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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...

For past articles for Screenplay.com by James Hull, click here.

On Becoming a Therapist to Your Characters
March 2020

The Dramatica theory of story sets itself apart from all other understandings of narrative structure with its objective appreciation of conflict. Most alternative paradigms encourage the Author to go inside of her characters. Dramatica wants you to take a step back—after all, it’s the only way one can truly gain a greater perspective.

This distancing effect plays two essential parts in the development of the Author. One, it frustrates her, turns her off entirely to Dramatica, and leaves her searching aimlessly around for what happens next in her story. Two, it opens her up a greater appreciation of the source of conflict between characters.

We can’t see our problems from within. If we could, they wouldn’t be problems—we would solve them. That’s why we often turn to a friend, or a professional, to help us understand a solution.

What’s interesting about that is that you almost have to take an especially un-perspective to map out the RS [Relationship Story Throughline]. When we think in terms of “feelings” (which is a natural thing to do given this is the relationship story we’re talking about), you can’t help but place yourself inside the characters. But with the RS, you have to become the therapist dispassionately telling the couple what’s wrong with their relationship without ever making it about one person.

While positioned and often defined as “the heart of a story,” the Relationship Story Throughline perspective is most definitely a dispassionate, objective-view, of this heart. A Storyheart to complement the Storymind.

A Dramatica storyform is a meta-objective view of conflict—an understanding of inequity as defined by the Author’s intention.

Framing the Conflict

In Dramatica, the Four Throughlines of a complete story correspond with the four perspectives afforded by our minds:

  • The Overall Story is the objective view
  • The Main Character is the subjective view
  • The Influence Character is the objective view of the subjective
  • The Relationship Story is the subjective view of the objective

Many writers confuse “the subjective view of the objective” with an emotional first-person view of the conflict. Instead, this view is a subjective appraisal of objective interpersonal relationships.

From this perspective, dynamics and emergent properties take precedence—always from the Author. From here, the Author describes the Storymind’s consciousness—not the individual thoughts and feelings of the characters. It’s subjective because this view is understood from within the system and is therefore prone to misinterpretation.

Understanding the Emergent Properties of the Mind

An emergent property is the outcome of a system not directly associated with the parts of that system. Insects, the mind, and yes—relationships—all exhibit these properties of collaboration and resistance.

A single ant is a rather limited organism, with little ability to reason or accomplish complex tasks. As a whole, however, an ant colony accomplishes astounding tasks, from building hills and dams to finding and moving huge amounts of food. In this context, emergent properties are the changes that occur in ant behavior when individual ants work together.

The crucial relationship in your novel is like a group of ants. Write about the colony, not the ants.1

Dramatica theory is a model of the mind at work. The meaning wrapped up in a storyform (the Premise) functions as an emergent property of this single mind.

Human consciousness is often called an emergent property of the human brain. Like the ants that make up a colony, no single neuron holds complex information like self-awareness, hope or pride. Nonetheless, the sum of all neurons in the nervous system generate complex human emotions like fear and joy, none of which can be attributed to a single neuron.

It sounds like a Dramatica storyform to me. In the same way that the Main Character Throughline is meaningless without the Overall Story Throughline, the Relationship Story Throughline is pointless if merely a “he said/she said” argument between two individuals. When writing the Relationship Story Throughline, write it as an emergent property of a connection.

You’ll be one step ahead of the scientists.

Although the human brain is not yet understood enough to identify the mechanism by which emergence functions, most neurobiologists agree that complex interconnections among the parts give rise to qualities that belong only to the whole.

Our minds often overlook emergence for something more tangible as this recognition of a shared quality relies heavily on perception. Much easier to weigh in with the actuality of objective reality. The properties of a relationship require something much more ephemeral and subjective. Meaning arises from the conflux of objectivity and subjectivity, explaining the need for both in a story.

I think this’ll be my approach from now on with the RS: pretend I’m a therapist doing a counselling session with the two characters and explaining to them why the relationship is in conflict.

Precisely. Stories often provide an avenue for a writer to work out his or her issues in a fictional or fantastic situation. The writing process then becomes a form of personal therapy. The Relationship Story Throughline allows the writer to be one’s therapist, and gain that greater understanding of the interpersonal dynamics at work in our lives.

This article, On Becoming a Therapist for Your Characters, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found inside Narrative First.

  1. And if you want to read a fantastic story about a group of ants, check out Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time. ↩︎

    The Second Most Important Character in a Film
    January 2020

    Everyone agrees that the Main Character is the most important character in a film. Why? Because through this person, an audience experiences first-hand the emotions and consequences of the narrative surrounding them.

    But there is another, less understood character that is primarily responsible for influencing growth in the Main Character. This character is known as the Influence Character.

    While working on my own story, I came across an explanation in the Dramatica theory of story that I hadn’t remembered:

    When the Influence Character is steadfast, then he will make his arguments to the Main Character in reference to his own drive. He will treat his own drive as if the same things should be driving all others as well.

    This part I knew and understood but it was what came after it that made me stop and think, “Why hadn’t I seen that before?” I’ve been working on and off with Dramatica for over 10 years now and probably have read the following line a million times. But for some reason it never really resonated with me until last week.

    This often pops up in conventional arguments where the Influence Character says to the Main Character, “you know, we are just like, you and I,” (if the IC is steadfast) or “we are nothing alike,” (if the IC changes)."

    Is that true? Is it really that black and white? “We’re alike” if the Main Character changes and “We’re nothing alike” if the Influence Character changes. Is it really that easy?

    Overall, I understand that this is a generality and therefore shouldn’t be taken as a strict rule of dramatic narrative, but it started me thinking. How did this generality hold up under further scrutiny? And more importantly, could it help me with my own work?

    I took six Influence Characters, three who Change and three who Remain Steadfast, and applied the above axiom.

    Change Influence Characters

    Score one for Marshall Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive. Chasing Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) in and around Chicago I could hear Tommy Lee Jones uttering “We are nothing alike Richard.” Gerard is not the type to suggest that he and a fugitive wanted for murdering his wife are anything alike. It would be quite strange to hear him say so.

    Robert the Bruce (Angus MacFayden) from Braveheart?…hmmm. “We are nothing alike, William Wallace (Mel Gibson).” Perhaps deep down inside his shameful self might feel that, but I don’t recall him ever saying it aloud. Instead the voice of disparity comes from Robert’s father, the Leper. Robert wishes to join Wallace but his father reminds him that Robert is a noblemen, not some commoner like Wallace. “Uncompromising men are easy to admire…But it is exactly the ability to compromise that makes a man noble.” As his father puts it, Robert and Wallace are nothing alike.

    Looking at October Sky Coal-mining father John Hickam (Chris Cooper) certainly doesn’t feel like he and his son Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal) have anything in common. John considers himself more of a practical man while Homer has head (and his rockets) in the clouds. Again I believe he even has a conversation with his wife about how he and his son are nothing alike.

    Steadfast Impact Characters

    And now we move on to Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) from American Beauty and his own “personal hero,” Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). When Ricky’s boss threatens to fire him for not working, Ricky tells him, “Fine, don’t pay me. I quit. Now leave me alone.” Words Lester wishes he could say to his own boss. Ricky doesn’t come out and say “You and I are alike,” but he might as well have.

    What about the obviously named Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) and his relationship with the troubled child psychologist Malcom Crowe (Bruce Willis) in The Sixth Sense? In the classic hospital scene, Cole asks “Tell me why you’re sad.” At first Malcom refuses, but soon realizes that Cole is just as sad as he is; perhaps opening up could help the young boy out. Again, the words aren’t said but the intention is there.

    And what about Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) from The Shawshank Redemption? Before he tells Red (Morgan Freeman) about Zihuatanejo he talks about the whirlwind tornado that fate dealt him. “I just didn’t expect the storm would last as long as it has.” We cut to Red, his head hung low. And although we can’t read the expression on his face, we know for certain that Red feels the same. Personally I like it much better when you can do the “You and I are alike” line without actually having to say it - part of the reason why I chose these examples.


    So does the rule work?

    It seems like it does. I mean, you can’t imagine Ricky telling Lester “We’re nothing alike” or John Hickam telling his dreamer son “You and I have so much in common. Let’s sit down and talk about our dreams.” Still, it’s probably not a good idea to rely on it all the time, but I do think there’s a real world reason for why the rule works so well.

    The character who has the most to lose (or gain depending on how you look at the Change) is more often than not the one who will resist any notion of similarity between the other.

    When someone tells you, “You know, you’re acting just like so-and-so” and you react with disgust or disbelief, chances are that so-and-so is your own personal Influence Character. We hate seeing a part of us that we don’t quite understand or even want to accept.

    This resistance is a resistance to Change and depending on which side of the argument you stand, you’re either going to be a proponent for it or you’re going to speak out against it. That’s one of the main reasons why the Influence Character exists: to provide that other side of the argument. So it’s comforting to know that with a few simple words (“We’re both alike” or “We’re nothing alike”) you can easily tell which side of the argument this second most important character stands on.

    This article, The Second Most Important Character in a Film, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found Inside Narrative First.

    Understanding How Character Arc Works
    December 2019

    Writers first stumble upon this concept of the character arc in high school. Whether in a creative writing class or a snarky YouTube video, the aspiring Author assumes that for a story to “work,” she must showcase the central character changing. Great transformation becomes the focus of her writing endeavors, and anything less—regardless of how it resonates with her intuition—falls by the wayside.

    Great writing falls victim once again to insufficient and remedial understandings of a narrative.

    When it comes to matters of Resolve and the principal characters of a story, many writers see evidence of change in everyone. And to many, this intuitively feels correct. Stories are about people learning from one another, and so it only makes sense that the central characters of a piece should somehow both change. These misguided writers wonder if perhaps there is some greater meaning to be found when two characters meet each other halfway.

    There isn’t.

    One, these characters aren’t both changing their Resolve.

    And Two, characters aren’t people.

    They’re perspectives.

    Resolve and Meaning

    The Dramatica theory of story establishes a functional narrative as a model of the human mind at work. Problems and the justifications that led to them unravel through the process of Scenes, Sequences, and Acts. Key to manufacturing this model are two opposing views that cannot be held at the same time and from the same perspective.

    In short, an inequity.

    The meaning of a narrative—what it hopes to communicate—is the appropriateness of one point-of-view over the other. This is the foundation for the premise of a story.

    And this is why the Main Character Resolve exists as an essential Storypoint—and why at the end of a story one perspective Remains Steadfast, and the other is Changed.

    If both changes, like many assume and believe, is possible, there is no Narrative Argument. No premise. No purpose.

    The Audience checks out.

    Perspectives, not People

    Many writers confuse their characters for real people.

    They’re not.

    The characters that populate a story are Players—vessels that maintain a particular perspective.

    Once we start adopting this more objective view of narrative, the light afforded us by Dramatica, the easier it is for us to construct meaningful narratives.

    The easier it is for us to make sure our stories aren’t broken.

    Stories as Models of Psychology

    This question of Resolve and perspective appears when one sees a Steadfast character overcome their fears, seemingly “changing” in the process.

    Boo, the young girl in Pixar’s Monsters, Inc., is an excellent example of this in action. She eventually grows to a point where she defeats her personal monster and demon, Randall (Steve Buscemi), seemingly transforming in the process.

    Boo and her monster, Randall
    Boo and her monster, Randall

    While it may seem to us that she changes and grows as a person, the central narrative storyform for Monsters, Inc. does not feature her emotional change as an integral part of its meaning.

    It’s not a part of the premise, and therefore, not an actual change.

    The storyform is a model of human psychology at work. And from that point of view Boo is a perspective, not a person. Overcoming her fears was not the substance, or meaning, of the narrative. Instead, Boo growing beyond her fears is integral to the storyform because of the Steadfastness of her point-of-view.

    Remember that Boo’s role in this narrative is to challenge the monster world’s preconception of the terrifying nature of a human. Humans are an unknown, and it’s Boo’s steadfastness in staying an unknown and staying surprising to a monster that eventually breaks Sully (John Goodman) out of his own prejudices. Boo dislodges his justifications because she doesn’t fall into those tried and true preconceptions of what it means to be a human.

    Sully and his monster, Boo
    Sully and his monster, Boo

    When seen as perspectives from a consistent point of view, not characters, one sees Boo’s “change” as an example of Steadfast Resolve. Not steadfast in terms of her as a person or as a character, but as a perspective that influences and challenges another to Change.

    For her perspective to change, she would have to exemplify and show Sully that the monsters were right in believing humans dangerous. She would need to adapt to his worldview.

    And that would be an entirely different story.

    On Substories and Evidence

    If growing beyond her fears and changing perspective was essential to the Author, then there would be more scenes supporting a second narrative. Boo’s fear of monsters like Randall would need an alternate challenging perspective to motivate her to move beyond her preconceptions. Stories can contain multiple narratives—it’s merely a matter of intent and purpose.

    Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough information in Monsters, Inc. to warrant further investigation into a secondary narrative. Even sub-stories, narratives with incomplete or insufficient data, find more significant evidence than what is seen in this film. Think of Han Solo’s sub-story in the original Star Wars or Nemo’s aquarium episode in Finding Nemo. These sub-stories drew their characters out of justifications by echoing the structure of a functional narrative.

    Boo’s personal issue with her fear of monsters did not, and therefore slips under the wake formulated by the central narrative of Monsters, Inc. Sully grows by Changing his Resolve, Boo grows by Remaining Steadfast in her Resolve. The completeness of this dichotomy and its correlation with the premise is what we take away from the film.

    It’s not our fear of monsters that needs to change, it’s our belief that we are not the monsters that needs to change.

    This article, Understanding How Character Arc Works, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found Inside Narrative First.

    The Debilitating Scourge of the Trope
    November 2019

    How to cure oneself from a tragic virus of the mind

    Nothing is more caustic to the conversation of narrative structure than the trope. A breeding ground for meaningless instances of pattern recognition, the trope is the nihilist’s playground. The absurdity of life played out in plot devices and genre conventions.

    Recall the last article in this series, Writing a Meaningful End to Conflict, and the conversation surrounding Bond’s physicality in Skyfall.

    Ah, so yes, I did remember those scenes, but I chalked these up entirely to the “you’re getting too old for this business” trope which while it shares the word “old” with the question of “the old ways vs. the new” isn’t actually relevant except as a kind of metaphor: Bond is getting physically old, and his ways of being a spy are old, therefore Bond’s body is a metaphor for the traditional ways of spying. But it’s kind of cheap and to me less effective than if we’d had a younger Bond who was discovering the problems with being a traditional spy in a high-tech world.

    Bond getting old exists as a metaphor for you in Skyfall because the narrative failed to integrate the Main Character Throughline fully. That’s a failure of the structure, not of concept.

    Thankfully, the Dramatica theory of story sees beyond the uselessness of the trope. It explains why the “you’re getting too old for this” line appears in many stories within this Genre.

    A Reason for Trends

    The “too old for this” bit is conflict within the context of Universe—an inequity bred from the external state of things. The reason why it appears so often in Secret Agent Action films is due to the juxtaposition of the objective view of conflict and the subjective perspective. The “trope” is a result of an Overall Story conflict in Physics and a Main Character Throughline in Universe. It reflects the difficulties inherent with the work and “I’m getting too old for this.”

    This arrangement of perspectives contains the added-bonus of the Main Character who prefers to solve problems externally. Dramatica structure identifies this dynamic as a Main Character Approach of Do-er. When you find yourself facing a problematic external situation (Universe), your go-to preference for solving that conflict is taking external action. There aren’t too many super spy films concerned with the internal components of their hero—unless you’re writing about Jason Bourne.

    Bourne is less “I’m getting too old for this,” and more “What did I use to do?”

    The Main Character Throughline of The Bourne Identity focuses on Bourne’s inability to remember his past. Mind instead of Universe. The internal over the external. This thematic relationship is why The Bourne Identity feels different than most Bond films—the sources of conflict differ in a meaningful and measurable way.

    A Measure of Success

    The virus that is the trope clouds the mind’s ability to perceive meaning. Wrapped in the comfort of * “Oh, I’ve seen this one before,”* the infected focuses on common elements of Storytelling rather than Story Structure. Illustrations over the content.

    You see what I mean? Rolling out grandpa in a wheelchair and having him not able to shoot straight is a pretty piss-poor argument for, “see, guns are so passé. It’s all about drones these days.”

    It’s not the words themselves, but the meaning behind the words that move an Audience. The characters don’t make the argument, the story makes the argument. The narrative Elements underneath define the form of that narrative argument.

    Grandpa not being able to shoot straight can be seen as a sign of inadequacy. This inadequacy signals something intolerable. Indiscriminate drones that kill innocents is something unacceptable. Drones, therefore, are inadequate in matters of espionage.

    The subtext beneath the Subject Matter Illustrations of “Grandpa” and “drones” connects with a single narrative Element: inadequacy. This connection forms the foundation for that narrative argument. The resonance between them is what signals to an Audience that something more exists here.

    Skyfall made this connection, but then dropped it for much of the traditional Second Act.

    And yet it got 92% on Rotten Tomatoes (I mention this only because you brought up movies with >90% being representative of complete storyforms).

    Generally speaking, yes, this is the case. Occasionally you will find those properties that—resplendent with beloved characters and enduring franchises—skirt by their deficiencies with love and rabid fandom. Frozen is one such example (the franchise being Disney Animation). Incredibles 2 is another. Mission Impossible: Fallout is entirely bereft of meaning, and yet scores 97% amongst critics. Skyfall fits the bill by riding decades of that same goodwill.

    Quantum of Solace,—with its 65% rating on Rotten Tomatoes—is another story.

    The Promise of the Premise

    One thing I’m developing for Subtext is the ability to compare critical reception with the completeness of the storyform. This process requires a weighting of Storypoints such that you could tell to the degree how competent a film or novel was in completing its narrative argument (storyform). Match that with the admittedly subjective rating from something like Rotten Tomatoes, and you create a system of analytics that accounts for both heart and mind.

