The Wolf of Wall Street.
At many points in The Wolf of Wall Street, we hear the voice of Jordan Belfort chronicling his exploits in building up a rapacious investment company. A few times he even addresses the camera.
What’s he doing? Well, he’s telling us a story, obviously. Stories are what many (not all) films present to us. But how, exactly, can we understand the storytelling process in film? What do the filmmakers do, and what do we do?
For my book Poetics of Cinema, I wrote a chapter called “Three Dimensions of Film Narrative.” This 2007 essay tries to come to grips with several questions. Some are pretty general. What makes a film a narrative? How does a narrative film shape our response? What roles do visual and auditory techniques play? What are the roles of emotional responses and broad cultural factors? How does characterization work in a movie?
Other questions are narrower. How revelatory is Hollywood’s three-act model of plot? How do we pick out a story’s protagonist? Do literary concepts like “narrator” and “implied author” apply to films?
Since the chapter is part of a larger book, some of these matters are dealt with at greater length in other chapters. Some are developed in other books, notably Narration in the Fiction Film, and elsewhere on this site. This essay was my attempt to boil down my thinking about filmic storytelling into one convenient, if sometimes sketchy, form.
Today I’m posting a corrected, slightly revised version of that chapter as a downloadable pdf file. Thanks to our web tsarina Meg Hamel, it has links as well. Students, teachers, researchers, and casual or ardent cinephiles: Make use of this as you like.
The essay is here.
This blog entry is a guide to the essay, or maybe just a trailer. As with a trailer, my use of The Wolf of Wall Street is illustrative; I’m not offering anything like a full analysis or even a review. And like most trailers, mine has spoilers.
The three dimensions I explore in the essay are narration, plot structure, and story world.
Dimension 1: Pushy narration
A film’s narration I take to be unfolding and organization of story information as the viewer encounters it, moment by moment. . (This is distinct from the term “voice-over narration,” like Jordan’s in The Wolf of Wall Street, though voice-over commentary is part of the overall narration.) Narration is designed to shape our itinerary through the film. It’s a complex array of cues that guide us in building up the story.
In The Wolf of Wall Street, the first dose of information we get is a TV commercial for the Stratton Oakmont investment company. We see busy, efficient brokers bent over their desks in a vast office as a lion paces the aisles. But then we get another view of the office, as partying staff prepare to launch a little man in a Velcro suit toward a target. The man is hurled, and one of the men who tosses him identifies himself as Jordan Belfort. We’re then launched into a sequence laying out Jordan’s lifestyle.
One thing this portion of the narration does is to peel back the staid, solid image of the brokering house and show the orgiastic self-indulgence behind it. What if Scorsese and his screenwriter Terrence Winter hadn’t included the commercial? Our sense of the contrast between public image and internal debauchery wouldn’t be so strong.
The quick scenes of Jordan’s lifestyle, driven by drugs, sex, and high living constitute a block of concentrated exposition. The narration could have introduced Jordan’s debauchery gradually through hints, but instead we’re told of it bluntly and swiftly. Jordan boasts that at age 26 he made nearly fifty million dollars a year. We’re coaxed to ask: How did he get so far?
This is, we might say, a curiosity question—a question about what in the past led up to the present. A film’s narration is often prodding us to ask just this question. A piece of narration may also provoke effects of surprise, as when the Velcro-target episode undercuts the corporate image. Surprise is central to narrative because knowledge is distributed unequally among characters and spectators; any character may have a secret.
There’s also suspense, which we can consider broadly as a sharpened anticipation of what might happen next. In The Wolf, I’d argue that there’s some suspense when Jordan, zonked on Quaaludes, must save Donnie from choking on a piece of ham. Curiosity, surprise, and suspense aren’t of course the only effects of storytelling, but they function as “master-effects,” in Meir Sternberg’s phrase. They are central to our comprehension of the story.
Style as narration
At the same time, narration is shaping our experience through film style. The staid tracking shot along the desks in the commercial, with the firm’s trademark lion prowling the aisles, clashes with the abrupt editing and freeze-frame that introduces Jordan. The actors’ performances, centrally the swaggering performance of DiCaprio, are part of narration as well. The soundtrack’s stylistic texture contributes a lot too, with Jordan’s voice-over and the music and effects creating a rousing, exhilarating effect. The narration’s use of film technique, I think, aims to summon up a shocked but fascinated and amused awareness of the decadent world that Jordan rules.
