• Syllabus

    Storytelling in Film & Media – FMMC 0257

    Professor Jason Mittell, 208 Axinn, 443-3435,           jmittell@middlebury.edu

    Class Meetings: T/Th 11:00 – 12:15, Axinn 109

    Screening: Wed 7:30 – 10:30, Axinn 232                

    Office Hours: Mon & Thurs 1:30 – 2:30, or by appointment via http://meetme.so/JasonMittell

    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, comics and digital media such as videogames. Drawing heavily on various theories developed to understand the structures, techniques, and impacts of narrative 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 participate in ongoing online discussions reflecting on screenings and readings. Course readings are often quite complex, and class discussions will engage the material at a sophisticated level. 


    Learning Goals:

    • Familiarize yourself with major concepts concerning storytelling and narrative theory as applied to diverse media
    • Connect theoretical readings to your own media creation, consumption & criticism
    • Be able to conceive and execute a large-scale research-based critical project

    Note that this syllabus is a living document that will change throughout the semester – always consult the online version for the latest information.


    Required Texts & Readings - Books available at Middlebury College Bookstore:

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

    Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (HarperCollins, 1993)

    Jason Mittell, Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling (NYU Press, 2015) - see also the online companion for video examples

    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 online or for download via the course Moodle site. The Living Handbook of Narratology is a recommended resource for more background on some key concepts, available at http://wikis.sub.uni-hamburg.de/lhn/index.php/Main_Page .

    Readings for each week are due for the Tuesday class meeting, unless otherwise listed on the schedule. Some readings, marked with *, directly address the screenings for that week, so you may wait to read those until Tuesday night after screening if you haven't seen the relevant screenings before.

    Weekly screenings will be required for this course, taking place Tuesday 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. Since most of the screenings we'll be watching use complex storytelling devices, it is recommended that you have watched the film or show once before the screening, allowing you to focus on the storytelling strategies rather than just the story.


    Course Requirements:

    All of the following requirements must be completed in order to pass this course – if you do not complete the two essays and video project, you will automatically fail the course:

                Analytical essay

                Video remix

                Final research essay              

                Online participation

                Videogame play journal

                In-class Participation                                                                         


    More information will be posted about these assignments, but here is a brief overview.

    Analytical Essay:
    Due via Moodle by class on Oct. 22, this 4-5 page essay will ask you to apply theoretical concepts to a film or television show, selected from a list.

    Video Remix 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 screening. The goal of the video is to explore how shifts in editing can impact storytellingit 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. 17.

    Research Essay:
    The major assignment for the course will be an original 12-15 page research-based analytical 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.  Students should begin thinking about topics that interest them as they move through the course materials. Potential topic ideas should be posted to Moodle by 10/27, with an elaborated paper proposal turned in by 11/12.  The final paper will be due by noon on 12/16.

    Reading Responses:
    The majority of readings for this course are scholarly articles and chapters. To help you develop the skill of being able to identify and engage with scholarly arguments, you will write short reading responses throughout the semester. Each week, you will write a response of at least 400 words to one article/chapter in that week’s readings. They may be on any assigned articles or chapters except for those marked in the syllabus with **. Responses must be posted to Moodle by 8 am the morning of the class meeting for which the reading is assigned. You will not receive credit for late postings of reading responses unless you have been absent from class for an excused reason and have made specific arrangements with Professor Mittell. You may not write more than one response for the readings assigned for any one day, even if there are multiple articles. Each week's contributions will be graded on a 4.0 scale via Moodle, and the 10 best weeks will be added to comprise this portion of your grade.

    Reading responses should accomplish two basic goals: they should briefly summarize the argument(s) of the chosen reading and give you a chance to respond intellectually to this argument. The first paragraph should be an abstract of the essay, summarizing at least one main point and argument from the reading. The second paragraph should connect the reading to your own thoughts, to other examples, to previous readings, to screenings, or other elements related to the course. Responses that simply summarize a reading without exploring any of your own thoughts will be graded down. Responses that discuss interesting issues that emerge from the reading are encouraged, but you must tie these thoughts to the readings and your summary of the argument, not just launch into a tangent. These responses are not “thought journals,” but they should provide you an opportunity to present your own reaction to these issues in written form. Writing style and form is important, so be sure to take time to edit and proofread responses, although your writing style may be more informal than the more formal essay assignments – as long as you seriously engage with the relevant issues.

    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 narrative game of their choosing throughout the semester. A number of games for PS2, PS3, Wii and Xbox 360 will be available through the Axinn Equipment Room, but students may select other games if they choose, as long as it relates to narrative in important ways. If relevant, students can work in pairs to play through a game. Each player is expected to submit a “play journal” by November 24.

    Additionally, all students will be required to playthough Portal, a fairly short multiplatform game available for Xbox 360 in the Axinn basement, or on PC/Mac through Steam (http://store.steampowered.com/app/400/ ). It will be expected that everyone will have completed Portal by Nov. 5.


    Class Participation & Attendance:

    You are expected to attend all class meetings on time, having done the readings, thought about the material, and prepared the necessary assignments. Attendance will be regularly taken, but it is the individual student’s responsibility to attend class in order to gain the most from their education. If a student misses a class, it is up to them to find out what they missed from their classmates and make-up the necessary material. Your final grade will be lowered one mark (B becomes B–) for each unexcused absence in excess of two. If you know that you will be absent from class or screenings, 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, meet with the professor outside of 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.

    Discussion Leaders:
    Each student will sign up to be a discussion leader for one week. For the week that they are leading discussion, they will be expected to submit at least three questions about the readings by Tuesday morning at 8am, and at least three questions about the screening by Thursday morning at 8am, both via Moodle. These questions will not be posted publicly to the class, but will be used to structure class meetings, with the discussion leader and Professor Mittell working through them during class. It is expected that you will read extra carefully during the week you are leading discussion, and watch the screenings at least twice to prepare for the conversation.



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

    •  A (4.0) indicates truly excelling on assignments, demonstrating mastery of the material and significantly surpassing the expectations of the assignment.
    • B (3.0) indicates above-average work, clearly achieving the course goals and completing all assignments in a strong fashion.
    • C (2.0) indicates satisfactorily meeting the course requirements in an adequate fashion.
    • D (1.0) indicates not achieving course goals and not adequately meeting expectations.
    • F (0.0) indicates dramatically failing to meet course goals and 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 Moodle as an attached .doc or .rtf file format document. Please do NOT slip papers under the door to Professor Mittell’s office.

    Cutting You Some Slack:
    College is one of the few situations in life where the expectations are clearly laid out and the consequences for meeting or missing those expectations is transparent. The grading system and workload has been designed to be as fair and straightforward as possible, allowing students to choose how to prioritize the class versus other obligations or interests. However, there may be times that things become challenging and you want to ask for some leniency. One time per semester, students may request to be cut some slack, resulting in a more flexible attitude toward grading or other policies. Simply write on an assignment, or send an email describing the request, with the phrase “please cut me some slack” - Professor Mittell will adjust his expectations accordingly. Slack cannot be requested after a grade has been given, nor will it apply toward honor code violations.

    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.


    Watching audiovisual media can be intense, with skilled artists creating emotionally vivid and often disturbing images and sounds. This course assumes that students are able to watch media that is often challenging and disturbing in its representations without need for protection or warning; in fact, engaging with discomfort and challenges is a significant part of a liberal education and an opportunity for discussion and learning. However, there are some instances where a student may have had personal trauma that creates specific triggers for severe emotional distress. If that applies to you, please take responsibility to research the films and television we will be watching ahead of time, and let Professor Mittell know if you think watching a particular screening would create a significant issue for you—we can then work out alternative 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.


    Printing & Computer Use Policy:
    Writing assignments for this course are submitted via the course website, with no printing required. Many readings are online – students are welcome to print or not print at their choosing, with the understanding that students should take notes on electronic readings either via digital annotation or separate notebook or word processing file. You should bring assigned readings to class each day, either via paper or on a laptop screen. Feel free to use laptops throughout all class meetings except during screenings, where the light from the screen can disrupt the viewing experience. If you are on your laptop, you are expected to engage with course materials, not free-range surfing the web, checking email, Facebook, etc. Students who do not demonstrate engaged presence in class, whether via digital distractions or otherwise, will be penalized in the course participation grade, or even asked to leave class in extreme instances.


