Narrative Structures in Films: A Mindmap

Pages related to this topic:
Recent Best Films
200+ Great Films
Thomas Mann on film: Text from “The Magic Mountain”
Mistakes in Film Criticism
Aristotle’s Six Elements of Drama

Narrative Structures in Films

The diagram below indicates relationships among various factors present in the context of film narratives. Some of the considerations used to describe these factors derive from Plato’s conception of what guides (or ought to guide) the production of narratives in a social/political structure.

The main idea here is perhaps a rather obvious one: films, like other art, derive their creation, meaning, and purpose from multiple factors — but these factors are structured by systematically connected social, moral, and intellectually accepted “rules.” On the other hand, this is not an idea that the film industry itself seems to want to encourage since it takes away from the mystique of such keywords as “director, star, spectacle, and social relevance” that Hollywood uses to promote the idea that these elements, rather than a more complex web of multiple factors, are the key to understanding its creations. The diagram indicates not only “concrete” factors such as the requirements of proper narrative, but also some abstract concepts, such as Justice, that drive the production of socially useful narratives.

Below, some of the nodes are discussed. This work is in progress. A complete commentary on each node in the diagram and all the relationships shown in it is not finished at this time.

The Good WJ CJ Writer Fate Pre-existing Narrative Character Actions Narrative? Self? Aesthetic Universe Viewer Theater

The Good


Let us say that there is a source of inspiration that causes man to realize his higher nature. Let us call it “The Good.” Narratives structured in observance of the ideal of human self-transcendence will be a positive influence on individuals, as well as existing social and political structures.


In the analogy of the Cave, Plato apparently argues that media moguls, politicians, and narrative artists are uninformed and ill-intentioned. They have no access to truth (The Good) and their primary motivation is to keep the masses ignorant.

But Plato (again, apparently) underestimates or intentionally minimizes the potential of well-intentioned writers and artists to provide narratives that will, in fact, have a positive influence on the majority of media consumers.

Plato likens The Good to the Sun, an apt metaphor for a source of illumination that uncovers the reality by exposing it to the light of truth. Plato’s Good also causes changes in the human soul. In the analogy of the Cave, Plato explains how the Good inspired, even forced, one of the escaped “prisoners” to return to the realm below (our world) to tell others of the glories of The Good and the world above ours.

Plato’s metaphor of the Cave describes a method of social control through the manufacture of narratives and images. Plato’s metaphor of a captive audience being controlled by image-makers bears a striking correspondence with the role of media in our contemporary lives. If that were the entire substance of his metaphor, it would not be a stunning observation of the human condition, since we all know that we are limited by existing moral and political narratives. By adding the realm above the Cave and The Good, Plato creates an icon of hope — hope that we can escape these mundane narratives. Hope is the power behind narratives.

Hence, without some aim toward improvement, self-transcendence, overcoming existing social/political structures, and, ultimately knowledge of universal truths, there is little point in creating or paying attention to contemporary narratives (films, literature).


The Truman Show – An blow by blow model of Plato’s Cave, complete with escape.

The Wizard of Oz – Dorothy posits a “realm above” where everything is brighter (in color) and more pleasant. After having been educated in the realm above, she must return to the “realm below,” in the process discovering that the realm below also has its charms, once one is enlightened. (Plato provides a similar narrative structure in The Myth of Er.)

Cosmic Justice

Cosmic justice is the ultimate reward or punishment we receive for our deeds. One of the principal aims of social/political narratives (drama, media) is to:

  • Defend the idea that Cosmic Justice exists.
  • Demonstrate (via showing or telling) the play of Cosmic Justice in the human world.
  • Indicate the nature of Cosmic Justice: Is it guided by the will of a caring and just God? Is it something we can comprehend?

Example: The feather at the beginning of Forrest Gump tells us that the film will be thematically centered on the role of Cosmic Justice.

Every religion entertains some notion of cosmic justice. Probably the single most powerful notion of cosmic justice in the Western tradition is that developed by Jesus. Who can be saved? Who can expect a reward? Who can expect forgiveness of sins? Who has the potential to remake their life? “Everyone,” is the astounding answer given by Jesus. Hence, we have not only one of the single most powerful spiritual ideas in human history — but one that can supply that can fuel narratives in an effort to constantly support this.