    Quantum of Solace is a good comparison for Skyfall, if for no other reason than it was a victim of the writer’s strike at the time. With the deadline of the release rapidly approaching, even Bond himself (Daniel Craig) took to pen.

    It didn’t quite work out.

    From the look of the trailer, Quantum appeared to be a complete story. The classic “You and I are both alike” is the centerpiece of the advertisement, and features strongly in the Dramatica You and I montage.

    When the film arrived, it left the Relationship Story Throughline out wholly. Not a drop of heart or emotion to be found anywhere.

    Skyfall at least had the wherewithal to start encoding its deficient Main Character Throughline. They managed to go the extra distance and finish it, but the development of that thread fell by the wayside during the middle of the film.

    Maybe they thought they had enough to cover the “trope.”

    Rating the Meaningless

    If I were to weight Skyfall’s Main Character Throughline, I would give it a 66% complete. This sufficient showing, along with the 100% development and completion of the Overall Story, Influence Character, and Relationship Story Throughlines, would easily explain why it rises above that 90% mark.

    If I were to rate the value of a trope in defining a narrative structure, I would give it 2%. Two—instead of zero—because identifying “grandpa has a gun” is one step removed from a Main Character Throughline of Universe. The trope is not entirely useless, but it’s close.

    The Dramatica theory of story, on the other hand, gets an AAA+ rating.

    Tropes are superficial and surface level, almost snarky in their unwillingness to dig down deep and find out why a particular bit of story continues to reappear. Dramatica starts with the why first, then works itself back up to general and commonplace.

    The cure for the disease.

    This article, The Debilitating Scourge of the Trope, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found Inside Narrative First.

    The Purpose of an Ending: Star Wars and The Matrix Revealed
    October 2019

    Many writers ask me the difference between a Linear-minded story and one that is Holistic-minded. If the latter cares little for outcome, goal, and consequence, then how does it end? In contrast to the more obvious trappings of linearity, the aspects of holism seem antithetical to the creation of a story.

    They continue to sneak their way into fiction.

    The Linear mind sees a problem and finds a solution. The Holistic recognizes an inequity and seeks balance. No one mind is better than the other—merely the fallout of running on a different operating system.

    When balance takes precedence over a solution, intention replaces accomplishment. A new direction supersedes any notion of triumph.

    If you want a great example of the difference between solution and intention, turn to Star Wars and The Matrix.

    Many assume these films to be the same story. Caught up in the distraction that is the Hero’s Journey, these well-minded individuals overlook the real purpose of these films. One depicts achievement, the other an alignment of self.

    With Star Wars, Luke turns off his targeting computer, trusts in something outside of himself, and disintegrates the Death Star.

    End of story.

    With The Matrix, Neo rises from the dead, begins to believe, and tears apart Agent Smith.

    But the story isn’t over.

    Not yet.

    Now at one with being the One, Neo makes a call:

    “I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid. You’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you, a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries, a world where anything is possible. Where we go from there, is a choice I leave to you.”

    A signal of intention.

    Perfectly aligned with a Holistic-minded story structure.

    Yes, sequels exist that continue Luke’s journey. Same with Neo. For this concept, we focus on the original self-contained narratives.

    With Star Wars, Luke’s journey is a closed circuit. It depicts a Linear experience. Identify a problem and fix it with a solution. The problem, as it were, never returns.

    With The Matrix, Neo’s journey is a closed-loop—a circle. The film allows one into the Holistic experience. Sense inequities and balance them with equities, always recognizant of the fact that all truths remain true.

    They don’t simply disappear with a solution.

    Luke fixes his problem of seeing everything as a challenge. He trusts in something else, giving up the need to continually test himself.

    Once fixed, he’ll never return to daring Sandpeople or putting up a front at next Cantina—his solution of the Force erases his problem.

    Neo, on the other hand, continues to battle with the balance between belief and self-doubt. And this struggle persists up to, and including the very last scene.

    That phone call is not the phone call of a confident man. Neo isn’t even sure how it’s going to end—just how it’s going to begin. The call sounds more like a conversation with himself than anything else. It’s less a threat and more indicative of one who believes—but still recognizes a level of self-doubt just beneath the surface.

    That phone call is a signal of intention, not an accomplishment.

    Contrast that with the Throne Room scene from Star Wars, and you begin to see the difference between the Linear story and the Holistic experience.

    In the end, it all boils down to purpose. Are you trying to show how to fix things? Or are you trying to indicate a new direction, an intention towards better balance?

    The choice…I leave up to you.

    This article, The Purpose of an Ending: Star Wars and The Matrix Revealed, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found Inside Narrative First.

    Story Structure We Can All Agree Upon
    September 2019

    Effective story structure begins with setting up dramatic potentials. The competent Author then resolves these inequities with meaningful outcomes. Knowing the real source of both guarantees that the story makes sense and leaves the Audience with a feeling of fulfillment.

    Guessing only habituates Author and Audience to meaninglessness.

    Grasping at the Meaning

    Subject Matter is a moving target. Structure is not.

    A recent response to my article Writing a Relationship that Counts Towards a Premise calls out my identification of Temptation as problematic within Back to the Future:

    I think you’re wrong about BTTF [Back to the Future]. Temptation is an aspect of it. But i think “Self confidence” is the determining factor. You can be tempted, but ultimately your self confidence is what is either rewarded or stifled as a result.

    You might agree with this assessment that Back to the Future is about self-confidence. Or, you might differ and think the film about bravery. Or love. Or maybe even regret. The list of potential values here exceeds the number of souls on the planet (assuming the individual struggles to identify only one).

    But if each of us finds a different value, what is the purpose of a story? To remind us of what we already believe? To give us a focal point to project our inner conflicts?

    And, if everything means everything, it follows that any attempt to ascribe structure to this value is therefore arbitrary, fluid, and ultimately pointless.

    Enter the Hero’s Journey and Save the Cat!

    Chaos is not order—unpredictability, the very antithesis of structure.

    For there to be order, a certain commonality must exist amongst all the various perceptions—something in charge of a story’s meaning.

    There must be one source to rule them all.

    The Mirage of Subject Matter

    A value, such as self-confidence, is a topic for discussion. An orbiting cloud of stardust on the periphery of a story’s consciousness. More Subject Matter than a source, values such as these are what a story appears to be from afar; a means by which the Audience member—unfamiliar with narrative structure and the Storymind concept—seeks to establish a relative footing on the way to the true meaning.

    A story must mean something, right?

    If you don’t possess the tools to accurately define that meaning, you will always turn to some value. Some measuring stick. And that value differs for each and every one of us. Which is why—if we’re looking to structure a narrative that communicates to everyone regardless of individual experience—we must dig deeper.

    We must find the inequity at the heart of the story.

    A Matter of Perspective

    Getting to the heart of conflict requires appreciating the effect point-of-view bestows upon meaning. One woman’s trash is another man’s treasure. One man’s globe is another lunatic’s Flat-Earth.

    Add to this the inescapable reality that an inequity cannot directly be described, and suddenly you see the deficiencies of a “self-confidence” perspective. It’s simply not enough to explain what is really going on with a story.

    Context is meaning. If you want to write something meaningful, you’ll need to establish a baseline of perspective. Knowing this point of reference helps you see beyond the generalities of the value.

    Setting Context

    Everyone understands that things look different from alternate perspectives. Conflict in a story is no different; change the point-of-view, and you change the appearance of conflict.

    The Pinheads. Fighting Biff. Even Loraine was confident in what she wanted from “Calvin Klein”. Depressed Loraine and Shit head George were both results of lack of self confidence. Biff was successful because his self confidence was present even though it was tainted by ego.

    The article on the Relationship Throughline focuses on conflict within the relationships. The above example focuses on conflict from without.

    By within a relationship, I refer to the perspective of We—as in, we have a problem.

    The perspective outside of that relationship is They—as in, they have a problem.

    What appears as one set of circumstances will shine differently from another point-of-view. What looks to be the problem for them might very well something different for us.

    Let me add another level of complexity and insight that will blow your mind while improving the quality of your story construction 5000%:

    By We and They, I mean the Author’s point-of-view on We and They. Where does the Author position conflict within the relationships and a We perspective? Where does he see the source of conflict for an objective frame of reference?

    Characters are not real people, they don’t maintain points-of-view. Characters function as placeholders for the point-of-view of the story—the Author’s perspective. After all, a story is an attempt to communicate a premise—the Author’s premise, or meaning.

    “Characters” have no say in it.

    What That Looks Like From Here

    What happens when we dive into the amorphous cloud of “self-confidence” that appears to describe Back to the Future? What does it look like to search out where the Authors placed the conflict in the story?

    It can be confusing at first to enter the unknown; preconceptions cloud your very perception of solid ground.

    So first, find a perspective.

    Establish a point-of-view.

    Look from without, and you see Avoidance.

    The time traveler avoids having sex with the confused teenage girl. The same traveler avoids, or runs away, from the bullies. The affable parent avoids upsetting his boss. All examples of conflict within the relationships from an objective point-of-view.