    Course Schedule

    September 17– Introduction to Narrative Theory

    WATCH (in-class):      Review (Comedy Central, 2014), “Stealing, Addiction, Prom”

    WATCH (on Saturday)            Boyhood (Linklater, 2014) – at Hirschfield Film Series, 3pm or 8pm in Dana


    Week of Sept. 21Storytelling in Moving Images

    READ:             David Bordwell, “Three Dimensions of Film Narrative”
                           Jason Mittell, Complex TV, “Introduction” & “Complexity in Context” - while reading this book, check out the online companion for video examples

    *Mittell, “Film & Television Narrative” (spoiler for Lost episode)                    


    WATCH:          Lost (ABC, 2004), “Walkabout” – PN1992.77 .L6725 v.1 2009B
                          Fargo (Coen and Coen, 1996) – PN1997.F3447 A1 2009B

    WRITE:            Short essay on Boyhood due Thursday via Moodle


    Week of Sept. 28Comics as Narrative Medium

    READ:             Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (entire book)
                            Matt Madden,
    Exercises in Style (explore various exercises)

    WATCH:          Review (Comedy Central, 2014), “Sex Tape, Racist, Hunting”
                            Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997) – PN1997.P75997 A1 2000B

    IN-CLASS 10/1 – Scott McCloud Visits!


    Lecture: Friday Oct. 2, Scott McCloud, “Comics and the Art of Visual Storytelling,” noon, Dana


    Week of Oct. 5 ­– Narrative, Medium and Adaptation

    READ:              Bordwell, NiFF, Ch. 1-2
                            Seymour Chatman, “What is Description in the Cinema?” 
    Thomas Leitch, “Twelve Fallacies of Adaptation Theory”
                            **Alice Munro, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” [

    WATCH:          Fargo (FX, 2014), “The Crocodile’s Dilemna” – PN1992.77 .F275 v.1 2014B

    Away From Her (Polley, 2006) - PN1997.2.A939 A1 2007D


    Week of Oct. 12Narrative Comprehension & Cognition

    READ:             Bordwell, NiFF, Ch. 3-5
                            Mittell, Complex TV, “Comprehension”  
    *Daniel Barratt, “Twist Blindness”  

    WATCH:          Review (Comedy Central, 2014), “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes”

    Fargo (FX, 2014), “The Rooster Prince” – PN1992.77 .F275 v.1 2014B

    The Sixth Sense (Shyamalan, 1999) – PN1997.S535 A1 2008B

    RECOMMENDED VIEWING: Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954) – PN1997.R36 A1 2008D 

               Curb Your Enthusiasm, “Vehicular Fellatio” (HBO, 2010) - PN1992.77.C867 v.7 2010D 

    LECTURE:Tuesday Oct. 13, 4:30pm, RAJ conference room. Frederick Luis Aldama, "Muy Pop!: Meditations on Film, Television, Comics and Latino/a Popular Culture in the 21st Century"


    Week of Oct. 19 – Character

    LECTURE: Monday, Oct. 19, 4:30pm, BiHall 216. Henry Jenkins, "By Any Media Necessary: The New Activism of American Youth"

    READ:            Murray Smith, “Engaging Characters” 
    Mittell, Complex TV, “Beginnings” & “Character” 
    *Bordwell, “Nuance & Niceties” and "Function of Film Sound: The Prestige"

    WATCH:          Review (Comedy Central, 2014), “Celebrity, Batman”

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

    RECOMMENDED VIEWING:  Veronica Mars, “Pilot” (2004) – PN1992.77 .V465 v.1 2005D 

    WRITE:            Analytic Essay due via Moodle, 10/22


    Week of Oct. 26   Focalization & Point of View

    READ:             Chatman, “New Point of View”

    Jan Simons, “Complex Narratives” 

                           Thomas Elsaesser, “The Mind-Game Film”

    WATCH:          Review (Comedy Central, 2014), “Best Friend, Space”

    Fargo (FX, 2014), “A Muddy Road” – PN1992.77 .F275 v.1 2014B

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

    WRITE:           Submit final paper topics, 10/27


    Week of Nov. 2 Authorship & Narrators

    READ:             Chatman, “In Defense of…”, “Implied Author at Work”, “Cinematic Narrator” 
    Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?” 

