Pulp Fiction and Narrative Film

by yonirusnak

The majority of films today are based on a narrative format. This essay will argue that narrative is “a chain of events in cause-effect relationship occurring in time and space” (Bordwell, p.69), however is not bound to this set format. Through the example of Pulp Fiction (1994), this essay will explore what constitutes a narrative. By discussing the elements of Narration it will further show the importance of cinematic techniques and locations in relation to expanding the narratives. It will argue that the framing of objects can emphasize its meaning to help push the narrative. Furthermore, this essay will discuss film duration, and examine time in relation to cause-effect relationships and how the order of events occurring in cause-effect can be mixed, yet still maintain a cohesive narrative.

Narrative, as defined by Bordwell, is a chain of events occurring in time and space. In creating a narrative there must be an action, which begins as a series of events that occur over a period of time in one or more spaces and finally end in a changed state (Bordwell, p.69). In Pulp Fiction there are three stories that play out simultaneously within the overall narrative. The first story begins with two characters driving their car, the story progresses when they exit the car and retrieve their guns from the trunk. Following this the two gentlemen walk into a building and enter an apartment to retrieve a brief case. What makes this story interesting is that the audience only sees the first half before it changes to the second story of the overall narrative. Only at the end of the film does this particular story continue, and the audience sees that the characters that inhabited the apartment are killed and the two gentlemen leave with the brief case. This example begins the narrative of the film with two characters in a car. They exit the car and walk up to the apartment and kill everyone. This is the changing of events, and finally the retrieval of the brief case signifies the end. This example also illustrates Chatman definition of narrative consisting of two parts, a story (chain of events) and an existence (character and setting) (Chatman, p.19). By linking events that occur in time and space to particular characters a narrative is formed.

For a narrative to be told there must be a narrator. If someone discusses with a peer, events that occurred during the weekend, that person is narrating those events. Similarly this must be done for film. Edward Branigan states that there are 8 levels of narration (p.86). These include narration from within the diegesis (story world) such as a character narrating the story, extra diegetic (partly exist in the world of the story) narration such as internal monologue, or non diegetic (outside the story world) narration such as voice over’s. All of these are different ways in which films can unravel their stories in a way that is acceptable to the audience. Pulp Fiction uses the technique of Cinematic narration. Cinematic narration is explained by Sarah Kozloff to be all the elements in film, such as sound effects, editing, musical score and camera work among others, that contribute to making a film.  By using this technique the narrator is undetected and the film engages the audience as though they are experisening the story in real time. An example of how this is used in Pulp
, is the scene where Vincent is injecting heroin. The film juxtaposes closes ups of the paraphernalia used to get high with shots of Vincent driving in his car, in a dream-like state. This juxtaposition provides a metaphor for ‘riding the high’. Visually the film narrates what is happening in the scene. ‘Bracketing’ is another technique that is used for opening and closing a narrative film. As stated by Neupert, “bracket the narrative by imposing similar opening and closing” (Neupert, p.21). Pulp Fiction opens with a couple robbing a diner. This scene is then brought back at the end of the film. By bringing this scene back it is indicating that the story has gone full circle and is reaching the end. Through these techniques Pulp Fiction succeeds in presenting a complete narrative seemingly without a narrator.

A key element of narrative is space. In film space can be interpreted in a number of ways. Part of every story is the location in which it takes place. Schatz describes these locations as ‘generic communities’ (p.696) in which the basic conflict unfolds. In Pulp Fiction the location is L.A, and the community is the L.A. ‘underworld’. All the sets provide us with visual understanding of the space in which this story takes place. The scene in which Vincent and Mrs. Wallace go out to dinner at ‘Jack Rabbit Slims’ is a clear example of how this film used the set to create a picture in the viewers mind. The style of the dinner is distinctly unique to Los Angles and therefore aids in informing the viewer of the location of the story. Narrative film also infers locations that are not witnessed in the film. “The narrative may ask us to imagine spaces and actions that are never shown”(Bordwell, p.80). An example of inferred space in Pulp Fiction is the flashback when Butch is a child and his father’s friend tells the story of the Prisoner of war( P.O.W) camp. While the audience do not see this prison it is alluded to and thus the audience imagines what they perceive the prison to look like. Location whether inferred of visually presented adds another dimension to the verisimiltude of the narrative.

Screen space (framing) is also an element of cinematic narration. The camera can be used to emphasize a particular object or character to help point out its importance to the story. Chatman suggests that “Each existent has its own size which is a function of its normal size in the real world and its distance from the camera.” (p.97). By placing the camera at different distances from an object, different meaning and importance is placed upon it. When Vincent is injecting the heroin he has just purchased from Lance (the dealer), the needle is framed so that it takes up the whole screen. All the instruments used including the spoon and the lighter are all enlarged by the way in which they are framed. This effect emphasizes the importance of this ritual to Vince, and how focused he is on the task of preparing the heroin and injecting it. If the scene were to be framed as a long shot the effect of the ritual would be altered. By using this technique the audience must become active in its viewing of the film. The audience must note different objects that are enlarged or isolated by the camera, so that they may piece the story together. The use of space also includes blocking of characters. “Blocking refers to the arrangement and movement of actors in relation to each other with in a single space.”(Corrigan and white, p56). In the final scene the camera is placed strategically so that the audience can see Jules in the foreground- holding pumpkin (Ringo) at gunpoint- and Honey Bunny (who is pointing a gun at Jules) in the background. This framing helps narrate the situation unfolding by allowing the audience to visualise which guns are pointing in which direction. If this scene were shot as a number of close up’s on each character, it may become confusing. It would cause uncertainty as to which gun was pointing at which character. Screen space is a vital part of cinematic narration as it guides the audience to decide what it important to the story.