Throughout Wolf, Scorese’s stylistic choices serve narrational purposes. There are rapid montage sequences, commenting musical tunes, and dialogue hooks (“I won’t call him”/shot of Denham, called, approaching Jordan’s yacht). Scorsese’s fondness for rendering psychological states—here, druggy ones—is presented through classic “impressionist” techniques. As the film goes on, he starts to take us into characters’ minds through inner monologues and misperceptions (the smashed Ferarri). Stylistic patterning also contributes to the film’s tone of grotesque comedy, not just through the dialogue, delivery, and music but through editing. The potentially dramatic moment of Jordan rescuing Donnie with CPR is intercut with a Popeye cartoon: Jordan’s miraculous spinach is coke.
By shaping our knowledge, the narration also throttles the film’s emotional appeal up or down. For example, in one scene Jordan punches his second wife Naomi. Scorsese presents the action in a distant shot, in which a doorway allows us merely to glimpse the violence.
This choice lessens the impact of Jordan’s aggression. It gives us important information about the story action, but not nearly as forcefully as the tight close-ups of sexual and drug-fueled escapades in other scenes do. You could argue that closer and more visceral views (of the sort we get during Raging Bull’s domestic violence, as above) would make it harder to treat Jordan’s bad-boy high-jinks as entertaining.
A more detailed analysis would trace the overall development of the film’s narration. We’d consider, for instance, how it restricts our information at key points. Although the narration breaks with its attachment to Jordan to show Denham’s investigation, it doesn’t reveal Naomi’s scheme to divorce him. We learn of that only when he does. As we indicate in Film Art: An Introduction, “Who knows what when?” is a central question for understanding film narration.
Narration as inference-making
More generally, the essay develops in some detail a notion that’s central to understanding narration. I offer a mentalistic account of narrative understanding.
I think that a storytelling movie, through its narration, impels us to draw inferences. To follow a movie story is to turn the images and sounds into characters, actions, events, causes, and the like. This happens partly through fast, automatic inferences of the kind we make constantly in perceiving the world, and partly and more evidently through the inferences we make in building up that construct we call the movie’s story.
Everything I’ve been describing so far asks us to fill in, extrapolate, and draw conclusions at the level of comprehension. We take the Stratton Oakmont commercial as indicating trustworthiness. We’re encouraged to see the little-person-tossing scene as outrageous and boisterous but cruel, the amusement of people charged with a reckless energy. Jordan’s bragging montage sequence invites us see him as powerful, arrogant, and materialistic.
By saying that narration pushes us to make inferences I’m not suggesting that the inferences are models of deep thinking. They are, we say, commonsensical. In the multiplex, we’re not logicians. Understanding and responding to a story are processes based largely on folk psychology. In that respect, the chapter argues a point I’ve made elsewhere on the site.
Of course not all our inferences will be correct. It would be possible to knock down our first impressions of Jordan with information suggesting that beneath the sharkskin is a likable idealist. (That happens in Jerry Maguire.) Here, other sorts of moments steer our inferences astray. We’re led to think that Jordan drives his Lamborghini home safely, but that impression gets recalibrated the next morning. Earlier, when Denham visits Jordan on his yacht, the rather long, tense scene leads us to consider the possibility that the FBI agent is susceptible to bribery. His questions and facial expressions suggest that he’s weighing Jordan’s offer to help him with some investments. This interchange is conveyed in fairly tight shot/ reverse shots.
Only when Denham asks Jordan to repeat his offer does Scorsese cut to an angle showing that Denham’s colleague has, offscreen, quietly stepped close enough to bear witness to the bribe Jordan might offer.
Scorsese has choked off some information about the scene in order to yield a surprise, one that corrects the impression we were building up. One of cinema’s great pleasures is catching up with a narration that has been designed to lead us astray. Hitchcock fans, take note.
Dimension 2: Plot as pattern
You can also think about the narrative as having a more abstract, geometrical structure: that’s given to us as the plot. Narration creates on-line, moment-by-moment pickup; as viewers we go with the flow. The plot is more architectural, a sort of static anatomy of the film as a whole. We can think of it in a couple of ways.
As a map of a particular film, the plot consists of the overall arrangement of incidents. It lays out the story actions in time. It can proceed chronologically, as plots do most of the time, or it can rearrange incidents out of linear order. The Wolf of Wall Street follows the Stratton Oakmont commercial with the Velcro-target scene, and then presents Jordan at the height of his powers. But after the quick exposition of his lifestyle, the plot flashes back to his first day on Wall Street in 1987.
