How to teach Narrative

Narrative theory is familiar and a relatively easy concept for teachers and students of literature. Narrative structures can be studied in works of literature, journalism, theatre, and all time based media like movies or television adverts. While many media text can be analyzed according to 'classic' narrative principles of storytelling, moving images and digital forms require also a new critical framework.

Television Narrative

When you begin to study television narrative, you will find much familiar –It can become easy to forget about the distinctions between television and film—in fact they are very different forms.

Where and how we watch TV
To consider why television is so different we start by looking at the conditions of reception – where and how do we watch television.

Almost exclusively, we watch TV at home.  Think about the differences between the typical home environment and the cinema.  There is very little chance to concentrate here – homes are places full of distractions and the tiny television in the corner of a room has none of the power to take over all of your senses that a film screen has. Much research has suggested that while the television is on for large amounts of time in the average household, attention is very rarely truly focused on it. In fact most of us make choices over which shows to watch attentively and what we can treat as ‘wallpaper TV.’ There is also some research that suggests that there are gender differences when it comes to attention being paid, with women being more likely to multi-task while the TV is on and men being more obsessively attentive.

Segmented Narrative
Television narrative has evolved in a way that takes all of this into account.  Television producers know that they do not have our undivided attention and so instead of the long sweep of a cinema narrative, the typical television programme, whether fiction or non-fiction works in segments of about five minutes. Although these segments work together to create a longer narrative, the idea is that they can also make sense on their own.  Unlike a film, a television programme can be picked up quite easily at almost any point.

A typical example of this would be a soap where in any one episode no single storyline is allowed to dominate.  The narrative moves smoothly from one group of people to another every few minutes. Similarly in television news, no one story lasts very long.

This is one reason why some critics believe that television is a “dumbed down” medium with a superficial and hurried mode of narrative which never requires the audience to think deeply about anything.  In contrast, the slower narrative of films is one of the reasons for that medium’s higher status.

If a television narrative is intended to be easy to pick up, the producers also knows that there is much more of a risk that you are going to drop the programme at the end of the segment so television narrative is full of lots of hooks to keep you viewing from segment to segment. Cliffhangers and competitions, which continue after an advertising break, are examples of this.

It’s worth considering now how we react to this kind of segmented narrative when we sit down to watch an evening’s television. Whatever we watch during that evening- be it neighbours, the news, game shows or top of the pops will be made up of these segments and if we are watching anything other than the BBC, the programmes will be broken up even further by shorter segments of advertising. One possibility is that over the course of the evening these segments will start to blur together so that the adverts might resemble the soaps or the news look like a game show. The critic Raymond Williams called this concept ‘flow’. He claimed that the television becomes meaningless because none of the different segments are given enough time to mean anything on their own. Instead the only way that they make sense at all is for the different segments to flow together so that everything resembles everything else. So soaps mix with documentaries to become docusoaps, science fiction series like Star Trek start to deal with relationship issues so that they too begin to resemble soaps and the news begins to feature funny items so that it becomes like a comedy sketch show. In the end the whole of television becomes homogenised- everything looks the same as everything else. This is another major part of the theory that TV is ‘dumbing down’.

Domestic television and its subject matter
Earlier we looked at the idea that it was televisions place within the home that led to this segmented narrative style, but the effects of television’s domestic nature do not stop there. One important result is that television tends to favour very domestic subject matter. Think of the number of programmes of all kinds that are based around ‘typical’ heterosexual relationships, marriage, masculine careers or feminine domesticity. It could be said that television’s place in the home leads to programmes being based around quite mainstream ideology. Certainly it leads to censorship with the potential of a family audience for all shows before the watershed resulting in many restrictions being placed upon broadcasters over content.

The style of television is also very different because of the domestic audience- rather than the visual excitement that is at the heart of film, television is based around sound. This is partly because television is lower budget than film, but it also allow for straying eyes in the typical low attention household to be drawn back to the screen by stimulating sounds. Typically these noises are that most domestic of sound-forms, conversation. TV has so much of this that we even have a name for conversation in the medium- ‘talking heads.’

Because television has so much chatter, it means that what we see on the screen has to focus on these people who are talking to us- television visuals are stripped down with all the lush mise en scene of the film world replaced with fairly bare settings (cheap again!) What we see instead are a preponderance of close ups of the speakers. Because this is visually less interesting than the rich visuals of film, television tends to favour quick cutting from shot to shot to avoid boredom and the ever-present risk of channel hopping.