The possibility of redemption is one of the master narratives played out over and over in popular narratives. “Redemption” need not have an explicitly religious connotation in the narrative, however. For example, Rocky remakes his life for the sake of obtaining both self-respect and the love of Adrian.

Cosmic and worldly justice need not be shown to match. See node on Worldly Justice. Indeed, a mismatch, or the possibility of a mismatch, is the crux of some stories…e.g. Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Worldly Justice


There are two, related, suppositions about this topic we might hold.

First: Worldly Justice is justice as it understood according to the norms of a social/moral/political system.

Generally speaking, films destined for mass audiences are not going to challenge these systems. See node on Pre-existing. The “natural” supposition of the public is that Worldly Justice more or less coincides with Cosmic Justice

Second: Worldly Justice shadows or replicates Cosmic Justice.

For example, those who commit heinous crimes are generally shown to suffer the consequences. This is often the entire point of a film: we are waiting with expectation for this event to be shown.

One knows, presumably, that such crimes violate the cosmic order and offenders will suffer justice in the afterlife, but the point of popular narratives is to show how such offenders suffer in this life — to show, in other words, the coincidence of Worldly and Cosmic Justice. This, of course, is to be expected of a commercial entertainment industry that seeks to reinforce, rather than subvert, the existing moral preconceptions of its customers.

CONFLICT, however, is necessary for every drama and great dramas draw into question the current norms of Worldly Justice and/or its coincidence with Cosmic Justice. This is particularly effective when the public perception is that the harmony between Cosmic and Worldly Justice has somehow broken down.


Dirty Harry is a film that derives its energy from the presupposition that Worldly and Cosmic Justice cannot be brought into harmony because the legal system has deteriorated. Hence, Dirty Harry struggles to correct the balance by pursuing his own brand of justice — even if it means going outside the legal system.

Death Wish was a hugely popular series based on the same premise.

More deeply metaphysical films pose this question:


OR, Is there a God who cares about human behavior?

These questions lie behind a film such as Mystic River (there was once a video commentary on this film on the original home page for films at ( since deleted…but it may come back).

Such questions seem to receive a resounding “NO” for an answer in very few films. But Woody Allen (if he can be counted as part of commercial entertainment), in Crimes and Misdemeanors, tells us a story in which the murderer does NOT pay for his crimes — at least in this life.

Draft…in progress.

Writers – Do Writers Know The Good?


Writers are not philosophers, but they may (unwittingly) express important metaphysical or moral dilemmas. It is trivially true that the study of narratives allows us to mine the collective unconscious of a time and place. In this sense, writers are mere landmarks. But even one who is skeptical of the narrative arts on philosophic grounds might admit that most artists share the philosophic aspiration to be ennobled by the Good, and in the process of that pursuit, they may help others to be ennobled.

Moreover, expressing a truth is often enough. We do not need to require that the one who expresses it also knows the depth of the truth expressed.


Text in progress…

Plato doubted that artists had knowledge of The Good. That is not to say that artists could not be inspired by The Good.

Although artists lack the critical facility to either understand or rationally defend what they say, Plato thought they could still express, through inspiration, things that were true. Although The Republic is usually considered to be one of the most sustained criticisms of poets* in the history of philosophy, a careful reading of it shows that Plato does not utterly condemn all poets. He acknowledges that he admires some poets, such as Simonides. His conclusion seems to be that artists might articulate correct moral values, and, in some cases, actually help the political communities of which they were a part, but that is no reason to grant them any particular honor — especially any honor higher than what should be accorded to philosophy.

Plato’s analogy of The Good as the sun leaves open the possibility of its indirect influence on those souls who have some ambition to know the truth and see the world as it actually is.

Aristotle criticized Plato on the grounds that making knowledge of the good mystical serves no purpose. “Good” things are things in this world, not things in some transcendental realm. Besides this, Plato seemed to discount the value of artists’ insights, due to the unreliability of “inspiration” as an epistemic technique. Aristotle argued that since it is undeniable that artists do often open our eyes to the truth, we ought to respect and honor them. Aristotle might agree that artists do not deserve a higher honor than philosophers, but Aristotle thought that Plato’s withering criticisms of the poets seem to imply that they usually do more harm than good.

