Narration Across Media – FMMC 0431

Fall 2008, Professor Jason Mittell

T/Th 9:30 – 10:45, Axinn 220

Screening: Wed 7:30 – 10:30, Axinn 100

208 Axinn, 443-3435              

Office Hours:             Wed 10 – 12; Thurs 11 – 12; by appointment

All artistic and popular media offer their own particular techniques of storytelling.  This course explores how narrative structures and models operate differently between film, television, and digital media such as videogames. Drawing heavily on various theories of narratology developed to understand the structures, techniques, and impacts of narration for literature and film, we will consider how different media offer possibilities to creators and viewers to tap into the central human practice of storytelling. We will focus on works that challenge convention in a variety of ways, centered on contemporary media and trends in narrative technique.

Students will read advanced theoretical materials and view narrative examples, culminating in a final research project, to better our understanding of narrative as a cultural practice. Additionally, students will complete a video-based exercise in pairs, and create an ongoing online journal reflecting on screenings and readings. The course is designed as an advanced theoretical seminar – the readings are often quite complex, and class discussions will engage the material at a sophisticated level.

Required Texts & Readings:

Books available at Middlebury College Bookstore:

David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (University of Wisconsin Press, 1985)

David Herman, editor, The Cambridge Companion to Narrative (Cambridge University Press, 2007) Noted as CCN in schedule

J.J. Murphy, Me and You and Memento and Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work (Continuum Books, 2007)

Note: If the bookstore runs out of these titles, it is the student’s responsibility to get access to a copy for assigned readings.  All titles are on reserve and easily available at online bookstores.

Other required readings will be available via Electronic Reserve (password: 4673jm). Readings are due each week for Tuesday’s class, with the one exception of a reading that directly addresses a film being screened: if you have not seen the film and wish to remain “unspoiled,” you may read those chapters Wednesday night after screening.

Weekly screenings will be required for this course, taking place Wednesday at 7:30 pm; it is up to each student to make arrangements to screen the required materials at the Library before Thursday’s class if they cannot attend screening.

Course Requirements:

50%            Research essay

15%            Online response journal

15%            Video essay

20%            Discussion / Participation


Research Essay:

The major assignment for the course will be an original 15-18 page research essay on a topic of your choosing. You may write about any issue concerning narrative within one medium or across media, focusing on a case study or exploring a theoretical issue.  More detailed information and guidelines will be forthcoming as the semester progresses, but students should begin thinking about topics that interest them as they move through the course materials. Potential topic ideas should be sent via email to Professor Mittell by 10/21, with an elaborated paper proposal turned in by 11/11.  The final paper will be due by the end of exams, 12/15.

Online Response Journal:

Students are expected to intellectually engage in readings, screenings, and discussions with a level of depth befitting a group of senior majors. To help facilitate this engagement, every student will create a personal response blog via Students are expected to post at least twice a week, directly engaging ideas and reactions from screenings, readings, outside-of-class viewings and gameplay, and other issues that relate to the course topic. Successful postings will demonstrate critical awareness, intellectual synthesis, and inquisitive exploration of the course ideas and media. Posts will be aggregated and combined on the course website,, and students are expected to read and comment on their peers’ posts.

Video Essay:
Students will work in pairs to create a short video (no more than 5 minutes) that remixes one of the films or television programs that we view in class. The goal of the video is to explore how shifts in editing can impact narration-it is not intended to create a parody video or mash-up between unlikely sources, but rather to use the tools of filmmaking to re-narrate a segment of a program or film. Projects will be screened in class on Nov. 4; more information will be forthcoming throughout the semester.

Videogame Play:
One of the topics we’ll be discussing in the class is how videogames tell stories (or not). Since a game cannot be “screened” like a film or TV episode, each student will commit to playing through a game of their choosing throughout the semester. A number of games for PS2 and Xbox 360 will be on reserve in the library, but students may select other games if they choose, as long as it relates to narrative in important ways. A PS2 and Xbox 360 console will also be available for checkout if you do not have access to one yourself. Additionally, some PC/Mac games will be available at workstations in the library. If relevant, students can work in pairs to play through a game.

Class Participation & Attendance:
As a seminar, participation is key to this course.  Classes will only work if students are prepared, engaged, and participating.  You are expected to attend all class meetings on time, having done the readings, viewed screenings, thought about the material, and prepared the necessary assignments.  Attendance will be taken regularly.  Students who miss a class should find out what they missed from their classmates and make-up the necessary material.  Your participation grade will be lowered one mark (e.g. A- becomes B+) for each unexcused absence in excess of one.  If you know that you will be absent, please contact Professor Mittell as soon as possible to make necessary arrangements and avoid penalties.  The class participation component of your grade will reward students who actively participate in class and otherwise demonstrate their engagement with the material.  Likewise, this grade will be used to downgrade students who are clearly disengaged with the class or fail to uphold their end of the course policies.

