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James Hull Articles

James Hull is an animator by trade, avid storyteller by night. He also taught classes on Story at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). You can find more articles like this on his site dedicated to all things story at...
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For past articles for Screenplay.com by James Hull, click here.


Within Every Great Narrative
February 2017

Within every great narrative sits a comprehensive and elaborate tapestry of story points. The reason a particular story feels good eliciting that Oh, that's a great movie reaction is because these points resonate on a frequency that touches upon the way our own minds work. Those looking to communicate effectively with Audiences across the world must understand this narrative code that rests at the foundation of every great story.

This week we publish the second in our Storyforming series—Storyforming: The Dark Horse. Written and directed by James Napier Robertson and starring Cliff Curtis as Genesis, the real life savant who helped disadvantaged children in New Zealand develop the skills and confidence to compete in chess tournaments, The Dark Horse inspires because of its complete and fully-developed narrative structure. From character to plot to theme to genre, the storyform that fuels this narrative finds evidence throughout the entire movie.

In Dramatica, a storyform is a unique collection of seventy-plus story points that work together to form a holistic image of the Author's Intent. Authors use competing points-of-view and alternative approaches to solving problems to argue their own points-of-view on the best way to resolve the issues in our lives. For most, this is a hunt-and-seek process that involves several rewrites before the argument begins to take shape. With Dramatica, Authors can identify what it is they want to say with their story and then receive a comprehensive structure that helps support that point-of-view.

By analyzing a narrative through the eyes of Dramatica—particularly one as comprehensive and meaningful as The Dark Horse—Authors can develop the skills necessary to effectively recognize and appreciate their own story's unique set of story points. The more familiar an Author becomes with a storyform and how each and every part relates, the more comfortable and confident they become when it comes to structuring their own stories.

Identifying the Four Throughlines

Before diving in to the deep thematics present within each and every scene, the analyst must first identify the Four Throughlines of the story.

Narrative drive exists wherever there is an inequity. No imbalance, no story. Yet, one cannot focus in on the inequity and simply describe it—the Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao. Instead Authors approximate and speak around the inequity by offering an Audience four different ways of looking at it:

  • the Main Character Throughline (I have a problem)
  • the Influence Character Throughline (You have a problem)
  • the Relationship Story Throughline (We have a problem)
  • the Overall Story Throughline (They have a problem)

In The Dark Horse we find these perspectives in four different areas:

  • MC Throughline: Genesis (I'm bipolar)
  • IC Throughline: Ariki (You suffer from cancer)
  • RS Throughline: Family (We struggle against our roles within the family)
  • OS Throughline: Disadvantaged Kids Playing Chess (They struggle to do something positive for the children)

Locating the Domain of Conflict for Each Throughline

The next step requires the analyst to assign each of these Four Throughlines to a particular Domain, or area, of conflict. In our Universe, conflict can be found in four different arenas:

  • a Situation (fixed external conflict)
  • an Activity (a process of external conflict)
  • a Fixed Attitude (fixed internal conflict)
  • a Manner of thinking (a process of internal conflict)
Areas of Conflict
Areas of Conflict

In Dramatica, these four areas align into a quad where the external conflict sit on top, and the internal conflicts rest on the bottom. The fixed conflicts find themselves diagonally across from one another as do the processes of conflict.

Only one rule when assigning Throughlines to Domains, the following must be diagonally across from each other:

  • Overall Story <—> Relationship Story
  • Main Character <—> Influence Character

In The Dark Horse, the Throughlines fall into these Domains:

  • MC Throughline: Genesis — Bipolar Personality Disorder is a Fixed Attitude conflict
  • IC Throughline: Ariki - Cancer is a Situation conflict
  • RS Throughline: Family - Roles within the Family Unit is a Manner of Thinking conflict
  • OS Throughline: Disadvantaged Kids Playing Chess is an Activity conflict
The Throughlines of The Dark Horse
The Throughlines of The Dark Horse

Determining Character and Plot Dynamics

From there, the analyst begins identifying the answers to dynamic questions that pinpoint the forces that twist and turn the narrative. Dramatica begins with 32,768 possible storyforms. Answering these questions helps narrow down the possibilities and focuses the story engine in on the Author's original intent.

The four Character Dynamics look to Genesis:

  • Main Character Resolve Does he Change the way he approaches problems or does he Remain Steadfast?
  • Main Character Growth Does he hold out for something to Start or something to Stop?
  • Main Character Approach Does he prefer to solve problems externally as a Do-er, or internally as a Be-er?
  • Main Character Problem-Solving Style Does he approach problem-solving Linearly or Holistically?

The first and third questions find an easy response: Genesis is both Steadfast in his resolve and approaches problems internally as a Be-er.

The nature of the second question provides ample opportunity for misappropriation of focus and therefore sits without an answer. In The Dark Horse, Genesis appears to solve problems both Linearly and Holistically and therefore this question goes unanswered as well. He appears to be a Linear thinker, but his temperment and disability clouds the answer to this important dynamic question.

The four Plot Dynamics focus on the efforts to teach disadvantaged children how to do something positive with their lives:

  • Story Driver Do the efforts to improve the lives of these children progress because Actions force decisions or because Decisions for Actions?
  • Story Limit Do the efforts to improve the lives of these children reach a climax because of a Timelock or an Optionlock?
  • Story Outcome Do the efforts to improve the lives of these children result in Success or Failure?
  • Story Judgment Do the efforts to improve the lives of these children appear to be a Good thing or a Bad thing?

All four find easy answers: Actions drive decisions, the story reaches a climax because of a Timelock (the deadline for the chess tournament), and the efforts to improve the lives of these children result in Success and are shown to be a Good thing.

With these six questions answered and the Four Throughlines assigned to Domains, Dramatica narrows down the possible storyforms from 32,768 to 128.

Character and Plot Dynamics
Character and Plot Dynamics

The Concerns of Each Throughline

After identifying the forces behind the narrative, the analyst now turns their attention towards the Static Plot Points of the story. The first and perhaps most important of these rests at the Plot level of the model and determines the focus of Concern for each Throughline. When choosing a Concern for one Throughline, the analyst automatically chooses the the Concerns for the other Throughlines: they will locate themselves in the same relative location as the first choice.

If the analyst chooses an Overall Story Concern of Obtaining for The Dark Horse, the Main Character Concern would be Innermost Desires, the Influence Character Concern would be The Future, and the Relationship Story Concern would be Changing One's Nature. Obtaining, Innermost Desires, The Future, and Changing One's Nature all sit in the bottom left hand corner of the model.

If the analyst chose instead an Overall Story Concern of Understanding for The Dark Horse, the Main Character Concern would be Memories, the Influence Character Concern would be The Past, and the Relationship Story Concern would be Developing a Plan. Understanding, Memories, The Past, and Developing a Plan all sit in the upper left hand corner of the model.

Narratives rely on focused and meaningful story points to create a comprehensive understanding of the Author's message. Locating these Concerns in the same general location improves the resonancy of the message and ensures a consistency of purpose in each Throughline.

In The Dark Horse, the Overall Story Concern of Playing Chess finds itself in Doing, the Main Character Concern of Reacting Impulsively finds relevance in Impulsive Responses, the Influence Character Concern of a Body Succumbing to Cancer finds resonance in How Things are Changing, and the Relationship Story Concern of Who Plays What Role in the Family finds a home in Playing a Role.

Identifying these Concerns brings the total amount of possible storyforms down to 32 storyforms.

The Four Concerns of The Dark Horse
The Four Concerns of The Dark Horse

From Issues to Concrete Problems

Lastly, the analyst looks to the Issues within each Concern and approximates which pair sounds more like the source of conflict within each Throughline. In The Dark Horse, the personal Issues of Genesis belong to either Value & Worth or Worry & Confidence. He seems less troubled by the relative value and worth of things than he does his own anxiety and lack of self-confidence, so Worry & Confidence it is. Between the two, Worry seems the strongest contender for the source of trouble in his life.

The Personal Issues of Genesis
The Personal Issues of Genesis

Looking to the quad of elements under Worry, the analyst finds Accurate, Result, Process, and Non-Accurate. These four Elements function as the narrative drive within a Throughline:

  • One functions as the true Problem
  • One functions as the Solution to that Problem
  • One looks to be the Symptom of the Problem
  • One functions as the Response to that Symptom

For Genesis, Non-Accurate—which in Dramatica means outside of tolerances or inappropriate—looks to be either the Problem or Symptom of his Throughline. Either he sees his inappropriate behavior as a problem (Symptom) or his true source of drive eminates from living outside of tolerances.

The analyst then checks both options, looking to the other Throughlines for confirmation. By comparing Dramatica's predictions for the other perspectives against the one the analyst feels most strongly about, a greater understanding of the narrative thematics at play begins to materialize.

The selection of Non-Accurate as the Main Character Problem resonates clearly in the other Throughlines and leaves the analyst with 2 possible storyforms.

Only One Choice Remains
Only One Choice Remains

The one remaining story point to identify? The Main Character Problem-Solving Style.

Double-Checking Your Work

If a concrete choice still eludes the analyst, they must turn to other areas to help answer this final question. Turning towards the Signposts of each Throughline, one finds that Dramatica narrowed down the 3rd Signpost for Genesis (what most people consider Act 2b) to either Innermost Desires or Contemplation.

Signpost 3 finds Genesis alone in his van, smashing out the window in a desparate attempt to feel the rain on his hands. The rage that explodes from him identifies completely with Innermost Desires, not Contemplation.

The Signposts for Genesis
The Signposts for Genesis

By making this choice, the analyst brings the number of possible storyforms down to one. Looking at the Story Engine Settings window, one finds story points in both red and blue. Blue represent choices made by the analyst, red represents what Dramatica predicts the other Throughlines should cover given our selections.

Final Story Engine Settings for The Dark Horse
Final Story Engine Settings for The Dark Horse

A comprehensive examination of those red story points confirms our selections and speaks volumes as to the power of Dramatica to accurately predict a story based on a limited number of choices. James Napier Robertson wrote this story and wrote it magnificently. Dramatica simply predicted what he would write about.

The Analyst and the Writer

Many think Dramatica a tool for analysis; something that can and should only be done after the Author's initial draft. By understanding how to accurately analyze a work as amazing as The Dark Horse, the analyst develops their own perception and comprehension of the structure of a functioning narrative. As knowledge grows, so too does intuition. A comprehensive regimen of analysis and action (writing) increases the Author's story sense and improves their value both at home and in the story room.

After all, the process of rewriting requires an analysis of what is there first…competent Authors must be both artist and analyst.

 


The Veil Between Author And Audience
January 2017

Writers get into trouble when they try to understand what their story means while they are creating it.

There exists an event horizon between the one telling a story and the one receiving it. What looks right from one side will look completely different from the other. Understanding Author's Intent would be impossible if it weren't for tiny pinholes piercing that veil.

Meaning and Prediction.

You can't have both...at the same time...from the same perspective.

Authors predict. Audiences appreciate meaning. If you're predicting you're not appreciating meaning, and if experiencing meaning, you're not predicting. This is the dilemma facing everyone trying to tell a story: I can predict what I want to say, but I'll never know the true meaning of what I write. We predict in order to write and we search for meaning in order to rewrite. The cycle continues on and on until finally we can't take it anymore.

Unless there was some way to see both sides. Some way to simultaneously be on both sides of that bookcase at the end of Interstellar. As Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) we could predict what is going to happen and as Murphy (Jessica Chastain) we could determine the meaning of what we saw. Possible only in the context of a tesseract designed by a future civilization?

Something like that.

Where Authors Run Into Trouble

I have a prediction, what does it mean?

This is the single biggest problem Authors have when they write and when they are first introduced to the Dramatica theory of story. They are so accustomed to asking What does it mean? that they fail to see Dramatica for what it is: a tool for prediction.

If you're going to predict, you have to establish the meaning up front. Meaning is the baseline for prediction. I know what this means so therefore I can predict it.

By definition then, you can't do both prediction and meaning at the same time. You can't ask what does a prediction mean? Meaning is what you stand on and use as context for prediction: I think X and Y is good, therefore I can predict what is going to happen. Prediction is what you stand on and use for context in order to appreciate meaning: I predict this is how things are going to turn out, now I can look around and see what it means, by how it compares to the prediction I made.

The Dramatica theory of story can help with the second approach.

A Method for Prediction

With Dramatica, you have a storyform. The storyform is a collection of seventy-five story points that work together holistically to form the message behind the narrative. No one point takes precedence over the other, no one point is essential. Yet, enough points are needed to effectively communicate the Author's Intent.

A storyform is a method of predicting story points. With storyform in hand, an Author can then look back and establish the meaning of that storyform by evaluating it in terms of how it is received. But they can never try to ascertain the meaning of said story points. To do so would be an effort to distort definitions chosen and established by the creators of the theory as a means of predicting story points needed to tell a complete story.

The Dramatica theory of story specifically identifies key story points and relationships between story points so that Authors can begin to confidently predict elements of their story.

For instance, in a world where the Main Character is going to be a Do-er or Be-er and the Influence Character is going to be the Dynamic Opposite--which is a given in the current model of Dramatica--then if one picks what the Main Character Approach is, one will automatically know what the Influence Character Approach is going to be. One can make that prediction because Dramatica has already predefined those meanings.

I have a prediction, what does it mean? You can't do both in the same context. Stop trying to find meaning in Dramatica's story points and you'll start to understand why you have been struggling for so long.

Meaning is Experience

You have to pick one place, pick what you're going to do, then see if you're interested in predicting or meaning. This is one of the reasons why--when you are storyforming--it is so hard to understand what it means. It is hard to understand what the audience is going to experience simply by looking at a storyform.

And that is because storyforming is predicting.

An Author selects Success for the Story Outcome and Good for the Story Judgment. She wants it to end in a Triumph. That is prediction. Meaning is experience.

Rare Focal Points Along the Veil

The story points found in the storyform are those rare focal points seen by both Author and Audience. Within that veil that exists between the two, there are these very specific holes in very specific places that have very specific meanings. Those are the story points.

If you look from the Author's side and you look from the Audience's side you are pretty much seeing the same thing. These story points allow you to predict how the Audience should interpret your story. Not how they will, but how they should.

Likewise from the Audience's side of things, they can see or sense a little hole there and think Oh, I think this is the meaning behind what this Author is trying to say with this story. I think this is what the Author wanted me to find out. And it was...because it was baked into the whole thing.

A Recipe for Successful Communication

From the Audience's viewpoint, experiencing a story is like experiencing a great meal. They think to themselves Well in this recipe I know they used olive oil, not peanut oil. Because I can tell from this flavor right here. I can't see olive oil, so I'm not sure what kind. But I know it has a kind of olive oil taste to it.

That is how the story points in a storyform function. They are those strange interference patterns between predictions and meaning where you can stand at two different place and see the same thing.

When Author and Audience stand in the same place, they see two different things. The Author sees prediction. The Audience sees meaning. With a competent storyform in place they can stand at two different places and see the same thing.

That is the basis for effective communication. That is the basis for a great story.

Both Author and Audience can now look at the same place in a story from two different points-of-view. The Author looks and says This is how it there and here is where it is going. The Audience looks at the same and says This is where it all seems the meaning is and what it looks like it might ultimately mean...but I don't know yet. I haven't experienced it all yet.

It can all of a sudden turn on a dime for the Audience because of new information. They can't predict, they can only ascertain meaning.

Writers predict. Audiences establish meaning. A functioning storyform pierces the veil between both perspectives and offers a funnel for connecting the mind of the artist to the mind of the receiver.

This article originally appeared on Narrative First—fine suppliers of expert story advice. Want to become a master writer with Dramatica? Join the other novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights who have taken our a Dramatica® Mentorship Program and accelerate the development of your own sense of story.


The Crucial Element to Telling a Great Story
December 2016

Audiences gravitate towards great stories because they can experience something unattainable in their own lives. They can feel the story’s problem personally, while at the same time reason the problem from a distance. With this in mind, the most important part of any great story lies at the nexus point between this subjective and objective points-of-view.

We can’t simultaneously be within and without ourselves; stories can. Through the Main Character Throughline we get to experience this inequity personally and from within; through the Overall Story Throughline we get to observe this inequity objectively and from without. By presenting a view from both sides, a great narrative grants us the opportunity to better appreciate the problems we face in our lives.

In Dramatica, the point at which the Overall Story Throughline intersects with the Main Character Throughline is called the Crucial Element. The exact location of this element of story structure shifts based on other narrative dynamics, namely the Main Character Resolve, the Main Character Growth, and the Story Outcome. Understanding how these story points integrate to define the Crucial Element helps a writer elevate the impact of their stories.

In this series on Writing for Nanowrimo, we focused on the creative potential found in Dramatica’s brainstorming tools. With this final article, we launch would-be Authors and long-time wordsmiths beyond simple idea generation and into the stratosphere of making their stories connect and engage on a deeply meaningful level with their Audience. In fact, we already engaged this key story element by hiding it within one of our stories in this series. Read on to find the location of this special Narrative First Easter Egg.

Why So Crucial?

In the past, we downplayed the “cruciality” of this element.

Sounds pretty important, right? Turns out the Crucial Element isn’t as crucial to the formation of a story as you would think. It simply marks the element that exists at the intersection of the Overall Story Throughline and Main Character Throughline. Crucial to the storyform, but not crucial to implementation of that storyform. In other words, don’t freak out if you don’t get it.

And it doesn’t help when Chris Huntley, one of the co-creators of the Dramatica theory of story, adds this to the conversation:

When all is said and done, the crucial elements are only ONE of MANY pieces of the storyform. Leaving them out of your story won’t ruin the experience for your audience, but adding them does tend to make the story stronger.

After several years of helping clients nail down their narrative structure and seeing the Crucial Element in action in their work and our own, we now believe this concept to be of the utmost importance.

Change Character and the Crucial Element

The Crucial Element for a Main Character with a Changed Resolve sits differently across the subjective and objective Throughlines than a Main Character with a Steadfast Resolve. For the most part, the former is easier to understand and integrate.

  • A Main Character Resolve of Changed & a Story Outcome of Success finds the Main Character’s Crucial Element in the same place as the Main Character Problem
  • A Main Character Resolve of Changed & a Story Outcome of Failure finds the Main Character’s Crucial Element in the same place as the Main Character Solution

The Influence Character’s Crucial Element lies in a dynamic pair relationship with the Main Character’s Crucial Element. In other words, in a Changed/Success story the IC Crucial Element would be the same element as the Main Character Solution.

This is easy to see in films like Star Wars or The Matrix or even Monsters, Inc. where the Main Character’s personal problem reflects the problem in the larger Overall Story. Luke’s problem with challenging himself at every turn, Neo’s problem with doubting himself at every turn, and Sully’s problem with an instinct to cause children to scream at the top of their lungs showcase problems that once resolved—make it possible for the Overall Story to end in Success.

When it comes to a Changed Main Character and a story that ends in Failure—like Ed Exley in L.A. Confidential or Andy Sachs in The Devil Wears Prada—the Crucial Element plays out in a similar fashion with one slight adjustment. The article The Crucial Element of Screenwriting in Action covers this second scenario in detail.

Steadfast Character and the Crucial Element

With the Steadfast Main Character, the Main Character Throughline and Overall Story Throughline find overlap in a somewhat strange and different location:

  • A Main Character Resolve of Steadfast & a Main Character Growth of Stop finds the Main Character Crucial Element in the same place as the Main Character Symptom
  • A Main Character Resolve of Steadfast & a Main Character Growth of Start finds the Main Character Crucial Element in the same place as the Main Character Response

As with the Changed Main Character, the Influence Character’s Crucial Element in a Steadfast story lies in a dynamic pair relationship with the Main Character’s Crucial Element.[1]

While the Changed Main Character looks to the Story Outcome, the Steadfast Character looks to the Main Character Growth. Why? Simply put, in a Changed Main Character story the Main Character Throughline and Overall Story Throughline share the same Problem and Solution elements. In a Steadfast Main Character story the Main Character Throughline and Overall Story Throughline share the same Symptom and Response.

The Crucial Element identifies the location of overlap between the subjective and objective views of a story. When a story abuses or mistakes this connection, the narrative falls flat and seems to lack appropriate drive. When in alignment the narrative thrums like a well-tuned engine. Two recent movies exemplify the latter.

And, of course, our Western Occult story from last week’s article Finding Your Own Unique Voice When Writing for Nanowrimo applied the Crucial Element correctly.

Surprise!

Crucial Elements not Character Traits

Moana tells the story of a Steadfast Main Character who holds out for other to Stop doubting her. The quad of problematic characer elements in the Overall Story Throughline finds the Overall Story Problem in Uncontrolled, the Overall Story Symptom in Avoidance, the Overall Story Response in Pursuit, and the Overall Story Solution in Control.

The Overall Story Throughline of Moana
The Overall Story Throughline of Moana

Referring to the above for application of the Crucial Element in a Steadfast Main Character story, we find that Moana’s MC Crucial Element lies in Avoidance and Maui’s IC Crucial Element lies in Pursuit.

Remember that in a Steadfast story, the Symptom and Response elements of the Main Character and Overall Story Throughline are one and the same. For reference, here is Moana’s quad of problematic elements in her own personal Throughline.

The Main Character Throughline of Moana
The Main Character Throughline of Moana

At first glance it may seem as if these elements are reversed. If anything, Maui is the character who Avoids or runs away from trouble and Moana is the one who Pursues a course of action straight to Te Kā. Why then does Dramatica call for these roles to be switched?

Hacksaw Ridge is another story focused on a Steadfast Main Character that manages to hold out for those around him to Stop telling him how to live his life. The quad of problematic character elements in this WWII drama find the Overall Story Problem in Pursuit, the Overall Story Symptom in Control, the Overall Story Response in Uncontrolled, and the Overall Story Solution in Avoidance.

The Overall Story Throughline of Hacksaw Ridge
The Overall Story Throughline of Hacksaw Ridge

Again, we find that it appears Dramatica incorrectly reverses the Crucial Elements for these characters. Private Doss is the one advocating for freedom, or Uncontrolled behavior. Pvt. Smitty, Sgt. Howell, and Captain Glover clearly exemplify traits of Control in their efforts to dictate what Doss can and cannot do in their Army.

And that’s when you need to realize that the character elements found in the Overall Story Throughline represent facets of the Storymind as a whole–NOT individual character traits to be doled out as if at the start of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

The Storymind Concept

Dramatica sees story as an analogy to a single human mind trying to solving a problem. Protagonist, Antagonist, Skeptic, Guardian, Sidekick–these characters stand in for aspects of the mind at work. The Protagonist represents our motivation for initiative, the Antagonist our motivation for reticence.

When building characters by dragging and dropping avatars in the Build Character window, the Author assigns facets of the mind at work to these individual players. Thinking individual traits describe these characters is inaccurate; rather these characters represent individual traits of a single mind in the process of solving a problem. Understand this simple, but powerful concept, and Dramatica’s “reversal” of objective character elements in Moana and Hacksaw Ridge becomes clear.

Prodding the Storymind Where it Counts

As a Steadfast Main Character, Moana identifies the element in the environment that must be shifted in order for the Overall Story Solution to take place. She points out the Avoidance in others, rather than signifying any Avoidance emanating from herself. Likewise with Pvt. Doss in Hacksaw Ridge–Desmond identifies this problem of Control and shifts it out of the environment and into everyone else’s concept of themselves.

In a story with a Steadfast Main Character, the most significant paradigm shift occurs within the Influence Character–and this shift initiates with the Main Character’s constant prodding of the Main Character’s Crucial Element. Maui would never have reached a point of maintaining control over his massive ego if Moana had not constantly hit upon the Demigod’s predilection for running away. In fact, this narrative aspect could have been made more meaningful had the Authors emphasized and made a bigger deal out of Maui running away from the Coconut Pygmies and the Coconut Crab.

The collective Influence Characters of Smitty, Howell, and Glover would never have reached that point where they actually delay and put off an attack (another way of saying Avoid) had it not been for Desmond’s constant example and living proof over how much Control we truly have over our lives. Instead of writing a “reserved and controlled” character one might assume Dramatica calls for by giving Desmond this Crucial Element, the Authors of Hacksaw Ridge naturally saw to it that Des offered this aspect of the Storymind up for consideration to the Audience.

Weaving in the Crucial Element

In last week’s article on our Western Occult story, I secretly wove the Crucial Element into the world views of the Main Character and Influence Character:

To him [Jack, our Influence Character], it doesn’t make sense to get on your knees and pray for something you don’t even need. Be grateful and keep yourself from praying for an impossibility…Abby [our Main Character] sits on the other side of the argument. Why should they be happy with what they have when it feels so bad to have so little?

Our story features a Steadfast Main Character as well, however Abby’s Main Character Growth differs from Moana and Pvt. Doss in that she is holding out for something to Start. The Main Character’s Crucial Element will therefore be the same as the Overall Story Response. With a Steadfast/Start story the emphasis is on the hole to be filled in order to clear the way for the Overall Story Solution to come into play, so a focus on the Response makes sense. That Response, or hole to be filled, in our story is Feeling.

Do you see how I worked in her prodding of Feelings? How about Jack’s counter of what “makes sense”? That’s another way of encoding his Crucial Element of Logic.

Abby isn’t an emotional character given to bouts of intense depression or manic excitement as one would expect if these were simply character traits. Rather, she singles out the lack of feelings or deficient feelings that Jack and the others need to find within themselves. That shift, while clearing the way for the possibility of the townspeople to finally acquire some control over their lives, simply isn’t enough to overcome their addiction to being loose and fancy free. Remember, our story ends in Failure. Abby’s prodding works as intended in terms of freeing up Jack’s emotional growth, yet it isn’t enough to overcome the story’s larger problem.

Making Your Work Crucially Important

Audiences want to be inspired; they want to learn something new about their world that they can then take with them on their own journey. Understanding where the objective and subjective points-of-view of your story crossover can go a long way towards ensuring that your efforts at the keypad or at the notepad will not go unnoticed.

The Crucial Element of a story is crucial because it pinpoints an impossibility of life only possible within a narrative. An Author communicates this meaningful reality by accurately assigning the correct element to the two major subjective characters of a story–the Main Character and the Influence Character.

In the end, we write to be personally understood. We all have a unique and wonderful way of seeing the world and we hope to wish that someone somewhere hears our heart’s voice. Embrace the concept of the Storymind by giving your Audience a clear and accurate mind to inhabit and Audiences everywhere will ultimately embrace you.


  1. It will be the same element as the Main Character Response in a Stop story, and the Main Character Symptom in a Start story.  ↩

This article originally appeared on Narrative First—fine suppliers of expert story advice. Want to become a master writer with Dramatica? Join the other novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights who have taken our a Dramatica® Mentorship Program and accelerate the development of your own sense of story.


How to Tell If Your Main Character Faces Overwhelming or Surmountable Odds
November 2016

Why do some Main Characters find the conflict they face manageable while others balk under the pressure of insurmountable odds? More than a random reality at the mercy of the Author’s Muse, the feeling of dramatic tension within a narrative is traceable and discernible. The direction of development within the Main Character and the overall emotional state of the story itself gives writers a clue as to the nature of that tension.

Always Four

The Dramatica theory of story always works in fours. The entire model is based on the quad—the result of the way our minds organize and process information. We see Mass, Energy, Space, and Time because we think Knowledge, Thought, Ability, and Desire. In fact ,the latter four correlate with the first four: Knowledge is the Mass of the Mind just as Thought is the Energy of the Mind.

Ability and Desire are the Space and Time of the Mind, but those are more difficult to explain, and not something we are going to cover in this week’s article.

Last week we began a discussion on Dramatica’s Audience Apprecations. As mentioned, most of Dramatica focuses on observable objective story points seen from the point-of-view of the Author. The Audience Appreciations offer the Author an opportunity to predict how an Audience will perceive their story based on the makeup of their narrative.

That article, Predicting Who Will Listen to Your Story, focused on Reach. By combining the Main Character’s Problem-Solving Style with the Story Limit, an Author can predict the size of their Audience. And amazing as that sounds, that is only one Audience Appreciation.

One down, three to go.

This week we will be taking a look at Essence.

Passing Judgment on the Main Character’s Approach

The Essence of a story is described as the primary dramatic feel of a story:

A story can be appreciated as the interaction of dynamics that converge at the climax. From this point of view, the feel of the dramatic tension can be defined. Dramatic tension is created between the direction the Main Character is growing compared to the author’s value judgment of that growth.

Dramatica predicts how the Audience will feel by defining the dramatic tension between two story points: the Main Character Growth and the Story Judgment. Balancing these two touch-points of narrative against each other, the Author gains a greater understanding of the interaction of the dynamics of their story. It defines what their story means to the Audience.

The Main Character Growth

Main Characters “arc” by either growing into something or by growing out of something. While it may seem like six of one, half a dozen of the other, the Main Character Growth defines the direction of personal development for the central character. By setting the location of the story world’s larger problem in opposition to the Main Character’s personal problems, the story identifies a path of growth for working through the unravelling of the justification process.

If the Main Character grows into something, then their Growth reflects a Start direction. If the Main Character grows out of something, then their Growth showcases a Stop direction.

Look to Kirk (Chris Pine) in 2009’s Star Trek or Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) in Scream–Kirk grows into his leadership role by holding out for the naysayers and the villains to Stop coming down on him. Likewise with Sidney–though slightly tweaked–she grows by getting rid of her own typically teenaged obsession with self.

On the flip side, check out Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) in Bourne’s first flick The Bourne Identity or Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) in the magnificent film The Lives of Others. Jason grows into his new life by holding out for those set against him to Start revealing who they really are. Wiesler grows by gaining a sense of compassion for those he spies on.

The direction of growth the Main Character develops is only half of the equation when it comes to determining the feeling of tension in a story.

The Story Judgment

The Author also passes judgment on the story’s efforts to resolve the central problem by declaring the process a Good thing or a Bad thing within the Story Judgment. Typically, this result shows up in the maintanence or reduction of the Main Character’s personal angst. If the Main Character works through their issues, that is seen as Good thing. If instead their angst persists or even grows larger, than that is seen as a Bad thing.

Think of Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) in Brokeback Mountain or Mr. McAlister (Matthew Broderick) in Election–they end their narratives saddled with the weight of their own personal angst. Contrast this with Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) in Kramer vs. Kramer or Joy (Amy Poehler) in Inside Out–they complete their stories relieved of stress and anxiety.

The Story Judgment can also be seen as the relative emotional appraisal of the story’s characters at the end of the narrative. Were the efforts to resolve the inequity at large seen as mostly Good, or mostly Bad? Regardless of scope, the key is communicating the Author’s intent to the Audience–how should they interpret the emotional judgment of the story’s efforts to resolve conflict?

The Essence of Dramatic Tension

The problem with the story point of Essence is the semantic values Chris and Melanie chose to define it: Positive Feel or Negative Feel. Start/Good and Stop/Bad stories specify a story with a Positive Feel; Stop/Good and Start/Bad characterize stories with a Negative Feel.

That means Star Wars and Notting Hill feel Negative and The Omen and Romeo and Juliet feel Positive.

What?!

I’m not so sure Romeo and Juliet can be defined as positive. Under Dramatica’s definition even Hamlet would be categorized as a positive story. That’s insane.

When I first discovered Dramatica twenty years ago, this seemed like the craziest story point. It didn’t feel right and at the time, I chalked it up to an area of the theory that was inaccurate. Every story paradigm I had encountered up to that moment had some caveat, something that wasn’t quite right. My guess was that Essence fell into the same category.[1]

The definition of Positive Feel didn’t help either:

When a Main Character’s approach is deemed proper, the audience hopes for him to remain steadfast in that approach and to succeed. Regardless of whether he actually succeeds or fails, if he remains steadfast he wins a moral victory and the audience feels the story is positive. When the approach is deemed improper, the audience hopes for him to change. Whether or not the Main Character succeeds, if he changes from an improper approach to a proper one he also win a moral victory and the story feels Positive.

This sounds like Essence should be a combination of Main Character Resolve and Story Judgment, not Main Character Growth.

What exactly were Chris and Melanie hinting at? You can’t really mistake a story with a Positive Feel when compared to a Negative Feel. Even the definition for Negative Feel mentions “uppers” and “downers.” Reading that, one would even go so far as to assume that there would be far more “uppers” than “downers”.

A Surprise Discovery

This is, of course, what I intended to find when I started writing this article. Thinking I would gain the same insightful results I did from last week’s article, I figured data existed confirming the notion that Positive Feeling stories far outweighed the Negative Feels. Having spent the entire day crafting a beautifully worded 2,500+ word article, I assumed I would emerge with yet another amazing article proving Dramatica’s ability to predict emotion…

…turns out I was dead wrong. The two types of stories split 50/50 pretty much down the middle. 160 to 152–with the Negative Feeling stories outrunning the Positive ones. No real insight. Nothing really interesting to add to the conversation.

A thought occurred–could it be that Chris and Melanie made a mistake in naming the semantic values for Essence?

Misleading Terminology

The definition for Essence only adds to the confusion:

When a Main Character Stops doing something Bad, that is positive. When a Main Character Starts doing something Good, that also is positive. However, when a Main Character Starts doing something Bad or Stops doing something Good, these are negative

So Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is stopping something good and that feels negative. But Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) from Memento is stopping something bad and that is somehow positive.

Ok…

Turns out the answer was buried within the definition of Essence and made even clearer in the QnA article on Is ‘Negative Feeling’ merely descriptive or is it instrumental?:

A positive story is one where the characters are doggedly pursuing a solution to their troubles–they seem to be in control. A negative story is one in which the problem is dogging the characters as they attempt to escape its effects–they seem to be at the mercy of the problem.

Ohhhhhh, now that makes sense.

Yes Leonard feels like he is doggedly pursuing a solution and yes, Star Wars feels as if the problems dog the characters as they attempt to escape its effects. That totally feels right.

Which means Positive Feel and Negative Feel characterize insufficient semantic values for the task at hand.

If Essence really is about the feeling of dramatic tension in the story then that tension doesn’t feel positive or negative–

It feels Overwhelming or Surmountable.

Beset By Overwhelming Odds

Growth describes the transitory state of the Main Characters development throughout the story. Remember that the storyform has time built into it. Though it may look like a single set of story points defining the state of things, it simultaneously delineates the passage of time through the mental processes of a single human mind solving a problem.

The essence of that transition can be seen in the juxtaposition of the Main Character Growth and the Story Judgment. That feeling of Good doesn’t simply exist at the end of a story—it permeates the entirety of the storymind itself—right along with the Growth. It explains the emotional state of the mind processing through this particular instance of problem-solving.

And that emotional state can be described as either Overwhelming or Surmountable.

Take for instance the feeling of Overwhelming in stories marked by a Growth of Stop and Judgment of Good:

Examples of Overwhelming Stories (Stop/Good)
Examples of Overwhelming Stories (Stop/Good)

Eastern Promises, Looper, and Rocky? You don’t get more overwhelming then a story about dealing with the Russian mob, a story about assassins from the future returning to the present to kill you, and a story about fighting in a boxing match you have no chance of winning.

And Joe and Ratso don’t exactly find New York a hospitable place in Midnight Cowboy either.

What about a Growth of Start and a Judgment of Bad:

Examples of Overwhelming Stories (Start/Bad)
Examples of Overwhelming Stories (Start/Bad)

You probably haven’t seen Eve’s Bayou, but let me tell you—things don’t get more overwhelming than growing up in a Creole-American fractured family in Louisiana.

Or hiding out from crooked cops in Amish Pennsylvania in Witness. Or running from a cyborg killer from the future in The Terminator.[2] Or being an unattractive seventh grader in suburban New Jersey in Welcome to the Dollhouse.

These films and 126 more offer Audiences the opportunity to see how to approach the kinds of problems that overwhelm the senses and cloud proper judgment.

Surmountable Obstacles

On the other side, we have those stories that present a set of surmountable obstacles. Instead of overwhelmed by the weight of their issues, the characters in these stories assume control and pursue solutions because the conflict appears disputable and tenuous.

A sample of Start/Good stories:

Examples of Surmountable Stories (Start/Good)
Examples of Surmountable Stories (Start/Good)

Being John Malkovich, As Good As It Gets, and City Slickers—these are not films that overwhelm their characters with insurmountable odds. Instead, they put the characters in the driver’s seat. While living inside Malkovich’s head, recovering from a hate crime, and herding cattle can be difficult at times—it’s not something either of them can’t handle.[3]

Disrupting a wedding and introducing yourself into the workplace? No problem for the women behind My Best Friend’s Wedding and Working Girl respectively.

Surmountable tension is manageable tension.

Witness a continuation of this trend with a sample of Stop/Bad stories:

Examples of Surmountable Stories (Stop/Bad)
Examples of Surmountable Stories (Stop/Bad)

Grave of the Fireflies—if you haven’t seen it, is one of the saddest movies you will ever see. If any film had the potential of being misinterpreted as a “negative” story, this would be it.

Yet despite everything Setsuko and Seita face, they still manage to overcome it all—and it never once seems like they won’t make it. Same with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Brokeback Mountain. Sure, being gay in a hostile world can be difficult—but it’s not impossible. Neither is prospecting for gold in the remote Sierra Madre mountains.[4]

And standing up to the Joker in The Dark Knight or mobsters in A History Of Violence? Mortensen might have felt overwhelmed in Eastern Promises, but in History his character Tom Stall has everything under control.[5]

A Moment of Clarity

There exists a science to narrative. While many feel overwhelmed by the prospect of learning the various touch-points and mental forces behind story, the task remains a surmountable one. Either struggle with dropping preconceptions and misunderstandings and retain your personal angst (Stop/Bad), or grow into a new understanding by adding a better appreciation of story and watch your angst and anxiety slowly dissipate and fade away (Start/Good).

We prefer the latter.

Whether your own personal narrative or a fictional narrative all your own, a greater understanding of the kind of dramatic tension in a story promises a lifetime of carefree and unfettered expression. Most write to communicate an ideal, a better approach to living and breathing and existing in the world. Capture the Essence of dramatic tension in your story and convey your own unique personal message with ease and grace.


  1. If you know anything about Dramatica, the one thing that sets it apart from everything else is the lack of caveats and exceptions. I just didn’t know it at the time…  ↩

  2. Apparently the future is really overwhelming. And full of time-traveling assassins.  ↩

  3. As Good As It Gets actually consists of two different storyforms: the Romance story–which is what most think of when they think of Nicholson and his “You make me want to be a better man” line, and the Neighbors story–which features Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear) as the gay artist and Main Character recovering from physical abuse.  ↩

  4. For most of the characters in the story–Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) might have something to say about how everything turned out.  ↩

  5. Even if Viggo’s character wasn’t the Main Character (and he wasn’t). Story Essence applies to everyone in the story.  ↩

This article originally appeared on Narrative First—fine suppliers of expert story advice. Are you a professional writer interested in learning how to use Dramatica to structure your story? Enroll in our Dramatica® Mentorship Program and never worry about a deadline again.


Predicting Who Will Listen to Your Story
October 2016

Writing a story is one thing, finding an Audience to sit still and embrace your story is quite another. Many understand now that a functional narrative functions because it models the mind’s problem-solving process; and many understand that men and women solve problems differently. Appreciating that difference makes it possible for writers to predict who will be drawn into their story, and who will simply be observers.

Determining Who Will Listen to Your Story

While most of Dramatica deals with appreciations tied to the narrative structure of the story, there are four Audience Appreciations that predict how an Audience will react to a given narrative. The Audience Appreciation that consists of the Story Limit and the Main Character’s Problem-Solving Style is known as the Audience Reach.

Audience Reach identifies which parts of your audience are likely to empathize with your Main Character. More empathy equals greater attendance equals greater word-of-mouth equals greater revenue. By combining the choices made for the Story Limit and the Main Character’s Problem-Solving Style, a schematic can be graphed to predict the kind of Audience the story will attract.

  • Linear + Optionlock == Everyone
  • Linear + Timelock == Mostly Male Audience members
  • Holistic + Optionlock == Mostly Female Audience members
  • Holistic + Timelock == No one

Problem-Solving Style is on the left, the Story Limit is on the right. In addition to having a discernible first Approach to problems, Main Characters employ a method of problem-solving that resorts to either Linear thinking or Holistic thinking. Typically, these lines of thinking fall along the gender line: Males think linearly, Females think holistically. Of course, there are variations and permutations in everything and this is not to say that one cannot think using the other’s problem-solving style. It simply makes it easier for the Audience to relate and plug into the Main Character when they know his or her method of thinking.

Difference in Problem-Solving
Difference in Problem-Solving

The message is clear: if you want the largest audience, make sure your Main Character approaches problems linearly and that the story at large is brought to a climax by running out of options. If you want the smallest audience, give your Main Character a holistic approach to problem-solving while placing them under the restrains of a deadline.

Feels weird to even think about, right?

That’s because it is relating a story about a character who has no concept of the pressure supposedly building up around them. They would be completely disaffected and disinterested. And so would the Audience. Holistic thinkers don’t see time the way linear thinkers do–they don’t see it as something that cannot be malleable and transmuted into something else.

The two middle permutations of the Audience Reach account for the blind spots seen within both Male and Female Audience members.

The Male Audience Member’s Blind Spot

Guys can’t stand people who don’t think like they do. They don’t get holistic thinkers, as it seems completely nutso to approach a problem by balancing the environment. This is why your guy’s guy friends despise watching Moulin Rouge!. Christian (Ewan McGregor) is about to be revealed as trying to win over Satine (Nicole Kidman) in front of the Duke, and instead of punching and kicking his way to victory, the kid starts singing.

What?!

That’s the response from a linear thinking and one who has no concept of what can be accomplisted simply by a shift in the balance of things. Singing is the perfect solution in this narrative as it resets the tone of the Duke’s anger and challenges the lecherous man to see Christian in a new light. In short, holistic thinking is right 50% of the time; linear thinking is appropriate the other 50%.

But don’t tell a linear-thinking Male Audience member that. He’ll likely punch you in the face.

The Female Audience Member’s Blind Spot

For women, the Story Limit is their curse. Sure, they get Optionlocks–balancing out everything like they usually do–they’re very comfortable with the idea of dwindling options and choosing which option is the best. But when it comes to a Timelock, they haven’t a clue.

When you use time as your basis for understanding everything–when you see the changes and acceleration and deceleration of forces around you first before the actual things themselves–of course time isn’t going to seem a factor. A minute can seem like a year, a year like a minute. If you were forced to sit in a cave for nine months while you waited for an alien creature to leave your body, you would want someway to make the days seem like seconds, wouldn’t you?!

Over time this became an important, yet often overlooked and under-appreciated way of seeing the world. Turning towards the 21st century, a renewed interest in the feminine and a greater holistic understanding of the world is under way. Just don’t try to make them sit through High Noon, 3:10 to Yuma, or Armageddon.[1] They will likely despise you until you find a way to balance out their annoyance with you.

Dramatica’s Ability to Predict the Future

Last week, we discussed Dramatica’s ability to predict the future of cable TV and ESPN’s eventual internal conflict in the article Using Dramatica to Assess Narrative in the Real World. There it was revealed how Dramatica accurately predicted the eventual state of things today based on the dramatic potential put into place two years ago. The findings were all theoretical…until they weren’t.

Similarily, this notion of the Audience Reach being able to predict the potential audience for a narrative was conjecture. It wasn’t based on research or analysis. It was developed based on an understanding of human psychology and the difference between the way men and women process inequities and solve problems. And it would continue to be theoretical, if it weren’t for 22 years of ensuing analysis that proved it all correct.

If you go to the Dramatica site and look for the Analysis Filter, you will be presented with a collection of tools to help you better understand the presence of these story points in finished narratives. At the time of this publication, Dramatica.com contains 320 different unique analyses of films, plays and novels. By setting the different story points with the drop-down menus provided, you can effectively search through those hundreds of stories for storyforms that fit your choices.

For instance, click the MC Problem-Solving Style drop down and select Linear. Then, under Story Limit, select Optionlock. Click Filter and await the results.

Out of 320 potential narratives, 210 of them feature Linear thinking Main Characters pressured by a dwindling number of options. That combination accounts for two-thirds of every story analyzed.

That is simply astounding.

Linear/Optionlock Stories
Linear/Optionlock Stories

Chris and Melanie were able to predict the kinds of narratives we would find in our culture based on the psychology of the central character and the plot device put into place to bring pressure on that character.

Amazing.

Switch to Holistic/Optionlock and click Refine. A little over 83 different films, novels and plays that satisfy the “chick flick” notion of a Holistic Main Character beset by an Optionlock.

Holistic/Optionlock Stories
Holistic/Optionlock Stories

Now let’s try the Man’s man category–Linear/Timelock. Just short of a dozen–that first one there is actually a random storyform we created in one of our Dramatica User Groups. Sorry guys. Though you may love them, the majority of audiences aren’t really into them.

Linear/Timelock Stories
Linear/Timelock Stories

2/3 of all stories feature Linear Main Characters pressured by a limited number of options. The other 1/3 feature Holistic Main Characters pressured by options and Linear Main Characters pressured by time.

But we’re still missing one last category: the Holistic/Timelock story. Set those in the Dramatica filter and press Refine and be prepared to be astounded by a prediction made over two decades ago.

Out of 320 stories, only four fit the bill of a Holistic Main Character trapped within a Timelock.

Holistic/Timelock Stories
Holistic/Timelock Stories

That’s right.

Only 1% of all stories turn out to be Holistic/Timelock stories. One of those, My Fair Lady, effectively ends about halfway in. Another, The American President actually has both Timelock and Optionlock in it. And the other, Donnie Darko, no one gets at all.

Sideways is the lone wolf here, having won AFI’s Movie of the Year and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 77th Academy Awards. But we’re talking Alexander Payne and Paul Giamatti here. And besides, critical acclaim doesn’t always translate into higher revenue: Sideways made a little over $100G, ranking 50th in worldwide box office for 2004.

320. 84. 12. 4. Everyone. Women. Men. No one.

Though theoretical in presentation, Dramatica’s ability to predict the behavior of writers and producers past, present, and future has no equal.

Conclusion

In 1993, Chris Huntley and Melanie Anne Phillips predicted that a majority of complete and effective narratives would feature a Linear problem-solver caught within a story limited by a dwindling number of options. They went on further to predict a pathetic amount of stories featuring Holistic problem-solvers trapped by time.

The ensuing two decades of analysis proved their postulation correct and reaffirmed the power of Dramatica to accurately and confidently predict the soundness of a narrative.

Countless hours of sweat and turmoil go into the creation of a story. Whether it be projected on a screen, presented on stage, or devoured curled up on a couch, the presence of an effective and sound narrative is all that guarantees a fondness and admiration for the work put into it.

Great narrative can be predicted. It shares a structure common to the way our own minds process and resolve problems and thus, can be accurately formulated through a greater understanding of our own psychology. Dramatica offers writers and producers the opportunity to build a better storymind through its appreciation of the various ways each and every one of us perceives conflict. By accurately predicting human behavior, Dramatica makes it possible for creators to share their unique insights into how best to approach the conflicts we encounter in our own lives.


  1. Then again, don’t make anyone sit through Armageddon.  ↩

This article originally appeared on Narrative First—fine suppliers of expert story advice. Want to become a master writer with Dramatica? Join the other novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights who have taken our a Dramatica® Mentorship Program and accelerate the development of your own sense of story.


Using Dramatica to Assess Narrative in the Real world
September 2016

A deep understanding of the underlying structure of narrative makes it possible for individuals and organizations to predict where their stories are leading them. If the outcome turns out to be undesirable, key leverage points exist that–if engaged–turn the tide of narrative and align the flow to a different path. The only question to be asked is–what story do you want to tell?

The writers and directors behind this year’s Academy Award winning film Spotlight used narrative structure to bring meaning to the chaotic and despicable events surrounding the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. While effective in its application, the unfortunate reality of the situation is that they only told the story after the fact. Imagine the lives protected and suffering avoided if they were somehow able to predict the narrative of the Catholic Church during the scandal. Instead of looking back, we could look forward and alter the course of human events.

Concluding our series on Structuring Narratives in the Real World, we now turn our attention towards using narrative to predict and set strategy for individuals, businesses, and corporations. If story is–as the Dramatica theory of story suggests–a model of a single human trying to solve a problem, then treating larger organizations as a single group character makes it possible to see patterns and trends within the day-to-day operations.

The narratives in our life are fractal–that is, what works for us as individuals works for larger groups of “us” when considered as an individual. In this context, a woman’s group or a city or a nation could be considered an individual with a point-of-view in a story. To move up and down in scope, the narrative analyst requires a story tool that scales.

Thankfully, Dramatica provides that functionality.

A Tool that Scales

As Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story, explains in her article Dramatica Theory Application on World Problems:

This kind of scalability is described by a Dramatica concept referred to as the Story Mind. In fiction, characters are not only individuals but come to interact in stories as if they are aspects of a larger, overall mind set belonging to the structure of the story itself. So, for example, one character may emerge in group actions and discussions as the voice of reason while another becomes defined as the heart of the group and is driven primarily by passion. Stories reflect the way people react and behave in the real world, and so we find that when individuals band together as a larger unit, they fall into roles so that the unit itself takes on an identity with its own personality and its own psychology, almost as if it were an individual itself, in essence, a Story Mind.

In the William Holden WWII prison camp film Stalag 17, the men of Barracks 4 act as the collective Main Character for the story. We see and experience the story through their eyes, we maintain their unique perspective on Sgt. Sefton’s apparent culpability in the Nazi plot. This same technique applies to identifying and assessing narratives in the real world.

Melanie continues to explain:

Similarly, if several groups become bound as when a number of factions join as members of a larger movement, the movement begins to take on an identity and the factions fall into roles representing aspects of our own problem solving processes. Like nested dolls, Dramatica can move up and down the scale of magnitude from the individual to the national or even international level and its ability to analyze and predict based on its underlying model is equally effective. This phenomenon is referred to the Fractal Storyform. In actual practice, many groups of interest are ill-defined, have blurry edges and indistinct leadership. Still, the core motivations of the target group can be determined, and from this the edges of the group can be refined sufficiently to create a storyform of the appropriate magnitude to the task at hand.

Real world “groups of interest” may be difficult to distinguish, but identifying their collective group motivations helps unite them into a single perspective. Establishing these players is the first step when working through the subject matter of your story.

Sources of Conflict and Areas of Influence

After identifying the key players in the story, the analyst–along with the client or anyone else involved in the narrative process–begins to zero in and list out related areas of conflict to explore. Story is a process of resolving or justifying an inequity, removing or balancing an imbalance. Differentiating possible sources of inequity solidifies the story being told.

Lastly, the potential areas of influence need discernment. Leverage points and alternate points-of-view should be evaluated as to their impact on the key players and their involvement in the creation and/or continuation of conflict.

With the key players, areas of conflict and areas of influence properly identified, the only remaining step is to determine the primary question.

A Question to be Answered

We look to stories for answers. Placing our individual issues in context and offering potential means of resolution, stories address our internal yearning for meaning. This is why so many see narrative now as the means to move forward. Familiar with its potential to answer questions for the individual, we look to see similar results for larger collective problems.

What would motivate a fluctuation in the commodities market? How can consumers be encouraged to embrace a new product? Why is this country refusing to show up to the negotiation table?

Defining the question sets the purpose of the story in motion. We experience a million different narratives day-in and day-out; asking the right questions towards refining our focus helps clear away the chaos and noise from the other stories in our lives.

As Melanie explains in Using Dramatica for Real World Psychological Analysis:

Dramatica is a model of our complex web of motivations and the tensions that pull upon them. From this motivation map you can project likely behavior. But it must be done in regard to specific problems, situations or contexts. If you have multiple context, you need to prepare a separate storyform for each.

Conflict and Frustration in the Real World

All of this would be theoretical and speculative–if it hadn’t already been put into action and used to effectively answer a burning and pressing question for a volatile industry.

Undoubtedly, the switch from Pay TV to a la carte OTT “over the top” methods for consuming digital television has been devastating.[1] In the second quarter of 2016, ESPN lost 1.5 million subscribers. This is huge for Disney, which owns ESPN:

Subscription fees to ESPN’s networks account for more than half of Disney’s total revenue from its cable networks division.

During my last orientation at Disney Feature Animation in 2013, I remember the surprise we felt in the room when it was revealed that it wasn’t the parks that generated the most income for Disney–it was ESPN.

That reality seems to be on the decline, along with ESPN’s fan base. The drop in numbers represents more than simply a trend towards saving money, it signifies a loss in trust. The frustration felt by ESPN/Disney and the unresolved nature of this isue was something narrative analysts familiar with the Dramatica theory of story predicted…two years ago.

An Example of Narrative in the Real World

In November of 2013, a team familiar with the Dramatica theory of story, met with subject matter experts at Sparks Grove, a global management consulting firm, to discuss the use of narrative theory in analyzing and developing strategies for businesses. This Thoughtform team discussed several different scenarios, with the future of Pay TV and OTT rising to the top.

After a tabletop meeting and narrative analysis, the Thoughtform team returned with a paper detailing the process and their findings. As Sparks Grove explains on their blog post Anticipating Futures Through Narrative:

Companies that find themselves in disruptive, unpredictable environments can use story modeling to anticipate potential futures and market changes. By drawing on our innate ability to understand narrative, story modeling is a faster, more agile, and more intuitive alternative to traditional future visioning.

The findings of the paper are fascinating–if for no other reason than how accurate their predictions were.

For instance, ESPN’s steadfastness in its theory that it could remain the leader in delivering sports content led directly to its unresolved internal issues. For those familiar with Dramatica, the analysts discovered that ESPN’s Main Character Resolve of Steadfast in its Main Character Problem of Theory that it could dominate all outlets would lead directly to a Story Judgment of Bad.

The Thoughtform team predicted how this narrative would play out two years ago, and the events of this year proved them correct.

That is incredible.

Instead of witnessing a Main Character ending a story saddled by internal personal angst–like William Munny (Clint Eastwood) in Unforgiven or Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) in Memento or Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in Chinatown, we are witness to a collective Main Character stricken with internal unresolved issues within the group. Instead of riding off a rain-soaked assassin or remembering to forget who you killed or confused as Hell as to how the tycoon managed to make off with his granddaughter, ESPN and its parent company Disney are at odds internally as to how to proceed.

Which is precisely how it should be because of the narrative being told.

Diving Further into the Analysis

The primary question asked was “How can Pay TV Providers (cable companies) survive OTT?” Again, the narrative analysis provided by the Thoughtform team answers this question clearly…and their predicted solutions revealed in recent press.

In an article entitled Traditional Pay TV Operators Surviving OTT Onslaught from the International Broadcasting Convention, the Thoughtform solution of showing consumers how “OTT content is inadequate and insufficient” is resulting in success:

The survey said that pay TV operators need to evolve their business plans to stay ahead of the competition. In particular, in the view of respondents, operators with the ability to combine TV with a larger multi-play offering will be better placed to win consumer loyalty and deliver a compelling offering that can compete with OTT entrants.
“To keep viewers hooked on their content, pay TV providers will need to further invest in delivering a contextually rich viewing experience. Leveraging the power of the internet, they can provide viewers with an experience that is more relevant, enhancing content through a wealth of contextual services such as data enrichment; personalisation; and advanced social and viewer engagement capabilities on every screen, including TV sets, smartphones, and tablets,” she noted.

ESPN may be experiencing internal strife as a result of its steadfastness, but the Protagonist in the Overall Story–the Pay TV Providers–is experiencing success because they are working the Overall Story Solution of Non-Accurate.[2]

In fact, the more Steadfast ESPN remains, the more readily consumers–as the group Influence Character–will continue to be forced by this narrative into adopting even more “illegal or questionable behavior, like sharing passwords, piracy, or other unofficial outside sources.” ESPN’s steadfastness is driving consumers into Changing their paradigm towards more illegal means (Influence Character Resolve Changed, Influence Character Solution of Non-Accurate).

ESPN is effectively its own worst enemy and–as predicted once again by the Thoughtform team–must find a way to Stop this approach if they are ever to grow to a point where they can meaningfully Change their paradigm (Main Character Growth of Stop).

The central problem for everyone lies in consumers thinking OTT is completely acceptable (an Overall Story Problem of Accurate). By delivering “contextually rich viewing experiences” that supersede OTT offerings, Pay TV providers were able to end this narrative with a Story Outcome of Success. Whether or not they were privy to this narrative analysis two years ago or not matters little–the result is the same.

Analysis of the Data

Defining the story is one thing; analyzing the data for possible success strategies is another and phase two of this deep narrative process. By adjusting key story points within the narrative, the analyst can determine alternate scenarios. With this in mind, the purpose of a deep narrative analysis is clear: Show where the present narrative is headed and offer alternative futures by suggesting key leverage points.

The “Pay TV vs OTT” story originally predicted a scenario where the Cable TV providers would end up being winners and ESPN would end up beset by internal strife. This is a Success/Bad story within the framework of a Dramatica storyform. Alternate futures include:

  • a Triumphant ending (Success/Good) where Pay TV is able to develop the skills necessary to compete and ESPN finds its place between the cable companies and the consumers by focusing on threats to its bottom line and its ability to form strong opinions.
  • a Tragic ending (Failure/Bad) where Pay TV fails to understand OTT’s market impact and ESPN remains stranded between the two
  • a Personal Triumph ending (Failure/Good) where Pay TV fails to understand the impact of OTT, yet ESPN finds a sweet spot in between by focusing on their own abilities to deliver unique and compelling content

These alternate realities could be made a reality simply by adjusting key story points here along the way to help nudge the narrative in a new direction. For each of these possible scenarios, the Thoughtform details the key leverage points in their final analysis.

A Means of Controlling the Story

Narrative is malleable. Our lives are not written in stone, our destinies not set in the complicate fabric of the universe. Once a command of the structure and dynamics of a narrative is achieved, the storyteller dictates the story.

We become victims of the process when we don’t look to the eventual outcome of our efforts. The more people understand story and truly appreciate how it works, the more effectively they can tell their own stories. That is our purpose here at Narrative First–to help you tell a better story. While we may be too late to help the victims of the Catholic Church scandal, we hope that by offering up our own unique understanding of narrative we can help the storytellers of tomorrow find their voice today.


  1. Over-the-top content is the delivery of digital media over the Internet without the involvement of a cable provider. In other words–Amazon, Netlfix, Hulu and any other app-related content delivery system.  ↩

  2. Dramatica makes a distinction between the Protagonist (prime mover) of a story and the Main Character. It is important to be able to tell these kinds of stories as they exist in the narratives around us.  ↩

This article originally appeared on Narrative First—fine suppliers of expert story advice. Are you a professional writer interested in learning how to use Dramatica to structure your story? Enroll in our Dramatica® Mentorship Program and never worry about a deadline again.


Understanding the Personal Goal of Your Main Character
August 2016

Beyond their concerns in the larger Overall Story of a narrative, every Main Character finds themselves focused on a concern personal and intimate to themselves. With so much attention focused on this area, this concern often comes across to the Audience as a goal for the Main Character. Whether conscious of it from the beginning or something they synthesize towards the end, the Main Character exists in the narrative to achieve that concern.

Zeroing in on this concern and what it means for the main character becomes a high priority for the working writer. The Dramatica theory of story, and the application that supports it, provides the tools necessary to make this determination possible.

Unfortunately, writing with Dramatica is confusing at times. The application will ask you if your Overall Story Throughline is in a Situation or an Activity and your only answer is yes! And then it will ask you if your story is driven by Actions or Decisions and all of a sudden you can't decide if your character is acting a certain way or if she decided to act that way. Back and forth you go from the application to the discussion boards to here and back to the application and then back and forth over and over in your own mind.

And therein lies the problem.

We are context-shifting machines. That's how we survive. If we can't problem-solve a nuisance we justify it away, hiding it from ourselves so we can move on with our lives. If we can't solve a problem from one perspective we will take another. It is a strength in our day-to-day lives, but a liability when it comes to writing.

Shifting context on the reader without altering the structure of a narrative only confuses and confounds them. If you are going to make an argument, then please do so concretely is all an Audience asks of an Author. Keep your story consistent and they sit riveted through the whole thing.

That is all Dramatica is asking of you when it asks these questions. The application is asking you to set the context for a particular story point so it knows what kind of a story you are telling. By locking you into your own decisions, Dramatica acts as a virtual writing partner that keeps you honest to your own storytelling.

You can't choose between Situation or Activity because you can easily make that shift in your own head. Both answers seem right. You can't decide between Decisions or Actions because to you a decision looks like an action that looks like a decision. Turns out our minds are not great tools for keeping the structure of a story consistent. Dramatica is.

Thankfully there are ways to trick your mind into coming up with consistent and confident answers to these questions.

Litmus Test for Domains

If you are having trouble making the decision whether or not a Throughline falls into a Situation or Activity, simply ask yourself:

If the situation they were stuck in suddenly became unstuck, would there still be a problem?

If the answer is NO, then the Domain might be in a Situation. We say might because it is always good to have a handful of examples to back up your argument. The answer of no indicates a good possibility that we are on the right track, but it is always nice to have more proof. If the answer is YES, then the Domain is definitely not in a Situation.

Likewise you can ask:

If they stopped doing the activities they were doing, would there still be a problem?

If the answer is NO, then the Domain might be in Activity. If the answer is YES, then the Domain is definitely not in Activity.

The trick here–as with all these litmus tests–is to rule out all the things are not sources of conflict to help you focus on what is creating the conflict.

Take for instance Braveheart. England moves in and starts sleeping with the wives of the Sons of Scotland on the night of their betrothal. Dirty bastards! If you were sitting down with Dramatica to write that story, the application would ask if the Overall Story Throughline of that story fell in a Situation or an Activity.

At first you might think Activity as it is what the English are doing that seems to be the biggest problem. But if those rascals stopped doing what they were doing, would there still be a problem? Certainly. England is all up in Scotland's business, causing all kinds of problems for them–not simply sleeping with their women. It is the English presence within their country that riles the Scots up and motivate the conflict. So what if England were to leave Scotland, would there still be a problem?

No.

That is how you can confidently determine that the Overall Story Throughline for Braveheart is in Situation. If you remove something from the story and there is still a problem, then it was never a problem to begin with.

Litmus Test for Story Driver

For the Story Driver–that element of story that determines what the major plot points of a narrative are–the test is similar:

If X hadn't happened, is it likely that Y would have occurred?

With X being an Action or Decision and Y being the other side of the coin (e.g. If X is a Decision, then Y would be an Action).

If the answer is NO, then X might be a Story Driver. If the answer is YES, then X is definitely not a Story Driver.

Here we are looking less for the source of conflict within a Throughline and more for the cause behind the effects. The principle of negation of instance remains the same. If you can remove it and the story still thrums along, you don't have a driver.

Story points are essential elements to the life force that propels a narrative forward. If an element of story can be removed without a significant impact on the meaning of a story (like backstory) then it is non-essential and deficient for the purposes of forming a story.

Litmus Test for Concerns

The litmus tests for Domains and Story Drivers are not new. The Domain test appeared first in our analysis of the Throughlines of Collateral and the Story Driver test first appeared as a Dramatica tip of the month and later in an article here entitled The True Nature of the Inciting Incident. This litmus test for the Concern of a Throughline is brand new.

As mentioned in the blogpost of our analysis of Kramer vs. Kramer, this test of the Concern is a true revelation. It also implies that this kind of test works throughout the entire Dramatica model. Take any story point you are confused or walking the fence over and apply a litmus test of negation. You are bound to easily see the correct answer.

If you listen to our analysis of Kramer vs. Kramer or watch the video on YouTube, you will hear us discuss a story point known as the Concern. The reason we ask this question in Dramatica is that it helps us narrow down the possible storyforms. In every completely story, the Main Character will have one general Concern that shows up throughout the entire narrative. This Concern acts as a sort of Goal for their Personal Throughline and helps pinpoint the location of conflict within their storyline.

In the analysis I argue for Ted's Main Character Concern to be in How Things are Changing over the Future. In my estimation, Ted was more concerned with losing his wife and his job and how everything was shifting more than he was concerned about how things would be for him down the road. Part of this appraisal stems from my personal preference for stories beyond the "normal", but a good portion of it comes from plain misunderstanding. Thankfully, Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley was there to inspire a shift in my own thinking.

Watch the analysis of Kramer vs. Kramer (at the 48:50 timestamp)

At one point Chris mentions that Ted needs to "let that Concern of the Future go" before he can grow.[1] Whether Chris was speaking in regards to the Main Character Growth or about the Concern in general, his words struck me as concrete reasoning for why I was wrong.

If How Things Are Changing were a legitimate Concern for Ted as I had said, that would mean things will continue to be a problem for Ted until he lets that Concern of How Things are Changing go. This is clearly not true for him. In fact, Ted basically embraces the changing nature of things and lives within that moment there at the end of the story. Progress could still be somewhat of a Concern for him.

What he is not concerned with anymore is the Future.

And that is the new litmus test for Concerns:

If you remove the structural item as a point of Concern for the Throughline, would the Throughline still have a problem?

If the answer is NO, then that structural item might be the their Concern. If yes, then it definitely is NOT the Concern.

Remember, the Concern of a Throughline is simply another way to describe the problems within that story. It offers a different magnification on what is really wrong within that Throughline. The Concern functions like a Problem, just a really big Problem.

With that in mind, it was clear enough for me to see that Ted's true Concern was the Future. The source of trouble in his personal Throughline and the area where he would ultimately find resolution by letting that trouble go lie firmly in what will be. Anything else was wrong.

Testing the Test

For this new litmus test to work, it needs to be used against other films. One example does not a litmus test make.

Looking at Inside Out, If Joy were to let go her concerns of how great things used to be with her and Riley would there still be a problem within her? No way. This indicates that the Past could be a Concern for her Throughline (it is). What if Joy let go of how things were going to be, how they were in the present, or how things were changing in regards to her status as head emotion? Maybe that last one. But again, like Ted Joy is OK with how things are changing in the end…that really was never a problem for her. It never was the actual source of conflict in her personal Throughline.

What about "Donnie" Johnson Creed in Creed? What if he let go of his concern of how things were changing for him–how he wasn't moving up the ladder quickly enough and facing the kind of opponents he needed to face to be the best? Now that sounds like How Things are Changing might be his concern. If Johnson let all those worries go, he wouldn't have had so many problems. Let go of the past about his dad, or his future, or how things were now and he still would have that chip on his shoulder. His past really weighs him down, but letting it go would not have resolved his issues. That is how we know that his Concern is not of the Past, but rather of a lack of Progress.

Easier to Deal With

Dramatica runs counter to what most writers are looking for when it comes to helping them write stories. They want meaning and they want to be told that everything they imagine is meaningful. Unfortunately, our minds are terrible at organizing the elements needed to write a story. They are great for coming up with bits and pieces–it is the putting them together in a coherent and effective manner that reveals our weaknesses.

Having a litmus test to trick our minds into dealing with Dramatica is a good thing. Our ability to shift contexts and see things from multiple angles at once clouds our attempts to define story points that eventually need to be defined.

After 20 years, it sure is nice to be surprised by some new revelation in regards to the Dramatica theory of story. I hope that–in sharing this discovery–you find an easy way to quickly and confidently determine the individual story points for your own narrative. Defining them clearly for yourself will make it easier for your Audience to understand that meaning you want to share with them.

This article originally appeared on Narrative First—fine suppliers of expert story advice. Want your next pitch or draft to be so well received it doesn't incur a single note? Join our track record of proven success by hiring a Dramatica® Guru.


Writers Who Write the Same Main Character
July 2016

Artists tend to tread the same narrative ground. They feel drawn to themes and issues that resonate with their own personal issues and use storytelling to work through those problems. Director Christopher Nolan is no different.

Appraising Nolan's catalog of films through the eyes of Dramatica reveals a common set of elements. Memories, Understanding, Conceptualizing, and the Past all play significant parts in many of his films. In Memento, Leonard (Guy Pearce) struggles to fight against his disability with short-term memory. Inception explores the conflict involved in getting Robert (Cillian Murphy) to understand a key bit of information. And in The Prestige two magicians (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) scheme against each other in an effort to be the first to conceptualize the other's next move. Common areas of thematic intent wrapped up in different storytelling.

It should seem obvious then where Nolan's 2006 film Batman Begins would fall. But it wasn't.

For years, I have searched for the correct storyform for this film. For those unfamiliar with the Dramatica theory of story, a storyform is a collection of seventy-five story points that maintain the message of a narrative. Dramatica's story points are not independent, but rather interdependent. They work together to provide a holistic hologram of Author's Intent and help identify why a story unfolds the way it does.

While looking for the storyform for Batman Begins, I knew that elements of Equity and Inequity would somehow be involved. Justice and restoring balance play a heavy hand in this film. And I felt certain that Issues of Interdiction would come into play–once you see someone or something headed down a dark path you often want to intercede on their behalf and fix it. But I wasn't sure where the actual Throughlines fell within the Dramatica Table of Story Elements.

Throughlines and Areas of Conflict

Dramatica was the first theory of story to identify four distinct, yet interwoven, Throughlines within a complete narrative:

  • The Overall Story Throughline (OS) -- the conflict involving everyone
  • The Main Character Throughline (MC) -- the conflict personal to the central character
  • The Influence Character Throughline (IC) -- the conflict provided by an alternative approach
  • The Relationship Story Throughline (RS) -- the conflict that exists between the Main and Influence Character

These are not separate storylines. The Main Character exists within the Overall Story. So does the Influence Character. But their subjective points-of-view rest within their individual Throughlines. This is key because these Throughlines are actually points-of-views on conflict themselves:

  • OS Throughline is THEY
  • MC Throughline is I
  • IC Throughline is YOU
  • RS Throughline is WE

In addition to seeing Throughlines as these distinct points-of-view, Dramatica identifies four areas where conflict is found:

  • fixed, external problem or Situation
  • a shifting, external problem or Activity
  • fixed, internal problem or Fixed Attitude
  • a shifting, internal problem or Way of Thinking

Four points-of-view. Four ways of seeing conflict. Attach each of the Throughlines to one of these areas of conflict and you have a complete story. Only one rule: the Overall Story Throughline and Relationship Story Throughline must be diagonally across from each other, and so must the Main Character Throughline and the Influence Character Throughline.

Areas of Conflict Areas of Conflict Chart

So if you have an Overall Story Throughline in Activity, that means the Relationship Story Throughline will be in a Way of Thinking, or Manipulation. Think of Star Wars or Casablanca. In those films, everyone is dealing with physical conflict that needs to be stopped, while intimately a relationship explores conflict born out of manipulation.

This works for the Main Character and Influence Character dynamic as well. If you put the Main Character Throughline in Situation, that means the Influence Character Throughline will be in Fixed Attitude. Think Inside Out or Rain Man. In those films, the central character deals intimately with problems arising from status, while they face another character stuck with a certain fixation in his or her mind.

When I first saw Batman Begins in 2006, I felt for certain the Overall Story Throughline would fall under Situation. After all, there was a lot of discussion over Gotham and how it compared to civilizations in the past, and how it needed to be thrown into darkness in order for the light to rise again. Everyone found themselves dealing with that conflict.

But that would mean Bruce Wayne would have to fall into either an Activity or a Way of Thinking. Way of Thinking felt totally wrong: Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins is nothing like Hamlet or Salieri In Amadeus. Activity sounded better, but if Bruce suddenly stopped moonlighting as a vigilante he would still be personally conflicted. That's not how a Throughline works.

After ten years of struggling with identifying this film, it was time to cheat.

A Hidden Clue to the Structure

In Dramatica there is a story point known as the Main Character Approach that classifies the central character of a story into two different camps: a Do-er or a Be-er. Classifying the Main Character as one or the other defines whether the Main Character prefers to solve their personal problems externally or internally.

It also defines where the Throughline will fall.

If the Main Character prefers to solve problems externally, then their Throughline will be either in a Situation or an Activity. Once we identify where we think a problem is, we see a solution there as well. If we have an external problem we are dealing with, then we will first try to solve it externally–thus, Do-er.

If we have an internal problem we are dealing with, then we will first try to solve it internally either through a Fixed Attitude or Way of Thinking. This is why a Be-er prefers to solve their problems internally.

Note that this is only a preference. Clearly Main Characters can do both. What the Main Character Growth is trying to communicate is which one the Main Character prefers to do first. Some like to change the world around him, while other prefer to change themselves first.

Bruce Wayne is the latter.

At first, this may seem counterintuitive. Certainly Bruce spends the bulk of the film doing things. When we first meet him he takes on seven prisoners by himself, for "practice”. He engages in ninja school and spends pretty much the entire second half of the film fighting his way to victory.

But when you look at the personal moments with Wayne, those moments that are intimate to his character and his character only–you can begin to see a preference for a different kind of approach.

Personal Issues Unique to the Main Character

When looking to identify the Main Character Throughline of a story, it is important to look for those things that are unique to the Main Character and no one else. The stuff of this Throughline is the kind of stuff the Main Character would take with them into any story–not just the one in front of us. Look for their emotional baggage, those issues they are trying to overcome.

Wayne's greatest personal issue that is unique to him surrounds the murder of his parents and this idea that his fears were somehow responsible for their death. This isn't a Situation. Or an Activity. Or even a Way of Thinking. This is a Fixed Attitude.

And it shouldn't be surprising because Christopher Nolan likes Main Characters who struggle with what they think–Main Characters who struggle with their Fixed Attitudes. Leonard in Momento. Robert Angiers (Hugh Jackman) in The Prestige. Obsession with a thought drives the characters in many of Nolan's stories–including Batman Begins.

When Throughlines Fall into Place

Identifying Bruce Wayne as a Be-er dealing with a Fixed Attitude ends up forcing his Influence Character into Situation. The question is, who is Bruce Wayne's Influence Character? What relationships represents the heart of the story?

His relationship with Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) seems to be the likely candidate. But remember, the Influence Character is a point-of-view not a character. Rachel doesn't really challenge Bruce on his approach to things. And when she does, she is really just standing in for another character. So who stirs up all kinds of trouble because of a point-of-view they have in regards to a certain Situation?

Ra's al Ghul.

That perspective that Gotham should perish and go the way of Rome or Constantinople isn't the source of conflict everyone experiences. Rather, it is the point of view of the League of Shadows as expressed through Ra's al Ghul/Ducard (Liam Neeson).

This idea that Bruce should embrace his fears–"you fear your own power, you fear your anger, the drive to do great and terrible things”–comes from Ducard. And it is exactly what Bruce needs to hear in order to grow through his own Fixed Attitude. Ducard connects with Bruce because it is a similar, yet slightly different perspective. Similar in that it is fixed, different in that it is external whereas Bruce's perspective is internal.

This is why they can have their "You and I” moment after training. They are both alike in that they are both seeing conflict from a fixed point-of-view, but they are different in that one is external and the other internal. This dissonance fuels their interactions. That argument over the will to act is the text of Relationship Story Throughline.

Finding the Storyform for a Story

The quad of four elements below represents Ra's al Ghul's point-of-view as seen through the eyes of Dramatica. Ra's is driven by people's fears, angers, and their refusal to accept the drive deep within them to do terrible things. And this drive within himself causes him to see a lack of justice or peace as the problem in the world. And in response, he upsets the balance of things: "When a forest grows too wild, a purging fire is inevitable and natural.”

The Influence Character Quad of Batman Begins The Influence Character Quad of Batman Begins

From there, Dramatica begins to work its magic and predicts story elements not selected. For Ra's Issue of Interdiction to work, Bruce himself must be facing an Issue of Suspicion. The suspicion that he had something to do with the murder of his family, and the suspicion that he is somewhat like his father–who also failed to act.

For Ra's Concern of the Past to work (which is forced by our selection of the Issue of Interdiction) then Bruce's Concern must have something to do with Memories. Anytime he steps out of his role as billionaire vigilante and confronts his own demons, they always have something to do with suppressed Memories.

The magic of Dramatica is simply balance. If an Influence Character looks to the Past, then a Main Character must look to their Memories. If an Influence Character looks to Intercede, then a Main Character must look to their own Suspicions. Whether Christopher Nolan or screenwriter David S. Goyer looked to Dramatica for help or not, that natural balance within the story is there.

Perhaps they found it as a result of writing stories with similar thematic intent. Maybe the first came out a little rough, but as they continued to explore this area and refine their understandings of it, their intuition kicked in and assured a proper balance between the Throughlines. Dramatica is built on the psychology of the mind, not on observable repeated patterns within film. It only makes sense then that a theory based on the psychology of the human mind would be able to predict the intuition of a writer trying to construct a well-balanced story.

Something More Than Backstory

The confusion involved in locating the storyform for Batman Begins can be attributed to the use of time-shifting in the StoryWeaving phase. What looks like backstory is really an essential part of Bruce Wayne's growth as a Main Character. In next week's article we will continue to dive into the storyform for Batman Begins and explain how the mechanism of its narrative works.

This article originally appeared on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives. Want to learn how to generate story ideas the way explained this article? Join our Dramatica® Mentorship Program and receive personalized instruction on how to master the Dramatica theory. Become a master storyteller. Learn more.


Finding Your True Self Through Writing
June 2016

Going with your first impression is usually a recipe for disaster when it comes to writing. Far too many times, the first thing we come up with is simply a rehash of something we have already seen or read. Pushing ourselves to move beyond our comfort zone opens up worlds of story we never even knew we had inside.

Following up on last month's article Generating an Abundance of Story Ideas, we take a look at the remaining three Playground Exercises. To recap, I was struggling to come up with concrete imaginative encodings for my Influence Character's Story Points. Instead of using Dramatica's insights to make my story bigger, I was simply parroting the different appreciations and making my story smaller in the process. I eventually decided to take my own advice and began working through a series of Playground Exercises that I created to help clients break through their usual creative ruts.

The effect was staggering and I felt it would be good to share my experience with writers and producers wondering how to use Dramatica to increase their level of creativity.

New Discoveries

Note how different these three are from the previous two and how far away I started to get from my original story idea. This is a very good thing. Instead of writing a story that was already in my head and–let's be honest–not particularly original, I started to head down a path that reflected more of my subconscious thoughts & desires rather than the subconscious of someone else.

By locking in the thematic meaning of the story with the storyform, I was able to stretch my imagination with the confidence that I wasn't wasting my time. I wasn't heading down another blind alleys I wasn't wasting my precious few hours a day writing chasing the wrong dog.

With Marissa I found a character who found peace shutting out the world around her. With the Bonaporte family I found the pain induced by trying to keep the memory of a family member alive. With Harold I found gold.

Getting Personal

Now Harold is about as far away from my original Stephen King-inspired story idea that I could get: a character who was so deathly afraid of factory-style work because of it hid the reality of one's true calling. That should feel authentic to you, more authentic than the guy who couldn't remember if he killed someone, and it should–because it is something very honest and true to my heart.

I had no idea deep down inside that this is what I felt. I mean, I knew it on a superficial level, but I didn't know my true feelings on the subject. By working through these Playground Exercises I was able to unearth something extremely personal to me–something honest and real. Something that I could really dive into and communicate from deep within my own consciousness and experience.

I almost left this last one out. It's a bit too revelatory and I was concerned about what my colleagues in the animation industry might think of my true feelings. But I guarantee many of them feel the same–as do many of you. We've all had jobs or careers that didn't sit right, didn't feel authentic. And by getting to that honesty my story will now end up connecting more deeply with those who read or see it.

People go to stories for truth, for shared experiences. By not concerning myself with thematic intention or this character's relation to the rest of the story, I ended up forming someone who reflected my deepest of intentions. What writer wouldn't want that?

Next week I'll cover the process of folding these five very different characters into one. You can pretty much be guaranteed that Harold will fit predominantly into that mix.

Influence Character Throughline StoryEncoding #3

Influence Character Domain & Concern

Hating People Who Whine & Being Forgotten by a Particular Group: Marissa Lamont is the kind of mother who hates when her children whine. So much so, that she will lock herself in her room, put noise-cancelling headphones on, and turn up the Anthrax until she can't hear it anymore. As a result, her children never learn to get along, the house is a battleground, and her hearing is shot. But there is something else…peace. That peace of mind she feels infects the other women in the neighborhood and they too begin to revel in the ecstasy of shutting everyone out. Husbands neglected, children undisciplined, and a general sense of breakdown of communications between people begins to occur. Marissa, and the women in her circle, want to be forgotten by those who demand so much from them. It causes those around her to feel deprived, uncared for, and ignored. But it also has the side effect of developing self-reliance in those she left behind. On the surface Lamont's influence is a disruptive element, but like most disruptive elements eventually turns to a beneficial and uplifting experience.

Influence Character Issue

Being a Source of Suspicion vs. Evidence: Marissa's antics are a source of suspicion amongst her fellow neighbors: what does she do behind those closed doors and what is she hiding from? That suspicion infects the neighborhood with gossip and distraction and a general lack of purpose as everyone finds themselves more interested in what Marissa is doing rather than what they should be doing (like paying bills, feeding the kids, and getting enough sleep for the next day).

Influence Character Symptom & Response

Being Philosophically Aligned with Something & Being Lost in Reverie about a Particular Group: Marissa believes the problem with most mothers these days is their philosophical alignment with suburban mores. Everyone is too caught up in aligning themselves with this idea of who they should be, rather than who they could be. Her response, and the response she has for so many of the women, is to become lost in reverie about long lost dreams, about that group of women they had planned to be as they were growing up. The only way to move past what you should be is to lose yourself in the dreams of what you used to want to be…

Influence Character Source of Drive

Seeing if Someone Truly Exists: Marissa Lamont is driven to see if this perfect suburban mother exists. She seeks her out in Internet chat rooms, in the grocery store, and even at school functions. Whenever she finds a woman she figure is the perfect woman, she approaches and begins breaking her down, asking insinuating questions and getting to the root of what that woman is really all about. Is she wearing that workout outfit because she is going to the gym as the perfect woman, or because she thinks she is supposed to be wearing a workout outfit to fit in. That drive to find what really exists cuts through the facade of suburban life and exposes these women for who they really are: hurt and put upon.

Influence Character Demotivator

Camouflaging a Particular Group: Even Marissa from time to time feels she has to hide and camouflage herself from her husband and her children, and when she does put on airs she manages to demotivate the other women around her and lessen her impact on the neighborhood.

Influence Character Benchmark

Reasoning: The more her children and husband try to reason with her, the more she grows concerned with the fact that they will never forget about her. That she will always be needed, and that she will never be able to live her dreams out. Communicating this to the other women allows them to see that simple reason will make it impossible for any of them to be forgotten.

Influence Character Signpost 1

Being Contemplative: When we first meet Marissa, she is at the head of the dinner table, children screaming, husband on his smart phone, expletives and food flying, a meal uneaten in front of her. Her daughter asks her a question and she seems distractive. “Just thinking, dear,” she tells her and returns back to her contemplation of the mashed potatoes in front of her. The contemplation confuses and intrigues her neighbor from down the street who stopped by for a drink. Marissa seems at such peace. “What is your secret?” She asks.

Influence Character Signpost 2

Having a Photographic Memory: Marissa inspires all the mothers around her when she begins to recite—from photographic memory—the exact imagery of each and every one of her children and even when her and her husband began first dating. The images play on the big screen TV, but Marissa has seen them all. Contrary to what the other husbands say about Marissa's strange behavior she hasn't forgotten or neglected her family—she remembers each and every detail about them. This inspires the women to return home and do the same.

Influence Character Signpost 3

Gagging at the Thought of Eating Oysters: The families arrive for a community cookout, a meal prepared by the husbands and by the children. The fathers present oysters to the women and Marissa begins gagging. Uncontrollably. It shocks and dismays everyone around them, but soon the other mothers turn away in disgust. It simply isn't good enough for them. Marissa shows them how to stand up for what you want, and to have that confidence that you deserve more.

Influence Character Signpost 4

Experiencing Rapture: The women of the neighborhood experience pure bliss as they shut out the world around them and indulge in their own personal happiness. Seventh heaven (the name of this story) kicks in as the women find peace refusing to compromise on their principals. Marissa reaches over, turns the knob on the Volume up to 10, and leans back in her chair and thinks to herself, “This is the life.”

Influence Character Throughline StoryEncoding #4

Influence Character Domain & Concern

Clashing Attitudes about Someone & Losing Something's Memories: Lilly Bonaparte grew up in a household centered around the patriarch of the family, Edward G. Bonaparte V. Treated like royalty his whole life, Edward had problem keeping his family in line and on track with his wishes and plans. Everyone that is…except Lily. At 13 she couldn't stand the old man and did whatever she could to disrupt their perfect little family. She would refuse to pray before dinner, refuse to do chores, refuse to come home before curfew, refuse to not date anyone older than her, and refuse to contribute in any meaningful way to the family. Suffice it to say, Lilly Bonaparte's attitudes towards her father angered him, brought anxiety to her mother, and threw the rest of her five siblings into constant brawls over who would take up her slack. At the heart of Lilly's concerns were the loss of the memory of Edward's mother, Valerie. Valerie was in the last stages of Parkinson's disease and was on the brink of losing all touch with reality—a travesty as far as far Lilly was concerned. And the idea that her father never visited Valerie or made any attempts to collect her memoirs or family's history devastated Lilly and drove her to label her father a miserable son who would only beget more miserable children and grandchildren. Effectively cursing the entire family lineage, Lilly brought turmoil and angst to the Bonaparte household with her efforts to keep Valerie and her more lenient ways of parenting alive.

Influence Character Issue

Being Suspicious of Someone vs. Evidence: Lilly's suspicion that father was doing all of this as a means of guaranteeing a larger inheritance only drove her to sneak into the old man's study and rifle through his things, hack into his computer, and reveal family secrets kept secret for a long time (like who was brother Austin's real mother). This suspicious attitude brought dissention and grief to the Bonaparte household and upset the tender balance Edward had worked his whole life to maintain.

Influence Character Symptom & Response

Being Known by a Particular Group & Brainstorming Something: Lilly believes the problem to be that the Bonaparte's are known as a perfect family, something to aspire to, and to look up to by the other families. This is, of course, a problem as their family is completely built on lies and the ego of one man. In response, Lilly works hard to brainstorm different means of bringing her father down—an approach that unnerves the other children, incites some of the others to rebel and talk back to their father, and begins a wave of rumors throughout their tightly knit neighborhood of friends.

Influence Character Source of Drive

Exploring Reality: Lilly's drive to explore the reality behind the Bonaparte family and Edward's real life growing up brings turmoil to the Bonaparte household. Let sleeping dogs lie is not something Lilly believes in and as a result the tender bond between Edward and Valerie is forever shattered, reducing the family inheritance, and bringing shame and embarrassment to the Bonaparte family in the eyes of the other neighbors. It, however, also has the positive effect of inspiring her siblings to stand up on their own and claim their own individuality within the family—a disruptive effect in the eyes of the patriarch, but a positive move from those oppressed by his ways.

Influence Character Demotivator

Seeing Someone from a Particular Perspective: When her siblings begin seeing their father in a different light, Lilly tends to back off, her mission accomplished.

Influence Character Benchmark

Considering Something: The more her siblings consider that their father is not the great man he makes himself out to be, the less concerned Lilly is with losing her grandmother's experiences…the other kids will see to it that no one forgets.

Influence Character Signpost 1

Being Conscious of Something: Lilly starts the story by making everyone in her family conscious of her father's affair seven years ago. Out of nowhere. No one was even talking about it, Lilly just interjected between Roger and Mary's stimulating conversation about the difference between stalactites and stalagmites. “You all know dear old father had an affair with Miss Torio seven years ago, don't you?” That one comment set off a wave of disappointment and chaos.

Influence Character Signpost 2

Thinking Back about a Particular Group: Lilly takes her three oldest brothers out on a hike and strikes up a conversation about how the Bonapartes used to be back in the day. She wonders if they can think back and remember how it was before Valerie became old and decrepit and if they recall a time when the family was more about joy and expression than it was about following rules and decorum. The boys do recall. One, Andrew the oldest, gets really upset and refuses to talk about it anymore. He heads home angered. The other two recall and promise Lilly to tell the others when they get back.

Influence Character Signpost 3

Reacting Spontaneously to Someone: Edward loses his cool in front of everyone when out to dinner. Lilly demands that an extra chair be set for Valerie, even though she can't make it, and that sends Edward over the edge. In front of his wife, his family, and the rest of the neighborhood in attendance at Dolario's, Edward flips out and starts cursing the very existence of Lilly. She simply sits back and smiles. “At least, “ she says. “My real father shows up.”

Influence Character Signpost 4

Being Infatuated with a Particular Group: The local reporter, a man in the booth next to the Bonapartes at Dolario's, becomes infatuated with the family and sets out to write the family's memoir—exposing Edward for the sniveling son he is and the abuse some children engage in towards aging and disabled parents. The reporters expose is met with unrivaled acclaim and soon the Bonaparte name becomes synonymous with parental abuse, particularly in the case of Parkinson's. The Bonaparte name is forever memorialized as something you would never want to associate your own family with.

Influence Character Throughline StoryEncoding #5

Influence Character Domain & Concern

Fearing Work & Remembering an Anniversary: Harold Fauntleroy is deathly afraid of work. Why commit yourself to a task you would never do if they didn't pay you? That is not what life is about, that's voluntary slavery! Unfortunately for Harold's wife and two sons his fear keeps them homeless, hungry, and hopeless. His wife must take on an extra job and her sons are left to fend for themselves while their parents are away. Of great concern to Harold is the anniversary of his father's passing away, which is coming up in a few weeks. His father never lived his life, never took a chance, and always did everything the way he was told to. As a result he died content…but an unhappy content. Harold remembers the look on his father's face when he told Harold his life was a waste and that look of emptiness scares Harold so much that he refuses to commit to anything lasting longer than a week or two. The Fauntleroys struggle as winter approaches and the thought of sleeping in their car becomes more and more a reality.

Influence Character Issue

Being Paranoid about Someone vs. Evidence: Harold's constant paranoia that his employer is trying to diminish his soul creates an uneasy work environment for those who work with him and inspires others to quit or possibly do less work so that they too can concentrate on their own art. The paranoia—while disruptive to those in charge—actually inspires great things in others. A woman who hadn't picked up a paint brush in 35 years begins painting her cubicle walls. A man who always wrote short stories begins taking afternoons off at the office to work on his masterpiece. Harold Fauntleroy brings out the best in others by being paranoid about the truth of those in charge.

Influence Character Symptom & Response

Being Ignorant & Considering Someone: Harold believes the biggest problem in the world is when people are ignorant. Ignorant of what is really going on around them and ignorant of what it is their heart truly desires. Harold sits down with each and every person and tells them that he considers them special. That he thinks about them. That he sees a unique individual capable of doing a great many things. The only thing they need to do is to get other people to start considering them. That's when they know they are on the right track.

Influence Character Source of Drive

Finding the Objective Reality of Someone: What excites Harold is finding the objective reality of the people he meets. Everyone he meets is hiding behind a mask, a false sense of themselves. Unearthing that truth, that reality that is there deep within each person unnerves those who have never stepped out of their comfort zone, and excites those who have dreamt of being so much more. Harold is all about reality. It may drive his wife crazy and his kids to become more fearful about what is happening with their family, but Harold is doing good work. He's bringing light to the world.

Influence Character Demotivator

Having a Slanted View on Something: Unfortunately, Harold's wife has her viewpoint on things and it does diminish his effectiveness from time to time. As committed as he is to truth, he does love his wife and hates to see her so nervous and anxious. Her slanted view on life and doing what others expect of you tempers Harold's drive and pulls him back occasionally from making huge gains.

Influence Character Benchmark

Considering Something: The more people consider doing something they have never done before, the less concerned Harold is with the anniversary of his father's death. It means there was a purpose behind it.

Influence Character Signpost 1

Starting a Think Tank: Harold begins to disrupt the universe the moment he requests a meeting room at work and begins to develop a think tank for creative endeavors. Inspired by Google's 5th day of personal projects, Harold starts brainstorming with the other employees how they too could make something more of themselves. This think tank upsets the employers, drives down productivity, and frightens stock holders. But it inspires the workers.

Influence Character Signpost 2

Thinking Back about Something: Harold pushes it farther when he gets those workers to begin to think back to when they were children and when they had dreams and no limitations. When the future seemed boundless. This thinking back inspires some of the workers—essential to the company's success-to quit to go follow their dreams. Harold is brought in and fired for his disruptive behavior.

Influence Character Signpost 3

Being Numb to Something: Harold's former employees act numb to threats from their employer. When brought in to a meeting to set rules and expectations and threats of firing, they act as if numb to the entire thing. Their heads are already in the clouds because of Harold and no amount of threat is ever going to change that.

Influence Character Signpost 4

Fearing Water: Fearing the rising tide of employee dissention created by Harold's persistent influence, the company decides to move its entire operation off-shore. Everyone is fired, but not a single person fears the consequences. They get in touch with Harold and he begins a new company—one that offers a chance for everyone to fulfill their true potential. In time, they all fulfill their greatest desires.

This article originally appeared on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives. Want to learn how to generate story ideas the way explained this article? Join our Dramatica Mentorship Program and receive personalized instruction on how to master the Dramatica theory. Become a master storyteller. Learn more.


Generating an Abundance of Story Ideas
May 2016

Too many times writers find themselves stuck without an inkling of where to go next. They write themselves into corners or run out of steam on that great idea that they thought would carry them through the end. Having an understanding of what it is you want to say and a framework for capturing that intent can go a long way towards preventing what many call writer's block.

Many see the Dramatica theory of story as a great analysis tool, something to be used to examine what worked and what didn't work. What they fail to realize is that Dramatica is also a great creativity tool. By listening to what it is you want to say with your story, Dramatica can offer insight and suggestions to round out your story and make it feel more complete.

The Playground Exercises

You know that writing tip that suggests coming up with twenty different ideas in order to get to one original one? The idea being that your first, your fifth, and even your fifteenth idea is really just a superficial rehash of something you have already seen or have already thought. Once you vomit out all the obvious choices your writer's intuition starts coming up with brand new and novel ideas that take your writing to the next level.

The Narrative First Playground Exercises were inspired by this process. The generation of several different Throughlines with slightly different storytelling grants an Author a playground from which to explore the deep thematic meaning present in their story. Even my own story.

My Story

Working my way through the Playground Exercises for my current writing project, I was amazed by the abundance of creativity I experienced in only a few hours. Averaging about 25 minutes per Playground, I managed to flesh out five completely different and potential Influence Characters for my story. That's five fully functional and thematically integrated characters all before lunchtime.

Sounds exciting, right?

Inspired by something Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley mentioned to me, I created the Playground Exercises late last Summer as a means to better understand the Main Character in the story I was working on. I was continuously running into a roadblock with this character and couldn't figure out why she seemed so small in comparison to the rest of the story.

By brainstorming ideas for characters dealing with the same thematic material as my Main Characters, I was able to concentrate on the essence of the Throughline–the meaty, thematic stuff–instead of futzing around wondering how it would fit into my story. The process was, and is, freeing and productive and often produces ideas for new and completely different stories.

There is a right way and a wrong way to do them and very often when working with clients they start out with the latter approach. This is a shared mistake brought about by the common misunderstanding that the Dramatica storyform presents storytelling material, rather than storyforming material.

The Storyform as a Source of Conflict

Many look to Dramatica and think it is a story-by-numbers approach. They think you flip a few switches and Dramatica spits out a preformed story. When they see a Main Character Concern of the Past they think, Oh, Roger is worried about the Past. or when they see a Main Character Problem of Feeling they think, Oh, Roger is the kind of person who feels a lot of mixed emotions.

This is not proper StoryEncoding. This is using the Appreciation as storytelling, rather than using it as a means to form a story.

A Main Character Concern of the Past means the Main Character experiences conflict because of the Past. Sure, he or she may be worried about the Past, but this worry doesn't set into motion a story. Instead, a Main Character who is so concerned with how great things used to be that they return to their high-school summer job at 42, start working out how to impress their teenage daughter's girlfriend, and start buying drugs from the neighbor next door to feel young again DOES set a story into motion. In fact, it sounds an awful lot like American Beauty doesn't it? Kevin Spacey's character Lester Burnham does have a Concern of the Past, but it's more than an indicator of worry, it's a generator of conflict.

Likewise, a Main Character Problem of Feeling means the Main Character experiences conflict because of Feeling. Of course this means they will "feel a lot of mixed emotions" but then again, what kind of character doesn't? Instead, a Main Character who is so overwhelmed by strange and uncomfortable emotions that they will pummel anyone who brings those emotions out DOES set a story into motion. In fact this was the problem Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) suffered in Brokeback Mountain. His inability to process his Feelings with the evidence he had of the torture and murder of a man who embraced similar emotions drove him to a life spent in denial and personal anguish.

This is the first rule of the Playground Exercises: Do not use the Appreciation (or Gist) as storytelling, but rather as a source of conflict.

Looking for Conflict in the Right Throughline

One should always look to each of these appreciations and ask, How is this a problem? While they have fancy names like Domain and Concern and Issue, really they're just different magnifications of the same thing: conflict. The Domain is the largest, most broadest way to describe an area of conflict; the Concern is the next smallest and the Issue even smaller. The Problem is the smallest way to describe a Problem (can't go much smaller than that!).

So when working through these appreciations and random Gists I simply ask myself, How is this a source of conflict for this Throughline? Each Throughline will have a slightly different question. The Main Character is very experiential and personal and typically the easiest to write. In contrast, the Influence Character is all about the impact or influence that character has on the world around them. When writing these I always made sure to write a character who created all kinds of havoc around them and for others because of who they were and what they were driven to do. This brings up the second rule.

The second rule when doing these Playground Exercises is to ignore the other Throughlines. Don't worry about them. I don't care one bit how the Influence Characters I come up with are going to impact the Main Character of my story because in the end, the storyform will make sure this character impacts the Main Character.

In my story the Main Character has a Concern of the Past and the Influence Character has a Concern of Memories. Right there, the impact is set. The Main Character in my story will naturally be impacted by this Influence Character because my Main Character is personally dealing with The Past–she can't help but be influenced by this strange thing known as "Memories".

Concentrate on getting the StoryEncoding strong for an Influence Character who impacts others through their Concern and the storyform will naturally impact the Main Character regardless of what you come up with.

Generating an Abundance of Ideas

How does this process work? This is the Influence Character Throughline section of my storyform for my latest project:

Influence Character Throughline
Domain: Fixed Attitude
Concern: Memories
Issue: Suspicion vs. Evidence
Problem: Actuality
Solution: Perception
Symptom: Knowledge
Response: Thought
Benchmark: Contemplations
Signpost 1: Contemplations
Signpost 2: Memories
Signpost 3: Impulsive Reponses
Signpost 4: Innermost Desires

I have no problem sharing this with you as no one really owns a storyform. How I interpret and encode a storyform will be completely different than the way you do. That's what makes us unique and awesome.

Originally I was really excited about this storyform because it perfectly matched up with my story idea: that of a friend who wakes up a murder suspect, yet has no recollection of what they did the night before. The storyform above looked perfect for what I wanted to do: a Concern of Memories (he couldn't remember what happened), an Issue of Suspicion (everyone suspected him of killing), a Problem of Actuality (he actually killed the person!)–all of these seemed to really work great for the story I wanted to tell.

But when I went to actually write the thing the story kind of collapsed in on itself. I kept repeating myself with the Influence Character and he came off as kind of one-dimensional. What was worse was that he really didn't have any kind of effect or impact on the Main Character–she changed her resolve because I needed her to for the story, not because this other character challenged her to do so.

I resisted and resisted and put off doing my own Playground Exercises because I figured I was above all that. After all, twenty years of experience with Dramatica I should know what I'm doing, right? Turns out, I was short-changing my own writing process. By refusing to do what I had seen work wonders so many times before, I was keeping myself from writing a thematically rich and compelling story.

So I generated five different Influence Character Throughlines with the same storyform you see above by using Dramatica's Brainstorming feature. With this feature you can lock in the storyform and then randomize the Gists, or approximation of the story points, to keep the storytelling fresh and unique. I copied them over into Quip–the same app I use to work with clients–and then began brainstorming completely different Influence Characters. Different situations. Different genres. Different genders. But at the heart of them–the same thematic concerns of narrative.

Here are two of them. Note how disparate in storytelling, yet similar in thematic intent, they are. Note how every appreciation generates conflict and doesn't use the Gist as simply a storytelling prompt. There are moments when I start out using it as storytelling, but then quickly move it into a source for conflict.

Note too how I start out writing something somewhat similar to my original idea. This is how the Playground Exercise works–it lets you dump out your first thoughts and then forces you to stretch and become something more than you were before you started. You know the old adage You can't solve a problem with the same mind that created it? That is precisely what we're doing here–transforming minds to become better writers.

You should be able to see the magic that is the Playground Exercises and of the Dramatica storyform for generating new and wonderful characters. In the next article I'll present more examples and explain how I take these exercises and use them to craft a fully fleshed out and developed character for my story.

Influence Character Throughline StoryEncoding Example #1

Influence Character Domain & Concern

Being in a Special Group & Reminiscing about Someone: Roger, a 16-year old autistic boy, challenges the people around him with his strange behavior and demanding personality. To know Roger is to constantly be on edge, always fearful of saying the wrong thing, and always careful to make sure his every need is met—even before he asks for it. The result is an uneasy environment around Roger; people rarely take risks if they fear repercussions and Roger is full of them.

To make matters worse, Roger spends an inordinate amount of time reminiscing about Plato, his favorite stuffed animal from when he was three. Roger sorely misses Plato and often wakes the family up late at night crying for him or creeps them out when they're awake by hugging a pillow and pretending it is his long lost friend. His constant reminiscing reminds everyone how stuck Roger is and how, because he is different from everyone else, they need to be careful not to hurt his feelings. Unfortunately this has the opposite effect on the kids at school where the focus on a stuffed animal often leads to bullying and after-school fights.

Influence Character Issue

Being a Suspect in a Murder Case vs. Evidence: Strangely enough, Roger is also a suspect in a murder case. Whether a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time or simply as a matter of his condition, everyone suspects the worst of Roger and treats him like a pariah. No one will sit next to him at school, he frightens the timid girls on the bus, and dinners at home are an uneasy and unpleasant experience. The evidence is there on Roger's blood-stained hands and sheets, but no one knows if that is simply an autistic kid looking for attention or if it truly does speak of a murderous personality. The uneasy feeling he creates in others leads his family members to second-guess opportunities to leave and forces them to support him—no matter how badly they don't want to–as they fear for their own lives.

Influence Character Symptom & Response

Being Philosophically Aligned against Something & Being Contemplative: Roger thinks the problem with the world today is that everyone spends too much time aligning themselves against that which they fear. It is so much easier taking the opposite position of the unknown then it is stepping out and trying something new. Roger refuses to give in to the "smaller" life and spends his waking hours contemplating different states of existence—all of which challenges those around him to improve their own way of thinking and to see the world differently. In short, he forces the people he comes into contact to deal with their own doubts and fears—something many would rather avoid doing.

Influence Character Source of Drive

Exploring Reality: Roger gets most worked up when he witnesses people consumed with the reality of day-to-day life. Paying taxes, working a job, and living the life of a city dweller causes him to lash out and publicly deride those who do. Why would anyone accept the reality given to them? To be a sheep and not step out of the bounds of normal existence, that is the problem with the non-autistic creature. His refusal to accept reality insults girls attracted to him, humiliates home economics teachers, and forces his family into working extra hours to make up for the work Roger himself has lost.

Influence Character Demotivator

Keeping Up Someone's Appearances: Roger loses himself when he becomes more concerned with keeping up appearances at the workplace or in a public restaurant. Those few rare moments when he stops being "special" and works to fit in—that's when the conflict dies around him and his friends and family can finally breathe a momentary sigh of relief.

Influence Character Benchmark

Wondering about Something: The more Roger wonders about the meaning of life, the more he reminisces about Plato and about the loss of his only true friend. Relationships are but a fabrication of our own minds, he believes. Ultimately transitive in nature and completely made up.

Influence Character Signpost 1

Concentrating on Something: We first see Roger standing in the middle of traffic contemplating a giant crack in the road. When questioned, Roger states that he sees more than anyone else ever could. It isn't just a crack because the more he thinks about it and the more he looks at it, the more glorious and beautiful it becomes. The artistry and majesty of the ripples and torn asphalt is a thing of beauty.

Influence Character Signpost 2

Being Memorialized by Something: Roger gets up in arms when the board refuses to memorialize his favorite 2nd grade teacher Mr. Donovan. Mr. Donovan was the kindest most gentlest teacher who spent every a couple minutes every morning reminding Roger how awesome he was and how much he enjoyed his company. To refuse to memorialize this man is to refuse to recognize the beauty of the universe and an attempt by the great unwashed to remain asleep.

Influence Character Signpost 3

Being Oversensitive to Something: Losing touch with reality, Roger's anxiety rages as he expresses his oversensitivity to touch and sound. The loud sounds of the city frighten him and cause him to scream and react in a way that terrifies children walking down the street. In addition, he screams terror when his family members try and hug him and show him affection.

Influence Character Signpost 4

Being a Heartbreaker: Roger comes to the conclusion that small-minded people are the problem and he rejects his girlfriend of several months. He shows no signs of sadness, no signs of remorse, just a complete loss of feeling for anyone around him. To be attached to someone is to remain shackled in the world of the normal. That is why he will never ever forget about Plato—Plato was more than what he was…and that's precisely how Roger wants to live his life.

Influence Character Throughline StoryEncoding Example #2

Influence Character Domain & Concern

Hero Worshipping & Being Memorialized by Someone: Tay Nguyen is the world's biggest Hunger Games fanboy. At 63 years of age he creeps out the teenage girls at comic book conventions, angers his wife who wants to go on cruises around the world, and empties out his bank account and the money saved up for his children so that he can buy more and more merchandise and cosplay outfits. Up until now, Tay has not amounted to much of anything. 43 years as a sanitation worker really hasn't left much of a mark on the world. He wants to be memorialized by becoming so famous the Author has to write a part for him in the next book. This obsession to be remembered causes him to make a fool of himself and his grandchildren at a mall appearance, frightens the Author when she catches him spying outside her window late at night, and creates riots amongst other fans as they feel Tay is ruining their beloved series. Tay is a royal pain-in the-ass.

Influence Character Issue

Being Someone's Suspect vs. Evidence: To make matters worse, the Author starts to suspect that Tay might be her muse. Stuck with writer's block these past months, she begins to think Tay might be the answer to all her problems…which ends up delaying the book even longer (she wants to spend more time with Tay to get to know him), angers fans to the point of vandalizing the Author's house (since they don't want Tay to have anything to do with it), and sets the publishing world into chaos as many more Author's begin to suspect that their writing is missing something when they realize they don't have their own personal Tay.

Influence Character Symptom & Response

Being Ignorant of Something & Acting Without Thought: Tay sees the world's problems as revolving around their ignorance of the themes behind Hunger Games and of the strength and courage of its central character. The world can be so ignorant sometimes and can so easily discount something that could truly help them. Tay's response is to act with little consideration given to what he is doing, and to simply go with the flow. As that is what Katniss would do.

Influence Character Source of Drive

Finding the Objective Reality of Something: Tay swings into action anytime someone tries to find objective reality in the Hunger Games and in particular its fandom. Anytime a news reporter tries to deconstruct the fiction and true motivation behind its deepest fans, Tay leaps into battle and starts tearing down the foundation of most everyone's reality. Stories are life, Tay believes; they help us understand our lives better and give us real solutions to our problems. Nobody can make sense of real life—it doesn't have the same purpose a story does. This breakdown of reality, of course, encourages the Author and other Authors to spend more time diving into their own self-consciousness (through drugs and other means) rather than actually get down to the business of writing.

Influence Character Demotivator

Misperceiving a Particular Group: When reporters and locals begin misperceiving Hunger Games fans as sad and pathetic and lonely people, Tay begins taking time proving to everyone else what great people they are. This sounds more like justification and all it does is make these people, including the Author behind the Hunger Games and other Authors discount Tay and the other fans as lunatics.

Influence Character Benchmark

Considering Something: The more people start to consider that their lives are mere fiction, the less Tay cares about being memorialized…it's already happening.

Influence Character Signpost 1

Being Preoccupied with Something: When we first meet Tay is preoccupied with his latest cosplay for the convention this weekend. His wife tries to speak to him, his grandchildren come to visit, nobody—and I mean nobody—can seem to get through to him. Tay is in his own little world and he ruins the plans the family had for that week and challenges his wife's patience as he sits there and compares his outfit to images on the Internet.

Influence Character Signpost 2

Being Memorialized by Something: Tay is set to receive the official Hunger Games Greatest Fan award from the Author of the Hunger Games. As he begins to give his acceptance speech, boos and jeers start to rise up from the audience. He sends the crowd into turmoil when he mentions that the Author herself has promised to create a character based on him for the next book.

Influence Character Signpost 3

Being Spontaneous: The Author, spurred on by Tay's influence, begins spouting out inane nonsense at her next interview on Good Morning America. The Author is simply riffing on the cuff (something Tay convinced him of), but she angers and upsets the people outside, embarrasses the interviewer on GMA, and basically ruins the ending of the next book by just letting it out.

Influence Character Signpost 4

Fearing a Particular Number: Tay refuses to enter the offices of the editor for the Author's next book because he doesn't trust the street address: they are the same exact numbers used to signify the evil overlords in the original Hunger Games episode. He ends up missing out on being included in the next book because he is so consumed by the fiction of it all that he steps away and returns home.

This article originally appeared on Narrative First—fine suppliers of expert story advice. Want to become a master writer with Dramatica? Join the other novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights who have taken our Dramatica® Mentorship Program and knock out stories with as little as one or two drafts.

 


How to Write a Television Series
April 2016

Writing and producing a television series is difficult. With the recent popularity of streaming services and “binge watching”, writing and producing a television series is daunting. Trying to tell a serialized story over the course of a season or several seasons overwhelms even the most accomplished writer.

There is a way, however, to streamline the process while making it both productive and fun.

 

On Vox, Todd VanDerWerff discusses the one thing Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu get wrong about television, namely how most series tend to get “really saggy in the middle”:

This was particularly true with [Jessica] Jones, which reached a climactic point around the middle of its first season, then screwed around for several episodes before staging its final battle. By the time Jessica faced off with the season’s main supervillain, their encounter didn’t nearly have as much potency as it would have if the season had run for only eight episodes instead of 13.

This only happens because the show’s creators are unaware of the storyform they are trying to tell. Whether strung out across 13 episodes or 26, a competent and dynamically interesting story can be told as long as the story’s dynamics are kept in check. Outlining a television series to tell a single story in such a way that it does not “sag” in the middle is possible: you just have to know Dramatica.

A Dramatica storyform is a collection of 75 different story points that communicate the original intent of the Author’s narrative. While the purpose of the storyform is to maintain the integrity of the Author’s message, it also has the beneficial side effects of insuring there are no “story holes” and that characters stay motivated and tightly interwoven within a dynamic and developing plot. Knowing this storyform and using it to outline your work is the best way to avoid any of the pitfalls VanDerWerff speaks of.

Telling a Single Story

Streaming services have an unfortunate tendency to assume they should use all the time in a season — including the extra moments freed up by not having to remind viewers of certain plot developments — to tell a single story.

Telling a single story for one season is a smart and productive approach. Audiences only want to know that the time they give to a show is time well spent–they want the experience to be meaningful. As long as the writers and producers have something to say and know how to say it, they can easily fill 13 episodes with thematic material that captures the audience’s attention and keeps them engaged. The first season of HBO’s True Detective did this; by crafting a coherent and complete structure they delivered a powerful and captivating story.

In those instances where you do find that the story “sags” or lingers in the middle, you can fill that gap by defining a smaller storyform for a single episode.

Storyforms within a Storyform

This was the approach we took consulting on an animated series for a major studio, and the approach we take with novelists wanting to craft stories that span several books. Designate a storyform for the entire series, then identify smaller storyforms for a single season or book that support the larger storyform. When needed, and for variance, create smaller storyforms for individual episodes.

These last, extremely small storyforms, don’t necessarily have to have anything to do with the larger storyforms at play. For instance, think back to The X-Files and their mythology vs. monster episodes. The mythology had one single storyform spread out over several episodes; the monster episodes had one storyform per episode. Classics like Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose or Beyond the Sea told complete stories all on their own.

The recent update to the series (2016) took a similar approach: one storyform for the two bookend episodes and then different storyforms for the interior episodes. Data needed to develop and complete the larger over-arching storyform found itself woven into some of those self-contained episodes while there was one that stood out on all its own.

Epic Storyforming

The number of fictional works that are so dense that they require tellings longer than three hours is pretty slim. Certainly, gigantic epic novels like The Lord of the Rings or War and Peace fall into this category. But most other stories are rather slim when you come right down to it, and stretching them out just means adding pointless incidents and busywork, stuff that distracts from the story’s “spine,” or its most central conflict.

The Lord of the Rings in fact had several different storyforms all running concurrently. This is yet another approach writers and producers can take to flesh out and more fully develop their seasons. If they don’t want to craft standalone episodes or worry about “sagging”, they can easily and confidently run several storyforms at the same time within the same work. You simply need to know what it is you are trying to say.

Knowing Your Storyform

The storyform acts as the carrier wave for the Author’s intent. Plug in what conflict you want to explore, how you want it to turn out, and how you want the audience to feel about how it turned out, and Dramatica will provide you with a storyform.

Of course, stories are more than their conflicts. The best ones feature interesting characters who drive the plot forward, and those characters could help or hinder the progression of that plot through their actions. And all stories have obstacles that stand between the characters and their ultimate objective…But the number of obstacles a writer can organically introduce into a story before those obstacles start to feel pointless and random is very small.

This only happens when the writer or producer has no clue as to the storyform. Vince Gilligan (X-Files alum, btw) and David Simon and Beau Willimon may not have direct knowledge of Dramatica and its concept of the storyform, but their writer’s instinct–which is what Dramatica was built on–drive them to craft stories that do have complete storyforms.[1] Shakespeare didn’t have access to a Mac, yet Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Othello stand out as prime examples of solid storyforming. Bill had something to say and his legacy persists because of his effectiveness in communicating that message.

Dramatica just makes it easier.

Replicating the Bricks

A story can be told in a scene, or in an episode, or in a handful of them. But over a full season or series, it can easily fall apart, as writers lose focus and the obstacles placed in front of characters start to feel random and unmotivated. Streaming shows, because of how they’re presented to us, tend to look at the wall of a great series like The Wire and assume they just need replicate that wall. But that’s not the solution at all. Instead, they should start by replicating the bricks.

Brilliant analogy, but not entirely accurate. Crafting self-contained episodes, or bricks, can be an effective deterrent to unmotivated narrative. However, replicating the chemical makeup of the bricks and understanding the fractal nature of those bricks within the wall would better serve writers and producers. Dramatica helps to identify those base components of narrative.

The key to combatting this problem of losing focus lies in knowing exactly what storyform a particular episodes or series of episodes is telling. There are so many story points within a single storyform–not including the 45 or so sequences hidden deep within the storyform–that a writer would find it rather difficult to maintain a story that felt “random” or “unmotivated”. As always, clarity in regards to intent–whether through character, plot, theme, or genre–keeps an audience engaged regardless of length.

Size doesn’t matter when the message is clear.


  1. Vince Gilligan is responsible for Breaking Bad, David Simon The Wire, and Beau Willimon House of Cards.  ↩

This article originally appeared on Narrative First—fine suppliers of expert story advice. Want to become a master writer with Dramatica? Join the other novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights who have taken our a Dramatica® Mentorship Program and accelerate the development of your own sense of story.


The Multiple Main Characters of Mystic River
March 2016

Main Characters, like the people in real life they portray, find peace in their own personal way. Sometimes they achieve this resolution by means most would consider sad or even reprehensible. What happens when an Author's judgment on a Main Character's growth clashes with societal standards?

Something truly awesome.

Mystic River

In Dennis Lehane's novel Mystic River you have no less than three Main Characters who, by one form or another, manage to resolve their own personal issues. While it is a story of triumph for one of them, the other two find themselves at the end of a personal triumph. Regardless of whether or not their Overall Stories ended in Success, all three found their own version of peace.

Three Main Characters? The time restriction on a feature-film, typically two-and-a-half hours, makes it virtually impossible to completely explore three distinct storyforms. Novels, on the other hand, can do so with ease.

A storyform is a collection of four distinct perspectives, all focused on the same central inequity. The Main Character clues us in on what it feels like to have the problem, the Influence Character lets us know it is like for someone else to experience that problem, the Relationship Story allows us to feel what it is like when we have the problem, and the Overall Story examines how all the players deal with the problem. By definition then, Main Characters with distinct personal issues require their own storyform. The Overall Stories of those different storyforms may overlap and share thematic material (as they do in Mystic River), but the personal nature of the Main Character's Throughline almost demand their own collection of story points.

Understand that while this article contains images from the film version of Mystic River, the film itself fails to explore each story to completion.

For once, we're focusing on the novel.

Sean Devine

Detective Sean Devine reconciles with his wife.

Detective Sean Devine reconciles with his wife.

Sean's personal problems stem from his estranged relationship with his wife Lauren and his daughter, Nora. Having successfully identified the person behind Katie's murder, Sean (Kevin Bacon in the film) calls up his wife and makes amends. They attend a parade together at the end of the story:

He loved his wife then as deeply as he ever had, and he felt humbled by her ability to convey instant kinship with lost souls. He was sure then that it was he who had wronged their marriage with the emergence of his cop's ego, his gradual contempt for the flaws and frailty of people. He reached out and touched Lauren's cheek…

Sean's story is one of triumph—he solves the murder and resolves his personal issues (Overall Story Outcome of Success, Story Judgment of Good). But what about the other Main Characters?

Dave Boyle

Sad sack Dave Boyle finds peace at the bottom of a river.

Sad sack Dave Boyle finds peace at the bottom of a river.

Sad sack Dave (Tim Robbins in the film), a victim of child molestation, finds his peaceful resolution at the banks of the Mystic, a place where Jimmy says:

"We bury our sins here, Dave. We wash them clean."

What Jimmy refers to here is his intention to kill Dave, thinking him responsible for his daughter's death. The truth, unfortunately, is that Dave had nothing to do with Katie's murder; he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jimmy doesn't believe him, and shows his disbelief by running a knife through Dave's gut. Dave falls to his knees as Jimmy pulls out a gun and aims it at his childhood friend. Unwilling to die just yet, Dave pleads for mercy.

Jimmy lowers his gun.

"Thank you," Dave said. "Thank you, thank you." Dave lay back and saw the shafts of light streaming across the bridge, cutting through the black of the night, glowing. "Thank you, Jimmy. I'm going to be a good man now. You've taught me something. You have. And I'll tell you what that something is as soon as I've caught by breath. I'm going to be a good father. I'm going to be a good husband. I promise. I swear…"

Dave finds peace as he bleeds out. In contrast to Sean's story, Dave's is one of personal triumph. While he was able to overcome the deep-seeded issues he developed as a result of his childhood trauma, he was unable to avoid some sort of retribution for the crime he really did commit. He failed to avoid the consequence of killing a child molester in the same parking lot where Katie was killed. A bittersweet ending that helps to color the "happy ending" Sean's story received

Jimmy Markum

Jimmy Markum feels alright.

Jimmy Markum feels alright.

Perhaps the most chilling resolve lies in the heart of Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn in the film). Having just found out Katie's true killer (albeit too late for Dave), Jimmy finds himself faced with the revelation that he killed an innocent man. How does he respond?

He was evil? So be it. He could live with it because he had love in his heart and he had certainty. As trade-offs went, it wasn't half bad. He got dressed. He walked through the kitchen feeling like the man he'd been pretending to be all these years had just gone down the drain in the bathroom. He could hear his daughters shrieking and laughing, probably getting licked to death by Val's cat, and he thought, Man, that's a beautiful sound.

By most standards, Jimmy's attitude is reprehensible. How could anyone find peace when they're guilty of such a crime? The truth is we know people like this, and may even be a bit guilty of the same sort of justification (hopefully with less deadly consequences). A peaceful resolution does not have to be something with which an audience agrees with. Sometimes bad people get away with bad things and feel OK about it. Jimmy is one of those people.

He didn't get the revenge he was working so hard for, but he's OK with that. He can live with himself because he has love.

A Complicated Peace

The peaceful resolution to a Main Character's personal issues does not have to be a black and white issue. Proving that the end result of a Main Character's arc was a good thing does not have to be something that we as an audience actually feel good about. The Author is in charge here, not the audience.

Whether you're talking about Sean, Dave, or Jimmy, all three Main Characters manage to resolve their own personal problems. While Sean's is the closest to a happy ending, Dave and Jimmy's stories have that bittersweet feeling that is unfortunately more true-to-life. The end result is something closer to truth.

What gives this story its feeling of delicious intricacy, of being that much more like real life, is the degree to which these peaceful resolutions are found. Our moral appreciation of the ends towards achieving those means, if in discord with the Author's original intent, gives a piece of fiction that feeling of meaningful complexity. Neither technique, whether subtle or complex, is better than the other. Some Authors prefer to give their audiences something more.

Dennis Lehane is one of those authors.

This article originally appeared on Narrative First—fine suppliers of expert story advice. The Dramatica® Beginner's Workshop returns this March 19-20. Develop your story sense while learning this revolutionary theory! Learn more about this workshop.


Story Analysis: The Revenant
February 2016

Spoiler Alert --Brilliant filmmaking with an almost-story, The Revenant is a gritty experience of one man's will to survive-and seek revenge. The last point is important as it does seem the Author's intent is to say something deeply meaningful about revenge and leaving judgment up to the rushing waters of God. Unfortunately the narrative supporting that notion lacks certain key elements resulting in the argument proving that meaning less persuasive as it could have been.

Hugh Glass (Leonardo diCaprio) is driven by the will to survive and gives us a firsthand experience of what it's like to put off one's own death (Main Character Problem of Pursuit, Main Character Issue of Delay). Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) gives us the alternative perspective with his no-frills frontier attitude of doing what is prudent and reasonable (Influence Character Drive of Logic and Influence Character Domain of Fixed Attitude). And the Overall Story of selling pelts, stealing pelts, killing natives, raping natives, and exacting revenge all cover the third Throughline neatly (Overall Story Throughline of Activity, Overall Story Concern of Obtaining).

But it is the fourth Throughline-the Relationship between the Main and Influence Character-that goes unaccounted for. Sure, there is the potential in Glass and Fitzgerald's first scenes together and yes, they do conclude it nicely-but the in-between parts-that's where the hole in the argument is found.

This missing part also explains why the film lacks a certain amount of heart. All the grit and struggle and determination is captivating and masterful-but without the heart, it tends to get a bit monotonous in the middle. There are attempts to alleviate this with Glass' dreams of his wife and of ruined churches and piles of skulls. And these work quite nicely to supply that Relationship Story Problem of Conscience that a complete argument would require. But without their anchor in a relationship between Fitzgerald and Glass, these scenes ultimately end up far less effective than they need to be.

It is nice that Fitzgerald offers up that Relationship Story Solution of Temptation during their final battle-and almost fulfilling when Glass both Avoids killing and leaving revenge up to God (Main Character Solution of Avoid and Relationship Story Problem of Conscience). But it feels like overhearing the end of a debate or an argument when you haven't heard the two hours of back and forth that came before. It is the right conclusion for the dramatics put in place, but unfortunately lands weaker due to the argument's underdeveloped nature.

Make no mistake-The Revenant is a film you won't want to miss and one that will definitely earn several Oscars this year. However, if you're looking for a satisfying and emotionally fulfilling story you might leave the theater feeling a bit cheated. This is a tale of survival and revenge, not a story of survival and revenge.

The presence of a solid storyform usually predicts whether or not an Audience member will want to see a movie again; the idea resting in the notion that stories offer us an insight into problem solving we can't find in real life. The Revenant is that rare beast that transcends story to offer an experience unlike any other. Even a site "where story is king" appreciates and applauds this monumental effort.

This article originally appeared on Narrative First—fine suppliers of expert story advice. Want your next pitch or draft to be so well received it doesn't incur a single note? Join our track record of proven success by hiring a Dramatica® Guru.


Star Wars: The Force Awakens
January 2016

How many times have you seen it? Is that desire to see it again simply a matter of decades-old nostalgia or could it be the film possesses a quality that differentiates the timeless from the forgotten? Closer examination reveals the latter; The Force Awakens contains a solid storyform at its center.

Every complete story consists of four major Throughlines: a Main Character, an Influence Character to challenge the Main, a Relationship Story Throughline between the two, and finally an Overall Story Throughline for all the characters–Main and Influence included–to experience.

SPOILER ALERT!

At first glance, one may see Rey (Daisy Ridley) at the center of the narrative. While she takes on the responsibility for driving the plot forward, this comes as a result of her objective function as Protagonist in the Overall Story, not as the subjective means for an Audience to enter the story. Certainly there are moments personal only to her–the nightmare visions the strongest example–yet these brief moments act merely as the first Act to a Throughline that most likely will span the entire trilogy. Instead, we look to FN–2817–or Finn (John Boyega)–as our Main Character perspective for this story.

Finn’s Throughline begins the moment he lowers his blaster and refuses to fire into the crowd of innocent villagers. “I wasn’t going to kill for them,” he explains later–a justification signaling his Main Character Problem: Support. Everywhere he goes he runs into conflict stemming from this Problem. Cries of “Traitor!” arise from the perception that he–a soldier from birth (Main Character Throughline of Situation)–has switched allegiances.

Yet Finn’s problem is not that he won’t fight for the First Order, it is that he refuses to stand for anything–a lack of Support if you will. Other dynamics within the narrative then give Finn a Main Character Symptom of Pursuit and a Main Character Response of Avoid. Main Characters are aware of their Symptoms and think this is where their problem lies. Finn believes his problem is that the First Order will pursue him from one end of the galaxy to the next and thus–as Moz points out later–responds by running away (Avoiding).

MC Problem Quad for The Force Awakens
MC Problem Quad for The Force Awakens

The only way Finn can truly resolve his personal problems is to Oppose something. He needs to stand against something and refuse to accept the status quo. This complete change of character (Main Character Resolve Changed) comes when he gleefully stands up to his former boss and tells her, “I’m in charge now, Phasma. I’m in charge!” Employing his Main Character Solution resolves his personal Throughline and quite literally opens up the way for the Overall Story to end in success.


Like the disdain shown for Finn but on a global level, the First Order’s hatred of the Republic stems from the deep-seeded belief that the Republic supports the Resistance. Only traitors and murderers would stoop that low (Overall Story Problem of Support). Add to that the lack of support from a certain individual who sits on the sidelines of the Galaxy and you have a narrative primed for conflict.

OS Problem Quad for The Force Awakens
OS Problem Quad for The Force Awakens

Luke Skywalker is missing. Our very first Story Point in the film signifies the inequity of the story and fuels everything that comes after. If Luke simply stepped forward and stood up to the evil forces awakening, none of what followed would have happened. This is how meaningful narrative works: The personal conflict experienced subjectively by the Main Character is repeated objectively in the larger Overall Story. Juxtaposing both points of view grants an audience insight into resolving problems they can’t experience in real life.

And that’s why you want to see the film again. Why you want to see any great film again. You are gaining an understanding impossible to appreciate in your day-to-day life. Wrap it up in an entertaining package and you have the recipe for massive success.


With the forces of evil growing in power, Finding Luke becomes the Overall Story Goal, forcing the Story Consequence of failing into Changing One’s Nature–in this case, transforming the face of the Galaxy to one ruled by the wicked First Order. Overall Story Issues of Attitude come into play–signified by Po’s cocky demeanor with Kylo Ren (Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver respectively) and Han Solo’s brazen attitude towards his debtors (Harrison Ford).

As mentioned previously, Finn’s change of character paves the way for the overall story to end in success: they find Luke (Story Outcome of Success). Without Finn’s Change the Resistance would not have been able to stand up against the First Order (Overall Story Solution of Oppose). Whether or not Finn’s change resolved his personal angst is left to be seen–though it is clear the implication is that his actions were a Good thing (Story Judgment of Good).


Rey will eventually be the one to bring balance back to the Force, but for now–in order to bring balance to this storyform–she would have to impact those around her with her fixed attitude, a longing for someone unseen, a hope eagerly anticipated, and a drive for doing the right thing (Influence Character Domain of Fixed Attitude, Influence Character Concern of Innermost Desires, Influence Character Issue of Hope, and an Influence Character Problem of Conscience). Choosing to forgo the bountiful portions in lieu of selling her droid is less a “Save the Cat” moment and more a perfect application of the Influence Character’s Problem of Conscience. Rey easily exhibits all of the above thematics for her Throughline–which explains why she is the perfect foil for Finn and why he seems so astounded when she is able to take care of herself.

If you were to write your own story with a character just like Finn, Dramatica would suggest to you a character just like Rey. Whether it was writer’s intuition (a good bet considering Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt, and J.J. Abrams’s body of work) or whether it was the result of working with the application, Rey balances Finn’s point-of-view on every point. Her Steadfastness motivates Finn’s eventual Change.

Lastly there is the matter of the Relationship Story between Rey and Finn. Here too the writers chose storytelling elements that perfectly encapsulate the thematics needed to round out and complete the narrative.

With a Main Character like Finn, an Influence Character like Rey, and an Overall Story revolving around the First Order, the Republic and Luke’s absence–you would need a relationship between Rey and Finn that started out one way and then morphed into something completely new. Growing from a convenient partnership (“You’re a pilot?!”) to lifelong friends satisfies several key story points within the Relationship Story Throughline.

MC Problem Quad for The Force Awakens
MC Problem Quad for The Force Awakens

By growing into a new kind of relationship they answer the Relationship Story Concern of Changing One’s Nature as the nature of their relationship changes. Obligating themselves to each other (“They think you’re with me”) initiates the conflict in their relationship and eventually grows into the two of them standing by each other in the face of ultimate evil (Relationship Story Issue of Obligation). But at the heart of their relationship lies their Relationship Story Problem: Logic. Their relationship is a matter of convenience at first: Fin needs a pilot and Rey needs a gunner. Eventually it grows into something more meaningful and something more deeply felt–this is where the Relationship Story Solution of Feeling comes into play and how their relationship eventually grows into a lasting friendship. “I’ll see you soon, my friend.”


Star Wars: The Force Awakens is more than a cultural phenomenon: it is the continuation of a legacy of great storytelling that began in the 70s,died out in the late 90s, and finally came back in 2015. There is more to the film than familiar faces, recognizable sound effects, and similar situations. The Force Awakens is a complete story, balancing out the four key Throughlines in such a way that the Aidience leaves with a greater understanding of how to successfully resolve certain problems. Anyone wishing to repeat this same kind of success would do well to discover the storyform for their work, and endeavor to fill it with the same sort of life and love.


Final Storyform Settings

Main Character Resolve: Changed, Main Character Growth: Stop, Main Character Approach: Do-er, Main Character Problem-Solving Style: Linear, Story Driver: Action, Story Limit: Optionlock, Story Outcome: Success, Overall Story Throughline: Activity, Overall Story Concern: Obtaining, Overall Story Issue: Attitude, Overall Story Problem: Support


This article originally appeared on Narrative First--fine suppliers of expert story advice. Want your next pitch or draft to be so well received it doesn't incur a single note? Join our track record of proven success by hiring a Dramatica® Guru.

 


A Predictive Story Engine for Gaming
December 2015

By far, the most interesting conversation surrounding Dramatica today is the discussion of its application to interactive fiction. As a huge fan of Infocom's text-based adventures of yesteryear I find talk of an intelligent story engine running the show for gamers a very exciting development.

Melanie Anne Phillips, the other co-creator of Dramatica, recently took time out to address the use of the theory in gaming and even offers some insight into how this would be done:

Consider, then, the first-person player perspective in a game is not necessarily to provide experiences in a sequence that will bring the MC to the point of potential change, but rather to explore all corners of the Story World until the nature of how all the elements and dynamics at work in that particular storyform are identified and understood.

My first thought as to how to use Dramatica to craft a game was, in fact, to provide a storyform for the player to inhabit. The player would be the Main Character of the story and some other character would be the Influence Character. And somehow they would develop a relationship that would fit perfectly into the Relationship Throughline. Turns out that might not be the right approach:

The player, by choosing in what order to explore the world is much better put in the position of narrator, the interlocutor who determines for himself or herself the order in which the components of the story world are to be explored - much as one might make multiple trips to a buffet table or select items in dim sum and choose the order in which to consume them.

Player as narrator, instead of player as Main Character. Instead of forcing the player to experience the story in the order it has to happen for the Main Character, the story gears the unfolding of the experience around the player's choices. In other words, as an element outside the system the player as narrator can't break the storyform. The engine merely compensates for the change in direction and offers the player the next piece of the puzzle–whatever piece he or she moved towards.

An IF in which the player is actually the narrator, then the MC appears from time to time in the story world, having experienced things in the proper order for him to make a choice, but likely in a different order than the player. For example, the MC in the story world shows up and the player says – "Let's work together and head up to the badlands." The MC replies, "Already been there, just before the big explosion. Change me in ways I'd rather not talk about, but it made me realize there may be another way of looking at the morality of this whole conflict." And then he disappears back into the battle.

Makes perfect sense. And accounts for the unpredictability of the player.

Application in Table Top Role-Playing Games

It probably comes as no surprise that I always loved being the Dungeon Master growing up. Sure, it was fun sometimes to take my thieving hobbit off into a Cave of Chaos or into the Abyss every now and then, but the real fun for me was always creating the environment for my brother or friends to play in.

I wonder now if Dungeons & Dragons might be a good place to test out Melanie's player as narrator theory.

Over the summer, I had started to craft a storyform for my kids to inhabit but stopped when I was faced with the aspect of who the Main Character would be. Compound that with a group of kids who relish doing the opposite of what dad wants, and you've got the recipe for an afternoon disaster.

But now the approach is clear. Create a story for the kids to play in, but set the Main Character and the Influence Character as non-player characters. That way I can insure that they'll follow along in the proper Signpost order. The kids (or players) can choose to interact or step away as they wish, and in the end they'll have interacted with a satisfying and emotionally fulfilling story.


How An Inequity—And A Story—Is Made
November 2015

Stories reflect the mind's problem-solving process. The story of how a mind arrives at the point where it requires this process is known as backstory. More than a background history lesson, this pre-story story can also be understood as a process of justification.

A frequently used example to describe what it means when Dramatica refers to "an inequity between characters and their environment" is the example of the desire for a new car and a car. I use it during my Weekend Workshops and I used it when I used to teach story at CalArts.

In short—the desire for a new car is not a problem. A car is not a problem. The desire for a car is not a problem. What does create the potential for a problem is the space between the two: the human mind sees this space as an inequity. When faced with an inequity you have two choices: resolve the inequity or justify it away.

Removing an inequity

Resolving the Inequity

You can resolve the inequity in different ways. For one, you could lose your desire for the new car. Get rid of the desire, no more separateness between things, no more inequity. Everything returns to Zen. OR you can get the car. Get the car, you no longer have a desire for it, no more space in-between, no more inequity, everything returns to normal.

But what if you don't have the means for a car AND you can't get rid of the desire? That's when you start the justification process.

Justifying the Inequity

When deciding the alternate path of justification, your mind first looks to see where it is going to focus its attention. Let's say you focus on the car. If you do that, then you "lock" the desire for the car away—you're no longer going to consider losing that desire as an option. Your attention is focused on the car.

With the desire locked away the car itself now becomes a PROBLEM. You don't have a car and that frustrates the heck out of you. The car is now a problem only because your mind determined it wasn't going to reconsider the desire. This is where the Justification process begins and where Dramatica fits in.

A Process for Solving Problems

The Dramatica model isn't showing you the inequity, the model is showing you the mind's problem-solving process. With the car as a problem, you automatically create a solution: more cash. Now you have a Problem (the car) and a Solution (more cash). But what if you don't have enough cash? Well then,you make not having cash a Problem by hiding that First Problem of not having a car. You've justified or hidden away that Problem and created a new Problem. Now you're looking for a Solution for a Solution.

This repeats until eventually you'll get to the 4th level of Justification (fully justified) where you are looking for a Solution for a Solution for a Solution; this is where most stories begin and where you can find yourself lost as to why you do the things you do. You're lost because you have TOTALLY forgotten your original motivation for why you behave the way you do. Sounds like a justified Main Character, right?

This story process (or storyform) depicts the process of tearing those justifications down, at least in a story that features a Main Character with a Changed Resolve. The next step in the cycle is where you'll find Steadfast Main Characters; their stories tell the process of building justifications up.

The storyform isn't about an inequity, but rather the mind's process of problem-solving or justifying a problem that came from an inequity between things.


This Week in Story Structure
October 2015

The Story Of Steve Jobs Has Meaning

Everyone is up-in-arms over Sorkin's latest take on a Silicon Valley megalomaniac who changed the world:

This time, Sorkin's subject [Steve Jobs] isn't around to argue the point — an observation Apple designer Jony Ive made at the Vanity Fair Summit in San Francisco this week, decrying those who would "hijack" Jobs's legacy.

 

This should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Dramatica.1 Real life is meaningless; stories are meaningful. You can't give an audience the satisfaction and emotional fulfillment they expect from a great story without twisting the truth of what happened.

This is why people love stories and why they keep coming back to them time and time again–because you can get something from them that you can't in real life: meaning.

The Four Perspectives

You need the four different perspectives—or Throughlines—to see the conflict in all the various contexts. You need to see it personally (Main Character), personal but separate (Influence Character), in a subjective relationship (Relationship Story) and in an objective relationship (Overall Story). You need to see all of these in order to keep yourself from remaining blind to what might be really going on from a different perspective.

This is most likely the source of the film's backlash—friends and coworkers who had a certain perspective on Jobs; friends and coworkers uncomfortable with a story showing something they were perhaps blind to in real life.

Sorkin professes pure motives. "I hope the impression left is one of an intensely complicated and brilliant man — deeply flawed, but who, nonetheless, dreamed big and galvanized others to great effect," he said in promotional materials. "Ultimately, I hope viewers will find him to be human — and someone who probably could have been happier if he didn't think that kindness and genius were binary."

Or anyone who has attended one of my classes or taken one of my workshops. «.


Narrative First
September 2015

Recently I have returned to blogging daily on my Narrative First site. While not as in-depth into story structure as most of my articles, these blog posts–or thoughts–still catalog my findings and experiences into the world of narrative theory, and in particular Dramatica. The following is an entry expanding on some help I gave an Author interested in applying the theory to his work. You can follow my blog daily at http://narrativefirst.com/blog

Earlier today I helped a writer figure out the structure of their story over on Discuss Dramatica and understand which character should fulfill what role. You'll note that I tried my best to interpret what the Author was trying to say, not mutate their story into a specific set of hero steps or sequence beats.

This is when narrative theory shines: the tools and concepts amplify or solidify the Author's original intent or creative vision.

Note too my advice to “open the story up.” Dramatica naturally causes this to happen by virtue of its Four Throughlines and through its concept of separating the Protagonist from Main Character. Most understandings of story tend to reduce thematic material, rather than encourage greater production.

The Author made some of the more common mistakes those new to Dramatica make: thinking of the Protagonist when determining Main Character Resolve and Main Character Growth (when it should really be all about the Main Character) and not being ultra-clear on the connection between the Story Goal and the Story Outcome. The solution to the latter problem is easy enough:

  1. Determine the inequity of the story (what went wrong during the Inciting Incident)
  2. Establish the Goal necessary to resolve that inequity, or bring it back into balance
  3. The person for that resolution is the Protagonist. The person against it, the one preventing it, is the Antagonist
  4. If the Protagonist wins the Story Outcome is a Success. If they don't, it's a Failure

From there it should be easy to keep your story in check. Set the Story Outcome and Story Goal in Dramatica. You can also go ahead and set the Overall Story Problem as it defines the inequity you established in Step One above. With these structural foundations in place, it should be easier to avoid any potential contradictions during your draft. *Knowing what the problems are and what is needed to solve them * will help alleviate the problem of a pointless and meandering story.

This article originally appeared on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives. Jim will be leading a 2-day Introductory Dramatica Writers Workshop this September 19-20. Put story theory to work! Learn more


The True Definition of a Protagonist
August 2015

Many think they know, but the comfort of their preconceptions blinds them to the complexity of sophisticated storytelling. For thousands and thousands of years, many believed the Earth to be the center of the Universe. A lie mutually agreed upon is still a lie.

Earlier this year the distinction was made between the Main Character and the Protagonist. It was met with varying degrees of interest and ridicule, the latter coming as a result of perhaps a failure to adequately describe the intricacies of a story that doesn't assume both are one and the same. There can be no argument that the commonly accepted definition of the Protagonist is “who the story is about.” Whether or not this understanding is beneficial for writers hoping to create something of import is quite another.

Once a writer understands the difference between Main Character and Protagonist, whole worlds of possible storylines open up to them. Why should a writer be confined to stories where the character the audience identifies most with is also one the leading the charge? Aren't there aspects of life where we aren't guiding the boat, where we aren't the ones in control? Don't those moments have meaning as well?

It would be great to tell a story about an innocent man trying to escape jail…from the perspective of another inmate who lost hope a long time ago. Wait, that's already been done–in The Shawshank Redemption. Or what about a story where a writer in East Germany tries to broadcast the plight of his people…from the perspective of the man forced to spy on him. Shoot, they did that one already with The Lives of Others (Des Leben der Anderen).

Well then, what about the story of a corporate litigator trying to maintain her company's globally friendly reputation…from the perspective of the man held responsible for keeping that company's nefarious backroom dealings a secret. Too late.

Tony Gilroy already did it with his masterful film, Michael Clayton.

One Doesn't Imply The Other

The difference between the two is simple: The Main Character represents the audience's eyes into the story, the Protagonist pursues the goal of the story. Sometimes they are played by the same character, as with Luke Skywalker in Star Wars or Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. Sometimes they are not, as with the examples above of Red in Shawshank and Wiesler in The Lives of Others. They key is in understanding that the assignment of the Protagonist comes as a result of a logical assessment, not an emotional one, as is the case with the Main Character.

Thus, the Main Character is not always the key focus of a story. Shawshank is about Andy Dufresne and his unjust imprisonment, yet we experience the film through Red's eyes. Amadeus is about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, yet we see his wild antics through poor mediocre Salieri. A character may be the subject matter of a piece without also being the one we receive intimate personal insight into. Empathy dictates Main Character, not sympathy.

The Protagonist is not always the one who changes in the story. Clarice doesn't change. Salieri doesn't. Jake Gittes in Chinatown doesn't, yet each one of these characters is driven to solve their story's individual problems - the key definition of a story's Protagonist. Clarice endeavors to stop Buffalo Bill. Salieri wants to be remembered. And Jake leads the investigation to figure out what really happened all those years ago.

It is apparent that there too are big problems happening in Michael Clayton and that there are efforts being made to resolve them. But what isn't as straightforward is what the outcome of it all means. Discovering that requires a closer look at the meaning behind the ending of the film.

Bittersweet Endings

Without a doubt, Michael Clayton has a bittersweet ending. Even though the good guys have won, there is no Throne Room sequence like there is in Star Wars and there aren't fighter pilots jumping up and down with glee like there are in Top Gun. This victory is much more personal.

And it isn't the kind of bittersweet ending one finds in films like Silence of the Lambs or Chinatown. In contrast to Clarice or Jake, Michael is in a much better place at the end of his story. He has resolved his issues with his family, grown closer to his estranged brothers, and, going on, one can imagine Michael will improve his superficial relationship with his son. That masterfully acted scene in the cab is proof of this emotional state of peace–it ends with a slight smile on his face, recognition that he has come through the other side a better man.

For a story to have that bittersweet ending there needs to be a juxtaposition between the Main Character's emotional state at the end of the film and the outcome of the headline, or main story line. That's the very definition of bitter and sweet. In the case of Silence or Chinatown, both Main Characters are left with unresolved feelings, yet their respective cases have been solved. Jake still doesn't get it and Clarice still hears crying lambs. Michael Clayton has and therefore requires that the main story line must end in failure.

But the good guys won? How can this be…

The Pursuit of the Goal

Who in Michael Clayton is most driven to get what they want? Who is driven to pursue this goal at any cost, regardless of who must be disposed of in order to accomplish it?

Karen.

From a purely objective context, which is where a writer must sit during the construction of a story's structure, the character who is driven to Pursue the Goal is the Protagonist. This motivation to pursue must be present within every act otherwise the story will breakdown (as was the case in Zombieland). If that motivation wanes or “dies” somehow, then the story will slow down and meander aimlessly.

Michael Clayton does not suffer from this problem.

That is why Arthur cannot be the Protagonist and why, by proxy, Michael himself can't foot the bill once his best friend finds greener pastures. Michael could care less about uNorth until ¾ of the way through when they finally take a shot at his life. Arthur? Sure Arthur would like to take them down, but he is more like the fly in the ointment rather than the one actively pursuing a clear goal from the very beginning. In this respect, he is acting more like the Antagonist, trying to prevent a negative goal from happening.

It is Karen who is driving the story towards the goal of having uNorth escape this lawsuit unscathed. As an audience we may find this act reprehensible, but objectively–without preconceptions of right or wrong–it becomes clear that this is what is truly going on. This construct is what makes Michael Clayton seem so complex and why it feels more sophisticated than most of the typical Hollywood blockbusters.

There are no cats to save in this film.

Negative Goals

While the Goal of the story is purely an objective concept, the Author's own preconceived notions about what is right or wrong often find their way into it. This is why, for the most the part, the difference between Protagonist and Antagonist lies within who is the “good guy” and who is the “bad guy.” When this isn't the case, and the Author constructs a story where the bad guy is leading the charge to resolve the story's problem, the story is said to have a Negative Goal.

A Negative Goal is one many in the audience might find detestable or immoral. In Reservoir Dogs, the bad guys– Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) et. al.–work to escape from their bungled jewelry heist while simultaneously trying to identify who “the rat” is. While outside of the world of the story it may be difficult to side with vicious jewelry thieves with an affinity for ear removal, the problems that Quentin Tarantino constructed for these characters placed these crooks at the head of the charge to resolve them. They become sympathetic as we naturally root for those attempting to conquer inequity.

As mentioned before in the article Determining Your Protagonist's Goal, the key word here is Pro-tagonist. This character is for something, this character is working towards solving the problem at hand. And because stories are about solving problems, it only makes sense that audiences would typically cheer for someone working diligently to solve that problem.

