Movies and Television as Literature: Story Elements

 Becoming an active television and movie viewer is important

Why I've altered my point of view about the value of film and television viewing, and why I think you should too.

Using an understanding of plot, characterization, setting, conflicts, and theme, we can move ourselves and our children from vegetative passivity to active and discerning viewers. 

I admit it. For a long time I was a book snob. I think there is a picture of me in my high school yearbook with the caption "The book was better." I've long thought of books as sacred – the evidence of my devotion to the printed word is the size of my home library.  

I thought, and was also taught, that movies and television were a media form suspect if not downright evil. In any case, it was trite, shallow, and too far removed from reality, and books are by nature vastly superior to anything on the small or large screen.

When the kids were much younger, we'd watch TV and movies with them, trying to find shows with positive messages and age-appropriate content. We have always been a chatty family, so we began discussing the characters and events we found compelling, touching, humorous, or frustrating. 

I not only love to read stories but write them as well, so I began to look at shows with more of a writer's eye. I could see some shows were well written, acted, edited, and produced by talented storytellers. Understanding the impact stories have on our lives, I realized the value of teaching my kids to treat movies/TV as literature by applying the same critical thinking skills to TV as we did to books.

It's true we have a tendency to watch television in a mentally passive state. We sit down at the end of the day, and we are weary in our bodies and minds. TV serves as a distraction, an escape. We don't engage our imagination, think critically about plot progression and characterization, or try to mentally picture the setting – it's being shown to us, complete with special effects, sound effects, and a musical score. 

But our new habit of looking at media more critically yielded some very positive results. My kids weren't as affected by what they saw because they were looking at it with a more objective eye. I needed to do less and less filtering because they weren't interested in shallow story lines, implausible characterization, and insipid dialogue. We could explore sensitive and controversial issues through the lens of different characters, situations, and worlds. 

Because of our positive experiences, I now encourage families to break their mindless viewing habits. By learning about the craft of storytelling, you can teach yourself and your child to be active viewers.

In order to be successful, movies and television must tell us satisfying and engaging stories. And most stories have the same basic elements. 

We tend to be too simplistic when we think of story elements, defining stories in terms of plot points; what happened first, what happened next, and how it ended. But plot is much more complex than three acts with a few commercial breaks. Plot is the path of the story, and it must remain in motion, whether it flows at a leisurely pace or races to the climax. 

Essential elements of a plot are: 

  1. The First Act, which introduces characters and settings.

  2. The Inciting Event is when an event or antagonist forces the main character, or protagonist, to react in a way that sets the rest of the story in motion.

  3. Rising Action shows us the protagonist continuing to react to the main conflict, being forced into more decisive action against whomever or whatever is acting as the antagonistic force. Quite often there is a point where the protagonist appears to be completely defeated.

  4. In the Climax the main character gathers all his courage and resources for a final fight against the antagonistic force, and reaches a critical moment of decision.

  5. Loose ends of the plot are tied up in the Falling Action as characters react to the Climax.

  6. The Resolution is not necessarily the end of the story, and it can be a happy or painful conclusion, but it shows us how our characters have changed and often gives us indications of where their lives will go from that point.

More about story elements:

Characterization is how the characters develop and change over the course of the story because of the antagonistic force. It is often the reason why we follow a story from plot point to plot point in anticipation of how the characters are going to react to events and to each other. Action and dialogue are key components  moving the story forward and revealing character progression. To put a finer point on it, we follow stories when we care what happens to the characters, and characterization determines whether or not we are emotionally affected by what the character does and what happens to them. 

Setting is also an essential element, whether it is a time, a place, a culture, or a planet. Setting can serve as a backdrop, such as in many westerns, in science fiction and fantasy, or in historical dramas. Setting can also be the antagonistic force in a Man vs. Nature story where the main character is trying to conquer a snow-covered mountain or survive a storm at sea. 

The Conflict hinges on what the protagonist wants, what is keeping him from it, or who is trying to take it away. The main character will have long term overarching goals, as well as short term goals which define each scene.  