In the first week of the semester, students will sign up to serve as discussion leader for one week, with most weeks having a pair of leaders. Discussion leaders are responsible for emailing the class (at a few discussion questions based on that week’s readings for Tuesday’s meeting by Monday at 6 pm; if there are two leaders for the week, they should work together on the questions. Leaders will help guide discussion on Tuesday about the readings. For Thursday’s class, they will focus on leading the discussion connecting the screening from Wednesday night to the readings; it is recommended that leaders watch that week’s screenings twice to prepare for discussion in advance.


You will be graded based on the following scale, using a 4.0 scale on all assignments:

  • A (4.0) is for students who truly excel on assignments, demonstrating mastery of the material and dramatically surpassing the expectations of the assignment.
  • B (3.0) is for students who do above-average work, clearly achieving the course goals and completing all assignments in a strong fashion.
  • C (2.0) is for students who satisfactorily meet the course requirements in an adequate fashion.
  • D (1.0) is for students who do not achieve course goals and whose work does not adequately meet expectations.
  • F (0.0) is for students who dramatically fail to meet course goals and do not fulfill course expectations.

Submitting Work:
Late papers are highly discouraged, as they throw off schedules for both student and professor. If you must hand in any assignment later than the deadline, please contact the professor in advance as soon as the situation becomes apparent – together arrangements can be made, often without penalties. If a paper is not turned in on time without making advance arrangements with Professor Mittell or a Dean’s excuse, the paper will be penalized by one mark (e.g. an A- becomes a B+) for each day of lateness.

All papers should be submitted via email as an attached .doc or .rtf file format document – Professor Mittell will reply via email when a paper has been received within 24 hours. Unless you have received such a notification, you should email him to ensure that the paper was in fact received. Please do NOT slip papers under the door to Professor Mittell’s office.

Academic Dishonesty:
All work you submit must be your own and you may not inappropriately assist other students in their work beyond the confines of a particular assignment, in keeping with the Middlebury College Honor Code. All papers and exams must include the statement of the Honor Code along with the student’s name (as a digital signature) in order to be graded. There is a no-tolerance policy for academic misconduct in this course! The minimum penalty for academic misconduct will be a failing grade (F) for the course – further academic and disciplinary penalties may be assessed. The definitions of plagiarism and cheating used in this course are consistent with the material in the College Handbook, Chapter V.

Course Policies:
Any student with a disability or who otherwise needs accommodation or assistance should make arrangements with Professor Mittell as soon as possible. If you know that you will have conflicts due to athletics or other college activities, you must notify Professor Mittell in advance and arrange to make up missed work – athletic absences are not excused and it is the student’s responsibility to make all arrangements.

Email is Professor Mittell’s preferred mode of communication (besides face-to-face conversation!), generally checking regularly during the work week – if you email him asking for a response and do not receive one within one working day (M-F), assume that your email may not have been received. Office voicemails will typically be answered less promptly. Please do not call Professor Mittell at home.

Weekly Schedule

Week 1:            Week of Sept. 8Storytelling and Style

READ:                        Herman, “Introduction”, and Ryan, “Toward a definition of narrative” [CCN]

WATCH:            Stranger than Paradise (Jarmusch, 1984) – PN1997.S774547 A1 2007D

Delicatessen (Caro & Jeunet, 1991) – PN1997.D4425 A1 2006D

Week 2:            Week of Sept. 15 The Semiotic Tradition

READ:                        Bordwell, NiFF, Ch. 1-2

Stam et. al., “Film-Narratology” [eRes in 2 parts]

Abbott, “Story, Plot and Narration” [CCN]

Mittell, “Film & Television Narrative” [CCN]

Kozloff, “Narrative Theory & Television” [eRes]

WATCH:            Lost, “Walkabout” – PN1992.77.L6725 v.1 2005D

Simple Men (Hartley, 1992) – PN1997.S4975 A1 2003D

Week 3:            Week of Sept. 22 – Character

READ:                        Murphy, MYMF, Intro – Ch. 6

Margolin, “Character” and Thomas, “Dialogue” [CCN]

Rosenblum, “Annie Hall: It Wasn’t the Film He Set Out to Make” (eRes)

