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Reading a Film Narrative

Reading a Film Narrative

To begin with, it can be useful to analyse the narrative of a film, following its development from the beginning to the end. Fictional films (and observational documentaries) usually focus on the desires, actions, challenges and obstacles facing one character. Investigative documentary films are often organised around a clear question explicitly stated in the title or opening narration.

still from father and daughter

Some areas to focus on are:

  • Who is the story about? Who are the main characters? How are they introduced to us? How do we discover what they want and what they fear? (N.B. Look out for the use of POV shots in establishing desire.)

  • What gets the story going? What are the initiating events in the character's story? (N.B. These may not be the same as the initiating events in the story world - e.g. the reasons a soldier goes to war may not be the same reasons that his country went to war.)

  • Suspense: Who do we sympathise with and why? Why do we pity them? Why do we fear for them?

  • Quest: What do the characters have to do to get what they want? What would happen if they failed?

  • Strengths and weaknesses: What are the main character's strengths and weaknesses (physical, mental and sociological)? How are these tested during the story? How do opponents attack their weaknesses?

  • Problems: Who or what stands in the main character's way? Why do they oppose the main character?

  • Stages of conflict: What are the main stages of the conflict? How does each stage challenge a different aspect of the character?

  • Reversals and revelations: What are the main reversals of fortune (from good to bad and vice versa) during the narrative? What revelations are there? How do these help propel the narrative forward?

  • Recognition: What are the key moments when the audience realises the character will need to make greater efforts to achieve their goals?

  • Self-recognition: Does the main character realise that he or she will need to change in order to defeat their opponent and achieve their goal? If so, when does this happen? (N.B. There may be more than one step to full realisation – if indeed it happens at all.)

  • Climax: What is the climactic moment of the film? How does this satisfy the big questions the audience has been asking about the characters?

  • Resolution: Is the conflict resolved in a surprising, interesting or engaging fashion? Are there questions left unanswered?

  • Aftermath: How has the world - or the character's world - been changed by the action and conflict?

You might then focus on some specific film techniques to explore the moving image text in the classroom - these are explained in the following pages in this section. These are not prescriptive - use them selectively and in combinations to suit you. In time you will get to know which of them will work best with any film text you choose.