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2.3. narratology

Narratology is the theory of narratives, narrative texts, images, spectacles, events; cultural artifacts that ‘tell a story.’” — Mieke Bal1

2.3.1. Overview.

Narratology approaches narrative as a system of working parts that can be broken apart, analyzed, and described. Its primary focus is the relationship between story and discourse (plot, narration, and focalization). As a kind of narrative text, the screenplay has several unique properties to offer a narratological study, in particular its relationship to another kind of narrative text, the feature film. Before we can apply narratological principles directly to the screenplay, however, we must understand some key concepts in narrative theory.

Page Topics:

  • 2.3.1. Overview
  • 2.3.2. Story vs. Plot
  • 2.3.3. Narration vs. Focalization
  • 2.3.4. Story and Discourse in the Screenplay
  • 2.3.5. Filmic Narration and Focalization in the Screenplay
  • 2.3.6. Discussion Topics
  • 2.3.7. Footnotes

2.3.2. Story vs. Plot.

The words “story” and “plot” are sometimes used synonymously, but narratologists see an important distinction between the two. A story may be understood as any chronological sequence of events experienced or observed by a character. It is essentially a collection of facts true to the storyworld, synonymous to what the Russian Formalists termed the fabula. In contrast, the plot may be understood as a manipulated presentation of these facts in an organized structure.

Plot gives structure to the raw materials of story. This relationship creates a kind of chicken/egg paradox, for as soon as a story is told, plot has entered the picture. To understand this better, let us consider an example from history. The story of Mahatma Ghandi would include every event that took place between the time of his birth and his death. To tell that story would take 78 years or the duration of Ghandi’s life. In a larger sense, even Ghandi’s birth is not the true beginning of his story, just as his death is not its true end. Nearly everything that has ever happened has had some impact on Ghandi’s story, from the formation of our sun to the birth of Ghandi’s great, great grandmother. Likewise, Ghandi continues to impact people every day today. How can one possibly tell his story?

The answer is plot. Whether one is writing a biography to be published, editing a PBS documentary series, or shooting a feature film about the life of Ghandi, the authors involved will have to make decisions of plot: what to leave out and what to put in; interpretations of cause and effect; a determination of the order in which the chosen events should be presented. Stories cannot be told without the manipulations of plot, and plot is the central structural skill screenwriters spend their careers trying to master.

2.3.3. Narration vs. Focalization.

If a story is told, narration is involved. Narration is the method and manner of a story’s transmission to an audience. The narrator is the transmitter. In a novel, for instance, the narrator is the “speaker” who delivers the language through which the reader receives the narrative. Narrators may be homogeneous (storyworld participants) or heterogeneous (non-participants). For instance, the character Holden Caulfield in the novel The Catcher in the Rye narrates his own story in which he is an active participant, therefore his is an example of homogeneous narration. On the other hand, the narrator of A Tale of Two Cities  is not a participant in the narrative and is therefore an example of heterogeneous narration.

Focalization refers to the relationship between perspective and perception, where a reader’s (or viewer’s) perceptions are limited to the perspective of a particular focalizing agent or reflector. A narrative may have fixed or dynamic focalization, internal or external.

Fixed focalization entails a single reflector throughout an entire narrative, while dynamic focalization entails variable or multiple reflectors throughout the course of a narrative.

In internal focalization (sometimes called “character-bound” focalization), narrative information is limited to the perceptions of story-internal reflectors (including homodiegetic narrators). Internal focalization may grant the reader access to a reflector’s online perceptions (what is presently observed through the senses) or offline perceptions (dreams, memories, and hallucinations), while in external focalization, narrative information is limited to a heterodiegetic narrator’s perception and excludes internal observations or states of mind.

The difference between narration and focalization is often described as the difference between who speaks and who sees. Consider the following examples:



Homodiegetic Narrator,

Fixed Internal Focalization

Heterodiegetic Narrator,

Fixed External Focalization

Heterodiegetic Narrator,

Fixed Internal Focalization

Heterodiegetic Narrator,

Dynamic Internal Focalization




Single, Non-Narrating Character

Multiple, Non-Narrating Characters

Sample Text I lost my breath every time she walked into the room. The very sight of her made me feel new again. I had to say something to her, but I didn’t know how to begin. After sometime standing there like a frightened child, I finally excused myself from the gathering and went to tell her how I felt. She walked into the room, and he watched her. He stood within a small circle of men, all lawyers from the firm, but his eyes were across the room with her as she handed her coat to the doorman, greeted the hostess, and took a glass of wine from a wandering waiter. After some time, he finally left his circle and began to cross the room. He watched as she entered the room, handed her coat to the doorman, and was greeted by the hostess. Her beauty left him breathless and made him feel new again. He knew he had to speak to her, but what would he say? It didn’t matter. He was tired of feeling like a frightened child, so he politely excused himself and made his way across the crowded room. As she entered the room, she wondered if he’d noticed her. She’d worn this dress for him, but at that moment she felt invisible. How could she have known that across the room he pined for her? Like a frightened child he searched his mind for some excuse to speak with her. How could she have known that she took his breath away and made him feel new again? At last, she saw him making his away across the room toward her, and her heart skipped a beat.

