Cinema Paradiso (Tornatore, 1988)
All stories are broken into three acts: a beginning, middle, and an end. That's it. Try to drop one of them and the story falls apart. The beginning is the introduction where you introduce everyone and everything you need to set your story in motion. This is Act One. The middle is the complication where you complicate everything you already set up. This is Act Two. The end is the resolution where you resolve everything you complicated earlier. Act Three. Easy peasy, right? But good act structure is often tossed asunder.
The beginning, middle, and end of your story are all separated by what are known as plot points. These are major twists that propel your hero from one act to the next, forcing them to make new decisions. The best plot points alter the course of the story in a way neither the hero nor the audience was expecting. Ideally, they drop the hero into a predicament from which they cannot return. If a hero loses his phone, no big deal, he goes back and finds it. Bad plot point. If a hero loses his job, or his leg, or his virginity, tougher to fix. Good plot point. These unforseen turns should not only complicate matters for the hero, but also raise the stakes, that which is at risk of being gained or lost.
In action films, plot points must be extraordinary. The genre itself implies action and plot points must deliver it. Something must blow up. Someone must get robbed. Somewhere people die. Lies and threats and thefts can all be solid twists in action films, but the good ones literally propell your hero forward. Through the air. Through a wall. Or through time. That is the fix action audiences are accustomed to getting.
Plato, Shakespeare, Hitchcock, Spielberg, Tarantino all have plot points in their work. Because they work. Because we're wanting something to happen. We're wanting progress. In screenplays, one page is equal to one minute of screen time. So a two-hour movie (120 minutes) is 120 pages. A three-act structure breaks down like this:
Plot Point I: between pages 25 & 30 Plot Point II: between pages 85 & 90
But that leaves a dark and murky sea between them of almost sixty pages. In the old days, filmmakers could get away with those few twists. But not today. We're used to getting much more much quicker and need a Midpoint Plot Point around page 60 to bridge the gap. James Cameron says he writes in seven acts. Something that turns your hero's life upside down in an instant and forces them to make a new decision.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981)
Lethal Weapon (Donner, 1987)
Mission: Impossible III (Abrams, 2003)
The Call to Action
Every action hero is called to action. We meet them set in their dysfunctional ways in their dysfunctional world. Then someone calls. Someone walks in the door. A letter is delivered. With a mission.
Indiana Jones, we need you to find an ark.
This is what's known as the inciting incident of the story and falls around the tenth minute. If you wait much longer, the audience gets antsy.
What is your hero fighting for? For your hero to go to the ends of the earth, face the fire, and risk everything they have in order to get tickets to the opera seems, well, ridiculous. In action films, you want your hero's quest to be worthwhile. Of course, there could be great rewards for their success, but also consider what the consequences of failure may be:
Their fiance may be killed.
In all movies, stakes should elevate as the story progresses. But it is imperative in action movies. For example, in the beginning your hero may learn someone has been killed and he is assigned to find the killer. The stakes? If he doesn't find the killer, the crime goes unpunished, the person died in vain, and the killer is free to kill again. That is pretty signi-ficant.
"Three-Act Structure" Contributed by Michael Lucker Georgia Filmmaker & Screenwriting lecturer University of North Georgia
Narration: The subjective telling of story from a specific point of view. This point of view can be seen in plot organization, in a voiceover, and in cinematography, editing, or mise-en-scène choices.
Off-screen: Events that occur beyond the film frame provided to the viewers. These events are in the diegesis and characters may have access to them, but viewers must learn of off-screen events by deduction.