Whether one takes a transcendental view or not, we should side with Aristotle’s basic point: writers can provide us with emotional events and intellectual insights that can help us become better human beings.

*Poets, for Plato, includes not only Homer, other, contemporary Greek poets, but also playwrights (Aristophanes, especially), the “screenwriters” of his own time.

Fate – The Fate of Characters in Film Should Correspond to Conceptions of Justice

“…and they lived happily ever after” is the verbal narrative equivalent of (for example) a final romantic embrace at the conclusion of a film. Just as short stories or novels conclude with a message about the fate of its characters, commercial Hollywood films offer us a conclusion to an extended moral argument about the just fate of its characters. This argument takes the form of “Characters who act in such and such ways deserve this reward (which you are now witnessing.)” The ultimate fate of the principal characters can imply:
1. Shared understandings of the pre-existing notions of justice in the culture
2. The writer’s understanding of those notions
3. Moral contradictions or competing notions of justice

The primary requirement for the entertainment value of mass media productions is that the fate of the characters be consistent with pre-existing notions of justice.

When pre-existing notions of justice contain contradictions, the artist may be instrumental in initiating a new narrative that seeks to resolve them. Hegel claimed that the Greek playwrights forced Greek culture to become more philosophical.

Example: Kramer vs. Kramer is often credited with having changed the legal landscape of divorce cases. After that film, husbands retained custody of the children more often.

Pre-existing Social and Political Narratives

…in progress

That new narratives derive from pre-existing ones is trivially true.

Industries cannot afford to seriously challenge existing social/political structures.

It follows that the entertainment arts will be fundamentally conservative in nature.

By “conservative in nature” we mean:
1. Fundamental notions of Worldly Justice will be upheld.
2. Fundament notions of Cosmic Justice will be upheld.
3. The fate of the characters will not be seriously out of line with existing expectations of Justice.
4. The Moral/Social/Political Parallel Universe created by the narrative will not be wildly different from the contemporary universe.
5. The Writer will work within the confines of these restrictions.

But unless the goal of the arts is to maintain a perfectly static society (cf. Plato’s Laws) pre-existing narratives must only be a starting point. Change derives from at least these sources:
1. The Transcendental Imperatives. (Kant)
2. Spiritual Evolution (Hegel)
3. Open-ended social/political structures (Democracies). (Since Plato objected to Democracies, he objected to the kinds of narratives they tend to generate. Aristotle was more open to democracies.)

Actions – The Conclusion of a Moral Syllogism

Aristotle says that the conclusion of a moral syllogism is an action. Unlike novels, films generally do not bring us an extensive version of the verbal internal life of its characters. As a result, the internal life of a character in a film is partially a hypothesis on the part of the viewer (see Viewer node). We see how the character acts, allowing us to
1. Understand (via retroduction) the syllogism causing the action;
2. Judge the validity of the character’s conclusion;
3. Compare this understanding and judgment about the character to the same understanding and judgments developed in the Shadow Narrative by the Shadow Self;
4. Expect that the action, in a moral universe, will have certain consequences.

Example: In The English Patient, Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) is suffering horribly and is sustained only by morphine injections. We can see him reach a moral decision when it comes time for his next injection. He nods to his caretaker, indicating that it is time to receive the overdose that will kill him. There is no dialogue indicating the moral reasoning behind this. We see the conclusion of his reasoning, and, presumably, we are tempted to believe that we would reach a similar decision under like circumstances (our own Shadow Narrative).

Example: In The Grapes of Wrath, we see the moral decision of George Milton (Burgess Meredith) who must, tragically, end the life of Lennie Small (Lon Chaney Jr.). Again, there is no dialogue here, except the misdirection George Milton uses in his speech and his covering of the gun.

Narrative – What Makes a Narrative?

