WHAT IS STORY?

NARRATIVE is the media terms for storytelling. Whether we are making adverts, films, graphic novels, games or whatever, we are often deeply engaged in storytelling. As such, we need to know how to create good, powerful stories. And the first step is to acknowledge what a story is.

First thing is to avoid THE ROOKIE ERROR.

Nearly every child is asked to write a story at primary school. Here's one.

Now, this is fine for a young child but obviously we need to go a bit further. What's it lacking?

Pretty much everything that makes a story. This is a PLOT - a series of events. The ROOKIE ERROR is to confuse plot with story. A PLOT IS NOT A STORY. It's just one part and, in a lot of cases, it's not even nearly the most important part.

So what does this need to make it into a story? There are some different opinions about this, but most people will agree on:

CHARACTERS

LOCATION

NARRATIVE

TALKING ABOUT IT

There are a lot of tools or theories to help us discuss stories and, more specifically, narrative. Character, plot and location should be familiar enough concepts to you. Narrative is not always so clear. It is, basically, how the elements are arranged. For example, whose point of view are we getting? Is the plot linear or non-linear? Is there a closed or open ending? And so on. If we apply these theories, we usually make a good start on breaking apart and understanding how a narrative works. As ever, it's easier to have an example, so let's use the trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy. And here's a sheet to keep notes on as we discuss.

IDEA 1 - TODOROV'S THEORY

This one can help you organise and structure your plot. There are 5 stages to the plot.

  1. A person is living their normal life (EQUILIBRIUM.)

  2. Their life gets messed up. (DISEQUILIBRIUM.)

  3. They realise there's a problem. (RECOGNITION.)

  4. They try to fix the problem.

  5. Things are sorted out. (Not necessarily in a good way, He might be dead, for example.) (NEW EQUILIBRIUM)

Some people reduce this even further to simply equilibrium, disequilibrium, new equilibrium.

Can we see some part of this structure in Peter Quill's story in Guardians?

IDEA 2 - BARTHES' ENIGMA CODE

Why do you keep watching? Roland Barthes said it is because of ENIGMA, which just means 'mystery' or 'question.' Very simply, the narrative has to keep setting up questions which the viewer must then keep watching to find the answer to. An example might be Quill's headphones - why is he so attached to them? Why is he carrying an old cassette tape player, presumably playing the old songs from the 1970s we can hear on the soundtrack, in the future? Why does he get so emotional about it?

Another rookie error, by the way, is to think we only need one enigma. There are lots and lots in a typical narrative, usually with many playing out at the same time. What other enigmas are raised in this trailer for Guardians?

IDEA 3 - LEVIS-STRAUSS' BINARY OPPOSITIONS

Without conflict, there is no drama and thus no narrative. Theorist Levi-Strauss expanded this very simple, powerful idea into his theory of binary oppositions which  basically says that a successful narrative will be structured around a series of conflicts at every level - in the plot, between the characters and in the themes. We'll often have a good guy versus a bad guy. More thematically those characters might represent something (in Star Wars, for example, Luke Skywalker (and the Rebel Alliance) represents freedom while Darth Vader (and the Empire) represent enslavement. Levi-Strauss would say that this opposition is the single most important thing in the narrative - the plot and all the themes and the characterisation all centre around this conflict - so it is emphasised and developed in many ways.

White versus Black

Young versus old

Human versus robotic

Powerless versus powerful

Vulnerable versus invulnerable

Ultimately...

Good verus evil

What binary oppositions are implied in Guardians of the Galaxy?

IDEA 4 - PROPP'S CHARACTER ARCHETYPES THEORY

Vladimir Propp made an extensive study of Fairy Tales and found that the same character types and actions popped up over and over. There are 8 character types in these particular sorts of narratives.

Now, remember that Propp was dealing with fairy tales and we (usually) aren't - but we can still recognise a  few of these characters in Guardians. When characters are this deeply integrated into a culture, we call them ARCHETYPES. They tend to appear in all sorts of stories, as the examples here might show, How many can we find in the trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy?

The theory goes a little further than just identifying the character archetypes, though. Once we know who the hero is, for example, we know that there are only certain things that character can or will do. Basically (s)he will always do the right thing. In Todorovian terms (s)he will seek to restore equilibrium. The villain will always seek to disrupt equilibrium or to establish a worse equilibrium. So, do the characters in Guardians appear to stay within their sphers of action?

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