Now the film presents a mostly chronological layout. Jordan gets his broker’s license, loses his job, picks up a low-end one, and then rises to the spot running his company. This trajectory is sometimes interrupted by quick flashbacks filling in background on a character or a situation; we even get flashbacks within flashbacks. The overall time scheme is hazy, since we’re never shown exactly what point in time is “now.” There’s the suggestion that the initial flashback is rounded off when Jordan’s cohorts meet to plan the Velcro-tossing stunt, but that opening scene isn’t replayed, so we can’t be sure exactly when the opening flashback ends. The flashback must be finished at some indeterminate time late in the film, when Jordan’s fortunes decline and Naomi is alienated from him. But the narration whisks us along without establishing the firm framing devices of traditional flashback plotting.
From this perspective, every film establishes its own plot structure, based on the overall “geometry” of its scenes and sequences. There’d be a lot to say about this in The Wolf, such as the introduction of Denham (and the brief alternating scenes of his investigation) and the various lines of action that fill out the plot: Jordan’s addictions, his plan for an IPO, his two marriages, the SEC inquiry, his Swiss money-laundering schemes, and the like. The craft of screenwriting consists in large part of developing and braiding lines of action in this way. Several entries on this site, as well as many chapters of Narration in the Fiction Film and Poetics of Cinema, analyze how such plot patterns work in tandem with the narration’s unfolding.
Caught in the act(s)
Another way to think about plot structure is to consider how the particular film obeys broader principles of construction. Tragedy, comedy, melodrama, mystery stories, and other genres have distinct, widely-known conventions of plot geometry. There are as well traditions of plotting that cross genres.
In modern commercial cinema, the most famous structural convention is the three-act pattern. Kristin has proposed that Hollywood feature filmmaking is better thought of as adhering to a multiple-part principle based on characters’ goals. The film might have two, three, four, or more parts, depending on its running time and the ways it shows character goals created, reformulated, blocked, delayed, and fulfilled (or not). We’ve tested Kristin’s proposal in books (Storytelling in the New Hollywood, The Way Hollywood Tells it) and on this site (here and here and here and here).
The essay considers the matter more theoretically, but just to illustrate, I’ll hazard a layout of The Wolf of Wall Street’s plot structure. It’s nothing but spoilers, so I’ve flagged it all in olive green if you want to skip it.
Since Wolf runs about 173 minutes without credits, I think it can be usefully laid out in five large-scale parts. These are framed by a brief prologue (the commercial and the Velcro-target scene) and an epilogue summing up Jordan’s court sentence, his stay in a country-club prison, and his new career as “the World’s Greatest Sales Trainer.”
The Setup shifts from Jordan’s life at the pinnacle to his beginnings in the business and his rise as an entrepreneur. In the course of this portion he meets Donnie and the two assemble their team of eccentric, grotesque staff. After establishing Stratton Oakmont, Jordan demonstrates his sales technique and the script his salespeople will follow. This section consumes the first thirty-five minutes of the film.
What Kristin calls the Complicating Action, which resets the protagonist’s goals, centers on Jordan’s plan for an IPO and his affair with Naomi. Around the hour mark, Jordan is divorced and free to pursue the IPO, but now Denham of the FBI is following the company and the SEC is getting curious.
The Development section, which typically expands and delays the fulfillment of the goals set earlier, shows Jordan marrying Naomi, the firm’s frenzied launch of the IPO, and Jordan’s botched effort to bribe Denham. By about 96 minutes into the film, the two antagonists, Jordan and Denham, have faced off in a preliminary conflict. What remains is to see how Jordan will evade capture.
I’m inclined to see the fourth part as a second Complicating Action, because Jordan recalibrates his goal. Stratton Oakmont is making so much money he needs to find an offshore place for it. He decides on Switzerland, and the bulk of this section of Wolf focuses on whether he’ll be successful. But the SEC is breathing down his neck, and he momentarily considers quitting his firm. During a pep talk to his staff, his resolve weakens (he’s sold by his own rhetoric), and he decides to fight the regulatory battle. This is a turning point: now both the SEC and the FBI are on his tail with renewed vigor.
This section, a bit longer than the others, runs about forty minutes. I attribute that mostly to a wedged-in scene that’s almost pure delay: Jordan’s and Donnie’s wild night on Quaaludes, which ends with Jordan crawling toward his car, smashing it up, and saving Donnie from choking. Nearly all of this has no effect on the plot’s forward movement; Donnie survives and Jordan isn’t charged for the road mishaps. The only plot causality here is the fact that a wacked-out Donnie makes an incriminating call on Jordan’s home phone, which is tapped. This bit of action could have been handled much more briefly, but the Quaalude gluttony is so inherently funny, and forms such a plausible topper to the ‘lude motif throughout the film, that it’s expanded to a remarkable twelve minutes. This sort of delay is usually seen in Development sections, but because Jordan resets his goals in this section I’m considering it a Complicating Action.
