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Mediaknowall Narrative Essay


At GCSE you learned that genre is a way of categorising a text through style and form. It is vital to be able to categorise texts in this way - both for production and analysis. Most students associate genre with film, and indeed this is where categories can be most easily identified. There are a particular set of theories associated with film genre and you can read more about them here.

A text is classified in a genre through the identification of key elements which occur in that text and in others of the same genre. These elements may be referred to as paradigms, and range from costume to music to plot points to font (depending on the medium). Audiences recognise these paradigms, and bring a set of expectations to their reading of the text accordingly: the criminal will be brought to justice at the end of the police thriller. These paradigms may be grouped into those relating to iconography (ie the main signs and symbols that you see/hear), structure (the way a text is put together and the shape it takes) and theme (the issues and ideas it deals with).

Genre is important for both the readers and creators of texts (ie the audience and the producers).

  • select texts on basis of genre, often because texts are arranged at retail outlets by genre (just pop along to HMV). Also, certain genres are considered appropriate to certain ages/genders in society, and choices are made accordingly eg teen movie, 'chick flicks'
  • have systems of expectations about the content and style of a text, according to its genre. This enables them to take particular pleasures in the text, those of repetition, and of predicted resolution. Pleasure may also be drawn from differences.
  • identify with repeated elements in generic texts and may shape their own identity in response (eg fans of a particular genre of music dress in a specific way - metalheads in their band t-shirts, for instance)
  • market texts according to genre because a niche audience has already been identified as taking pleasure in that type of text
  • standardise production practices according to genre conventions, thus cutting costs
  • subscribe to established conventions of versimilitude, thus reinforcing genre conventions, but also allowing creativity within a given format eg) it is an accepted convention in science fiction that spaceships make noises, which helps create excitement in battle scenes, but it is a scientific fact that no sound travels through the vacuum that is space.

Classification by genre is seen as both positive and negative by audiences, producers and theorists. On the one hand, rigorous conformity to established conventions while giving the audience what they want, can actually lead to stagnation and the eventual ossification of a genre as a "they're all the same" judgement is passed. This is what happened to the traditional Hollywood Western and Musical - once many profitable examples of these genres were pumped out by the studio each year, but the formats became stale through over-repetition and audiences lost interest. It is now only when a new Western or Musical that challenges the conventions and defies expectation (Brokeback Mountain or Moulin Rouge) comes along that non-niche audiences are willing to watch.

On the other hand, the genre of reality television has defied criticism that it is stale, contrived and predictable, and is now the basis of programming for entire networks. Although all possible variations of the same structure (contestants compete for a prize/live in the same house/go about a heightened version of their daily lives), iconography (surface realism and non-actors) and theme (aren't these people making idiots of themselves?) seem to have been run through in the space of a decade, it's still popular with audiences, who seem to enjoy the familiarity of the patterns presented onscreen.

Genre can provide structure and form which can allow a great deal of creativity and virtuosity, especially when a genuine reworking of generic conventions comes along (the Coen Brothers' reimagining of the Western in No Country For Old Men). Genre provides key elements for an audience to recognise, so that they may further appreciate the variation and originality surrounding the representation of those elements. When Scream was released in 1996, writer Kevin Williamson was praised for his fresh, ironic take on the conventional teenage slasher movie. He took the conventions (band of promiscuous teenagers picked off one by one by killer unknown) and turned them around, with the characters' self-awareness of their own predictability ("Oh, please don't kill me, Mr. Ghostface, I wanna be in the sequel!") used as a prime point of pleasure for the audience. However, by the time Scary Movie 4 was released in 2004, it was seen as "formulaic and predictable". Thus we can see that most genre paradigms form part of a fluid system - they are constantly changing and adapting according to audience tastes, individual entries into the genre and societal influences.

