The four narrative types established in my previous article, Celebratory, Cautionary, Tragic, and Cynical have one thing in common: they all present characters who respond to challenges by committing to a particular set of values or beliefs.
The story then expresses some “truth” on these values or beliefs by showing how the actions they inspire eventually resolve, fail to resolve, or worsen specific types of problems. In other words, the protagonist chooses how to think or act, and the narrative outcome then proves whether or not this decision was correct. This is the primary way all (conventional) feature films communicate theme. Thus, a story’s thematic content stands in no way separate from its use of plot and character; they are one and the same. An audience comprehends a story’s message by observing the development and resolution of its physical conflicts.
The structures of plot, character, and theme combine to form a symbiotic relationship in which the theme informs the content of plot and character, while plot and character serve in tandem to communicate the theme. The resulting “super-structure” is exactly the same in every (properly-constructed) cinematic narrative—with two crucial exceptions. These exceptions explain how the same repeated structure can diverge into the four Celebratory, Cautionary, Tragic, and Cynical types. Yet to understand how this occurs, we must first correct two common misassumptions about conventional cinematic narratives.
- The Character Arc is not really about a protagonist growing “better” or “worse,” which are subjective terms. The Character Arc can be more accurately described as a process through which the protagonist grows more or less capable of succeeding within the confines of a particular story world.
- Story worlds are not meant to be accurate reflections of reality. Rather, they present alternate realities to compare and contrast with the world in which we live. Each story world is then free to operate by its own independent system of values—systems that may appear very similar to, or sharply differ from, those we recognize in real life.
To expand upon the second point, cinematic stories are most capable of communicating the clearest messages when they construct ideologically simplified worlds where all sense of order and meaning, intention and outcome, reward and punishment relate in some way to an opposition of two contradictory values. Examples of such ideological conflicts include: liberty vs. social order, courage vs. fear, forgiveness vs. vengeance, pride vs. humility, dependence vs. self-sufficiency. By placing this opposition of values at the core of narrative discourse, cinematic stories accomplish two things. First, the narrative achieves thematic unity, as all content relates in some way to a central ideological debate. Second, the story establishes a dramatic structure (called the Thematic Argument) through which it can develop its ultimate statement of meaning.
As previously stated, this structure of theme shares a symbiotic relationship with the structures of plot and character. Through their interaction, the elements of plot and character give physical substance to the theme’s ideological debate. If all material content is indeed unified by the Thematic Argument, the plot develops into a conflict between forces who promote one side of the ideological debate set against those who promote the other. Likewise, the Character Arc becomes an internal conflict between a perceived need to follow one of the ideological values opposed by impulses toward the other. In other words, a story’s physical conflicts act as battlegrounds for the ideological debate, transforming an abstract argument into actions and events the audience can observe and comprehend. When a victor emerges at the narrative climax, the thematic value used to attain this victory is proven superior. Thus, the plot’s resolution also resolves Thematic Argument. The story ends with a clear winner and loser, both literally and thematically. In this way, a story’s physical outcomes finalize its ideological conclusions.
Yet what decides the winner? One might assume that between the two sides of the Thematic Argument, the more “virtuous” or “heroic” value will always be the strongest and therefore always lead those who support it to victory. Yet Tragic and Cynical narratives prove this is not always so. Characters who act in the “right” can fail, while those who do “wrong” succeed. Additionally, Tragic and Cautionary protagonists often expend more effort than any toward their goals, yet still meet defeat. If effort alone cannot achieve victory, the deciding factor must exist outside of the protagonist, in the rules that govern the story world.
As it turns out, cinematic narratives never contain fair and open contests. One side of the Thematic Argument is “correct” and therefore predetermined to win, while the other is “incorrect” and will always lose—no matter what actions characters may take to the contrary. Thus, we see there is a certain fatalism involved. The difference between victory and failure is solely determined by the side with which characters align themselves. Yet which value is “correct” or “incorrect” has nothing to do with what value the audience supports. Rather, all outcomes are decided by the value the story world supports.
Story worlds can essentially be considered conscious (and omnipotent) entities. They know all, see all, and stand capable of altering situations at will. This consciousness is actually that of the storyteller—the creator and controller of the fictional world. While always far more apparent in literature, where the written narration suggests the voice of the implied author, this controlling consciousness is less obvious in cinema, as it must operate from behind the veil of settings and events lest it disrupt the film’s illusion of reality. Nevertheless, the conscious nature of the story world becomes the key tool through which the storyteller delivers his or her personal statement of meaning.