The Climax (25 minutes) arrives when Jordan, hiding in Italy with Donnie and their wives, learns that Aunt Emma, his front for the Swiss money-laundering, has died. He must race back to Zurich to shift the money to a new account, and in the process the yacht is wrecked in a storm. He’s arrested and agrees to rat on his friends. Naomi divorces him. He tries to protect Donnie but fails and is sent to jail. In the epilogue he’s shown bouncing back, playing to an audience of suckers who share his dream of getting very rich.
Winter’s screenplay, with its parallelled and intertwined lines of goal-driven action and its reiteration of one large-scale component, a second Complicating Action, shows how the classical pattern can be expanded to fill out a longer-than-average running time.
Dimension 3: The story and its world
There’s a tendency to think of the story action as existing virtually before it becomes a plot and is presented through narration. It’s as if the story was already there, waiting to be turned into a film. To some extent, this can happen with documentary narratives and adaptations of novels, plays, and comic books. Nonetheless, as viewers we access a movie’s world only through narration and plot structures. In fact, “access” isn’t quite right. As I’ve indicated, I think that we construct the story inferentially, on the basis of the cues given by those other dimensions.
If every viewer has to build up the story herself, shouldn’t we have widely different senses of what happens? To some extent we do. People might fill in certain gaps differently, or draw divergent conclusions about what made something happen. Certain films, not typically Hollywood ones, do encourage more open explorations of the story situations. Here plot construction and narration may follow other conventions, such as those I’ve tried to chart in Narration in the Fiction Film and elsewhere.
Mostly, though, even in “independent films,” there’s a great deal of convergence among viewers’ inference-making. Sooner or later, we arrive at a common understanding of most of what happened and why. As we leave the shared realms of perception and comprehension, of course, viewers’ construals can diverge a lot. Once we get to abstract interpretations—such as whether The Wolf of Wall Street celebrates or condemns the anything-for-a-buck culture—we should expect a lot of variations. (I try to explain why this happens elsewhere in the book, in the essay “Poetics of Cinema.”)
“Three Dimensions of Film Narrative” considers the story and its world broadly, in terms of cues for causation and characterization. It focuses particularly on characters and how we understand them. Again I argue for an inferential model. This means that, as in real life, we’re practicing “mind-reading”—trying to figure out characters’ traits and temperaments on the basis of their behavior, trying to grasp their motives and goals. We build them up as persons on the basis of cues, and we ascribe to them many of the qualities we expect persons in the real world to exhibit. Again, folk psychology provides the ground: the film is likely to streamline and simplify the complexities of real-world personhood.
As viewers we don’t understand a character in isolation. Characters interact, and the narration and plot structure prompt us to compare them, rank them, sort them in different ways. In The Wolf, Jordan is handsome, brazen, and suave; Donnie, a classic weak friend, is awkward and homely, but he has a primal energy that matches Jordan’s slick élan.
Jordan’s father and most of his elders are more prudent and cautious than his crew, who are uninhibited. The guys are a bevy of misfits, distinguished from one another by looks and one or two tricks of demeanor.
A narrative technique (also known more narrowly for literary fictional narratives as a literary technique, literary device, or fictional device) is any of several specific methods the creator of a narrative uses to convey what they want—in other words, a strategy used in the making of a narrative to relay information to the audience and, particularly, to "develop" the narrative, usually in order to make it more complete, complicated, or interesting. Literary techniques are distinguished from literary elements, which exist inherently in works of writing.