From the very beginning, Karen represents the drive to pursue in the larger context of the story. In fact, another quality of an Archetypal Protagonist, that of being driven to weigh the pros and cons of a situation, can also be applied to her. Whether it is in front of the mirror practicing her speeches or out on the street corner debating whether or not to give the “green light” for Arthur's systematic removal, Karen is the one character faced with the heavy decisions related to the story's larger problem.

Karen's failure is what makes Michael Clayton feel bittersweet.

It is also helpful to note that the concept of the Protagonist does not exist in a vacuum; there are many different aspects of a story's structure that are tied to it. In the same way that the Protagonist's success or failure helps to determine the eventual outcome of a story, the kind of pressures the Protagonist faces also aids in determining the scope of a story. Knowing who the real driver of a story is can help in identifying the limits that keep a story from wandering around pointlessly.

Reining In The Story

Arguments can go on forever if there aren't limits placed on them. It is the same with stories. Some stories are limited by time, some by the number of options left open to the Protagonist. High Noon is an example of the first. Michael Clayton is an example of the second. Stories that meander often don't have this limit clearly set for the audience. This can often happen when there is confusion over who the real Protagonist is.

With Karen in place as the Protagonist, it becomes very clear what the options in the story are: There are only so many ways she can deal with a mad rogue attorney running around with damning evidence. She has to get rid of everyone who had contact with it (including the attorney himself) and destroy any proof of it before the story can come to its rightful conclusion. Once that final option has been dealt with (Michael in his car), Karen can meet with the members of the board at that convention center and tell them confidently that everything is going to be hunky-dory.

This final scene would be the climax of the story–that moment in a story when the limit has been reached and the Main Character must come to a decision regarding their resolve. As the smoke from his flamed-out Mercedes recedes, Michael finally decides to call his brother for help (something he never would have done at the beginning of the story) and captures Karen's bribe on tape–ending the story.

If it were Michael or Arthur as the Protagonist it becomes less clear as to what the options would have been. They perhaps could have been to meet with the girl affected by uNorth's products or maybe even to get the copies of the evidence out for the world to see. But these seem weak and murky, and are interpretations of what could be there rather than what is there. The limits help to solidify the story into one meaningful piece.

A Structural Understanding of Story

Determining who the real Protagonist is and understanding their role in the telling of a story helps to point out to a writer where they may be problems in his or her story. A majority of popular story paradigms might call for a rewrite of Michael Clayton because Michael is not a “willful protagonist” or because his “external needs” do not conflict properly with what he really “internally wants.” This advice, while well intentioned, would only lead to murkier drafts and more disappointment.

Besides, does anyone really think Michael Clayton needs to be rewritten?

The story works. And the reason it works so well and seems so unique in its complexity is because, structurally, it differs from everything else out there. Predictability goes out the window as the patterns set up to establish the story are unfamiliar to those who can now download a movie to their phone in under thirty minutes.

Michael Clayton's relatively minor box-office success could be more attributed to a lack of marketing expertise in much the same way that The Iron Giant disappeared without a trace, or how it took ten years for The Shawshank Redemption to finally find its place in history. Perhaps the same fate lies in wait for this Gilroy and Clooney collaboration, for if one thing is for sure, the film calls for repeated viewings which in turn, result in even greater moments of appreciation for what was accomplished.

Great well-told stories always have this effect on audiences.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

One of the greatest contributions to the world of storytelling comes from the Dramatica theory of story and its understanding that the concepts of Main Character and Protagonist are not one and the same. This appreciation of what is really going on in a story is one of those things that makes the theory so special. Instead of becoming a reductive mandate like so many other rules espoused by gurus and experts of story, this concept opens up so many more creative avenues–giving the writer a chance to produce things as yet unseen.

As far as Michael Clayton goes the Story Outcome is a Failure and the Story Judgment is Good. Then corresponds with that “bittersweet” feeling the film has at the end. As explained above, the other bittersweet ending–the Success/Bad scenario–doesn't quite fit in here as Michael has clearly overcome his personal issues and at the end of the cab ride has found a relative place of peace. The climax is brought about by a Story Limit of Optionlock.

With Karen as the Protagonist (driven by Pursuit and Consider), Arthur becomes the Antagonist (Prevent and Reconsider), though his presence is more about trying to get others to question their actions based on new information than it is actually trying to Prevent something from happening.

Michael's place in the Objective Story Throughline becomes less of a slam-dunk which also speaks to the complexity of this film. This isn't Avatar–the characters within are rich and unique not only in their presentation but also within their roles structurally. Yet another reason why this film becomes one of the cherished few by fans of great storytelling.


This article originally appeared on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives. Jim will be leading a 2-day Introductory Dramatica Writers Workshop this September 19-20. Put story theory to work! Learn more


The Actual and Apparent Nature of Story
July 2015

When seen in its entirety, a story maintains a certain nature. Whether something external the Main Character needs to work through or something they themselves need to personally work through, the resolution of the story's central inequity carries a code of greater understanding.

In the exploratory article Work Stories vs. Dilemma Stories :Dramaticapedia, Dramatica co-creator Melanie Anne Phillips posits the idea of Work Stories and Dilemma Stories.

If the problem CAN be solved, though the effort may be difficult or dangerous, and in the end we DO succeed by working at it, we have a Work Story. But if the Problem CAN'T be solved, in the case of a Dilemma, once everything possible has been tried and the Problem still remains, we have a Dilemma Story.

Defined now as Story Nature, this is one of those Dramatica concepts that has developed over time. Chris and Melanie are geniuses when it comes to story,1 but they didn't necessarily get everything right the first time around. Articles like this are compelling because you can sense the seed of some better understanding of story within the ideas. Through the years their understanding has improved and the definitions of the theory improved.

Dramatica defines the Nature of a story as:

the primary dramatic mechanism of a story

Which makes it sound super important. The truth is, like the Crucial Element, the Nature of a Story is one of those story points that is only important in so much as it informs the Author as to what kind of a story they are telling. You don't need to know it to write a good story or to make sure you don't have any story holes, but it is an interesting way to appreciate the kind of story you are telling.

Defining the Nature of a Story

The current version of Dramatica describes Apparent Work stories, Actual Work stories, Apparent Dilemmas, and Actual Dilemmas. The differentiator between Actual and Apparent lies in whether not the Main Character was on the right course or not when it comes to solving the story's inequity. 2

  • If their Resolve is Changed and they solve the story's problem then it is an Actual Dilemma
  • If their Resolve is Changed and they fail to solve the story's problem then it was an Apparent Dilemma

This makes sense. When you feel compelled to Change your position on something it feels like a Dilemma: you're choosing between one or the other. If you were right to change and you solve the story's problem then it was an actual dilemma; you weren't making it up in your head. If, on the other hand, you were wrong to change and you should have stayed the course then it was an apparent dilemma; the struggle was all in your head.

  • If the Main Character's Resolve remains Steadfast and they solve the story's problem then it is an Actual Work story
  • If the Main Characters Resolve remains Steadfast and they fail to solve the story's problem then it was an Apparent Work story

These are even easier to understand. If the Main Character succeeds then they were right to Work their way through the problem; if they fail then the Work was a wasted effort.

The Steadfast Dilemma

In reality, both sets of stories have the Main Character faced with that dilemma-type decision whether overtly or subtle, conscious or subconscious. You can have Steadfast characters who waver at the end and Main Characters who are on that path to Change their resolve from the very beginning.

William Wallace faced a pretty real dilemma at the end of Braveheart (“confess …”) even though by definition his was an Actual Work story. And Dr. Malcolm Crowe never really faced a dilemma in The Sixth Sense; he basically rode a straight path to having his resolve changed even though by definition he was in an Actual Dilemma story.

These terms Apparent and Actual help clarify the story's engine for the Author. They might be something the Audience eventually “gets” from the storyform, but it won't be a conscious consideration. The story point is simply there to make it easier for the Author to stay consistent with the story's purpose.

Locating the Nature of a Story

All four of these story points, or story appreciations, are available in Dramatica Story Expert. You can't pick them specifically–the program identifies for you what kind of story you have based on other choices you have made. You can find this story point in the Audience Appreciation section either in the Query System or the Story Points section.


  1. Chris Huntley and Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creators of the Dramatica theory of story.  

  2. If you're new to Dramatica you might want to learn more about the Main Character Resolve and the Story Outcome, the two story points Story Nature depends on.  

This article originally appeared on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Archives. Jim will be leading a 2-day Introductory Dramatica Writers Workshop this July 18-19. Put story theory to work! Learn more


On the Need for Plot Points
June 2015

Some cry contrivance. Others lament convention. And even more bemoan the influence of the ideologue. Writers will do anything, it seems, to avoid understanding what it is they are really doing.

As my story consultancy grows, I begin to witness patterns in behavior. Writers act like other writers. They safeguard themselves from the pain of unraveling what they know about story by hiding behind Aristotle, claims of artistic integrity, or the stifling weight of an outline. Their most consistent mistake rests in the assumption that the main plot of a story (or "A" story line) is simply the framework that all the really important stuff hangs from; that character and relationships reign supreme.

It's all important stuff.

True, some writers emphasize character over the machinations of the story world at large, but in the end both still need to be present in order for the Audience to make sense of what has happened.

The Interlocking of Character and Plot

Character cannot claim prominence over plot as both exist simultaneously within a piece of narrative, regardless of Author's intent. Character represents a subjective context on the matters at hand, while plot portrays an objective context. One can't simply cast the other unimportant because they find it unnecessary any more than they can disavow general relativity because stars are pretty. A subjective context presupposes an objective one.

The Dramatica theory of story exposes the difference between the objective view and subjective with its concept of the four throughlines. The Main Character Throughline and the Relationship Story Throughline manage the subjective view of the narrative while the Overall Story Throughline and the Influence Character Throughline handle the objective. Writers who write from the heart often leave out these last two. They may pay lip service to an Overall Story Throughline by casting the Main Character into the role of Protagonist and claiming the events "his" story, but by doing so fail to properly explore this throughline by centering on one character's point-of-view.1

That's not objective.

Objective sees Goals and Consequences. It sees Protagonist and Antagonists and Limits and Plot Points.2 Requirements, Forewarnings, Costs and Dividends. Success or Failure determine its Outcome and each and every character holds itself at arm-length, described only by its function within this view.

Many writers consider this larger perspective to be "unnecessary" or just the "MacGuffin" or mechanical" or "too limiting" to their work. Writing this perspective offers little in terms of emotional expressionism. The fun part of writing—the reason many take to pen in the first place-lies in jumping into the character's heads, becoming them, feeling what they're feeling and working towards communicating the emotions they feel inside. Writers such as these wish to express their fanciful associations to the text.

That's the fun stuff.

Objective, overall-these are not the words of a writer who wears his heart on his sleeve or one who wears his heart on the page. But they are the words of a writer who enjoys mastery over his or her own text.

An Objective Look at Things

Conflict arises as a result of inequity. Everything before the story = equity. Everything after the story starts = inequity. The first "event" upsets the equity of things and compels one or another to bring about resolution.3 If that person is successful then the story has resolution and equity returns. If that person fails, then the story ends with inequity.

That person is the Protagonist of the story.

The concept of the Protagonist exists as a shorthand term to describe the character pushing for this resolution. The Antagonist operates as a shorthand term for character(s) preventing this resolution. One works for the Goal and successful resolution. One works against the Goal and would prefer the Consequences instead. Stories without these two forces lack narrative drive.

The Slice of Life Cop-Out

Stories that fail to provide these two alternative views cannot claim to be stories. Whether a slice-of-life tone poem (The Tree of Life) or a simple tale designed to satiate the senses (any Transformers movie), narrative that offers one offers offers only a part. From the perspective of an artist living present within the spirit with which gives him or her rise, this approach fulfills. Understand, though, that Audiences desire more and may not be as forgiving or appreciative of only one-half of the story. They expect and deserve a complete story.

Every audience member brings with them a mind to interpret and interpolate the narrative in question. Every mind operates under the same biological and biochemical process. Though our individual capabilities might fluctuate, our mechanism of problem-solving functions the same. Conflict resolution requires context and an appreciation of the difference between subjective and objective. If a story only provides one side of the story, the mind rebels, walks out muttering something about "story holes" or "false characters" or simply "a bad story." Audiences expect some greater context to appreciate the relationships between the characters.

The Great Models of Narrative

All great narratives work this way. The external conflict generated by the inequity of the story reflects itself in the juxtaposition between the smaller inter-personal relationship between two characters and the larger objectified relationships between all the characters.

In Pride and Prejudice you have Elizabeth and Darcy and their romantic relationship set against the social challenges of 19th century England's upper class values tow marriage and choice. One can see the problems of the Wickhams, the Collins, the Bingleys, and, of course, the Bennets more than simply backdrop for romance. Their actions compliment and inform the conflict between the choices and actions taken by the two beginning a new love. Where would Elizabeth's struggle with first impressions and temptation be were it not for her youngest sister giving in to the same?

Comparable conflicts lie within Romeo & Juliet. The interpersonal relationship between the two takes center stage, but Shakespeare also manages to weave in the war between the Capulets and the Montagues. Misplaced expectations and a rush to resolve intolerable circumstances describe the personal as well as the extra-personal. Friar Lawrence, Tybalt, Lord Capulet and Mercutio need be present for the relationship between the star-crossed lovers to carry with it some greater meaning.

And then finally we have the greatest novel of the 20th century-To Kill a Mockingbird. Here one can see the prejudice and racism that comes with the Southern murder trial of a black man reflected in the interpersonal prejudice between a young girl and the boogeyman across the street. The genius of that novel lies in the positioning of these two views. One sees Atticus the Protagonist trying to resolve the inequity perpetuated by Antagonist Bob Ewell and others: the false accusation of rape against Tom Robinson. But one also gets to experience racism and prejudice from the inside by taking the journey with Scout and her shedding of preconceptions in regards to Boo Radley.

Audiences need both the subjective and the objective to emotionally understand and ultimately make sense of the conflict presented to them.

The objective view of a story sounds mechanical and boring and formulaic and prescriptive. It is. And it is so because it is, in fact, OBJECTIVE. This view is mechanical and boring and prescriptive.4 The writer must assume an objective view of conflict resolution and ask Who are the players? What are they motivated by? How does it all play out in the end?

Key Questions to Ask When Writing this Perspective

  • When does the story actually start? When does inequity upset the balance of things?
  • What sort of goal would resolve this inequity and bring everything back into balance?
  • Who works towards this resolution? Who works against it?
  • How does the conflict resolve itself?

Those familiar with Dramatica will know the exact answer to each and every one of these questions. The first finds itself in the Story Driver. The second in the Story Goal. The third in the Archetypal Characters known as the Protagonist and Antagonist and finally the last in the Story Outcome.

Those who don't only have themselves to blame for a story that lacks direction or fails to capture and engage the minds of their Audience.

The Search for Meaning in the Meaninglessness

Great narrative grants us both a subjective experience and an objective experience simultaneously. Stories give us something we can't find in real life. One can't be simultaneously inside their own head while also hovering high above watching the actions unfold. The juxtaposition between these two views provides the meaning of the experience-a synthesis that exists between the words and between the individual frames of film. Real life, unfortunately, has no meaning. Until we create some objective context from which to appreciate it (religion, nationalism, or any -ism for that matter), everything means nothing.

Stories offer more.

A writer makes his or her story fuller by adding this all-important layer of the objective view. Fear not heart-driven writer, for undertaking this approach does not take away from the very important relationship story. Stories require both character AND plot. Audiences need that greater context that includes the two principal characters AND the rest of the cast in order to make sense of what it is they feel. Writers want their characters and the relationship between them to mean something; providing an objective view and a greater understanding of when things happen and how they resolve grants an Audience an answer as to why they should experience the story.


  1. The Mini-Movie Method takes this approach. By collapsing character and plot into one context, the central character must undergo a series of "plans" regardless of the true problem at hand. «
  2. Dramatica refers to Plot Points as Story Drivers as they claim responsibility for driving the plot from one Act to the next. «
  3. This first "event" need not be an action. It could be a series of actions OR it could be a decision or series of deliberations. The Inciting Incident of a story is not something that simply happens to the characters. «
  4. Well, it doesn't have to be boring. But from a writer's perspective, actually writing it can be. «

The Fallacy of the Two Hander
May 2015

When it comes to the reception of a story, the receiver, or Audience member, can often mistake the elements of story for something else. In the same way one finds difficulty estimating the ingredients of their favorite dish when they only have the meal, looking at story from the outside leads to misinterpretations of the meaning, or meat, of the story. The problem deepens when accompanied by confidence.

As misleading as the MacGuffin, the concept of the “two-hander” spawns many errors in the construction of a story. Led to believe that these are two “main” characters rather than characters who share a unique relationship, Authors create narratives that breakdown under the weight of their own schizophrenia. In the same way that mixing and swapping the terms Protagonist and Main Character results in a confusion between personal goals and objective goals, the term “two-hander” leaves the impression that the story might contain two stories.

It doesn't.

In a Scriptnotes podcast last year entitled Making Things Better by Making Things Worse, professional screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin dished out something they usually rally against–namely, rules and education:

A two-hander is a story with two important characters, where basically both characters are roughly equally important in the progress of the story . . . generally each of the characters have something that he or she wants. And sometimes they have a shared goal, but they each have their own individual goals.

So each of these characters has something they want? Insightful. More illuminating would be the understanding that what these characters want are connected in a very deep and meaningful way, far beyond simple wants and needs. Comprehending this connection allows writers to develop strong and powerful stories.

Confidently Vague

John August's screenwriting.io site gives an even simpler definition of this concept:

A two-hander is a movie where there are two main characters of roughly equal importance to the story, and whose arcs are given roughly equal screen-time.

Sweet and simple. Elsewhere he elaborates:

Romantic comedies and buddy cop movies are often two-handers, but almost all genres have their examples. The Sixth Sense is a thriller two-hander, for instance.

So The Sixth Sense, 48 Hours, and presumably The Shawshank Reemption all function as two-handers. The list could go on and on and on.

Only it doesn't explain what is really going on.

The films listed above do not feature two “main” characters with the their own “arcs” who roughly share “equal screen-time.” Well, the last might be accurate, but how is that a measurement of the meaning of a story?

Structure is the machine that communicates the Author's meaning, a framework for what the story is about, rather than what happens. In the Dramatica theory of story this structure is called the storyform. Determining the ingredients or elements of this structure makes it easier for Authors to construct a machine that works.

The Real Difference Between the Two

Consider the Dreamworks animated film Over the Hedge. Under the definition above, this tale of animals vs. suburbia claims the name two-hander. Both Verne the turtle (Gary Shandling) and RJ the raccoon (Bruce Willis) vie for “equal screen-time”, both come off similarly important.

Unfortunately both find their resolves changed by the end of the film.

For a story to make sense and to convincingly make a case for its message, one of these “main” characters will steadfastly hold on to their resolve while the other will find their resolve changed. In Dramatica, this observable reality of story falls under the concept of the Main Character Resolve: Changed or Steadfast?1 The Resolve of the Influence Character (what two-handlers call the other “main” character) will share an inverse relationship with the Main Character's Resolve. One is changed, one is steadfast.

If you have one character arguing position A and he or she comes into conflict with another character arguing position B, you can't then write both characters changing their positions. Doing so undermines everything that came before, tossing out any thematic arguments made along the way. If you argue for neither A nor B, but rather some form of you are in essence undermining the foundation of story you built.2

Show character A adopting character B's approach or character B assuming character A's position and then inform the Audience of the results. That is how an Author uses story to make an argument. That is how the machine of story works.

Screenwriter Jim Barker explains it well In his article Demystifying the Two-Hander:

the story's theme -- what the author has to say about about the value of hope (and not just “hope” itself) -- is explored by means of an argument. In other words, story is a form of persuasion, and the best means of being persuasive is to explore multiple sides of the argument. Having two characters with their own perspectives is part of the means in which the theme and argument is explored, one character ultimately forcing the other to see their differing point of view and forcing them to either remain steadfast in their approach or change.

Similar Troubles

Referencing August's definition of a two-hander, the relationship between the two “main” characters runs deeper than simply one based on relative “importance.” The reason these two characters even find themselves faced off against each other is because they share a bond of conflict. They see this conflict from two different points-of-view, but there is enough shared material between them that they find it almost impossible not to butt heads.

This is where that clichéd line “You and I are both alike” comes from. The two principal characters recognize a commonality of conflict, but see it differently. One comes at it externally, the other internally.

The Well Considered Story

Giving credence to vague terminology leads to disappointing drafts and broken stories. The process might begin with little complication, but will eventually bog down as the Author finds their structure undermined by superficial notions of story.

The Dramatica theory of story seeks to make conversations like this a thing of the past. For years I have endeavored to communicate the strength of this perspective through carefully considered and thoughtful articles. Unfortunately the culture seems determined to ignore the measured approach, preferring tweet-sized understandings of story like “two-hander” to get them through their day. Rarely does anyone spend more than a minute and a half reading a 2000 word article that took dives deep into the reason why an element of story exists.

The purpose of this site has always been to improve the quality of storytelling to the point where filmmakers don't spend the last few months of a production trying to salvage a badly structured story. I've been there before several times, and it isn't pretty. And it can be avoided. We don't have to blindly trust the process. But if no one is listening, does this site even exist?

Understanding the relationship between the Main and Influence Character is only one of the many ways Authors and filmmakers can improve their craft. Dramatica offers so much more. If there is a better, quicker, perhaps more culturally acceptable way of communicating this knowledge then perhaps the time has come to try something new.

The promise of a fully functioning story endures. Time to tell the world.

This article originally appeared on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Archives. Jim will be leading a 2-day Advanced Dramatica Writers Workshop this May 16-17. Put story theory to work! Learn more.


  1. This is not a typo. A Changed resolve indicates the state of things for the MC. A “Change” resolve does not. 

  2. What you're really dealing with is A+B vs. C–which would require an entirely different story.  


The Secret Behind Great Character Relationships
April 2015

What we know simply marks the beginning. While comprehensive and enlightening, our understanding of story today will seem simple and elementary ten twenty years from now. Our responsibility as writers lies in excavating the truth beneath our superficial grasp on reality and applying that to the characters we bring to life.

The Relationship Throughline of a story consists of two unique perspectives. Typically we describe these two points of view, held by the Main Character and Influence Character, as coming into conflict over the best way to solve the story's central problem. They argue over the appropriate way until finally one gives over to the other.

The reality of this coupling speaks of so much more.

Some relationships grow. Others dissolve. The presence of two perspectives naturally encourages comparisons of unity or sameness, while at the same time fostering division and differences.

The Dramatica theory of story circa 2014 touches lightly on this fascinating aspect of narrative. Assuming the bias towards Overall Story Throughline and Main Character Throughline, the model tends to sketch rather than enscribe the various forces at work within this more Subjective view.* When delving into this area of a story, one senses the need for more to work with, more to explain and illuminate the intricacies of intimate engagement.

Same or Different

Bearing witness to the oft-used line of "You and I are Both Alike", one sees how the notion of "Two Sides of the Same Coin" work within narrative. One side feels they are the same, the other sees only difference. This happens because in one context the two competing perspectives exhibit similar properties, in another they differ.

Aligned diagonally across from each other when assigned their prospective domains, these Throughlines both exist as either states or processes. If Situation and Fixed Attitude, then they share a static (state) commonality of conflict. "You and I are both alike, we're both stuck," would describe the perspective that sees these similarities. If Activity and Way of Thinking then they share a procedural (process) commonality of conflict. "You and I are both alike, we just can't stop ourselves, can we?"

The other context sees these Domains in terms of external or internal. Situation and Activity tell of external conflict. Fixed Attitude and Way of Thinking describe internal struggles. If set in Situation and Fixed Attitude one character might say "we are both alike, we're stuck" whereas the other would retort, "We're nothing alike. I know where I stand (external), you don't even know yourself (internal)".

When caught up within the turmoil of a relationship, one character will see the forces driving them towards a shared sameness while the other will only see apparent differences. Neither claims accuracy: they're both right, and they're both wrong. The direction of their relationship determines how close to unity they ultimately will reach.

Growing or Dissolving

At the heart of every Relationship sits a motivating source of inequity. Dramatica refers to this disparity as the Relationship Story Problem. Whether a lack of faith or trust, an inability to accept or a longing for something more, this Problem motivates the Relationship forward.

Problems naturally call for Solutions. You can't have one side of the equation without the other, you can't have inequity without equity. The "problem" with the term Solution lies in the assumption that this resolution brings the two characters together. Naturally one would assume that if there was a problem, then the solution must heal their differences.

But what about relationships on the decline?

Relationships rely on tidal forces. Ebbs and flows. Directions and tides. When situated on the path for dissolution, a relationship turns to the Solution to end it all, once and for good. Whether together or not, the resolution of the inequity in their lives ends the conflict between them. Contrast this with the Solution for a Relationship on the rise. Here resolution brings two hearts together, ending conflict by bringing two together.

Neither approach claims superiority over the other. The responsibility for determining the direction of the Relationship and the proper application of the Solution lies within the writer. They must appreciate this reality of narrative for themselves and for their story.

In Ernest Lehman's Sweet Smell of Success (1957) Main Character Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) joins fellow Hunsecker pawn Susan Hunsecker (Susan Harrison) in a somber display of a relationship in decay. Tasked with ruining Susan's relationship with Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), Sidney uses their friendship to slither in close enough to gather the information he needs. Whether great friends or simple acquantences prior to the story's start, the two slowly move apart. The banter between them, centering around inferences of the other's weakness in the presence of J.J. (Induction), drives their relationship towards its inevitable end. Once Susan concludes her brother's involvement and Sidney's part in it (Deduction), the friendship dies. Having learned how to play the game herself, Susan moves past Sidney and moves on.(2)

Contrast this with the growing relationship between Christian (Ewan McGregor) and Satine (Nicole Kidman) in Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge!. Driven to torment by Satine's apparent ease with which she gives into lustful desires (Temptation), Christian begs, argues, and ultimately insults his love on the public stage for all to see. Only by mutually refusing to take the easy way out and forgoing their own egos (Conscience) do they finally find a place where they can come together. While death tempers this synthesis, resolution completes the Relationship's positive development.

A Greater Truth to our Work

The Relationship Throughline whispers something more than simply the presence of two alternate perspectives. The growth and development of this kinship in conflict calls for an appraisal of its direction and a nod to their similarities and differences. The Dramatica theory of story represents a watershed moment in the history of our understanding of narrative. However what we know now and appreciate as reality only scratches the surface of effective and lasting storytelling. Delving into the forces at work opens our minds and encourages greater breadth to our own writing.

  1. Point of fact, earlier iterations of Dramatica referred to the Relationship Throughline as the Subjective Story Throughline. The switch was made to encourage engagement from Western writers who prefer the individual and logic over the couple and holism.
  2. For a complete analysis of this film see the Dramatica Users Group analysis of Sweet Smell of Success

This article originally appeared on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Archives. Jim will be leading a 2-day Advanced Dramatica Writers Workshop this May 16-17. Put story theory to work! Learn more.


Story Consultants: The Snake-Oil Salesmen of Screenwriting
March 2015

Treacherous waters await those who set out upon the seas of storytelling. While the tossing and turning of indiscriminate waves threaten stability, it is the the company kept within that calls for caution.

The act of writing requires only one. Whether with pencil in hand or keys beneath, writers write with the understanding that in the end, they only have themselves to rely on.

Yet, the process can overwhelm one to such a degree that they consider looking to others for help. Some turn to professional screenwriters kind enough to log their experience and know-how in podcasts and blog posts. Others turn to story consultants and gurus familiar with narrative and its ability to bridge the gap between Author and Audience.

Confusions sets in once one discovers that the former don't look too kindly upon the latter.

Consultants Who Can't Do

In a blog post written several years ago, screenwriter Craig Mazin attacks script consultants:

What is NOT a smart move is listening to the people who DON'T do the job. And who are they? Oh, you know who they are. They're selling books. They're selling seminars. They're "script consultants." And for a small fee, or a medium fee, or a goddamned flat-out ridiculous fee, they'll coach you right into the big leagues!

This inspired screenwriter John August (and Mazin's co-host on the Scriptnotes Podcast) to chime in with his own version of Those who can't do, teach:

I don't endorse any of them. I haven't found any I'd recommend to readers.

The two posts generated hundreds of comments (sadly those from August have been lost) both for and against, with the majority siding with August and Mazin. Why pay for someone to help write a better story when they themselves haven't done it? If these "so-called experts" have all the secrets, why aren't they sitting on a pile of money and critically-acclaimed screenplays instead of how-to books and blog posts?

Because story can be so much more than simple self-aggrandizement.

August keys in on the ulterior motive for these consultants with his sports analogy:

Many of the best coaches were never star players. Rather, the top coaches have the ability to extract the best efforts from the athletes they train. They recognize weakness and focus attention. It's conceivable that the same could hold true for screenwriting. There might be individuals with a remarkable sense of both the broad narrative form and the precise on-the-page details.

To put it another way–those who can, do; those who care, teach.

Setting Ego Aside

The truth of the matter is a consultant does what he does because he is more interested in helping others rather than himself. Why spend one's relatively short time on Earth marking territory and building shrines when one can turn the tide far beyond the boundaries of self-indulgence?

Story-telling, and in particular feature film screenwriting, needs fixing. Epic battles and latex-clad heroes can only last for so long before Audiences will finally give up what little faith they have in movies. How else can one explain the increase in acclaim for episodic television like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, or Mad Men if not superior storytelling?

The majority of feature films today lack a strong structural foundation. They tell tales, not stories. Following the muse works great as a step one; steps two and beyond require organizing that creative impulse into something more meaningful.

The Flimflammer's Approach

In a recent Scriptnotes podcast screenwriter Mazin resumes his attack on consultants by echoing the oft-heard complaint against a structural approach to writing:

This whole "plot point one," "pinch point," blah, blah, blah, you've been suckered like so many before you into thinking that there is a calculator through which you can run ideas and out comes a screenplay and you just simply calculate your way to success. There is no faster, easier, simpler way to arrive at failure then attempting to calculate the process of screenwriting.

Many who struggle with Dramatica (narrative science theory) decry its apparent attempt to turn writing into a "calculated" endeavor. They see the boxes, they run into dead-ends trying to fit their convoluted story into its comprehensive paradigm, and they easily discount it as yet another in a long line of com-men eager to separate writers from their precious pennies.

They [script consultants] are flimflamming you, buddy. They're flimflamming you.

Or it could be that the flimflammers have grown tired of incomplete and pointless stories. It could be that they have discovered a better, more comprehensive way of understanding why stories seem to require certain structural precepts (more on this later).

It could be that they simply want to share this information with as many people as they can.

The books that have been written are being written by people who have failed at screenwriting, possibly because they were over calculating, and now they offer you the gift of the very process that failed them. I am not a fan of this nonsense.

Thank God some of them have failed at screenwriting! If they hadn't, they wouldn't have taken the time to ask why. They wouldn't have spent decades looking into the psychology of story and discovered its analogous relation to the mind's problem-solving process. They wouldn't have moved us beyond Aristotle's ridiculous "beginning-middle-end" tripe.

Chris Huntley and Melanie Anne Phillips developed their brand of narrative science (Dramatica) after writing and directing a really bad movie–a movie influenced in part by established screenwriters and university professors. Instead of developing bad habits accumulated from years of capitulating to producers and studio executives who truly have no idea how to construct a proper narrative, these two "flimflammers" set out on their own and discovered something quite unique–an understanding of story we all know instinctively to be true, yet previously have been unable to quantify.

Truth Behind the Con

In the very same podcast in which he calls out consultants for subterfuge, Mazin pitches the importance of a structural approach to story and an understanding of narrative science:

One of them is the protagonist. The idea of the protagonist, traditionally, is that our capacity for drama as humans and such that we prefer — we prefer — that once character is the focus of internal change. One character is going to have an epiphany and a catharsis and a transformation. But, another character with them can be instrumental to that. Another character with them can change, also. Another character can change in such a way that changes the protagonist.

Dramatica refers to these two characters as the Main Character and the Influence Character (the term protagonist–commonly mistaken or substituted for the Main Character–features elsewhere within the theory). Isolating the concept of Resolve between these two characters, one will experience a 180 degree "flip" or change in their point-of-view while the other will grow in his or her resolve by remaining steadfast to their personal paradigm (See the series Character and Change).

The protagonist sometimes isn't the biggest one, or the most heroic one, but they're just the one that changes. So, think about it that way. And just remember, we will be trying to — we will be connecting with somebody's change. And if two people are changing we want to know which one is primarily changing. It's just sort of ingrained in the way we experience story.

Exactly!

Dramatica (and narrative science theory) isn't an elaborate scheme to swindle amateur writers; it's an attempt to quantify and qualify this "ingrained experience" that we all instinctively understand to be true. Those engaged in its ongoing-development and education simply wish to pass on what they've found.

It's a very… — You just have to know this stuff when you're doing it, and you have to figure it out, but you can't divide your attention. You have to actually — you have to know.

Writers have to know this stuff, yet they can't seek help from those who know. Why can't they seat both professional screenwriters and theoreticians/consultants in captain's cab along with them?

A Synergy for Story

For the very best example of this needed collaboration in action, one need only look to the real world example of animation directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders. The former, a member of Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! Writers Group excels at structure. The latter, a creative powerhouse, brings the unexpected and touching character moments to the table. Together they create heartfelt stories full of purpose and meaning. Apart, not so much. Lilo and Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon, products of mutual collaboration, showcase stories that satisfy the head as much as they fulfill the heart. The Croods–directed without the assistance of DeBlois' attention to structure–meanders aimlessly, ending only because animated films last 90 minutes–not because an actual story had been told.

The Croods may be heartfelt and inventive, but without something greater to pull it all together–something more than the sum of its parts–the film falls into insignificance. Years from now the majority will be hard pressed to remember even a little of The Croods. Contrast that with the legions of fans who count Lilo or Dragon one of their very favorite animated films and one can begin to see the importance of having both.

Purpose and heart can and must co-exist. One can glean all the experience and industry know-how from August and Mazin while at the same time benefit from the enlightenment and wisdom of those outside of the system like Phillips and Huntley. Want to know how to conduct yourself in a meeting or how best to receive and respond to those notes you'll inevitably run into? Listen to the former. Want to understand the connection between your Main Character's personal issue and the larger thematic issue affecting everyone in the story while at the same? Partake in the latter. Regardless, taking both along for the ride ensures a pleasant and purposeful experience.

Someone to Talk To

A recent article from screenwriter/consultant Erik Bork sums it up nicely:

Certainly it's true that many writers who succeed never hired "script consultants". But I would say virtually all of those writers had access to their equivalents at some point, as I did — to augment their ardent self-study.

Access to those who know. The certified consultants featured on Dramatica's Story Consultant page understand narrative science better than anyone else in the world. They might not have a clue how to conduct themselves within a meeting or how to avoid the dreaded air duct clam, but they do know how to use character, plot, theme and genre to construct a convincing and solid story. They do understand the commonality of the almost 300 films, novels and plays (yes, even Shakespeare understood that ingrained experience!) featured on the site's Analysis pages. And they understand how to work with writers to give their work gravitas–to make those words count for something more than yet another on the pile of disdained and forgotten films.

Yes, the seas ahead promise turbulent violence. Crews may lose hope or find themselves lost without trusted companions there to help navigate the waters of story. But with the assistance of hardened screenwriters and inquisitive theoreticians, the voyage can continue with confidence. One to set the course. One to keep the boat steady.

Safe harbor awaits those brave enough to set sail.

This article originally appeared on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Archives. Jim will be leading a 2-day Weekend of Dramatica introductory workshop this March 21-22. Introduce yourself to this wonderful and powerful theory of story!. Learn more.


The End of the Three-Act Structure
February 2015

The time has come to obliterate Aristotle's stranglehold on narrative fiction. With the amount of information and different perspectives available to Audiences today, a simplified beginning-middle-end approach simply doesn't cut it anymore.

Complete stories consist of four major movements, not three. Sure, it seems simple enough to assume that because a story has a beginning, middle, and end that there must be three movements to define these sections. But is that all there is to an Act? A superficial take on the events within a story based upon their moment in time?

Perhaps there could be something more there, something more closely related to the thematic substance buried deep within the story itself.

2A, 2B or Not 2A, 2B

Unlike Hamlet, the answer presents itself clearly.

The standard in modern screenwriting paradigm calls for splitting up the Second Act into two halves, labeling them 2A and 2B. For all intents and purposes, as long as everyone on the production agrees with this naming convention, there isn't anything about this approach that could prevent the successful conclusion of a film. The question becomes if the final product finishes with a glorious and well-celebrated run or peters out over the first weekend, adding weight to the already great discarded landfill of pointless stories.

How to avoid this unfortunate result?

Don't assume that both halves are dealing with the same thematic stuff. Don't assume that this "Special World" somehow carries with it some intrinsic meaning because of its position between the beginning and the end.

Because it doesn't.

Why the Act?

In a recent article on The Myth of the Three-Act Structure film critic Hulk defines the true end of an Act as something that creates propulsion, something that changes narrative value and has the characters moving towards some new reality/situation (loosely translated from the Hulkspeak–you're welcome).

This is good stuff.

But something more important lies further down. Diving even deeper into what that new reality or situation is, one eventually discovers that this dramatic movement showcases a shift in focus–a different context from which to appreciate the central problem of a story.

Examining All Sides of an Issue

One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. This familiar understanding offers an excellent starting point for any discussion surrounding the thematic makeup of Acts within a story.

A story begins with the creation of an inequity–a problem needing resolution. If one were to simply follow one perspective, one point-of-view on how to solve the issue at hand, one would simply see the terrorist. Great stories, and the Authors who write them, take in all the different ways of looking at a problem. Using the different perspectives offered both objectively in the main plot and subjectively within the Main Character, these Authors offer a greater understanding of the conflict in question.

But it's not enough to simply include those different points-of-view, they must be laser-focused on what that problem truly is. One perspective will see the problem as an activity. Another will see it as a situation. Another a fixed attitude, like a prejudice or a biased opinion. And yet another will see it as a problem of psychology. Together, these perspectives unite to offer that better understanding, that appreciation of who is the terrorist and who is the freedom fighter.

Four Sides to Every Problem

With the individual perspectives defined, the attention shifts towards how each will explore their own take on the problem at hand. Take for instance the perspective of the problem as an activity. There are four separate areas an activity can fall into. Obtaining something, like a map or a new country. Doing something, like swimming the English Channel or writing a dissertation. It can fall under the category of Understanding, like appreciating the motives of a serial killer or why an alien race fights for survival. And finally, an activity find definition in Learning–gathering information or educating the next generation of lion hunters. Regardless of what that problematic activity is, it will always fall into one of those four categories. One cannot think of an activity that does not fall along one of these four lines.

The purpose of an Act is to explore one of these four areas. Once it has been significantly examined, that perspective shifts into the next area and a new Act begins. When speaking of changing "narrative value", these are concrete occurrences of what that value truly is. Once a new area, or Act, has been thoroughly exhausted (that feeling of "we get it already"), the next one takes over. This is why there is that sensation that the characters cannot go back–they won't because they've already covered that area.

Four areas for each perspective. Four acts per story.

Any more Acts would simply be a rehash of a old contexts. That's why stories end when they do. All sides, all contexts explored.

How to Train Your Dragon begins with the dragons and Vikings at odds with another, one side stealing and the other side hunting (Doing). It then shifts into an examination of the problems found in training the next generation of dragon killers (Learning). That movement exhausts itself when they discover the presence of an even bigger threat and Hiccup reveals his new relationship (Understanding). His father responds and that final Act revolves around good and bad battling for survival (Obtaining). At that point the story ends because it has to. Nothing more to cover, all perspectives of an activity examined.

Same with The Terminator. Problems begin when a robot from the future arrives and mistakingly shoots the wrong Sarah Connor (Understanding). These misunderstandings persist (trust the police, trust the scary guy in the overcoat?) until Sarah has no other choice but to take Kyle at his word. From there it's a race to see how quickly Kyle can convince Sarah of her importance and the reality of their situation (Learning). The second half of the film focuses on the chase–beginning with the shootout at the police station and ending with the destruction of the Terminator (Doing and then Obtaining). It almost feels like one Act because Doing and Obtaining are so closely related, but it's not. There is a meaningful shift from the running away (Doing) to the purposeful effort to destroy (Obtaining). That final movement becomes essential in a story exploring problems of activity. Leave that final Act out and the story would feel incomplete. The reason the story works rests in the fact that the Author explored all sides. Sarah rises to the occasion and defeats the robot menace once and for all.

Why the Need for an Act

There may be some who see more Acts within a story–some say five, some say twenty, some forty-two–but most likely what they are seeing is something other than the true function of an Act. When seen within the context of a well-balanced argument, the reason why Acts exist becomes clear. Regardless of how an Author decides to divvy up their work, psychologically speaking the story can only function as the result of four movements.

Four acts. Four ways to explore a single point-of-view.

Advanced Story Theory for This Article

Dramatica presents Authors with the tools necessary to explore all sides of an argument. By infusing their work with the meaningful utilization of distinct throughlines, an Author can create thematic balance, both objectively and subjectively. Modern audiences know better than simply black or white. They deserve stories that respect that wisdom.

This article originally appeared on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Archives. Jim will be leading a 2-day Weekend of Dramatica introductory workshop this March 21-22. Introduce yourself to this wonderful and powerful theory of story!. Learn more.


Heroes Who Don't Change
January 2015

It would be irresponsible to suggest that one could craft a story without character development. Stories without this growth fail in the delivery of the Author's intended message. What of stories that have at their core a character who does adopt a new way of seeing the world?

When exposed to the polarizing concepts of the changing Hero and the steadfast Hero, many Authors make the mistaken assumption that the latter does not grow, that they don't "learn" anything. It is clear the former fits into the accepted notions of character-arc, Protagonists and development, but the latter lends itself to confusion. After all, characters who view the world with consistency end up uninteresting and lifeless, right?

Without Growth a Story Reaches Us Stillborn

Stories fall flat without character development. Having sat through screenings of Iron Man 2 and The Informant, I can attest to the veracity of the rule. This failure does not come as a result of the Hero failing to learn something as much as it does from a lack of growth. Without proper growth, structural integrity collapses and the argument of the story breaks.

The act-by-act transitions that are a natural occurrence within great stories exist because the efforts to solve the problems at hand must adapt to new and ever-changing contexts. This is The Reason for Acts. They signify the end of exploring problem-solving in one area; time to move on to a new one. If the Hero did not grow and adapt to these new circumstances the whole purpose of the story would come into question.

Steadfast Heroes grow the same way.

Evolving by Standing Resolute

Contrary to its imposing title, a Steadfast Hero grows. With the passing of each Act, this kind of character digs their heels in deeper and deeper, bolstering their stance in response to the rising tension. The Steadfastness refers to their final Resolve in the moment of crisis: do they change the way the way they are doing things or do they maintain the course? In other words, it has more to do with the final result rather than the process that brought them there. Getting there means as much personal change and adaptation as witnessed in their Changed cousin.

Structure Offers a Clue to the Author's Intent

In How to Train Your Dragon where would Hiccup be if he continued to sit and stew about his unfair situation when all around him there were Vikings who were adapting to their new training and to the discovery of a big bad dragon? Beyond being a boring movie, there would be no point to the visceral three-dimensional action/adventure. But he did grow. He took a stance to protect these dragons and act-by-act he put more and more of his back into that controversial stance. He managed to find a way to overcome the bad reputation everyone had of him and managed to resolve his own personal problems.

What about Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) in Field of Dreams? That baseball field in Iowa would still be a cornfield, Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones) would still be hiding out in his apartment, Archibal ‘Moonlight' Graham (Burt Lancaster) would never have had the chance to hit one in the majors, and Ray himself would never have had a teary-eyed catch with his father (sorry for the spoiler) if he didn't trust those voices he was hearing in his head. Act-by-act (four to be precise), Ray has his approach challenged. Act-by-act Ray rises to the challenge. Even at the end, faced with the dual fruits of his folly–foreclosure and bankruptcy–Ray refuses to sell his farm. And as a result he heals the real problem of the relationship with his long since past father.

In both films, the Authors told us the right way to solve a problem. Hiccup promised to protect, Ray refused to question voices from beyond. While both were on the right track, not every Steadfast Hero is. Ask Randy the Ram in The Wrestler, Jake Gittes in Chinatown or Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. While each of these found a way to solve the problems at hand in their individual stories, personally they were taking the wrong approach.

The Audience's Interpretation Tarnishes a Story

There is no way around it: Audiences will draw meaning from the story presented and there is nothing anyone can do to change that. While Authors have something to say, it is the Audience who must finish the transmission by interpreting the story's events. This is where the problem comes for those who fear Heroes who don't "learn" something.

What a Hero "learns" is something an audience creates themselves upon finishing a story. Assuming the story is whole and the Hero has grown (a big assumption in an era when all Hollywood asks of its heroes is that they have a built-in audience, preferably the type that nurtures a fetish for spandex), the audience will interpret the difference between where the Hero ends and where they began as the adoption of some sort of knowledge. When Authors create a story they need not concentrate on developing something that is beyond their reign.

Heroes do NOT Have to Learn Something

Last week's article made the distinction between Heroes who grow by learning and Heroes who grow by teaching. That article proved the purpose of story not to be to teach the central character something revelatory, but rather to argue that a particular way of solving a problem is either right or wrong. Offering an audience the chance to experience problem-solving and its results from within the eyes of this character and from without is the power of complete stories. It gives an Author the opportunity to argue their unique perspective in a way that can't exist in real life.

This is the power of great stories.

Authors should worry less about what the audience interprets from their story and more about making sure their message is as succinct and as clear as possible. Make sure that the character's growth in approach moves with each act. Leave the interpretation–and notions of learning and teaching–to the Audience.

Advanced Story Theory for This Article

In Dramatica, this growth that a Main Character undergoes, whether they are Change or Steadfast, appears as the Main Character Growth. Once the Main Character's Direction, this appreciation describes the course a Main Character will take on their way to their final Resolve. Whether Stop or Start, more detail on this story point lives within the article Applying Pressure to the Main Character.

Solving the problems within the big picture story while failing personally (as in the examples of The Wrestler, Chinatown, and Romeo and Juliet) exemplify the need to differentiate between the Overall Story Throughline (the big picture part) and the Main Character Throughline (the personal part). Success in one end doesn't necessarily mean a resolution in the other, and vice versa. The combination between the two offers a story's Meaningful Ending.

This article originally appeared March 03, 2011 on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Archives. Jim will be leading a 2-day Weekend of Dramatica Workshop this March 21-22. Introduce yourself to this wonderful and powerful theory of story!. Learn more.


The Science of Storytelling
December 2014

Monumental leaps in understanding herald the progress of man. Fire. The wheel. Indoor plumbing. Dramatica. The latest development in our understanding of narrative has the potential to improve things far better than the ability to cook our meat.

Some, however, would prefer to stay in the past. Author and USC Adjunct Professor Gene Del Vechhio had this to say in his article on "The LEGO Movie and The Science of Storytelling":

The success of The Lego Movie is science first and foremost, masterfully brought to life with artistic flair. How do we know this? Because Aristotle told us so over two thousand years ago.

Yes, Aristotle started this whole narrative as a science gig. And yes, Campbell and Vogler built upon that foundation with their interest in Hero's Journeys. McKee and Snyder took it one step further by making all that palapable and marketable to an otherwise distracted culture. But what of the next evolutionary step?

Del Vechhio falis to mention the Dramatica theory of story. Billed on its website as the "Next Chapter in Story Development", Dramatica surpasses these rather introductory examinations of narrative. If Aristotle was Kindergarten (and really, it is), and if the Hero's Journey was elementary school and Save the Cat! junior high, then Dramatica is the PhD of storytelling. Steeped in human psychology rather than observed movie references and audience research, this giant leap forward in our collective understanding can significantly improve the quality of storytelling.

Junk Science

Examine, if you will, this Periodic Table of Story Elements:

The Periodic Table of Storytelling

This is not Dramatica. Combining ridiculous "tropes" like the MacGuffin and Adventurer Archelogist into a single chart, this chart attempts to pass popularity as science.1 The chemical "base" and position of each item on the chart identifies nothing more than the number of links pointing to the element. Disregarding the relative cynicism and uselessness of a trope itself, what value does the commonality of a storytelling device hold? Is one supposed to insert a Genre Savvy character because it carries more "kilowicks" than the Jerk with a Heart of Gold? Or is one supposed to avoid this character because everyone is doing it?

The chart is pointless.

Compare this with Dramatica's Table of Story Elements:

Dramatica Table of Story Elements

Not as pretty, but 5,000 times more useful to a writer. And less cynical. The Dramatica theory of story doesn't say it has all been done before. The Dramatica theory of story says there are thousands of different ways to craft a story's argument. Pick one and let your creativity determine how to present it, regardless of what has come before. Leave tropes for the less imaginative.

Dramatica's chart helps a writer balance out their argument so it doesn't feel one-sided. The position of each and every element holds significant meaning, especially in relation to the elements around it. It's no coincidence that the relationship between The Past and Situation matches the physical relationship between Memories and Fixed Attitude. One can find comparisons like this throughout the entire chart becuse high level math exists beneath all of them. Tangent, co-tangent and secant? Dramatica relies on real science and real math like to help pull these appreciations of story together.

Contrast the sophistication of Dramatica's understanding to that of the Hero's Journey:

The narrative should begin, they say, by immersing the audience into the hero's world, having the hero receive a call to adventure, making him first refuse the call, allowing him to then meet a mentor who convinces him to follow the call, and so forth.

Storytelling conventions masquerading as science. No relationship from one beat to the next and no explanation as to why they operate.

Act One runs 30 miuntes...Act Two should run 60 minutes...Act Three should ideally run another 30 minutes...This time-based storyline blueprint has proven over time to be critical because each Act is segmented in a way that keeps the audience's attention, making the story not too long nor too short.

Audience attention? That's a highly subjective analysis and open to all kinds of interpretation. Dramatica, on the other hand, has a very objective and reasoned explanation why stories have four major movements, or Acts.

Referring to the chart above you'll see on one level the story appreciations of Obtaining, Doing, Learning and Understanding. Each of these represents a different way of examining an Activity. When making an argument (or delivering a "message"), competent writers need to address all the different ways their characters can go about solving their problems. Once each has been dealt with, the story is over. Why go back and cover ground that has already been covered?

That's why there are four Acts.

It has nothing to do with audience attention, and everything to do with delivering a balanced and complete argument.

Evolutionary Understanding

In a recent radio interview, physicist Brian Greene had this to say about his particular area of research:

physics...many people think of it as some subject that they are forced to take in high school and they're so thrilled when they finish it because then they can forget about the whole thing,...but that's a sort of tragic perspective...physics is a way of understanding reality, of engaging with the world, of making sense of your own existence in the deepest possible way.

This is what I personally love about Dramatica. I love great stories. I love those stories that sit with you long after you've left the theater. I love those stories that haunt you all weekend long when you're caught up in a great novel. I love that feeling.

Dramatica makes sense of that feeling by giving an understanding of the dynamics at work in "the deepest possible way."

A lot of times I'm asked "Oh, how can I fit my story into the Dramatica template?" or "I don't know if I can come up with the 28 scenes Dramatica says has to be in every story." First of all, Dramatica theory doesn't say every story has to have 28 scenes–thats a misunderstanding from the theory book. Secondly, and more importantly, there is no real Dramatica "template". Stories don't fit into beat sheets or waypoints along a journey–it's the other way around. Dramatica gives us the chance to look at story and understand what is truly there.

In that same radio interview, Brian Greene had this to say about evolutionary understanding:

even Einstein himself knew he was taking an incremental step forward, giving us a deeper understanding of space and time and gravity. But he knew it wasn't the end of the story because the way physics and science in general works, people understand something in one era and then in a later era they expand the understanding. They typically don't wipe out what happenend in the past. Newton is still with us..and its good...because its a close approximation to the truth...but Einstein did a better job....and ten, hundred years, somebody else is going to do a better job still.

This evolution was the point of Del Vecchio's article, but instead of detailing the latest and greatest, he relied the well-traveled. Aristotle was a close approximation, nothing more. Analyze the Greek's groudbreaking concept of "beginning, middle and end" against Dramatica's Main Character Unique Ability. One illustrates a key ingredient for matching character to plot, the other only aids in writing the Table of Contents.

Why This Main Character?

Do you ever wonder why a Main Character is even in a story? Was it some random decision the Author made? It could be. But the only way that character becomes an integral part of a story is through the employment of their Unique Ability. This concept ties the Main Character into the larger Overall Story that everyone is concerned with. It gives him or her the ability to bring a successful conclusion to all the problems everyone is facing.

As a deeply connected man in possession of letters of transit, Rick finds himself in the unique position of being the only one able to bring the problems of Casablanca to an end. This Unique Ability of Closure ties him into the story, making him the Main Character. And what of Batman/Bruce Wayne's Unique Ability of Threat in The Dark Knight? The only way someone could save a city like Gotham would be if they represented an even greater danger than the psychotic criminals they hope to overcome.

Now, knowing that this concept of narrative exists, do we really want to return to the Stone Age granted to us by Aristotle??

A Call for Progress

One last quote from Brian Greene in regards to math:

math is a lnaguage that many of us are less familiar with. [It's a] language optimally suited for analyzing a certain class of problems

Bad stories exist. Trust me, I've worked on more than one. They're a real problem for many who work in the film industry because so many give their life and soul to what ultimately is a forgettable and pointless story.

Dramatica presents a language optimally suited for analyzing the problems inherent in story. What's more, it provides a scientific framework for quickly and adequately resolving those problems. It can be frustrating and overwhleming at first, but after years of study and the gaining of familiarity one begins to see story in an entirely new light. In a way, learning Dramatica helps authors develop their story sense.

The Weekend of Dramatica assists this process: helping writers from all walks, whether they be filmmakers or actors or writers, to better understand narrative and condition themselves to spot those problem areas.2 Knowing Dramatica is like having a powerful and prescient tool to help cut through the murk of constant rewrites and disappointing drafts.

Like most foreign languages Dramatica can be quite a challenge at first. There will be moments here and there where things will make more sense and seem familiar, and then there will be those times when you want to quit altogether and proclaim "I don't need Dramatica." That would be like saying "I don't need gravity" or "I don't need oxygen." These are things that bind us together in the phsyical world regardless of our affinity for them. Real, demonstrable scientific facts.

You can ignore it all you want, but like gravity and oxygen, there comes a time when you need to know what holds a story together and what gives it motivation. That's the only way to truly move forward. The concepts and theories of Dramatica bind us together in our collective appreciation of narrative. By introducing the world to real narrative science, Dramatica helps writers develop their story sense and move beyond the trappings of prehistoric times.


  1. No concept of story has been proven to be more useless than the MacGuffin. If George Lucas relies on the MacGuffin, you know it has to be a busted notion. The MacGuffin is a Joke ‹--

  2. The Weekend of Dramatica is a 2-day deep dive into the murky and exciting waters of story theory. Spacing limited, so reserve now. ‹--


Don't Use Other Movies as Reference
November 2014

Some people can't resist telling you about their favorite movie. Whether their favorite sci-fi flick seen in adolescence or one of AFI's top 100, film buffs love to share scenes. Problems set in the moment they bring up said love affair in a story meeting. Does the beloved scene or group of scenes actually apply to the story point being discussed? Or is it simply an unfortunate instance of fancy taking control?

Regardless of what you may have heard online or read in books multiple stories exist. There is no one Hero's Journey to rule them all. They might share a commonality of presentation but the substance–the real true meaning–behind every single book, novel or play claims a unique identifying code. Like the building blocks of DNA that–while small in number–combine to create thousands upon thousands of different people, the structural aspects of story combine to create a novel experience.

Occasionally a story might share the same code. West Side Story is simply Romeo & Juliet. Avatar is Pocahontas. Collateral is Finding Nemo (believe it or not, the Jamie Foxx/Tom Cruise thriller Collateral tells the same story as Pixar's Finding Nemo). But for the most part, the stories we share differ enough as to be detrimental, rather than helpful.

Bringing them up as examples for breaking a story only compounds the problems.

Work This Story, Not That One

Writers often refer to other movies in order to support their potential fix for a certain story problem. It's like in Usual Suspects when you started to see that night from Verbal's point-of-view… Or Remember that scene in Goodfellas when Karen flushed the drugs down the toilet? It's like that. If it worked for them, why wouldn't it work for us?

Because we might be telling a different story.

Problems occur when the example called to task bears no resemblance with the structural issues present in the narrative being worked on. Sure, you can reference that "killer Steadicam shot" in Goodfellas or "that gun battle on the streets of L.A. in Heat without harm, but only because those are instances of storytelling, not storyforming. Storytelling operates independently of the thematic issues within a story. It's the icing on the cake, the seasoning added later and parceled out at the Author's behest. Writers can ape presentation with little to no effect upon the meaning; they can't mimic substance without risking a confounding of purpose.

The storyform of a work of narrative carries the meaning of a story. It is the message and the purpose beneath the various levels of character, plot, theme and genre. It makes possible the transmission of bias. The story form is Author's intent. If the film referenced endeavors to delivers a message dissimilar to the one at hand, then the reference can only manage to disrupt and garble the final communication.

Different Stories That Seem the Same

One sees this line of thinking often when confronted with the dual miscues of the Hero's Journey and the Save the Cat! franchise. Refusing to dive any further beyond the surface, these digestible accounts of story conflate purpose with cultural trend. Do many cultures across the globe celebrate and pass on a similar legend? Yes. Do most films follow a predictable path as they lay out their individual sequences? Certainly. Does correlation confirm causation? Absolutely not.

Many consider Star Wars and The Matrix the same story. They see Luke Skywalker and Mr. Anderson as cut from the same cloth. While The Difference Between Neo and Luke Skywalker illuminates in greater detail why, understand that the elements of story that drive and motivate Luke and Neo rest in different dramatic camps.

Luke is motivated to test what he can and cannot do and it gets him into trouble. Neo is driven to disbelieve himself and it gets him into trouble as well. Luke needs to trust, Neo needs to believe. Two separate thematic messages. Similar? Very. But the solutions and moments required to satisfy one cannot be transposed to the other. Trust cannot fix disbelief. Faith cannot heal a testing nature.

Calling to mind Luke when writing Neo would only generate inappropriate solutions. Bringing up Back to the Future–a story all about finding and acquiring–when writing a story about misunderstandings only provides more rabbit holes to fall into. This is how broken stories remain broken stories.

Write Your Story

Instead of recalling scenes similar to those on which you're working, reference your own imagination and set scenes and characters to the meaning you are trying to provide. Understand the conflict your story rides upon and illustrate those scenes. If your character keeps screwing up because he doesn't believe in himself, don't start writing scenes where he tests his mettle like Luke Skywalker simply because you saw the movie 110 times when you were a kid. You're not writing Star Wars, you're writing your story.

This is where Dramatica proves to be crucial during the creativity process: by maintaining the integrity of the narrative developed in other scenes, Dramatica focuses creativity in the right direction. Write the story at hand, not the story you love from your childhood. Do this and your story sessions will prove efficient, effective and most importantly–fruitful.

This article originally appeared on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Archives.


Bringing Gravity to Gravity
October 2014

Audiences loved Gravity. Critics praised the film. And while the filmmakers' peers loved Gravity--as evidenced by the 7 Academy Awards it won including Best Director and Best Cinematography--there was one award they kept from it.

Best Original Screenplay.*

To date the film has grossed over $700 million dollars, making it one of the top ten films of 2013. Poll audience reaction and they'll cite the action, the music and the special effects of Gravity. "Masterfully directed" and "some kind of miracle" only hint at the kind of critical acclaim Gravity received.**

However rarely will they laud the story, and even if they do they'll say it was run-of-the-mill Hollywood. Visually, Gravity is stunning. But there is something missing from the actual story, something that explains why it didn't win an award for writing.

The Missing Piece

Gravity presents a strong and clear Main Character Throughline. We experience the film through the eyes of Dr. Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer on her first space shuttle mission. More importanty, we feel what it is like to be a mother struggling to overcome the loss of her daughter. The audience experiences these issues through her eyes.

The film also places an Influence Character Throughline to help challenge Dr. Stone and these issues. With his calm demeanor and steely blue eyes, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) helps propel Stone through her growth. The Relationship Throughline that develops between the two of them, that of mentor and student, rounds out the film by providing the emotional argument for Stone's transformation.

But what of the fourth and final throughline? Where is the Overall Story Throughine? We never depart from Stone's point-of-view. We have no idea what is going on down on Earth. Why did the Russians launch their missile? What geopolitical shifts come as a result of this act of agression? How is everyone affected by these events?

For those answering So what?, you're correct. The movie didn't need it.

But without that perspective of greater objectivity, the events on-screen simply become a roller-coaster ride. Without that juxtaposition of objective vs. subjective, what happens just happens. The events onscreen mean nothing more than what we see. We may attach our own personal meaning to it, but the Author misses out on saying something more.

An audience needs that dissonance between objective and subjective in order to gain some greater appreciation of the film's events.

Another Point-of-View

Aningaaq, the short companion film to Gravity offers a wonderful opportunity to experience this important aspect of narrative. Writen and directed by Alfonso Cuaron's son Jonas, Aningaaq depicts the other side of the conversation Dr. Stone was having while marooned in the space capsule. Stationed on a remote fjord in Greenland, an Inuit fisherman--Aningaaq--picks up her distress call. Fighting the language barrier, the two speak of lonliness and loss and an approach to dealing with grief.

Think back to your experience with Gravity in the theaters. Remember what it was like to be flung around in zero gravity and the isloation you felt at 350 miles above the Earth. Now take a look at it from another point-of-view

Problems with the story of Gravity?

This missing Overall Story Throughline explains it all.

We know what it feels like to experience pain and how we personally deal with loss, but rarely do we take a look at how others deal with the same kind of loss within the same frame of mind. By seeing Aningaaq deal with his personal grief objectively while maintaining the subjective experience we have of Dr. Stone and her daughter, we experience a cognitive dissonance unavailable to us in real life.

We acquire meaning.

The Four Throughlines

We cannot simultaneously be inside ourselves and out. The Cherokee proverb "Don't judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes" tells of this reality. We can't be objective about ourselves. Stories on the other hand can. Stories give us an experience we can't acheive in our own lives, they give us the context for meaning.

By allowing an Audience member to witness the effects a problem has on everyone (objective) while simultaneously providing an experience of what its like to have that problem personally (subjective), a story generates a greater understanding.

The Four Throughlines of a complete story cover the four contexts we can assume. The Main Character Throughline depicts what it's lke when I have a problem. The Influence or Challenge Character Throughline show us what it's like when You have a problem. The Relationship Throughline between these two characters allows us to feel what it's like when We have a problem. And finally, the Overall Story Throughline let's us step back and see what it's like when They have a problem.

The Four Perspectives

In real life we can only assume three of these contexts at once. If we take the I position, then we can see how You have a problem and how We have a problem. But we can never step outside of ourselves and see what it's like when They have a problem, because we are included in that perspective.

If we instead assume the They perspective, we can see how You have a problem and how We have a problem but we can never truly know what it personally feels like to have that problem. We can't take the I perspective.

For those experiencing their own cognitive dissonance in regards to why We doesn't include I, precisely. The We context does not include I the same way They does not include You. The tendency to blend the first two erupts from our own self-awareness and coincindentally ruins many stories. When it comes to generating meaning, context is everything.***

Gravity failed to give us that greater context and thus diminished what it meant to most.

Writing a Complete Story

The strength of this outer-space thriller betrays it's ultimate weakness. By placing the audience almost entirely within Dr. Stone's (Sandra Bullock's) first person point-of-view for most of the film, Gravity fails to provide the much needed third-person perspective on the day's events. Without an objective view to juxtapose against the subjective, the story loses all hope of providing any greater meaning and instead becomes nothing more than an amusement park ride.

The short film Aningaaq provides a taste of what that objective view would be. By granting us a dispassionate view of how someone else deals with grief and loss, we gain a greater understanding of how to let go of grief ourselves.

Make no mistake: inserting this short into the film would not have improved things. Gravity was designed to be experienced entirely from within. Adding this in would have diminished the experience. The point to be made here is the difference between the objective and subjective views and how important that difference is for authors wanting to write complete, deeply meaningful stories. Gravity was not a complete story. Chinatown, Casablanca, Her, and Hamlet were.

The question is, what kind of story do you want to tell?

* Spike Jonze won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his film her. ** Rotten Tomatoes consensus stated it was "masterfully directed" while Peter Travers of Rolling Stone said the film was "more than a movie. It's some kind of miracle". *** For a story to feel complete it needs to have 4 different throughlines, each representing a different perspective on the story's problems. (The Four Throughlines)

This article originally appeared March 27, 2014 on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Archives.


The Main Character Playground
September 2014

Many writers rail against story theory. How can a construct of chains possibly compete with the intuition of the artist? Story gurus and theoreticians can pontificate all they want, but their uncertified claims lie dormant. The proof, it would seem, lies in a writing exercise designed to elicit the strengths of both the inspiration of the artist and the wisdom of the structuralist.

Blind spots exist in every writer. They motivate us to put pen to paper and thoughts into action. Unfortunately they also stick out like a sore thumb when it comes to our stories. A complete narrative demands the absence of blind spots. Failure to do so results in "story holes" the size of asteroids.

A Shining Light

The Dramatica theory of story sheds light on the blind spots within us. By providing a comprehensive objective view of our narrative, Dramatica supports us by filling in the holes. Have a great idea for a story but no idea who the Main Character is or what kind of issues he or she should have? Dramatica has you covered. Have a great Main Character but no idea what to do with or how to develop a poignant relationship between him or her and another character? Again, Dramatica screens you from the emptiness of writers block.

Unfortunately much of what the theory provides looks something like this:

  • Domain: Situation
  • Concern: Progress
  • Issue: Threat
  • Problem: Expectation
  • Solution: Determination
  • Symptom: Theory
  • Response: Hunch
  • Benchmark: Present
  • Signpost 1: Past
  • Signpost 2: Progress
  • Signpost 3: Future
  • Signpost 4: Present

An unintelligible clinical assertion of something that is supposed to be beautiful and inspired and artful.

As a writer, I might have an idea of how to write a character dealing with Threat and Expectation, but looking at Hunch and Determination I'll probably take a side trip to the Dramatica Dictionary and remind myself of what they mean. By the time I've wrapped my head around Dramatica's precise terminology, I will have lost all interest in writing and instead want to find out what makes Dramatica work or read articles online about the theory (this last one is not so bad if you come here). Regardless the next step taken, I've lost all drive to continue writing and my story still sits unfinished.

Thankfully there now exists a way to get your creative mojo kicking with the latest version of Dramatica. Need help figuring out the perfect Main Character for your story? Someone who fits seamlessly within all the other themes and plot points you have going on? Or maybe you have parts of the Main Characters Throughline down, but some of the appreciations sit there and mock your inability to illustrate them succinctly. Dramatica can help, and it all starts with an exercise I call The Main Character Playground.

Room to Stretch

The key to this exercise lies in the generation of multiple revisions of the same story. By distancing ourselves from that which we hold near and dear, we actually open up opportunities for potentially better more original storytelling. It seems contradictory to say that by creating stories we don't care about we actually find ones we really do, but it's true. Let me show you!

First thing you want to do is grab yourself the latest version of Dramatica. Now called Dramatica Story Expert, this most recent iteration comes with a feature essential for this exercise–Gists. One of the theory's co-creators Melanie Anne Phillips explains:

[Gists] are subject matter versions of the story points. For example, rather than reading as "obtaining" a goal might read as "stealing the crown jewels." There are thousands of gists for you to use as story ideas, and you can create your own as well. Plus, you can even access them in the "Spin the model" feature which picks an arbitrary storyform structure, then populates it with randomly chosen subject matter to help you come up with story ideas!

Instead of Determination you get Working Out a Settlement for Something. Instead of Hubch you get Having a Sense of Foreboding. Melanie's last point clues is in on the approach we will use to encourage brainstorming.

Step One - Nail Down Your Storyform

Hard to generate multiple version of the same story if you haven't yet figured out what story you want to tell. The current version of Dramatica offers over 32,000 unique individual stories, or storyforms.1 Countless resources exist elsewhere to help you find the unique structure for your story (including my own Dramatica Mentoring service), but if you really have no idea what kind of story you want to tell or want to follow along, head on over to the "Project > Pick Random Storyform" and Dramatica will randomly generate a storyform for you.

Step Two - Generate Random Storyforms with Gists

Now for the fun part. If you're not there already, open up "Project > Spin-the-Model". Whether you have decided to create a random storyform or are going to use one of your own, make sure you select "Keep Existing Storyforming Choices" before proceeding. We want to make sure we're working with the same thematics. This isn't the real world where everyone throws in their opinions regardless of thematic consistency!

Next make sure "Assign Random Gists" is checked and select "Replace Existing Gists" below that. Pick a number between 1 and 20, then click the "Spin" button that many times. Eventually you'll land on a version of your story with your original thematic choices intact but the actual storytelling random and unique. For example, using the storyform choices outlined above, a random selection of generated storyforms with Gists could be:

  • Domain: Being a Winner
  • Concern: Having a Particular Group's Condition Grow Progressively Worse
  • Issue: Being Threatening to Someone vs. Security
  • Problem: Having High Expectations
  • Solution: Forming Conclusions Based on Circumstantial Evidence
  • Symptom: Writing a Thesis about Someone
  • Response: Suspecting Someone is Not True
  • Benchmark: Being at Hand for Something
  • Signpost 1: Studying Early Historic Cultures
  • Signpost 2: Improving One's Situation
  • Signpost 3: Having a Future
  • Signpost 4: Coping with the Current State of Affairs

A little more writer-friendly wouldn't you say?

You'll notice that I skipped the Unique Ability and the Critical Flaw. These two story points tie the Main Character Throughline to the Overall Story. Without the context of the Overall Story (i.e., we don't know what it is) we can't properly illustrate these appreciations and thus, will leave them out of this exercise. If you ended up using this exercise to further develop your Overall Story (or if you had done the Overall Story first) then you could come back and flesh them out for your Main Character. For now, we will concentrate on the Main Character Throughline exclusively.

Step Three - Get an Overall Feeling

First thing to do is to scan over the terms and get an overall feeling for who this Main Character is. What kind of a character would have problems with "being a winner" and would struggle against people having "high expectations" of him or her? How about a 16-year old gymnast fresh from her gold-medal performance at the International Olympics? That sounds good for someone who might have issues with "being threatening to someone" and might ponder "having a future".

Now, we lucked out with this one. Sometimes Dramatica will spit back a collection of Gists that in no way shape or form should be in the same story. That's a good thing! We want spontaneity, we want contrasting story points, and above all we want originality. Dramatica's unique story engine will make sure that all these Gists, regardless of subject matter, will thematically function together. So don't worry if your Playgrounds speak of "Having Alzheimer's Disease", "Having a Song Stuck in Your Head" and "Stealing Fire from the Gods"…Dramatica will make sure they operate as a whole.

The key here is to create a character who is nothing like the Main Character you might have in mind for your story. The further away from what you know the better. The more fun you have with it the better. Change the genre, change the gender, the age, the occupation…change it all! Move away from your story in order to get closer to it.

Step Four - Start Illustrating

Now that we have a general idea of who this character is and we have obliterated any preconceptions we had of them, we can start writing about him or her.

For this step, I sort of use the technique described in Armando Saldana Mora's book "Dramatica for Screenwriters" and included in the latest version of Dramatica–Instant Dramatica. I say sort of because I slightly modify it for this exercise and for the Main Character Throughline.2 For the Main Character Playground I write two or three lines for each of the following (and in this order):

  • Domain and Concern
  • Issue and Counterpoint
  • Problem
  • Symptom and Response
  • Solution
  • Benchmark
  • Signpost 1
  • Signpost 2
  • Signpost 3
  • Signpost 4

If this were the Relationship Throughline I might delay the Solution illustration to the end, especially since I have no indication within the storyform whether or not the Relationship will be resolved. Presumably we know this for the Main Character: if their Resolve is Change then the Solution will come into play. If Steadfast, then their Solution might fluctuate in and out of the story, but ultimately will not displace the Problem.

In addition to considering the Main Character Resolve, it's also a good idea to factor in the Story Judgment. The Resolve will let us know whether the Problem or Solution wins out, the Judgment will clue us in to how the Main Character feels about it. For our purposes we have a Main Character Resolve of Change and a Story Judgment of Good.

Back to our gymnast and my first take on this Main Character Playground:

Being a Winner and Having a Particular Group's Condition Grow Progressively Worse: 16 yr. old Malina struggles with her win at the 2002 Olympics. Everyone looks up to her as a champion, even her fellow teammates who, week by week, perform less effectively. Malina's status as America's "Golden Idol" makes it harder and harder for her to fit in with the team and other girls her own age.

Being Threatening to Someone vs. Security: Malina feels like a monster. Whether it's on the mat or down at the mall, girls feel threatened by her and gang up on her any chance they can get. It's an even bigger issue because, as an only child, she always liked the security she felt being part of something bigger than herself. Now her own success threatens that.

Having High Expectations: Malina's problems stem from her having such high expectations for herself, not only as a gymnast, but as a friend, as a daughter, and as a student. The pressure is unrelenting.

Writing a Thesis about Someone and Suspecting Someone is Not True: This pressure carries over into school where she struggles with writing a thesis paper about another young prodigy, Mozart. Supporting conclusions about his notoriety become so difficult that she suspects her teachers are wrong about him. And if they're wrong about Mozart, she suspects her teachers and even her coaches are not telling her the truth about her future potential.

Forming Conclusions Based on Circumstantial Evidence: Eventually Malina has a change of heart and decides that her teachers, the coaches, the girls on her team and the girls her age are all forming their conclusions about her based on circumstantial evidence. Just because she won a Gold Medal doesn't mean she's a winner at everything. With a great weight lifted, Malina walks the halls of her high school happy and comfortable in her own skin.

Being at Hand for Something: The more Malina has to be at the beck and call of her teammates to support them the more concerned she becomes with how badly they're doing.

Studying Early Historic Cultures: Malina's story begins in history class when a discussion of the Worl'ds Greats inevitably leads students to guessing whether or not she will join the history books.

Improving One's Situation: Malina combats the jealousy by honestly trying to help her teammates improve their performance and their ranking among other teams.

Having a Future: Malina discovers she has a future far beyond simply performing at Olympics–she has the skills and temperance of a great coach.

Coping with the Current State of Affairs: Malina copes with being part of a team of mediocre players–a team she is proud to be a part of.

Ramping Up the Creativity

As you can see this is an amazing leap from that initial Dramatica report. Instead of a few stunted lines about Progress and Expectation and Theory, we now have a fully realized character–a Main Character we can easily fit into our story.

Note how the progression of Signposts simply works. They fees like the development of a character who shifts their world-paradigm and by doing so, resolves her personal issues. Dramatica determined the order of signposts heeded to elicit that kind of ending. The Gists help us move away from Dramatica. Tr y writing a downer ending using that order of Signposts and you'll he hard pressed to do it. It won't feel natural. That's the power of Dramatica's story engine.

We haven't finished yet. Next week, we will cover the steps required to finish off the exercise and develop our creativity beyond where we ever thought possible before.


  1. A Dramatica storyform combines seventy-five thematic elements together and provides the message of the story. Different stories can have the same storyform, but have different storytelling (e.g., West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet) (Storyform 

  2. Other Throughlines have their own unique changes which I'll describe in next week's article. 

This article originally appeared June 26, 2014 on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Archives. Jim will be leading a 2-day Dramatica Writers Workshop this September 20-21. Learn how to use the technique above on your own stories. Put complicated story theory to practical use!. Learn more.


Structure Is Not What Happens When
August 2014

Separating out structure from writing leads to disaster. Failure to understand that the two work in concert to provide a message of intent to the audience fractures productions and removes responsibility of content from the creators. Story is structure.

One of the most frustrating experiences for someone proficient in the Dramatica theory of story dwells in listening to professional writers speak with inaccuracy towards structure. They might refer to the "MacGuffin." Or they might claim that one could remove all of structure and "still have a story." Or worse: they could attempt to marginalize the efforts of a consultant who just the day before had helped them propel an idea into production. Regardless, the ego-driven machinations of voices less than secure with their own contributions perhaps are best left for the therapist's couch.

Unless, of course, those voices persist in denigrating the work of story consultants.

Rather Be Seen Than Heard

Professional screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin love to beat up on the "story guru." Painting these story consultants as snake-oil salesman intent on robbing the innocent of what few dollars they have left, both August and Mazin assure their authority by tearing down the work of others.1

The latest Scriptnotes Podcast, Making Things Better By Making Things Worse, offers yet another opportunity to defend the work of the consultant and to clarify the Dramatica approach to structure. One gets the sense that the two hosts–both staunchly critical of script consultants and screenwriting books in the past–would actually appreciate the perspective of narrative provided by Dramatica, if only they would take the time to understand the concepts.

No page numbers. No step-by-step guarantee of success. And no formula driven cookie-cutter order of sequences to follow. Trying to say something with that character? Then you're going to need this other character to challenge her and provide the necessary counterpoint to your thematic argument.2 Need the story to end a certain way? Then you'll need to address some of these particular issues earlier rather than later.3 Dramatica completes the Author's message by filling in the blind spots inherent within the intention for writing. The purpose is never to write a Dramatica story. Rather, the purpose is to write the Author's story, with Dramatica filling in the blanks where necessary.

Dramatica is not easy. The theory– and the application that supports it–does not make screenwriting or any other form of writing less complex. If anything, it requires more complexity from Authors in the presentation of their stories. The purpose of the Dramatica theory of story is not to make it easier to write a movie in 21 days or to provide an easy set of 15 beats for writers to follow. Dramatica's sole function is to provide Authors the tools necessary to argue their points effectively and succinctly.

When to Reveal and Structure

In their first of their many inaccuracies with regards to structure John August, the screenwriter behind Go and Frankenweenie, has this to say about writing:

Structure is really about when things happen and when you reveal certain information. And I get frustrated by screenwriting textbooks because they always talk about structure as when in the sense of like on this page you're supposed to do this, and on this page you're supposed to do this, and hitting these page counts, when really it's so much more subtle than that.

Most of the books that August refer to identify those page numbers as 30, 60, 90 (or somewhere nearby). One could be cynical and assume that the gurus Mazin and August refer to seek easy-to-follow numbers in order to compensate for some deficiency of talent. Or one could see how the process of dividing a typical 120-page screenplay into four even movements naturally leads to those numbers. Either way the fact remains the same: every complete story consists of four Acts.

The Dramatica theory of story makes no reference to page numbers. It does, however, provide an explanation as to why Acts exist, why there seem to be four of them in every complete narrative, and helps shed light on the order of the thematic material for each of these major movements.

The theory also provides a clear distinction between when things happen within a story and when they reveal themselves to the Audience.

It's when are you giving a piece of information to the audience so that they have — it's how are you dolling out the information to the audience to get the best sense of what your story is.

Here August blends storyWEAVING with storyFORMING. Dramatica's storyform captures the complex process of problem-solving and distills it down to an arrangement of story points.4 This process, represented by the Signposts beneath each throughline, relies on the order of these story points to convey its conclusion. How that information is "doled out" to the Audience rests entirely in the talent and taste of the Author. The storyform forms during the storyFORMING phase of crafting an argument:

The storyENCODING phase attaches specific instances and unique identifiers to what would otherwise be a cold and mechanical presentation. Stories with similar storyforms rely on this phase to place distance between them.

The storyWEAVING phase finds the Author deciding on what to reveal and when. Starting with the end and working backwards may instill a level of apprehension or suspense, but it has no effect on the actual structure of the story. Unravel Christopher Nolan's Memento into its original chronological order and the storyform would remain the same. It most certainly would not have been as effective, but the meaning of the story–the argument encoded within the storyform–would have been understood to be the same.

The storyRECEPTION phase unfortunately relieves Authors of any remaining control over their story and thus, sits outside the purvey of this article. Suffice to say any number of intrusions, distractions or disruptions can contribute to the failed intent of a work. The Author can only write and hope that what they want to say will be heard and understood in the manner it was presented.

A Call for Better Storytelling

Presumably August and Mazin produce their podcast to inspire and enlighten those legions of writers who dream of seeing their work on-screen. Why then would they continue to disseminate disinformation in regards to structure? In a pattern that seems to repeat itself without fail, I have now been a part of three separate productions that plead no contest to the story provided to them. Not one single note. The reason for this rests in the fact that I was able to help the individual writers5 involved craft what Dramatica refers to as a "complete story. " By focusing the talent and passion towards a larger purpose, we left studio executives elated and thankful. This response owes much of its success towards the structure and understanding of narrative provided by Dramatica.

In the end we all want a memorable and heart-warming story. A well-structured narrative, informed by the Dramatica theory of story, captures hearts and minds–leaving those on the receiving end wanting even more.

Structure is not what happens when. Structure is why it all happens in the first place.

This article originally appeared July 31, 2014 on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles like this one, can be found in the Article Archives. Jim will be leading a 2-day Dramatica workshop this September 13-14, 2014. Read more about the Dramatica Writers Workshop.


  1. August less so, as he at least allows for screenwriting knowledge delivered via book. But of course, read it and then forget it. 

  2. Dramatica refers to this character as the Influence Character–essentially, the character responsible for challenging the Main Character to deal with his or her personal justifications. 

  3. The order of events determines whether a story ends in Triumph or Tragedy (Meaningful Endings). 

  4. A Dramatica storyform combines seventy-five thematic elements together and provides the message of the story. Different stories can have the same storyform, but have different storytelling (e.g., West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet). The Dramatica storyform 

  5. One was a passion project that I actually wrote from the ground up. 


The Crucial Element of Screenwriting in Action
July 2014

When does story theory overcomplicate the writing process? The drive to understand all that is Dramatica sometimes works against Authors. In a case where too much knowledge can be a bad thing, suppressing the urge to overthink may prove beneficial.

Dramatica's Crucial Element. In a theory as complex and comprehensive as Dramatica, the idea that one part may be more crucial than another tends to be an attention-grabber. Further examination proves the concept to be less important as the name implies. The Crucial Element is crucial to the storyform, not the story itself. It details the connecting tissue between the Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines, not the lynchpin for your story's success.* In other words the element is more crucial to the Author in understanding his or her story, rather than an element crucial for the Audience to pick up on. If you ignore it, other story points will make sure that the message comes through loud and clear.

Still not buying it? Chris Huntley, co-creator of the theory has this to say about the crucial element:

When all is said and done, the crucial elements are only ONE of MANY pieces of the storyform. Leaving them out of your story won't ruin the experience for your audience, but adding them does tend to make the story stronger.

See? You don't have to worry about it...

...still here? Sigh. Ok. Just don't say I didn't warn you. Time to crawl down the rabbit hole of structure.

The Problem with Crucial Elements

If you followed the above link, or have researched the Crucial Element previously, you came across this:

If the MC is change and the outcome is success, the MC crucial element is the same as the MC problem.

If the MC is change and the outcome is failure, the MC crucial element is the same as the MC solution.

The first makes sense. The Main Character was part of the problem everyone was facing (like Luke in Star Wars or Neo in The Matrix); they change and everything works out.

The second doesn't. How can the Main Character have the Solution element and the Problem element. If his Main Character Problem defines who he is, how can he possibly be defined in the Overall Story Throughline as the opposite element? It makes sense that if our Main Character is dealing with Actuality and sees things for how they are, then logically he should have that same element in the Overall Story. Yet here is Dramatica saying otherwise. Won't this make our Main Character schizophrenic?

The answer requires a little perspective.

Objective and Subjective Views

If a story represents an analogy to the problem solving process of the mind then it follows that a story should showcase views from within and without.** Inequities (conflict) look different depending on your point-of-view. The efforts to resolve conflict will appear differently as well, depending on the kind of story you want to tell.

So while your Main Character may personally be suffering from too heavy a reliance on what actually happened (Actuality), objectively they might be driven to alter how things seem to be (Perception). Especially if you want to tell a story that ends in a Failure.

The following is an excerpt from an email I sent to a reader exploring this somewhat duplicitous stance Dramatica takes. The storyform in question identified these key story points:***

  • MC Resolve: Change
  • OS Goal: Understanding
  • Story Outcome: Failure
  • MC Problem: Actuality
  • MC Crucial Element: Perception

Putting the Crucial Element to Work

"...when it says your MC has a Crucial Element of Perception that is referring to his or her function in the Overall Story. I'm not sure exactly what your Overall StoryThroughline is about but if, for example, all your characters were concerned with figuring out why 1/3 of the world's population simply disappeared (totally ripping this off from HBO's "The Leftovers"), then you might look at it this way.

Let's say your Main Character leads a new religion based on the perception that the reason they are left here is because of something wrong they have done in the past, i.e. the 1/3 disappeared because of the "Rapture" and the rest are left to stay and ponder what they themselves did wrong.

OK. That is the Overall Story Throughline.

Now let's say the Main Character Throughline is all about the man's dead wife. He can't get over the fact that he was responsible for her death (Kind of ripping this off from Inception). He was the one driving the car the night she was killed, he was the one who had too much to drink that night, he was the one who thought he could make it past the intersection in time...you get the point--regardless of whether or not it was an accident the facts of the matter are--he killed her. And he can't get over it.

You see how this plays nicely into the Overall Story...here's a guy who is torn up over what he did, and now projects that guilt onto everyone else around him, perceiving that this worldwide event is punishment for wrongs they all have done.

Perception when it comes to everyone else and those leftover. Actuality when it comes to killing his wife. The inequity at the heart of the story remains the same, it remains a singular instance of separateness. It simply looks like Actuality from within and Perception from without.

Your story is a Change/Failure/Good story. This means your Main Character will somehow Change their point-of-view, flip it to approach life more like the Influence Character, and will therefore resolve the angst and guilt he felt for his wife.

He does this by taking the Perception he was putting out for everyone in the Overall Story and placing it instead within his own Personal Throughline.

So instead of going to those religious zealot meetings and continuing the perception that they all are guilty, the Main Character turns it back on himself--maybe through therapy or whatever--and finds that the only way to get rid of his guilt is through changing his own perceptions of what happened that night. Essentially fooling himself into seeing that--yeah, maybe he was right to try and make it past that intersection. Just because he was drunk doesn't mean to him it wasn't the right decision at that time. The facts don't lie, but he was the one actually driving the car...from his point-of-view he made the right decision...and that's all that matters.

But see, by "taking" this element out of play of the Overall Story and using it for his own personal problems, the Main Character removes the opportunity for that Perception to have a positive impact on everyone. It is true that all these people disappeared, and it is a lot of pain for those left behind to go through--almost the same kind of pain the MC felt living a life without his beloved. A little perception--no matter how misguided--could have helped alleviate the suffering and depression of millions...but that's not the story you're trying to write.

Your story ends in Failure. Which means everyone in the big picture story--everyone "leftover" from this cataclysmic event--will be left unable to understand why any of this happened. The efforts to Understand (Overall Story Goal) will end in Failure. Instead of coming to place where they Understand that sometimes s* happens, they'll be forced to simply imagine what happened to their loved ones and work towards figuring out a plan to live out their lives alone (Overall Story Consequence: Conceptualizing).

Seeing Everything at Once

You can see how the Crucial Element plays out nicely in a story like this. What a character deals with personally may be different than what he or she puts out there in the real world. His or her personal "stuff" will still be connected--just not the way you think it will because you're looking at things from a single perspective.****

Beyond simply connecting the Overall Story Throughline with the Main Character Throughline, the Crucial Element ensures a continuity of thematic intent--the whole Change/Failure/Good Actuality to Perception storyform you have decided to tell comes through loud and clear for everyone in the Audience to understand. In addition, the storyform has made the Main Character a complex character, conflicted on different levels. Always a good thing.

The question now is...is that the story you wanted to tell?

This article originally appeared June 12, 2014 on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives. Jim will be leading a 2-day Dramatica Workshop of all things Dramatica the second week of September 2014 (Sep. 13-14). Read more about The Dramatica Writers Workshop.

A few definitions:

* Throughlines: For a story to feel complete it needs to have 4 different Throughlines, each representing a different perspective on the story's central inequity. (The Four Throughlines)

** Storymind: Dramatica's central concept lies in the idea that a story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. (The Story Mind)

*** Storyform: A Dramatica storyform combines seventy-five thematic elements together and provides the message of the story. (Storyform)

**** Perspective: Dramatica offers you a chance to see every angle--to see the problem from every point-of-view. This is something we can't do in real life (at the same time). Dramatica helps you write complete stories.

The Schizophrenic Stories of Pixar's Brave
June 2014

'Tis not a typo. If a functioning story resembles a single human mind trying to solve a problem then the duplicitous and haphazard nature of Pixar's Brave suggests a split-personality. A psychotic mess of storytelling, this film of two minds exemplifies the need for a better understanding of story structure.

Pixar Animation Studios wrote the book on story during the turn of the century. Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Monster's Inc., and The Incredibles set the bar for intelligent and well-structured storytelling. Strange then that their thirteenth film, Brave should grab a C+ on the critic compilation site Rotten Tomatoes. Logic dictates that success build upon success ad infinitum. Their film the year before, Toy Story 3, scored 99%. Brave racked up a paltry 78%. What went wrong?

A Tale of Two Directors

Writer director Brenda Chapman originally conceived the project in 2008 (then called The Bear and the Bow). When the film went into production she became Pixar's first female director. This lasted until 2010 when she was replaced by Mark Andrews over creative disagreements. This split in vision, regardless of Chapman's eventual acceptance of the film, fractured the story's narrative and melded two incomplete stories together. Merida did turn out to simply be a boy in woman's clothing (as speculated in the 2011 article Female Main Characters who Think Like Female Main Characters) and the film faltered on three key aspects of story structure: the Story Driver, the Story Limit, and the Main Character's Resolve. Addressing these issues might have saved the film from the under-80 club.

Story Driver

For stories to argue their points effectively they need to establish impetus up front. Decisions will call for actions which will call for more action and so on. Once the Author sets the argument in motion with either an action or a decision, he or she must honor that structural point of reference. If a decision or deliberation ignited the fuel of a story's problem then a corresponding decision or deliberation will eliminate it. Same if the spark had been lit by an action--a corresponding action would smother the flames of conflict. Actions can't solve decision making problems and choices can't solve problems of action. Audiences expect the second half of the action/decision decision/action equation to be found as a result of the first. Without it they can't determine the causality of the argument.

Brave is driven by both actions and decisions, depending on which story you're looking at. In the first story, the parent's decision to invite suitors and the suitor's acceptance of the invitation forces Merida to compete for her own hand. Had her parents and suitors decided otherwise, Merida would never have raised her bow and torn her dress. This story ends when Merida's mother Elenor capitulates and motions for Merida to break with tradition. That decision brings to an end the argument over individual determination vs. predestined tradition.

The second story sits smack dab in the middle of the first and quite coincidentally, consists of a Plot Witch (or more appropriately a Plotwhich). Beginning with mother's ingestion of the poisoned cake and ending with the sun rising on the second day, this alternate narrative finds itself driven by actions. Mother transforms and questions arise. Do I tell Dad? Merida might ask. Or do I keep it a secret and ask the Witch for my money back? What do I decide to do? Contrast this with the first story and its parental decree of betrothal. What can I do to fight back?

In either case, the narrative breaks. The two stories don't form separate arguments the way one would expect when a work consists of different stories (Jerry Maguire, As Good As It Gets or Lord of the Rings). Instead what one finds is the sane argument being made in a way that contradicts itself. Do actions drive decisions or do decisions drive actions? In Brave the answer is yes.

Story Limit

Arguments need boundaries. They need borders to help define their scope and refine their aim. In story these markers appear as a finite number of options or a finite amount of time. Are we witnessing the pressure to solve a problem when time is running out or when options are taken from us? Again, in Brave the answer is yes.

In the first story you have a finite number of suitors: the clans MacGuffin, Macintosh and Dingwall. Add Merida to the mix and you have four little Indians to work through before mom and dad (really mom) has to make the final decision.

But before any of that can play out, Merida makes her deal with the devil and the countdown begins. Now, instead of being concerned with dwindling options we find ourselves racing against the clock. Is it about the promise of betrohal or the witch's curse? Again, yes. The story feels like it ends when mom circumvents the original Optionlock and allows Merida to do what she wants, but it doesn't. In fact, it goes on for another 20 minutes as we patiently wait for something to happen before the sun rises on the second day. What exactly we don't know, because that all-important decision leap-frogged the original scope of the story.

When Both Characters Change

Regardless of the previous missteps-forgivable with the proper storytelling--the greatest offense to narrative occurs with that very same decision. Merida, inspired by her mother's unique situation as a bear in a castle that hates bears, steps out in front of the clans and takes control of the chaos. Confessing her act of selfish defiance Merida proclaims her willingness to give up the bow and choose a suitor. At the very same time--and in a surprisngly touching emotional moment--Elinor also changes her point-of-view, insisting that Merida be allowed to choose in her own time.

What the what?

You can't have both principal characters change their point-of-view within the same context. The original argument found individual determination pitted against tradition. To have both switch sides doesn't resolve the conflict, it only swaps the players. The Main Character and Influence Character of a story represent unique points-of-view on the same thing. This is why you frequently come across the cliched line of dialogue, "You and I are both alike." The conflict exists between these two characters because they're both looking at the same thing. One side has their approach, the other has theirs.

Take the arument between black and white. Really, there isn't an argument because black and white represent two different contexts. No conflict. Instead, the more appropriate argument would be to pit black and white against shades of gray. Now we're looking at the same thing from two different points-of-view. Some see black and white, some see gray. Conflict ensues. To then have both sides switch and somehow argue for a compromise between them doesn't work. You can't argue black and white and gray because there are elements of black and white within gray. It's either one or the other.

As covered in the article A Reason for Rules and the series Character & Change:

Surely compromise solves problems. But in order to tell that story, one character would have to maintain an all-or-nothing perspective while the other would call for greater synergy. The former would eventually change and the story would end in triumph, proving that compromise solves problems.

Selfishness is one context. Compromise another. The context in which both Merida and her mother come into conflict surrounds the idea of doing what you want vs. following tradition. They both changed on this issue, ultimately proving nothing. Even more disastrous--they made this emotional change-of-heart before the Final Act.

The Natural Development of Character

Acts exist not to divide a story up into convenient sections. but rather to grant a subjective character the necessary growth needed to come to a place where resolve can change. Finding solutions to problems requires characters to examine all the different contexts. Leaving one out blinds the character to a possible resolution and cheats the audience out of a well-rounded argument. Acts exist to provide these different contexts, different areas where they can try out a solution.

Both Merida and Elinor change before they have a chance to look into that final context, that final Act. This False Moment is why the film feels like it ends early and why we have no idea what we're waiting for as the sun rises. Why--after having this major emotional breakthrough in the banquet hall--would Merida continue to sew that blanket? (while riding horseback of all things). She already mended the bond torn by pride. Having her continue to sew would be like Luke saying "I'm not such a bad fighter pilot myself" AFTER turning off his targeting computer!

Psychotic Breakdown

Watching Brave allows one the opportunity to experience the sensations of a mental breakdown. With two minds to choose from, separate contexts within which to measure change, fluid borders to throw our sense of time and space off, and a complete lack of logical and emotional progression, the events of Brave depict a state of mind in psychosis. Losing contact with the reality of proper narrative loses contact with the Audience. The result? Critical meh.

As a story consultant I'm frequently challenged with, "Why can't both characters change?" Brave offers an easy reference tool and a cautionary tale for the insanity that occurs when one breaks with the tradition of story structure.

[^cars2]: Technically Cars 2 came out the year prior and scored a 38%, but no one likes to talk about him. Like that strange 3rd cousin nobody cares to acknowledge.

This article originally appeared May 29, 2014 on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives. Jim will be leading a 2-day discussion of all things Dramatica the first week of June 2014 (Jun. 7-8). Read more about The Weekend of Dramatica.


The Problem with Problems of Character
May 2014

When granted a new understanding of story, writers tend to latch onto one or two key items. They sense the benefit of a new story point for their writing and quickly add it to their tool belt. The problem lies in assuming this new understanding a lone operator.

Six years of teaching Story Development at California Institute of the Arts granted me insight into common mistakes Authors make. In this case, many of the students within the Character Animation program would pick and choose from the various story points I would present them. They would grab and use the ones that made those most sense, and then toss aside those that didn't seem to apply.

The Same Story

Tasked with creating short 2-minute films, these filmmakers wasted no time assigning their characters a specific problem. They understood the need to have a character driven by some flaw and successfully incorporated this point of story within their films. Yet many would fall into the trap of not letting their characters actually resolve their personal issues.

Whatever their characters were driven by, they simply had them stop doing it. A guy chasing after a girl stopped chasing. A kid driven to succeed in business stopped trying. An artist working on a project gave up. Across the board the consensus was: have your character stop what they're doing and all will be fine.

But stopping a problem doesn't resolve it.

The Persistence of Inequity

Hunger hits and suddenly you can't concentrate. Lethargy sets in--maybe even crankiness--productivity reaches an all-time low. What do you do to solve it? You eat. The meal satisfies and your hunger subsides. Problem solved.

Until you become hungry again.

One must remove the possibility of hunger in order to overcome this cycle. Take a pill. Rewire the digestive system. Real problems require real solutions, fighting symptoms does nothing as the potential for conflict remains.

This same process drives characters.

A Short Story Problem

Let's say we have a character with a gambling problem. More specifically, lets give her an obsession with winning the perfecta down at the track. At the end of the story we want her to overcome her gambling addiction. We do this by having her simply stop gambling.

The end.

