How Familiarity Shapes Movie Stories

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright February 2017

Power Point presentation


Each communication medium humans use has its idiosyncrasies -- its distinctiveness in how a message is sent and received. This means how the information to be transmitted is formatted must be adapted to the medium. If the adapting is poor the message recipients will be confused or bored, and the message will not have the impact the person sending the message desired. "The medium is the message" is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan in 1964 describing this phenomenon.


o A phone call is well adapted to both parties talking and listening. An example of one party is doing all the talking and little listening is a robocall.

o A newspaper is well adapted to moving a message from a single source to many receivers, and unlike a phone call, it is easy to bounce around through the message and reread sections.

o Members of a sports team send quick abbreviated messages -- grunts and slang phrases. Speed is important and they are familiar with the topic.

In sum, each communication medium is distinctive, and this means that moving a message from one medium to another takes a high level of adapting skill. This is why moving book stories to the movie format is a challenge.

Book characteristics

Here are some book characteristics:

o They can be quite diverse in length from a few hundred words to over a hundred thousand words.

o They can be skimmed as well as read from cover-to-cover and confusing parts reread immediately and over and over to solve the confusion.

o When they contain maps, graphs and charts, these can be looked at for however long the reader chooses to do so.

These book characteristics are quite different from movie characteristics.

Movie characteristics

Here are some movie characteristics:

o The viewer goes to a movie theater to see one.

o The viewer pays each time they see it.

o The movie runs from beginning to end at a constant, unchanging rate, and at scheduled times.

o The movie mixes visual and audio.

This list applies to watching movies in movie theaters. There are now other ways to see movies such as on TV, CD's and on-line streaming. These change the characteristics by adding viewing options such as being able to pause the movie, see it over and over at no extra cost, and see it when the viewer is ready. But I will base this discussion on movies shown at movie theaters.

The importance of familiarity in movies

Because a movie must be viewed from beginning to end at a constant rate and at a single sitting, familiarity is much more important in movie watching than in book reading. Familiarity makes the viewing much simpler and more comfortable. In the same vein real-time analyzing an unfamiliar chart or a graph is hard on a movie viewer.

The opposite to movie watching is working through a text book. This is about unfamiliar material, the reader goes over different sections many times, and gets interrupted often with quizzes.

How to get the familiarity

There are many ways to get this familiarity.

Having familiar actors, a familiar setting, being in a familiar genre, and having a familiar story structure all add to the familiarity feeling. Remaking a movie adds lots of familiarity.

Familiarity is important even before the viewer walks up to the theater ticket window. This is why movie reviews and trailers are so important to movie promotion. They are letting potential viewers get familiar with what's coming up. This is also why movies adapted from books and historical events are popular. (This may also explain why these days it is so popular to add some variant of "This is based on a true story" to the credit roll on a movie.)

The familiar story structure and familiar characters are where script writing and familiarity interact. This is why there is so much advice given to write to the three act structure and to have the story and character arcs follow specific patterns.

Other ways to gain familiarity

The advice on following familiar story and character structure patterns is good, but there are other ways of stroking familiarity as well.

o One way is comedy -- making fun of well known characters and story structures. This is what makes Monty Python and the Holy Grail comfortable.

o Another is with music -- songs, music and dancing can become very familiar. This is the comfort in Singin' in the Rain and Frozen.

o Another is dialog -- how people are speaking can be familiar and comfortable. This is one of the comforts of Frozen. The dialog is very contemporary.


Because of its communicating style, movie watchers are very sensitive to familiarity -- lots of familiarity makes for comfortable movie viewing. One way of achieving this familiarity is by structuring the story in familiar ways such as the three act structure and having the main characters move through familiar character arcs. This is why knowing how to build scripts with these features is important.

But it is important to know that at the root it is the familiarity that is important. Knowing this gives you the ability to create stories with other structures... as long as there are other familiar elements in what is being created. These other familiarities will keep the viewers comfortable.


The Assignment

- Research your topic (i.e.find what has been written about your topic, philosophy, examples, etc)

- Prepare a PowerPoint (or Prezi, etc) presentation reflecting your research

- Present to class as a mini-lecture (20-30 min)

- Cite your sources

- Upload your PowerPoint to Canvas (this assignment)


2/13: Max (Dialogue), Roger (Familiarity)



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