The Classical Narrative System

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The Classical Narrative System

Following the 1927 Wall street crash America entered a period of recession which continued into the 1930’s. With the advent of sound the cost of producing movies rose and so studios needed more money to make films. Investors, keen to see a return on their money, wanted films that would please audiences. This meant that films being made became generic. It was safer and more efficient for them to make a crime film or a western to a specific formula that would guarantee a good audience reaction than it was to experiment with story or format. Investors also wanted to ensure that audiences wouldn’t be offended by what they saw in a story. This gave rise to the now cliched morals or “American Family Values”. Issues such as drugs, racism, or abortion, would absolutely not be raised in a classical narrative.

The goal of producers at the time was to create an illusion - to tell a seamless story that the audience would get involved in and so not think about how the movie was made. The economic problems of the time could be the cause for this escapism mentality. Audiences were eager to try and forget their problems and their financial situation. They wouldn’t be interested in seeing a documentary on how bad things really were.

What follows is an account of what a classical narrative is as defined through it’s iconography and technical requirements. It aims to look at why the particular codes were developed and standardised and to show why and how they work.

The unification of the narrative structure could be said to have begun in 1932 when, following the introduction of sound, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences standardised screenplay format including the size (length) and structure. Screenplays should now be of 120 pages in length and contain three acts. This meant that screenwriters now had a format to fit the formulas for their genre films onto. It wasn’t long before it developed to the point were character development and turning points in the story had designated pages by which they should have occurred and been resolved within the script. It was here, first, that the cinematic image became secondary to the requirements of a specific type of story.

In any classical narrative a problem arises early on in the story which disrupts the peace of the fictional world. It is then up to the protagonist, usually a male hero figure, to resolve all of the problems necessary to return that world to order. This could be said to be the definition of a classical narrative.

The course of the narrative is focused on coming to terms with the disruption so that every problem raised by the disruption is addressed leading to a high level of closure. Typically, classical narrative stories are structured with a beginning, a middle and an end in mind. This strict linear sequence allows the events of the story to be driven by a cause and effect momentum.

Typically, events take place in a fictional world designed to be as realistic as possible. This illusion is meant to get the audience emotionally involved by being familiar, and therefore relateable to them. In many cases to accomplish this the town or city scape can be entirely fictional and not have a counterpart in the real world. Bedford Falls in It’s A Wonderful life (1946 Frank Capra USA) is a good example of this. Bedford Falls acts as a typical middle class American town that the audience can feel for as George Baily (James Steward) tries to protect it from the greed of the banker Potter (Lionel Barrymore). This verisimilitude applies to the physical space and the time of the setting to make it appear as realistic as possible. This “realism” is essential in making the cause and effect sequence of events from disruption to conclusion seem logical to an audience.

In a classic narrative the events of the story are character driven with the story arc following the development of the central character - the...
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