Narrative Theories

What is Narrative?

Narrative is defined as “a chain of events in a cause-effect relationship occurring in time” (Bordwell & Thompson, Film Art, 1980). Narrative is the structure that gives shape to a story. It is how a film is set out; this is usually beginning-middle-end.

Narrative Structure

  • Linear Structure- this is the generic structure; beginning-middle-end
  • Open Structure- the viewer is left wondering what happens next
  • Closed Structure- When the narrative has a clear ending and conclusion
  • Circular Structure- the narrative begins at the end, then throughout the film the viewer is taken through the narrative until it again reaches the end


Tzvetan Todorov’s Theory

Who is he?

 Tzvetan Todorov is a Bulgarian-French historian, philosopher, structuralist literary critic, sociologist and essayist. He has been living and writing in France from the mid 1960’s. Todorov believes in a common basis of human experience and the underlying narrative behind all human activity.

His Theory

Todorov suggested that conventional narratives are structured in five stages:

  1. a state of equilibrium at the outset
  2. a disruption of the equilibrium by some action
  3. a recognition that there has been a disruption
  4. an attempt to repair the disruption
  5. a new found equilibrium

This narrative structure is very common to the viewer and can be applied to may ‘mainstream’ film narratives. All Disney films follow this structure as it allows for good to prevail. For example:

The Lion King

The Lion King opens with the famous ‘circle of life’ scene with all the animals of the Savannah joining in unity and a state of equilibrium to witness the ‘ritual’ of the birth of lion cub Prince Simba.

However, the birth of Prince Simba means he is next in line for the throne after Mufasa (his father). This angers the former second in line for the throne, Scar (Mufasa’s brother) and so he plots to kill both Mufasa and Simba, thus giving a disruption to the equilibrium.


Scar lures Mufasa and Simba into a stampede of wildebeests, killing Mufasa, yet Simba escapes. Simba is lead to believe by scar it was his fault his dad died, and flees the kingdom in shame. Here the viewer recognises there has been a disruption in equilibrium as the king has died, his son has fled in shame and there is a new, corrupt ruler of the kingdom.


After years of exile Simba is persuaded to return home and overthrow his uncle and claim his rightfully own kingdom back.


In the end, Simba does just this and is king, restoring equilibrium. However, it is not the exact same equilibrium there was at the start of the narrative, as Mufasa is dead, so a new found equilibrium is in place.



Vladimir Propp’s Theory 

Who is he?

Vladimir Propp (1895-1970) was a Russian soviet formalist. He analysed the basic plot components of Russian folk tales and when analysing them, he looked out for similarities across different folk tales, especially in areas such as structure and characters.

His Theory

Propp suggested that characters took on the role of narrative ‘spheres of action’ or functions. From his study of folk tales Propp came up with eight different character types. Here are the character spheres and examples of these characters from the original Star Wars Trilogy.

  • The Hero– usually male, tries to restore the narrative equilibrium which is often done by embarking on a quest. Propp distinguishes between the victim hero, who is the centre of the villains attention, and the seeker hero who helps others who are the villains victims. The hero is usually the protagonist or whom the text centres around. Luke is dispatched on a quest and defeats the villain.


  • The Villian– usually creates the narrative disruption. The Emperor is behind the creation of the death star, which is a disruption to equilibrium and is defeated in the end by the hero.



  • The donor– gives the hero something, could be an object or formal advice, it helps in the resolution of the narrative. Obi Wan Kenobi provides Luke with knowledge of the force which allows him to carry on with his quest and leads him to the donor





  • The Helper– aids the hero in the task of restoring equilibrium. Yoda is provided to Luke to help him grow stronger in the force and help him complete his quest and go onto destroy evil.




  • The Princess (Victim) (Prize)– usually the character who is most endangered by the villain and has to be saved, by the hero. Princess Leia is represented as the ‘Princess’ as she is the first character the audience sees to be threatened by Darth Vader, allowing the audience to infer that she is the most Endangered. She is also saved by the hero Luke.


  • The father– the fathers role (in fairy-tales often the king) is usually to give the princess away to the hero at the narratives conclusion. He may also dispatch the hero (see Character Sphere below). The rebellion is the ‘Father’ in Star wars as they reward Luke (the hero) for his efforts.



  • The Dispatcher– sends the hero out on his/her quest/task. R2D2 is the one who provides Luke with the recording of Leia, which started Luke off on his quest.



  • The False Hero– appears to be good but at toward the end of the narrative is revealed to be bad or at least seen to be what they are. Han Solo is the ‘false hero’ as he doubts Luke and the Force and displays non-heroic actions such as cheating and lying.



Propp does state that characters can fulfil more than one sphere character type, for example a princess may also be a helper and a father may also be the dispatcher.


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