For the purpose of thematic clarity, cinematic story worlds are incredibly single-minded entities. They judge all things according to the Thematic Argument’s duality of values, and then reward behaviors aligned with one value while ignoring or punishing behaviors aligned with the other. Whether a character receives the story world’s benevolence or wrath all depends on whether his or her actions agree or disagree with the story world’s system of values. We may thus say that every story world contains a natural ideological current which, like a river, flows in only one direction. Characters who act by the “correct” value move with this current, thereby gaining the support they need to overcome dramatic obstacles. Characters who act by the opposing value swim against the current, exacerbating their difficulties and inciting greater opposition. The direction of the flow never changes, and it is impossible to counter no matter how hard characters try. Thus we may say that in any story a character’s path to success or failure depends solely upon his or her ability to recognize what value the story world supports and then align his or her behaviors with it. Those who do this ride the current to victory. Those who fight against the current are inevitably pulled under and drowned.
Yet what of stories where the “bad guys” win? By being “bad,” don’t these characters automatically move against the story world’s moral current? Actually no, quite to the contrary. To return to the two clarifications made earlier, we must first remember that what constitutes “good” or “bad” behavior is completely subjective. Second, as independent realities, story worlds can possess their own unique systems of values—systems that may or may not resemble those we consider “good” or “fair.” Thus, a story world may be designed to reward attitudes or behaviors we believe to be “wrong” and punish those we consider “right.” In this we find the crucial difference between Celebratory or Cautionary narratives and the Tragic or Cynical.
Celebratory and Cautionary narratives exist in more or less idealized worlds where all “good” behaviors are eventually rewarded, while “bad” behaviors are inevitably punished. As such, viewers feel pleased by these stories’ outcomes. Success or failure has been meted out as they judge fair or right. We might further say that, to one degree or another, these story worlds operate by systems of moral justice more perfect than the flawed or ambiguous ones we encounter in real life. Viewers may thus feel subtly encouraged to improve their worlds by making them more like the world of the story.
In total contrast, Tragic or Cynical narratives operate within morally “backwards” worlds that support or reward behavioral values viewers typically oppose, disapprove of, or condemn. As such, these stories reverse all expectations. Sympathetic behaviors lead to failure while objectionable actions succeed. With everything concluding in the “wrong,” the audience is left with a bad taste in its mouth. Desperate for a positive takeaway, viewers feel compelled to consider what truth lies in the story’s darker view of reality, and then (ideally) take action to make their world less like the world of the story.
Once we understand how and why each story world grants reward or punishment, we discover that all conventional Hollywood narratives are essentially the same, regardless of their thematic type—in terms of their structure, that is, not their content. To begin: It has long been recognized that an effective cinematic protagonist begins every story handicapped by some behavioral or psychological flaw. The protagonist then struggles on account of this flaw, leading to poor decisions and dramatic setbacks. Yet another, more accurate way to put this is that the protagonist begins the story adhering to attitudes or behaviors contrary to the story world’s central ideological value. In other words, the protagonist starts in a state of misalignment. Because of this misalignment, the character moves against the grain of his or her world, pursuing objectives in wrong-minded ways. This worsens the protagonist’s situation, as the story world refuses to reward such efforts or directly counters them with opposition or failure.
Eventually, this conflict between the protagonist and the story world (which is in fact the true core conflict in every cinematic story) escalates to a crisis point. This in turn triggers the narrative’s most pivotal event: the protagonist’s Moment of Crucial Decision. Here, the structure forks into two possible paths; one leading to salvation, and the other to ruin.
In Celebratory and Cynical narratives, the protagonist responds to the crisis by finally recognizing his or her misalignment. The character then undergoes a process of realignment in which the former misaligned traits are abandoned and replaced by those that better reflect the story world’s central value. Now thinking and acting in the “correct” manner, the tide turns in the protagonist’s favor. Doors open which were formerly closed, allowing the character to finally identify and perform the deeds necessary to resolve the dramatic situation. The story world then rewards the protagonist’s ideological conversion with victory.
This victory through realignment is fairly easy to observe in most Celebratory narratives. In these films, the audience can usually pinpoint a moment when the protagonist chooses to become a “better” or “stronger” person, marking the first step in a journey to success. However, Cynical narratives (in which protagonists seem to change for the “worse”) require further illustration.
To use the same example as my last article, Michael Corleone begins The Godfather as a moral idealist. He does not approve of the way his family does business and wishes to see it change. Unfortunately, Michael exists in a world that cares nothing for idealism. It instead rewards those who act by the opposing value: a cold-hearted moral pragmatism. As such, Michael is misaligned with the realities of his world and finds nothing but challenges to his idealized beliefs. Eventually, the story’s developing crises force Michael to recognize his misalignment, abandon his former attitudes, and grow willing to commit any action necessary. By realigning his behavior, Michael achieves victory. Just like in any Celebratory narrative, Cynical protagonists are placed in situations where success can only come through conformity to the rules and expectations of their story world. Though the audience may find these rules and expectations objectionable, realignment remains the only way to avoid destruction.
This simple idea—that realignment is prerequisite for victory—finds further confirmation in Cautionary and Tragic narratives. In these narrative types, protagonists respond to the Moment of Crucial Decision with a refusal to realign. Rather than admit their errors in thought or behavior, these characters choose intensify their misaligned qualities, essentially sealing their own doom. In other words, these protagonists foolishly conclude they are in the right and the world is in the wrong, and then attempt to defeat their world through their own misguided means. Yet this is folly. The all-powerful story world can never be defeated. Thus, no matter how hard these protagonists may fight, their efforts will never succeed and meet irrevocable punishment.
