Narrative theory and the dynamics of popular movies

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© 2016, The Author(s).Popular movies grab and hold our attention. One reason for this is that storytelling is culturally important to us, but another is that general narrative formulae have been honed over millennia and that a derived but specific filmic form has developed and has been perfected over the last century. The result is a highly effective format that allows rapid processing of complex narratives. Using a corpus analysis I explore a physical narratology of popular movies—narrational structure and how it impacts us—to promote a theory of popular movie form. I show that movies can be divided into 4 acts—setup, complication, development, and climax—with two optional subunits of prolog and epilog, and a few turning points and plot points. In 12 studies I show that normative aspects in patterns of shot durations, shot transitions, shot scale, shot motion, shot luminance, character introduction, and distributions of conversations, music, action shots, and scene transitions reduce to 5 correlated stylistic dimensions of movies and can litigate among theories of movie structure. In general, movie narratives have roughly the same structure as narratives in any other domain—plays, novels, manga, folktales, even oral histories—but with particular runtime constraints, cadences, and constructions that are unique to the medium.




Cutting, J. E. (2016). Narrative theory and the dynamics of popular movies. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 23(6), 1713–1743.

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