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Film noir plot structure


A conventional non-noir film might have the following form:

noir plot structure

For example, once upon a time there was normality in the shape of:

then one day an initiating event occurred:

so after that we have the meat of the plot, the comings and goings, the to-ings and fro-ings, the alarms and excursions, the misunderstandings and the false leads . . .

until at last there is a resolution:

and they all lived happily ever after, that is to say, things returned to normal.

That is the structure beloved of those who like a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is not, however, the typical plot structure of a film noir.

Noir films portray a world in which nothing is straightforward, and this is reflected in their structure. In the first place, in the land of noir there is no normality. It is a world of unending nightmare.

noir plot structure

Secondly, significant events that underlie the action are likely to have occurred before the film starts.

noir plot structure

In Gilda (1946), for example, when Ballin Mundson introduces Johnny Farrell to his wife Gilda, we can sense instantly that these two have met before and that there is unfinished business between them which bodes ill for all concerned. (The amount of information we are given about those prior events varies from film to film. Sometimes we are left to imagine them for ourselves, sometimes they are referred to in subsequent dialogue, and sometimes they are acted out for us in flashback fashion.)

Thirdly, there is no real resolution in most noir films. Instead they leave us with the disturbing feeling that the whole sorry business could just as easily start all over again, as, for example, in Inner Sanctum (1948).

noir plot structure