Summary: Narrative structures are in part social/political conventions. What we find intellectually convincing and emotionally satisfying depends on pre-existing narrative conventions. It is now customary to refer to pre-existing narrative conventions as metanarratives and as “new” narratives as but pale reflections of these metanarratives. But this distinction can be overworked. Because every narrative refers to pre-existing narratives, every narrative is also a commentary on these pre-existing narratives, redirecting it to form new aspects of the pre-existing metanarratives. Narratives can, therefore, fulfill important social/political functions and often deal with transcendental questions because transcendental questions (the workings of God in the world, the nature of love, the true nature of various virtues, the nature of reward and punishment) are intrinsic to narrative formation.


Hollywood film narratives follow an explicit structure: the film consists of 3 “acts” or segments that contain prescribed elements. In Act I, the protagonist encounters some problem or dilemma that requires some action or decision. In Act II, the protagonist follows his course of action and fully engages the problem. Difficulties are encountered, deepening the problem, and requiring a further commitment by the protagonist. The protagonist engages the antagonist during this phase. In Act III, the full force of all the actions and decisions made by the protagonist come to fruition. The plot inexorably moves toward a final moment in which the success or failure of the hero hangs in the balance, on the basis of some final decision or action. Finally, the action reaches a climax and the narrative follows with a short section during which the elements of the narrative are resolved and consolidated.

Aristotle gave us much of this fundamental structure, and his text is still used today in film schools. Aristotle argued that specific elements of narrative that he discerned in Greek drama were essential for its cathartic power.

The Wizard of Oz Act I: Dorothy has conflicting feelings about life at home. Although she partly understands that people love and care for her, she is lonely and wants to leave on an adventure. She gets the chance when a hurricane deposits her in a strange land.
Act II: Dorothy decides to follow the Yellow Brick Road. She encounters difficulties in reaching Oz. When she reaches Oz, she discovers the Wizard cannot help her unless she kills the Witch.
Act III: Dorothy decides to try to kill the Witch. After many difficulties, she succeeds. Shortly thereafter, she returns home where she learns that indeed everyone cares for her and “there is no place like home.”
Reflections on transcendental questions and metanarratives: Is there another realm in which everything is pleasant and evil does not exist? No. Even in Oz, it is necessary to fight evil. What is the nature of such virtues as kindness and courage? They are inner strengths we may not be aware that we already possess and they can be developed through facing personal trials and learning obey one’s better instincts.

Draft….in progress

Character – Are there Rules for Character?


Aristotle argues that the protagonist in the best dramas (tragedies) must have flaws — or such is the generally received opinion about what Aristotle is supposed to have argued. In any event, these “flaws” result in the character’s undoing, i.e., result in a tragic ending. Since most popular films are comedies — meaning that the character triumphs over adversity — interest in the character and in the narrative can be best sustained by having characters with flaws who are nonetheless successful.


The overwhelming majority of popular films are comedies. As defined in the classical sense, a comedy is simply a narrative in which the protagonist succeeds in some worthy goal. Dante’s Divine Comedy is often cited as the archetype for a comedic story. Thus, many contemporary films classified as dramas — those which are in no sense humorous — can be classified as comedies if the protagonist is ultimately successful. Frequently, however, there are strong, sometimes overpowering, elements of tragedy in film dramas. These tragic elements sometimes involve the suffering or death of a secondary character. In some cases, the protagonist dies and another character, who embodies the protagonist’s life force, lives on; this is a way of providing both tragic and comedic elements.

The above considerations apply to the overall structure of the narrative. How, then, do these relate to character? Characters must be complex in order to support both comedic and tragic elements of the narrative. They must have virtues that enable survival and flourishing in the story in which they are found, but also flaws that provide an undercurrent of tension.

The balance of virtues and flaws provides the ground for what screenwriters call “inner conflict” which should be reflected in the outer conflict in the story.

This allows partial identification with the character and allows the viewer to make moral judgments that may differ from those of the protagonist.

This provides the basis for extending Aristotle’s ideas somewhat by giving them a modern, psychological flavor. See the node on the Shadow Self.


Action films are a good example of this. In Rocky, the protagonist has both virtues and vices, but lacks self-respect; he must resolve the inner conflict through the outer conflict of participating in an unwinnable contest. In Die Hard, the protagonist has great physical skills (as well as impossible luck) but suffers from estrangement from his wife; the outer conflict reflects inner conflict.

Cool Hand Luke is an example of the death of the protagonist, followed by his ultimate success through the survival of his life force in a disciple.

