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Understanding Narrative Story Structure of a Film Noir

Understanding film noir is something that many aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers dive deep into when they are just starting out. Noir narratives are some of the most complex of any narrative structure to be studied. But this doesn’t mean that these complex storylines cannot be simplified. Into an easy-to-understand, equally easy to follow roadmap. The narrative structure, or narrative story structure of a film noir is typically a non-linear, incredibly complex, story that is best told by a male narrator.

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Let’s take a look at how the narrative story structure of a film noir breaks down. And what to expect from this complex narrative as it’s told by the male narrator.

Film Noir Storyline

What is a film noir? The story typically consists of a man that faces a tarnished or otherwise imperfect past meets a beautiful woman (femme fatale). This man is going to be strongly attracted to the woman, to the point of fatal attraction.

As a result either of their relationship or her direct manipulation. He’s going to end up cheating, and killing or attempting to kill a second man in the story. 

One with which the mysterious woman is either married, in love with or otherwise connected to but unhappy with. The actions will result in destruction. Either of just the men, just one of the men, or the entire group. It’s a film noir.

Narrative Story Structure of a Film Noir

Narrative story structure of a film noir can vary slightly although the most certain path for this type of story to take is almost always a non-linear approach in which the story is delivered in a fragmented manner. The plot is not chronological, it couldn’t possibly be that simple!

Instead, the narrative twists and turns, in a maze-like fashion. Such that the entire group faces flashbacks and reflective memories or confessionals. In which, had they only known the whole picture ahead of time. Perhaps things would have played out differently?

It Can Be Complicated!

Film noir narratives are almost always some of the most complex stories that you’ll hear. You may find that when it all comes together.

You have an “ah ha” moment. In which you recall some of the other flashbacks or tidbits of information that were provided throughout the story just finally make sense. 

In order to allow for the flashbacks or other complex witty events to take place throughout the narrative. The narrative story structure of a film noir would typically include a protagonist that was struggling with Amnesia at some point in the story.

The hero would, thus, have various revelations that would ultimately justify their own actions and perspectives throughout the story, despite the turn of events that took place. 

Did Narrative Story Structure of a Film Noir Represent the Times?

Some might say that the story structure of a film noir was representative of the specific time period or era in which the film was focused on or created within.

Back in the 1940s and 1950s into almost the early 1960s, social and cultural issues relative to the post-World War II era. And the uncertainty that came with many changes in family structure are thought to have played a role in the opening or beginning of these types of films.

The film noir period, from 1940-1950, likely included several motivational elements or factors that would have resulted in the deeply complex narrative structures that these films are said to have had. 

The Style

Flashbacks are probably the most common element to come into play in the story structure of a film noir. We see almost all of these types of films use the flashback as part of the non-linear story structure.

This, and the use of stylistic features to bring the audience through the story. In a twisting and turning, what will unfold next, sort of manner which is consistent with film noir narrative.

Haven’t really delved that deeply into Film Noir? Jeffrey Stillwell has a video with more visual examples to help improve your understanding: