Movies & Television as Literature: Story Elements

Have you ever thought of movies and television as literature?

So many of our conversations revolve around what we are watching on television or streaming on our computers. Whether I’m dining out with close friends or at a networking event full of strangers, I know I’ll hear about the latest on AMC or Netflix. I think it’s because regardless of which you prefer, books and movies are stories, and we all love stories.

Movies and television tell stories, so let’s talk about story elements as applied to movies and television.

Let’s talk about how an understanding of plot, characterization, setting, conflict, and theme reveal that movies and television are another form of literature. It’s the key to moving from our usual position as a comatose couch potato to becoming an actively discerning viewer. 

Let’s talk about #ScreenLit.

I’ll be the first to admit that I spent many years as a book snob. You know—one of those people who is always saying "I’d rather be reading” in a rather obnoxiously superior tone.

In my defense, when I was a kid I got the message that movies and television were trite, shallow, far removed from reality, and a huge waste of time, while books by default were vastly superior to anything on the screen.

I think that over time the combination of being a reader, a writer, and a parent gave me a more appreciative attitude about the power of stories, especially those told in movies and TV shows. I was interested in the process of how a story was brought from the page to the screen. I watched behind-the-scenes footage and documentaries about the making of my favorite movies. I listened to interviews with screenwriters, directors, actors, cinematographers, and producers. I knew it took talent to make a great movie, but the more I learned about film making, the more I realized the incredible talent of these storytellers.

And—I knew from experience that stories told on screen can have a huge impact on a young person. I often dreamed of being trapped in the Land of the Lost with Marshall, Will, and Holly. I wanted to be Quincy when I grew up. I thought it was entirely possible that Steve Austin was real.

It’s probably not a surprise that our days as a homeschool family often revolved around the books we were reading on our own and with each other. So as I learned more about movies and television, it dawned on me that it would probably be useful to teach my kids to treat movies/TV as literature by applying the same methods of story analysis that we were using with books.

I think we can all agree that the image of a couch potato comes from a real place. We can watch television in a mentally passive state, plopping our weary bodies on the sofa at the end of the day, the TV serving as a distraction, an escape. We don't have to engage our brains or think critically. The story is laid out for us in full color high definition display, complete with special effects, sound effects, and emotionally manipulative soundtrack. We describe watching TV as “vegging out.”

However, the responsibility of being a parent puts new lenses on everything we do and view, including our choices in entertainment. We don’t have to tolerate shallow plots, implausible characterization, and insipid dialogue in order to relax. We can enjoy great stories on the screen, just as we do in books. And it’s a time-honored parental tradition to use children’s books to safely explore sensitive and controversial issues through different characters, situations, and worlds. Movies and TV can offer the same opportunity.


In order to be successful, movies and television must tell us satisfying and engaging stories. And most stories have the same basic elements. 

I think there’s a tendency to reduce a story to a series of plot points; what happened first, what happened next, and how it ended. But plot is much more complex than three acts with a few commercial breaks. Plot is the path of the story, and it must remain in motion, whether it flows at a leisurely pace or races to the climax. 

Essential elements of a plot are: 

  1. The First Act, which introduces characters and settings.

  2. The Inciting Event is when an event or antagonist forces the main character, or protagonist, to react in a way that sets the rest of the story in motion.

  3. Rising Action shows us the protagonist continuing to react to the main conflict, being forced into more decisive action against whomever or whatever is acting as the antagonistic force. Quite often there is a point where the protagonist appears to be completely defeated.

  4. In the Climax the main character gathers all his courage and resources for a final fight against the antagonistic force, and reaches a critical moment of decision.

  5. Loose ends of the plot are tied up in the Falling Action as characters react to the Climax.

  6. The Resolution is not necessarily the end of the story. It can be a happy or painful conclusion, but it shows us how our characters have changed and often gives us indications of where their lives will go from that point.

Other essential story elements:

Characterization is how the characters develop and change over the course of the story because of the antagonistic force. This is often referred to as the “character arc.” It is the real reason we follow a story from plot point to plot point, in anticipation of how the characters are going to react to events and to each other. Action and dialogue are key components, moving the story forward and revealing character progression. Basically, we follow stories when we care what happens to the characters, and characterization determines whether or not we are emotionally affected by what the character does and what happens to them. 

