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The Compelling Logic of Screen Narratives

In the early days of cinema, between 1894 and 1904, pioneering filmmakers began to realise that our need to jump to conclusions and to discover the truth would enable them to not only to document the world around them through single clips (e.g. a train going over a bridge), but also to create complex narratives from a succession of clips unfolding through time.

These began as short film narratives accompanied by musicians in the theatre but from the 1930s they became increasingly complex and were bound together with recorded sound and a synchronised soundtrack.

A moving image text can therefore be described as a multi-layered, audio-visual narrative that develops through a process of question and (partial) answer, from shot to shot, at exactly the pace set by the filmmakers. If this construction is successful, then the film will stimulate the audience's curiosity and imagination, drawing them through the narrative.

Today we see these fictional and factual narratives as fluid and apparently seamless, an illusion achieved through:

  • the use of credits, titles and text-on-screen to frame the illusion
  • movement and dialogue expressing conflict that unfolds within a filmed shot
  • the logical succession of joined (edited) shots that builds on our desire to find connections between shots
  • the succession of narrative sounds, whether diegetic or non-diegetic, that accompany and bridge those shots
  • the sound effects and music that bridge scenes and sequences and dictate our emotional response to the narrative
  • the use of narration to frame stories and connect shots, clips, sounds and music.

In the following pages, we will look briefly at how these techniques developed into a language and find systematic ways to decode films.