|Setting||The setting is both the time and geographic location within a narrative or within a work of fiction. A literary element, the setting initiates the main backdrop and mood of a story, often referred to as the story world.||The novel Ulysses by James Joyce is set in Dublin, Ireland, the action taking place on a single day, 16 June 1904. The action of the novel takes place from one side of Dublin Bay to the other, opening in Sandycove to the South of the city and closing on Howth Head to the North. While the novel parallels the story of Odysseus, the hero of Homer's epic poem Odyssey, whose role is carried by Leopold Bloom, much of the setting is described realistically, with great attention to detail. The locations within Dublin also represent locations in the Odyssey. Bloom’s home is at 7 Eccles Street, and at the same time, Ithaca, the home of Odysseus. The Post office, Westland Row and Sweny’s pharmacy in Lombard Street represent the Dublin location for Episode 5, Lotus Eaters; the National Library of Ireland parallels Episode 9, Scylla and Charybdis and so on.|
|Backstory||Story that precedes events in the story being told—past events or background that add meaning to current circumstances||Though The Lord of the Rings trilogy takes place in a relatively short period towards the end of the 3021-year Third Age, the narration gives glimpses of the mythological and historical events which took place earlier in the Third age leading up to the action in the novel, and in the First and Second Age.|
|Cliffhanger||The narrative ends unresolved, to draw the audience back to a future episode for the resolution.||Almost every episode of the TV shows like Dexter and Breaking Bad ends with one of the characters in a predicament (about to be caught by thugs, about to be exposed by the authority, or a family member or a friend finds out the main character's dirty secret).|
|Deus ex machina (a machination, or act of god; lit. “god out of the machine”)||Resolving the primary conflict by a means unrelated to the story (e.g., a god appears and solves everything). This device dates back to ancient Greek theater, but can be a clumsy method that frustrates the audience.||The phrase originates from Medea, an ancient Greek drama. An example occurs in Mighty Aphrodite and the Tamil movie Inga Enna Solluthu.|
|Eucatastrophe||Coined by J. R. R. Tolkien, a climactic event through which the protagonist appears to be facing a catastrophic change. However, this change does not materialize and the protagonist finds himself as the benefactor of such a climactic event; contrast peripety/peripateia.||At the end of The Lord of the Rings, Gollum forcibly takes away the Ring from Frodo, suggesting that Sauron would eventually take over Middle Earth. However, Gollum celebrates too eagerly and clumsily falls into the lava, whereby the ring is destroyed and with it Sauron's power. In a way, Gollum does what Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring intended to do through the whole plot of the trilogy, which was to throw the ring into the lake of fire in the heart of Mount Doom.|
|Flashback (or analeptic reference)||General term for altering time sequences, taking characters back to the beginning of the tale, for instance||The story of "The Three Apples" in Arabian Nights tale begins with the discovery of a young woman's dead body. After the murderer later reveals himself, he narrates his reasons for the murder as a flashback of events leading up to the discovery of her dead body at the beginning of the story.|
|Flashforward||Also called prolepsis, a scene that temporarily jumps the narrative forward in time. Flashforwards often represent events expected, projected, or imagined to occur in the future. They may also reveal significant parts of the story that have not yet occurred, but soon will in greater detail.||Occurs in A Christmas Carol when Mr. Scrooge visits the ghost of the future. It is also frequent in the later seasons of the television series Lost.|
|Foreshadowing||Implicit yet intentional efforts of an author to suggest events which have yet to take place in the process of narration. See also repetitive designation and Chekhov's gun||A narration might begin with a male character who has to break up a schoolyard fight among some boys who are vying for the attention of a girl, which was introduced to foreshadow the events leading to a dinner time squabble between the character and his twin brother over a woman, whom both are courting at the same time.|
|Frame story, or a story within a story||A main story that organizes a series of shorter stories.||Early examples include Panchatantra, Arabian Nights, and The Decameron. A more modern example is Brian Jacques' The Legend of Luke.|
|Framing device||A single action, scene, event, setting, or any element of significance at the beginning and end of a work. The use of framing devices allows frame stories to exist.||In Arabian Nights, Scheherazade, the newly wed wife to the King, is the framing device. As a character, she is telling the "1,001 stories" to the King, in order to delay her execution night by night. However, as a framing device her purpose for existing is to tell the same 1,001 stories to the reader.|
|MacGuffin||A plot device coined by Alfred Hitchcock referring to some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so important.||In Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps the MacGuffin is a mysterious set of “military secrets.” No one knows what they are, and in the end they mean almost nothing. For all its power, mystery, and danger, The One Ring in Lord of the Rings is a MacGuffin that saves the world. The stuff that dreams are made of. The Maltese Falcon is a powerful MacGuffin in the film of the same name, a supposedly jewel encrusted black bird which creates the greed which propels every character, even the hero.|