Draft….in progress.

Universe – A Parallel Universe?


In order to be satisfying, Narratives must simultaneously conform to and challenge our expectations of ultimate social, political, psychological, and metaphysical conditions that are thought to structure our world. Narratives are a sort of parallel universe into which one may enter through willing suspension of disbelief, in order to address the conditions that in fact structure our world.

Some Postmodernists assert that there a master narrative underlying most modern narratives, and that this master narrative is either evil or suspect. While the Postmodern view is correct in holding that metanarratives underlie narratives, it mistakes metanarrative for master narrative. It does not follow that metanarratives are master narratives or that they are either suspect or evil.

In order to question their metanarratives, films can question their own narrative devices and conventions, and challenge the viewer to assume a second-order awareness. This is sometimes done, as in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Yet, even the simplest films for mass entertainment posit a parallel universe, a lens through which the viewer can judge and experience the “real” world once the lights go back on. And, in the spirit of Aristotle rather than Plato, one can hope to learn in the process.

Draft…to be continued…an issue that must be covered here is the logical consistency and believability of the alternative universes posited by popular films, particularly in science fiction.

Aesthetic – Does the Aesthetic Response Exist?


Is a work of art more than the sum of its parts? Is there, in addition to the intellectual comprehension of the narrative and the psychological process of identification, a separate sort of human response to art that we may call the aesthetic response? Kant seems to have thought so. And empirically, there are some works of art that have a profound impact on us.


Many have argued that film is the greatest art form because it is the most thoroughly absorbing. But it can be objected that 1)verbal narrative can actually diminish the impact of visual art; 2)the ability of a medium to absorb a subject is not itself a measure of aesthetic quality; 3)there is no transcendental aesthetic response –our reactions to “art” is merely a function of temporary and contingent social/psychological conditioning.

Perhaps not enough time has gone by to determine whether films count as lasting aesthetic creations or merely temporary historically conditioned narratives that will be forgotten.

Draft…in progress.

Self? – The Shadow Self

Aristotle argues that the reason the tragic hero is important is because we can learn from him. This fits with Aristotle’s dictum that “all men by nature desire to know.” Hence, Aristotle’s view (as well as our contemporary view) appears to be that popular media do fulfill an epistemic function.

We learn from the tragic hero because although he is better than the average person, he has a tragic flaw that causes his downfall and also makes it easier for us to see how we are like him. We can identify with the character and so learn from him how to deal with obstacles and our own flaws. Aristotle uses the example of Odysseus.

Contemporary cinema uses many sorts of heroes and usually takes the form of comedy (success) rather than tragedy. However, the process of identification is still much the same.

To objectify this process and give it a name, we call it the Shadow Self.

Through the Shadow Self, the world of illusion becomes a window through which reality may be perceived.

….in progress.

Narrative? – The Shadow Narrative

NOTE: Can the Shadow Narrative override, rewrite, obscure, dominate actuality?

After the publicity he received from surviving attempted murder, Andy Warhol remarked that it is not as though film is a less involving, less emotionally compelling version of reality. Rather, reality seems like a less compelling more emotionally distant version of a movie.


Film is like consciousness in that it can instantly transport the subject to any imagined place or time. An imagined place or time is a narrative structure in consciousness, shadowing the functions and narrative structure of consciousness in the world of actualities. So, in watching a film, one replicates the structure of consciousness in the imagination — but (oddly) it does so in the space of the actual world — an actual theater that replicates the “theater of the mind.”

When one enters that world (by accepting it a narrative structure for consciousness, for consciousness), one creates a shadow narrative that is (momentarily) more compelling than that of actuality. The fact that one is merely viewing unreal events is displaced, as Coleridge remarked, by willing suspension of disbelief. It is through this act that learning can take place at little risk to the actual self. The Shadow Self, participating in the Shadow Narrative, takes the risks and participates in the actions.

in progress…

By Anthony Birch

Anthony Birch, Ph.D. has taught Business Ethics, Introduction to Ethics, Contemporary Ethics, and Introduction to Philosophy at a number of colleges and universities. He is the co-author of How to Ace Your Online Course, available at Amazon.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments