An Introduction to Film Studies Terminology 1: Macro (Narrative)

We can start by breaking down films into two broad elements; the macro (meaning big) elements refer to story, character, plot and genre. Conversely, the micro (meaning small) elements refer to the specific parts of a film, e.g. the shots, costume, sounds, lighting, etc.

Narrative Refers to the story of a film. The narrative is what happens to the characters.
Plot The plot is how the narrative is organised. Not all films present the narrative in chronological order – i.e. starting at the beginning and ending at the end. The plot might be organised in a way that means the elements of the narrative are withheld and then revealed.
Linear The most simple of narrative constructions. Begins at the beginning and moves through events chronologically.

Bridesmaids has a linear narrative construction

Non-linear A non-linear narrative is one where the events are presented out of sequence. This could be done simply – e.g. the inclusion of obvious flashbacks. However, the construction might be more complex and the audience might be asked to pay more attention in order to decode and uncover the mysteries of the narrative. e.g. Pulp Fiction, Memento, etc.

Pulp Fiction – a non-linear narrative

Protagonist The main character

Katniss is the protagonist in The Hunger Games

Antagonist The person who stands in opposition to the protagonist

Loki is the antagonist in both Thor and Avengers Assemble

Narrative journey The protagonist in any narrative cannot stand still, physically or emotionally. In most narratives, the protagonist will be transformed by their journey.
Narrative goal The narrative goal refers to the thing that the protagonist is trying to do in a narrative. It could be to rescue a princess, or to stop terrorists, or to get home. The recognition of a narrative goal is what propels the protagonist on their journey.

Frodo’s narrative goal in the 3 LOTR films is to destroy the ring of power

Narrative barriers Narrative barriers are the obstacles that the protagonist meets on their journey to achieving their goal. Barriers are what make the journey seem difficult, and the overcoming of these obstacles makes the achievement of the goal more enjoyable for the viewers. Barriers can be physical (e.g. escaping from captors) or emotional (e.g. the loss of an ally).

In Avatar, the protagonist has various barriers to overcome – firstly he must overcome his physical disability.

Narrative plant An item or piece of information that our attention is drawn to in the narrative. Initially it seems irrelevant but becomes important later.

In Jaws, Speilberg shows us the gas canister that Brody will use to kill the shark as before he leaves the harbour.

Conflict Any good narrative needs conflict – often manifested through people trying to achieve different goals. A protagonist will often have conflict with people in their lives (these people are barriers); however the biggest conflict is often between the antagonist and protagonist.

The principal conflict in the Harry Potter films is between the protagonist and antagonist.

Resolution This refers to the end of the film when (usually) the protagonist has overcome the narrative barriers, defeated the antagonist and achieved the narrative goal. The protagonist is often rewarded for his/her efforts.

Act One – The Set-up – The audience are introduced to the main characters and the premise.

An image from act 1 of Iron Man which helps to establish the protagonist’s character.

Timing:       25 mins

Act Two – Confrontation/complication – Where the protagonist gains the skills necessary to battle the transgressors. More narrative barriers are introduced.

Stark develops the Iron Man suit in Act 2.

Timing:      Usually  40 mins – 1 hr (depends on the length of the film)

Act Three – The Resolution – Where the protagonist faces the final confrontation and the narrative barriers are all overcome.

In act 3, Stark battles and defeats the antagonist.

Timing:  25 – 30 mins


Equilibrium – Normality – everything is in balance/harmony, everything is normal.

Disequilibrium – The antagonist arrives and everything goes off-balance.

Restoration of Equilibrium – The transgressors are defeated and equilibrium is restored or a new equilibrium is created.


In the 100 fairy tales he analysed Propp concluded that all the characters could be resolved into only 7 broad character types :

The villain — struggles against the hero.

The donor — prepares the hero or gives the hero some magical object.

The (magical) helper — helps the hero in the quest.

The princess and her father — gives the task to the hero, identifies the false hero, marries the hero, often sought for during the narrative. Propp noted that functionally, the princess and the father cannot be clearly distinguished.

The dispatcher — character who makes the lack known and sends the hero off.

The hero or victim/seeker hero — reacts to the donor, weds the princess.

False hero — takes credit for the hero’s actions or tries to marry the princess.

The characters from Star Wars conform to Propp’s types


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