Time is another important element of narrative. Films have three separate realms of time, this essay will address two; story time (the length of time in which the story takes place), and plot time (the length of time shown in the movie). (Bordwell, p.75). Each of these play a role within the verisimiltude of the film. Story time includes before and after events that are not depicted in the film.  Pulp Fiction’s story time spans from time Butch’s father was captured and imprisoned in a P.O.W camp up until the present day of the film ; “A story builds complex special and temporal context, makes reference to things which are not present” (Branigan, p.34). The story time creates a whole world that exists even when the characters are not on screen. While Vincent and Jules are walking up to the apartment in the second sequence of the film, Jules is telling Vincent about  Marcel Wallace Throwing Antwan Nakamora off a building for giving his wife a foot massage. This event occurs before the period of the film (plot time) however it exists in the story time. It is part of the larger film time, the story time. Plot time is the time depicted in the film. For the story of Jules and Vincent the story time occurs over the period a day, and the plot time is the selected events that are shown though out that day. Plot time is necessary in order to show a complete story within the limited screening time of a film. To show a whole day would require the audience to watch 24 hours of film depicting every moment in that day. The film implies that between scenes the characters continue to live their lives. By understanding the different concepts of time the world with in the story becomes more believable to the audience.

The element of time, which can create a more complex narrative, is the ordering of the plot. Narrative is a chain of events in cause-effect relationship that occur in time and space. However, the ordering of these events does not have to be linier, as discussed by Chatman “The discourse can rearrange the events of the story as much as it pleases, provided the story-sequence remains discernible” (Chatman, p.63). Through cinematic narration the audience is able to piece together the plot even when the chain of events are not shown in succession. In Pulp Fiction during the third story, “The Golden Watch”, Butch shoots Vincent to death, however in the final story of the narrative, Vincent is seen alive again. While this should be confusing because Vincent, who was killed, is now alive again, the structure of this complex narrative allows the audience to interpret events out of chronological order. Bordwell explains that by changing the ordering of the narrative it emphasises certain scenes that may have seemed ordinary in a chronological telling of the story (Bordwell, p. 75). The reappearance of Vincent is emphasised in the final scene because the audience has watched him die. It creates intrigue as to why Vincent has returned and engages the audience’s curiosity.  Flashbacks are a more conventional technique of shuffling time in a narrative to give further information to the plot. Dagle explains how curtain techniques are used to illustrate the flashback such as a momentary blur between shots (p.48). An interesting aspect of Pulp Fiction is that no cinematic technique is used to illustrate Butch’s flashback. The flashback is revealed only at the end when the scene abruptly cuts to butch waking up before his fight. The reordering of events in complex narratives such as Pulp Fiction requires the audience to become active participants in the film. In order for the film to make sense the audience must engage with the film on different levels and remember key scenes so that they may piece the story together at the end.

In conclusion this essay has argued that narrative is a chain of events in cause-effect relationship occurring in time and space, yet the ordering of these events are not important. Firstly by exploring the elements of narrative this essay has shown that cause-effect, time and space are all elements that are required to create a narrative.  Secondly through explaining the different ways in which a narrative can be presented it can be said that cinematic techniques plays an important role in creating a cohesive narrative. Following this the essay looked at the spatial concept of locations and how it is represented in film.  It also explored screen space and showed how the camera can be used to place emphasis on various objects- changing their meaning in relation to the narrative.  The concept of time in film was also discussed.  By differentiating the elements of time within a narrative, this essay has shown how within the limited screen time of a film, a complete story world can be created. Finally this essay argued that by rearranging time within the narrative, it is possible to emphasize key events that would otherwise seem trivial. It is the way in which the elements of cinematic narration combine that act to shape the meaning of any particular narrative.


Boardwell D. and Thompson K, ‘Narritive as a Formal System’, In Film Art: An Introduction (7th edn.), Boston, McGraw Hill, pp.68-76; pp. 80-91

Branigan E, 1992, Narrative Comprehension and Film, London, Routledge

Chatman S, 1978, Story And Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, London Cornell University.

Corrgian T. and White P, 2004, ‘Exploring a Material World: Mise-en-scene’, In The Film Experience, Boston, Bedford/St Martin’s, pp.42-74

Dagle J, 1980, Narrative Discourse in Film and Fiction: The Question of the present tense, In Narrative Stratagies: Original Essays in Film and Prose Fiction, Conger M.S. and Welsch R.J (eds), Illinois, Western illinois University, pp. 47-61

Kozloff S, 1988, Invisible Storytellers: Voice-over in American Fiction Film, In ‘Thomas hardy on Screen’, Wright R.T (ed), UK, Cambridge University, pp. 8 -20

Neupert R, 1995, The End: Narration and Closure in the Cinema, Detroit, Western State University Press

Schatz T, 2004, ‘Film Genre and the Genre Film’ (from Hollywood Genres, 1991), In Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (eds), Film theory and Criticism (6th edn.), New York, Oxford University Press, pp. 691-702