Cinema has the unique ability to tell its stories aesthetically, through the use of close-ups, music, lighting, the framing of on-screen and off-screen space, even dance and pantomime. Gazing in particular is distinctly filmic and a central means of narration in cinema. Cinema always presupposes a narration, a story being told by someone even when there is not an actual narrator. To perceive the narrator of any film, one must ask the question: from whose perspective is this story being told? The narration in Cinema Paradiso is from Toto’s point of view and told via flashbacks, but even when we are in the present with an adult Toto, the camera lets us know that his story is the one that is privileged through framing, close-ups and eyeline matches that follow the character and keep us close to his body and his psychology. Often when we imagine the narrator of a film, we think of either a physical character within the diegesis who relates the order of events and guides us through the film, or a non-character, someone unseen who speaks in voiceover and assumes the position of authority in the text. But not all narrators fall cleanly into these two categories; many films mix a voiceover with a subjective point of view to tell a story. Tarsem Singh’s fantasy film, The Fall (2006), frames narrative as a story being told to a little girl named Alexandria, by Roy, a depressed silent film stunt actor, who wishes to manipulate her into helping him to kill himself. Voiceover brings emphasis and clarity to a film’s mise-en-scène and story development, aiding in continuity and the structure of the filmic text. The Fall thus adopts a story-within-a-story structure and positions its voiceover narrator as a character within the film, moving between Roy’s oral tale and Alexandria’s visualization of the story.
An interesting development occurs in The Fall as Roy narrates his tale, and Alexandria frequently interrupts its telling. Alexandria begins to move from mere listener-spectator of the story to replace Roy as storyteller. Although initially Roy narrates the story, it is the listener’s voice which begins to take over the frame’s point of view or subjectivity. Alexandria’s voiceover and sight is privileged alongside Roy’s as storyteller. She is able to re-imagine the look of characters based on events from her own life and, ultimately, change the course of events at the end of the film by adding herself as a character to the story.
The Fall (Singh, 2006)
For the non-character voiceover narrator, who is historically male, there is an understanding that he has full knowledge of the events that will unfold, unlike the film’s characters who are caught in the story’s web and so have limited knowledge. In this way, the non-character narrator often is considered a ‘voice of God’, even though the commentator may lack objectivity. In The Truman Show (1998) director Peter Weir plays with audience understanding of the voiceover narrator as God. Starring Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank, The Truman Show is about a child adopted and raised by a corporation who grows to adulthood inside a popular simulated television show based on his life. As an adult, Truman grows to be aware of the artificiality of his life and seeks to escape the fantasy on-screen bubble in which he lives. At the end of the film, Christof, the show's creator and executive producer, attempts to convince Truman to stay by speaking to him anonymously through a speaker system. For Truman, in his artificial story world, Christof’s voice takes on the appearance of God in its disembodiment and absolute knowledge of characters and events within the diegesis. And yet, this voiceover narrator stills holds limited knowledge of the interiority of characters, and he cannot fully predict the choices that characters make within the story. Christof cannot control Truman’s actions, even though he can manipulate the artificial world, and he is surprised by Truman’s final decision to leave the bubble.
The Truman Show (Weir, 1998)
The voiceover narrator is also often used as a fountain of information to relay past events and deepen the emotional nuance of a story. Non-character voiceover narrations are typically understood as non-diegetic, since the narration originates from outside the film’s story world. Some films choose to reveal the non-character narrator as a character at some impactful point of the film’s narration. These films shift the narrator from non-diegetic to diegetic, with the intention of shocking audiences and advancing plot. Sunset Boulevard (Wilder, 1950), for example, presents its story about a forgotten silent film star’s desperate attempt to return to the movies from the point of view of a dead screenwriter found in the pool of the aging starlet. The film opens with a flash-forward and the voiceover narration of a man surprisingly revealed as dead within the first few minutes of the film, prompting the audience’s need to discover what happened as the film flashes back to the very beginning. Between 1950 and now, many films have repeated the dead-narrator voiceover technique made famous by Sunset Boulevard. One of the more successful examples is Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999) whose voiceover narrator, Burnham, is an advertising executive in the midst of a midlife crisis. Unlike Sunset Boulevard, American Beauty begins in the present and creates the illusion of a simple linear narrative in time and space. The film’s end shockingly discloses that the narrator has been dead all along, deepening the impact of American Beauty as a cautionary tale and as an exploration of American middle-class family values.