Examples of conflict are: 

  • Man vs. Man, which is most often seen as Good Guy against Bad Guy.

  • Man vs. Nature (or Environment), which can be anything from a natural disaster to a pandemic to a dangerous animal.

  • Man vs Himself is when the hero is pitted against some aspect of his own character, such as cowardice, greed, prejudice, or addiction. He can also struggle against what he sees as his destiny.

  • Man vs Society pits the main character against the institutions, culture, religion, or traditions of his society. This is obvious in dystopian fiction where the hero fights against a corrupt government, or a 'fish out of water' story with the protagonist suddenly being immersed in a setting foreign to him.

  • Man vs. Technology usually plays on our concerns about how our own inventions can run amuck.

  • Man vs the Supernatural is evident in any story where the antagonistic force is unnatural or inexplicable, so it is considered 'supernatural'. This, of course, includes the paranormal.

And then there's Theme:

Theme is the most important story element because this is where we discern what the writer is trying to say, and it's what we take away from the story. It sounds intimidating, like some sort of psychological mumbo-jumbo, but it's fairly simple. Themes are derived from the actions and reactions of the characters and settings, regardless of genre.  

Police procedurals are a genre defined by certain elements, and whether it's DragnetNYPD Blue, or Criminal Minds, the story will have law enforcement as the protagonist, a crime as the main conflict, a criminal (or criminals) as the antagonist, and the procedural part is where we see the technical aspects of how crimes are solved.

However, just because it is a police procedural doesn't mean it will be simple cops-and-robbers. Themes of courage, morality, and ethics may be derived from an episode where one officer turns in his partner for breaking the law. It raises questions about what it means to be loyal, and the boundaries of friendship. That's theme.

In Jurassic Park, a Man Vs. Technology story, one of the themes is elegantly summed up by Ian Malcolm, who says: 

". . .scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should."

In this techno-thriller, man's brilliance and imagination are eclipsed by his arrogance, and as a result, people are being chased and eaten by dinosaurs. Good stuff. 

Dystopian fiction shows us a world controlled by corrupted power, and how one or more people refuse to give in and choose to fight the status quo against overwhelming odds. Fahrenheit 451The Giver, and 1984 are classic dystopian novels. Modern versions of this theme are The Hunger Games and Divergent. These stories invite us to ask "Could this really happen?" and "What would I do in that situation?". It's notable that all of these books have been adapted for the big screen with a fair amount of success. 

Themes carry messages to us about how the world really is, but also how it should be.

We are also fascinated by post apocalyptic tales; a zombie virus decimates mankind in The Walking Dead, global destruction because of climate change occurs in The Day After Tomorrow, and threats from space by aliens or asteroids brought us Deep Impact and Independence Day. Characters must survive in these Worst Case Scenarios by being brave, resourceful, and sometimes ruthless; their desire to live and protect the ones they love battling against their fear of failure, or of losing their humanity.  These stories often resonate with themes of sacrifice and redemption.

Am I making my case here? We need to stop thinking of television as mindless entertainment, because of all the things it is, it isn't mindless. We can use this understanding of plot, characterization, setting, conflicts, and theme to move from passively 'vegetating' in front of a screen to instructive and lively discussions with our kids about what they are watching.   

Think back to how television and movies influenced you. Some of our earliest lessons about life were learned because we immersed ourselves in a story. We felt sorrow as someone grieved over the death of the loved one, cheered as they overcame a disability, or experienced dread over the consequences of self destructive behaviors. Many of our fears rooted in things we saw as children. We identified with our favorite character's struggles, and rooted for the underdog - or maybe even Underdog himself.  

We've been deeply affected by movies and television, and we can be certain our children will be as well. So whether you love, hate, or are ambivalent about movies and television, they are an ingrained part of our culture, and our children need tools to discern the meaning, importance, and implications of what they see. An understanding of story elements and spending time discussing them with our kids is key to making the transition to an intelligent, discriminating viewer.