    Look from within the relationships of Back to the Future and you see Temptation.

    A father taking the easy way out when parenting. A friend fighting the Temptation to keep the one he cares about safe. A mother confused by temptations for her son from the future.

    These are subjective interpretations of conflict for the relationships in the film–the conflict from within.

    Same situation. Same characters. Different context, different conflict. And yet, no.

    Same source of conflict—just from a different perspective.

    Each perspective points to the same inequity, the inequity that can’t be addressed directly.

    The very same way it happens in our mind, every single millisecond of every single day.

    A Model of Ourselves

    My examples of conflict found in the original linked article see the conflict in the story from one perspective. The rebuttal examples above find different conflict from another point-of-view. Both exist within the same context–the context of the story. Neither is more truthful than the other, only more accurate given a particular perspective.

    A story attempts to the model the same psychological processes that go on within our own minds. Inequities are not real. Conflict is not real. The two only exist as the result of our attempt to make meaning of our perceptions.

    Something we struggle to achieve, considering our limited point-of-view.

    By presenting both subjective and objective points-of-view at the same time and within the same context (the context of a story), the Author grants meaning—something positively unattainable in real life.

    Which is why it’s so important the Author gets it right.

    The Right Solution for the Job

    Getting the perspective right matters when it comes to developing a story. If you don’t know what conflict looks like from a certain point of view, you’re not going to understand how to accurately resolve it.

    Having a general sense of self-confidence as problematic—without appreciating context—sets one up for an eventual encounter with writer’s block. Or worse—an incomplete story that many find trite or shallow.

    On a recent episode of the Writers Room, my weekly masterclass in Dramatica theory, we discussed the spec script Don’t Go In The Water. This screenplay sold for more than $500K in 2019–a remarkable feat considering the malnourished story. “Surviving alcoholism” replaces the Ort cloud of self-confidence here, in another failed attempt to capture meaning without access to the right tools.

    You know you’re in trouble when the Author feels he has to flat out tell you: “You can’t defeat the monster, you can only survive it.” To be repeatedly beaten overhead with theme is to be marginalized and lectured to as if a child. With a fully realized screenplay, one skirts the need for trite axiom proclamations from father.

    A Way Out of the Dark

    Don’t Go In the Water will undoubtedly get better. It can’t help be improved, especially when the film everyone compares it too—Jawscarries the same exact message. Structurally and thematically, the two are identical.

    Both films present the same argument:

    Give up running away, and you can tame your demons.

    In fact, that’s likely why it sold regardless of its under-developed story. Producers recognized enough of Jaws in Water that they forgave the spec script’s complete lack of development in its relationships. Or it’s absent, and much needed Influence Character Throughline perspective.

    Like Jaws—and like Back to the Future (and like The Lion King, Finding Nemo, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Collateral)—the Author of Water cast Avoidance as problematic from an objective point-of-view. Avoiding being in torn by two by the monster that is alcoholism functions as a problem for everyone.

    The Author of Water continues the replication by driving the wedge of Temptation between brother and sister. Always being there for your alcoholic brother, and taking advantage of that generosity from the other side, instantiates the heart of the inter-personal conflict in Don’t Go In the Water.

    Yet, without the proper development of this Relationship Throughline throughout the script, Water conflates the resolution of a sibling relationship with the objective solution of defeating the monster. Is it a sense of Conscience that overcomes evil? Or was it the Pursuit of the beast out into the open?

    We don’t know for sure, which is why the Author felt the need to reinforce the latter—with dialogue.

    Collateral resolves the same inner and outer conflicts without conflation, and with great panache. Foxx and Cruise grow closer emotionally as friends, as they grow further apart objectively as assassin and driver. Same thing in Jaws with Brody and Quint. And Finding Nemo with Marlin and Dory.

    Seeing only “survival” as the grey-matter source of conflict, Don’t Go In the Water fails to grant us a meaningful experience. Speaking your premise directly to the Audience is tantamount to Samuel Goldwyn’s classic recommendation of writing your Audience a telegram.

    Or better yet—just send them a text.

    A Better Sense of Purpose

    Narrative structure is more than an exploration of value. More than a general sense of what is being said. The structure of a story is something that resonates for all Audience members, regardless of background or experience.

    Did Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale explicitly set out to write about Avoidance and Temptation when they wrote Back to the Future? Probably not. And neither did Benchley or Beattie when they wrote Jaws and Collateral, respectively.

    But they did end up there.

    Taking the easy way out, of Temptation, is the natural counterpoint to a problem of Avoidance. See conflict as Avoidance objectively, and you naturally write Temptation for relationship conflict.

    Authors naturally gravitate towards perfect story structure because they instinctively know ideal story structure. That’s how their mind works.

    Knowing the specifics of narrative conflict, and the relationship of perspective with meaning, helps the Author avoid countless rewrites and disappointing drafts.

    Telling us the theme directly, in dialogue, is the easy way out.

    Giving in to that Temptation disrupts the relationship between Author and Audience, leading us to distrust you, and your story.

    Work on both the inner and outer relationships, and you guarantee a Triumph.

    This article, Story Structure We Can All Agree Upon, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found Inside Narrative First.

    The Curse of the Hegelian Dialectic
    August 2019

    Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis.

    Mention these three words together, and you unlock the accursed genie that is the Hegelian Dialectic. Rising from the mystic ashes of ancient philosophy, the Hegelian promises riches beyond comprehension for those who follow his three-step process towards resolving conflict.

    You only have to turn a blind eye to how the other half lives.

    Hegelian Dialectic–which, interestingly enough, didn’t even come from Hegel himself–is a Linear process of solving problems. A truth, or problem, is introduced. An alternate truth, or Antithesis, enters the scene to maximize conflict. And then the resulting solution, or Synthesis, finds a third truth that takes the best of both to resolve the original problem.

    Classic Linear, cause and effect problem-solving.

    The Holistic mind takes a different approach. Seeing inequities instead of problems, and equities instead of solutions, the Holistic deals in the consistent application of balance.

    Watch, as the vaulted genie-us of the Hegelian dissipates into the ether.

    The Method of Balance

    My series on The Holistic Premise addresses that train of thought wherein the wheels never stop turning. The Linear believes in the Solution–the resolution that permits one to move on, knowing the problem to be “solved.” The Holistic realizes problems themselves are manufactured within the mind and that nothing is ever solved, it’s only balanced for the time being.

    I read your article about holistic premises and watched your writer’s room session, and it made me think about the Hegellian notion of the Dialectic and whether that might apply to Dramatica from the holistic standpoint – that we have thesis (problem), antithesis (solution), and that what you’re calling balance (which to me sort of implies just sticking them on a linear scale and going halfway between) might be thought of as synthesis – finding a way to forge a new perspective from the two?

    This would be a Linear interpretation of balance—that there is a scale that exists between the two and once the perfect balance point is found (a synthesis), then all potential is resolved, and a solution has been found.

    The Holistic knows there is never a real synthesis, but rather a constant cycle of growth and rebirth, continuous attention applied to balancing out inequities that are never truly solved.

    I’d argue that they are solved but that every new balance (the synthesis that becomes the next thesis) creates the necessary preconditions for its own antithesis.

    The Linear mind needs to argue that problems are solved because it can’t function without the recognition of problem and solution.

    This is, in part, where “mansplaining” comes from: the Linear-minded person interrupts the Holistic because it believes that what the Holistic is seeing is somehow inaccurate or insufficient, when what they’re seeing is, in fact, what they’re actually seeing.

    The Linear mind sees problems that are solved; the Holistic sees inequities that are met with equities. Neither is more right than the other, but indicative of a baseline for appreciating conflict.

    The structure of a story must know the baseline of the mind of the story because it affects the order of concerns in a narrative. If you see everything as a problem that needs to be fixed, you’re going to go about solving that in a completely different way than someone who sees everything as an imbalance requiring balance.

    The Hegelian Explained

    I hear you about the scale being a Linear interpretation of balance. However you wouldn’t think of a Hegellian synthesis as being finding a point on that scale.

    And neither would the Holistic in the process of resolving an inequity–as that point on the scale doesn’t exist for the mind that thinks that way. There are no points to the Holistic account, only waves.

    A classic example is the notion of early childhood, where doing everything your parents say is the necessary normal state (the thesis = obedience). You become a teenager and begin to resent the oppressive nature of parental control and so rebel against everything they say (antithesis = rebellion). It’s only in becoming an when you reconcile the two oppositions – not through balancing “some” passive acceptance with “some” automatic rebellion, but through the realization that you require true independence which neither involves obedience nor rebellion (synthesis = independence).

    So rebellion is the linear response to control, but independence is the synthesis that emerges from the clash of those two forces.

    A synthesis is still a Linear-minded approach to solving a conflict. Both perspectives are evaluated separately for rightness—if one is right, or more right, than the other than that perspective is the solution. If neither is correct, then balance is the solution. If balance doesn’t work, then neither can exist.

    Every thought process is an if…then statement—a primary function found in any programming language (even the most basic of programming language, BASIC).