|In medias res||Beginning the story in the middle of a sequence of events. A specific form of narrative hook.||The Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer are prime examples. The latter work begins with the return of Odysseus to his home of Ithaka and then in flashbacks tells of his ten years of wandering following the Trojan War.|
|Narrative hook||Story opening that "hooks" readers' attention so they will keep reading||Any non-fiction book is often introduced with an interesting factoid.|
|Ochi||A sudden interruption of the wordplay flow indicating the end of a rakugo or a kobanashi.||A Rakugo is a Japanese verbal entertainment usually lasting 30 minutes which ends with a surprise punch line, a narrative stunt known as ochi (fall) or sage(lowering). Twelve kinds of ochi are codified and recognized. The earlier kobanashi was a short comical vignette ending with an ochi.|
|Plot twist||Unexpected change ("twist") in the direction or expected outcome of the plot. See also twist ending.||An early example is the Arabian Nights tale "The Three Apples". A locked chest found by a fisherman contains a dead body, and two different men claim to be the murderer, which turns out to be the investigator's own slave.|
|Poetic justice||Virtue ultimately rewarded, or vice punished, by an ironic twist of fate related to the character's own conduct||Wile E. Coyote coming up with a contraption to catch the Road Runner, only to be foiled and caught by his own devices. Each sin's punishment in Dante's Inferno is a symbolic instance of poetic justice.|
|Predestination paradox||Time travel paradox where a time traveler is caught in a loop of events that "predestines" them to travel back in time||In Doctor Who, the main character repeatedly finds himself under the obligation of having to travel back in time because of something his future character has done.|
|Quibble||Plot device based on an argument that an agreement's intended meaning holds no legal value, and that only the exact, literal words agreed on apply.||For example, William Shakespeare used a quibble in The Merchant of Venice: Portia saves Antonio in a court of law by pointing out that the agreement called for a pound of flesh, but no blood, so Shylock can collect only if he sheds no blood.|
|Red herring||Diverting attention away from an item of significance.||For example, in mystery fiction, an innocent party may be purposefully cast as highly suspicious through emphasis or descriptive techniques to divert attention from the true guilty party.|
|Self-fulfilling prophecy||Prediction that, by being made, makes itself come true.||Early examples include the legend of Oedipus, and the story of Krishna in the Mahabharata. There is also an example of this in Harry Potter when Lord Voldemort heard a prophecy (made by Sybill Trelawney to Dumbledore) that a boy born at the end of July, whose parents had defied Voldemort thrice and survived, would be made marked as his equal. Because of this prophecy, Lord Voldemort sought out Harry Potter (believing him to be the boy spoken of) and tried to kill him. His parents died protecting him, and when Voldemort tried to cast a killing curse on Harry, it rebounded and took away most of his strength, and gave Harry Potter a unique ability and connection with the Dark Lord thus marking him as his equal.|
|Story within a story (Hypodiegesis)||A story told within another story. See also frame story.||In Stephen King's The Wind Through the Keyhole, of the Dark Tower series, the protagonist tells a story from his past to his companions, and in this story he tells another relatively unrelated story.|
|Ticking clock scenario||Threat of impending disaster—often used in thrillers where salvation and escape are essential elements||In the TV show "24", the main character, Jack Bauer often finds himself interrogating a terrorist who is caught in order to disarm a bomb.|
|Chekhov's gun||A dramatic principle that requires every element in a narrative to be irreplaceable, with anything else removed.||"Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." — Anton Chekhov|
|Unreliable narrator||The narrator of the story is not sincere, or introduces a bias in their narration and possibly misleads the reader, hiding or minimizing events, characters, or motivations.||An example is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The novel includes an unexpected plot twist at the end of the novel. In the last chapter, Sheppard describes how he was an unreliable narrator.|
|Audience surrogate||A character who expresses the questions and confusion of the audience, with whom the audience can identify. Frequently used in detective fiction and science fiction, where the character asks a central character how he or she accomplished certain deeds, for the purpose of inciting that character to explain (for the curious audience) his or her methods, or a character asking a relatively educated person to explain what amounts to the backstory.||Dr Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Scott Evil, played by Seth Green, son of Dr. Evil on the Austin Powers movies.|
|Author surrogate||Characters which are based on authors, usually to support their personal views. Sometimes an intentionally or unintentionally idealized version of them. A variation is the Mary Sue or Gary Stu, which primarily serves as an idealized self-insertion.||Socrates in the writings of Plato. Plato never speaks in his own voice in his dialogues. In the Second Letter, it says, "no writing of Plato exists or ever will exist, but those now said to be his are those of a Socrates become beautiful and new”.|
|Breaking the fourth wall||An author or character addresses the audience directly (also known as direct address). This may acknowledge to the reader or audience that what is being presented is fiction, or may seek to extend the world of the story to provide the illusion that they are included in it.||The characters in Sesame Street often break the fourth wall when they address their viewers as part of the ongoing storyline, which is possible because of the high level of suspension of belief afforded by its audience—children. The American political drama show House of Cards also uses this technique frequently to let the viewers know what the main character Frank Underwood is thinking and planning.|
