Notes on Classical Narrative Techniques

Basic techniques of progression, clarity and unity

  • a narrative is a chain of events occurring in time and space, linked by cause and effect
  • basic principle of Hollywood cinema – a narrative should consist of a chain of causes and effects that is easy for the viewer to follow
  • clarity of comprehension is basic to all responses to films, particularly emotional ones
  • most Hollywood films tend to be easier to understand than art-house films; they lack the ambiguities and symbolism that make art-house films  fascinating
  • strength of Hollywood system is its ability to allow writers and directors to weave intricate web of character, event, time and space that can seem transparently obvious to the viewer – unobtrusive craftsmanship
  • Hollywood favours unified narratives – a cause should lead to an effect that in turn should become a cause for another effect; an unbroken chain of cause and effect across the film
  • effect does not always need to immediately follow cause – the ‘dangling cause’, information or action which leads to no effect or resolution until later in the film (e.g. Witness – John Book remains hidden on Amish farm; Book learns his partner Carter  has been murdered and must save himself and the Amish family from the corrupt cop; Carter’s investigation acts as a dangling cause that eventually results in his death; that effect causes Book to reveal himself to police; the line of action initiated by Carter has been put on hold until needed); a typical dangling cause; stitches classical narrative together
  • ambiguous, open endings often characterise art-house films
  • Hollywood films achieve closure in plot-lines and subplots
  • unity and clarity require everything in the film to be motivated, whether in advance or in retrospect (epilogue) – each event, object, character trait, narrative component should be explicitly or implicitly justified by other elements within the film
  • lack of justification – a plot ‘hole’ – distracting; runs counter to narrative linearity and unity
  • generally, the characters provide most of the motivations in a film – these motivations are based on character traits; these traits last throughout the film, the characters act consistently
  • if character behaves contrary to their traits, the classical narrative will offer an explanation (e.g. Jaws – chief Brody is scared of water, yet he goes out as assistant in Quint’s boat and ultimately kills the shark; the implication is that he does something uncharacteristic because of his strong desire to protect his family and community; his fear of water is still present; during the shark hunt is more afraid than the shark hunter Quint and scientist Hooper and does not enter into the fight with the same level of delight as them)
  • characters with sufficient traits to be interesting and sustain the causal action of the film are central to Hollywood filmmaking
  • in most cases, the main character in a classical Hollywood film desires something, and that desire provides the forward impetus for the narrative
  • Hollywood protagonists tend to be active, to seek out goals and pursue them rather than having goals simply thrust upon them
  • the protagonist’s goals define the main lines of action; there are usually two lines of action, making a double plot line another distinctive feature of Hollywood cinema
  • Romance is central to Hollywood films, so one line of action follows that; the other line deals with another of the protagonist’s goals; the goals are usually linked (e.g. Tootsie – Michael Dorsey’s first goal is to get work as an actor, so as to earn money to produce his friend’s play; winning the love of a woman is the second line; The Silence of the Lambs – Clarice’s two goal are both professional: first, she wants to become a special agent for the FBI, specifically with Crawford, second, she wants to catch the serial killer before he murders his next victim; both goals are tightly intertwined, in that we assume he success in saving the victim will ensure her the job with Crawford)
  • goals may not provide the main forward thrust in all films – some films set up a series of questions, in which the protagonist does not know what they want until well into the film (e.g. The Graduate – the whole thrust of the story is for Benjamin to find a goal); but such protagonists are very rare
  • most protagonists have two goals, maybe equally important
  • some films are use another strategy, not goal-orientated – European art cinema; characters often act because they are forced to, not because they want to (e.g. L’Avventura – protagonist has goal but seems unable to pursue it actively; involves both a search and a romance, but the film concentrates on the psychological inability of the characters to follow through on these goals)
  • one thing that sets art-house film narrative set apart from classical-style films – the protagonist is under little time pressure to accomplish their goal; in Hollywood films, both forward impetus and temporal clarity are provided by the inclusion of one more deadlines; the deadline may last across the entire film (e.g. His Girl Friday – the opening scene reveals Walter Burns is under pressure to obtain a reprieve for Earl Williams before the execution the following morning), or only a brief while (e.g. Alien – at the end of the film when Ripley sets the spaceship’s self-destruct mechanism and has only ten minutes to escape)
  • Hollywood films tend to convey information about deadlines, character traits and other story factors redundantly – i.e. the same event or character trait may be mentioned or reiterated several times, so viewer can absorb the information and follow the plot

Keeping the narrative progression clear:

  • one potential source of complexity – the medium’s ability to move about freely in time and space
  • intercutting may link characters who are widely separated; locale may shift in the instantaneous change provided by a cut; an interval of time, whether a few seconds or many years, may be elided in the same blink of an eye
  • most modern drama consist of over 800 shots or more; faster action thrillers can include over 2000 cuts – this creates challenge for filmmakers to maintain clear, comprehensible, causality, space and time within a film
  • the form of a film is not a continuous entity, but an assembly of blocks represented by shots and scenes; the filmmaker must search for connecting elements within the story in order to avoid interruptions to the continuity
  • narrative disruptions can occur either within a scene or at the transitions between scenes
  • stylistic devices – to achieve clarity – include placing a distant framing of the action (establishing shot) early in a scene to establish the locale and who is present in it
  • the analytical editing system – breaking the space into closer framings makes the action more comprehensible by enlarging the salient visual elements
  • matches on action – at the cuts – to promote a sense of temporal continuity
  • compositions – usually centre the most important characters or objects, ensuring the viewer will notice them
  • shot/reverse shot conversation – characters are often balanced in a gentle sea-saw of slightly off-centre framings
  • design techniques – bright clothing or staging calls attention to moving characters

Recent changes to classical Hollywood style:

  • fast cutting and occasional jump cuts
  • lighting and tonality tend to be darker, even outside the realm of film noir
  • dissolves to soften scene transitions have disappeared; fades only used to mark a few important scene changes
  • startling sound bridges are common
  • special effects are more prominent
  • however – shot/reverse shot still used in conversation sequences; the axis of action obeyed; faster editing accompanied by simultaneous simplification of composition, to keep shots legible

Other issues and techniques:

  • spectators are most likely to lose track of time, space, or the causal chain during the progression from one scene to another – one reason why the establishing shot is crucial for maintaining a clear sense of locale
  • most basic source of temporal and causal clarity is the dangling cause
  • one simple technique is to leave a cause open at the end of one scene and immediately pick it up in the next; such a transition is known as a ‘hook’
  • frequently at the end of a scene a character will mention what they are going to do and them will immediately be seen doing it early in the next scene – the ‘dialogue hook’
  • another means of providing temporal clarity from scene to scene and across stretches of the narrative is the appointment – the appointment may act as a dialogue hook that reveals the time interval that the next scene transition will pass over
  • a film can achieve overall unity and clarity by means of motifs – auditory or visual

Key points for me

There is a clear distinction between European art-house films and classical Hollywood films, each one employing their own variations on progression, clarity and unity.

Classical narrative technique is an effective means of visual storytelling, though lacking the ambiguity and symbolism associated with art-house films.

As a means of cinematic storytelling, classical Hollywood cinema uses tried and tested techniques designed to create a unified narrative capable of weaving an intricate web of character, event, time and space that can seem transparently obvious to the viewer.


Thompson, K. (1999) Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.