Setting is also an essential element, whether it is a time, a place, a culture, or a planet. Setting can serve as a backdrop, such as in westerns, science fiction and fantasy, and historical dramas. Setting can also be the antagonistic force. In a conflict of Man vs. Nature, the main character may be trying to conquer a snow-covered mountain or survive a storm at sea. 

The Conflict hinges on what the protagonist wants, what is keeping him from it, or who is trying to take it away. The main character will have long term overarching goals that lead to the climax, but there are usually short term goals which define each scene and serve as subplots.  

Examples of conflict are: 

  • Man vs. Man, which is most often seen as Good Guy against Bad Guy.

  • Man vs. Nature (or Environment), which can be anything from a natural disaster, pandemic, or dangerous animal.

  • Man vs Himself is when the hero is pitted against some aspect of his own character, such as cowardice, greed, prejudice, or addiction. He can also struggle against what he sees as his destiny.

  • Man vs Society pits the main character against the institutions, culture, religion, or traditions of his society. This is obvious in dystopian fiction where the hero fights against a corrupt government, or in a 'fish out of water' story with the protagonist suddenly being immersed in a setting completely foreign to him.

  • Man vs. Technology usually plays on our concerns about how our own inventions can run amuck.

  • Man vs the Supernatural is evident in any story where the antagonistic force is unnatural or inexplicable, so it is considered 'supernatural'. This, of course, includes the paranormal.

And then there's Theme:

Theme is the most important story element because this is where we may be able to discern what the writer is trying to say, and it's also what we take away from the story. It sounds intimidating, like some sort of psychological mumbo-jumbo, but it's fairly simple. Themes are derived from the actions and reactions of the characters and settings, regardless of genre.  

Police procedurals are a genre defined by certain elements, and whether it's DragnetNYPD Blue, or Criminal Minds, the story will have law enforcement as the protagonist, a crime as the main conflict, a criminal (or criminals) as the antagonist, and the procedural part is where we see the technical aspects of how crimes are solved.

However, just because it is a police procedural doesn't mean it will be simple formula. Themes of courage, morality, and ethics may be derived from an episode where one officer turns in his partner for breaking the law. It raises questions about what it means to be loyal, and the boundaries of friendship. That's theme.

In Jurassic Park, a Man Vs. Technology story, one of the themes is elegantly summed up by Ian Malcolm, who says: 

". . .scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should."

In this techno-thriller, man's brilliance and imagination are eclipsed by his arrogance, and as a result, people are being chased and eaten by dinosaurs. Good stuff. 

Jeff Goldblum portrayed Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park

Dystopian fiction shows us a world controlled by corrupted power, and how one or more people refuse to give in and choose to fight the status quo against overwhelming odds. Fahrenheit 451The Giver, and 1984 are classic dystopian novels. Modern versions of this theme are The Hunger Games and Divergent. These stories invite us to ask "Could this really happen?" and "What would I do in that situation?" It's notable that all of these books have been adapted for the big screen with a fair amount of success. 

Themes carry messages to us about how the world really is, but also how it should be.

We are also fascinated by apocalyptic tales; a zombie virus decimates mankind in The Walking Dead, global destruction because of climate change occurs in The Day After Tomorrow, and threats from space by aliens or asteroids brought us Deep Impact and Independence Day. Characters must survive in these Worst Case Scenarios by being brave, resourceful, and sometimes ruthless; their desire to live and protect the ones they love battle against their fear of failure, or of losing their humanity.  These stories often resonate with themes of sacrifice and redemption.

The Walking Dead show poster Season 1

Take a moment to think back on how television and movies have influenced you. Some of our earliest lessons about life were learned because we immersed ourselves in a story. We felt sorrow as someone grieved over the death of the loved one, cheered as they overcame a disability, or experienced dread over the consequences of self destructive behaviors. Many of our fears are rooted in things we saw as children. We identified with our favorite character's struggles, and rooted for the underdog - or maybe even Underdog himself.  

We've been deeply affected by movies and television, and whether you feel love, hate, or ambivalence, they make up much of our cultural lexicon. These stories give us lots to argue about, but also give us ways to connect and understand each other. I think we need to take the time to discern the meaning, importance, and implications of what we watch, just as we do with what we read.

So what do you think about treating movies and television as literature?
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