Sunset Boulevard (Wilder, 1950)
As mentioned earlier, voiceover narrators are typically gendered male in mainstream cinema, tapping into social assumptions of authority, knowledge and truth as male-centered attributes. The presence of a female narrator can point to, and challenge, such unconscious stereotypes and biases, allowing for female expression and perspectives. It would be in the so-called “woman’s films” or melodrama of the 1940s where a plethora of first-person female narrators would arise only to find their voices often undermined by the authority of men within the text. As originally articulated by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, in Classical Hollywood Cinema the gaze of cinema is male. You might think here of a classic story pattern where a male hero engages in an epic struggle against a clever villain or antagonist and at some point, inevitably, rescues his love interest—the quintessential damsel in distress—from his enemy’s clutches to win day. Often we assume the point of view of the protagonist. His subjective understanding of the world becomes our own. Women are often presented as the object of a male gaze to be viewed from his perspective, not her own, which has been a difficult obstacle to overcome in female storytelling. Read Laura Mulvey's Essay
The Piano (Campion, 1993) stands as a unique film for its mute female protagonist, Ada, who controls the film’s voiceover, and also for its female authorship. Director Jane Campion wrote the screenplay for The Piano, providing a re-imagining of Emily Brontë's 19th century novel Wuthering Heights, also authored by a female writer, and incorporating the theme of dangerous female gazing through its narrative and aesthetic staging of the Bluebeard folktale. Ada’s muteness sets up a politics of female resistance to patriarchal language and structures that seek to contain and disempower female voice and sexuality. The Piano begins immediately in female voiceover over a black screen, before image, as Ada narrates her background, privileging the use of a woman’s voice as narrator over the male gaze of the camera, and highlighting the inherent power of the female author and historian. Rather than have her story told by third parties or be constructed by a male ‘God’ narrator, Ada tells her own story, possessed of the ability to define her own self. Campion subverts the patriarchal mechanism of cinema, which typically privileges male voice and gazing as center of the story action, to situate Ada in a position of power as storyteller.
The Piano (Campion, 1993)
When a film has a narrator we often assume the reliability of the narrator, that the story they tell must be the truth, but films can also have unreliable narrators with compromised memories or who blur the truth. As we watch Toto grow into a young man in Cinema Paradiso, for instance, he falls in love with a beautiful young girl called Elena from an upper class family. But is Elena real, or is she only a figment of his imagination? Through the use of close-ups and reaction shots, the audience is constantly kept within Toto’s emotional frame of reference, and often when we see Elena, her presence is mediated through cinema and the movie camera in some way. For example, Elena is never seen outside of Toto’s point of view. The first time he sees her is through the eye of his home movie camera, and their secret meetings together typically occur in places of cinema or in his memory. One hot summer night at an outside film screening, Toto laments a rotten summer away from Elena and muses that if his love-affair were a film it would already be over, fade-out, cut to storm. Immediately thunder sounds and lighting strikes as rain begins to fall. The theme music swells as Elena suddenly appears within the close shot frame of Toto, and the two kiss. The improbability of the moment positions Toto’s relationship with Elena as one born out of cinematic fantasy, and it reveals Toto’s narration of the past as subjective, and thus compromised. See Chapter 4 & Chapter 5 for more on close-ups & reaction shots.
Narrator: The character or characters from whose point of view the story is told. The character(s) may be on-screen or off-screen; they may be diegetic or non-diegetic.
Voiceover: The voice of a character layered over the film image. This voice may be an omniscient perspec-tive or an inner voice. Voiceovers most often are associated with the film’s narrator.
Non-diegetic: Elements that exist outside of the diegesis, or story world. Characters in the story cannot see or hear non-diegetic elements, for example credits, subtitles, or orchestra music. When a narrator is non-diegetic, they exist outside of the diegesis and characters on screen are not aware that he is speaking.
Unreliable narrator: Narrators who defy our expectation the be told the "true" story. Unreliable narrators have compromised memories, intentionally blur the truth, or straight out lie to the viewer.
The Rashomon Effect and expirements in time
Rashomon (Kurosawa, 1950)
All acts of storytelling represent a perspective, and as such can never be truly objective. Some films structure their form around the very unreliability of the narrator. Storytelling presupposes the telling of tales or lies, and directors can play with audience expectations of a narrator’s truth-speaking to delve into deeper political and socio-cultural issues of nation and identity. In 1950, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon broke storytelling conventions with its revolutionary structure, which repeated the same dramatic incident from four different character perspectives: the samurai’s, his wife’s, the bandit Tajōmaru’s, and the woodcutter’s. What happens in the grove remains a mystery that leaves the samurai dead (and his story told through a psychic), his wife raped, and the murderer in question. At their trial, all four individuals give contradictory versions of the event in flashback sequences that privilege each individual narrator, presenting that storyteller in a more positive or sympathetic point of view than the rest. In one version of events, the bandit is a stud; in another, the husband is betrayed by his wife; in another, the wife is a childlike victim; and in another the woodcutter is an innocent bystander. Each story preserves a certain self-image that valorizes the individual and explores the ideas of memory and identity. Rashomon never resolves the whodunit mystery of its plot with its series of unre liable narrators, leaving its audience uncertain of what is truth, and both hopeful and untrusting of human nature.