    It’s neither the Linear Dramatica move from one to the other nor finding a balance point on that scale, but rather the solution which removes the existence of the conflict (and in doing so, introduces a new thesis which will one day meet its antithesis as the cycles of growth and conflict continue – as you state below.)

    Linear in Dramatica refers to the process that sees conflict as a problem to be solved. Moving from Problem to Solution is Linear. Finding a balance point on a scale is Linear. Finding a Solution that removes the existence of conflict is Linear.

    The Holistic can never remove the existence of conflict because inequity always exists. It’s merely a matter of how much or how little.

    The Matrix, which is structured with this Holistic approach to conflict, doesn’t serve up an account of synthesis—Neo hasn’t become one with his doubts and his beliefs. But he has become one with the overall balance between the two and can literally shape his world accordingly.

    I always thought what was going on with the Matrix was:

    Thesis: We are waiting for “The One”
    Antithesis: Neo isn’t actually “The One” (when he meets the nice old lady in her house or whatever and she says he’s not the one)
    Synthesis: Neo wasn’t The One until he became The One.

    So both thesis and antithesis were wrong until Neo changed and made both of them true.

    Another way to look at the narrative conflict within The Matrix, one that is closer to the foundational structure of the film, is to see it as a juggling back and forth between Faith and Disbelief.

    The Oracle wasn’t wrong. She was only confirming what Neo already disbelieved. And Morpheus wasn’t wrong either. His belief that Neo was the One was right. Both positions are self-evident as appropriate throughout the film. And we experience the movie as a mind that seeks balance in all and sees all would when facing a similar inequity.

    My previous article The Holistic Experience of Watching The Matrix shares an account of what it feels like when you take everything in at once. No judgments. No evaluations. No problems and no solutions. Only the flow of allowing one position in after the other and then back again.

    A Matter of Intention

    You know that feeling of frustration you sometimes get when someone close to you won’t just do what they should to solve the problems in their lives?

    That’s often someone comfortable with Holistic problem-solving–a method of problem-solving that doesn’t recognize the problem, nor the potential solution.

    The “solution” for the story inequity is about synthesizing the two opposing forces into a new perspective rather than either picking one or the other or merely compromising between them.

    The balance of inequities for the Holistic mind is also not a compromise. Holistic thinkers do not compromise. They don’t give this for that, and any suggestion that services rendered are an exchange for goods offends as it suggests some obligation supplants the growth of the relationship.

    The Holistic is never at ease with forcing two into one, only at ease with a shift in direction that increases the flow of communication.

    To the Holistic mind, there is no real Solution that solves it all—only an Intention. Neo doesn’t believe at the end, he is only “beginning to believe.” This Intention to balance out his disbelief with a personal truth sets the mind in a different direction—opening it up to receive whatever various sort of inequities that suggest an alternate path.

    In a Changed Resolve/Holistic Minded story, the Main Character intends to balance out the inequity of their Throughline with an equitable element. That’s why in future versions of the theory, you’re likely to see Problem and Solution within Holistic stories adjusted to reflect their real purpose: Inequity and Intention.

    The Dramatica theory of story is a holistic appreciation of narrative structure–which is to say that the relationship between Storypoints is as equally important as the structural concerns themselves. The theory develops in the way that all dynamic relationships do, by shifting back and forth, appreciating the lack of a specific solution.

    Like the genie who emerged to grant untold fortune, the writer tied to the Hegelian Dialectic is trapped–trapped in the bottle of cause and effect and Linear methods of problem-solving, unable to see the totality of the world around them. Rich, but rich with an even higher cost. Whereas those swayed by the Siren Song of a centuries-old philosophy shackle themselves to ancient knowledge as if truth, the writer familiar with Dramatica appreciates the need for further thought, and if needed–a change in direction.

    Continue reading this series The Hegelian Chronicles.

    This article, The Curse of the Hegelian Dialectic, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds and hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found Inside Narrative First.

    Re-Imagining the Key Relationship of Any Story
    July 2019

    In my twelve years of coaching and educating writers both professional and amateur, one common trait stands out: no one understands relationships. They know conflict and plot. They know character and theme. And they know how to put it all together to create something engaging and compelling for bringing to end. But they’re missing one piece.

    Very few appreciate the conflict, plot, and theme that exists between characters.

    Since its inception in 1994, the Dramatica theory of story taught that the critical relationship in a complete narrative, the “heart” of a story, was an emotional argument between the Main Character and Influence Character. This Relationship Story Throughline (once labeled the Main vs. Impact Story Throughline) pits the two principal characters against each other within an imagined philosophical battleground. Seen as a shortcut towards introducing groundbreaking concepts to the narrative discussion, this reductive take on the relationship dynamic led many writers astray—and even more to discount the theory altogether.

    How could the romance between Indiana Jones and Marion be anything less than the emotional heart-center of Raiders of the Lost Ark? How could the friendship between Doc and Marty in Back to the Future be left out of similar discussions? With the Main vs. Impact litmus test, both of these critical relationships fail to meet what we all introvert know: emotional importance.

    This series of articles on The Relationship Story changes all of that. By realigning our appreciation of narrative to original core concepts of Dramatica, and adding in practical experience building out meaningful stories with writers across all genres, we open up new frontiers of understanding story.

    The Perspectives of Story

    The Relationship Story Throughline is not the relationship between the Main Character and the Influence Character. The Relationship Story Throughline perspective is an emergent property of the consciousness of the Storymind—something not present within the unique aspects of I or You.

    Emergence occurs when an entity is observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own.

    The Relationship Story Throughline perspective is We.

    And We are neither You nor I.

    For many, this concept of splitting hairs around notions of subjectivity may appear overly complicated and semantic. For others, it may seem an impossibility to hold a We perspective that does not include self. I’m here to tell you that this complexity is both necessary and possible—particularly if you want to access the real emotional heart of your story.

    It might even help you in your own relationships.

    The Usual Suspects of Subjectivity

    The original Dramatica theory book wasn’t wrong. More often than not this property does turn out to be the dynamic between the Main and Influence Character Players. The mentorship between Ben and Luke in Star Wars. The romance between Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca. The contentious friendship between Rus and Marty in True Detective: Season One.

    While these couples indeed find time to argue, their relationship is not an argument. In fact, their relationship is 1/4 of the story’s argument—1/4 of the premise. Their disagreements and the basis for their point-of-view finds a home in other quarters.

    The Four Throughlines of a complete narrative describe the perspectives of the single argument of the story. Characters and the relationships between them exist to hold and convey these points of view to the Audience. This arrangement allows Authors the opportunity to hand-off a perspective from one character to the next.

    The classic example lies with the Ghosts in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. One by one, and starting with Marley, the Ghosts relay their common perspective of influence on Scrooge. Looking back over the narrative retrospect, these four Ghosts act as one collective Influence Character.

    The same possibility exists within the Relationship Story Throughline perspective.

    Handing Off the Heart of a Story

    The emotional core of Good Will Hunting dwells in the Therapeutic relationship between Will and Sean. The two share an intimate bond and grow from patient/therapist to close friends. Yet, another relationship exists within the film that shares a similar and meaningful friendship.

    Key Relationships in Good Will Hunting
    Key Relationships in Good Will Hunting

    The Friendship between Will and Chuckie (Ben Affleck) carries the same thematic elements found in the Therapeutic Relationship. The do-or-die brotherhood that finds them fighting on the basketball court to protect each other also puts them at odds over each other’s personal survival. And their shared acknowledgment that their relationship had purpose resolves their differences—with heartfelt emotion.

    The Friendship felt between both couples exists outside of any central plot development. Tangential to the objective concerns of a math genius hiding out as a janitor, these relationships reflect the importance of growth and understanding in the development of friendships.

    And that’s why it’s essential to stop thinking of the Relationship Story Throughline in terms of an emotional argument.

    The real purpose of the Relationship Story Throughline is to shine a light on the importance of growth between us in the real world—a chance to viscerally feel and understand this dynamic as we work to resolve the inequities in our lives.

    Stories offer us an opportunity to appreciate our own conflicts. While we operate in a palpable sense in the real world, and while we have our own subjective personal issues, the subjective dynamics of growth that exist beyond us as individuals is equally as crucial to understanding our experience. Some might even say more important.

    The more connected we become, the more essential it becomes for us to appreciate the dynamics at play between us. This newfound understanding of the Relationship Story Throughline of a narrative draws one step closer to understanding the purpose—and intent—of our relationships with one another.

    This article, Re-Imagining the Key Relationship in Any Story originally appeared on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found Inside Narrative First.

    How a Steadfast Character Changes the World
    June 2019

    Most believe the Main Character of a story needs to change herself. Riddled with elementary school level renditions of narrative structure, the modern Author often grafts a meaningless change of character onto their story. The result is a work that means nothing—a duplicitous offering that leaves an Audience feeling their time wasted and misspent.

    This is not a problem in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma.

    In fact, Cuarón delivers a unique work of art so subtle in execution, that even self-proclaimed story experts find themselves playing catch-up.

