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Story structure: events in time and space

Story and plot

Although these two terms are often used interchangeably, there are important differences between them that can help our understanding of story structure.

Bordwell and Thompson offer some useful guidance:

“The set of all the events in a narrative, both the ones explicitly presented and those the viewer infers, constitutes the story”, whereas “‘plot’” is used to describe everything visibly and audibly presented in the film before us.”

They continue by explaining how

“story and plot overlap in one respect and diverge in others. The plot explicitly presents certain story events, so these events are common to both domains. The story goes beyond the plot in suggesting some diegetic events that we never witness.”1

The difference between ‘story’ and ‘plot’ is also complicated by the term ‘narrative’, with different theorists, writers and filmmakers using all three terms in slightly different (and sometimes frustratingly contradictory) ways.

Broadly, “a narrative is what we usually mean by the term story2 and so the distinction is perhaps negligible. But we can probably say that narrative also speaks to other ideas concerning the structure, style and form of a film (how the story is told) that distinguishes the term from ‘story’.

Chronology and linearity

The most basic thing we can say about a story is that it is a sequence of events in time and space that happens, presumably to someone, in a chronological, linear sequence. Event A is followed by event B, and event C, and so on.

Each event causes the next and so we can say that they have a causal relationship. Stories, like life itself, follow the arrow of time and march in one direction, from beginning to end, to the beat of cause and effect.  

Film, unlike life, is not bound by linear storytelling. Events can be presented to the viewer so that they best serve drama, not the laws of physics! As French film critic and filmmaker Jean Luc Godard has observed,

a ”film must have a beginning, a middle and an end. But not necessarily in that order”. 

Films can also tell stories in ways that mimic human consciousness; yes, we physically move in space and time from A to B and so on, but the mind is also capable of remembering past events, envisaging and reflecting on ancient history or dreaming of far-flung futures. Films therefore use various techniques - notably flashbacks, flash-forwards and cross-cutting - to manipulate the chronology of events.

We can think of films that re-order chronology as non-linear. Such non-linearity might be very simple: for example, showing a flashback to a character’s memory of an event that occurs early in the story, and so we might not necessarily consider such films (particularly because the use of flashbacks is very commonplace) as non-linear narratives per se.

However, there are other films that use non-linearity as a more complex storytelling device, for example Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000), Cloud Atlas (Tom Twyker, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski, 2012) and 500 Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009), wherein non-linearity isn’t just used to show pieces of the story but is so fundamental to the narrative that it informs the audience’s experience of the story.

There are many films that deliberately play with and fracture linearity. Thinking about the following questions please share your thoughts in the comments area.

  • Can you think of a film that does this?
  • How does the changed chronology affect your experience of the story?

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This article is from the free online course:

Digital Storytelling: Filmmaking for the Web

University of Birmingham