Since Rashomon, many films have repurposed its unique storytelling structure that examines the unreliability of the narrator. Park Chan-Wook’s Joint Security Area (2000) adopts the Rashomon effect in the story of two North Korean and two South Korean soldiers who cross the divide, secretly forming a friendship in a small North Korean border house. The brotherhood formed between these four men presents an imagined community of a united Korea, but one night something happens in the border house that triggers fear and violence, leaving two men dead. The hope of a united Korea finds itself overwhelmed by power dynamics and the webs of cultural expectations about the ‘other’. The hunt to solve the mystery and stop an international incident between the two Koreas finds itself frustrated by conflicting witness accounts. Why would these soldiers tell two different versions of events? As with Rashomon, Joint Security Area is composed of flashback sequences as the survivors narrate their stories, and a neutral party seeks to parse out the truth. Unlike Rashomon, Joint Security Area shares the ‘true’ story at the film’s conclusion in a dossier that will never be shared with the North and South Korean governments and superior officers.
Joint Security Area (Park, 2000)
The audience alone is privileged with this final story and made to understand why these soldiers feel the need to tell stories. In its literal traversing of borders between self and other, often utilizing storytelling vehicles like the photograph, song, or memoir, the film questions the ‘truth’ of a conflict learned secondhand, the line separating vilified other from civilized self, the impossibility of neutrality or bridging the gap, and stresses the necessity of alternative modes of representation. Storytelling is politicized in Joint Security Area as the ordinary man must tell stories in order to survive in a world of uneven power dynamics, a world of division where the South Korean self is defined against the North Korean other. The theme of storytelling also reveals the similarity between the South and North Koreans and so humanizes the previously demonized North Korean Other, particularly by positioning two popular South Korean actors as North Koreans in the film.
Storytelling acts as an accessible and comfortable technique to address the present by constantly looking backwards and putting narrativity itself into question. Characters tell and retell stories as truth becomes a fluid and contradictory construct that time and distance only complicates and deepens. The audience is forced to adopt the role of investigator, with understanding growing the more a story finds itself retold, revised, and extended. One effect of these narrators who deliberately withhold ‘truth’ from the spectator is the shattering of the suspension of disbelief, which allows the spectator to sink into film narratives without questioning the reality before them. The Rashomon Effect disallows escape into the typical linear expectations of classical film narrative with its closed endings, calling forth a thinking spectator with no easy moral resolutions. While story and narration share points of intersection, it is important to note the distinction between the two. As The Rashomon Effect illustrates, story has a whole life separate from narration, and thus can be told in different ways by different narrators who experience the story event from different emotional standpoints and with different motivations.
The flow of information in narration is typically understood as being either restricted or unrestricted. When information is restricted in a film, both the character and the audience are given access to similar story information, and thereby learn and come to conclusions at roughly the same time. Unrestricted information, as the name suggests, privileges the audience with more knowledge than characters, both visually and aurally. For example, in M (Lang, 1931), a serial killer who preys on young children is identified to the audience only by the tune he whistles before he murders them. Imagine a scenario in this story world where a kindly non-descript man approaches a child and begins to whistle as he buys her a balloon and walks away with her. While the character is unaware that she is in the hands of a killer, the audience has been given access to this unrestricted information through the use of an aural cue, creating intense suspense as we helplessly watch, knowing what will happen. Later in the same film, the old blind man, who had previously sold the balloon to the little girl’s murderer, hears the whistled tune and recognizes the presence of the serial killer – now the narrative turns to restricted information. The audience in this moment does not know more than the old man in terms of the killer. Can characters know more than the audience? Such an idea introduces another way in which information flows in narration, where knowledge is deliberately withheld from the audience but accessible to characters in order to shock and surprise. Films move between different types of information flows at all times constantly working to manipulate their audiences’ investment in the narrative. See Chapter 6 for more on M.
