Narrative structure, a literary element, is generally described as the structural framework that underlies the order and manner in which a narrative is presented to a reader, listener, or viewer. The narrative text structures are the plot and the setting.
Generally, the narrative structure of any work, be it a film, play or novel, contains a plot, theme and resolution. It can also be divided into three sections, which is referred to as the three-act structure: setup, conflict, resolution. The setup (act one) is where all of the main characters and their basic situation are introduced, and contains the primary level of characterization (exploring the character's backgrounds and personalities). A problem is also introduced, which is what drives the story forward.
The second act, the conflict, is the bulk of the story, and begins when the inciting incident (or catalyst) sets things into motion. This is the part of the story where the characters go through major changes in their lives as a result of what is happening; this can be referred to as the character arc, or character development.
The third act, or resolution, is when the problem in the story boils over, forcing the characters to confront it, allowing all elements of the story to come together and inevitably leading to the ending.
An example is the 1973 film The Exorcist: The first act of the film is when the main characters are introduced and their lives are explored: Father Karras (Jason Miller) is introduced as a Catholic priest who is losing his faith. In act two, a girl named Regan (Linda Blair) becomes possessed by a demonic entity (the problem), and Karras' character arc is being forced to accept that there is no rational or scientific explanation for the phenomenon except that she actually is possessed by a demon, which ties in directly with the theme of him losing his faith. The third act of the film is the actual exorcism, which is what the entire story has been leading to.
Theorists describing a text's narrative structure might refer to structural elements such as an introduction, in which the story's founding characters and circumstances are described; a chorus, which uses the voice of an onlooker to describe the events or indicate the proper emotional response to be happy or sad to what has just happened; or a coda, which falls at the end of a narrative and makes concluding remarks. First described in ancient times by Greek philosophers (such as Aristotle and Plato), the notion of narrative structure saw renewed popularity as a critical concept in the mid-to-late-20th century, when structuralist literary theorists including Roland Barthes, Vladimir Propp, Joseph Campbell and Northrop Frye attempted to argue that all human narratives have certain universal, deep structural elements in common. This argument fell out of fashion when advocates of poststructuralism such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida asserted that such universally shared deep structures were logically impossible.
- Spring myths are comedies, i.e., stories that lead from bad situations to happy endings. Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is such a story.
- Summer myths are similarly utopian fantasies such as Dante's Paradiso.
- Fall myths are tragedies that lead from ideal situations to disaster. Compare Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear and the movie Legends of the Fall.
- And finally Winter myths are dystopias, for example George Orwell's 1984 or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World or Ayn Rand's novella Anthem .
Linear and non-linear narrative structures
A non-linear narrative is one that does not proceed in a straight-line, step-by-step fashion, such as where an author creates a story's ending before the middle is finished. Linear is the opposite, when narrative runs smoothly in a straight line, when it is not broken up.
Flashback movies are often confused with true non-linear narratives. Although they appear to open (very briefly) with the ending, flashback movies almost immediately jump back to the very beginning of the story to proceed linearly from there and usually proceed past the supposed "ending" shown at the beginning of the movie.
A classic example of a non-linear narrative is the 1994 film Pulp Fiction. The film is ostensibly three short stories, which, upon closer inspection, are actually three sections of one story with the chronology broken up; no "flashbacks" are involved.
- Dramatic structure
- Literary criticism
- Literary element
- Narreme as the basic unit of narrative structure
- Non-narrative film
- Rising action
- Three-act structure