Among the first widely seen motion pictures were the amazing fifty-second films by Louis Lumière (1864–1948) and his camera operators. One of the more famous was the Arrivée d'un train en gare a La Ciotat ( Arrival of a Train , 1896), in which the camera records the train pulling into the station, passengers descending and boarding, and bystanders interacting with the travelers. But does a single shot of a train arriving count as a narrative? For most critics, the minimal criteria for determining the presence of narrative include a series of events in some cause–effect order. Causality suggests temporal, spatial, and thematic links as well. Thus these events, "a train arrives, doors open and passengers climb out, a woman runs past holding a small child's hand, a man with a bundle walks after them," provide only the barest markers of narrative. One contemporary newspaper reporter actually embellished his account of the film: "The travelers all look pale, as if they were seasick. We do not recognize characters so much as known types: the petite maid, the butcher boy, and the young man with a humble bundle who has left his village in search of work" (Aubert, p. 225). In recreating the film experience for the readers, the reporter has inserted tiny bits of inferred story material, even generating a feeling of malaise for the arriving passengers and a personal history and goal for the man with the bundle, who now becomes a central character. Thus, critical definitions of film narrative necessarily touch on formal elements of storytelling, but also upon the audience's role in perceiving and comprehending the presented material in those tales.

Narrative is generally accepted as possessing two components: the story presented and the process of its telling, or narration, often referred to as narrative discourse. Story is a series of represented events, characters (or agents for some), and actions out of which the audience constructs a fictional time, place, and cause–effect world, or diegesis. In the Lumière short, the material elements include the arrival of the train, the scurrying of rushed passengers, the gestures of the railway workers, the steam emitted from the engine, even the moving shadows beneath people's feet. Out of these rather minimal visual objects and actions, the viewer generates tiny story events, including any effects that the train has on the people on the platform. The narrative discourse is evident in strategies of presentation, especially the camera position, which offers a view of the action that emphasizes perspective and depth, but also allows the viewers to watch the faces and movements of a number of the people involved. However, Lumière's film offers a very low level of narrative development, in part because of the short length and paucity of story events, but also because of the absence of other narration devices, including plot ordering, mise-en-scène choices, editing, sound effects, intertitles, or camera movement. As films expanded in length and technical options, narrative strategies increased as well. Stories could develop more complex characterization, thematic concerns, and temporal development, along with increasing devices for the narrator to manipulate and present those events.

While many sorts of films employ some storytelling strategies, when we speak of narrative film we are typically referring to fiction films. However, before moving to fiction films completely, we should acknowledge that French film theorist Christian Metz has famously argued that on one level, all films are fiction films. All cinematic experience is based by definition on illusion. Motion pictures are fundamentally still images projected onto a flat screen. Nothing moves and there is no real depth of space, yet we cannot help but "see" movement and spatial cues as the film is projected. The entire process is based on a fiction that what we see is actually present. We know Cary Grant is long dead, we know that we are only seeing his shadowlike image projected on a screen, and yet we see and hear him in an illusory three-dimensional world in which he moves in front of and then behind his desk, right there in front of us. Lumière films, Cary Grant laughing, or a bird chirping in a sex education documentary are all based on an illusion, an absence, that is only possible thanks to the cinematic apparatus and the audience's perception system. From this perspective, the fiction film is a specific type of cinema based on the content of the images and sounds rather than their material traits. The fiction film, the subject of narrative history, theory, and criticism, assumes a spectator who not only sees movement where none really exists, but also constructs characters, time, space, and themes.

Narration is a set of representational, organizational, and discursive cues that deliver the story information to the audience. The fiction film should be thought of as a text, a collection of narrative systems, each of which functions and exists in its own history, with its own stylistic options. For instance, during the 1940s, it became stylistically fashionable for American crime dramas to tell their stories out of order, often with voice-over narrators recounting some past events via flashbacks. Many of those crime dramas were also filmed with increasingly expressionistic sets, lighting, and acting styles. The resulting film noir movies are distinguished by certain shared, generic, story events and discursive strategies alike. Their narrative context was quite different from that of Lumière's train film. Narratives must always be studied in relation to history, including the history of film style, modes of production, and the history of narrative theory itself.

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