|Defamiliarization||Taking an everyday object and presenting it in a way that is weirdly unfamiliar so that we see the object in a new way. Coined by the early 20th-century Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky in "Art as Technique."||In, Swift’s Gulliver's Travels when Gulliver visits the land of the giants and sees a giant woman’s skin he sees it is anything but smooth and beautiful when viewed up close.|
|First-person narration||A text presented from the point of view of a character, especially the protagonist, as if the character is telling the story themselves. (Breaking the fourth wall is an option, but not a necessity, of this format.)||Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn uses the title character as the narrator, while Sherlock Holmes is primarily told from Watson's perspective.|
|Magical realism||Describing events in a real-world setting but with magical trappings, often incorporating local customs and invented beliefs. Different from urban fantasy in that the magic itself is not the focus of the story.||Particularly popular with Latin American authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges. Elsewhere, Salman Rushdie's work provides good examples.|
|Multiperspectivity||A narrative that is told from the viewpoints of multiple characters that incorporate various perspectives, emotions, and views from witnesses or actors to varying particular events or circumstances that might not be felt by other characters in the story.||The films of Robert Altman. 2666 by Roberto Bolano features European literary critics, a Chilean philosophy professor, an African-American journalist, detectives investigating Santa Teresa murders and an obscure German writer named Benno Von Archimboldi. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov features literature professor John Shade, Charles Kinbote, a neighbor and colleague of Shade’s and Charles the Beloved, king of Zembla. Kinbote is the ultimate unreliable commentator.|
|Second-person narration||A text written in the style of a direct address, in the second-person.||Rape: A Love Story.|
|Stream of consciousness||The author uses narrative and stylistic devices to create the sense of an unedited interior monologue, characterized by leaps in syntax and punctuation that trace a character's fragmentary thoughts and sensory feelings. The outcome is a highly lucid perspective with a plot. Not to be confused with free writing.||An example is Ulysses. At one point Leopold Bloom saunters through Dublin musing on “Pineapple rock, lemon platt, butter scotch. A sugar-sticky girl shovelling scoopful of creams for a Christian brother. Some school treat. Bad for their tummies.”|
|Third-person narration||A text written as if by an impersonal narrator who is not affected by the events in the story. Can be omniscient or limited, the latter usually being tied to a specific character, a group of characters, or a location.||A Song of Ice and Fire is written in multiple limited third-person narrators that change with each chapter. The Master and Margarita uses an omniscient narrator.|
See also: Figure of speech
|Allegory||A symbolic fiction story.||C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a religious allegory with Aslan as Christ and Edmund as Judas.|
|Alliteration||Repeating the same letter or consonant sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words.||In the film V for Vendetta the main character performs a couple of soliloquies with a heavy use of alliteration, e.g., "Voilà! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished, as the once vital voice of the verisimilitude now venerates what they once vilified. However, this valorous visitation of a bygone vexation stands vivified, and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition. The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous. Verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose vis-à-vis an introduction, and so it is my very good honor to meet you and you may call me V."|
|Amplification (rhetoric)||Amplification refers to a literary practice wherein the writer embellishes the sentence by adding more information to it in order to increase its worth and understanding.||E.g., Original sentence: The thesis paper was difficult. After amplification: The thesis paper was difficult: it required extensive research, data collection, sample surveys, interviews and a lot of fieldwork.|
|Anagram||Rearranging the letters of a word or a phrase to form a new phrase or word.||E.g., An anagram for "debit card" is "bad credit". As you can see, both phrases use the same letters. By mixing the letters a bit of humor is created.|
|Asyndeton||When sentences do not use conjunctions (e.g., and, or, nor) to separate clauses, but run clauses into one another, usually marking the separation of clauses with punctuation.||An example is when John F. Kennedy said on January 20, 1961 "...that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty."|
|Bathos||An abrupt transition in style from the exalted to the commonplace, producing a ludicrous effect. While often unintended, bathos may be used deliberately to produce a humorous effect.||: The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant. |
|Caesura||A break, especially a sense pause, usually near the middle of a verse, and marked in scansion by a double vertical line. This technique frequently occurs within a poetic line grammatically connected to the end of the previous line by enjambment.||E.g., in "Know then thyself. ‖ Presume not God to scan."|
|Distancing effect||Deliberately preventing the audience from identifying with characters in order to let them be coolly scrutinized.||Popularized by 20th century playwright Bertolt Brecht.|
