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Media Studies

Number 026

Telling a Good Tale – Further Narrative Techniques A recent episode of Eastenders began with the characters being shown drinking orange juice and eating cereal – a clear indicator that this was morning. Later in the episode a character went into the Queen Vic and mentions he is on a lunch break. The lighting is dimmed for a later scene and towards the end of the episode a group of characters go into their living room and turn on the interior lights. Half an hour of screen time has become a whole day in Albert Square. Media producers can use many techniques to show that time is passing and this idea of the compression of time is crucial in narrative fiction particularly – it means the audience do not have to sit through lots of mundane events to get to the exciting parts.

A Reminder Narrative refers to the structure of storytelling and can be applied to both moving image and paper based media texts. A previous factsheet covered conventional narrative structure and discussed a range of topics including theories from Propp, Todorov and Barthes. It also looked at how narrative was constructed and a number of different ways the conventional narrative structure is used in series, serials and episodic media texts. The aims of this factsheet are to: • Consider further the media concept of narrative through the manipulation of time and the construction of narrative points of view • Identify the ways in which the conventional narrative structure can be subverted

Some other techniques used could be: • Clock hands showing hours moving– or cutaways to a clock face showing how long it is since we last looked • Paper calendar dates or newspapers peeling away • Captions on screen such as ‘tomorrow’ or ‘three months later’ etc.

Enhancing the Story: Dealing with time and point of view

Sometimes a media producer needs to stretch time out. Have you ever noticed how long it can take to defuse a bomb in an action film even though we’ve seen the clock counting down the final minute several times? In this example, the film maker will be using time to heighten the suspense and excitement for the audience. Another way to achieve this effect is to use slow-motion or freeze-frames to slow down the passing of time.

Manipulating Time There are a number of techniques used within the construction of narratives which are more than just the structure itself, but add to the media producer’s ability to tell an interesting and easily understood story. For example, a standard soap opera episode runs for (just under) 30 minutes however, in the course of a single episode a whole day could pass or even several. In films which play for about two hours (screen time) the events of the plot can cover several years or even decades. Clearly the media producer will have to use techniques to compress time – to communicate to the audience that time is passing but to not waste screen time doing so.

Flashbacks Another common technique for manipulating time within a text is the use of the flashback (or flash-forward) where scenes of past or future events are intercut into the main story. This technique can perform a number of functions from setting questions (enigma) which need answering or providing the answers to previously set questions. Sometimes they are used to allow us to see events from different perspectives so one scene can be shown through different characters’ points of view. Often flashbacks are presented differently to the main narrative – a common example is the use of black and white within a colour text to demonstrate the fact that the scene in the past.

Activity Consider how you might attempt to show that time is passing between one shot and another. • How would you show a single day has passed? • How can the passing of a longer period be depicted? A month? A year? A generation? • How could you make it clear that two events you are showing are happening at the same time?

Different uses of flashbacks • Cold Case uses flashbacks of past events during its narrative as the plot centres around a detective’s investigation of an old crime. The events leading up to the crime are cut into the investigation itself

If you’re not sure, consider how you could use these props to show the passing of time. bigflip_small.jpg imgres?imgurl=


CSI uses flashbacks which are used to demonstrate the actual events of the crime being investigated once the villain is caught. Sometimes false flashbacks are used to illustrate the suspect’s story. They are also used during the investigation to show the thought process of the investigators and CSI often merges these types of flashbacks within the ‘present time’ scene itself.

Media Studies

026. Telling a Good Tale – Further Narrative Techniques


The opening sequence of Halloween (Carpenter: 1978) is shot from a single point of view giving creating restricted narration. The director gives the audience the killer’s perspective, even putting us behind the murderer’s mask.

Media producers manipulate the audience’s perception of time by creating tight deadlines within the plot which add to the tension and suspense. In film action and disaster films, these deadlines are crucial to create a sense of urgency within the film. This technique was used in The Day After Tomorrow (2004: R. Emmerich). At the start of the film an ecological disaster was thought be thousands of years away, then the science indicated several years, then weeks and finally it was realised that the disaster was actually coming ‘the day after tomorrow’. The increasingly short deadline to disaster created an increasing sense of apprehension in the early part of the film allowing the audience to become more emotionally involved with the characters and the events that they found themselves involved in.

Media producers decide how much information to give the audience and this creates different audience responses. The director Alfred Hitchcock explained how this works:

The manipulation of time is an important part of the story telling techniques used within the narrative of a text, as is the idea of narration. Media Terms – Narrative, Narration and Plot • Plot – the actions and events of the story • Narrative – the ordering and sequencing of the events • Narration - the way the events are presented to the audience

Whose Story is it? Narration and point of view

Hitchcock – ‘the master of suspense’

Texts tell their stories from specific points of view. Sometimes the audience is given different characters’ perspectives. This is called omniscient narration and this means that the audience are able to ‘see all’ through the narrative. There may still be secrets but the audience often know much more than individual characters do. Another narration technique is to use the point of view of one character to tell the story – usually the protagonist (although not always). Using this technique the audience knows as much (or as little) as the character and discovers things as the character does. This is called restricted narration.