    Mittell, Complex TV, “Authorship” 

    WATCH:          Review (Comedy Central, 2014), “Road Rage, Orgy”

    Fargo (FX, 2014), “Eating the Blame” – PN1992.77 .F275 v.1 2014B

    Adaptation (Jonze, 2002) – PN1997.2.A36 A1 2003D 

    PLAY:              Complete Portal by 11/5


    Week of Nov. 9 – Narrative Temporality

    READ:             Bordwell, NiFF, Ch. 6-7

    Mittell, Complex TV, “Orienting Paratexts”  

                          Paul Booth, “Memories, Temporalities, Fiction”  

    *Ralph Rosenblum, “Annie Hall: It Wasn’t the Film He Set Out to Make” 

    WATCH:          Review (Comedy Central, 2014), “Revenge, Getting Rich, Aching”

    Fargo (FX, 2014), “The Six Ungraspables” – PN1992.77 .F275 v.1 2014B

    Annie Hall (Allen, 1977) – PN1997.A463 A1 2012B

    IN-CLASS SCREENING on November 12 in Axinn 232: 

    Fargo (FX, 2014), “Buridan’s Ass” – PN1992.77 .F275 v.1 2014B

    WRITE:           Submit research paper proposal by 11/12


    WATCH (on Saturday 11/14):Ten Thousand Saints (2015) at 3pm or 8pm in Dana

    LECTURE (on Monday 11/16):Eleanor Henderson ’01 discusses novel & film adaptation, 4:30pm, Abernethy Room in Axinn


    Week of Nov. 16Classical vs. Art-Cinema Narration

    READ:             Bordwell, NiFF, Ch. 8-10
                            Eleftheria Thanouli, “'Art Cinema' Narration”

    WATCH:          Review (Comedy Central, 2014), “Marry, Run, Party”
                            La Jetee – PN1997.J444 A1 2012B 
                            12 Monkeys (Gilliam, 1995) – PN1997.T778 A1 2005D

    CREATE:          Narrative remix videos due by 11/17


    Week of Nov. 22Television & Serial Form

    READ:            Robert Allen, “Reader Oriented Poetics of Soap Opera” 
    Linda Williams, "Mega-Melodrama!"
    Robyn Warhol, “Feminine Intensities

    Mittell, Complex TV, “Serial Melodrama” and “Ends”

    WATCH (special screening Sunday Nov. 22, 7:30pm)

     Review (Comedy Central, 2014), “Quitting, Last Day, Irish”

               Arrested Development, “Top Banana” (2003) – PN1992.77.A786 v.1 2004  

    Fargo (FX, 2014), “Who Shaves the Barber?” – PN1992.77 .F275 v.1 2014B

    Fargo (FX, 2014), “The Heap” – PN1992.77 .F275 v.1 2014B

    WRITE:           Submit videogame play journal by class on Nov. 24


    Week of Nov. 30Videogames & Experimental Modes of Narration

    READ:             Bordwell, NiFF, Ch. 12
                           Jesper Juul, “Fiction”  
    Mittell, “Playing for Plot in the Lost and Portal Franchises” [
                            *Eva Laass, “Is There a Story?”
                            *Mittell, “Haunted by Seriality”

     WATCH:          Fargo (FX, 2014), “A Fox, a Rabbit, and a Cabbage” – PN1992.77 .F275 v.1 2014B
                           Mulholland Drive (Lynch, 2002) – PN1997.2.M865 A1 2002D


    Week of Dec. 7 Videogame Narrative Logics

    READ:             Henry Jenkins, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” [Online]

    Gonzalo Frasca, “Ludologists Love Stories Too”

    Scott Higgins, “Seriality’s Ludic Promise” [Online]

    Mittell, Complex TV, “Transmedia Storytelling” 

    *Drew Morton, “Frome the Panel to the Frame: Style and Scott Pilgrim” [Online]

    WATCH:          Fargo (FX, 2014), “Morton’s Fork” – PN1992.77 .F275 v.1 2014B

    Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Wright, 2010) – PN1997.2.S3675 A1 2010B

    WRITE:           Research paper due via Moodle by Dec. 16 at noon