This conversational and domestic style of TV also has effects on our feelings about the stars and the programmes. Television personalities seem more like parts of our everyday lives than the out of this world stars of films. In the same way, television programme seem more immediate and believable. In films realism has to come from the visuals, which whether in space or amazing locations have to look believable. Television gets its realism more from the believability of its character interactions and also crucially from the sense that it is live

Live TV
The sense that television is live, that the characters on the screen are living their lives out in front of us, is central to its nature as a domestic medium. We take it for granted that shows like the news and sports broadcasts are live but in fact the whole medium tries to create the sense that events unfold on the screen in real time. Think of how the events in a soap seem to be carrying on at the same time as we are watching- when you switch off between episodes, there is a sense that life in the world of the soap carries on and  when you watch, seasonal features, comments about the news and even current chart music help to create the live feel. Recently, shows like Big Brother with it’s round the clock web broadcasts have taken this idea even further.

This live feel is particularly evident if you consider the working of a typical segment of a television show. Imagine a character walking toward their house opening the door and going in to say hello to their wife. In a film we might see the man approach the house and then cut to a few minutes later when he was sitting at the dinner table with his family. The cinema has no wish to appear live and cuts out dead time. In the television segment, on the other hand, we would typically see the whole journey through the door and to the wife all in order to keep the illusion that what we were seeing was live. There might be shot changes to keep it interesting, but the sense that we were seeing things in real time would remain.

This live feel strengthens the sense mentioned earlier that the characters in television are more immediately present in our lives than film stars. It allows the talking heads on TV to address us in ways that would never happen in film and it creates a closer relationship between viewer and text. Think of the phone-ins that fill the television schedules or all the programmes, which feature members of the audience. Even in fiction like the sitcom, there is a sense of the audience’s presence in the studio in the canned laughter, which would feel totally out of place in the cinema.

No voyeurism
John Ellis has suggested that the different relationship that we have with television means that it loses the voyeuristic nature of cinema. Voyeurism is the idea of spying on behaviour that we really shouldn’t be seeing and is central to the experience of cinema. The long cuts of some film sequences together with the situation of the viewer in the dark watching the distant figures on the screen all lead to this sense in film. In television, instead, we do not have this relationship with what we see- quick cuts and the sense that the characters almost know that we are there destroy it.

Seeing the text as a whole- beyond the segment
All this emphasis on segments and the idea of the instant accessibility of television programmes should not allow us to ignore how complete texts work. Here again there are some crucial differences with Film

Repetition and Novelty.
Critics of television will often point to this repetition as an example of its inferior status as a medium, but they may be missing the novelty that does exist within these programmes. The recognisable pattern of the narrative of Only Fools and Horses relies for our interest on the producers presenting us with original segments- we know from experience that Del’s plan will go wrong, but our expectation of enjoyment comes from our belief that the segment where this happens will be different and surprising (novel).

This repetition of typical situations also adds to the live feel of TV. Most of us have very few Film like events in our lives, but the repetitive pattern of a television show is reassuringly familiar and seems more realistic.

Series and Serials.
A show like Only Fools and Horses where each episode has a self contained narrative and where the characters generally fail to develop is called a series. The other principal television form is the serial a long-term narrative that develops over several episodes and where we are expecting an eventual conclusion. You could say that the serial is more like a film in its narrative style in that it is based around the long-term resolution of a single problematic. It is a much rarer form than the series, but because it is less based around repetition it has higher status with the critics and audiences. Typically television producers will spend more money producing serials and will market them more extensively and with a greater sense of importance although this is partly because their novelty means they need to be brought to our attention more. It is because of this difficulty in selling them to us that serials are tending to disappear from the schedules. Another problem with keeping and attracting audiences for serials is that if they miss a crucial episode, they may not feel able to return. To solve this problem, episodes will often start with a re-cap of past events.

adapted from Steve Baker "Film & Narrative"
Key Questions

Structure. How is the narrative organised and structured?

Characters. How are characters delineated? What is their narrative function? How are heroes and villains created?

Audience. How is the audience positioned in relation to the narrative?

Identification. What techniques of identification and alienation are employed?

Theme. What are the major themes of the narrative? What values/ideologies does it embody?

Other. What is the role of such features as sound, music, iconography, genre, mise-en-scene, editing etc within the narrative?

adapted from Julian McDougall, Programme Leader, Newman College of Higher Education, Birmingham, The Media Teacher's Book (Hodder, 2006) and co-author of A2 Media Studies for OCR (Hodder, 2002).