Omniscient narration

Restricted narration

The audience see a bomb near a restaurant (the antagonist’s perspective)

The protagonist goes into a restaurant (the protagonist’s perspective)

The protagonist enters the restaurant; s/he is unaware there is a bomb (the protagonist’s perspective)

A bomb goes off nearby shattering the windows

The audience response is one of suspense – they know the protagonist is in danger, even if s/he doesn’t

The audience response is one of surprise (sharing the protagonist’s response)

AQA/WJEC/OCR? Narrative is one of the main media concepts. Your understanding of narrative is assessed in examination and coursework. You may find that there are no specific questions on narrative in your examinations but it can be used to discuss how texts work to provide audience pleasure, construct ideologies and is also part of the genre and institutional codes of texts. Exam Hint Whenever you are discussing narrative or narration always consider: • How the narrative is presented through the media language choices made • Why the narrative is presented this way considering the effects of the narrative structure chosen and the audience


Media Studies

026. Telling a Good Tale – Further Narrative Techniques

Narrative’s Relationship with other Media Concepts Narrative is constructed in a number of ways and it’s often worth considering how the concept links in with the other media concepts. Media Concept



Media Language

Media Language choices construct the narrative for the audience

The media language choices at the start of a text tell the audience where and when the story is set, creating the exposition (a long shot of the Manhattan Skyline)


Different institutions may use linear narrative slightly differently

US TV uses a teaser to set the problem before the main exposition which often comes via the opening titles


Different genres have their own narrative and narration conventions

Thrillers need to have an element of restricted narration to create suspense


The representations of characters and events construct the narrative roles

The convention within a teen-slasher film is that the character who represents a ‘higher code of morals’ (no sex, no drugs no drinking), survives


Audiences receive a range of pleasures from narrative



Ideologies and Values Narrative constructed ideological perspectives in a number of ways


Audiences enjoy the familiarity of recognising narrative conventions Texts provide comfort and reassurance with complete resolutions Audiences are able to interpret information and predict future events due to their understanding of narrative Audiences are able to predict the outcomes of events The pleasures associated with the genre come through the meeting of narrative expectations (e.g. experiencing fear whilst watching horror; feeling tension watching thrillers; experiencing identification/ escapism through soap operas) ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ is often identified through the conflict between binary oppositions The conflict is usually resolved. The winner represents the ideological position of the text Audiences tend to agree with heroes’ motivations and disagree with the villains even when at times their behaviours are not that different

Activity Choose one of your favourite fiction texts, either from television of film. Using ideas from the table above consider how its narrative relates to other media concepts. e.g. Cloverfield (M. Reeves: 2008) uses restricted narration (N) created by the use of a hand held camera (ML) which limits the audience knowledge of events to what the characters see (A/N). This creates shocks for the audience as events unfold (A). The monster is presented as a villain who disrupts the equilibrium set up in the party scene (N/A). By introducing the characters in the exposition (N) the audience are encouraged to identify with them (A). Even though it is presented in a new way, the film uses a range of codes from the disaster/monster movie which are recognisable (G/Inst) including the hero who needs to save his girlfriend (N/R) and reinforces ideologies around gender roles and relationships (Id/R). Exam Hint - In your discussions on the narrative of a text you do 1. In Reaper a young man discovers his soul has been sold to not need to present much plot information. Consider these two the devil and so he has to become a bounty hunter sending examples: escaped souls back to hell. 2. In Reaper the protagonist Sam’s conflict is between his ‘slacker’ lifestyle and the responsibility given to him by the devil to capture lost souls. He is accompanied in his task by his friends who act to hinder him throughout the episode even though they play the role of helpers. Each episode focuses on searching for one villain and provides a resolution. An ongoing arc within the series is the protagonist’s relationship with his would be girlfriend Andi. The programme uses restricted narration through Sam’s perspective. The first example is a plot summary whereas the second discusses the narrative of the programme. In exams you should focus on a discussion of the narrative not the plot. It is the second type of response that gains marks in an exam, not the first.