    A complete narrative consists of one of two paths: the Changed Resolve story and the Steadfast Resolve story. The Resolve is about the Main Character of the piece, and setting it shifts the entire focus of the narrative. Choosing to write about a Changed Resolve or a Steadfast Resolve alters the narrative structure of the story.

    The Changed Resolve Story

    Almost everyone understands the Changed Resolve story. Star Wars, The Matrix, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Casablanca—each one of these films tells the story of a Main Character who adopts an alternate approach to solving problems. They Change their Resolve.

    Luke trusts in the force instead of testing himself all the time. Miles chooses who he wants to be, instead of living up to others‘ expectations. Ric frees himself up to express his true feelings for Ilsa, instead of drowning them in a bottle. Each character supplants their Problem with a Solution.

    With Luke, the Main Character Solution of Trust overrides his Main Character Problem of Test. He turns off his targeting computer and trusts in the Force.

    Miles turns to a Main Character Solution of Determination to replace his Main Character Problem of Expectation. He reaches out and touches Kingpin’s shoulder with a confident “Hey”—signaling his choice of self.

    In Casablanca, Ric grows into a Main Character Solution of Uncontrolled by selling off the club and setting up a life on the lamb. This new motivation replaces his Main Character Problem of Control.

    Most writers understand the Changed Resolve story because it is clear how the Main Character’s decision ties into and ultimately resolves the Overall Story Throughline of —the plot that pertains to everyone.

    Syncing Up Resolve with Outcome

    Luke’s turn to the Force shows the Rebels how you can beat the Empire. Miles’ choice to be the Spider-Man in this universe frees the others to return to theirs. And Ric’s selfless sacrifice makes it possible for Ilsa and Victor to escape the clutches of the Nazis.

    These Main Characters save the day because their personal problem matches the problem in the Overall Story.

    The Empire and the Rebels continuously challenge one another, in much the same way that Luke tests himself. Their Overall Story Problem of Test, therefore, needs a Main Character Solution of Trust to save the day.

    Same thing in Spider-Verse. Kingpin and the Spiders clash because that is what is expected of them—just like Miles’ Issue with great expectations. Their Overall Story Problem of Expectation requires a Main Character Solution of Determination.

    The Nazis exert significant control over the citizens of Casablanca—the same kind of control Rick shrouds over his emotions. That Overall Story Problem of Control can only be resolved with a Main Character Solution of Uncontrolled.

    The Changed Resolve story is easier to understand because the Main Character changes into the exact thing needed to solve the big world Overall Story Problem.

    But this isn’t the only way to solve problems in the outside world. Sometimes, treating the symptoms is all that is needed to affect meaningful change.

    Our Blindness to Problems

    When we justify behavior, we do so by making ourselves blind to motivation. This buried Element is reflected in the Dramatica model by the Problem Elements found at the base of each Throughline. It’s a problem because we can’t see it.

    Instead, we focus our attention elsewhere—on the symptoms of the Problem. We fix what we assume is the real problem.

    In Dramatica, this point of attention is the Focus of that Throughline. Where we direct our efforts to resolve that symptom is called the Direction Element.

    The Steadfast character of a story represents that aspect of the mind given to work through the Focus and Direction. You don’t need to attack the Problem directly to resolve conflict. Sometimes all that is required is the regular treatment of the symptoms.

    How a Steadfast Story Works

    In a Steadfast Resolve story, the focus is on the work needed to treat the symptoms of the problem. Instead of driving attention towards the dilemma surrounding a change of heart, the Steadfast story sheds light on what it feels like when you’re on the right path. The first season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Hacksaw Ridge, and yes, Roma, all feature Main Characters who stay resolute to the very end.

    “Midge” Maisel’s hyper-focus on what’s wrong drives her to be better and better with each performance. Dawson Doss’s refusal to give up control over his beliefs guides him towards the freedom needed to save a hundred men. And Cleo’s denial of the stark realities around her free the young woman up to see life on her own terms.

    In each of these examples, it is the Main Character’s Focus and Direction that ties into the Overall Story plot of their own stories.

    Maisel’s Main Character Focus of Non-Accurate in her personal life—falling off the wagon with her body measurements and not living up to the standards of being a perfect housewife—find resonance in the Overall Story Focus of Non-Accurate. Here, it is the bombing on stage, not at home, that consumes most of the character’s lives. Getting better and better with each performance requires a Main Character with a Main Character Direction of Accurate—a Main Character who treats the symptoms of her life by working towards that standard, by reaching that higher mark.

    Note the contrast between the above explanation and those of Changed Resolve characters. The Steadfast Resolve requires more real estate to explain because it describes something more than a simple flipping of the switch. Steadfast focuses on resistance and flow, rather than potential and result.

    In Hacksaw Ridge, Doss’s Main Character Focus of Control dovetails nicely with the Overall Story Focus of Control. This is the story of a military operation in the Pacific during World War II. Discipline and regulation and the loss of control incurred by a soldier unwilling to follow orders increase resistance. Doss directs his efforts towards thinking freely. This Main Character Direction of Uncontrolled is the only thing that would have freed up resistance and allowed true bravery to flow through the battlefield on that day. His personal freedom freed up others to behave unregulated and fulfilled the story’s need for an Overall Story Direction of Uncontrolled.

    As complex and sophisticated as these two examples are of the Steadfast dynamic, Cleo’s story in Roma takes it to another level.

    The Strength of Character

    The alignment of Throughlines in Roma creates a storyform that sees Actuality as the shared Focus Element and Perception as the shared Direction Element.

    The easiest way to understand the difference between these two Elements is to think of the M. Knight Shyamalan classic The Sixth Sense. Without giving too much away, the Main Character of that film perceives the world in a certain way. His problems resolve once he sees what is actually going on—the actual reality of his situation. The Sixth Sense operates on a Problem of Perception and a Solution of Actuality.

    Roma is a bit more down to Earth.

    With Chaos driving conflict, the stark reality of the character’s situation seems untenable. How will the family survive without its patriarch? How will a young pregnant woman survive her abandonment? How will those innocents who encounter violence in the hospitals and on the street manage to cope?

    These questions point to a Focus of Actuality.

    You’ll note that I listed examples from both the Overall Story Throughline and the Main Character Throughline.

    This is the inflection point where the two meet.

    How will the family survive without its patriarch? That’s an Overall Story Focus of Actuality.

    How will a young pregnant woman survive her abandonment? That’s the Main Character Focus of Actuality.

    And this is where Cleo’s steadfastness gives her employer Sofia—and the entire audience-the keys to working through these stark realities.

    She sees the world the way she wants to view it.

    Cleo directs her efforts towards Perception. And her life is better for it.

    And so is ours.

    Subtle Indications of Resistance and Flow

    The Steadfast story argues the integrity of a particular approach just as powerful as its Changed story cousin. The argument can be as strong and in-your-face as it is in Hacksaw Ridge, or it can be subtle and sophisticated as it is in Roma.

    The Steadfast Main Character does not share the same Problem as witnessed in the Overall Story. That responsibility of Change is left up to the Influence Character. One character changes her approach, the other remains steadfast.

    The family dynamic in Roma allows us to see the effects of Chaos on a micro level. The father’s trips to the city and absentee lifestyle challenge the mother’s ability to care for her children and return some kind of Structure back to their lives.

    Cleo is the answer to Sofia’s problems. Not so much in the way of her duties as nanny and caregiver, but more so in the way Cleo approaches her life.

    By showing Sofia the flow possible when one alters their perception of reality rather than reality itself, Cleo clears the way for higher order. Her steadfastness treats the symptoms of Chaos, bringing success to a family trying to piece itself back together.

    The Steadfast story focuses on the work, the Changed story on the dilemma.

    The only dilemma left up to the Author is choosing which one tells her story best.

    Then all that’s left is the work.

    This article, How a Steadfast Character Changes the World, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found Inside Narrative First.

    The Truth about Dramatica and The X-Files
    May 2019

    Nowadays, photographic evidence isn’t enough. With the advent of Photoshop and digital photography, anyone can claim ownership of the truth. In order to convince someone that a conspiracy exists, even one related to something so inconsequential as story theory, the whistle-blowers of today need cold hard facts and an airtight case.

    There were always two kinds of X-Files episodes: the Myth, or Conspiracy episodes and the Monster, or Stand-Alone episodes. While the Myth stories were always enthralling (especially since I was in my early 20s and therefore believed in the reality of conspiracies whole-heartedly), it was the Monster episodes that were always my favorite. Even to this day I can remember story lines that I haven’t thought of in almost 10 years. Why? Because most of those episodes were complete stories in and of themselves. They provided me with a satisfying and emotionally fulfilling conclusion - the hallmark of a Dramatica structured story.

    That being said, this one episode, entitled “Milagro” was all about one word to me…



    Why this one word?

    The dictionary defines Preconscious as:

    The memories or feelings that are not part of one’s immediate awareness but that can be recalled through conscious effort.