M (Lang, 1931)
All stories are an experimentation in time. A story may be arranged in or out of chronological order. The duration time over which the story unfolds can be a few hours, a day, several years or centuries (think here, for instance, of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), which follows a vampire’s love story across time immemorial). The duration of a film can be extended and slowed in order to have audiences linger on a moment or pick up on subtler cues. Or, the film can be shortened through editing and ellipses to quicken the pace and excitement of the film. A story may also be told multiple times in a film, as in Rashomon, or a shot may be repeated by plot even though it only takes place once in the story. The amount of times the story or shot recurs in a film refers to its temporal frequency. Frequency can point to character psychology by indicating a repeated dream or memory, or it may simply create a pause in the film for audience introspection.
Every scene serves a particular function to cue the spectator into the film’s meaning. Meaning can be explicit, that is, on the surface, emerging as plot summaries or a description of what exists directly before our eyes and ears. But meaning can also be implicit or beneath the surface, which requires an active spectator to read, not just watch, the filmic text to uncover the deeper implications of the narrative. Motifs are particularly important as a stylistic technique often used in cinema to nonverbally enhance the meaning in a film. A motif refers to any significant element of a film that is repeated to deepen narrative meaning. A motif can be aural, like the whistling in M or the use of ringing bells to send the spectator spiraling through time in Cinema Paradiso. It can be a color, for example the repeated use of red in a film to signal budding rage and resistance. Motifs can be objects, settings, camera angles or a particular lighting, character, or camera movement. It really depends on the needs of the particular film and its individual style. Narration is human interaction, through which we communicate our thoughts, dreams, ideas and imaginings with one another. It can be spoken dialogue, gestures, and expressions, or a stream of visual images, sound, and music without characters saying a single word. As audiences we intuitively read the narrative system that structures a film in an attempt to perceive the larger point or argument that lies at the heart of every story.
The Rashomon Effect: A term used to describe the unreliability of eyewitness accounts. Based on the film Rashomon (Kurosawa, 1950).
Restricted narration: Both the protagonist and the audience are given access to the same story informa-tion.
Unrestricted narration: The audience knows more information than the protagonist. Often used to evoke suspense in narrative progression.
Temporal frequency: The amount of times that an event or shot recurs in a film.
Implicit meaning: Story meaning that is not given directly to the viewer, but is hidden and needs active interpretation to unpack.
Motif: Any significant element of a film that is repeated to deepen narrative meaning.
- How can we continue to think through the intricacies of story and plot in cinema? If all cinema is a kind of time machine, whether or not a film follows a time travel narrative, we can trace the way in which time operates across a filmic text to move both characters and the audience through space, time, and information. Following the example provided in the Time Travel Narratives insert, create your own table outlining the play between story and plot in a film of your choice.
- What does it mean to gaze or look in cinema? Gazing is often articulated in terms of power dynamics, where the person who gazes controls the knowledge and narrative action of the film. While gazing is traditionally thought of as male, is there such a thing as a female gaze. Is there a difference between male and female cinematic gazing, or the gazing of marginalized figures in society?
"I'm going to stop you right there, Scott. Are you seriously telling me that your plan to save the universe is based on Back to the Future?" - Tony Stark, Avengers Endgame
Not only is time travel Scott Lang’s plan to save the universe, it is one of the most popular ways that film experiments with narrative. In time travel stories, the viewer is presented with the idea that events do not need to happen in chronological order. As modern film viewers, audiences are actually already comfortable with non-sequential time. When a character remembers an earlier scene or imagines a moment in the future, we often read the movie’s signals without becoming confused about why we are seeing a moment from an earlier or later time. However, in a time travel story, the characters are also in on the joke. They know that they are suddenly occupying their own past or future. In such a film, the time of the world within the film becomes as malleable as our experience of watching it.