Media Studies

026. Telling a Good Tale – Further Narrative Techniques

Subverting Conventional Narrative Not all media texts use conventional approaches to narrative. Some media texts deliberately manipulate the way a story is told in order to undermine audiences’ expectations and create alternative audience responses to the usual comfort and reassurance that a standard narrative would provide. There are many alternative approaches to narrative – some are subtle and others quite radical. Conventional Approach

Alternative Approach


Audience Response

Clear-cut character roles A typical hero – Indiana Jones

Heroes display negative qualities even though the audience is encouraged to identify with them and their motivations

In 24, Jack Bauer undertakes actions which can be perceived as immoral. The audience may have a problem with his methods but see them as a means to an end. Bauer has been shown torturing suspects for the information he needs

Villains are created to encourage audience identification

In the Saw series the audience cannot condone Jigsaw’s actions but, despite his sadistic violence, the reasons for punishing his victims are presented as making sense

Lack of clear ideas of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ reflect a more complex moral world. Audiences may respond positively to this as these texts represent worlds closer to the reality of the audience’s existence. On the other hand they may respond negatively as these texts do not offer reassurance that all problems can be solved and all actions can be defined clearly as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

Characters move from being ‘bad’ to ‘good’ and vice versa

In Lost characters who appear heroic at some points of the narrative appear villainous in others.

The ending of the text does not solve all the problems from the plot and fails to answer all the questions leaving loose ends

No clear explanation for the events was given in Cloverfield.

The audience is either left unsatisfied as the text fails to provide all the answers or intrigued by the lack of closure.

Chronological/Linear structure The idea of the three act structure – beginning, middle and end can be subverted in a number of ways

In Memento the resolution of the film is presented first and the events unfold backwards

Events can be depicted out of sequence either in a random order or in a specific non-linear sequence

In Pulp Fiction events are presented in a random order with one of the ‘first’ events coming late in the film and the first scene depicted events that happen last in terms of the plot of the film

These texts demand a more active audience engagement that conventional linear narratives. Audiences need to work out the chain of cause and effect for themselves and work out the order of events for themselves. Often this type of approach demands multiple viewings so that the audience can fully understand the events that they have seen.

Resolutions Despite being an unconventional text, Californication gave viewers a very conventional resolution


Media Studies

026. Telling a Good Tale – Further Narrative Techniques

Subverting Conventional Narrative continued. Conventional Approach Restricted/Omniscient Narration

Alternative Approach


Texts often use a combination of restricted and omniscient narration. Some non conventional narratives do not always make it clear which perspective the audience is being given.

In Cold Case it is sometimes difficult to know if the facts of the case are being presented or just one person’s interpretation.

Some texts present a restricted narration but later reveal that the narrator was untrustworthy and so the events of the plot are called into question

The narrators in Fight Club, The Usual Suspects and Memento are all unreliable. This fact is only revealed towards the end of the films. This technique can be found as far back as 1920 in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

Audience Response Non conventional narration often reinforces how subjective events can be and how all stories are interpretations. Again this removes the reassurance that conventional narrative provides and can be challenging for an audience.

Some texts used restricted narration from a number of different points of view

An episode of CSI showed one case as seen through the eyes of three different investigators. Each character saw the events of the case differently.

Case Study – Damages

The narrative structure of a typical episode of Damages 1. ‘Previously on…’ recapping on previous episodes using both primary (the past) and secondary (the present) plot information 2. Secondary plot - developing the story a little further (what happens to the protagonist after her arrest) 3. Primary plot - introduced via a caption: e.g. ‘Three Months Earlier’ (what led up to the arrest of the protagonist) 4. Secondary plot – brief further development 5. Primary plot - flashback 6. Secondary plot with cliff-hanger ending

The TV series Damages presents two connected plots. • The primary plot is a flashback from time of the secondary plot’s events • The secondary plot shows one of the main characters arrested for the murder of her fiancée and is presented in grainy, colour de-saturated film-stock. This plot is set up as the present day and slowly unfolds via two or three intercut segments within the presentation of the primary plot. This ‘present day’ runs forwards very slowly across episodes as moments from this part of the story are repeated with the gradual addition of more plot information. • The flashback makes up the main body of the episode.

Damages and the Audience The function of this narrative structure is to heighten suspense. The primary plot’s enigma is around building the case against a corrupt business man. We get to know a young lawyer and follow the investigation. A second enigma is created as the audience know the fate of two of the main characters (the lawyer (arrested) and her fiancée (murdered)) but do not know how these events came about. The audience will be trying to work out what will occur in the primary plot and how that leads to the secondary one. The mysteries encourage the audience to keep watching for answers. In addition, the narrative arc for both plots spans a whole series and so this generates loyalty to the programme.

Acknowledgements: This Media Studies Factsheet was researched and written by Steph Hendry Curriculum Press. Bank House, 105 King Street, Wellington, TF1 1NU. Media Factsheets may be copied free of charge by teaching staff or students, provided that their school is a registered subscriber. No part of these Factsheets may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any other form or by any other means, without the prior permission of the publisher. ISSN 1351-5136


26 Further_ Narr_Tech  

If you’re not sure, consider how you could use these props to show the passing of time. Different uses of flashbacks • Cold Case uses flashb...

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