In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Narrative

  • Introduction
  • Anthologies
  • Textbooks
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Narrative Adaptation
  • Film Narrative and Cultural Contexts

Cinema and Media Studies Narrative
Donald F. Larsson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0119


Narrative is often simply equated with story, a sequence of causally linked events with a beginning, a middle, and an end; however, narrative has also come to be understood as an essential component of human discourse and a complex concept in its own right for many disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. The study of narrative (narratology) has focused on written fiction, even though stories may be told (narrated) through a variety of media, including the cinema, but because motion pictures have historically drawn on literary sources, literary narratology has had a major influence on the study of film narrative as such. As early as the 4th century BCE, Plato and Aristotle made the key distinction between mimesis (imitation of an event or action without a narrator) and diegesis (telling a story through a narrator’s agency). By the early 20th century the Russian formalists had begun a project that aimed for an objective analysis of how narratives functioned, influencing the development of structuralism in the 1950s and 1960s and the emergence of narratology as a separate field of study. This “classical” narratology has sometimes competed or intersected with post-structuralism and other approaches (archetypal, neo-Aristotelian/rhetorical, feminist/gender studies, ideological and psychoanalytical, cultural studies, and so on). More recently, cognitive psychology has examined how humans perceive and construct narratives within cultural contexts and in their own lives. Emerging understandings of narrative functions in new media also intersect with film study, while the recognition of narrative traditions in non-Western and minority cultures has begun to receive detailed consideration. For more than a century, filmmakers and critics have offered their own descriptions of film narrative, often directly or indirectly influenced by literary models and theories. That cinema exists as a “multivocal” medium that narrates through sound and images, that it is both an artistic and a commercial medium, and that it can be a form of both cultural and individual expression all suggest that film narrative and its study will continue to evolve in new directions. Citations in this article concentrate on texts dealing directly with film narrative and narration, narrative analysis, and different approaches to narratology; however, the selected works listed under Narrative Theory (Literature) and its sections are also included because of their particular importance to theories and issues in the study of film narrative.


There are many anthologies on literary narrative and literary theory, but relatively few exclusively cover film narrative as such. Collections cited in this section include texts of special interest for the study of narrative in general and some that address questions about film narrative specifically. The anthology Onega and García Landa 1996 offers a useful overview of critical approaches to narrative, including some dealing with film, and contains essays by important scholars. The collection McQuillan 2000 begins with Plato c. 380 BCE and Aristotle c. 335 BCE but emphasizes 20th-century scholarship. The collection Rosen 1986 exemplifies a key point in the history of film theory, as high structuralism, with its pretentions to a quasiscientific mode of analysis, was beginning to yield to an emerging poststructuralist film theory heavily influenced by psychoanalytic and feminist film theory. Essays in Herman 2007 reflect newer developments in “postclassical” narratology. Several sections in Braudy and Cohen 2008 feature key essays that provide context for how concepts of narrative and narration in film have developed, such as the influence of cultural concepts of storytelling and the more recent impact of digital and interactive media. The essays in Ryan 2004 also take up the challenges posed to narratology in general by various storytelling media, including film and interactive and digital media. Stam and Raengo 2004 is a wide-ranging collection of essays dealing with narratology, adaptation, intertextuality, themes, and genres, in film and literature. Other anthologies are cited under specific sections. See Lemon and Reis 1964 (cited under Russian Formalists and Related Theorists); Alber and Fludernik 2010, Aldama 2010, Heinen and Sommer 2009, Herman 1997 (all cited under Postclassical Narratology); Naremore 2000, Stam and Raengo 2005, Welsh and Lev 2007 (all cited under Narrative Adaptation); Elsaesser and Barker 1990 (cited under Early Film and Narrative); Buckland 2009 (cited under Complex Film Narratives); and Badley, et al. 2006 (cited under Film Narrative and Cultural Contexts). For other citations, see works listed in Bibliographies and the bibliographies included in many of the books cited elsewhere in this article.

  • Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen, eds. Film Theory and Criticism. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    The most widely used anthology of critical and theoretical writings on film. Sections most relevant to the study of film narrative are section 1, “Film Language”; section 4, “Film Narrative and the Other Arts”; and section 8, “Digitalization and Globalization.” A handy set of important essays for undergraduates and graduate students.

  • Herman, David, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Narrative. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521856965

    Essays discuss concepts in narratology; narrative in nonprint media, such as film; and the intersections of narratology and other areas of study. Looks at important terms and concepts in the shifting field of narratology. Includes a brief glossary and lists of suggestions for further reading. Suitable for undergraduates.

  • McQuillan, Martin, ed. The Narrative Reader. New York: Routledge, 2000.

    A useful collection of key writings on narrative, starting with Plato and Aristotle, but with particular emphasis on 20th-century formalist, structuralist, and post-structuralist analysis. Students of film and narrative will find the chapter on psychoanalysis of special interest. McQuillan’s introduction is witty and thought provoking.

  • Onega, Susan, and José Angel García Landa, eds. Narratology: An Introduction. New York: Longman, 1996.

    Introductory section gives an overview and historical perspective on the development of classical narratology and different narrative models. The essays, by major scholars, such as Roland Barthes, Mieke Bal, Wayne Booth, Gérard Genette, Edward Branigan, and Peter Brooks, are briefly summarized and discussed. Recommended for those new to narrative study.

  • Rosen, Phillip, ed. Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

    One of the few anthologies specifically focusing on film narrative. Though dated, still a useful text. Authors from several countries examine aspects of narrative, film narration, and film spectatorship through the lens of structuralist analysis and an emerging post-structuralist theory influenced by psychoanalysis and feminist theory.

  • Ryan, Marie-Laure, ed. Narrative across Media: The Languages of Storytelling. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

    Essays explore storytelling as “face-to-face narration” in different media, including motion pictures, music, and digital media. Ryan’s general introduction and her introductions to each section present historical context and map directions in understandings of narrative.

  • Stam, Robert, and Alessandra Raengo, eds. A Companion to Literature and Film. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

    A rich collection of essays by international film scholars, considering theoretical issues in adaptation and comparative narratology, historical study of adaptation, and studies of individual film adaptations of novels and other works.

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