Our modern idea of time travel emerges from a number of sources. Traveling through time appears in Hindu mythology and then repeatedly throughout history in stories about dreams or drug states, but many scholars attribute the current tradition as emerging from HG Wells’ 1895 novel, The Time Machine. In the book Wells draws on recent scientific literature to propose time as a line that can be traversed forward and backwards with the correct mechanism. While physicists have moved past that rigid model of time as a straight line, it actually aligns very well with the technology of film, which makes time machines a great way to think about cinematic time!
The Time Machine (Pal, 1960)
All cinema is a kind of time machine, not only in terms of its use of the idea, but the very medium itself is geared towards moving spectators and characters in and out of time. This happens not only through flashback and flash-forward, but also through the ways in which a film can actively have two or more times side by side operating in tandem. In Stephen Daldry’s The Hours (2002), for example, we see three generations of women living in different times all connected by Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs Dalloway.
The Hours (Daldry, 2002)
The use of multiple or non-sequential timelines in films allows for compelling cinematic storytelling. In James Cameron’s Terminator (1984) the spectator is introduced to actual time travelers, but also sees speculative visions of time focalized through characters’ memories or dreams. In the movie, Kyle Reese, a time traveler from a dystopian robot apocalypse future, pursues an image in a photograph of his leader’s mother, Sarah Connor, hoping to save her from an unstoppable mechanical assassin. As the movie progresses, Kyle and Sarah develop a relationship and their union results in the birth of John Connor, the very friend who sends Kyle back in time with the photograph. Towards the end of the film, we see a photo taken of Sarah Connor, the very image that eventually propels Kyle through time to his past future.
La Jetée (Marker (1962)
This propulsion through time via fixation on an image is in a real way the technology of cinema. Technically none of the pictures move, they are all still frames run one after the next to produce the illusion of movement. The spectator’s memory of earlier frames become the material of cinematic memory in the film. Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) opens with the text “This is the story of a man, marked by an image from his childhood.” The movie, almost entirely a sequence of photographs with voiceover narration, marks the viewer with the same image and this image becomes the means by which the protagonist later time travels in the film. Cinema operates as a time machine, weaving the material of the audience’s own memory. Films like La Jetée and Terminator push spectators to consider our human attachment to images. How do we relate to photographs or to images from our own present and past?
Groundhog Day (1993)
The filmic movement of time seems simple enough at first glance. The audience experiences the events of the movie in order. For example, in Groundhog’s Day (1993), Bill Murray plays a weatherman who is sent for the fourth year in a row to cover Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog who will or will not see his shadow on Groundhog’s Day. The story and plot move in tandem at the beginning of the film. The first thing we see is also the first thing that happens. On the day that comprises most of the film Murray awakens to irritating radio DJs (1), hits on an unreceptive coworker (Andie MacDowell) (2), unenthusiastically reports the story (3), and fails to leave town (4).
Henry Reich details the myriad twisting paths and loops that movies use to play with time in his MinutePhysics YouTube.
The next day he awakens to the same irritating radio DJ banter from the day before and we soon learn that the day is happening over again. Although the scene happens after the other events, in the plot of the movie we have actually returned to (1) the first event of the day. In all the film represents at least moments of the day happening 38 times, and director, Harold Ramis, estimated at different times that the total amount of time that passed in the film would have been between 10 and 40 years’ worth of days.
In order to recreate the directorial play with plot and story, you can even outline how the two interact with a simple table. If the entire movie is shot in sequence with no flash forward, flashback, memory, time travel etc., then the story (represented here as A, B, C, D) and the plot (1, 2, 3, 4) would appear as follows:
A movie like Groundhog’s Day that returns repeatedly to the initial position could become quite complicated!
In the above example the story progresses as the plot is re-arranged but the inverse can also happen as it does in Michel Gondry’s The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) where the plot moves forward but the story becomes a tangle of coiling memory, nostalgia, and forgetting. All films manipulate this relationship between story (the events in the world of the film) and plot (the arrangement of how those events are presented to the audience). These rearrangements have been going on for so long that in films like Avengers Endgame (2019), Superman (1978), or Back to the Future (1985), characters in the world of the film openly discuss how they must re-order events in their worlds to fix broken or traumatic storylines. Audiences find themselves caught up in cinema’s time machine as they parallel the characters’ consideration of how a director and creative crew put together all the pieces of time that make up a cinematic narrative.