Pulp Fiction - what techniques of storytelling does Tarantino use?

Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" is a true masterpiece. Like many of the director's films, it is instantly addictive, despite its leisurely pace. Artful dialogues, beautiful visual aesthetics and absurdly violent scenes - a vivid characteristic of Quentin's style.

We all love a well-told story, but what is the secret that makes the film Pulp Fiction so compelling? In this article, let's delve into the unique storytelling of this Tarantino masterpiece and reveal how each intertwining plot line creates a stunning atmosphere and influences our perception of cinematic art.
Plot-wise, there are three interconnected stories in the film, each introduced by a caption
The first is about two hitmen, Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega, who are trying to recover a briefcase stolen from their employer Marcellus Wallace. This entails two subplots, one involving Vincent being ordered to take Marcellus' wife Mia Wallace to town for the night while Wallace is out of town on business, and the other involving Jules and Vincent accidentally shooting a guy named Marvin in the face and trying to take him out.

The second story is about an aging boxer named Butch Coolidge, whom Wallace paid to organise the fight. Instead, Butch bets on himself and wins (the other boxer dies of a heart attack during the fight), and is about to leave the country immediately afterwards. But first he needs to return a gold watch that belonged to his father, which leads to the strangest day of his life, involving Marcellus and a couple of very unpleasant guys.

The third story, which concludes the film, is about a pair of robbers nicknamed Pumpkin and Bunny who spontaneously take over a restaurant where Jules and Vincent are dining.

One of Tarantino's trademarks is nonlinear narrative: a disrupted chronological order, which is evident in Pulp Fiction.

Here's what the film would look like in chronological order:

1. Prelude to "The Golden Hours" (Captain Coons talking to young Butch)
2. Prelude to "The Bonnie Situation" (Jules and Vince discuss Europe and foot massages, then kill Brett and take the briefcase)
3. "The Bonnie situation."
4. Prologue - "The Diner" (Pumpkin and Honey Bunny discuss the robbery)
5. Epilogue - "Diner" (confrontation between robbers and Jules/Vince)
6. Prelude to "Vincent Vega and Marcelus Wallace's Wife" (Marcelus instructs Butch to put up a fight, and Butch has a minor run-in with Vince)
7. "Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace's Wife."
8. Prelude to The Gold Watch (Butch and his French girlfriend talk about the pot)
9. "The Gold Watch."
A bit of an odd fact - if you put the film in chronological order, the first half (with the exception of the clock scene, which would be a distant prologue) is about two hitmen who have a very strange morning, with one of them continuing to have a very strange evening with his boss's wife. The second half of the film is about a boxer who double-crosses a powerful gangster, and the adventures that follow as he tries to escape.
The main theme and moral of the film is redemption.
Jules is a sadistic murderer, but he redeems himself by sparing the robbers and deciding to live a more spiritual life. Butch breaks his word and accidentally kills a man, but he redeems himself by following the example of the "gold watch" and refusing to leave Marcellus to the mercy of the rapists. Both get their happy endings. Vincent, who scoffs at Jules' redemption, does not change his ways and does not get his happy ending.
There's no real central character in the film, and each of the main characters gets at least one scene where they're the centre of attention.
What are some of the storytelling techniques used in Pulp Fiction?
Tarantino has tons of pop culture references in literally every scene, often in the background or in random snippets of dialogue.

The film begins and ends in a diner, but from different points of view. This is the reception of bookends.

Cameo creator - Quentin Tarantino plays Jimmy.
The 2 macguffin that everyone is after, and which are very important to the plot, are the briefcase and the watch.

According to the script, the briefcase contains diamonds. But Tarantino thought it was too similar to the plot of "Mad Dogs" and left the ambiguity. So we're not shown what's in the briefcase in the end.

A watch that spent many years in various arseholes and contracted dysentery in a Vietnamese camp is a memento macguffin because it's important as a memory.

Mia is definitely a trophy wife: Marcellus married her probably only because of her beauty and youth.

Mia goes barefoot in at least two scenes, and twice foot massages are mentioned in conversation. Esmeralda also drives her taxi barefoot. Tarantino's fetish for feet is well known and is on full display here.

The point of Mia's "Ketchup" joke is so cheesy that only a near-death experience prompts her to tell it.
The adrenaline shot scene is taken almost verbatim from an anecdote told by Steven Prince in the Martin Scorsese documentary American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince. The details, including overdosing a woman, using an adrenaline shot to revive her, arguing over who would do it, referencing a medical dictionary, using a "stabbing motion" and marking the target with a magic marker, are taken from Prince's story.

In fact, Mia would almost certainly have died if the emergency services had not been called. The epinephrine might have jump-started her stopped heart, but it would have done nothing to the heroin that was still in her system. The epi would probably have given her tachycardia. Plus, heroin doesn't have the same effect on the body when it's inhaled.
At the beginning of the film, Vincent states that he does not watch television. However, he later quotes a story told in the COPS series, showing that his previous aloofness was just a pose.

Chekhov's Gun: the heroin Vincent buys from Lance, and in particular the fact that Lance ran out of balloons (what addicts usually use to carry heroin) and had to give up the heroin in bags (what addicts usually use for cocaine). Later, Mia finds heroin in Vincent's coat, mistakes it for cocaine, and overdoses.

For the scene where Esmeralda drives Butch away after the fight, Tarantino chose a black and white 1940s street backdrop. This is most likely an homage to the films of the 40s, after which Pulp Fiction is named.
Jules is boorish and religious, while Vincent is apathetic and stone-faced. Vincent's calm behaviour is a direct result of his drug habit, so he is less competent and collected than the more emotional Jules. Because of Vincent's incompetence, Jules does much better in the role of hyper-competent sidekick and innocent enemy.

Vincent Vega is an alliterative name, it starts with the same letter. This technique is very fond of Joanne Rowling in Harry Potter (Severus Snape, Minerva McGonagall, Peter Pettigrew).

Vincent gives a pep talk in front of the bathroom mirror about not sleeping with Mia. This technique is a mirror monologue, where the character talks to himself in the mirror.
Vincent goes to the toilet three times, and each time he comes out of there, he gets into a situation where there is a death threat. The first time (the last we see, but the first chronologically) Vincent comes out of the toilet at the diner and gets into a Mexican shootout with Jules and Bunny.

The second time Mia overdoses on Vincent's heroin and utters "Oh, Crap!" as she leaves the bathroom (we don't see his face, but it's obvious this is happening). For the third time, Vincent uses Butch's toilet and again says "Oh, Crap!" as he comes out and sees Butch pointing Marcellus' gun at him. A few seconds later, Butch's toaster explodes and demolishes Vincent.

"Pulp Fiction" retro universe

The film is filled with references to times past. Jules wears a "jheri curls" hairstyle that was popular in the 70s. The soundtrack has a lot of 60's surf rock. In Butch's motel, the song Clutch Cargo is playing on the TV. The film's title comes from Pulp fiction, a style of fiction popular in the first half of the 20th century. The film's poster follows the style of a Pulp fiction magazine cover from the 40s and 50s.
The 50's style diner plays an important role in the story. Jackrabbit Slim's is a themed restaurant based on this decade. The entire action sequence at Jackrabbit Slim's is naturally full of 50's pop culture references, not all of them explainable. The entire staff is dressed in 50s celebrity costumes, including Buddy Holly, Marilyn Monroe, and more. The Douglas Sirk steak, named after the director known for his melodramatic style without half measures, can be ordered "burnt to a crisp or bloody bloody", while milkshakes can be ordered as Amos and Andy or Martin and Lewis, two famous comedy duos, the former featuring black characters and the latter white. A dwarf maitre d' dressed as a bellhop quotes an old Philip Morris cigarette advert.

Jackrabbit Slim's restaurant itself is named after singer/songwriter Steve Forbert's album, although it wasn't recorded in the 50s.