    Contrast this with Dramatica’s definition of Preconscious;, which, if you haven’t “moused-over” the easy-definition above, is:

    immediate responses — Built into the mind is an instinctual base of reactions and attitudes that cannot be altered but merely compensated for. When a story’s problem revolves around the unsuitability of someone’s essential nature to a given situation or environment, the central issue is the Pre-Conscious. The solution lies in the character conditioning himself to either hold his tendencies in check or develop methods of enhancing areas in which he is naturally weak in reason, ability, emotion, or intellect. — syn. unthinking responses, immediate responses, impulse, impulsive response, instinctive response, innate response, reflex

    I posted the entire definition so you could get a feel for what Dramatica is really going for with this word, and, so you could see the difference between it and the commonly accepted definition. The former concerns itself with memories or feelings that are brought about through conscious effort. The latter concerns itself with immediate, instinctive responses to a stimulus.

    So how does this tie back into the X-Files episode?

    The Truth Exposed


    As a brief recap, this episode is about a writer, Phillip Padgett (John Hawkes), who has a rare supernatural ability: whatever he writes about, happens. This would be fine if it were not for the fact that Padgett is writing a murder mystery and that his Main Character is none other than Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). The serial killer in his story could or could not be the Stranger, a mysteriously hooded figure who captures Scully’s interest. A romance develops between them - a romance that can only end in murder.

    In this first scene, Padgett writes about Scully’s reaction to a charm that was mysteriously left for her:

    (Original video cutscene not available)

    Note the use of the word Preconscious!

    Here’s a screen cap with the subtitles turned on:

    The Preconscious in Milagro - X-Files
    The Preconscious in Milagro - X-Files

    This whole scene is about Scully trying to fight her impulse to accept this token in the manner in which was given - as an act of love:


    Preconsciously, she knew this wasn’t her strength as an investigator. She was a marshall of cold facts, quick to organize, connect, shuffle, reorder and synthesize their relative hard values into discreet categories. Imprecision would only invite sexist criticism that she was soft, malleable not up to her male counterparts.

    The conflict here revolves around her “girlish” impulses and how giving into those would affect the opinions of the men in the office around her. She wants to give in, but doesn’t want to be thought of as an “impulsive” stereotypical female.

    PADGETT (V.O.)

    Even now, as she pushed an errant strand of titian hair behind her ear, she worried her partner would know instinctively what she could only guess. To be thought of as simply a beautiful woman was bridling, unthinkable. But she was beautiful… fatally, stunningly prepossessing. Yet the compensatory respect she commanded only deepened the yearnings of her heart… to let it open, to let someone in.

    Sounds more like Dramatica’s definition, doesn’t it?!

    I remember so clearly that, when this episode first aired, I turned to my wife and said, “Did he just say what I think he did?!” Of course, she looked back at me like I was an idiot (”Why can’t you just enjoy a movie instead of analyzing it all the time?”), but I couldn’t help myself. The use of the word Preconscious just blared out to me…and it was used as an adverb! You could easily replace “preconsciously” with “instinctively” and the line would mean the same. But the writer of this episode was going for “flowery” prose with Padgett’s character and “preconscious” probably just seemed to fit better.

    I was also aware of the connection between X-Files and the concept of Mental Sex. In short, Mulder and Scully used the opposite problem-solving process from their gender; Scully was a Male Linear thinker, while Mulder was a Female Holistic Thinker. And I was aware of another episode (my favorite one of all time) that was also a complete story in and of itself - Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose. So I knew that the X-Files fit quite nicely into the paradigm of Dramatica.

    But this is only one example. It could be tossed away as a fluke, a surprising, yet undeniable coincidence…unless there was some other kind of evidence….

    How about three more pieces of evidence?!

    Plot Progression

    As explained in part one of this X-Files analysis, Dramatica sees four structural acts in a Throughline. For this example we’ll be focusing on the Main Character Throughline of Dana Scully. In this episode, Scully’s throughline exists in the Mind;, or Fixed Attitude Domain. Why? Problems arise for Scully because someone has developed a creepy obsession with her. This fixed attitude is the source of her problems in this story. The Mind domain looks something like this:

    Milagro Main Character Domain
    Milagro Main Character Domain

    As you can see there are four Concerns, four acts that will be traversed in the course of her throughline. You can go in any order you want, but each concern will only be visited once.

    The first act consisted of her dealing with the problems of her Preconscious and her attempt to quell those instincts. Let’s move forward in the episode to find out what her second act deals with:

    (Original video cutscene not available)

    Well, well, well…does someone own a copy of Dramatica?!

    Here’s a screen cap with the subtitles:

    The Subconscious in Milagro - X-Files
    The Subconscious in Milagro - X-Files

    Now we’ve moved into the Subconscious; which Dramatica defines as:

    Subconscious — basic drives and desires — Subconscious describes the essential feelings that form the foundation of character. These feelings are so basic that a character is often not aware of what they truly are. When the Subconscious is involved, a character is moved right to the fiber of his being. — syn. libido, id, basic motivations, basic drives, anima

    Sounds exactly like what Scully is dealing with in this scene.


    You’d have noticed this church in passing and though parking is always a problem in this part of town, your special privileges would make it easy to visit… not as a place of worship, but because you have an appreciation for architecture and the arts… and while the grandeur is what you’d take away from your visit… this painting’s religious symbolism would have left a subconscious impression, jogged by the gift you received this morning.

    This is Padgett talking, but remember, Scully is a character in his story. This is clearly a Main Character moment. Scully is trying to reconcile her developing feelings and desires for this weird “stranger” with her basic drive to be cool and collected.

    Scullys Plot Progression in Milagro
    Scully’s Plot Progression in Milagro

    Scully’s throughline has now moved into the Subconscious. The other throughlines (the Objective Story, the Impact Character, and the Subjective Story) would all have moved into their second concern as well. But again, for the purposes of this argument Scully as Main Character is what we are most interested in.

    We’ve traversed the Preconscious and the Subconscious, which only leaves us the Conscious and Memories. Wonder which one will show up for Act 3?

    (Original video cutscene not available)

    This is more creepy than the episode itself!

    Scully’s character has now moved into her third concern: the Conscious.

    She’s dealt with fighting her instincts, and then fighting her growing desires, to now, where she’s actively considering this “stranger.” How can she be falling for this writer? It’s not like her to be thinking these things.

    The Conscious in Milagro
    The Conscious in Milagro

    She’s performing an autopsy but her mind is obviously somewhere else.

    PADGETT (V.O.)

    But if she’d predictably aroused her sly partner’s suspicions, Special Agent Dana Scully had herself… become simply aroused. All morning the stranger’s unsolicited compliments had played on the dampened strings of her instrument until the middle ‘C’ of consciousness was struck square and resonant. She was flattered. His words had presented her a pretty picture of herself, quite unlike the practiced mask of uprightness that mirrored back to her from the medical examiners and the investigators and all the lawmen who dared no such utterances.

    Scully finishes the autopsy and looks at the charm.


    She felt an involuntary flush and rebuked herself for the girlish indulgence.

    Dramatica’s definition of Conscious; describes this scene well:

    Conscious — considerations — When one has all the facts, knows all the impact — both positive and negative; when one is fully aware of detrimental consequences and still decides on the poor course of action, there is something wrong with the way one arrives at conclusions. This is the subject of stories focusing on the Conscious. The key here is not to redefine who a character is but to lead him to relearn how to weigh an issue so his conclusions are less destructive to himself and/or others. — syn. considerations, sensibilities, cognizant, ability to consider, sensible, informed contemplation, contemplation

    The Final Act

    So it would follow that, if we’ve moved from Preconscious into the Subconscious and then into the Conscious, the only Concern left to visit would be Memory.

    This is one of the most powerful aspects of Dramatica - the ability to predict a story’s throughline. And it isn’t just random happenstance that produced this plot progression. There are numerous other factors involved - the Main Character’s Resolve, the Story Driver, the Subjective Story Problem - all these things come together to create this one storyform. If you’ve seen this episode you know how right it feels. Granted, it’s not going to save the world, but as a story, it simply sings.

    I knew the story had to end in Memories for Scully, but as I discussed in my article on brainstorming your way through Dramatica, I had difficulty finding it. Now, my “A-Ha!” moment from that article was not about this final concern, but it did help solidify my understanding of the story. I was looking for the correct item, but I was looking in the wrong place.

    Towards the end of the story, Mulder apprehends Padgett under suspicion of murder. They take him in for questioning, with Mulder playing bad cop and Scully playing good cop. There is a moment where Padgett catches Scully lightly touching Mulder’s arm. She’s trying to keep Mulder from attacking Padgett, but it’s the kind of gesture only shared between intimate friends. It’s a beautiful moment that speaks of an unrequited love that will, unfortunately, remain unfulfilled. Padgett realizes that there is no way Scully would ever love him, she’s already in love with Mulder.

    As Scully goes over Padgett’s paperwork, she is handed a note:

    There it is…Memory;. The final concern in Scully’s Four Act Structure.

    As Dramatica defines it:

    Memory — recollections — The Past is an objective look at what has happened. In contrast, Memories are a subjective look at what has happened. Therefore, Memories of the same events varies among individuals creating many different and possibly conflicting recollections. Often one’s current feelings come from memories, both pleasant and unpleasant. Many a taut story revolves around a character’s effort to resolve open issues from his memories. — syn. linear reasoning, rationality, structural sensibility, syllogistics

    And that’s precisely what Scully is dealing with here at the end.

