the moments when they’re sharing the character’s perspective. The clip can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjPCk494e5Q
      • Ask the students how seeing the scene from Scottie’s point of view affected their perception of the scene.
    • Character Subjectivity through Sound
      • Sound can also align viewers with the characters, leading them to a subjective viewpoint. (key point)
      • EXAMPLE: Play clip from The Conversation (1974). Preface this by explaining that the characters are doing audio surveillance, and so what the audience hears is the audio from hidden microphones. The clip can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dMd0ahXr-2U.
        • What elements of this conversation or changed because we’re hearing it from the perspective of the character?


#3. Juxtaposition of Omniscience and Subjectivity

  • EXAMPLE: Play clip from Annie Hall (1975), found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SFu8JRlYGO4.
    • Ask students to identify the moments of character subjectivity and moments of omniscience.
    • How do these moments differ from each other?


Closing/Questions to Keep in Mind


Let’s practice everything we’ve learned…

  • EXAMPLE: Play this clip from the intro of (500) Days of Summer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2Xg0kTMZ8Q. Preface this by showing the students the following slide with questions, asking them to look out for the different narrative elements. When the clip is finished. Ask them to answer the questions on the slide.


Slide: As you write your though papers this week, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the film follow a three-act structure? If so, identify the key moments.
  • Does the film stray from Hollywood narrative principles? How? Why?
  • How does the film use diegetic and non-diegetic elements?
  • Does the film use restricted narration the whole time, or are there moments of character subjectivity or omniscience?
  • How do the fabula and syuzhet differ? How does this create meaning?