Music in the film:

  • Butch and Marcellus are introduced to the song "Let's Stay Together" by the band Al Green.
  • When Vincent walks in to pick up Mia, Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man" is playing in the house.
  • When she returns home, she puts on Urge Overkill's cover of Neil Diamond's "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon."
  • The music playing during the opening credits is from Jules and Vincent's car radio.

Events that can predict future developments:

- Jules on Marcellus Wallace: "Marcellus Wallace doesn't like to be fucked by anyone but Mrs Wallace."

- Before the confrontation in Brett's flat, Vincent mentions to Jules that one of the men in the flat is "our guy". Marvin is the only person not killed in the flat, suggesting that he was the spy Vincent was referring to.

- At the beginning of Butch's story, when Esmeralda asks him how it feels to kill a man, he cannot answer because he does it unconsciously. But by the end of Butch's story, two corpses later, he can probably describe the feeling in detail.

- The conversation about Marcellus Wallace's apparent disproportionate retribution against the man who allegedly gave Mrs Wallace a foot massage serves to build up tension in the face of the temptation and nervousness Vince feels when he has to ask Mia out for the evening.

- The conversation about the foot massage also makes it clear that although Jules works for Marcellus, he is not afraid of him. He openly questions the cruelty of the punishment and states with complete confidence that anyone who tries such a thing with him will pay for it. This becomes apparent later when Jules is completely unconcerned about Marcellus' reaction to his request to help with Marvin's body and tender his resignation.

- After waking Marcellus and Butch, Maynard tells them, "No one kills anyone in my workplace but me and Zed." That's exactly what happens.

Meaningful Background Event:

- In the first scene, when Pumpkin and Bunny discuss the merits of robbing liquor shops or restaurants, Vincent can be briefly seen heading to the bathroom (particularly when Pumpkin talks about how "customers with food in their mouths" are unlikely to get in the way of robbing a restaurant), and Jules can be overheard in the background (from 3:06 minutes in).

- At the end of the film, this scene is "reversed" and we see the same scene from Jules and Vincent's point of view, with a conversation between Pumpkin and Bunny visible in the background. Eventually there is a shot of Pumpkin shouting "Garson! Coffee!" to make it obvious.

Visual Pun (Visual PUN):

- During the "adrenaline shot" scene, two board games, Operation and Life, appear in the background.

- Earlier, Mia tries to trigger this game by telling Vincent "Don't be a..." and then drawing a rectangle in the air with her fingers. In case you didn't realise, the rectangle is superimposed on the screen.

And a couple more details about the characters

Mia is Damsel in Distress, the lady who needs saving. She's also a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, at least one version of this trope. Vincent assumes that in reality he won't get along with her, since she's his boss's wife and he only dates her on his orders. However, after getting to know her better, he has a great time with her, to the point where chemistry develops between them. However, her overdose and Vincent's death keeps the relationship from going too far.

Butch's girlfriend is a morality pet for the boxer, something he justifies himself with. It's a small role that has a big impact on the plot. Despite being a fairly minor character, her forgetting her watch is ultimately what starts much of the film.

Lance looks like Jesus: he has long hair and a beard.

Marcellus is a very unusual Affably Evil trope: he's a powerful criminal mastermind, but he's also polite, calm, reasonable, and kind to his subordinates.

Booch is the antihero: he's the closest thing to a good guy since he's not a criminal and saves Marcellus' life, but he's still willing to double-cross the mob bosses and at least pretends not to care that he accidentally killed an opponent in the ring.

These are the kind of references and homages to other works found in Pulp Fiction:

- The Duchess from the animated film The Aristocrats inspired Uma Thurman to dance.

- The scene where Butch stops at the pedestrian crossing and Marcellus walks by is very similar to a scene from the film Psycho.
- Of course, quoting the Bible.

- On Jules' blue shirt is a monochrome version of the current Krazy Kat page image.

- Vincent wears a University of California, Santa Cruz t-shirt.

