Narrative space is the constructed environment in which a story takes place. Unlike real space, narrative space is necessarily and inherently fragmented. Pieces of both real and wholly fabricated environments are blended together in order to present the appearance of cohesive space, even when no such space exists in reality. As such, the construction of space becomes a basic element of storytelling that should be manipulated with intention and creativity.
Following the rules
Filmmakers follow certain guidelines so that the audience can understand the relationships between characters in space and so that the illusion of a complete space can be maintained.
For instance, the 180-degree rule, which says that once a line of action has been established, you camera should not cross that line to avoid confusing the viewer. If two characters are engaged in a conversation, the camera should stay to one side of the imaginary line that connects them. If the camera crosses to the other side of that line, the characters will appear to suddenly switch positions, going against the viewer’s initial interpretation of space and distracting them from the story.
When you cross that axis, the line of action, we are confused because the information presented does not match the space that our brain has already constructed based on previous shots. The audience is no longer able to hold onto a coherent mental image of the space the characters are navigating and the movie begins to break down.
Of course there are times when this and any other filmmaking rule can be bent or broken, but it’s important to understand why these rules exist and how they impact the audience’s perception of space and the story taking place within it.
Constructing space through montage
We make assumptions about the space based on how shots are pieced together. When information is missing, we fill in the gaps with what makes the most sense. For instance, if two characters are engaged in conversation and the environment surrounding both is consistent in terms of set and lighting, we assume those two characters are in the same room — even without an establishing shot to confirm that assumption. That’s how conversations work in our experience. In the reality of the pro-filmic event — what actually happened in front of the camera — those actors might never have spoken to each other face to face.
When information is missing, we fill in the gaps with What makes sense.
Chase scenes, such as the famous San Francisco chase scene in “Bullitt,” often connect spaces that are nowhere near each other and can even jump back and forth along a path. Editing makes it possible to construct a course that makes perfect sense within the narrative but would be impossible to follow in real life.
People who are very familiar with San Francisco may find some of the more obvious spatial jumps in the “Bullitt” chase scene disconcerting or humorous, but in general, the audience will not be disturbed by these jumps since they are used to produce a coherent space, albeit one that is completely constructed in the editing process. As long as the narrative of the chase itself makes sense, the physical pro-filmic location is irrelevant.
Constructing space through montage is but one way the deliberate manipulation of space can work to tell your story more effectively. For instance, “Citizen Kane” (1941) used deep focus to present a consistent and cohesive view of the space the characters occupy in each scene.
In the scene when Mrs. Kane signs custody of Charles over to Mr. Thatcher, we begin outside in the snow with Charles Kane and track backward through the open window and into the Kane household. This tracking shot and deep focus of the final framing explicitly connect the interior and the exterior through the window while simultaneously excluding Charles Kane from any decisions made regarding his future inside the house.
Later, when Charles’s father moves to shut the window, he severs that connection between interior and exterior, and even though Mrs. Kane reopens the window, seemingly reinstating that connection, her body blocks our view of Charles. The next shot then turns inward and away from Charles, further cementing his exclusion from the household.
We can see that the way that space is presented in this scene contributes to our overall interpretation of events and indeed the film as a whole — whether consciously or not. This underlines the importance of intentionality when constructing the narrative space occupied by your characters.
The takeaway here is that every movie space you’ve ever encountered is a construction, either in the literal sense of a set built on a soundstage or in the more abstract sense where each subsequent shot enriches our understanding of the space in which the narrative takes place.
We, as storytellers, need to be mindful of this cinematic truth since it not only ensures continuity in our characters’ interaction with their environment but also presents interesting opportunities to tell our stories with a richer cinematic vocabulary. The next time you’re watching a movie, consider how the characters and camera navigate the environment. How does space affect your interpretation of character relationships? Why does a particular space seem more or less coherent? The answers to these questions will point to new ways to manipulate this basic cinematic element for more impactful storytelling.