But does that feel complete?

A Solution for Every Problem

For every problem a character encounters, a solution exists. In the example above, our gambler has a problem of Pursuit--she keeps chasing that high, keeps running after that next win. The solution for Pursuit is Avoid (or Prevent). In order for our character to overcome her gambling addiction, she will have to actively avoid or prevent herself from going to the track. "I'm never going back there again" or paying the security guards at the gate to keep her from going in would signify a real resolution of her personal problems.

Simply stopping pursuing does not accomplish the same result.

A character's problem causes them tremendous grief. From the context of their point-of-view, their problem drives their throughline. In our example of the gambler, every trouble she experiences stems from this pursuing. Not pursuing simply turns down the dial on her problem. It doesn't resolve her gambling addiction. It turns down the dial enough that the character thinks (or in this case, the subjective writer thinks) that they have resolved things. But as soon as things ratchet up again, the problem returns and it becomes clear the character has not resolved a thing.

Beneath the Surface

Going to zero does not mean off. The problem doesn't go away, it simply diminishes to a point where one is no longer aware of it. The waves of trouble the problem creates seem to go away, but the problem itself doesn't disappear. It's still there, waiting to rise again.

Consider the earthquake and the tsunami. If the tsunamis is the apparent problem, then the earthquake that caused it is the actual source of the problem. The tsunami wrecks havoc and then dissipates, capturing the brunt of our attention. You could perhaps find a way to combat the tsunami or stop earthquakes from creating tsunamis, but you wouldn't really be solving anything. As soon as another earthquake hits, the tsunmai would return and whose to say this time it won't be even stronger then the defenses you've created.

Contrast this with actually taking action to prevent earthquakes from happening in the first place. Now you would never have to deal with the tsunami because you would be addressing the actual problem at its source, not its symptom. The tsunamis would never return.

This is the kind of change characters need to resolve their problems.

The Reason for Bookends

Characters focus on the symptoms of the problems affecting them. They can't see their actual problem and thus any effort given to overcome them would never completely resolve their issues. By employing the solution to their problem, characters resolve the inequity within them and the problem no longer exists as a problem. They resolve things by changing the context.

This is why many Authors resort to bookend scenes. By presenting their characters within the same situation they can show an Audience how the context has changed for that character. In Hamlet, Hamlet is told that his uncle killed his father. By the victim no less! What does he do? He thinks it away, convinces himself otherwise. Later on he sees his mother die from a drink handed to her by her husband (his uncle). Does he think about it? No, he acts right away secure in the knowledge that his uncle did it.

Same situation, different context.

These bookend scenes test a Main Character. It gives them an opportunity to show that their behavior has changed, that their context for approaching problems has changed. More importantly it grants an Author the chance to define what it is they want to say with their work.

In a closed story, an Author wraps things up. A complete story has meaning, it has edges. By changing the context from which a character approaches a problem, the Author opens up the possibility of putting things in a different context. He or she defines the edges of a story by completing it and presenting the potential for a new story.

Ambiguitiy curses good narrative. By refusing to define where they stood on a parituclar issue many of my students failed to actually say something with their work. Their films were forgotten minutes later. Many writers I consult with suffer from this same affliction.

A Holistic Understanding of Story and Character

Problems don't make sense in an of themselves when it comes to story. Like most story points, problems must be seen in the context of everything else around them. They come with symptoms and responses to those symptoms, they come with solutions and goals and consequences towards not achieving those goals.

The problem with most of my students (and more accurately the way I was teaching it at the time) was that they were simply thinking of the problem itself. Their character had a problem with chasing after their dreams, so they stopped chasing. End of story. The students felt this worked because they weren't thinking of the entirety of a problem within a character, they weren't thinking of the symptoms, the solution or any consequence towards their characters failing.

They were focusing on one story point.

Dramatica, and more specifically the Dramatica concept of a storyform, presents a holistic framework for an argument.[^storyform] The storyform argues for a particular approach to solving problems. Taking just one of these story points out of context destroys the whole purpose of the storyform and removes any potential gain such an understanding could give to an Author. When considering a story point, Authors must consider all story points. The system works as a cohesive whole and must always be understood in its entirety, not piecemeal.

This article originally appeared April 10, 2014 on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives. Jim will be leading a 2-day discussion of all things Dramatica the first week of June 2014 (Jun. 5-6). Tell me more about The Weekend of Dramatica.


Dumbing Down Dramatica
April 2014

Familiarity and ease of use comes with a cost. Making things simpler confuses something that needs a degree of complexity to be understood. Stories exist as analogies to our minds ability to solve problems. While those minds might be simple, the tools to examine them shouldn't.

A recent analysis of the Peter Sellers' classic 1981 film Being There unraveled a stumbling block. After a semester and a half of learning Dramatica, the students in my Story Analysis at CalArts had become quite proficient in identifying the Influence Character. Regardless of the movie--Casablanca, On the Waterfront or Brokeback Mountain--they always seemed to nail this part of story structure with ease.

Being There proved a little more challenging.

Main Characters Who Influence

Being There tells the story of Chance (Peter Sellers) and the profound changes his simple-mindedness brings to Washington politics. Obsessed with television and gardening, Chance unknowingly drops wisdom on those consumed by the chaos of a stifling economy. Many take comfort in his words and his calm demeanor, changing the way they think because of his influence.

Like Forrest Gump, Being There presents a Main Character who modifies the viewpoints of those around him. This dynamic rings true for most Main Characters with a Steadfast Resolve. William Wallace in Braveheart, Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon and Henry Fonda's character in 12 Angry Men bring change to the world around them rather than experience significant change themselves. Yet in all these cases, the Main Characters still had a significant relationship with another character who influenced their own point of view. Fonda had Lee Cobb, Hiccup had his dad, and Wallace had Robert the Bruce. Each Main Character knew the impact and influence this other Influence Character had on them.

Chance never had a clue. His mental condition and his obliviousness to everything around him made him a Main Character impervious to any kind of persuasion. The theory of Dramatica is clear: No Influence Character, no story.

Could this be a case where the film transcends theory?

If It Ain't Broke

Saddled with this disconnect I contacted Chris Huntley, co-creator of Dramatica, to get his take. He responded:

This is an instance where the label "Influence" character doesn't fit. Imagine it was labeled "Challenge" character...MUCH better fit, and closer to the original "Obstacle" character (or Opposition character)

Being There provides another example where the attempt to make Dramatica more palatable resulted in the theory losing a level of accuracy. The original term for Influence Character was Obstacle Character. Why Obstacle? Because this character's primary role in a story is to act as an obstacle to the Main Character living their life blind to their own personal issues.

Every Main Character comes to a story packed with some sort of justifications for their behavior. These issues, built up during a time usually referred to as Backstory, motivate the Main Character to behave the way they do. Main Characters go on about their day not knowing why they do the things they do because this process of justification hides those problems away. If Main Characters were aware of their foibles, they would solve them.

This is why you have a story. And this is why the Main Character needs an Obstacle Character.

The Obstacle Character shines a light on the Main Character's justifications and says, "Hey buddy, you've got some serious problems!" They stand in the way of the Main Character's personal growth (or lack of personal growth in this case) and push or pull the Main Character into changing.

Unfortunately over the past two decades, many writers confused Obstacle Character with the Objective Character role of Antagonist. You can't blame them. Dramatica says there's an Obstacle Character? Well of course they must mean the bad guy of the story... Not quite.

The "bad guy" of the story (or Antagonist) works to prevent the successful resolution of the Story Goal for everyone. The Obstacle Character works on the Main Character's personal issues. Sometimes the Obstacle Character can be the bad guy (like The Joker in The Dark Knight or Ra's al Ghul in Batman), but more often than not this role splits off into its own separate character (like Samantha in her, Mud in Mud or Woody in Nebraska).

In a film like Being There, the separation between bad guy and influence becomes even more complicated.

Standing in the Shoes of an Idiot

The Dramatica definition of a Main Character is that character through which the audience experiences the story. We witness Being There through Chance's eyes because we are new to this crowd of Washington players. It might be more difficult because of his mental condition, but we don't know what Rand has planned for Chance and the idea that a car would be waiting for us on demand is presented as something new and surprising. The audience shares Chance's perspective in spite of his affliction.

Placing us in his shoes makes it difficult to empathize with them, but not impossible. The problem rests in finding who stands in opposition to our simple-minded obliviousness.

Another Train of Thought

In class we determined that Rand was the Influence Character. As the one person who seems to strike up a remarkable relationship with Chance, Rand seemed like the obvious choice. He also changed his Resolve, flipping from a character afraid to even talk about death to one concerned with getting his affairs in order.

However he never really represented a challenge to Chance.

As with most everyone else in the story, Rand interprets Chance's point-of-view as something profound and transformative. Everyone accepts Chance's words and embraces them with fervor. Everyone that is, except the Doctor.

Dr. Allenby is the only one who sees Chance for who he really is. From the very beginning he challenges Chance and his true intentions. He may not appear in the film often, but when he does it is always in opposition to Chance's point-of-view. This is what Influence Characters (and more accurately, Obstacle Characters) do, they challenge and bring into question the Main Character's way of solving problems.

Dr. Allenby continues to investigate and track the new arrival's history until finally he discovers Chance's true identity. Yet, instead of revealing this to everyone, the Doctor keeps to himself. Why? Because like other Influence Characters with a Change Resolve, he has accepted the Main Character's way of seeing things. By stating he "understands" and keeping the truth to himself, Dr. Allenby embraces the truth of simply "being there".

Getting to Know the Dynamics of Story

For the most part the term Influence Character works. Unfortunately there are times, as in the case of Being There, where the term muddles the true role of such a character and makes analysis a difficult task. It might also reduce the motivation to write stories with dynamics similar to this one. Understanding what this character truly does within a story, and refusing to be bogged down by more approachable and "friendlier" terminology, makes it easier to write and analyze successful narrative.

This article originally appeared March 20, 2014 on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives. Jim will be leading a 2-day discussion of all things Dramatica the first week of June 2014 (Jun. 5-6). Tell me more about The Weekend of Dramatica


Learning Heroes vs. Teaching Heroes
January 2014

The latest trend in Hero worship differentiates between central characters that educate and central characters that are educated. While accurate in certain contexts, digging deeper into story structure one can see that there is an important distinction to be made.

When taken as a whole, it seems as if there are two major categories of Heroes. On the one side you have those that transform while on the other you have those that are transformative. Heroes that learn and heroes that teach. But for a concept of story structure to prove useful to writers it must apply to all stories, regardless of genre or setting.

The learning/teaching concept works fine for "teaching" characters like William Wallace in Braveheart or Hogarth in The Iron Giant, but what about Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs or Jake Gittes in Chinatown? All four characters manage to transform those around them, but can one say that Clarice was a "teaching Hero" to Hannibal Lecter? And in the case of Jake, how can he possibly be responsible for educating others when he doesn't even have a clue himself?

Stories are Less About Teaching and More About Solving Problems

The mistaken assumption lies in the thought that stories are about characters developing by gaining or passing on knowledge. Luke may have learned to trust his feelings in Star Wars and Kirk may have taught those around him to rebel against authority in Star Trek, but to what end? Would it be accurate to suggest that this new knowledge came as a result of trying to solve a problem?

In Star Wars, Luke had a problem with testing himself, he solved those problems by trusting his feelings. In Star Trek, it was Spock who created problems with his tendency to lash out uncontrollably when confronted with his own unique heritage. Kirk's drive to oppose those who stood in his way helped solve Spock's problems by encouraging the confused Vulcan to employ a little control.

When viewed in this light, both films can be seen as efficient and popular models of effective problem solving. Thinking in terms of learning or teaching confuses the issue with the subjective interpretations of the audience. In other words, it becomes less of an effective tool for writers trying to create a story.

Protagonists who Teach, Main Characters who Learn

In addition, there are times when it seems like Heroes could be both learners and teachers. Amelie (in the aptly titled Amelie) could be seen as a teaching Hero. Her gentle manipulations of those in her social circle result in the majority of them re-evaluating their situation in life, each finding a relative sense of harmony. Yet she also learns to re-evaluate her own anti-social behavior through her relationship with Mr. Glass.

Is Amelie a teaching Hero or a learning Hero?

One could say both, but in doing would diminish the usefulness of such categorizing. The problem is that Amelie is both Protagonist and Main Character. When looking at her in terms of her objective role as a Protagonist she can be seen as a "teacher." When viewing her in terms of her subjective role as Main Character she can be seen as a "learner." And while it is clear that the Protagonist is not always the Main Character, in these situations when it is, the idea of splitting Heroes into learners or teachers becomes less beneficial.

One Changes While the Other Stands Their Ground

Within a complete story, two approaches towards solving the problem at hand are presented: one by the central character of the piece (often referred to as the Hero, but more accurately as the Main Character) and the other by another character who develops a significant relationship with the first. Both approaches to problem-solving battle it out act by act until the end when one changes to adopt the other's paradigm. This is what is going on when people refer to the "arc" of a character.

Whether this shift was the right thing to do or the correct approach for success is covered in detail in the series on Meaningful Endings, but suffice it to say that the answers to these questions contain the Author's Proof or message of the piece. Instead of determining whether the Hero/Main Character has learned or taught something, this final stage of character development helps to support the Author's position. Stories are less about characters learning something, and more about an Author trying to argue the efficacy of a particular approach.

A Matter of Resolve

Instead of looking at Heroes as either teaching or learning, it is far more accurate to look at them in terms of their final resolve. Do they change and adopt a new way of approaching problems or do they stand their ground and forge ahead? If they do maintain their approach, it will be that other significant character they developed a relationship with that will change. This is how an argument is made through narrative fiction.

Suddenly, films that don't quite fit the learning/teaching paradigm make sense. In Winter's Bone, did Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) teach anybody anything? No. But she did stand her ground in her efforts to find her missing father, and in doing managed to influence her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) to change his approach. In Amadeus, did Salieri teach those around him? Of course not. He set to destroy Mozart and saw those efforts to the end. In that tragedy it was Mozart who changed his approach, working himself to his own early grave.

Developing a Story With Accuracy

Thinking in terms of a learning Hero or a teaching Hero isn't necessarily wrong. In some contexts (family films) this approach could be considered helpful. But in the final analysis of all stories, regardless of genre or intended audience, thinking in terms of the Main Character's final resolve grants greater accuracy. This concept of story structure applies to any story or piece of fiction that wishes to transmit some deeper meaning.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

The learning Hero is always a Change Main Character. The teaching Hero is always a Steadfast Main Character. When people speak of teaching or learning Heroes what they are really referring to is the Main Character's Resolve.

The problem is that the converse is not always true. Change Main Characters do not always learn something (Ed Exley in L.A. Confidential, William Munny in Unforgiven). And Steadfast Main Characters do not always teach (Randy the Ram in The Wrestler, Mr. Incredible in The Incredibles). As usual, the objectivity of Dramatica encompasses all fiction and provides a solid touch point from which to build a story.

This article originally appeared March 3, 2011 on Jim's Narrative First website. It is part of a series of articles on Heroes. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.


Narrative Drive and Weak Protagonists
December 2013

Protagonists are responsible for driving a story forward towards its ultimate goal. If there is some confusion over who they are, or the goal itself is unclear, an audience's interest in the events that unfold on screen will quickly fade.

Whenever a story feels weak, or seems to meander with no real sense of purpose, nine times out of ten there is confusion over who the Protagonist is and what the Story Goal is. By definition, the Protagonist pursues the Story Goal. Now this could be the same character we experience the story through (and most often is), but as explained in my article on Redefining Protagonist and Main Character, this is not always the case.

So why differentiate between the two?

Effective Rewriting

Because when you're trying to figure out what is wrong with your story, you need to be absolutely clear about what piece you are actually looking at. There has been much confusion over the years between these two concepts, confusion that, unfortunately, has led authors to rewrite something that was possibly already working. When a story feels flat or slow somewhere during the 2nd act, an unknowing author may try to force their Main Character into doing something that is out of character or incompatible with the rest of the story.

Imagine if Red in The Shawshank Redemption had started actively working towards Andy's freedom because King was worried that the "driving force" of the story was waning. Or what if Rick in Casablanca had tried to get the letters of transit into Laszlo's hands before he gave that classic nod to his band. Horrid thought, right?

But this is precisely the kind of thing that happens when someone doesn't truly understand how a complete story is structured.

The moment the Inciting Incident occurs, balance in the story's world is upset. Before the end of the first act, the Protagonist will spring into action and work to restore balance to the world by solving the story's major problem. That effort is a pursuit towards the Story Goal.

So how can you determine if the Main Character is the Protagonist?

Identifying the Story Goal

Before you can figure out who is pursuing the goal, it helps to know what that goal actually is. While every character in a story might have his or her own personal goal, the Story Goal is the thing that everyone in the story is concerned with. There should always be some universal problem that affects everyone as this not only ties everyone together, but also insures that the author's message is clear and definite. If your story doesn't have this Story Goal, it might help to step further back and learn about Writing Complete Stories.

In The Terminator, problems exist because a naked killing machine has been sent back in time to murder Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). Stopping him before he can do this is the Goal of the story. This goal begins the moment when he arrives in that electric blue ball — the natural balance of things is upset and the Goal seeks to right that.

The person leading the charge towards that goal is Reese (Michael Biehn). Reese, therefore, is the Protagonist of the story because he is the one pursuing the completion of the Story Goal. Sarah is our way into the story, and thus is the Main Character. She can't be considered the one moving towards the goal because she doesn't do much of anything. Eventually, she gets to the point where she has to take over for Reese, but not until very late into the story.

The Protagonist needs to be pursuing the Goal of a story throughout every act, even throughout the first. When they don't, you end up with stores that have little to no narrative drive.

Stories That Meander

In Zombieland, problems exist because zombies have overrun the world. Getting somewhere safe is the goal of the story, and for some reason, an amusement park near Los Angeles is considered a safe zone. It's like The Road, just without all that ash!

The ones leading that charge are the girls, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). The Main Character, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), isn't driven towards the safety of the amusement park as much as he is to basically survive. Sure, he wants to find his parents, but in the overall scheme of things and the road trip to L.A., he seems more like a passenger than the one doing all the driving. He has his own control issues to deal with and overcoming those would be his personal goal, but as far as all the other characters are concerned reaching the safety of the park is everything.

The problem with the story, though, is that the girls are really weak Protagonists. This is why, when they reach a certain celebrity's house near the end of the 2nd act, everything in the story comes to a grinding halt. With no one actively pursuing to resolve the story's major problem, the audience has no idea where the story is headed or when it is ever going to end. It takes them out of the experience.

That moment with said celebrity is fun, but it slows the story down. If at least one of them had kept trying to leave, or kept reminding everyone of what they were really after, dramatic tension would have remained at a higher level and the story would have been stronger.

Stories That Live

Narrative drive exists when there is an effort being made to restore balance to the world of the story. This is the Goal of the story that everyone is concerned with. If the Goal is unclear or there is confusion over who is the one leading the charge towards it, this drive is weakened and the story suffers for it. A clearly defined Protagonist, in pursuit of a Story's Goal from the first act through the last, is one of the keys towards writing a compelling story.

This article originally appeared April 7th, 2010 on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.


Four Acts, Not Three Points
November 2013

From Aristotle to McKee, stories have always been seen as having three movements, or Acts. How can there be anything more to a story than the Beginning, the Middle, and the End?

For the longest time, writers everywhere have struggled with the elusive traditional Second Act. They often know how they want to start things out, and they've usually got a great idea for a killer ending, but when it comes to all that stuff in the Middle, they can find themselves feeling a bit lost or confused. How do they keep the energy level up for such an extended period of time?

Syd Field made things easier with his recognition of the Midpoint, an event that happens directly in the middle of a screenplay. This discovery effectively divided the traditional Second Act into two parts and gave writers welcome relief from narrative exasperation. Blake Snyder reiterated as much in his Save the Cat! series, as did many other experts in story.

With the previously insurmountable traditional Second Act divided into two manageable chunks, writers everywhere rejoiced. They finally had a way of trudging through that first draft. But what most failed to see was that their new found ease of movement came more as a result of aligning their writing process with the natural structure of a complete story rather than simply breaking a larger piece into manageable chunks.

Rather, writing from the perspective of four movements is closer to what really goes on in the human mind when it attempts to solve a problem. If stories are about solving problems, it only follows that the words will flow effortlessly when brought into line with the natural process of problem-solving.

Further explanation requires a journey to murkier and deadlier depths.

A Simple Story Told Well

For millions of avid fans, the first week in August reignites the primal fears of being eaten alive by a remorseless killing machine known as the Great White shark. At the StoryFanatic household, this week long study of deadly dorsal fins and serrated teeth—known affectionately elsewhere as "Shark Week"—culminates with a screening of Steven Spielberg's 1975 classic, Jaws. What a better way to celebrate terror than with a film that is arguably the Summer's first-ever blockbuster hit.

But does it rate story-wise?

While the film is expertly told, it does lack the thematic complexity of say, Hamlet or Amadeus. The shark certainly forces Brody to deal with his personal issues, but is hardly the kind of character the Sheriff can develop a meaningful relationship with, one he can battle on a subjective level. Thus, no real emotional argument is made and the film comes up just short of claiming the label of a complete story.

That being said, the purpose of Jaws was to entertain and excite and almost certainly, terrify. For that it was extremely successful (at least in the mid-70s), and whether or not it was told completely pales in comparison to its undeniable success. When all is said and done, Jaws tells the simple story of a man who overcomes his fear of water by having to deal with a shark. There really isn't much more to it than that.

What it does provide, however, is an excellent example of how the problem-solving process moves through four separate Acts.

Plot Points

Picking up on last week's article regarding Plot Points and the Inciting Incident, it is easy to see the partitions separating each Act. The Inciting Incident of Jaws comes with the brutal devouring of "Chrissie" Watkins. That first attack upsets the balance of things in Amityville, thus creating the need for a story. Destroying the shark resolves the problem and ends the story. The three Plot Points between these events amplify the original problem, increasing the inequity caused by the Inciting Incident while simultaneously shifting the focus of the story.

What is most interesting about this is not so much how the Plot Points divide the story up equally, as it is about how these events shift the dramatic focus of the film and the intentions of the characters into a new and as of yet, uncharted area. The Plot Points are more than simple markers to keep the script reader interested. They are a changing of the tide and a call for new growth.

Development of Character

As mentioned previously, Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) has a personal issue with going into the water—he's terrified of it. He spends a good portion of the story avoiding this fear, doing whatever he can to keep from facing it regardless of the problems it creates for him and those around him. The story, and the Plot Points that propel it forward, move Brody to a point where he can finally overcome that fear by having to face them head-on.

Driven by this fear, Brody takes several approaches to dealing with this problem externally. His approach changes with each Act Turn, as it should in response to the shifting dramatic tides going on within the story.

It should be noted that the following four stages of approach are NOT in every story, nor do they necessarily reflect accurately what Brody is dealing with personally. The four listed below are merely the different approaches one can take when determining how to deal with a man-eating shark. It is one way to look at the problem-solving process, however one complete way. The following sequence is simply provided as an example of the natural progression that comes when a writer begins to think in terms of four, rather than three.

Preservation

Following the awful demise of Chrissie, Brody is forced into protection mode. In this First Act, he endeavors to safeguard the people of Amity from any further attacks. A character stuck in preservation mode won't do anything more or less than what it would take to put things back the way they were, almost as if nothing had happened at all. This is reflected in his efforts to make warning signs and his desire to close the beaches.

Only problem is, Amity has a Mayor and several city fathers who would rather see their town thrive as it always has on the 4th of July.

Inaction

Having failed to resolve the problem with protection, Brody tries doing nothing in the Second Act. Sure, he argues with the Mayor at the council meeting and at the dock with the captured tiger shark, but when it comes down to it, he spends most of this Act remaining relatively ineffectual. The Kitner kid gets it and Brody responds by getting drunk on wine.

This approach of inaction carries itself up to the apparent third "shark" attack, wherein Brody stands shoreline as dozens and dozens of panicked swimmers rush past him. He can't step into the water, can't help anyone and even when the real shark threatens his own son, all he can do is stand by and watch. He does nothing to further or hinder the progress of the problem.

Reaction

The severed leg of the poor fisherman falls to the ocean floor and Brody has to change his approach yet again. No longer able to hide behind the guise of protecting, and no longer content with standing idly by at the water's edge, Brody spends the majority of the Third Act reacting. This is different from preservation in that, when something negative happens, the reactive person attacks the source of the problems rather than try to bring things back to an equitable state regardless of source.

When Quint destroys the radio, Brody responds by yelling at him, challenging him to the point of being over-reactive. If this had been the Brody of the First Act, he would have tried putting the radio back together. If instead this had been the Brody of the previous act, he wouldn't have done a thing. But he didn't because this is the Brody of the Third Act; there is no going back to previous Acts when it comes to character development and plot progression. The human mind doesn't backtrack when solving problems, and neither should a story.

Brody moves into this Third Act focused on responding to the shark as his new approach. The reactive person attacks the source of the problem that attacks them, reacting to what has happened. There is no looking forward, and no anticipation.

Proaction

The shark attacks the boat, chomps down on Quint, and suddenly Brody finds himself propelled into his Fourth and Final Act. Having tried every other approach one can when dealing with a killer shark, Brody is left with one final method: Proaction. This is different from Reaction in that a character won't wait for something negative to happen first, instead they initiate the action. Sheriff Brody doesn't wait for the shark to attack first, as Hooper did in the cage, or as Quint did trying to punch his way free of those massive teeth.

Instead, the man who was once afraid of water, grabs the gun, climbs the masthead and tells G.W. to flash those pearly whites.

The Completeness of Four Movements

It is a natural progression, when trying to determine how to effectively deal with a menacing shark, to move from a point of preservation to inaction to reaction, and finally, to proaction. Whether or not Brody's final shot rang true or not, every tactical aspect of fighting a monster of the sea had been covered. A completely new story would have to be created to further deal with the problem if the menace had somehow survived. There was nowhere else Brody could have gone.

Sheriff Brody's Development

Eagle-eyed storytellers will pick up on the fact that the Act movements in Brody's development do not correspond exactly with their counterparts in the story at large. His first Act lingers until the Kitner kid's mom delivers her response and his Third Act lasts forever until Quint meets his bloody end. This is not a mistake.

The development of the Main Character does not always sync up precisely with the major Act turns of a story, nor should it. Storytelling is not an exact science; not every progression can be broken down into four 30-minute sections. Sheriff Brody's development in Jaws is an excellent example of this.

It is interesting to note that in Alexandra Sokoloff's analysis of Jaws (one of the better screenwriting experts out there), Brody's slap is identified as the First Act Turning Point. There is a difference between the Plot Points that affect everyone and the Plot Points that affect the Main Character personally. His feels more dramatic and more important because one, as an audience we empathize more strongly with his storyline, and two, the dramatic shift between his First Act and Second is more significant and drastic than the shift that happens in the larger story.

Regardless of whether or not one sees the separation between the Main Character's storyline and larger storyline at work (usually called the A-story), Brody's development does proceed in a natural progression of four stages, each one building upon the failures and successes of the previous.

There is a feeling of satisfaction, of contentment, that comes with a story that has covered all the dramatic bases. There are no unanswered questions, no story "holes" for audiences to poke their fingers into, and no lingering feeling of dissatisfaction. While Jaws is not a literary masterpiece, it does satisfy the audience's need to have every avenue explored in the context of defeating a killer shark.

If Brody had somehow skipped the approach of inaction, as might have happened when thinking of the traditional story paradigm of three acts, there would have been some doubt left in the audience's mind as to Brody's growth and the sincerity of his actions. What if he hadn't done anything?, they would have asked, and the film would have felt less than satisfying.

As it so happens, every approach was covered and the film was a massive success. The progression of Four Acts has much to do with that.

Delivering the Message

Plot points and the Acts they form are not devices designed to organize storytelling into 30-page increments. Instead, they help form the carrier wave for the message a writer hopes to impart on their audience. Thinking in terms of four Acts, rather than three, insures that the entire message will be delivered intact.

The problem with thinking of "the first half of Second Act" and "the second half of the Second Act" is that a writer is in essence saying both halves are dealing with the same thematic elements, both are parts of the same whole, when the truth is they're not. They are separate, dramatic movements that should be treated as much.

All Acts are created equal in the eyes of a sophisticated writer.

This article originally appeared August 11th, 2010 on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives

 


Consistent Plot Points
October 2013

In a story, the major plot points are either driven by decisions or actions. While a story may naturally ebb and flow between both, when all is said and done, one of these will be seen as the primary driving plot force in a story. This is because meaningful stories are really just an argument and effective arguments have a pattern they must adhere to.


An author picks either an action or a decision to set the wheels of inequity into motion. In doing so, the argument of the story is begun. Choosing whether an action leads to a decision or a decision leads to an action is essentially telling an audience "This sort of thing leads to that." This pattern is now set up as the pattern of logic that will be examined in the Objective Story. An author then concludes her argument with the meaningful bookend, "No. Actually, this sort of thing leads to that."

Meaningful stories are really just an argument
This is a simplified look at the mechanics in a story, but is essential towards understanding why the story driver must stay consistent.

If the major plots are different or are changed halfway through a film, the integrity of a story falls apart. The author ends up making an argument that sounds something like this: "This sort of thing leads to that. Well…no. Actually, that sort of thing leads to this."

The author who does this has, in essence, begun a completely new argument. The context has been spun around on an unsuspecting audience.

We, as an audience, were originally examining the logical effects of decisions leading to actions, or actions leading to decisions. This was the pattern that was being appraised. If we were looking at why certain decisions lead to problematic actions, we'd like to know what kinds of decisions would lead us away from those problems (or towards more if the overall story ended in failure). Likewise with actions leading to problematic decisions.

The fantastic thing about knowing the plot driver of your story is that you never again have to suffer from that awful question, "What happens next?" An action-driven story requires an action to spin the story in a different direction. A decision will do nothing to further the story. The same with decision-driven stories. In order for a decision-driven story to progress the story requires a decision to be made. Trying to force an act-turn with an action simply won't work.

Star Wars was driven by actions (Death Star created, Death Star destroyed), while The Godfather was driven by decisions (Don Corleone decides not to support the drug running, Michael decides to become the new Godfather). Toy Story was driven by actions (Buzz arrives in Andy's room, Buzz and Woody "land" in Andy's car), while Searching for Bobby Fisher was driven by decisions (Josh decides to hold on to the chess piece instead of the baseball, Josh decides to offer a draw to Jonathan).

Countless other great films stay consistent in the type of plot point that drives their story forward. At the very least, the two most important plot points - the Inciting Incident and the Concluding Event - need to be either both based on actions, or based on decisions.


"Genius Doesn't Know Genius"
September 2013

For almost two decades, the artists at Pixar Animation Studios have delighted audiences everywhere with captivating and compelling stories. Creatives everywhere have long respected the studio's ability to fuse heart and soul into enduring classics of narrative. How is it then that Pixar apparently has no idea how they do what they do?

Last summer, Pixar story artist Emma Coats tweeted a list of 22 story "rules" she learned while working there. Retweeted and passed around ad-nauseam, many took to the list in the hopes of discovering the secrets to the studio's long time success. Unfortunately, what they found were mostly superficial tips to help writers during the process of writing—not necessarily the reason why Pixar's film excel over all others.

To be fair, these rules were originally presented as "tweets" and thus were constricted by the 140 character limit. Nothing much of value can be presented in such a short space. Still, many continue to uphold this list as great insight into the construction of a Pixar-like story.

The real secret, it turns out, can be found elsewhere.

The Not-So Helpful

First up, the bad:

Rule 3: Trying for theme is important, but you won't see what the story is actually about til you're at the end of it. Now rewrite.

Another call to simply trust the process—woefully turning a blind eye to meaningless writing in the hopes that it will all somehow "magically" work out. Creative writing certainly requires a fair amount of exploration, but the sooner you know what it is you want to say the sooner you can actually go about writing what it is you want to say. The danger, of course, lies in beginning production before that theme—or purpose—has made itself known. Cramming it in last minute requires multiple re-dos and countless hours of overtime.

Rule 4: Once upon a time there was ____. Every day, ____. One day ____. Because of that, ____. Because of that, ____. Until finally ____.

A formula for writing a tale? No thanks. If one wanted to put out a statement (which is all a tale really is) then one could use Twitter or a Facebook update. Stories argue, tales state. Unfortunately the tip above usually leads to the latter.

The balance of the less-than-helpful tips lie somewhere between simple writing advice and the kind of feel-good hand-holding typical of a weekend writer's retreat in Sedona. "You have to know yourself", "You gotta identify with your situation/characters", and "Let go even if it's not perfect" do not really reveal the reason why so many of Pixar films remain beloved in the hearts of millions let alone how to construct one of your own. When you're stuck, make a list of what WOULDN'T happen next" and Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind work as great brainstorming techniques but they don't expose any meaningful secret approach. If it is really true that "those who can't do, teach" then the corollary to that must be "those who can, can't teach."

Extracting the Gems

That said, some of these rules provide useful concrete information that many can actually use to structure a meaningful story worthy of the Pixar name. Some of these actually explain why their films work so well. The first that stands out:

Rule 16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don't succeed? Stack the odds against.

Dramatica (Narrative Science theory) refers to these stakes as the Story Consequences. Most writers understand the concept of Goals and how they motivate characters to take action, but relatively few understand the importance of providing their characters consequences should they fail. Both exist in a story and both require each other for meaning. In Toy Story, failure to keep up with the move condemns the toys to a life of perpetual panic. Consequences work as a motivator to help propel a story forward—a solid tip that gives a foundation for good strong narrative.

Rule 6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

Very helpful. If one wishes to write a story about the first African-American baseball player and all the issues of preconception that run along with such a predicament, throwing his "polar opposite" against him would help increase the conflict and give him reason to grow. But what would that opposite be? Someone who doesn't believe he should be playing ball because of the color of his skin? That would challenge him, but it wouldn't really challenge his own personal point-of-view as he would have been dealing with that his entire life already. Better to throw someone in there who shares a similar predicament but goes about solving it in a different and "opposite" way.

Thankfully the current model of Dramatica provides us with clues where to find this similar, yet different character through its concept of Dynamic Pairs. Pursuit and Avoid, Faith and Disbelief, Perception and Actuality all work as dynamic opposites to each other—put the two Dynamic Pairs in the same room and watch the sparks fly.

In the case of our famed baseball player we would want to construct an Influence Character that was deep in denial. Perhaps an aged coach well beyond his years, obsessed with bringing a losing team to the World Series. Or maybe the baseball player's wife who, regardless of all the talk of extra-martial affairs and excessive drinking on the part of her husband, stands by his side through thick and thin. Either way, this dynamically "opposite" character would force the baseball player to examine his own issues of prejudice and preconception and whether or not he was living in denial.

So yes, challenging characters to deal with their issues by providing "polar opposites" certainly helps in the construction of a story. Again, concrete, solid advice that can help one write a powerful story of their own.

Rule 7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

Another good one, even if it seemingly runs counter to tip #3 above. Should writers go with the flow or are they supposed to know where they're going? A meaningful ending bases itself on the thematic arguments that preceded them. They work together to help define the Author's argument. Which brings us to…

Rule 14: Why must you tell THIS story? What's the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That's the heart of it.

The argument an Author makes runs tantamount to all. The "belief burning within you" lies in the Author's point-of-view on how to solve a particular problem. Narrative Science helps to give those beliefs a reference point and offers suggestions for formatting a strong and coherent argument to support that belief.

Genius Defined

While fun to retweet and pass along, the majority of these 22 rules of Pixar storytelling do little to explain the rampant success of that studio during their first decade. If it is true that these were gleaned from "senior colleagues" then it is quite possible that those responsible for such great storytelling have no idea how they were really able to get there in the first place.

The real secret to Pixar's undeniable success lies in their ability to write complete stories. Whether it be the dynamic clash between Woody and Buzz in the first Toy Story or the thematic interplay between Linguini and Remy in Ratatouille, each and every story effectively argued a specific approach to solving a problem. Managing to incorporate all four throughlines necessary to convey this message over a decade of production astounds those who managed to only do so maybe once every ten years. Pick any film and one can easily identify the Overall Story Throughline, the Main Character Throughline, the Influence Character Throughline and the Relationship Story Throughline. Other studios and other films can usually only claim to be able to do the first two (though some even struggle with that). Finding Nemo went so far as to weave a second smaller, yet no less important, sub-story into the final product. A truly remarkable accomplishment that bears full witness.

The reason for the apparent drop-off in love for their most recent films? A departure from these principles of solid story structure. Both Brave and Cars 2 fail to weave convincing arguments, the former going so far as to have both principal characters flip their point-of-views—a tragedy leaving many wondering what the film was even trying to say (beyond how cool Merida's hair looked).

For the genius to continue and for those interested in repeating that success, an understanding of how narrative works to argue an approach to problem-solving becomes necessary. Narrative Science theory, and Dramatica in particular, provides that insight. It provides the secret "keys" everyone hoped to find when they first stumble across these 22 rules of storytelling. Understanding why so many of their films appeal to both the hearts and minds of countless millions can go a long way towards insuring the same kind of love and acceptance in one's own work.

This article originally appeared April 3rd, 2013 on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.


"Story Goals and Why They Exist"
August 2013

A storytelling cliché pops up from time to time, an easy get that reeks of desperation from low screening numbers: Characters who actually state their goals out loud. Why must we suffer through this ridiculous conceit?

It's not like this happens in normal day-to-day conversation. We don't travel to work and state Today I'm going to finish that report! If we do, we should be locked up. And so should the characters of stories who react in kind.

Great stories work a goal without the fear of an audience not getting it because they didn't hear it. Great stories work that understanding through sound story structure.

Great stories, like Back to the Future.

The Structure of Time Travel

But wait a second…Doc distinctly tells Marty, "We've got to send you back to the future!" Doesn't that qualify as another vapid response to unclear structure?

The completion of a goal finishes a story. Marty successfully returns to 1985, yet unfinished business still lurks in the wings. The Libyans continue to roam the Twin Pines mall. Getting back to the future, it turns out, solves nothing.

Time Shifts and Story Structure

Many stories play around with the temporal shifting of events. Could it be that the shifts in time simply don't factor into the structure of the story?

Paraphrasing Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley (from the [March 2005 Dramatica Tip of the Month]): if the characters in a story are aware of the time shifts (as in Somewhere In Time or Back to the Future) then that awareness becomes a part of the structure. If they're not (as with Memento or Pulp Fiction), then the time shifts are simply a storytelling device, and have little to do with the actual structure of the piece.

In this case, time shifts matter.

Tying Causation to a Story's Goal

When appreciating the Goal of a story, accurate analysts nail down the individual events that turn a story from one dramatic tide to the next. The initial cause shines as the most important of all these. When identified with absolute certitude, the event that is needed to resolve a story's issues reveals itself. Widely known as the Inciting Incident, this first marker drives a story into existence.

Separating Inciting Incident from Main Character

Many people erroneously see the First Act Turn as the Inciting Incident. Whenever someone states that a story didn't start for the first twenty or thirty minutes, they more often than not completely missed how the story actually began. That 20-30 minute marker almost always becomes responsible for turning the First Structural Act into the Second. It is rarely the Inciting Incident.

These errors in judgment owe their life to the preconception that the central character, or Main Character, is also the Protagonist. The Protagonist of a story—the one responsible for pursuing the successful resolution of the story's inequity—latches on to the Act Turns as a powerful symbiotic, part and parcel of the same structural tides.

The Main Character, on the other hand, represents a point-of-view—a personal look into the issues at hand. Main Character and Protagonist are not always one and the same. They can be, but not always. But because many assume they are and because the Main Character often doesn't shift into gear (pardon the pun here) until that First Act Turn, many see that moment as the story's Inciting Incident.

Thus, while Marty certainly has a hand in this Act Turn that does not mean it actually starts the story. That jump through time certainly starts the "fun and games" moment of the movie, but it doesn't start the story. Instead another event claims that title, an event that - if it had never happened - would have precluded the need for Marty to ever push the DeLorean to ninety.

The Driving Events of Time Travel

The Inciting Incident of Back to the Future happens when Doc screws over the Libyans. Substituting pinball machine parts for plutonium effectively starts the inequity of the story and guarantees the subsequent act turns. Without that event, time would have simply marched on as it always has.

Continuing the analysis of key structural moments, The First Act Turn would therefore be the moment Marty pushes the DeLorean to 90 mph. The Midpoint—or next major driving point—can be found when Marty bests Biff in the town center, thus cementing his mom's affection for him. The Second Act turn, or subsequent major driving point, occurs when George finally stands up to Biff and knocks him out cold. Each of these turns the story to a place where it cannot return. Each of these develops the initial inequity put into place by Doc's scam.

Bringing an End to the Madness

So returning to that famous line, getting Marty "back to the future" must be the Concluding Event, correct? Not quite. The problem with that line of thinking lies within the fact that the story still needs to work through some unresolved business. Returning back to 1985 didn't really solve anything. It is a step in the right direction, but it is not truly what is at stake within the story. Instead, the Concluding Event finds itself tied to the Inciting Event.

Doc cheats once again.

By taping the pieces of Marty's letter back together, Doc successfully brings an end to the problems caused by his initial egotistical blunder. Marty and Doc win. The problems of the story come to a resolution.

A Goal for All

Essentially then, the goal of Back to the Future was to beat the space-time continuum. They didn't simply restore it, they kicked its ass. That was, after all, what Doc hoped to accomplish when he first dreamt up the wormhole-chomping Delorean monster machine. He cheated the Libyans because he wanted to beat the timeline he felt trapped in. Marty jumped back to the 50s because he was cheating death. Same too with his attempt to head back to 1985 ten minutes earlier. Time's a bitch as they say, and both Doc and Marty worked their mojo to overcome it. Doc's final cheat was simply the final nail in the coffin.

They beat time.

Constructing a Solid Story

The key to having a story work out properly, for it to "make sense" to an audience, lies firmly within the application of the mind's problem-solving process to the events of a narrative. Understanding how the Inciting Incident creates the inequity that the story-mind must resolve makes an Author's efforts towards communication a purposeful endeavor. Having a character verbalize his or her goal panders to an audience and simply does not guarantee comprehension.

Goals exist as a tool for Author's to construct meaningful stories. They are not a panacea for bad storytelling.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

The concern with how things will be, over whether or not there will be a future, seems to lie more heavily within Marty himself. Doc has a thing or two to say about this, but when you factor in all the other characters—the mayor, the Libyans, the guy on the park-bench, the hormonal mom and the dweeb dad—the future simply doesn't fit.

Marty's Main Character Concern is the Future. Marty is a McFly, always has been, always will be. Escaping that prison of inheritance becomes everything to him. Returning home to find his future set translates into a Story Judgment of Good.

Steadfast, Stop, Do-er, Linear, Action, Optionlock, Success, Good, Physics, Obtaining, Self-Interest, Avoidance

This article orginally appeared July 31, 2011 on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.


"Tying The Towers of Story Structure Together"
July 2013

Concepts:

Ever wonder why the works of Shakespeare endure hundreds of years later? What of Tolstoy or Shaw? One possible explanation exists, an explanation that has everything to do with the integrity that comes with a solid story structure.

What discussion of story structure could be considered complete without a chart? Those attracted to such devices–structuralists– love order and pounce on every opportunity to see storytelling delineated into clearly defined boxes. Luckily, the Dramatica theory of story structure (narrative science) has the ultimate chart for these crazed lunatics:

Dramatica Table of Story Elements

Dramatica Table of Story Elements
(click on the image to enlarge)

Impressive yes? This Table of Story Elements breaks the individual pieces of narrative down into separate and distinct families of elements. At first glance it seems to be simply a collection of familiar and not-so-familiar terms, but look what happens when one pulls back and shifts the point-of-view ever so-slightly:

3D Look at the Dramatica Table of Story Elements
3D Look at the Dramatica Table of Story Elements
(click on the image to enlarge)

From this angle one can see that the Dramatica Table of Story Elements exists as a 3-D model of story-structure! More than simply a linear progression of timed events, this model of story frames a complete model of human psychology by breaking down narrative into four distinct levels–Character, Plot, Theme and Genre. This chart does more than define a story…it is story.

But stories are monumental things and to build something as full and robust as a great classical narrative one has to reach ever higher and higher. Only one catch. Anyone who has ever sat down with a bucket of Legos and a 6-year old eventually reaches that point where they can't build the tower any higher without risking collapse. Multiply this by four and the need for a solid foundation and perhaps even some interlocking "bridges" becomes all too clear.

So what is that keeps these towers of psychological structure from toppling over?

Character

Looking at the very bottom level of the structure one finds the various elements of character found in every great story. Temptation, Chaos, Proaction and Expectation represent just a small portion of the 64 individual "traits" that can be combined and mixed to create character.

Examining further one may also notice that the same set of 64 elements repeats itself within each tower–albeit with slightly different arrangements. This falls in line with the theory as each "tower" really acts like a lens focused on the same thing–namely, the story's central problem. The throughlines represented by each tower offer audiences perspective (I, You, We and They) and this point-of-view–depending on where one is looking from–determines how those base elements will appear.

But more importantly, these similar elements offer the first and strongest instance of the ties that bond the throughlines together.

Depending on the story's dynamics 2–3 of these towers will share the same Problem and Solution element. In other words, they'll see the story's central problem as being the same thing. Likewise 2–3 of them will see the Symptom and Response to those problems as being the same. Regardless of the story's dynamics, in the end, all four throughlines will interconnect by virtue of these common elements. Thus, the similarities in how these perspectives witness the conflict and apparent conflict pull the four throughlines together, binding them together tightly at the base.

Theme

The next level up one finds a another set of entanglements, only this time more thematic in nature. Set apart into 64 touch points across all four throughlines (as opposed to the 64 found in each at the Character level), these Variations define the various Issues and Counterpoints found in each Throughline.

But they also call to attention the Unique Abilities and Critical Flaws of the two central characters–the Main and Influence Character–and the Catalysts and Inhibitors of the Overall and Relationship Throughline.

Interestingly enough, again depending on the story's dynamics, several of these appreciations will be found in a tower other than the one they are associated with. A Main Character dealing with issues of Preconception (in the Situation tower) might find their critical flaw in his or her Approach (located in the Activity tower). Likewise a Relationship with deep Commitment issues (the Manipulation tower) might find doing what is best for others (Morality, again in the Activity tower) a real downer to their relationship. Regardless of the particulars, these connections and similar thematic tissue insure that these towers of structure won't topple into one another.

From here on up the connections become looser and less entangled. This makes sense–one would hope the foundation to be rock solid, while simultaneously allowing for a little wobble towards the top.

Plot

The next step higher one finds 16 cornerstones of structure most akin to plot. Past, Progress, Doing, Obtaining–all different elements of plot that define the type of narrative conflict found in each and every Act.

They also help guide the audiences attention in the right direction. In order for a story to "hold together", the major Concern–or area of focus–for each Throughline must be centered in the same quadrant for each story. In other words, if one Throughline finds itself concerned with Obtaining, then the other Throughlines must have Concerns of The Future, Innermost Desires and Changing One's Nature. If instead the Concern is Doing, then How Things Are Changing, Impulsive Responses and Playing a Role must show up as Concerns in the other throughlines. In this way, a story guarantees that the viewer (or reader) will be able to appreciate some meaning by looking at the same thing through different eyes.

Note that the connections here do not involve cross-pollination as they did with the previous two levels. They begin to show the signs of individuality one would find in broadening the scope of the viewport. Similarities appear because of the consistent focal point, but they don't involve thematic or elemental material from another tower.

Genre

Upon reaching the zenith of each story structure tower, one finds the four basic ways of categorizing (or seeing) conflict. No matter what the source of trouble for characters in a story, conflict must always fall in either a Situation, an Activity, a Way of Thinking (or Manipulation) or a Fixed Attitude. It's impossible to define conflict any other way.

But you'll notice how broad and general these terms are when compared to the specifics found in the lower levels. By assigning the throughlines to these four domains of conflict, one sets the personality of a story: and thus why they come closest to defining Genre.

But Genres are fluid, like personalities, and thus the ties that bond them are looser in nature than those below. Make no mistake they still exist: external conflicts across the top (Situation and Activity), internal along the bottom (Fixed Attitude and Way of Thinking), states, or static sources of conflict across one diagonal (Situation and Fixed Attitude), and processes of conflict spanning the other (Activity and Way of Thinking). Here the towers connect through their relationships to one another, thus creating a holistic model out of something that on the surface appears strictly logical. While not as tangled and intertwined as the base, this highest level of story structure works to maintain the integrity of the mechanism as a whole.

Solid Construction

Understanding the connective tissue between these towers helps one to better appreciate the complexity of a solid and complete story. Those tales and flights-of-fantasy fiction that ignore the common-sense building techniques of solid structure risk creating a faulty and ultimately doomed enterprise. With the knowledge of the psychological underpinnings related to the construction of a working story, authors everywhere can build structures destined to survive several lifetimes.

