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How Screen Narrative Works

A film can be described as a multi-layered, audio-visual narrative that is developed through a process of "question and partial answer; another question and partial answer" from shot to shot, at a pace set by the filmmakers. If successfully constructed, the resultant film will stimulate the audience’s curiosity and imagination, drawing them through the narrative. These fictional and factual narratives appear fluid and natural, an illusion achieved through clever use of film "language".

Though films may seem transparent and obvious, they have a very definite and highly evolved "vocabulary" of shots and angles, "punctuation" in the form of clips, camera movements and edits, and an audio-visual "grammar" that gives specific meaning to particular shot sequences. This vocabulary, punctuation and grammar can be just as complex and nuanced as verbal language, and just as rewarding to unpack.

The language developed in early, silent films was codified into visual grammar. Sometimes referred to as cinematic montage, this visual language developed into a system of planning, shooting and editing that is now generally referred to as the continuity system. The continuity system is designed to provide the audience with an apparently seamless viewing experience, despite the fact that a film is cobbled together from hundreds of individual clips of visual and audio information. (See the glossary for a little more detail on continuity.)

At the core of this system is the concept of active questioning. This means that the narrative should be constructed in a fashion where questions are set through the actions and reactions of the characters in one clip and then partially answered by the next, as well as what the audience assumes must be happening in the parts of the story they cannot directly see. When these filmed shots and recorded sounds are edited into sequences, audiences suspend their disbelief and allow their natural curiosity about what they see and hear draw them into the artifice of the cinematic experience, and engage emotionally and intellectually with the illusion of a larger narrative world.

For the most part, the narrative proceeds through this process:

  • Setting a question;
  • Providing a partial answer;
  • Setting a new question.

However, at certain points in this process, the filmmaker may want to introduce a new character, cut to a different line of action, or introduce a completely new sequence. Filmmakers have developed special techniques to alert the audience to a new paragraph or chapter, through the use of specific transitions, changes in the music, changing the soundscape or using sounds that bridge a cut. These alert audiences subliminally that they are about to see something new.

Documentaries, or factual texts, are often narrated and can therefore be observational. Here the line of questioning is based around questions set by verbal narration; the sounds and images often do not structure the narrative on their own as in a fictional film, but are linked by the exposition contained within the narration. That said, it is critical to be aware that most modern factual films, documentaries and news reports make use of many of the conventions, techniques and artifices of the continuity system to support their meanings. Therefore, awareness of this language is a key component of citizenship as well as twenty-first century literacy.

One of the key ways you can examine and discuss any film is using the three 'Cs and Ss'. This is a way of focusing a viewing or discussion on specific elements of film language and storytelling. We have provided detailed information and a worksheet here.