WATCH:            The Singing Detective, “Skin” – MCTR 8004D

Annie Hall (Allen, 1977) – MCTR 6072D

Week 4:            Week of Sept. 29Narrative Comprehension & Cognition

READ:                        Bordwell, NiFF, Ch. 3-5

Herman, “Cognition, Emotion & Consciousness” [CCN]

Lavik, “Narrative Structure in The Sixth Sense” [eRes]

WATCH:            The Singing Detective, “Heat” – MCTR 8004D

The Sixth Sense (Shyamalan, 1999) – MCTR 5598D

RECOMMENDED VIEWING:            Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954) – MCTR 6236D

Week 5:            Week of Oct. 6 – Narrative Temporality and Spatiality

READ:                        Bordwell, NiFF, Ch. 6-7

Murphy, MYMF, Ch. 7-9

Bridgeman, “Time and Space” [CCN]

WATCH:            The Singing Detective, “Lovely Days” – MCTR 8004D

Memento (Nolan, 2000) – PN1997.M4334 A1 2002

IN-CLASS THURSDAY: The Singing Detective, “Clues” – MCTR 8004D

Week 6:            Week of Oct. 13 (No class 10/14) – Focalization & Point of View

READ:                        Jahn, “Focalization” [CCN]

Chatman, “New Point of View” [eRes]

Wilson, “Transparency and Twist” [eRes]

Bordwell, “Subjective Stories and Network Narratives” [eRes]

WATCH:            The Singing Detective, “Pitter Patter” – MCTR 8004D

Barton Fink (Coens, 1991) – PN1997.B269 A1 2003D

RECOMMENDED VIEWING:  Fight Club (Fincher, 1999) – MCTR 5606D

Week 7:             Week of Oct. 20Narration & Voice-Over

READ:                        Phelan, “Rhetoric/Ethics” [CCN]

Kozloff, “First Person Narrators” [eRes]

Chatman, “The Cinematic Narrator” [eRes]

Currie, “Unreliability Refigured” [eRes]

WRITE:            Email research paper topic ideas to Professor Mittell by 10/21

WATCH:            The Singing Detective, “Who Done It” – MCTR 8004D

The Prestige (Nolan, 2006) – PN1997.2.P725 A1 2007D

Week 8:            Week of Oct. 27Authorship

READ:                        Chatman, “In Defense of…” & “Implied Author at Work” [eRes]

Foucault, “What is an Author?” [eRes]

Bordwell, “Three Dimensions of Film Narrative” [eRes]

WATCH:            Pushing Daisies, “Pie-lette” – reserve

Adaptation (Jonze, 2002) – MCTR 7755D

Week 9:            Week of Nov. 3Classical vs. Art-Cinema Narration

READ:                        Bordwell, NiFF, Ch. 8-10

PRESENT: In-class 11/4, present video narrative projects

WATCH:            La Jetee – MCTR 7665D

12 Monkeys (Gilliam, 1995) – PN1997.T778 A1 2005D

Week 10:            Week of Nov. 10Experimental Modes of Narration

READ:                        Bordwell, NiFF, Ch. 11-13

Murphy, MYMF, Ch. 10-12, Conclusion

WRITE:            Email research paper proposal to Professor Mittell by 11/11

WATCH:            FLCL, “Fooly Cooly” (1999) – PN1992.77 .F665 1999D

Mulholland Drive (Lynch, 2002) – PN1997.2.M865 A1 2002D

Week 11:            Week of Nov. 17Television & Serial Form

READ:                        Page, “Gender” [CCN]

Mittell, “Narrative Complexity” [eRes]

Ndalianis, “Television and the Neo-Baroque” [eRes]

Newman, “From Beats to Arcs” [eRes]

Warhol, “Feminine Intensities” [online]

WATCH:            Arrested Development, “Top Banana” – PN1992.77.A786 v.1 2004

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Surprise” and “Innocence” – MCTR 7237D

Week 12:            Week of Nov. 24New Media Narratives

(No screening or class 11/26-27)

READ:                        Monfort, “Narrative and Digital Media” [CCN]

Ryan, “Will New Media Produce New Narratives?” [eRes]

Week 13:            Week of Dec. 1Videogame Narrative Logics

READ:                        Juul, “Games Telling Stories?” [online]

Jenkins, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” [online]

Frasca, “Ludologists Love Stories Too” [eRes]

WATCH:            32 Short Films about Glen Gould (Girard, 2000) – PN1997.T42915 A1 2000

Run Lola Run (Tykwer, 1998) – MCTR 5414D

WRITE:            Research paper due via email by 12/15


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