See also on this site: Film Genre

Further Reading

Studying The Media - Tim O'Sullivan, Brian Dutton & Philip Rayner (2nd Ed) pp61-7
The Media Student's Book - Gill Branston & Roy Stafford (2nd Ed) Ch 8 Genres pp105-117

Suggested Short Essay (500 words)

Which genre does --------- (title of film of your choice) belong to? Explain why

Things to consider

Use of Theory - how have you used the reading you have done to inform your thinking - have you incorporated concepts such as repetition and difference, systems of expectation, conventions, standardised practice, paradigms, intertextuality?

Vocabulary- Is your language appropriate? It should be formal, objective in tone, and not contain any slang. You should also be using as much specialist terminology as you can at this stage; use your glossary to help you.

Evidence - you need to prove that each one of your assertions is true by quoting evidence from your chosen text. You want to give as examples; short extracts of dialogue, individual events or actions, brief description of a particular shot, the way music is used to highlight a key moment, the artistic design of the mise en scene in one scene, a character's costume, the way a character uses props, etc etc. You may want to explain why these examples are typical of the genre by comparing them to another film.

Length - A 500 word limit requires that you be brief and to the point. Descriptions should be as precise as possibe, which means using the correct terminology and not rambling. You are not attempting to re-tell the story of the film, so narrative details should be kept to an absolute minimum.

Structure - You should be used to working with the Introduction-Main Body-Conclusion form of essay writing by now. In an essay this length, your introduction and conclusion will be very short.

Presentation - Essays should be presented as word-processed, in a 12 point font, and printed on one side of A4 paper. Please leave a double line space between paragraphs and margins of at least one inch on each side - we have to have room to write praise and criticism!


Film Language —An Introduction

“Unlike all the other art forms, film is able to seize and render the passage of time, to stop it, almost to possess it in infinity. I’d say that film is the sculpting of time.” — Andrei Tarkovsky

“The art of film can only really exist through a highly organized betrayal of reality.” — François Truffaut

“Films are subjective — what you like, what you don’t like. But the thing for me that is absolutely unifying is the idea that every time I go to the cinema and pay my money and sit down and watch a film go up on-screen, I want to feel that the people who made that film think it’s the best movie in the world, that they poured everything into it and they really love it. Whether or not I agree with what they’ve done, I want that effort there — I want that sincerity. And when you don’t feel it, that’s the only time I feel like I’m wasting my time at the movies.” — Christopher Nolan

“My distinguishing talent is the ability to put people under the microscope, perhaps to go one or two layers farther down than some other directors.” — David Lean

“I’m just a storyteller, and the cinema happens to be my medium. I like it because it re-creates life in movement, enlarges it, enhances it, distills it. For me, it’s far closer to the miraculous creation of life than, say, a painting or music or even literature. It’s not just an art form; it’s actually a new form of life, with its own rhythms, cadences, perspectives and transparencies. It’s my way of telling a story.” — Federico Fellini

“You make films to give people something, to transport them somewhere else, and it doesn’t matter if you transport them to a world of intuition or a world of intellect... The realm of superstitions, fortune-telling, presentiments, intuition, dreams, all this is the inner life of a human being, and all this is the hardest thing to film... I’ve been trying to get there from the beginning. I’m somebody who doesn’t know, somebody who’s searching.” — Krzysztof Kieslowski

Anyone can write about what they see on a TV or movie screen. The media studies student who is after good grades in their essays will, however, be using the correct terminology to pinpoint EXACTLY what the film-makers are doing, and addressing the big issues of film theory such as how this medium engages with the representation of reality.

Film is a language all its own, a way of communicating using images which is understood around the globe, perhaps even around the galaxy — how else would we try to communicate with aliens, except by using pictures? However, like any other language it has rules and conventions which can be deconstructed, and, through deconstruction, understood. But in order to deconstruct, you have to be able to give all the pieces a name.