This article originally appeared June 1, 2013 on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.


"A Positive Spin on Problems"
June 2013

A character at rest tends to stay at rest. Newton's laws apply to story as well as they do to the physical world. What exactly then motivates a character to get up and start moving?

Stories begin with the interruption of peace. Sometimes referred to as the "Inciting Incident", this disruption manifests within the Main Character an inequity, a separateness that must be dealt with one way or another. This inequity drives the Main Character forward, sparking the engine of story.

Problems That Really Aren't Problems

The very best way to stop a Main Character from doing the kinds of things they do then, lies in resolving this inequity. Most authors recognize this process and write it in to their stories by virtue of satisfying the Main Character's "needs."

In Dramatica (narrative science theory), the Main Character's Solution specifically identifies the nature of what is needed for this resolution. Confronted with the term "Solution" one would quite naturally assume the existence of a Problem, and Dramatica does not disappoint in this respect. For every Main Character Solution there exists an appropriate Main Character Problem.

Unfortunately this term is a bit of a misnomer.

Problems imply something bad, and unfortunately, this does not apply to every story. The Main Character's Problem actually describes the nature of the inequity that infuses the Main Character Throughline with life. Inequities, unlike problems, don't inherently claim the status of good or bad. They just are. How the inequity plays out within the story, however, does determine its positive or negative value.

An inequity that leads to positive growth appears to the Audience as a motivating force. An inequity that creates negative growth (or difficulties) looks to be a problem. Regardless of how they appear to the Audience, they still work the same within a story and occupy the same place within Dramatica concept of the storyform. They still push the Main Character into a story.

The Main Character's Problem

These two alternative ways of looking at the same structural concept reveal themselves quite strongly through another key concept, the Main Character's Resolve. When the Main Character changes (or flips if you prefer), the Main Character Problem will feel like a problem. When the Main Character remains steadfast, the Main Character Problem will feel more like a motivating force, or source of drive.

They both still operate the same way within a story, they still push the Main Character through his or her Throughline, but they do come across differently depending on how the rest of the story is constructed.

Interestingly enough, this same dynamic can be found in other throughlines as well.

Relationship Problems for The Good

The 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In provides a wonderful opportunity to see this dynamic at work in other throughlines. While firmly rooted within the horror genre, this film focuses almost all if its attention on the growing relationship between a young boy and the 12-year old vampire he falls in love with. This throughline, referred to in Dramatica as the Relationship Story Throughline, sees Pursuit as the problem between them.

But when they pursue each other, it actually brings them closer, not farther apart as one would expect from a Relationship Story Problem.

Like the example of the Steadfast Main Character above, the Relationship Story Problem in this case, acts more like a motivating force for their budding romance. When she shows up at the jungle gym or when he chases after Morse code to get closer to her or even when she steps inside his apartment without being asked–all of these drive their relationship in a positive direction. Pursuit defines the inequity between them, not a specific source of difficulties in a negative sense.

Contrast this with the example of a Relationship Story Problem of Pursuit in another film, 1969's beloved Breakfast at Tiffany's. In this story, Pursuit really does act like a Problem between them. When Paul pursues Holly, she runs away–killing any chance of them being together. By pushing too hard to make a relationship, Paul insures there will never be one.

Only by applying the Relationship Story Solution of Avoidance, does Paul guarantee she'll come running back to him. We need to separate and that will bring us together. That's the kind of thinking at work here. And it does work.

Avoidance applied to the relationship in Let the Right One In guarantees the two youngsters will never be together. When Eli tells Oskar "we can't be friends" she's trying to avoid, or prevent the two of them from getting closer. When she leaves him at the end, she dissolves the relationship. Only when she returns, when she comes back to Pursue him does she finally see this relationship through. A lack of resolution, but a positive growth nonetheless.

Look to Inequity

When is a problem not a problem? When it acts more as a source of drive rather than a messenger of difficulties. The Problems located at the base of each Throughline indicate the nature of the inequity as seen from that perspective. Understanding this allows Authors the freedom to develop solidly structured stories without feeling hampered by unnecessary constraints.

This article originally appeared May 2, 2013 on Jim's "Narrative First" website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.


"A Reason for Rules"
May 2013

Rules tend to offend the sensibilities of creative writers. The intricacies and nuances of crafting living, breathing characters from ink and type require free abandon. They rebel at the very thought that there could somehow be some order to their chosen form of expression.

Yet, works bred of ego and blind ambition often flounder when crossing the finish line that is Audience Reception. They show up--yet ultimately have nothing meaningful to say, in part because they didn't follow the "rule".

The First Rule of Narrative Science

By "rule", of course, we refer to a standard set when looking at story as an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Rather than yet another in a hundred and some odd ways to beat the Hollywood reader, this reality occurs because of the processes that go on within the act of working out a problem. Dramatica (the first iteration of Narrative Science) sees story this way. If you don't, if you see story as having no boundaries and no limitations then by all means, write to your heart's content. Fly, be free.

Just don't expect the rest of us to remain engaged in your work.

Audiences expect stories to think like they do. Run counter to their instinctual responses and they'll turn away in droves.

One of the very first of these rules to be encountered within Dramatica states that when it comes to the two central characters of a story--the Main Character and Influence Character--one will change, and the other will remain steadfast.

If they both change the story breaks.

How Can a Character Not Change?

Eventually this standard finds the need to defend itself when it comes to certain great films. Consider Toy Story. Certainly both Woody and Buzz change. Woody finds it within himself to allow another toy the top spot and Buzz discovers he's not really the Space Ranger he thought he was. What about The Sixth Sense? Obviously Malcom Crowe (the Bruce Willis character) changes, but doesn't little Cole change as well when he finally musters up the courage to visit the poisoned girl? And what of Pride and Prejudice doesn't that classic beloved novel tell the story of two characters meeting in the middle?

Perhaps Narrative Science misses the mark. Perhaps there are exceptions to this rule...

…not quite.

The problem lies in Dramatica's definition of change and what most people mean when they think of characters changing.

How Narrative Science Sees Character

Contrary to centuries of thought on story, Dramatica sees the two central characters of a story not as fully imagined three-dimensional people, but rather as a context for perspective. Remember the basic given about stories as analogies to problem-solving? To fully comprehend and gain meaning from this act of problem-solving, all perspectives need to be addressed. One man's terrorist is another man's freedom-fighter? That's the kind of dissonance differing perspectives offer; that's how a story grants greater meaning to its events.

The Main Character gives the Audience an intimate perspective of the story's central problem. From here we experience what it is like to actually deal with the problem personally, as if "I" have the problem. The Influence Character offers up an alternative to the Main Character's stance by showing how someone else deals with the problem. From there we experience what it is like for "You" to deal with the problem.

The Overall Story Throughline and the Relationship Story Throughline round out those perspectives by offering us a chance to see how "They" experience the problem and how "We" experience the problem, respectively. But for now, seeing the Main Character and Influence Character as perspectives rather than fully-realized people makes it easier to explain the reason for that first rule.

Giving Meaning through Problem-Solving

The Influence Character enters the picture and tension mounts. Conflict now occurs because two competing perspectives have come into play; two different approaches towards solving the story's central problem. Both believe their view correct, both believe the other wrong. In order for this model of story as problem-solving process to work out, one must eventually give way to the other. Capitulation leads to resolution which in turn, leads to meaning. By showing whether or not the "winning" perspective leads to triumph or tragedy, the Author proves the appropriateness of using a certain perspective to solve problems.

The Author crafts greater meaning to a story's events.

Sometimes the Influence Character was right, the Main Character changes perspective and the story results in triumph (Star Wars, The King's Speech and Finding Nemo). Sometimes it was the Main Character who was right, the Influence Character justly surrenders and the story results in triumph (Star Trek, In the Heat of the Night, and The Iron Giant). Sadly though there are times when being "right" was actually wrong. The Main Character "wins" with the Influence Character changing perspective, yet the result tumbles into tragedy (Brokeback Mountain, Moulin Rouge! and Reservoir Dogs).

Regardless of the particular combination, the reason one character "changes" and the other "remains steadfast" becomes apparent: by showing the result of one taking one perspective over another an Author offers up their take on the appropriate (or inappropriate) way to solve a particular problem. In plain-English, the writer basically says, "Take this approach and you'll likely end up in the dumps"(The Wild Bunch) or "Adopt his way of seeing things and you'll likely end up triumphant" (Amélie).

The rule gives purpose to story.

But What About Meeting Halfway?

If both principal characters change their perspectives, the outcome of the story loses all purpose. Who's approach was the best? How am I to solve my own problems in life? What exactly was this story trying to say?

Surely compromise solves problems. But in order to tell that story, one character would have to maintain an all-or-nothing perspective while the other would call for greater synergy. The former would eventually change and the story would end in triumph, proving that compromise solves problems.

When a story simply shows two characters coming together, both changing, that alternative perspective ceases to exist and a hole the size of Texas (or perhaps Antarctica) opens up within the story's argument. The Author fails to show the problem from all sides. Suddenly the Author leaves space for exceptions, giving opportunity for an Audience to dissent and eventually discount their work wholesale.

In other words, no one will go see the movie.

A Call for Greater Clarity

Rules of story structure--at least the kind of "rules" found in Dramatica--exist to give purpose to the telling of a story. Break them and the story itself becomes dysfunctional. Rare is the Audience member who voluntarily hangs out with a schizophrenic mind.

Still, one can't argue with the success and greatness of Toy Story, The Sixth Sense and Pride and Prejudice. Do these stories fail in making their arguments? Clearly the principal characters in each changes their perspectives. How does one explain their effectiveness as complex stories within the context of this rule of change and steadfast?

The answer lies within the next in this series on Character and Change: Flipping Perspectives

This article originally appeared March 13, 2013 on Jim's "Narrative First" website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.


"Why The Main Character's Approach"
April 2013

Main Characters make decisions and they take actions. They engage in deliberation and they get things done. Yet for some reason, Narrative Science seemingly requires both Analysts and Authors to force their Main Characters into choosing one or the other.

Referred to in Dramatica (the first version of Narrative Science) as the Main Character's Approach, this story point files the great characters of literature and the silver screen into two boxes: Do-ers or Be-ers. The former act first then ask questions later, while the latter first internalize before then making their move. Limiting and reductive at first glance, the reason for this determination lies in a better appreciation of the mind's problem-solving process and its place within the structure of a compelling and meaningful story.

A Place to Begin

Functioning stories exist as models of human psychology–in particular, the process of problem-solving. One of the first steps to take when solving a problem lies in determining exactly where to place one's effort while attempting resolution. Should I try to change the world around me or should I try to change myself? Answering this question initiates the process of problem-solving. Ignoring it ignites the process of justification (or hiding the problem from ourselves).

Problems don't exist outside of us, nor do they exist within us–rather, they exist in the area between us and our environment. Because we can't address that inequity directly, we must focus our efforts on one area or the other–thus, the Main Character's Approach.

When faced with internal issues we focus on ourselves. When faced with external issues we focus on our environment. Why? Finding internal solutions for internal problems is much easier than searching for external ones. Likewise, exploring external solutions for problems within the external environment becomes a much easier task than searching for an internal one.

This Approach often shows itself as a preference on behalf of the Main Character. Do-ers prefer to do the work outside, Be-ers prefer to do the work inside.

The Path of Least Resistance

A Main Character facing personal issues growing from an external state of affairs or an external activity will approach their problem first by taking action. As a poor playwright with nothing to show for his efforts, William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) searches externally for a new muse in Shakespeare in Love. Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) from The Iron Giant seeks adventure and action from a life that has neither.

Conversely, a Main Character experiencing personal issues emanating from an internal attitude or dysfunctional way of thinking will approach their problem first by modifying their behavior. Sully (John Goodman) from Monsters, Inc. finds his greatest asset–fright–to be a behavior in need of change if he is to ever grow closer to Boo. Meanwhile "Deanie" Loomis (Natalie Wood) from Splendor in the Grass attempts to re-wire her behavior–even going so far as to accept institutionalization–in order to keep from slipping further into madness.

In each of these cases, the Main Character approaches their personal problem by first taking that path of least resistance. External takes external, internal takes internal. Realizing this, one can easily see how the Main Character's Approach can be used to identify the source of that central character's personal problem as well as their response to it.

Assuming the Right Perspective

Key to pinpointing the source of these personal problems remains an accurate account of point-of-view. Are we taking a first person perspective or are we looking at it from a distance? Is the inattentive parent on the bus letting their child run rampant out of neglect, or is it because they've just received devastating news that they're to raise the child on their own? One can't can't asses inequity without first taking into account perspective.

Same with story.

The examples of story given above focus on the issues facing each of those Main Characters personally. They may have other concerns within the larger picture or within other relationships, but when it comes down to dealing with my problems, and what am I facing (as required by the Main Character perspective) that first-person point-of-view becomes all important.

Creating a Mind for the Audience

It isn't as if Main Characters can't both Do and Be within a story. The concept of Main Character Approach certainly allows for well-rounded characters exhibiting both qualities. But the end-game can't become a quest to capture down on paper "real people".

Approach plays out as a preference because stories do not replicate real life. Rather, stories exist as constructs designed to communicate meaning by creating a "mind" for the Audience to possess. The Main Character represents the first-person perspective of this mind and thus, from that point-of-view sees the problem as being either internal or external (because it can't see that true problem in-between the two). Taking the path of least resistance this story-mind approaches that problem by tackling external problems with actions and internal ones with behavior modification.

Why then ask for the Main Character's Approach during the course of crafting a story? In answering that question, one can help solidify the Audience's position within the mind of a story while simultaneously granting clues as to the work and effort put forth by the Main Character to resolve their personal issues.

This article originally appeared March 27, 2013 on Jim's "Narrative First" website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.


Avoiding The False Moment Of Character
March 2013

Character development, and its inherent impact on plot, develops naturally over the course of a story. When that organic journey is somehow interrupted by an illogical or emotionally inaccurate progression, a false moment occurs and the story breaks down.

These are the moments that audiences simply can't justify away, no matter how hard they try. Once an event conflicts with the internal structure of the story's overall purpose, the mind on the receiving end of a story shuts down, instinctively recognizing the disparity in the message. Emotional growth is a complex mechanism, one misplaced piece and the entire message of the story becomes lost in the rubble of good intentions.

3:10 to Yuma (2007) is one of these films.

As wonderful as the cinematography, the direction, and the performances are, this film suffers from a false moment that tarnishes all the work that went into it. It is a moment of falsehood that happens deep within the third act, standing out as brightly as any celestial supernova in the emptiness of space. As a fan of the film, one hopes that on subsequent viewings, this leap of character will somehow have been magically transformed into something more closely approaching truth.

Unfortunately that doesn't happen.

The Story of 3:10 to Yuma

3:10 to Yuma tells the story of Dan Evans (Christian Bale) and his efforts to save his family farm by escorting notorious bad man Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to a train station in Contention, Arizona. There is a reward for getting Wade there before the 3:10 prison train arrives and Dan intends on securing it for himself and for those he loves.

Dan, a Civil War veteran hampered by the loss of his left leg, finds himself in a hopeless situation. With only a drought-ridden ranch to his name and massive debt to a local wealthy rancher, Dan becomes overwrought with his inability to see to the future well-being of his family. But even more drastic is the disdain he feels from his oldest son, William (Logan Lerman).

A teenager with all the answers, William makes no effort hiding the shame he feels for his father's apparent cowardice, going so far as to tell his Dad that "I'm never walking in your shoes." This tenuous relationship between father and son represents the heart of the story, its eventual catharsis the shared hope of every audience member.

Both William and Wade share the same drive to rush into things, to take action, and in that respect, they serve the same dramatic impact on Dan's growth of character. Wade even makes the suggestion that William reminds him of himself as a young boy. Dan strenuously disagrees, and it is in this clash of perspectives that the cracks in Dan's character begin to appear; both William and Wade are of the same opinion of what it means to be a man and Dan sadly doesn't fit the bill.

One by one their posse whittles down until only Dan and William are left to cater Wade half-a-mile through the bounty-hunter infested streets of Contention. As the clock approaches three, Wade offers Dan more money than the railroad ever promised him. Dan politely declines. How could he face his son knowing that he compromised with a known villain?

The two set off through the streets, pursued at every corner. $200 dollars awaits the local gunsligner who shoots Dan cold. The two dodge flying bullets as they race towards the train station. Eventually they crash into a stock room –

And it is here where the story falls apart.

Wade turns the tables on Dan, telling him his journey stops here. Wade is not getting on that train. A fight erupts in which Wade manages to get the upper-hand. Under the chain-link pressure of Wade's handcuffs, Dan spits out the sad story about how he really lost his leg – someone in his own Company shot him. Mention is made of how pitiful he felt relaying that story of supposed heroism to his son…

And for some God-forsaken reason, Wade changes his mind.

The Correct Way to Resolve a Problem

Of course, this moment had to happen. Logically it doesn't make sense that Wade would run alongside Dan all the way to the train station. There has to be some reason why Wade wouldn't just delay Dan long enough for his deadly gang of bandoliers to save him. But there is a difference between the right reason for doing something and just any old reason.

There should be some connection between all that happened in the proceeding two hours and those last final moments.

The problems between Dan and Wade stem from Dan's steadfast conscience. While others are quick to take the easy way out, Dan somehow stays in the game. This intrigues Wade and gives motivation for their friendship to develop. Thematically it is also this sense of conscience that ignites the flames of conflict between Dan and his son. With their barn on fire, William wants to rush in regardless of personal safety; Dan stalls him, forgoing the rescue of their personal effects for fear of even deadlier consequences.

With conscience the major source of problems within Dan's relationships, the solution rightly becomes temptation. You can't overcome conscience with even more conscience – that doesn't even make sense. You don't heal a wound by making it deeper. Yet somehow this is what they wrote into the story of 3:10 to Yuma.

Wade's decision to loosen the pressure on Dan's neck comes with an appeal from Dan to Wade's sense of conscience. Telling the story of how he really lost his leg only maintains the presence of the problem between them. With their relationship continuing on the way it always has, why should Wade change? Why does he start treating him like a friend?

Wade's change comes because it is necessary for the plot, not because of any meaningful character growth, and this is precisely why that moment feels false. In breaking the structure the Authors had so diligently setup in the proceeding Acts, the story broke down and audiences everywhere were left shouting at the screen (either internally or externally), Why is he doing that?!

Maintaining the Integrity of the Story

What if instead, Dan had taken the easy way out and accepted Wade's payoff? What if he had given in to temptation and employed the solution to the problems between them. Wouldn't there have been at least some reason for Wade to change?

Wade's biggest issue was his abandonment by his mother at an early age. Through the course of the story we learn that this tragic turn of events was quite possibly the thing that made him so bad. This wonderfully simple, yet powerful backstory, explains why Wade is so intrigued with Dan's sense of conscience – he never knew a parent quite like him. It is also why he plays with Dan throughout the film, checking to see the breaking points, and how he might possibly turn the crippled rancher to become more like himself.

So if instead of pleading to Wade's sense of conscience, Dan decided to take the shortcut to success, Wade would have a reason to change and help Dan finish the journey. Why? Wade obviously has a problem with the way he personally turned out, why would he then want the same thing to happen to William were the boy to find out how his father basically "abandoned" him morally by selling out? Wade would see Dan's compromise as a repeat of what his mother did to him and thus, would have a reason for taking the helpless father the rest of the way.

This shift in their relationship would naturally lead to Wade's change of character.

It would play out something like this (with all due respect to the original screenplay for 3:10 to Yuma):

INT. MINING SUPPLY SHOP – DAY

As they enter, a shot clips Wade in the shoulder, knocking him back. Dan spins, firing at–

A LOCAL GUNMAN who drops.

Lungs clutching for air, Dan glances out the door behind them, shots still reporting from the street. He turns and faces Wade.

DAN: That's it, Wade. This is where we part.

WADE: (confused) What?

DAN: I'm taking you up on your offer. The reward. All one thousand of it. I want it.

Dan pulls the REVOLVER from his belt and hands it to Wade.

DAN: Just make it look real. And not the leg. I'd like to have at least one good one.

SHOUTS outside as their pursuers move in close.

WADE: I can't shoot you Dan.

Another GUNMAN bursts into the room. Wade BLASTS him with the speed of a jack rabbit.

DAN: If you can't do it, I will–

Dan reaches for the gun, Wade pulls away.

WADE: That what happened to your leg?

DAN: I never said I was a hero. Never even seen battle. They outnumbered us five to one that day, Wade.

WADE: So you shot yourself to keep from the line.

DAN: Tried to tell my boy I lost it retreating from friendly fire. He saw right through me.

WADE: And he'll see through you again. Trust me.

DAN: I guess I'll deal with that when the time comes.

WADE: No you won't.

Out the cracked stock room door, WADE SPIES A ROOF WORKER'S LADDER.

EXT. ROOFTOPS, CONTENTION - DAY

Wade dashes across CITY ROOFTOPS dodging WILD GUNFIRE from below. Dan follows close behind. Both stop before jumping over a narrow alleyway.

WADE: You sure you can make this?

Without thinking twice, Dan leaps across, pulling Wade with him. The impact sends a spasm of pain through his bad leg.

WADE: I like this side of you Dan.

They jump a second alleyway. Dan is in agony.

And so on, until they finally reach the ticket booth.

With these new pages, Dan's embrace of temptation resolves the major source of conflict between the two gunmen. With this increased understanding of one another, their friendship flourishes and they now have a viable meaningful reason for making those last precious steps towards the awaiting train. The Authors wanted this friendly repartee, almost buddy-film like conversation, as the two weaved there way form bridal suite to train station; why not give it a viable believable reason for existing?

In addition, there was a slight change to Dan's backstory: his infirmary came as a result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound instead of the ambiguous "lost my foot during a retreat" reason given in the original screenplay. While effectively connecting Dan's personal story with that of the relationship between he and Wade, it also speaks volumes as to why Dan becomes so heated in regards to people helping or not helping him. Having committed the ultimate act of cowardice in the Civil War, he would think himself less than worthy of any outside assistance.

Again, every part of a story – even the backstory – contributes to the overall message of the piece.

Of course, once in that relatively peaceful shack of protection, Dan would have to reestablish this steadfastness:

INT. TICKET BOOTH, TRAIN STATION - DAY

Inside the booth, Dan winces with the pain rippling through his body. He has GUNSHOT WOUNDS in his arms and legs. Blood also trickles from a head wound…

…Wade takes a KERCHIEF out of his pocket and begins to make a TOURNIQUET around Dan's leg.

Dan pushes him away, refusing the assistance. Finishes it himself.

DAN: I ain't stubborn…

WADE: (confused) What.

DAN: At the camp, you said I was stubborn for…For keeping my family on that ranch…

WADE: Yeah well, what else you call it.

DAN: It's my son… Mark… The younger one. Got tuberculosis when he was two… Doctors said he'd die if he… He didn't have a dry climate.

WADE: What're you telling me this for.

DAN: (shrugs) Guess I wanted you to know I'm not stubborn is all… Ben.

Wade stares at Dan's grin, and starts to smile himself.

Friendship sealed, personal motivating issues back on track.

The only change from the original material was Dan's refusal of Ben's help. The one thing driving Dan throughout the story was that no one ever raised a hand to help him – not even God. To accept fully Wade's offer would only weaken his resolve, breaking the story's message in the process. Wade and William were the ones who were ultimately supposed to change. Dan…well, Dan was supposed to be stubborn.

The Steadfast Main Character

As mentioned in the article What Character Arc Really Means, a Main Character does not have to transformationally change in order to grow. Dan Evans was one of these characters. Some may argue, but doesn't the suggestion of having Dan take the money classify him more as the traditional Change Main Character?

Dan's personal issues weren't so much about doing the right thing as much as they were about doing what was needed because no one would help him. Sure, the issue of conscience was important in the context of his relationship with his son and with Wade, but personally, his steadfastness comes as a result of the problems he endures because no one will help him. Maintaining that drive signifies his staunch resolve.

Besides, Steadfast Main Characters are allowed to buckle; they're not supposed to be this one note that rings solidly from opening curtain to final credit. As long as in the end they continue to do things the way they always have, they can be accurately referred to as Steadfast. In fact, one could argue that wavering steadfast characters are more true-to-life, even more honest than their simple straight-minded cousins.

Truth in Structure

False moments occur when an Author does not fully understand the real problems and issues facing their characters. They happen when the feeling is that something is supposed to happen here, but what exactly that something unfortunately is remains elusive or unclear. Stories in relative state of development everywhere suffer from this disease, a disease that can easily be avoided with the proper understanding of meaningful story structure.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

======================================

3:10 to Yuma presents the classic American Pursuit story, that is, the old standby of an Obtaining Story with an Overall Story Problem of Pursuit. Because Dan is a Steadfast Situation Character (lost his leg in the war), he finds himself driven by Help and scorned with Issues of Preconception (what his wife and boy think of him). While the storyform signifies his Problem as Help, in Steadfast characters this problem is seen more as a drive than a problem. It also happens to be the reason why he needs to continue being driven by it at the end of the story.

William and Wade, both Change Impact Characters, end up plagued by Pursuit as well, exemplified by their need to always jump into things head first, particularly on the part of William. Their Solution of Avoid is nicely shown with both Wade preventing his gang from freeing him and William dropping the gun on Wade and pulling away from him.

With these elements set into place, the rest of the storyform falls into place – MC Growth of Stop, MC Approach of Do-er, MC Mental Sex Male, Story Driver of Action, Story Limit of Timelock, Story Outcome of Success and Story Judgment of Good.

Does this mean that these professional screenwriters used Dramatica to help craft this story? Who knows…if nothing else, it speaks highly of the program's ability to holistically map out good story sense. Ignoring Wade's false moment of character, the story otherwise flows quite nicely, with an ending that is both satisfying and emotionally fulfilling – the hallmarks of any great story.

Whether or not it had any place in the production process at all, though, Dramatica does accurately point out the reason why that moment seems so false and provides an easy way to fix it.

The Relationship Story Throughline, that is the relationship between Dan and Wade/William, suffers from a Problem of Conscience and therefore can only be resolved with a Solution of Temptation. This solution is not present at all in the final version of the film and, as explained in the article above, is the one thing that could have made their eventual friendship make sense. Continuing to employ the Problem of Conscience did nothing to shift the balance of conflict in their relationship and explains clearly why this was a false moment of character.


Unraveling Tangled
February 2013

Without a doubt, Disney's Tangled delivers some of the best 3D character animation, rivaling the skill and artistry of the company's traditional 2D legacy. Yet, while following in the footsteps of their legacy brings visual success, maintaining the company's unique brand of storytelling does not.

Face it – the Disney classics of old (pre the Little Mermaid) were not great stories. They were tales. Mid 20th-century audiences, familiar with many of these tales and comfortable with the relative simplicity of the linear events, took to these films with ease and comfort. Audiences filled in many of the story holes with their own knowledge of these tales and brandished little complaint.

This isn't to say those films weren't charming, or that they weren't packed with sincere honest character moments.

They simply weren't stories.

Tangled suffers from the same fate. Tales lay out a simple linear plot progression: this happens, then this happens, then this happens, the end. The only meaning one can extrapolate from such a construct lies in comparing where the characters began with where they ended up. Cut the journey off earlier or let it prolong a little while and the final destination shifts. Different resting spot, different meaning.

A Purpose for Storytelling

Stories, on the other hand, present arguments. Through the machinations of character, plot, theme and genre an Author argues that one particular approach fares better or worse than another while solving a particular problem. Cutting the journey shorter or making it longer may change the ending, but it won't change what the story means. Within this process, story points resonate throughout the piece into one large holistic purpose. The key to providing this experience lies in consistency and a clear structural basis.

In all, there are four major areas where Tangled breaks this process:

 - Unclear Main Character
 - Both Principle Characters Change
 - No Protagonist
 - No Consequence

Unraveling these story issues should help clarify the difference between a story and a tale, and hopefully suggest ways to avoid any further entanglements.

Unclear Main Character

Obviously the story is about Rapunzel…so how can one possibly argue that the Main Character was unclear? Quite simply, it is never clear to the Audience whose shoes they are supposed to be standing in. At times we see the film from Rapunzel's viewpoint. Other times we feel like we are riding along with Flynn, empathizing with his plight. The filmmakers themselves even felt this duality, as evidenced by the opening narration that tells you in no uncertain terms know whose story this is.

Now, narration by itself does not determine a Main Character point-of-view. There are instances of narration that are objective and do not involve an Audience into personal issues central to that experience. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Scout narrates the story as an adult, not as her younger Main Character self. In The Usual Suspects, Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) relates the events of days gone past, yet manages to hold back key information. Tangled on the other hand, provides us much more through the eyes of its narrator.

There are two very different Flynns operating within this movie. There is the Flynn who agrees to take Rapunzel out and challenges her status as a locked-away princess. And then there is the Flynn who steals the crown, yet ultimately gives it up for love. The former operates properly as an Influence Character to Rapunzel's Main Character. The latter works as Main Character. We don't see Flynn's struggle from afar, we experience firsthand – up close and personal – the very definition of a Main Character.

Whether or not this came as a result of marketing influences determined to appeal to a broader Male audience (the film, after all used to be called Rapunzel) or as a result of several different and competing visions matters little. The final analysis remains the same: Audiences were confused as to whose side of the argument they were supposed to be on.

Both Characters Change

Pile on this grave mistake with the unfortunate reality that both Rapunzel and Flynn philosophically change their point-of-views. If both principle characters change, all meaning is lost.

Story works like this: One character says I believe this, and there's nothing you can do or say to change my mind. Another character comes along and challenges the first by saying Oh yeah, well you're looking in the wrong place because I believe this and there's no way I'm going to change my mind. The two battle it out back and forth until ultimately one gives in and changes over to the other's point-of-view. Match this change with whether or not that decision was right or wrong and the Author has crafted a Meaningful Ending. In this way, The Author has proved, or argued, the appropriateness of one approach over another.

When both characters shift their point-of-view, nothing is being said. As an Audience we can't tell what the Author was trying to say with their work.

That's a recipe for disaster.

Again, the Flynn who agrees to take Rapunzel out and falls in love with her is not the same Flynn who steals in the beginning then ultimately gives up that very same chase for the crown. The first Flynn remains steadfast in his approach while the second clearly changes.

And so does Rapunzel.

She wants nothing more than to leave, yet gives that up once she sees Flynn floating away. Yet moments later Flynn begins to change, culminating with his final show of sacrifice. So then which change is more appropriate? Who was in the right? What are the Authors trying to say? It's nice and sweet, but it really doesn't add up to anything in the end.

That dynamic of one character, or viewpoint, remaining steadfast while another character gravitates towards them defines the very core of a story. Obfuscate it with dual shifts and the audience will leave the theater confused and disappointed.

No Protagonist

Wait a second, you may be thinking, Didn't you just explain how Tangled couldn't decide whether Flynn or Rapunzel was the Main Character? Doesn't that mean there were two Protagonists?

No.

Main Characters are not automatically Protagonists. In the past those two terms were used interchangeably, but recent discoveries call upon the need for a redefinition. Authors must be able to distinguish between the point-of-view that is the Main Character and the objective character function of the Protagonist.

A Main Character provides the first person point-of-view for the Audience. The Protagonist is the character in pursuit of the Overall Story Goal. Now sometimes these two are one in the same, as in Star Wars, Drive, or Midnight in Paris. Other times they are not, as in the aforementioned To Kill A Mockingbird or The Terminator.

As established previously, Tangled clearly supplies the Main Character point-of-view whether through Rapunzel or Flynn. But who is the Protagonist and what are they after? What is the Story Goal?

If Rapunzel is the Protagonist then the Goal must be for her to see the lights. Yet this happens about 2/3 into the movie. Once the Goal is reached, the story is over. This is part of the definition of a Story Goal.

Besides, that Goal really doesn't classify as an Overall Story Goal as much as it does a personal Main Character Goal. Who else in the film finds themselves overly concerned with finding those lights? An Overall Story Goal – the kind a Protagonist chases after – sits as a concern for everyone in the story. It is an objective Goal that everyone is either for or against.

In this case, it becomes clear that the Goal of the story is to reunite the lost princess with her kingdom. Princess comes home and the inequity is resolved, the story is over.

But who is pursuing this Goal?

Certainly not the King or Queen. Sure they send up lights once a year, but beyond that? There really isn't anyone. The setup feels slightly lopsided as it is quite clear who the Antagonist is. Mother Gothel does whatever she can to prevent her gold mine from returning home. Is there even an objective character who could qualify as standing up against her in pursuit of this Goal?

Rapunzel eventually reaches this point, but far too along in the story for it to balance out the argument properly. Protagonists need to be aware of the Story Goal in order to seek the means to achieve it. That knowledge and the ensuing pursuit must be there in order for the story's argument to work. Otherwise the story comes off half-baked and unrealized. Rapunzel is neither aware nor consistent in her approach the way a Protagonist must be.

Thus, there is no Protagonist.

No Consequence

Adding further insult to energy, the film fails to correctly encode a Consequence.

No wonder there isn't a Protagonist!

Every Story Goal needs a Consequence. Whether it is the fear of having to live under tyranny in Star Wars or fighting the impulse to destroy a giant metal robot in Iron Giant, there must be a negative repercussion in place if the efforts towards the Story Goal fail. Why else would a Protagonist be driven to pursue if there wasn't something there motivating them (and the other characters for that matter)?

What are the consequences of the lost princess not returning home in Tangled? Sure there is sadness. But only once a year, and even then, there are kids playing in the streets dancing and carrying on! There is no Protagonist to be found because each and everyone of the kingdom's citizens gave up a long time ago.

There was nothing motivating them to make a difference.

Striving for Something More

With no Consequence, there is nothing driving a Protagonist, thus no need to include one within a story. With no Protagonist there is no outcome that can be meaningfully juxtaposed against the Main Character's final resolve to change or remain steadfast. Without a concrete resolve it doesn't really matter who the Main Character is, and thus no anchor point for an Audience member. No anchor point, no empathy, no Audience buy in.

No Audience buy in, no Audience buying…tickets.

This isn't to say there aren't those who enjoy the film. In fact, many have found Tangled more enjoyable the second or third time around. Unfortunately this is because they have given up on gaining any appreciable meaning out of the film and instead simply enjoy the visual candy. In short, they've turned off their minds.

Now it may be the filmmakers were content with simply telling a tale of old, and that's fine. Unfortunately audiences today crave more than a simple collection of events mashed up together in an ordered list. If they wanted that, they'd visit their Twitter stream.

Audiences want meaning. They want a reason for leaving their houses and sitting in that theater. They want an experience and a purpose to their viewing experience. They want something more than stereo-vision. They want to live in a moment they can't recreate on their own.

Stories can do this. They can fulfill the promise audiences expect from a movie by engaging their minds with purpose. Structured properly, with a solid consistent argument at the core, stories can move beyond simply visual delight.

This article originally appeared March 26, 2012 on Jim's "Story Fanatic" website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.


Black Swan and Star Wars: Cousins of Story Structure
January 2013

One tells the story of an Earth-bound dancer who dreams of being the very best that ballet has to offer; the other tells the story of a whiny farmboy who leaves his dusty home to fight against an Evil Empire. Two dreamers at far corners of separate galaxies. How exactly can one claim that there is anything remotely similar between the two?

Because both characters are faced with the same problem.

Story Structure and Problem Solving

When one steps back and takes a look at what is really going on within a complete story, the process of problem-solving becomes apparent. A problem is introduced into the life of a Main Character and the efforts that come as a result determine whether or not that problem is ultimately resolved. Everything else that has to do with "structure" – whether it be saving a cat, or entering a special world, or meeting the mentor – is really a superficial construct built on top of the true reality that a story is about the efforts to resolve a problem.

Resolution, however, is not always a positive thing.

Peace of Mind or Emotional Turmoil?

In the concluding episode of Mad Men's Season One, Don Draper (John Hamm) begins to realize the tragic consequences his actions have had on those he loves. This resolution, or change, comes with his successful pitch to the suits from Kodak:

This device isn't a spaceship; it's a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called the wheel. It's called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels, around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.

He's speaking of Kodak's new gadget, but we know he is really speaking about himself. The problem of his philandering and self-centered approach has been solved, but only with a great emotional cost. Don returns home triumphant – only to find his house empty, his heart denied the usual emotional catharsis that comes when a problem is solved. Combining a change of heart with the crush of emotional turmoil contributes to the honesty and sincerity many point to as strengths of the show's writing.

This first season of Mad Men is the exception to the rule that change equals happiness. More often than not, the resolution of a Main Character's problem comes with a greater peace of mind, a release of personal angst. Returning the focus on this article's titular characters, it is clear to see that both Nina and Luke experience this overwhelming sense of relief with their own personal resolutions.

Validating Oneself

Luke Skywalker gets into trouble because he is always testing himself. Whether it's in the bar with Tatooine's ruffians or out in the rocks searching for R2, this drive he has to see how good he measures up is his problem.

Nina Sayers suffers from the same problem. Whether it's due to the pressures she feels from her mother constantly checking up on her, or her own inner drive to see whether or not she can dance the dance of the Black Swan, Nina's troubles find their source in this drive to constantly check the validity of a certain belief, in this case, that she can measure up.

Dogfights in space and imaginary dance competitors are the various means with which each film communicates the effects of this problem, but in the end both films are examining the same problem. And because both characters face the same type of problem, they both will find resolution in the same place.

Letting Go

If someone experiences trouble because they are driven to check something out or because someone else tests them, their solution can only come in the form of trust. If you constantly check something and it only makes things worse, the best thing to do is to simply let go and trust that things will work out. In the same way that prevention can solve problems of pursuit (as in The Terminator), trusting something without checking first for validation solves a problem of test. Luke and Nina solve their individual problems precisely this way.

Luke trusts the Force. Nina trusts her body. In both cases, each character lets go and stops looking for validation. And, quite unlike poor old Don above, both Luke and Nina find peace of mind at the end of their journey. They both receive the accolades they once thought were mere fantasies. Sure, Nina's physical journey came to an end with the closing credits, but that sense of personal angst she struggled with throughout the entire film vanished with that final fall.

The Personal Problems of the Main Character

If this seems too reductive, consider that this is only one part of the story's real problem, the problem most personal to the Main Character. There are still the other characters in the story to consider who may, or may not – depending on the story's dynamics – be experiencing a similar curse of validation.

While both Luke and Nina experience the same problem of feeling like an outsider, the problems felt by the rest of their respective casts reside in completely different stratospheres. Black Swan finds its characters engaged in backstabbing and psychological manipulations as they climb up the ladder of New York dance. Star Wars explores the dangers of laser blasts and light saber battles. Can't quite call them the same story there. This is why the two films are more like cousins rather than blood brothers. There are parts that are dead-on the same, while others sit at polar ends of the dramatic spectrum.

Validation is not the only problem that can beset a Main Character. In addition to the problems of pursuit described above, you can have problems with feelings (Michael in The Godfather), problems with abilities (Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) and problems with trying to do too much (Remy in Ratatouille). Problems are as varied as the characters who encounter them.

The problem is key to making a story work. Identify the problem facing a Main Character and the corresponding solution that goes with it and the story's structure begins to reveal itself. Only then can one recognize that the troubles of a farmboy in space come remarkably close to those of an aspiring dancer in New York.

This article originally appeared June 30, 2011 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.


The Inciting Incident of Star Wars
December 2012

What starts a story? Is it the moment when the Hero receives his Call to Adventure? If one believes stories are transformational journeys of legend, then the answer would be yes. Everything before can simply be thrown out.

But what about those who see stories as powerful analogies to our own minds trying to solve a problem? If true, then a story begins when the problem itself begins – when the inequity, or sense of separateness, introduces itself. In this case, relying on a mythical heralding would prove to be more of a fool's journey than that of a Hero.

Help Me, Obi Wan

Recently there was discussion concerning the moment when the story of Star Wars actually begins. Is it when Luke hears R2-D2's message for the first time or is it when Darth Vader boards Princess Leia's ship? The argument put forth by those who maintain the former suggest that everything prior to the Princess's plea for help was simply set-up for what was to come. In other words, one could conceivably move from the opening crawl directly to the droid's message and the story would essentially play out the same.

At a glance, this line of thinking reads as reasonable. The journey really doesn't begin until the Hero has had a chance to refuse the call, so clearly starting at this point would have no effect on the story's ensuing plot points.

Yet it would have a tremendous effect on what the story actually means.

Stories as Models of Problem-Solving

The other side argues that the Empire's illegal boarding of a diplomatic ship begins the story's investigation into a process known as problem-solving. They see that opening event as an essential component to a holistic understanding of what Star Wars is really all about. Remove it, and the rest of the film simply becomes sci-fi eye-candy. Why?

The Empire's aggression in those opening scenes has a meaningful connection to what is going on inside of Luke personally.

A Different Point-of-View

The reason you need that beginning section with the Empire boarding the diplomatic ship lies in the fact that Star Wars is looking both objectively and subjectively at the problems incurred by seeing what one can get away with. Objectively you see it within an Empire pushing the boundaries of their imminent domain. Subjectively you see it in Luke constantly testing his mettle against alien and human opponents alike.

Take that opening section out and you only get to see the problem from one point-of-view. By now everyone knows how important it is to see every side of a story when it comes to really understanding what is going on.

It's no different in actual stories.

Structural Assumptions

As discussed previously in Not Everything is a Hero's Journey and noted in The Death Rattle of the Hero's Journey, Campbell's take on the components of story leaves much to question. The same holds true for Blake Snyder's popular paradigm (see Forget the Cat, Save Yourself!). Unfortunately, these paradigms have become so entrenched that they lead many to misconstrue the importance and relative unimportance of many story events.

The reason many believe the story doesn't start until Luke meets R2 is because they're focusing too much on the central character's journey. Whether by Campbell or by Snyder they see story as an arc of one, rather than a sophisticated analogy for the mind's problem-solving process. Thus to them, nothing really happens until the Protagonist receives his calling.

But is this really when problems begin?

The Beginning of Inequity

The Empire boarding a diplomatic ship is not a continuation of the norm. It is not backdrop or backstory. It is an acceleration of aggression and is depicted as such within the film:

  • "When they hear you've attacked a diplomatic–" and
  • "Holding her is dangerous. If word of this gets out…"

This aggression is something new – a sea change that affects everyone within the story. The Inciting Incident of a story creates the inequity, the Closing Event resolves it. The Empire's act of aggression creates the inequity. Showing the Empire what happens when you push to far (blowing up the Death Star) ends it.

If Luke hearing the message begins the inequity of the story, what is the inequity exactly? What decisions does it force? If the inequity is that now this farmer boy has the plans, then it would follow that this inequity would be resolved when the Rebels have them. But it isn't. Luke hearing the message and the Death Star blowing up are not the starting and stopping points of an inequity. They don't connect. Objectively, the idea of exploring one's reach would no longer apply in any meaningful way.

Stories as Insight

Luke had little issue believing in the Force. He wasn't skeptical like Han or ambivalent about it like 3PO. Rather (as shown in The Difference Between Neo and Luke Skywalker), his problems came as a result of him constantly testing himself, matching his abilities against Sand People, against Han, and ultimately against the Empire itself.

These personal problems naturally coincide with the larger picture story of a ruling body testing itself against its citizens - testing the limits of its authority and testing the limits of its newest weapon. Objective and subjective points-of-view mix together in one coherent piece, thus providing the audience with a unique insight into the problems they face and how best to go about solving them.

This is why stories exist.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

The Inciting Incident – or what Dramatica refers to as the first Story Driver – happens when the Empire illegally boards a diplomatic ship. This event reveals the Empire's now impossible-to-hide ruthlessness and forces Leia to make a decision regarding what to do with those plans. It is not simply backgrop as it creates the inequity that motivates the Princess to send the plans to the Old Jedi Knight (in the hope, again, of possibly finding a new way to fight this war).

Instead, that meeting of R2 and Luke can be seen as the first time the Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines collide. Upon hearing that message, the farmboy who dreams of excitement in space assumes his role as the Protagonist of the story. Prior to that, he simply provided the Main Character point-of-view.

This article originally appeared March 17, 2012 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. It is first in a series on Conflict. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

 


Protagonist and Antagonist: Beyond Hero and Villain
November 2012

Every writer knows they need them. Successful stories always seem to feature heroic good guys locked in glorious dramatic battle with villainous bad guys. Leave these key characters out and a writer rightfully risks losing his or her audience. Why they need them, however, has always been a foregone conclusion.

Until now.

For too long the concepts of Protagonist and Antagonist have lingered within a soup of mutually agreed upon lies. Lies that lead to worthless advice such as The audience must feel for the Protagonist or The Villain shall be so powerful that he takes the Protagonist to the end of their very end. Romantic advice, to be sure, but advice that ultimately doesn't say anything useful or worse, universal.

Instead, writers should think of these two characters from an objective perspective. Consider their functional purpose within a story rather than their emotional status within the hearts of the Audience. Only by removing oneself from a subjective appreciation of these characters can an Author ensure that their story operates both soundly and effectively.

Further exploration into the objective functions of Protagonist and Antagonist begins with the single story point they both revolve around: the Story Goal.

Defining the Goal of a story

When thinking objectively, the Story Goal is not what the Protagonist wants or needs. Characters do not maintain separate Story Goals based on their personal motivations. The correct way to think of a Story Goal is to envision it as the central focal point by which all the characters in a story orbit around and provide perspective on.

It all begins with the initial event or decision that creates the story's problem. A chasm opens up and an effort begins to take shape – one with the sole purpose of resolving that inequity. The Story Goal represents that final step in the resolution process. Complete it and the characters have resolution. Leave it open and the problem persists far beyond the walls of the story.

This Goal then becomes a concern to everyone in the story. It is not simply the Protagonist's Goal or an individual Goal of another character, but rather the Goal of focus for the entire cast. It is an objective goal.

Development of a story point

There are some who will be for this resolution and some who will not. Those who are for the successful completion of these efforts are Pro- goal (as in Protagonist). They are for the resolution of the inequity. Those who are against resolution should be Con goal, but unfortunately the suffix Ant (as in Antagonist) has been used so often and absorbed so strongly into the communal bloodstream of working writers that a much needed correction at this date seems beyond hope. Thus, Antagonist it is for those opposed to resolution.

One for, one against.

Over time these archetypes have become less and less an identifier of purpose and more of a fancy-pants label for who the story is about or who the audience should care about.

Mean good guys, nice bad guys

Determining which character is for and which one is against proves to be an infinitely better approach than simply looking at who is a hero and who is a villain. Why?

Because sometimes the Protagonist isn't a nice person.

Tony Gilroy's thriller Michael Clayton provides a masterful example of shifting sympathies and weighing audience expectations. As covered in the article The True Definition of a Protagonist, Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is not the Protagonist. He certainly is the good guy, but he is neither for nor against the efforts to resolve uNorth's legal troubles – the true objective problem in the story.

Problems begin with Arthur's breakdown and end with Karen's (Tilda Swinton's) confession. Michael has his own take on the matter (a point-of-view essential to a Main Character), but he doesn't function in the way a Protagonist should.

Karen does.

Standing against her in the role of Antagonist? Why, that's Arthur (Tom Wilkinson). He stands in the way of Karen's success and works diligently to unravel any resolution she may find. He functions as an Antagonist, but he is portrayed sympathetically. He's one of the good guys. When it comes to looking at these character objectively – the way one should when taking in the larger context of a story – audience affiliation holds no higher ground.

Sometimes the good guy is for resolution, other times the good guy is not. Sometimes both Protagonist and Antagonist are good guys.

Take How to Train Your Dragon. Inequity strikes with the destruction of the village, creating with it the Story Goal of Training the Next Generation of Dragon Killers. One person works for this Goal, the other against it. Stoick, Hiccup's father, wants the young ones to learn how to take down the giant lizards. Hiccup works against that.

The one character everyone naturally assumes is the Protagonist – Hiccup – actually works as the Antagonist of the main story when seen objectively.

Protagonist and Antagonist mean so much more than simply who the good guy is and who the bad guy is. They have an important function to perform in regards to the unfolding process of problem-solving within a story. The Protagonist represents the side of the argument that is for the successful resolution. The Antagonist shows the side dead set against it.

A reason for conflict

This is why they clash. Not because one guy has God on his side or has a heart of gold or because the other guy embraces dark forces and hates kittens. They clash because of their individual motivations in regards to the Story Goal:

  • The Protagonist pursues the Story Goal and considers the value of doing so.
  • The Antagonist prevents the Story Goal and forces others to reconsider what it is they are doing.

These motivations stay rock solid throughout the entire story. They must because again, we are looking at them in terms of their objective function. Objectivity does not include the subjective notions of change and emotional catharsis. Stories need both objective and subjective less you risk Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

A purpose behind the labels

Writers need Protagonist and an Antagonist in order to successfully prove that what they're saying is true. Arguments only succeed when all points counter have been accounted for. If a writer illustrates the efforts to solve a problem, they need to equally illustrate the efforts to prevent it.

Only then will the Audience buy in to what the writer is saying.