- Trying to reassure Jimmy, Jules says, "It's Kool and the Gang," referring to the funk band whose song "Jungle Boogie" is also on the soundtrack.

- Jules eats Brett's Big Kahuna Burger, moments before shooting him and his mates, not counting Marvin (who is supposed to be the mole). This is a clear allusion to the film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where Angel Eyes does the same thing to Stevens.

- Jules refers to "Happy Days" in the diner scene when she tells Yolanda/Bunny that "we're going to be like the three Fonzies."

- In a scene from the script that was not used in the film, Mia gives Vincent a personality test she devised, offering him pairs to choose from - Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family, Betty and Veronica, etc.

- We've certainly seen John Travolta dance in a few films (Saturday Night Fever, Grease) and win a prize in a dance competition that he didn't quite deserve.

The film's advertising strategy is very notable. During the advertising campaign, Mia Wallace is everywhere, on posters and home video release covers, despite the fact that she only plays the lead in one of the overlapping stories. This is unusual considering that Uma Thurman had the least star power among the film's main cast at the time.

And Bruce Willis is mentioned with an "i." He was the biggest star in cinema at the time and took a pay cut to star in the film.

The roles in Pulp Fiction were stellar for Uma Thurman and Samuel el Jackson - no one knew about these actors before.

You know what the point of the title is? It's that Vincent Vega was reading the tabloid press and lingering on the toilet, which is the reason for a lot of different events in the film.

Deleted Scenes

- The scene in which Vincent buys heroin from Lance was longer, and Lance gave a monologue about being given the wrong directions and complaining about people being rude.

- Before heading out for dinner at Jackrabbit Slim's, Mia interviews Vincent, filming him with a hand-held video camera. Mia asks Vincent if he is related to folk singer Suzanne Vega, then asks a series of trivial questions about his personal media preferences (The Brady Bunch or The Partridge Family?) and asks if he is "an Elvis man or a Beatles man". This explains a later comment ("an Elvis man would have to like this").

- The taxi ride and conversation between Butch and Esmarelda was longer, and there is additional dialogue in which Butch explains his feelings about being a boxer and killing his opponent Floyd.

- At an auto parts warehouse, Winston Wolfe good-naturedly bargains with the owner Monster Joe (Dick Miller), after which Wolfe flirts with Joe's daughter Raquel (Julia Sweeney). As a result of the cuts, Sweeney's cameo was reduced to a supporting role and Miller was removed from the film.

What else could have been in the film? What were the nuances in choosing the actors and changing the plot?

According to Courtney Love, she and Kurt Cobain were made special offers for this burglar role. Apparently (and unfortunately), Cobain declined. Depending on which article you read, Tarantino denies this. Pam Grier auditioned for the role of Jody.
Marvin's death was originally a different story:

Vincent's shot was supposed to hit Marvin in the neck, after which Vincent kills him out of mercy. This scene seemed too depressing to Tarantino, and he reworked it into the more comedic version shown in the film.

The final scene was planned to include the Imagine Spot episode in which Jules kills Pumpkin and Bunny to show how the old Jules would have acted. Tarantino decided that everything was already clear enough and didn't even film this scene.

Tarantino had originally planned for the song "My Sharona" by The Knack to be played during Gimp's torture, but the rights to it had already been given to another film, Reality Bites. In addition, one of the band members had become a born-again Christian and did not want the song to be associated with a sexually violent scene.

Tarantino originally intended the film as an anthology in which each piece would be directed by a different director. This idea would later be used in the film Four Rooms, which Tarantino directed (and acted in) for the final instalment.

According to Samuel L. Jackson, Bonnie was not a black woman in the original version of the film. Quentin Tarantino changed her ethnicity to soften Jimmy's use of the N-word when talking to Jules and Vincent after he had to play the role himself.
What's your favourite Tarantino film? I just fell in love with Pulp Fiction and Travolta in it! Let me know in the comments how you liked the film and what other tricks you noticed.