Storytelling school

The Ins and Outs of Identifying Classic Hollywood Storytelling

Think of it as an “I Spy” puzzle, but for the basics of classic-era storytelling.

Paramount Pictures

By Meg Shields Published 23 February 2022

Welcome to The Queue – your daily distraction of curated video content from across the web. Today we’re watching a video essay that explores how to spot the storytelling conventions of classic Hollywood storytelling.


Before we wade through the reeds of theoretical storytelling conventions, let’s all make sure we’re on the same page when it comes to what exactly “classic Hollywood” is.

Classic Hollywood Cinema is a term used by historians to describe both the visual style and narrative conventions of American cinema between the 1910s and the 1960s. If that sounds like a relatively vague time frame, that’s because it East ! That said, you’ll be keen to note that this period does indeed cover the tightening grip of American film as one of the medium’s most pervasive forms. All to say: understanding some of the creative bones of the time (broad strokes be damned) is imperative if you want to identify the influence and detractors of classic Hollywood.

As the video essay below suggests, many of the main narrative conventions that define classic Hollywood storytelling are:

  • psychologically defined individuals
  • a struggle to solve a problem or achieve a goal
  • conflict with other people or outside circumstances
  • characters have agency and causality moves the story forward
  • there is decisive victory or defeat

Because most theoretical principles are best understood with examples, the essay (which takes the form of a lecture) looks at two films that embody these narrative principles: Alfred Hitchcock’s voyeuristic thriller rear window (1954) and a modern example, that of Alfonso Cuarón Gravity (2013).

Be warned: the video essay below contains spoilers for the aforementioned films.

Watch “What is Classic Hollywood Storytelling?” :


Who did this?

This video essay on how to identify classic Hollywood storytelling is by Jordan Schoenig, PhD. in Film and Media Studies from the University of Chicago. They are lecturers in film studies and do video essays on, what else, cinema. You can subscribe to Schonig on YouTube here. And you can follow them on Twitter here.

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Associated themes: Filmmaking, Narrative devices, The queue

Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor to Film School Rejects. She currently directs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How’d They Do That? and Horroscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman’s “Excalibur” on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She she).