What we see on the screen is the diegesis (the narrative world of the film) and it can be divided up into two areas:

Mise-en-scène The things in the scene - these are literally the things put in the picture for you to look at. All or some may be significant, but nothing is accidental - remember, this is not reality, it is a re-presentation of it. This will include actors (think about the use of stars), set (think about the input of the designer, especially the use of colour), costume, lighting. You should consider how the mise-en-scène reflect the production values of the movie. Location is an important aspect of mise-en-scène: why was that particular location chosen, and what advantages/restrictions would you associate with filming there?
Mise-en-shot The process of translating mise-en-scène into moving pictures, into shots, and the relationship between the two. The main parameters are
  • camera position
  • camera movement
  • shot scale (LS/MS/CU etc)
  • duration of the single shot
  • the pace of editing
  • depth of focus

When describing movement, we consider primary action, ie the movement of characters/objects within the frame and secondary action, ie the movement of the camera in relation to those objects.


There is an old adage that films are edited, not made. Much important work is done in the edit suite. While a good editor may not always be able to salvage a bad film, a bad editor can certainly ruin what might otherwise

  • continuity - continuous action shown in sequence
  • montage - a series of seemingly unrelated shots that the audience must work to connect.

Hollywood movies tend to go for continuity editing, a style also known as transparency (ie you don't notice it). Actions flow smoothly from one frame to another, and the audience simply follow the dialogue. Oppositional to this, and the style employed by many art-house films is framed editing, where the audience are continually reminded that they are viewing an artificially created text. Jump cuts, sudden stoppages of sound,

When shots are placed next to each other in a sequence the link between them is known as a transition. The simplest of these is a cut, ie a straight splice from one section of film to another. There are many others - fades, dissolves, wipes, plus those offered by sophisticated digital software.


When analysing film you also need to consider SOUND. It is a vital part of the information used for decoding film - whether it comes in the form of a lush string soundtrack or footsteps echoing O/S down a corridor.

  • This may be diegetic (coming from inside the narrative world of the film eg characters' voices) or non-diegetic (coming from another source - eg a voice-over or pumping music soundtrack).
  • It can be further divided into dialogue (human voices), synchronous (matching actions seen on the images) or asynchronous (from unseen sources) sound effects, and music.

Read an excellent Introduction to Film Sound here.

Developing Visual Literacy

As well as being one of the world's leading film directors, Martin Scorsese is a passionate student of film, a fount of knowledge about the history of the medium, and an enthusiastic advocate of valuing verbal and visual literacy equally. He believes firmly in the power of cinema as an art form, something beyond the scope of regular human endeavour, and thinks it should be studied and appreciated as such. The more movies you watch (especially foreign, independent and old movies), the more of a sense you develop of the history and development of the medium, the greater your understanding.

“Whenever I hear people dismiss movies as “fantasy” and make a hard distinction between film and life, I think to myself that it’s just a way of avoiding the power of cinema. Of course it’s not life—it’s the invocation of life, it’s in an ongoing dialogue with life.

Frank Capra said, “Film is a disease.” I caught the disease early on. I felt it whenever I walked up to the ticket booth with my mother or my father or my brother. You’d go through the doors, up the thick carpet, past the popcorn stand that had that wonderful smell—then to the ticket taker, and then in some of the old theaters there would be another set of doors with little windows and you’d get a glimpse of something magical happening up there on the screen, something special. And as we entered, for me it was like entering a sacred space, a kind of sanctuary where the living world around me seemed to be recreated and played out.”

He suspects young audiences have been caught up by the doctrine of box office success, only interested in the biggest, the most expensive, the most profitable global movies — and that does a great disservice to the art of cinema, and the power it has over human imagination.

“We’re face to face with images all the time in a way that we never have been before. And that’s why I believe we need to stress visual literacy in our schools. Young people need to understand that not all images are there to be consumed like fast food and then forgotten — we need to educate them to understand the difference between moving images that engage their humanity and their intelligence, and moving images that are just selling them something.”

If you're really serious about film, and want to go beyond 'fast food cinema', reading Scorsese's essay in full is a good place to start:

Further Reading

This is just a very basic introduction. For more on film theory, try:


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