|Dramatic visualization||Representing an object or character with abundant descriptive detail, or mimetically rendering gestures and dialogue to make a scene more visual or imaginatively present to an audience.||This technique appears at least as far back as the Arabian Nights.|
|Euphuism||An artificial, highly elaborate way of writing or speaking. Named from Euphues (1579) the prose romance by John Lyly.||"Is it not far better to abhor sins by the remembrance of others' faults, than by repentance of thine own follies?" (Euphues, 1, lecture by the wise Neapolitan)|
|Hyperbole||Exaggeration used to evoke strong feelings or create an impression which is not meant to be taken literally.||Sally could no longer hide her secret. Her pregnant belly was bigger than the planet on which she stood.|
|Imagery||Forming mental images of a scene using descriptive words, especially making use of the human senses. The same as sensory detail.||When the boots came off his feet with a leathery squeak, a smell of ferment and fish market immediately filled the small tent. The skin of his toes were red and raw and sensitive. The malodorous air was so toxic he thought he could almost taste his toes.|
|Leitwortstil||Purposefully repeating words that usually express a motif or theme important to the story.||This dates back at least to the Arabian Nights.|
|Metonymy||Word or phrase in a figure of speech in which a noun is referenced by something closely associated with it, rather than explicitly by the noun itself. This is not to be confused with synecdoche, in which a part of the whole stands for the thing itself.||Metonomy: The boxer threw in the towel. Synecdoche: She gave her hand in marriage.|
|Overstatement||Exaggerating something, often for emphasis (also known as hyperbole)||Sally's pregnant belly most likely weighed as much as the scooter she used to ride before she got pregnant.|
|Onomatopoeia||Word that sounds the same as, or similar to what the word means.||"Boom goes the dynamite."|
|Oxymoron||A term made of two words that deliberately or coincidentally imply each other's opposite.||"terrible beauty"|
|Paradox||A phrase that describes an idea composed of concepts that conflict.||"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." (A Tale of Two Cities)|
|Parody||Ridicule by overstated imitation, usually humorous.||MAD Magazine|
|Pastiche||Using forms and styles from another author, generally as an affectionate tribute.||Such as the many stories featuring Sherlock Holmes not written by Arthur Conan Doyle, or much of the Cthulhu Mythos.|
|Pathos||Emotional appeal, one of the three modes of persuasion in rhetoric that the author uses to inspire pity or sorrow towards a character—typically does not counterbalance the target character's suffering with a positive outcome, as in Tragedy.||In Romeo and Juliet, the two main characters each commit suicide at the sight of the supposedly dead lover, however the audience knows these actions to be rash and unnecessary. Therefore, Shakespeare makes for the emotional appeal for the unnecessary tragedy behind the young characters' rash interpretations about love and life.|
|Polyptoton||Words derived from the same root in a sentence.||"Not as a call to battle, though embattled we are." John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961.|
|Polysyndeton||Polysyndeton is the use of several conjunctions in close succession, this provides a sense of exaggeration designed to wear down the audience.||An example of this is in the first chapter of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens: "A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin"|
|Satire||The use of humor, irony or exaggeration to criticize.||An example is Network. One of the earliest examples is Gullivers Travels, written by Jonathan Swift. The television program South Park is another.|
|Sensory detail||sight, sound, taste, touch, smell. The same as imagery||The boot was tough and sinewy between his hard-biting teeth. There was no flavor to speak of except for the blandness of all the dirt that the boot had soaked up over the years. The only thing the boot reminded him of was the smell of a wet-dog.|
|Understatement||A diminishing or softening of a theme or effect.||The broken ends of the long bone were sticking through the bleeding skin, but it wasn't something that always killed a man.|
|Irony||This discrepancy between expectation and reality occurs in three forms: situational irony, where a situation features a discrepancy between what is expected and what is actualized; dramatic irony, where a character is unaware of pivotal information already revealed to the audience (the discrepancy here lies in the two levels of awareness between the character and the audience); and verbal irony, where one states one thing while meaning another. The difference between verbal irony and sarcasm is exquisitely subtle and often contested. The concept of irony is too often misunderstood in popular usage. Unfortunate circumstances and coincidences do not constitute irony (nor do they qualify as being tragic). See the Usage controversy section under irony, and the term tragedy.||A person hears a prophecy about himself. His endeavor to stop the prophecy from coming true, makes it come true.|
|Metaphor||Evoking imagination by means of using figurative language.||Her tears were a river flowing down her cheeks.|
|Thematic patterning||Distributing recurrent thematic concepts and moralistic motifs among various incidents and frames of a story. In a skillfully crafted tale, thematic patterning may emphasize the unifying argument or salient idea disparate events and disparate frames have in common.||Each of the chapters of Ulysses by James Joyce.|
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- ^High School Analogies
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- ^Heath, Peter (May 1994), "Reviewed work(s): Story-Telling Techniques in the Arabian Nights by David Pinault", International Journal of Middle East Studies, Cambridge University Press, 26 (2): 358–360, doi:10.1017/s0020743800060633
- ^Heath (1994) p. 360
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