Once again, this path to destruction is easy to see in Cautionary narratives like Amadeus, Citizen Kane, or The Wolf of Wall Street. The protagonists of these stories continually escalate their destructive behaviors, inciting an increasing level of ire and punishment from their story world. Tragic narratives, however, seem much different to audiences, as the story initially fools them into believing the protagonist’s refusal to realign is correct. Yet the outcome is the same. Just like in the Cautionary, Tragic protagonists succumb to eventual failure by failing to recognize and then submit to the rules and expectations which govern their particular story worlds.
Tragic or Cynical narratives prove that, on a structural level, victory or failure is a morally-neutral affair. There is no “good” or “bad,” only “do” or “do not.” Characters who to realign with the story world’s central value always succeed, regardless of whether this value is seen as “positive” (as in Celebratory narratives) or “negative” (as in Cynical). Likewise, a refusal to realign always results in defeat, regardless of whether this choice seems “right” (as in Tragic narratives) or “wrong” (as in Cautionary).
If success or failure is not dependent upon morality, from where do viewers receive the story’s moral conclusions? From within themselves—through their own personal evaluations. While watching a film, viewers pass judgment upon the protagonist’s choices as “right” or “wrong,” “moral” or “immoral.” Such convictions then dictate how the audience responds to the reward or punishment issued at the story’s climax. (Of course, this does not mean storytellers cannot intentionally guide judgments through the presentation of narrative content. This is the skill of the artist—to lead minds to certain conclusions.) This emotional response, whether it be positive or negative, causes the viewer to reflect back upon previous events and discover the story’s message or meaning.
The judgment always comes first. The audience observes the Moment of Crucial Decision and either approves or condemns the protagonist’s response. This sets up certain convictions regarding whether the protagonist should be rewarded or punished. The narrative outcome then fulfills or counters these convictions by granting the protagonist victory or defeat. We may therefore conclude that the rudimentary thematic discourse of any conventional feature film hinges upon two key factors: audience opinion and narrative outcome.
Since both of these factors have two possible results (approval or disapproval; victory or defeat) we find four permutations of thematic resolution (approval/victory, approval/defeat, disapproval/victory, disapproval/defeat). This finally explains why conventional Hollywood storytelling features exactly four narrative types; no more, no less. (However, cinematic narratives allow room for ambiguities and/or contradictions within both opinion and outcome. This proves the boundaries between narrative types to be permeable and allows a richer range of thematic possibilities than this suggests.) Each combination of opinion and outcome elicits a different audience response, and thus leads viewers to draw conclusions from story content in radically different ways. As such, with two simple variables (one on the audience plane and one on the narrative plane), the same repeated story structure (common to nearly all conventional Hollywood films) can continually diverge into four distinct thematic types. Here then are the four basic narrative types re-defined in their simplest terms:
- Celebratory: Audience Approves of Protagonist / Protagonist Rewarded with Victory
Audience response: Emotional Uplift. What we believe “good” is rewarded and everything ends as it should. Cultural beliefs are reaffirmed and the protagonist is upheld as a model to follow.
- Cautionary: Audience Disapproves of Protagonist / Protagonist Punished with Defeat
Audience response: Moral Reassurance. The “bad” get what they deserve and the world returns to its rightful order. Social norms are reinforced and viewers are warned away from destructive behaviors.
- Tragic: Audience Approves of Protagonist / Protagonist Punished with Defeat
Audience response: Emotional Upset. The outcome seems unfair. What we consider good or proper did not receive the expected reward. The viewer then is prompted to consider what social imperfections or inaccurate beliefs caused such a failure and the lessons to be learned from it.
- Cynical: Audience Disapproves of Protagonist / Protagonist Rewarded with Victory
Audience response: Disillusionment. Everything is turned upside-down. What we have been taught to believe is proven untrue. The viewer is provoked to challenge or dismiss existing ideas or beliefs.
In conclusion, conventional Hollywood narratives do not communicate message and meaning in the abstract, but through the physically observable developments of plot and character. Storytellers construct arguments on the truth or efficacy of certain values or beliefs by illustrating how their acceptance or rejection leads characters to either victory or defeat in specific situations. In this way, storytellers teach and endorse, as well as criticize or condemn. A story can encourage viewers to adhere more closely to socio-cultural ideals, or point out the flaws in these ideals and/or the society that supports them. Thus, cinematic storytelling has the power to shape, strengthen, or improve our world by continually commenting on the ideas and beliefs that create our perspectives and form the foundations of our society. MM
Michael Welles Schock is a script consultant and narrative theorist. He is the author of the books Screenwriting Down to the Atoms and Screenwriting & The Unified Theory of Narrative. Photo courtesy of Paramount.