Plot in Cinematography: Victor Shklovsky, Literature and Cinematography

By Victor Shklovsky


To do a proper study on the theory of cinematography, you would have to collect all films, or at least several thousand of them. When classified, these films might yield the mass of material from which you could formulate several absolutely precise laws. We witnessed the arrival of cinematography; its life is the life of our generation; we can trace it step by step. Soon the material will become boundless. It is depressing to think that we already know everything about the need to study contemporary phenomena in the history of art but never do anything about it.

This is not something I can do by myself. This matter is beyond the capabilities of one individual; it requires trained assistants, means and, possibly, experiments.

What makes people cry? What is comical? Under what conditions does the comic become tragic?

It’s hard to understand literature fully; it’s impossible, or nearly impossible, to give it direction. The cinema is still visible; we could create a film science, which could be completely mechanised. In 1917 someone published a carefully researched article which reported that screenwriters, exhausted by work, had concocted a machine that produced plots. Imagine a row of films wound on special spools. One of the reels contains people’s professions, the second one – countries of the world, the third one – various ages, the fourth one – human acts (for example, kissing, climbing a pipe, knocking someone down, jumping into the water, shooting). A person takes hold of the cranks leading to these reels and spins them. Then he peers through a special slot and reads the resulting gibberish.

The machine is rather strange, but apparently it gives American brains the jolt they require. I’m going to write more about this amazing aspect of cinematography: about the tendency not to motivate the connection between the component parts, its scenes.

But in order to do this, we have to go back to the subject of plot in literature. There are several types of literary plot. Almost always, as it seems to me, these types of structure are based on an underlying sensation of disparity, an irony of sorts that is resolved at the end. In its simplest cases, a plot may be defined as an elaborated parallel. And there is an affinity that exists between parallelism in itself and the so-called obraznost’ (note: the Russian is not quite equivalent to the English ‘imagery’).

For example, if we say of a great man that he is a ‘tower’, that is an image. As a parallelism, the construct would be as follows: just as a tower rises amidst the city, so rises this man amongst the people. That is, an image is like a parallelism with its first part suppressed. This may be elaborated into a plot.

Thus, in the simple types of plot, we encounter a phenomenon similar in its structure to the ‘image’ and the ‘pun.’ There is such a moment in the plot of Macbeth. The witches have predicted that “none of woman born” will kill him. But Macbeth’s adversary was not born, he was “from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripp’d.” Thus the fact of unnatural childbirth – by means of Caesarian section – had so astonished the anonymous creator that he appropriated it and elaborated it into a plot. The word “born” lies at the base of the plot construct. For Macbeth, it means “of woman born”; for the witch, it means “born naturally,” with the emphasis on the very process of childbirth. Thus we find ourselves in a sphere where disparities are created on linguistic grounds.

Parallel intrigues in a film are possible only on one condition: that they be connected by common characters. Actually, film uses both “mystery” and “parallel” extensively, but it uses them in its own way. Mystery is used in the cinema mainly for plot transpositions, the phenomenon whereby a work’s events are rendered not in sequence, but in some other order. Usually what motivates the transposition is a story. In film, plot displacement triumphs. First, we usually get several somewhat incomprehensible scenes, which are explained only later in the form of a story narrated by one of the characters. Note, however, that in the case of motivation by a story, it is not the story of an event, as in a novel, but a plot transposition in its purest form (i.e., it’s as if you snipped a piece of film off the beginning and put it at the end).

In that regard film is undoubtedly much stronger. It is much weaker, however, in the area of allusion, which in literature sustains one’s interest in the resolution of mystery. Film does not allow ambivalence.

…One curious trait of cinematography is its complete disregard of motivations. By ‘motivations’ I mean the common, ‘quotidian’ explanation of a plot structure. Film has almost no use for motivations. Maybe this is simplistic, but it seems to me that in film nothing is told; everything is shown. We don’t require detailed explanations of the exceptionally fortuitous turn of events that made possible someone’s rescue. The facts speak for themselves. We see a film and hardly ever ask ourselves, “how, in what way?" An ordinary contemporary stunt film consists of a number of engaging scenes which are connected with each other solely by the unity of the characters.

Nor is any psychological motivation supplied. One part of a film is indispensable, because in it the cameraman shows a view of a city from above; in the next part, a trained monkey performs; the third part of the same film contains a ballet performance, and so on. And we watch all of it with interest.

What is a film plot? An artful selection of scenes, a successful chronological transposition and good juxtapositions. The film script has turned both toward popular comedy, with its stock characters, and toward the adventure novel, with its highly developed use of ‘delaying elements’, with its wide range of casualties, drownings, desert islands and other tricks… Since ‘delaying elements’, with slight variations, can go on forever, the only way to end the screenplay is to have a wedding.

This is edited and extracted from Literature and Cinematography (

Thanks to Sophie Lewis, Danielle Dutton and Martin Riker.