Each of the examples above exhibits both a distinct voice and a unique perspective working together to shape the discourse of the story in question.

In the first column, a homodiegetic narrator (story participant) directly conveys his perceptions to the reader, including his thoughts and feelings (fixed internal focalization).

In the second column, a neutral heterodiegetic narrator (non-participant) conveys only those objective perceptions available to an outside observer without comment on the thoughts or feelings of the characters (fixed external focalization).

In the third column, a neutral heterodiegetic narrator (non-participant) nevertheless permits the reader access to one of the character’s internal perceptions, including thoughts and feelings (fixed internal focalization).

Finally, in the fourth column, a neutral heterodiegetic narrator (non-participant) conveys the internal perceptions of multiple characters (dynamic internal focalization).

2.3.4. Story and Discourse in the Screenplay.

A screenplay differs from a novel in the levels of discourse at play in the text. A novel is principally concerned with transmitting its story. While this is one goal of the screenplay, it has two others: 1) it indicates a hypothetical movie based on the story transmitted by the screenplay, and 2) it contains the necessary instructions for turning the scripted story into a screened story. To put this another way, screenplay discourse functions at three levels: as a Fictional Storyworld, as a kind of Imaginary Motion Picture Projector, and as an Instruction Manual for the willing film crew.

The function of enjoying the screenplay as a Fictional Storyworld is the way most people enjoy all narrative media, whether a book, television show, movie, or a screenplay: as pure content delivery. This is usually the level of interaction of which we speak when we say we’ve been “lost” in a book. At the Fictional Storyworld level, the reader enters into an almost mystical relationship with the text and is transported to another place and time, where the characters are alive, events are real, and the world has no beginning or end.

It is helpful to understand this function of the screenplay — indeed, of all narrative texts — in order to understand why so many uninitiated readers have a hard time enjoying screenplays. Most people are familiar with the conventions of cinema, television, and the novel, and therefore have no problem forgetting the formal qualities of those “texts” in order to passively enjoy the content they contain. The screenplay, however, constantly calls attention to itself as a textual construct, in large part as a result of its format conventions. Trained readers eventually learn to “read past” these conventions, but there’s no denying the impediment they pose for new readers.

The screenplay also functions as a kind of Imaginary Motion Picture Projector. “A screenplay, of course, wants to become a film,”2 and by the nature and purpose of its very creation, it is a form that points to and stands in for another form — the completed feature film. As a result, the reader of the screenplay is invited to imagine herself sitting in a theater, watching a projection of the final product on a screen. It is important to understand the inherent distinction between this function and the Fictional Storyworld or the way someone might say, “While reading this novel, I saw a little movie in my head.” The Fictional Storyworld is a boundless imagined reality, while by way of its Imaginary Motion Picture Projector function, the screenplay specifically invites you to participate in the creation of a finite imagined work of art. Because the screenplay points to another form, the reader must imagine the fulfillment of that form to fully appreciate the author’s intent.

Finally, the screenplay functions as an Instruction Manual for the artists and technicians who will eventually work together to create the feature film imagined at the Imaginary Motion Picture Projector level. The distinction here is that, while the reader imagines a completed feature film at the Imaginary Motion Picture Projector level of interaction, he or she seeks specific instructions for how to create that film when reading at the Instruction Manual level. This function explains many of the screenplay’s more instrumentalist format conventions, but thankfully, such technical instructions are rarely explicit and are usually sublimated in creative language.

These three levels of discourse coexist and blend together in the screenplay to the point that they are often indistinguishable from one another. Likewise, it is important to know that until a feature film is delivered to the marketplace, screenplay discourse is never fixed but exists in a state of flux, subject to alterations at any point.

In theory, the plot of a particular screenplay and the motion picture produced from it should be identical, but often this is not the case. In the process of making a feature film, lines of dialogue or whole scenes are often changed, omitted, or re-arranged, such that the plot of the script is quite distinct from the final product. These differences highlight the narrative distinctness of the screenplay and liberate it from its subservience to motion picture narration. To see a film is not necessarily to know its screenplay, particularly where plot is concerned.

2.3.5. Filmic Narration and Focalization in the Screenplay.

Filmic narration has been a subject of much debate among narratologists, with some arguing that motion pictures have no equivalent to the literary narrator. Others, however, raise the obvious point that if a narrative is presented, something must be presenting it. Manfred Jahn calls this cinematic narrating agent the Filmic Composition Device (FCD).3 A motion picture’s “narrator” is the entire cinematic apparatus or FCD: the camera, the editing, the production design, the sound recording, the music, etc., all “narrate” the story.

It is important that we distinguish here between the FCD and second-level movie narrators. On-screen narrators (such as Ferris in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and off-screen narrators (such as Henry’s voice-over in Goodfellas) deliver a narration within a narration, a discourse within a discourse. When Ferris speaks directly into the camera, we know that he is not the one presenting us an image of Ferris speaking. In other words, the FCD narrates Ferris narrating.

