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Parker Diaz
Parker Diaz

Narration In The Fiction Film

Most films tell tales, but what does that involve? How do motion pictures tease us into building what we all agree to call stories? In this study, David Bordwell offers the first comprehensive account of how movies use fundamental principles of narrative representation, unique features of the film medium, and diverse story-telling patterns to construct their fictional narratives. The result is a pioneering, far-reaching work which will change the way we perceive narrative film--and which every serious film scholar, student or fan will welcome. "This book is of crucial importance to film specialists. I cannot think that any film teacher/scholar would miss reading this work."--Don Fredricksen, Cornell University "David Bordwell's Narration in the Fiction Film is a major contribution to film studies and to narrative theory. The work, I predict, will be widely read, praised, debated, and damned. Brodwell's originality lies not so much in demonstrating the deficiencies of other theories, which he does very convincingly, but in the scope and design of his project, against which there is no competition of comparable intellectual weight."--Jerry Carlson, DePaul University

Narration in the Fiction Film


In Narration in the Fiction Film David Bordwell develops a cognitive theory of film comprehension, which he explicitly opposes to a psychoanalytic theory of film. Psychoanalytic film theorists (whom we discuss in Chapters 8 and 9) define the experience of reality as not being delimited by the horizon of consciousness (or 'common sense'), but argue that it includes myth, ideology, and unconscious desires and fantasies. According to psychoanalysts, our consciousness is merely the tip or peak of our identity, most of which remains hidden and repressed. But for cognitive scientists, consciousness is not a mere superstructure, but the base, or basis, of identity. Following the cognitive scientists, Bordwell argues that film theorists should begin with cognitive explanations of filmic phenomena, and should move on to psychoanalytic explanations only if a cognitive account is found wanting: 'The theory I advance attends to the perceptual and cognitive aspects of film viewing. While I do not deny the usefulness of psychoanalytic approaches to the spectator, I see no reason to claim for the unconscious any activities which can be explained on other grounds' (Bordwell 1985: 30).1

The basic premise of Bordwell's theory is that narration is the central process that influences the way spectators understand a narrative film. Moreover, he argues that spectators do not simply absorb a finalized, preexisting narrative, but must actively construct its meaning. Bordwell develops his theory within what is called the 'constructivist school' of cognitive psychology, which studies how perceivers 'make sense' of the world from inherently fragmentary and incomplete data and experiences. For example, we can only directly see three sides of a six-sided solid cube. But from this incomplete experience, we complete the cube by 'appending' the other three sides. Bordwell and other cognitive film theorists argue that film is like a six-sided cube in which spectators see at most only three sides on screen. The spectator has to complete the film by appending the other three sides, so to speak.

In Chapters 3 and 4 of Narration in the Fiction Film Bordwell outlines a cognitive theory of film that tries to explain how spectators complete a film's narrative, rendering it coherent. Spectators are not free rational agents who can simply 'fill in the gaps' in a film in any way they wish. Instead, intersubjective norms, principles, and conventions guide them. When watching a narrative film, spectators do not simply 'absorb' the data, because it is not complete in itself. Instead, they have to process this inherently incomplete data. And they process it using what cognitive psychologists call schemata - norms and principles in the mind that organize the incomplete data into coherent mental representations. Schemata are activated by 'cues' in the data. Bordwell notes that gaps in the data are the most evident cues, for they are simply the missing data that spectators need to fill in. For example, a cube 'suggests' its three hidden sides (the missing data) by a variety of cues, including the way the three visible sides are projected in space, the way the visible sides form edges, and so on. More accurately, the cube cues us to fill in the three hidden sides. This process of filling-in is called hypothesis or inference generation.

Narrative films cue spectators to generate inferences or hypotheses - but not just any inferences. When comprehending a narrative film, one schema in particular guides our hypotheses - the one that represents the canonical story format:

Spectators do not, therefore, enter the cinema with a blank mind and passively absorb the film's narrative. Just as each language-learner internalizes the rules of his/her native language, so each film spectator internalizes a schema, a template or set of norms and principles with which to comprehend narrative films. In Western societies, spectators internalize a schema called the canonical story format.

