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 are together referred to as the three-act structure: setup, conflict, and resolution. The setup (act one) is where all of the main characters and their basic situations 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 the 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.
- Winter myths are dystopias; for example, George Orwell's 1984, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and Ayn Rand's novella Anthem.
Linear and non-linear narrative structures
A non-linear narrative is one which is composed with a branching structure where a single starting point may lead to multiple developments and outcomes. This is the typical narrative approach of most modern video games and hearkens back to a minor genre, "books where you are the hero", sometimes referred to as "gamebooks". The principle of all such games is that, at each step of the narrative, the user makes choices that advance the story, leading to new series of choices. Authoring non-linear narrative or dialogue thus implies imagining an indefinite number of parallel stories.
In a non-linear book, readers are told to turn to a certain page according to the choice they wish to make to continue the story. Typically, the choice will be an action rather than dialogue. For example, the hero hears a noise in another room and must decide to open the door and investigate, run away, or call for help. This kind of interactive experience of a story is possible with video games and books (where the reader is free to turn the pages) but less adapted to other forms of entertainment. Improvisational theatre is similarly open-ended, but of course cannot be said to be authored.
Cinema can only provide the illusion through broken narrative, the most famous example of this being 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; interestingly, Quentin Tarantino constructs the narrative without resorting to classic "flashback" techniques. Flashback movies are often confused with true non-linear narratives but the concept is fundamentally linear. 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.
An even more ambitious attempt at constructing a film based on non-linear narrative is Alain Resnais's 1993 French film Smoking/No Smoking. The plot contains parallel developments, playing on the idea of what might have happened had the characters made different choices. But because the user experience is that of a spectator in a movie theatre, the public has no control of the direction of the narrative.
Recently tools for non-linear authoring have emerged, such as Adobe Captivate, a popular elearning authoring tool for presentations, quizzes, and simulations that enables authors of elearning to construct links between slides in a PowerPoint-style document to produce non-linear sequences. Zebra Zapps is a sophisticated elearning authoring system developed by Allen Interactions which has recently added the possibility of linking objects to construct a non-linear scene.
Chat Mapper—created by Ben McIntosh, founder of Urban Brain Studios—is clearly the authoring system most closely focused on the creation and management of non-linear logic for dialogue and narrative. Initially intended as a tool to enable the creation of dialogue in video games, Chat Mapper gave authors a wide range of programming features that made it possible to manage events, assets, and characters as they compose the branching narrative and dialogue of a video game. Chat Mapper led to the creation of a derivative product designed for authoring video-based training applications, GameScaper, created by the SkillScaper team led by Peter Isackson. GameScaper permits non-linear dialogue and narrative by associating specific events or spoken text that can take the form of video or animation with interdependent nodes created and managed visually. SkillScaper has also created a highly simplified authoring system for teachers and trainers, ChatScaper, which makes it possible to author dialogue or narrative that can be immediately viewed and played back as a video game. The dialogue or narrative is activated thanks to text-to-speech technology and the user can choose avatars and specific expression for each scene, enabling the immediate creation of a non-linear narrative or dialogue. Designed specifically for "learning by creating", ChatScaper enables teachers and learners to work together creating the learning content of any subject involving human activity or communication. It is also being used by experimental screenwriters as a means of exploring the multiple possibilities of character and plot direction in particular scenes.
The emergence of the video game industry—a marketplace that has overtaken film and television in global revenue—and the trend in marketing towards gamification as a major industrial activity would both indicate that non-linear narrative will be a staple of both entertainment and advertising in the coming decade.
- Dramatic structure
- Literary criticism
- Literary element
- Narreme as the basic unit of narrative structure
- Non-narrative film
- Rising action
- Three-act structure