Screenwriters face the challenge of emulating FCD narration (images and sounds) in the literary narration of the screenplay text, and certain conventions have arisen in service of this goal. The narrator of the screenplay is always heterodiegetic, meaning that the narrating voice of the screenplay is never a story participant. This is true even of screenplays adapted from homodiegetic novels, where the narrator is a story participant. Heterodiegetic narration generally best approximates the objective narrating “voice” of the FCD.

Interestingly, the convention of heterodiegetic narration is maintained in the screenplay text even when the FCD becomes homodiegetic. For instance, the film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly includes lengthy passages in which the FCD takes on a homodiegetic role: the audience sees and hears directly through the eyes and ears of the film’s protagonist. Even for these sequences, however, where homodiegetic narration would make sense stylistically, screenwriter Ronald Harwood obeys convention and uses heterodiegetic narration:

Like a flickering eyelid a picture begins to take shape: a small, bare hospital room, the faces of the NURSES either side of a bed, both looking down expectantly, directly into CAMERA.


As his eyes open he sees first the foot of his bed, then curled, paralysed hands on the yellow sheets, the IV pole hanging over him, and THE TWO NURSES, smiling, leaning towards him.

In another case, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman writes himself into Adaptation, but the scene text maintains its heterodiegetic relationship to the narrative events and refers to Kaufman in the third person.

Of course, screenplays make use of the same secondary on-screen and off-screen homodiegetic narrators that appear in motion pictures, but these always deliver narrative information directly to the reader through dialogue cues and do not narrate the screenplay text itself.

The majority of screenplays are narrated in the third-person, but many adopt a first-person plural voice. In these cases, the construction, “we see” is used in place of explicit camera instruction.

Another rule of screenplay narration is that it must take place in the present tense. This convention developed naturally out of the early scenario form, in which the script text amounted to little more than an itemized list of shots to be captured. As a production blueprint, the instructions found within the screenplay simply make more sense in the present tense. Nevertheless, striking exceptions do occur. The Limey by Lem Dobbs begins as follows:

Wilson's first impression of Los Angeles was blue.  He was in
the sky at the time, so it was a curious reversal, looking
down rather than up at the color he had always felt was
nature's finest.

Three more past-tense paragraphs follow before the screenplay shifts to the standard present tense where it remains for the duration of the script. Dobbs uses the literary past tense for poetic and stylistic reasons that have no negative affect on the production of the picture. This is a rare exception, however, and in most cases, a screenplay written in the past tense will strike a property reader as unprofessional.

Screenplay texts conventionally adhere to external focalization, in that they limit reader perceptions to those available to an outside observer, namely the FCD, except where the explicit perceptions of a given character will be accessed through the FCD (such as in the example from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly cited above). Generally accepted methods of internal focalization include POV shots, voice-over narration, dream sequences, and subjective analepsis (memory). This convention is often expressed with the axiom, “only write what the camera can shoot.” The camera generally cannot shoot the thoughts or feelings of the story participants, so screenwriters avoid expressing them in the scene text. This rule is not as hard and fast as the formatting rules for narration, however, and many writers have occasionally dabbled with internal focalization, elucidating the thoughts or feelings of a character within the scene text.

One might also argue that many screenplays in fact employ a kind of limited internal focalization. While it is relatively uncommon for screenplays to directly access the online and offline perceptions of a scripted character, it is not at all uncommon for the FCD’s perceptions to be limited to that which a central protagonist has also observed. In other words, audiences are often tied to the hip of a movie’s protagonist, seeing only what she is able to see, if not specifically through her eyes. In such a case, the role of the reflector seems to be shared to some degree between the FCD and the character in question.

2.3.6. Discussion Topics.

The following are suggested key terms and topics of discussion for college courses studying this material.

Key Terms:

  • Narratology
  • Narrative
  • Story
  • Plot
  • Narration
  • Homodiegetic Narrator
  • Heterodiegetic Narrator
  • On-Screen Narrator
  • Off-Screen Narrator
  • Filmic Composition Device (FCD)
  • Focalization
  • Reflector
  • Online Perception
  • Offline Perception
  • Internal Focalization
  • External Focalization
  • Fixed Focalization
  • Dynamic Focalization
  • Imaginary Motion Picture Projector
  • Instruction Manual


  • What is the difference between story and plot?
  • What is the difference between the Fictional Storyworld, the Imaginary Motion Picture Projector, and the Instruction Manual levels of discourse?
  • How do the plots of screenplays differ from the movies made from them?
  • What is the difference between the FCD and the screenplay’s narrator?
  • What is the difference between an on-screen or off-screen narrator and the screenplay’s narrator?
  • How and why is focalization limited in the screenplay compared to other literary forms?

2.3.7. Footnotes.

  1. Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1997. Pg. 3.
  2. Rodman, Howard. “What a Screenplay Isn’t.” Cinema Journal. 45.2. Winter 2006. Pg. 87.
  3. Jahn, Manfred. 2003. A Guide to Narratological Film Analysis. Poems, Plays, and Prose: A Guide to the Theory of Literary Genres. English Department, University of Cologne.

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