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NARRATIVE IN THE MEDIA

 Once we move beyond seeing film and television programmes as transparent representations of the world we need to consider some of the ways in which media texts mediate the world to us. One of the most important of these is through the codes and conventions of NARRATIVE.

Media texts present versions of the world through the 'packaging' of events and characters into stories. Such narratives may be extended and developed, as in film dramas or documentary programmes where the whole 'story' is told. They may also be continuous or serial narratives, such as television news broadcasts or soap operas. They may also be mini-narratives, or narrative 'snapshots', limited or single narrative events which leave the viewer to complete the narrative, a technique which is used in many magazine or television advertisements).

Question: Think of some examples of this reliance on narrative and story-telling. Concentrate on three or four particular examples, and try to think how each examples makes use of "stories". Also, (and try to avoid reading the rest of the page before doing this), why do you think it might be important to look at narrative in the media?

 We can begin by thinking about the importance of the concept of narration, and some of the ways in which it works. A list of possible types of narratives might include the following: personal histories, the News, fairy tales, jokes, dreams, suspense thrillers, ghost stories, comics, etc. Through this we become aware of the fact that each of these has certain common elements, but have different characteristics, they might be told in different ways, styles, or from different points of view. In this way also we become aware of the blurred boundary that exists between 'fact' and 'fiction': both are 'narrated', told, ordered, selected and shaped for an audience.

A basic conceptual distinction that is revealed here is that between 'story' and 'narration', or between 'tale' and 'telling': the story that is told, and the order in which, and the point of view from which it is told. The same series of events, featuring the same characters, will produce very different narratives if told according to the codes and conventions of the Joke, the 'News' or a nineteenth century novel.

Activity/Question: are you clear about the difference between "story" and "narration"? Think of some examples to concentrate your mind.

 The process of narrative, or story-making, involves certain key elements. Stories need a narrator, to organise, select and comment on the events and characters within the narrative; it involves a point of view from which the action and characters are presented,it also implies a listener, or an audience, and the ways in which the audience will respond to what is being told; it involves a basic structure of some type (beginning, middle and end?); it involves a basic decision about the type (or genre) of story being told (horror, comedy, dream, factual account, etc.); and it also implies the use of various codes to perform certain distinctive functions (create or reveal character; to generate suspense, to provide setting, to further the plot). Analysis of any film and television programme will show some of the ways in which these elements "mediate" the construction or presentation of 'reality' within the film or programme.

Activity:Take one media example of your choice and see if you can identify the elements higlighted above. Are they all there?

 From this we can move to a consideration of some of the elements of 'Narrative' in more detail.

(i) Narrative Structure. Narratives rely on the presentation of an initial state of order which is in some way disturbed, order and disequilibrium, in relation to a on a particular problem or set of problems. Narratives, in short, have to be about change, disturbance, disorder. Commonly narratives will feature the following structure:

ESTABLISHING -------> ELABORATION OF -------> RESOLUTION OF

A PROBLEM PROBLEM THE PROBLEM.

The nature of the problem and how it is resolved depends on the genre or form of the narrative, whether it involve solving the mystery, punishing the wrong-doer, obtaining the desired object or person. This can also be applied to Newspapers and to the presentation of television News, beginning with an initial order ("the safety and reliability of reports from the world of news"), through the disrupting or disrupted 'other world' of violence and death, to the 'end' which promises some kind of authoritative explanation or satisfying sense of resolution. The same structure may be found in Games Shows ("who will win the Astra?") or in Sports Events ("who will win the Cup?"). Even the mini-narratives or single-shot events found in advertisements can be seen to rely on the same underlying structure ("you have a problem, but if you buy this then...")

(ii) Character. It is worth asking, of any narrative, which came first, characters or events? Characters, we realise, may be functions of the plot, or they may produce the plot. A listing of the basic types of characters makes the point for us, for example, hero, villain, donor (of gifts or help), desired object.

The development or exploration of character will differ according to the codes and conventions of the type of story, as will the emphasis on certain aspects or parts of the characters' lives.

(iii) Narrator. The narrator tells the story, but may also implicitly or explicitly evaluate or authoritatively comment upon the presented material. The newscaster or the football commentator is one type of commentator, as is the 'voice-over' in a television commercial. One important aspect of narration is the 'point of view' (or "angle of vision") from which the events are narrated or viewed.

 In Film and television narratives it might appear as though there isn't a narrator, in the sense of there being a recognisable teller of the 'story'. However, the camera lens itself is here the narrator, providing us, shot by shot, with an ordered, selected and organised sequence of images, which we then "read" as viewers and listeners. Commentary on the sequence of images is also implicit, in the sense that an image may denote one thing but, in combination with other images, will come to connote other things. This, of course, involves considering the role of viewers in "reading" or "decoding" the narrative.

(iv) Narratee (Listeners, viewers and the audience). It is important to ask what we, as viewers, bring to our viewing. Do we simply reconstruct the meaning that was put in by the producer or director? Or is it more an issue of our personal and subjective responses, our feelings, thoughts, attitudes and values, which we then bring to what we watch. A particular event or image may 'mean' one thing (denotation) but may take on one of a number of connotations for an audience. Analysis of examples reveals the importance of this aspect of media narration, particularly when considering advertisements. Because of the nature of the film or television medium, as highly visual forms, the issues of Denotation and Connotation have been extremely important in helping us to describe and analyse the meanings that we find in film and media texts.

 Who is addressed, on what terms and in what ways? Narratives necessarily imply a viewer or listener, and to a certain extent they construct that viewer, or address certain types of viewer in certain ways. Viewers need to be familiar with the conventions of the narrative (think, for example, of what happens if you laugh your way through the news!), and to be responsive to the functions of the type of programme (informative, entertainment, moral awareness. It has been remarked that every media text constructs its own "implied audience", speaks to one type of viewer rather than another, and therefore excludes particular gender, racial, social or age groups. This obviously has important implications for exploring what pleasures and profit individuals get from films/programmes, and why some types of narratives just do not appeal (or "speak") to individuals or groups.

(v) Narrative Codes. Within a narrative a narrator will use certain codes for particular effects. For example, the use of certain codes to generate or control the flow of suspense, to provide setting, to engage the viewer's attention, to reveal character, or to further the plot. It has been argued that everything within a narrative has a particular function or serves a purpose - nothing is ever superfluous. Analysis of particular narratives will reveal where such Enigma, Setting, Viewer Address or Character Codes are used, and their effects.

(vi) Genre. This refers to the 'type' of narrative which is being presented. Genre governs or directs a number of aspects of a specific narrative, such as its setting, what characters are involved, what the narrative is about (themes, values and issues), its pleasures and effects on the viewer or listener. A particular programme or film may stick to one genre, but may also combine elements from different genres.

(vii) Narrative Form. This refers to the particular way in which a narrative is put together,, as opposed to the general underlying structure discussed in (i) above. It applies to the treatment of time within a narrative (the ordering of events and the time that it takes to present them), or to space and location.

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The elements of narrative presented above are common to all narratives. To be able to identify the ways in which they appear in particular media texts is important because it allows us to see not only the ways in which 'reality' is constructed within a narrative, but also the implications and effects of them being presented in that particular way.

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