But exactly how does the narrative schema work? Bordwell notes that, when spectators are presented with two events in a film, they employ the narrative schema to . attempt to link the events together - either spatially, temporally, and/or causally. As the film progresses, spectators rearrange events, disambiguate their relations and order, and in doing so, gradually construct a story. Following the Russian formalists, Bordwell calls the resulting story the fabula: 'the fabula embodies the action as a chronological, cause-and-effect chain of events occurring within a given duration and spatial field' (Bordwell 1985: 49). Bordwell calls the actual order in which the fragments of the fabula events are presented the plot, or syuzhet: 'The syuzhet (usually translated as "plot") is the actual arrangement and presentation of the fabula in the film. It is not the text in toto. It is a more abstract construct, the patterning of a story as a blow-by-blow recounting of the film could render it' (p. 49).

The third element (after the fabula and syuzhet) that influences film comprehension is style, which Bordwell simply defines as a film's 'systematic use of cinematic devices' (p. 50). Bordwell defines narration as a combination of syuzhet and style, which interact with the spectator's narrative schema in constructing the fabula.

Bordwell emphasizes that the fabula is a mental representation, and that spectators construct the fabula on the basis of cues in the syuzhet (and style) interacting with the narrative schema. Moreover, he argues that the key to comprehending a particular film is determined largely by the relation between the fabula and the syuzhet - or, more specifically, by whether the syuzhet facilitates or blocks the spectator's construction of the fabula.

Because the film's fabula is a mental representation the spectator constructs during her ongoing experience of the film's syuzhet, the fabula is in a constant state of change, due to the spectator's ongoing generation of new hypotheses, strengthening of existing hypotheses, and abandonment of existing hypotheses. Spectators may need to abandon hypotheses because they only have a probable reality. Or they may generate several conflicting hypotheses on the basis of a few cues, and then reduce them as the syuzhet presents additional cues. Moreover, a film may deliberately lead spectators to generate incorrect hypotheses (the phenomenon of unreliable narration2), or the film may deliberately challenge the canonical story format: 'If the film does not correspond to the canonic story, the spectator must adjust his or her expectations and posit, however tentatively, new explanations for what is presented' (Bordwell 1985: 36). This is the case with Lost Highway.

Narrative film, fictional film or fiction film is a motion picture that tells a fictional or fictionalized story, event or narrative. Commercial narrative films with running times of over an hour are often referred to as feature films, or feature-length films. The earliest narrative films, around the turn of the 20th century, were essentially filmed stage plays and for the first three or four decades these commercial productions drew heavily upon the centuries-old theatrical tradition.

In this style of film, believable narratives and characters help convince the audience that the unfolding fiction is real. Lighting and camera movement, among other cinematic elements, have become increasingly important in these films.[1] Great detail goes into the screenplays of narratives, as these films rarely deviate from the predetermined behaviours and lines of the classical style of screenplay writing to maintain a sense of realism. Actors must deliver dialogue and action in a believable way, so as to persuade the audience that the film is real life.

Narrative cinema is usually contrasted to films that present information, such as a nature documentary, as well as to some experimental films (works such as Wavelength by Michael Snow, Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov, or films by Chantal Akerman). In some instances pure documentary films, while nonfiction, may nonetheless recount a story. As genres evolve, from fiction film and documentary a hybrid one emerged, docufiction.

Unlike literary fiction, which is typically based on characters, situations and events that are entirely imaginary/fictional/hypothetical, cinema always has a real referent, called the "pro-filmic", which encompasses everything existing and done in front of the camera.

Since the emergence of classical Hollywood style in the early 20th century, during which films were selected to be made based on the popularity of the genre, stars, producers, and directors involved, narrative, usually in the form of the feature film, has held dominance in commercial cinema and has become popularly synonymous with "the movies."[6] Classical, invisible film making (what is often called realist fiction) is central to this popular definition. This key element of this invisible film making lies in continuity editing. 041b061a72


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