Protagonist and Antagonist did not come into existence in order to establish who an Audience should root for or who should be rallied against. Rather, they developed naturally as two opposing forces arguing the logical half of a story's argument. Seeing them in this light solidifies their purpose within a work and allows a writer to confidently and consistently craft meaningful stories.

This article originally appeared April 27, 2012 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.


Change Your Character Doesn't Need
October 2012

Everyone knows the clever adage about what happens when you assume something about someone. But what of those moments when an Author assumes something about writing? Do they make an ass out of their story as well as themselves?

You betcha.

The Need for Need

Often times, when one reads about story or structure, they come across the juxtaposition of what a Main Character wants versus what he or she truly needs. The implication lies in the idea that, in order to acquire true happiness, the central character must fundamentally change because what they think they need really isn't what they really need. They lack some key ingredient. Supposedly the purpose of story lies in teaching this character that missing piece.

Thus begins the first trappings of assumption and storytelling.

The word need comes packed with such an abundancy of subjective interpretation that it muddles the full potential of story. Must an Author always argue for the positive effects of change? Making an argument for need suggests as much.

Luke Skywalker needs to let go and use the Force. Mr. Andersen needs to believe that he is Neo. This idea of need assumes a happy and pleasant outcome. But what of Hamlet or Lawrence of Arabia? The great Dane thought too much. Did he need to stop mulling things over and finally take action? Where did that get him?

And what of Lawrence? He refused to accept the inevitable and it led to greater and greater problems for him. Did he thus need to give up and accept the way things are? That was, after all, the only way for him to move forward. And how exactly did that work out for him?

The Call for Learning

Coinciding with this compulsion for want vs. need lies the question What does this character learn? Such a query works nominally for stories like Star Wars or The Matrix where greater understanding leads to positive resolution. However, in the case of masterworks like Hamlet and Lawrence of Arabia, the question rings meaningless and borders on the absurd. Hamlet doesn't learn anything.

But we do.

The Objective View of Story

Stories do not exist as tools for characters to grow and develop, characters grow and develop as parts of an elaborate argument made by the Author to the Audience. This way of thinking of story works in all cases, from Star Wars to Hamlet, from Star Trek to The Godfather. Thus, it doesn't matter what Luke or Hamlet or Kirk or Michael learn, what matters is that we the Audience fully appreciate what argument the Author makes to us.

Stop testing yourself all the time and start trusting in something else instead and you'll triumph. Star Wars makes this argument, makes it rather successfully, and Audiences return in droves to learn it again and again. Stop doubting who you are and start believing in yourself and you'll triumph as well. The Matrix makes this argument and again, found a tremendous audience willing to hear it.

Replace overthinking with what you know to be true and all will end in tragedy. Hamlet argues this inevitable and depressing end, but does so with such sophistication that it repeatedly finds an Audience generation after generation. Lawrence takes the sophistication one step further by contrasting the positive effects of tolerance in the larger sense with the negative aspects of submission within a smaller, more personal perspective.

In every instance, the Author uses character, plot, theme and genre to posit an argument in regards to solving problems.

Tempering Tragedy

In Isao Takahata's 1988 masterpiece Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies), Main Character Seita comes to a tragic and heartbreaking end: after failing to adequately take care of his little sister during the waning days of World War II, he simply gives up living and allows himself to waste away.

Up until that moment, ninth-grader Seita works incessantly to keep alive the fantasy of his father returning from sea. This unwaning drive propels him into all sorts of trouble, the least of which involves taking care of his little sister all by himself.

Accepting the end then becomes his only possible solution. He doesn't need to do this, he just does so because of the influence of his close relationship with his sister.

The argument Takahata makes breaks one's heart and in the final analysis rests dark and nihilistic. The struggle to persist can only be resolved by accepting the end, resulting in a sad and lonely death.

Depressing, right?

This is why he felt the need to temper this rather dreadful argument with the bittersweet ghost sequence between Seita and his sister. Without these sparse and otherwise hopeful interludes to counter-balance the inevitability of death portrayed in life, the film would have sat even heavier on the hearts of those in the Audience. By bringing light so quickly after successfully arguing the persistence of dark, Takahata makes a case for something far beyond this existence, elevating the experience beyond mere cartoon.

Stories as Arguments

Stories can be told without need and therefore without the prejudice of positivity. Solutions can turn out to be destructive. In the case of both Hamlet and Lawrence, what they needed to resolve their problems turned out to be something they really didn't need at all.

Authors should toss aside this notion of what a character wants versus what he or she needs and instead focus on what the Audience ultimately wants and needs: a powerful, effective and meaningful argument. Anything less simply makes...well, you know.

This article originally appeared August 21th, 2012 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.


Starlight and Character Arc
September 2012

Why is it characters cannot see their own problems? Simple logic suggests that if a character knew the source of his or her own troubles they would employ the necessary solution and move on. Countless narratives, it would seem then, thrive on a character's lack of awareness.

How can that be?

They have the motivation. They have the moxie. They do everything they can to overcome their personal trouble, but still they continue to fail. Do they all simply lack the intelligence necessary to succeed?

No. They suffer because they continuously look in the wrong place.

(Editor's Note: This article contains spoilers to quite possibly one of the greatest films of all time. If you have not seen "A Separation" please do so BEFORE reading any further...you'll thank me later!)

The External Universe

Like the universe we inhabit, our minds exhibit a natural curvature in context of spatiality. Packed with neural networks hosting years and years of justifications built upon justifications, our minds tend to warp our perception of problems and how best to solve them. Narratives provide us an opportunity to step outside of this system and appreciate the truth.

An example of this local curvature in the external world can be found in the diagram below:

Gravity distorts the light from a star

(Image Copyright David Jarvis -  http://davidjarvis.ca/dave/gallery/)

Dense and heavy objects like the Sun cause large amounts of curvature in space. Insert a large-enough mass into the equation and starlight itself bends. In the above diagram, an observer on Earth perceives the star to be in one place, when in reality its true location lies far far away.

The same happens within the human mind, and by extension, the mind of a story.

The Internal Universe

Replace the hot blazing sphere of plasma and magnetic fields with the weight of inequity born of justification and suddenly internal perceptions warp and bend. If only I could control my cravings for chocolate more, then I would lose all this weight, or If only I could block out all the temptations this world provided, then I could stay faithful to my spouse. Warped starlight prevents the people hampered by these thoughts from truly moving on, from resolving their issues and extinguishing that internal Sun forever.

Perhaps the person troubled by chocolate suffers from some emptiness inside, some deep emotional issue they have avoided for far too long. The treat fills that hole, but only temporarily. It seems like the right response, but really only acts as a panacea. Same with the person struck with the pangs of wanton deceit and betrayal. They may have spent years suffering under the delusion that they actually cared for this other person when in reality, their love was a lie.

In both cases, the appreciation of the true star's location reveals a solution. Pursue that childhood issue with therapy and without hesitation. Doubt feelings that were never there and let loose the bonds of conscience.

The problem concerns the size of that Sun and whether or not the observer gains greater perspective.

Narratives at Work

In Star Wars, Luke focuses so much of his time and energy on how long he'll have to do things (stay on Tatooine, Jedi training) that he completely misses the real source of his troubles: his constant need to test himself (for more, see this video exploration of Luke's character arc). In A Separation, Nader (Peyman Moadi) concentrates so much of his energy on proving his own innocence that he completely fails to see the effect his actions have on his 11-year old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi).

Both of these stories -- like all effective narrative -- offer their respective Main Characters the opportunity to see the true "light" of trouble in their lives. This revelation, or unmasking of the central character's blind spot, speaks to the purpose of story. Lining up their final decision to solve this problem or not with the eventual consequences of their choice helps lay the foundation for the story's central argument. Change and character growth thus, becomes an important part of better understanding the universe of story (see Change Your Character Doesn't Need).

In Star Wars, Luke learns to trust in something external effectively negating any problems he had with testing himself internally. He recognized what was really going on and took advantage. The blinding explosion and shiny medal provided after only affirmed the rightness of his decision.

In A Separation, Nader received no award. A man so driven to assign blame could only end up in a dark and unresolved place. The solution radiated so clearly in the worried eyes of his daughter, yet went unnoticed at the hands of his personal mission and obsession. Isolated and alone in the chaotic courtroom halls of Iran, Nader could only sit and wait for a decision that had one result: tragedy.

Applying Science to Story

In appreciating this analogy of universe to narrative, writers gain the opportunity to correctly identify the problems of character within their story and craft meaningful alternatives to simply "going with the flow."

We have only our minds to appreciate the meaning of story. For a story to truly be effective then it must honor the mind's problem-solving process. It must provide the appropriate "Sun" of justification for its characters and warp their perceptions of what is truly needed to resolve the issues in their lives.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

Dramatica makes the distinction between the two "stars" with its concepts of Problem and Symptom. The Symptom (whether it be the Main Character Symptom, Overall Story Symptom, Influence Character Symptom or Relationship Story Symptom) appears to be the source of trouble. The real source, however, lies in the actual Problem of the appropriate Throughline.

This article originally appeared August 29th, 2012 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.


The Goal of Every Story, The Goal of Every Author
August 2012

When tragedy strikes, protagonists leap into action. Battling the forces of antagonism and facing deep-seeded justifications, the central character of any story climbs from one treacherous Act to the next, their eyes transfixed on the prize. But what meaning does this intense area of focus hold?

Why is it so important to understand?

The Story Goal marks the promise of accomplishment. Having experienced disruption at the hands of the Inciting Incident (or first Story Driver), the characters set out in the hopes of acquiring the Story Goal. Whether this involves a physical tangible reward or one that sits at the edge of consciousness matters little when compared to its potential for peace. The Story Goal represents closure.

Fighting, killing, and stealing. Treachery, deceit and manipulation. Incarceration, slavery and poverty. Prejudice, hysteria and racism. Four major sets of problems, four avenues for a cast to travel. How to determine which path to take? Identify the type of problem the characters face and the answer presents itself.

Separating structure and content

This series on Goals took great effort to detail the distinction between the structural conceit of a Story Goal and the actual nature of that Goal. In the past, cursory examinations of story structure revealed both to be one and the same – or worse, made no mention of the second.

Splitting the two apart opens up greater understanding. Greater understanding leads to smoother, more productive story meetings.

The desire for resolution spawns the drive to achieve – a universal truth that finds itself both within story and without, owing existence to the very function of human cognition. This undeniable reality of the mind's problem-solving process explains the structural reason for a Story goal. More than simply a tendril stemming from the central character's want or need, this final finish line represents new balance.

The exact nature of this equilibrium, however, sits separate from the process itself.

The goal of the obvious

Drug a population with images meant to confuse and pre-occupy and one can expect the dormant to rise up and fight – as they did in The Matrix. Murder and extort and one can expect the victims to strike back, demanding hasty removal – as they did in L.A. Confidential.

The easily-understood Story Goal looks at achieving an achievement. Take down the Matrix. Stop corruption in Los Angeles. Steal the treasure of the Sierra Madre and exact revenge on a couple of no-good cowpokes (Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Unforgiven respectively). Inciting Incidents that create problematic activities require an activity of resolution.

But achievement only accounts for one-fourth of the entirety of problematic activities. Consider Inception. Dom and company travel deep into dreamland not to arrive at some fantastic destination or to take down a team of bad guys, but rather endeavor to implant a misunderstanding into the mind of poor unsuspecting Fischer. That Goal works as something to be achieved, yet the nature of that goal calls for greater understanding.

Structure and content untwined.

As explained in Achieving Story Goals that are Not Achievements:

Goals in an of themselves are not achievements, yet they don't need to be about achievements."

Moving into the sublime

Stepping away from the obvious goals of achievement, one searches out resolution in a higher level of understanding (as in Inception above), a revelation of hidden information (as in The Lives of Others), and a better way of reporting the truth (Almost Famous). These stories, energized by challenging and unfair activities, find peace in better doing, greater understanding, and a simple transmitting of information. Activity begets activity.

But problems do not exist solely in the vacuum of physical exertion. As revealed in Overcoming Difficult Situations, Uprooting the Fixed Mindset, and Rearranging the Broken Psychology universal inequities can posess qualities foreign to those wary of complex theoretical story structures. Problems of the mind beget goals of further consideration and new ways of processing thought. Problems of station and incarceration beg for freedom and new arrangement. The type of problem determines the type of Goal.

Moving beyond the simple explanation accounts for every complete meaningful story – whether play, novel or film.

Why bother?

The inability of an Author to articulate exactly what their character wants or needs can absolutely trace its source back to an ignorance of the concepts discussed in this series on the Story Goal. Familiarity with these concepts eases the path to better storytelling and opens up the dialogue to include those put off by more traditional understandings of story. Why over-complicate what a character wants or needs? Because the mind itself – the very tool with which appreciates the meaning and essence of a story – functions with the very same complexity. Goals? A single human processes trillions. A single story only has to do it once.

The former can't do it wrong, the latter can. Honor the process of problem-solving and the Goal that naturally evolves from such a function and an Author can rest easy knowing they did it right the first time.

Rewrites thus becomes less a process of discovery and more a process of clarification. Meaningful purpose driving productive output.

Kinda sounds like a Story Goal every Author should have.

This article originally appeared June 10, 2012 on Jim's "Story Fanatic" website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.


The Shawshank Analysis
July 2012

Why is it we can't turn away when this film pops up during one of those weekend marathons? We've all seen it before, we know what's going to happen, yet we still delight in re-experiencing the struggle of these character to overcome overwhelming odds. Why is that?

Is it something spiritual? Something deep within us, a yearning for universal absolution the film provides? Or could it be something more Earthbound? Perhaps, something more closely tied to our own biology? One can't deny the Christ-like symbology in Andy's final gesture of triumph, yet why then does the film work for all regardless of belief?

A framework of problem-solving

Universal attraction transcends any notion of spirituality. Removing religious attribution or the belief in the cultural trappings of mythology in story allows one to see the real process behind great stories. Spirituality need not be discounted in the final analysis, but should not be seen as a requirement for great success.

The Shawshank Redemption both film and short story from which it came presents an incredibly well-crafted argument, a solid example of problem-solving in motion. To understand why this film works so well requires a understanding of story more holistic in nature, an understanding that appreciates the various perspectives at conflict and brings them together into one seamless and purposeful model of human psychology.

The emerging field of narrative science lifts the veil of mystery shrouding this film and begins to improve the quality of discussion surrounding what makes great stories so great.

Projections of our projections

Those still saddled with the prerequisite of spiritual or mythological motive see stories as a method for understanding who we are and how the world works. Their templates of innermost caves and helpless cats make sense as a means to appreciate ourselves and our human experience. Clear away the aforementioned baggage, however, and reality shines through: Stories employ a structure based on how we see and make sense of our world, not the other way around. In other words, stories exist as projections of how we problem-solve.

When one asks why the strong attraction to The Shawshank Redemption, the answer lies in how accurately the story projects the mind's own problem-solving process. Beginning with a clear delineation of perspective and ending with a meaningful dissonance of both subjective and objective appreciations, the story of Red and Andy works because it follows a system familiar to all of us.

Four major points-of-view

Problem-solving requires a problem. In Shawshank, one word stands out above all others as the source of trouble: support. Whether implicitly applied by simply going with the flow ("Yessir, I do believe I have been rehabilitated") or explicitly through the cheering on of "fresh fish", an application of support creates conflict.

The Shawshank Redemption presents four unique perspectives on this problem of towing the line. The first lies within Red, the only guilty man in Shawshank. From his point-of-view we get to experience what it is like to personally have this problem. We follow him into the parole-board hearings, we're there with him as this kid with the silver spoon up his ass arrives, and we experience the shock of disbelief when we discover what's really been going on in Andy's cell. We experience the story through Red's eyes.

But it is within those parole-board hearings that we truly experience the problem of supporting a system. Red's problem lies in his institutionalized way-of-thinking: he supports the system, believes it has helped him, and hat-in-hand tells everyone what he thinks they want to hear.

Of course, they continue to deny him until he finally begins to stand up for himself. Once he finally tells them to shove their assessment once he finally opposes the system the shackles of his problematic way-of-thinking clang to the ground and he leaves Shawshank a free man.

A prison for all

Stepping outside of Red and rising high into the air like that helicopter shot on the day Andy first arrives provides us with the story's second perspective. From here we begin to see the problems of support from an objective point-of-view. Red gave us that personal subjective perspective, looking at everyone dispassionately grants us distance and greater understanding.

An inmate's promise to be a friend to an overweight new arrival ends up in a brutal beating. The drive to support the educational development of the inmates leads to participation in and continuation of corruption. An agreement to be there for the wife-killing lawyer in the re-opening of his case,gets a young inmate shot for trying to "escape." Contrast these various perspectives on the problem of support with those experienced through Red and one begins to gain a better appreciation of why stories draw us in.

Red stands up for himself because that was what was needed to overcome his personal problem. But how can we be sure of this solution without first seeing how it works within others? From an objective point-of-view we can see that the same solution applies. Andy's defiance with his broadcast of The Marriage of Figaro gifts freedom to the inmates of Shawshank; for a moment, they were all free. His final act of opposition to the Warden's efforts of indoctrination furthers the viability of such a solution by showing it bringing down the walls of scandal within that prison.

Note the importance of these two views: as an Audience member we get to experience what it is like to have support as a problem while at the same time we witness problems of support for everyone.

That doesn't happen in real life.

More on this later, but for now more investigation. These two perspectives while comprehensive in their exploration of the problem fall short of telling the whole story.

An opposition towards justification

In order for Red to grow to the point where he can stand up for himself he needs to encounter a different point-of-view. One similar in scope to his own (small, intimate), yet presented in a fashion similar to the objective view explained above.

Andy himself provides that needed third perspective. Interestingly enough, however, from this point-of-view a problem of support looks more like a problem of control. Whenever someone tries to clamp down on Andy's activities or when he attempts to control a situation it impacts Red. Even the way he carries himself, cold and aloof, hits Red in a way that leads the old-timer to question his own approach of towing the line.

This distinction, of how Andy's problem influences Red rather than how it effects Andy personally, defines the all-important third perspective of complete stories - the perspective of personal opposition.

Rounding it out with friendship

The most effective arguments stand on a firm ground of balanced perspective. Offer someone all the alternatives and your position will garnish greater acceptance by avoiding the trappings of a one-sided argument. The same concept applies to the different points-of-view within a story. Just as Red's intimate subjective perspective needed an intimate objective perspective to balance it out (Andy's point-of-view), the larger objective perspective of everyone colliding within the prison requires a smaller subjective perspective on the conflict of colliding viewpoints. In The Shawshank Redemption this point-of-view can be found in the friendship between Red and Andy.

From Red's point-of-view and the point-of-view of everyone trapped in the prison the problem of Shawshank appears to be an overabundance of support. From the point-of-view of Andy the problem looks like stifling control. However, from the point-of-view of the friendship between Red and Andy the problem looks like neither of these, preferring instead to appear as a failure to reconsider one's position.

"Hope is a dangerous thing," Red tells Andy, succinctly verbalizing the sticking point preventing these two from ever becoming friends. Andy sees the world differently, preferring the dream of Zihuatenejo over Red's cynical consideration. The heart of the story revolves around this inability of either to change their mind; the plight of their friendship resting on a simple decision:

"Get busy livin', or get busy dyin'."

The purpose of storytelling

These four distinct well-balanced perspectives exist for a reason. As mentioned before, the prison of our own minds prevents us from experiencing a subjective point-of-view at the same time we experience an objective point-of-view. We cannot simultaneously be inside of ourselves and out. Stories grant us this rare opportunity to see a problem resolved from all different points-of-view.

The Shawshank Redemption offers up the argument that standing up and speaking out brings triumph both universally and personally. The juxtaposition of this solution both from an objective view and a subjective view transcends a simple "message" into a concrete argument. Rounding it out with a look at the actions of a life steeped in control and the inability of two to come together without a second glance at preconceived notions solidifies the Author's position within the minds of the Audience.

As Stephen King writes in his fantastic memoir On Writing:

[Writing is] telepathy, of course...I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We're not even in the same year together, let alone the same room...except we are together. We're close. We're having a meeting of the minds.

An act of telepathy from writer to reader. An argument effectively crafted and transmitted to be received years later by an open and willing mind. This defines the purpose of story. To the extent a narrative mimics the psychological processes present within the minds of a reader or audience member determines a story's power and ultimate effectiveness.

By bringing together the various points-of-view one can consider when evaluating an argument against towing the line, The Shawshank Redemption succeeds in grasping our attention and commanding our acknowledgment of King's position. A purpose for fiction far outlasting mere entertainment or mythological trends...a purpose of simple communication...

A sharing. From one mind to another.

But wait, there's more!

For a comprehensive analysis and a continuation of the discussion above, be sure to check out the 2-hour (!) deep analysis class of The Shawshank Redemption on YouTube. Facilitated by the author of this blog, Jim Hull, the recorded class explores the model of psychology hinted at in the above article. Joined by story enthusiasts from around the world both online and off Jim uncovers the underlying meaning encoded within one of Stephen King's greatest stories.

This article originally appeared June 21, 2012 on Jim's "Story Fanatic" website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.


Distrust the Process
June 2012

You hear it all the time. "Trust the process." "Story is hard." And the ultimate cop-out, "No one in Hollywood knows what they're doing." Each one of these excuses relies upon the belief that somehow story is this magical mysterious thing that can only be acquired through months of sweat and heartache.

It isn't.

The heart of a story – the actual meat hiding underneath the pomp and circumstance of 1080p HD and 7.2 channels of surround sound – has edges. It has form. And it can be readily acquired and understood provided the Authors have access to the right tools.

In the end, it comes down to a matter of focus.

Letting Writers Write

Typically, a discussion of trusting the process leads to an even more esoteric discussion surrounding "flow" and the creative process. Writers receive words of encouragement enabling them to journey forth without purpose and without design. Anything goes.

As a writer and working professional artist for several years I can tell you that I love this mindset. Why wouldn't I? That I should somehow become a vessel for the mighty Universe to create through…what singular ego would turn down such a magnificent opportunity?

Precisely.

Id run rampant. Toss in several more egos, perhaps a whole writing "team", and this highly touted process descends into a tangled morass of competing ideas with no real meaningful connection. Sure, occasionally this approach results in a gem. But for the most part constant guessing, missed opportunities and endless rabbit holes become the cornerstones of "letting yourself go."

There has to be a better way.

The Problem With Collaboration

Suggesting a plot point or character moment because you once had the same experience in 4th grade rarely improves a work of fiction. Collaborating with others who also insist on injecting their rose-colored elementary school life into a work in progress only compounds the error. How?

Quite simply, the singular vision triumphs over the trust-the-process crowd because there is one mind writing one story. The trust-the-process collaborators group thinks consist of several different minds each trying to boost their egos by putting their particular idea into the story.

But what if the idea has no place in the story? Could one even tell if the idea was trash before mixing its way into the process?

A story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Unless the team agrees ahead of time to adopt the same mindset, the end result will always be a mish-mash of incompatible psychologies. In short, the story will be schizophrenic.

Or even shorter – the story will suck.

This is why the films based on a singular vision (one writer/director) often turn out to be the most solid. One human mind writing one story mind. The trust-the-process collaboration group-think model consists of several different minds vying to satisfy their own egos. They compete to gain traction with their own ideas, regardless if those ideas even have a place within the story.

But how could one tell if an idea had a place within a story before the story was complete? Isn't that why you have to "trust" that everything will work out?

Focusing on Meaning

Complete stories model the mind's problem-solving process in regards to one problem. While hundreds upon thousands of problems exist, a truly holistic story only stops to consider one.

This singular problem cannot be described in words nor can it be expressed with a simple sentence. If that were possible, it would negate the need for story. Instead, aspects of character, plot, theme and genre work together in concert to approximate the problem (really the inequity) at the heart of a story. These story points surround the inequity and define it in order to provide a unique perspective.

If part of the story focuses on understanding, then the other areas of the story need to focus on what has happened in the past, on what is remembered, and on figuring out a way to better apply any new understandings. Likewise if the story focuses on what will be, other parts need to focus on achieving, on what is desired, and on the changes needed to reach that desired future.

All of these concerns work together. And while they offer different points-of-view, they all cover the same thematic ground. To mix and match would prove disastrous.

I've Got an Idea!

Toy Story 2 focuses on developing an appreciation for toys. Everyone in the story finds themselves concerned with this issue. Their focus lies in developing that understanding. The rest of the film matches that initial concern, thus insuring a complete and fulfilling story. Woody's concerns himself with issues of what once was. Jesse shares a similar concern, yet focuses more on the memories of what was lost. And together the two try to figure out where they best fit in.

Four major throughlines, four major areas of concern, all focused in the same thematic area.

Now what if instead, Jesse concerned herself with her love for horseback riding, or her unrequited love for the Old West? Ludicrous idea, right? Yet this is exactly the sort of incompatible thematic material brainstormed in story meetings time and time again.

The writer who might have suggested it can probably relate to such an instance, perhaps they've always loved Westerns and cowboy culture and can't wait to infuse their personal take on the genre into this film. But would the audience appreciate this new perspective? For that matter, would the story mind itself be able to appreciate it?

No. And that is why it is paramount that these areas of concern be solidified early on in the development process.

Starting with the End in Mind

More often than not, a project falters because of this misplaced trust in the Universe. Meaningless character moments and stilted sequences wedge themselves into a piece that simply has no place for them.

Trusting the process places trust in the human mind to keep perspectives consistent. Anyone who knows anything about human psychology will tell you that our minds are context-shifting machines. Changing perspective allows us to survive, granting us the ability to judge the landscape of our lives and the people and places we interact with and help us better assess a more reliable and profitable approach.

Leaving the context of a story up to a human mind is foolhardy at best. Leaving it up to the responsibility of several human minds, each with their own unique ego requiring massaging and fulfillment? A catastrophe set to doom the crews following up to many hours of wasted overtime.

Of course a writer needs to be allowed their moments of creative exploration. Those chance moments of divine inspiration? That's why many set out to write in the first place.

But if the end result remains producing something truly meaningful and ultimately powerful to an Audience, nailing down the singular mind of a story becomes job one. Once found, then and only then can a writer (or writers) feel free to "let themselves go", trusting that process that so many enjoy.

Doing Away with Magical Thinking

Story is not magic. It's not hard. It is not some rare talisman that can only be grasped during dream walks late at night. If story concerns itself with solving problems, then it only follows that a better understanding of how the human mind solves problems will lead to a better and more meaningful storytelling.

Breaking the area of concern breaks the mind of a story. Broken minds reveal themselves in fits of insanity. If you want an answer as to why many films as of late simply don't have great stories, this is why. Deluding oneself into believing that benevolent artistic forces guide writers down the path of success only robs Audiences of something truly moving. It robs writers of the opportunity to say exactly what it is they want to say with their work.

Madness. Both in the process and the result. A mental health disorder for writer and work.

This article originally appeared March 8, 2012 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.


Unlocking the Structural Code of the Story Goal
May 2012

Stories that amble along needlessly often suffer from the lack of a clearly defined Goal. Without that drive towards resolution, a work of fiction can meander from one pointless scene to the next. Determining the source of difficulties guarantees clarity of purpose for any story.

In the article The True Champion of Chinatown, the Goal of the story was identified as Securing the Family History, with creepy tycoon Noah Cross (John Huston) at the helm. This rather wild notion runs counter to more popular understandings of the film. Many see Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) front and center, pursuing the Goal of revealing the Cross' family secret. This seems to be the most obvious understanding of the goal, yet as that article established, seeing Jake's goal as the goal of concern to everyone fails to take into account the differential between the objective and subjective views of the story. Still, it does seem unusual to think of the Goal of that L.A. story in terms of Cross.

For that matter, how come in this analysis of How to Train Your Dragon the Goal was identified as Training the Next Generation of Dragon Killers? Shouldn't it be to kill the big bad monster dragon? And if the Goal of The Matrix is to take down the Matrix itself, why isn't the Goal of Star Wars to blow up the Death Star? Aren't they the same story?

The answer to all of these questions lies within a better appreciation of the true genesis of a story.

In the Beginning there was balance

Here is how it works: Before story, balance exists. The world rests at peace. Something or someone interjects itself upon this serene scene, instantly creating an inequity. Sensing this new imbalance, our minds label the differential a problem and naturally begin the process of resolving that problem.

Problems don't exist in a vacuum. In fact, problems can't be problems without solutions. Achieving the solution to the story's inequity then becomes the Goal of the story.

Note that this Goal does not come attached to any one character. No one owns the Goal of a story, rather it attracts and repels everyone within. Some will be for it while others would rather the inequity persist. Some may even be responsible for starting the problem in the first place. Regardless, look not to individual wants and needs for the Goal of a story. Seek the initial inequity and work from there.

My kingdom for a solution!

In Chinatown, problems begin when Hollis refuses to build the new dam, thus screwing up Noah's plans for familial and urban reunification. Resolving that issue – an issue that affects everyone in the story – becomes job one for the man in the white hat.

Likewise in The Matrix, Morpheus places his faith in Mr. Andersen, screwing up the nice little gig Agent Smith and his band of human harvesters had going on. Balance becomes imbalance and resolution takes center stage. The Goal that grows out of this desire for resolution – Dismantle the Matrix – did not stem from someone's own personal wants or needs, but rather from the chasm of inequity created by that initial choice of simple Mr. Andersen.

In Star Wars, the imposing Empire overextends itself by boarding a diplomatic ship. In the past these overlords were simply annoying, now it seems they've crossed the line. Would blowing up the Death Star really resolve this inequity? Not really. The destruction of the Death Star only appears to be the Goal of the story because of the nature of Goals themselves.

When achieving the Goal is the Goal

Ask an Author the Goal of their story and they'll naturally reply So and so needs to win the heart of his loved one or The bandits need to find the lost treasure or The copy girl needs to secure more clients. Goals of achievement are easiest to identify (and thus easiest to write) because Goals themselves are achievements. A problem enters the character's lives and many of them set out to acquire the appropriate solution. That said, their motion towards this ending does not constitute what kind of resolution is needed. Do not confuse the particular type of a Goal with the concept of a Story Goal. The first defines the static nature of a structural point, the other defines the process undergone in getting there.

Goals of acquirement

So when it comes to a film like The Matrix, Dismantling the Matrix works as a natural Goal to resolve Morpheus' faith in Neo. Not only is the Goal something to be achieved but it's also about achieving. Think of this kind of goal as acquiring something or winning something or destroying something. The act of obtaining (or freeing) resolves the story's imbalance.

Braveheart, Unforgiven, Casablanca – all of these films share a similar kind of Goal. In Braveheart troubles begin when the King of England murders the sons and fathers of Scotland. Winning Freedom for Scotland returns balance to those involved. Same with Casablanca. Ugarte hands the Letters of Transit over to Rick and suddenly there is trouble for the great and noble Viktor Laszlo. Acquiring those Letters of Transit becomes the Goal of the Story, one that everyone shares concern with and one that naturally resolves the story's difficulties.

Unforgiven? Two cowpokes scar an innocent woman sparking a reward for revenge. Killing Anyone and Everyone Involved secures resolution for the inhabitants of Big Whiskey. Now, it does little to resolve the demons locked away in William Munny's head (in fact it has quite the opposite effect), but remember that the Goal of the Story is story-wide, it is not tied to the personal issues of any one character. It is objective and universal.

When Goals move beyond winning or losing

But what about Star Wars? Surely this simple sci-fi flick explores nothing more than good guys beating the bad guys. But that's just it – in the battle between Rebellion and Empire just being able to fight back works better than a particular instance of achievement. The doing becomes more important than the obtaining.

In future articles in this series on Story Goals we'll take a look at more sophisticated resolutions similar to the one found in a galaxy far far away. Looking towards the initial inequity, we'll determine the necessary solution and determine what kind of Goal would satisfy that drive to return things to a state of balance.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

If you're familiar with the Dramatica Theory of Story this bonus section should present some interest to you. If not, what are you waiting for?! Learn more at Dramatica.com.

Dramatica refers to the Goal of a story as the Overall Story Goal. This is seen as separate (yet tied thematically) to the Main Character's Concern or the Influence Character's Concern, both which may be seen as goals in and of themselves. The Overall Story Goal resides wholly within the objective view of a story provided by the Overall Story Throughline.

The Overall Story Goal begins with the initial Story Driver or what many have previously referred to as the Inciting Incident. Achieving resolution – completing this Goal – requires the introduction of the Overall Story Solution, a thematic pair with the Overall Story Problem.

This article originally appeared April 29th, 2012 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.


Story Goals and Why They Exist
March 2012

A storytelling cliché pops up from time to time, an easy get that reeks of desperation from low screening numbers: Characters who actually state their goals out loud. Why must we suffer through this ridiculous conceit?

It's not like this happens in normal day-to-day conversation. We don't travel to work and state Today I'm going to finish that report! If we do, we should be locked up. And so should the characters of stories who react in kind.

Great stories work a goal without the fear of an audience not getting it because they didn't hear it. Great stories work that understanding through sound story structure.

Great stories, like Back to the Future.

The Structure of Time Travel

But wait a second…Doc distinctly tells Marty, "We've got to send you back to the future!" Doesn't that qualify as another vapid response to unclear structure?

The completion of a goal finishes a story. Marty successfully returns to 1985, yet unfinished business still lurks in the wings. The Libyans continue to roam the Twin Pines mall. Getting back to the future, it turns out, solves nothing.

Time Shifts and Story Structure

Many stories play around with the temporal shifting of events. Could it be that the shifts in time simply don't factor into the structure of the story?

Paraphrasing Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley (from the [March 2005 Dramatica Tip of the Month]): if the characters in a story are aware of the time shifts (as in Somewhere In Time or Back to the Future) then that awareness becomes a part of the structure. If they're not (as with Memento or Pulp Fiction), then the time shifts are simply a storytelling device, and have little to do with the actual structure of the piece.

In this case, time shifts matter.

Tying Causation to a Story's Goal

When appreciating the Goal of a story, accurate analysts nail down the individual events that turn a story from one dramatic tide to the next. The initial cause shines as the most important of all these. When identified with absolute certitude, the event that is needed to resolve a story's issues reveals itself. Widely known as the Inciting Incident, this first marker drives a story into existence.

Separating Inciting Incident from Main Character

Many people erroneously see the First Act Turn as the Inciting Incident. Whenever someone states that a story didn't start for the first twenty or thirty minutes, they more often than not completely missed how the story actually began. That 20-30 minute marker almost always becomes responsible for turning the First Structural Act into the Second. It is rarely the Inciting Incident.

These errors in judgment owe their life to the preconception that the central character, or Main Character, is also the Protagonist. The Protagonist of a story – the one responsible for pursuing the successful resolution of the story's inequity – latches on to the Act Turns as a powerful symbiotic, part and parcel of the same structural tides.

The Main Character, on the other hand, represents a point-of-view – a personal look into the issues at hand. Main Character and Protagonist are not always one and the same. They can be, but not always. But because many assume they are and because the Main Character often doesn't shift into gear (pardon the pun here) until that First Act Turn, many see that moment as the story's Inciting Incident.

Thus, while Marty certainly has a hand in this Act Turn that does not mean it actually starts the story. That jump through time certainly starts the "fun and games" moment of the movie, but it doesn't start the story. Instead another event claims that title, an event that - if it had never happened - would have precluded the need for Marty to ever push the DeLorean to ninety.

The Driving Events of Time Travel

The Inciting Incident of Back to the Future happens when Doc screws over the Libyans. Substituting pinball machine parts for plutonium effectively starts the inequity of the story and guarantees the subsequent act turns. Without that event, time would have simply marched on as it always has.

Continuing the analysis of key structural moments, The First Act Turn would therefore be the moment Marty pushes the DeLorean to 90 mph. The Midpoint – or next major driving point – can be found when Marty bests Biff in the town center, thus cementing his mom's affection for him. The Second Act turn, or subsequent major driving point, occurs when George finally stands up to Biff and knocks him out cold. Each of these turns the story to a place where it cannot return. Each of these develops the initial inequity put into place by Doc's scam.

Bringing an End to the Madness

So returning to that famous line, getting Marty "back to the future" must be the Concluding Event, correct? Not quite. The problem with that line of thinking lies within the fact that the story still needs to work through some unresolved business. Returning back to 1985 didn't really solve anything. It is a step in the right direction, but it is not truly what is at stake within the story. Instead, the Concluding Event finds itself tied to the Inciting Event.

Doc cheats once again.

By taping the pieces of Marty's letter back together, Doc successfully brings an end to the problems caused by his initial egotistical blunder. Marty and Doc win. The problems of the story come to a resolution.

A Goal for All

Essentially then, the goal of Back to the Future was to beat the space-time continuum. They didn't simply restore it, they kicked its ass. That was, after all, what Doc hoped to accomplish when he first dreamt up the wormhole-chomping Delorean monster machine. He cheated the Libyans because he wanted to beat the timeline he felt trapped in. Marty jumped back to the 50s because he was cheating death. Same too with his attempt to head back to 1985 ten minutes earlier. Time's a bitch as they say, and both Doc and Marty worked their mojo to overcome it. Doc's final cheat was simply the final nail in the coffin.

They beat time.

Constructing a Solid Story

The key to having a story work out properly, for it to "make sense" to an audience, lies firmly within the application of the mind's problem-solving process to the events of a narrative. Understanding how the Inciting Incident creates the inequity that the story-mind must resolve makes an Author's efforts towards communication a purposeful endeavor. Having a character verbalize his or her goal panders to an audience and simply does not guarantee comprehension.

Goals exist as a tool for Author's to construct meaningful stories. They are not a panacea for bad storytelling.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

If you're familiar with the Dramatica Theory of Story this bonus section should present some interest to you. If not, what are you waiting for?! Learn more at Dramatica.com

The concern with how things will be, over whether or not there will be a future, seems to lie more heavily within Marty himself. Doc has a thing or two to say about this, but when you factor in all the other characters – the mayor, the Libyans, the guy on the park-bench, the hormonal mom and the dweeb dad – the future simply doesn't fit.

Marty's Main Character Concern is the Future. Marty is a McFly, always has been, always will be. Escaping that prison of inheritance becomes everything to him. Returning home to find his future set translates into a Story Judgment of Good.

Thus, the best storyform for this film would be: Steadfast, Stop, Do-er, Linear, Action, Optionlock, Success, Good, Physics, Obtaining, Self-Interest, Avoidance


Conflict of a Different Nature
February 2012

In story, the forces of conflict arrange themselves in unique and natural patterns. When balanced properly, a story can deliver substance and meaning on a scale unheard of in lesser delivery mechanisms.

Beyond granting Authors insight as to why their stories might be experiencing difficulties, this understanding also allows writers to infuse their work with an originality and purpose difficult to attain through mere muscle. Recognizing the most common patterns of conflict and sampling those not-so common patterns broadens the knowledgebase of those who work in narrative fiction while freeing their imagination to consider new possibilities.

The Same Old Story

Many story gurus/theorists claim a methodical approach to story structure as the best means towards creating a story of substance. Whether it be through a template of beats or a heroic journey from one world to the next, this advice aids the writer, yet never truly informs them as to why they should be adhering these ideas. Lacking a concrete explanation as to the meaning of these story points, the writer can do little more than follow along and hope for the best. More often than not, this approach leads to the same story, told in the same way, with little to no substance.

Contrast this sad result with the varied opportunities left open to writers who understand Dramatica's concept of the Four Throughlines. As we have seen throughout this series, the order or beats that a story goes through pale in comparison to the power of focusing a story's conflict on purposeful explorations of unique and connected throughlines. What is being explored becomes far more important than hitting those beats.

With this approach, the same 'ol same 'ol can be avoided, allowing the writer's muse to create with intent.

Stories of Internal Struggle

Complete stories cover external and internal conflicts simultaneously. Certain parts of astory will focus on the efforts in the physical world, while others will emphasize the struggle within. Hollywood tends to favor the external struggle found in situations and activities. Why? Visual medium, visual instances of conflict. Rarely do they venture inwards -- such an act generally calls for a more ponderous medium.

In a previous article on exotic story structures, discussion centered around Main Characters with deficient ways of thinking. Both Red in The Shawshank Redemption and Hamlet in his self-titled play stood up as suitable candidates for this particular type of conflict. Yet in the big picture, these two stories explore very different areas of conflict.

Shawshank tells the story of men consumed by intolerable conditions. Hamlet, on the other hand, tells the story of men (and a woman or two) consumed by their obsessions and the obsessions of others. Hamlet's sustained grief for his father and Claudius' call for "discretion" exemplify the kind of overall story-wide conflict that comes from Problematic Fixed Attitudes. Conflict exists because of what everyone thinks, not because of their particular situation. Combined with Hamlet's personal struggle over the way he thinks, this universal look at conflicting attitudes creates a story with a personality quite unlike any other.

Why aren't there more movies that take advantage of this unique setup?

Communicating deficient psychologies and conflicting mindsets becomes somewhat of a challenge within the sparse confines of a screenplay. Stories that share this particular story "personality" -- Amadeus and The Great Gatsby to name a few -- stand out in mediums where the struggle over the internal can more readily play out. Novels and plays embrace the internal with a confidence Hollywood cannot. Still, the convenience of that reality does not forclude the possibility of success. Amadeus did pretty well and continues to sit atop many of the "greatest films of all time" charts. For the adventurous and determined screenwriter the challenge of visualizing the internal lies in wait.

The Perception of Conflict

With this final piece of the puzzle in place, this series on Conflict comes to a conclusion. A comprehensive understanding of conflict and the throughlines that explore them met. Whether internal or external, state or process, every kind of inequity in the known Universe has its place within the world of story.

But that's just it...

...known Universe.

These areas of conflict are not real. They're not tangible. They don't really exist as much as they represent our own perceptions of what we observe and sense. As Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of Dramatica, is always fond of quoting, "The energy that flows through a system tends to organize that system" (Buckminister Fuller) -- meaning these areas of conflict are built by our own minds. Our personal operating systems call for conflict to fall down these lines. Thus, because we create these stories, it is only natural that they reflect our own internal thought processes.

Stories are models of our own minds at work. The foundation for Dramatica sits upon this idea and informs its every concept. It's the reason why every story written with the theory or every story that fits easily into its framework feels complete and comprehensive. As audience members, we know how we think. Stories that honor that knowledge find a special place in our hearts and in our minds.

Of course, if our minds evolve then this structural chart will have to transform accordingly. But for now, its accuracy remains unparalleled.

The structural chart -- these four Areas of Conflict and the Throughlines that attach to them -- are not a "system" for creating Hollywood blockbusters. They are not templates or elaborate plotting machines. They are reflections of ourselves. It just so happens that those stories that reflect us the best often become the ones we honor the most -- with ticket sales and gold statues.

This article originally appeared December 31, 2011 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. It is first in a series on Conflict. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.


A Conflict Unlike Any Other
January 2012

Every engine needs a fuel source. Without a constant supply, the mechanism sputters and fails, eventually coming to a rest dormant and forgotten on a dried plain. How does one keep the bristling and shiny furnace of story steaming down those tracks?

Through conflict.

Stories live and breathe conflict. Even the most rudimentary explanations of stories understand this. Consider this common insight that defines essential ingredient as

the problem faced by the characters. Conflict happens when characters are against each other, like teams in a game or two groups fighting on the playground.

But when it comes to crafting a story's unique personality that sits apart from all the others, that really delves deep into the inner psychological needs that audiences crave, an Author needs to understand in detail that forces that craft that conflict.

A Definition Apart

One of the greatest aspects of the Dramatica theory of story rests in the precision with which it attempts to quantify the molecular level of story structure. This accuracy develops a level of trust unheard of in other competing paradigms or schools of thought. In a recent QnA with Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley, the very common concept of conflict gets a thorough evaluation:

"Conflict is the product of effort to resolve an inequity as it meets resistance. We look for conflict as we attempt to identify an inequity's source(s). If we neglect to look in all the possible places conflict can exist, we open ourselves (and the story) to missing the entirety of the conflict and a true understanding of the inequity, leaving the real likelihood of failing to resolve the inequity thoroughly. So, all four perspectives and all four domains must be explored in order to understand the nature of an inequity and the nature and source(s) of conflict generated by trying to resolve the inequity."

Four Ways of Looking at Conflict

The four perspectives Huntley speaks of were well known prior to Dramatica. First person, third person, first person plural and third person plural. I, You, We and They. As explained in more detail within the article Writing Complete Stories, these four contexts have found their way into stories via the Main Character (I), the Influence Character (You), the Relationship Story (We), and the Overall Story (They) Throughlines.

Hearing this for the first time, one might think Well, that seems right, but I'm not sure… Rest assured, there is a reason why these four throughlines appear in complete stories.

Ever heard the idea that "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." This enlightened understanding of the world around us can provide much needed appreciation of why some stories simply feel more whole than others. How else can one truly be sure they are crafting a balanced story if they leave out one side of the argument? Authors need to inspect an issue from every direction, thus, the four Throughlines.

And yet, while these four perspectives may be relatively familiar to most, it is what they are looking at that is unique to Dramatica's understanding of story.

Four Areas That Define Problems

A Situation, a Fixed Attitude, an Activity, and a Thought Process. Think of a problem and it MUST fall into one of these categories. Racism? That's a fixed attitude. Unjustly accused of killing your wife? That's a situation. Wiping out an alien race? Definitely an activity. Brow-beating your wife. That's a thought process you might want to reconsider. Regardless of what problem an Author invents, it will fall into one of these four areas.

When an inequity hits the world of story, the forces that conspire to resolve it have no idea where the conflict is coming from. It could be an activity, it could be a fixed attitude…the structure of a story simply can't determine where the inequity resides – at least, not without some level of inaccuracy. This reality gives us a clue as to why Dramatica calls for all four areas of conflict to be present in a complete story. This is why Huntley states:

"If we neglect to look in all the possible places conflict can exist, we open ourselves (and the story) to missing the entirety of the conflict and a true understanding of the inequity"

Cover all four areas where problems can exist and like the advice to include all four perspectives, An Author can insure that their story ends up well-balanced and completely argued.

There won't be any story "holes".

The Chart of a Story's Personality

At the top level of Dramatica's Model of Story sit the four Domains, or areas of conflict.

The way one can begin to fully understand why a story feels the way it does (and why some feel more similar than others) is by applying the four Perspectives – or story Throughlines – to these four Domains. Any combination is acceptable save for one rule: the Main Character and Influence Character Domains must be diagonally opposed to each other. Why?

Cliches with Purpose

The Influence Character's primary purpose for being in a story is to compel the Main Character to deal with their personal issues. They very best way to do this is to give the Influence Character enough of the same kinds of issues do that the Main Character begins to sense that this new character represents an external reflection of themselves. This is where the common cliche of "You and I are both alike" comes from.

If the Main Character's problems can be found in a Situation and the Influence Character creates problems because of their Fixed Attitude, well then you have enough of a similarity between the two that growth can occur. A Situation describes something external that is stuck. A Fixed Attitude describes something internal that is stuck. Both are static, thus "You and I are both alike." The line of dialogue that usually follows, "We are nothing alike" occurs because, while they both describe something fixed, in the end one is external and one is internal. They are not completely alike.

This occurs in the animated film How to Train Your Dragon. Hiccup, the Main Character, finds personal trouble in his physicality, or Situation. He is a 98lb. weakling in a tribe of manly Vikings. "You just pointed to all of me," refers to those issues. Because this is a father/son movie, Hiccup's father Stoick assumes the role of Influence Character. Following the above rule from Dramatica, the Influence Character must be in a diagonally opposed relationship to the Main Character on the structural chart. This places Stoick in Fixed Attitude and helps define the kind of impact he'll have on Hiccup.

Stoick. Stoic. Even his name confirms the placement!

Interestingly enough, later on in the film Hiccup has the "He and I are both alike" moment, but uses it to describe his relationship with Toothless, not his father. While it helps explain Hiccup's motivation for freeing the beast, its use outside of the norm tends to imply that there should be even more exploration of their relationship beyond simply dragging sticks in the sand. It implies that there is still growth to be had in the relationship between them, when at that time their relationships was already rock solid.

Genre as a Tool

Dramatica considers this personality level of story structure – the Domain level – to be the most accurate and beneficial way to quantify Genre. Netflix, Apple TV, Blake Snyder and John Truby refer to Genre in terms like Thrillers, Romantic Comedies and War Dramas. But beyond a handy shopping list of storytelling patterns, how truly helpful are these concepts in determining the scope of what it is an Author is trying to say? How helpful are they in balancing the story's points of view? At best they identify the patterns. They never quite answer the question why?

Everyone agrees that a story must have conflict. And while everyone also recognizes the necessity of seeing all sides of an argument, only one theory of story requires it for meaning. Dramatica moves beyond this reality by helping an Author establish solid concrete arguments. With Dramatica, Genre becomes a tool for establishing personality, rather than a simple cataloging device.

This article originally appeared December 5, 2011 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. It is first in a series on Conflict. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.


For more articles by James Hull, click here.


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