    It’s a sad scene - one that speaks of loss and the recollection of “promises” now rescinded. While the young teenage girl is the victim in this murder, it is obvious that it is Scully he is referring to. Padgett wanted her to read the note because he knows that for all intents and purposes, their potential love affair is now over. Scully’s brief encounter with a love she instinctively wanted will now only live as a fleeting memory.

    Memory in Milagro - X-Files*

    PADGETT (V.O.)

    Grief squeezed at her eggshell heart like it might break into a thousand pieces, its contents running like broken promises… into the hollow places his love used to fill.


    Maggie stands alone in the darkness beside Kevin’s flower covered grave, crying softly. She looks up and sees the stranger approaching her.

    SCULLY (V.O.)

    How could she know this pain would end? That love, unlike matter or energy, was in endless supply in the universe… A germ which grows from nothingness which cannot be eradicated even from the darkest of hearts. If she had known this — and who could say she would believe it? — she would not have chanced to remain at his sad grave until such an hour, so that she might not have to learn the second truth before the first; that to have love was to carry a vessel that could be lost or stolen… or worse, spilled blood-red on the ground. And that love was not immutable, it could become hate as day becomes night, as life becomes death.

    (Milagro Act Order - image missing)

    The throughline is complete. We’ve travelled with Scully along her emotional journey - one that took her from her instincts to her desires to her thoughts and finally, to her memories. The story is over and we, as an audience, are emotionally fulfilled.

    What more could a writer hope for?


    The point of all this is not that the writers of this episode cheated or that Dramatica wrote the story for them. The point of this whole article is to point out how seamless and how smooth the transitions feel between these acts. The act progressions feel natural.

    For all I know, Chris Carter and his excellent writers may have never even heard of Dramatica. But the move from the Preconscious into the Subconscious, then into the Conscious and finally Memory is deliberate. If they were unaware of the theory, their natural instincts as writers served them well, and produced a wonderful story. Either way, it’s the only path they could have taken to give us this satisfying and heart-warming ending.

    Dramatica only helps to clarify it.

    This article, The Truth about Dramatica and The X-Files, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found Inside Narrative First.

    Unveiling the Narrative Elements of Story Structure
    April 2019

    The Dramatica theory of story is a complex and sophisticated model of story. Instead of wasting the Author’s time with notions of heroic journeys or requirements to save a cat in an attempt to gather likability, Dramatica seeks to concretize the Author’s purpose—and then graft that intention into the very fabric of the narrative structure.

    Elixirs. Bellies of whales. Dark nights of the soul. All pointless and worthless; when it comes to breaking down the essential ingredients of a complete story.

    One man’s Plot Point is another man’s Refusal of the Call. Gobbledygook to entertain and disinform the masses.

    A better approach lies in identifying the Sources of Conflict within the narrative, determining their leverage points, then drafting a narrative structure that works through these essential Elements.

    This is where Dramatica comes in.

    And it’s where our service built on the theory—Subtext—assists Authors in writing complete and meaningful stories.

    Identify the Source of Conflict. Then build your unique narrative outline around that Element.

    No two stories are the same because the meaning at the heart of it all is always different.

    Unless, of course, you’re thinking of The Lion King and Black Panther. Those films say the same thing because they’re built on top of the same narrative Element: Avoidance.

    The Sliding Scale within an Element

    At first, you may think—Avoidance? That’s too narrow a definition of conflict. To which I would respond: your experience with subjective and insufficient story paradigms (like Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat) has clouded your perception of reality.

    There are a million different ways to encode Avoidance. Running away. Making an effort to stop someone. Preventing someone. Shirking one’s duties—there’s Lion King and Black Panther again. In fact, the reason why so many rightly point out the similarities between the two films, yet fail to bring Mad Max: Fury Road into the discussion (even though it too argued the same problem about running away) is because the specific Storytelling attached to the narrative Element of Avoid in these two films is exactly the same.

    But what about the example of “preventing someone”—how is that an example of Avoid?

    The Sliding Scale within a Narrative Element

    The narrative Elements defined by Dramatica are less destination and more process. In fact, every Element found within the Dramatica Table of Story Elements is a function, a processing instance similar to functions found within object-oriented programming.

    It is the process of avoiding that is creating conflict here—not merely Avoid.

    With that in mind, it becomes easier to see that there exists a sliding scale within each of these processes that range from too much of an element to very little, or a lack of that Element.

    Avoidance is running away.

    A lack of Avoidance is inserting yourself where you’re not wanted.

    Too much Avoidance, or an abundance of Avoidance, is preventing something or stopping something from happening.

    Multiply this by the hundreds of Storypoints found in the current model and one quickly understands the complexity and sophistication possible within a single narrative.

    Elements and their Opposites

    Several narrative Elements read as simple opposites. Control and Uncontrolled. Acceptance and Non-Acceptance. Accurate and Non-Accurate.

    Faced with these seemingly either/or instances, many Authors wonder where the sliding scale exists. How is a lack of Control not the same thing as Uncontrolled?

    First things first. Uncontrolled is the closest Chris and Melanie could come to labeling this narrative Element with the elements around it. In truth, Uncontrolled is meant to embody free or frenzied. Something more out-of-control—

    —but again, you see how easy it is to fall back on the opposite, or negative definitions.

    The English language was designed by Linear Problem-Solvers (males). Its spatial interpretation of imbalance can only approximate force and direction. Our vocabulary of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs is more comfortable identifying the parts and substance.

    We’re not so comfortable identifying those places in-between.

    This reality is reflected in the model. The top half of the model is definite—it’s where the Linear male mind finds shelter. Universe. Physics. Obtaining and Doing. Knowledge and Actuality.


    The bottom half is alien: Mind and Psychology. Unproven and Thought.


    We just don’t have a word that accurately describes this inflection point that isn’t merely a negative, or opposite word. Linear thinkers are comfortable with opposites—on or off, black or white, Control or Uncontrolled. Our foundation is holding us back from a greater appreciation of the totality of conflict.

    With this in mind, it becomes clear that understanding the nature of the Elements is more critical than the label applied to the Elements directly.

    The Ends of the Narrative Element Scale

    A lack of Control is not Uncontrolled—it identifies a source of conflict emanating from someone not controlling things. And sometimes control is needed. Herding cats for performance requires a fair amount of constraint, and so does a stage mom when she attends a beauty contest involving her children.

    These are not examples of Uncontrolled.

    The clearest example of this sliding scale is found between Faith and Disbelief.

    A lack of Faith in God does not automatically mean one actively disbelieves in the existence of the Almighty. It merely means they don’t have that belief. They’re agnostic.

    Atheists actively disbelieve. God does not exist, and they’re adamantly opposed to that belief. They’re motivated by Disbelief.

    Of course, you could argue they possess an overwhelming Faith in the absence of God—which is why it is essential for the Author to set the context for their narrative. Within the context of looking at the existence of God, believers have Faith, non-believers lack Faith, and atheists Disbelieve.

    A Look at Equity and Inequity

    Two other Elements that seemingly describe opposites are Equity and Inequity. If you don’t have Equity, there must be Inequity, right?


    A lack of Equity focuses on the absence of balance or fairness. Inequity describes something unjust or way out of balance for the situation.

    Again, context is everything.

    Identifying the difference between the two becomes even more challenging when trying to assess which side of the scale is a Problem, and which one is the Solution.

    If you can reverse appreciations, how do you know which is the problem and the solution? It seems like you could encode them identically.

    Context—the focus of attention in the narrative—is everything.

    A lack of Equity is not the same thing as too much Inequity.

    Drawing an axis line from the far end of Equity, through the middle of the quad, and extending it out to the far end of Inequity, we begin to develop a more comprehensive understanding of conflict:

    • lack of Equity == favoritism
    • Equity == don’t rock the boat
    • too much Equity == participation trophies
    • too much Inequity == slavery
    • Inequity == a splinter in your mind
    • lack of Inequity == I’m ok means you’re ok

    An Author focusing on the problems of favoritism is not writing about the difficulties of Inequity. In fact, Inequity is how you resolve a lack of balance here. Purposefully treating one child way better than the other resolves circumstances where there was a feeling that things weren’t fair.

    Equity is balance. Inequity is imbalance.

    They’re not opposites when it comes to narrative, but unfortunately, this is the English language, and these are the constraints Authors need to appreciate.

    How else can they be Uncontrolled in their writing?

    I mean, Free.

    This article, Unveiling the Narrative Elements of Story Structure, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

    A Script Analysis of BlacKkKlansman
    March 2019

    Is America racist?

    Spike Lee seems to think so. At least, that’s the impression one gets from his latest film, BlacKkKlansman. Of course, Lee doesn’t have any real proof to back up that claim—

    — and that’s precisely why this film is so powerful.

    The narrative Element of Unproven drives the conflict of KkKlansman. It fuels hatred. It feeds ignorance. It powers an investigation that turns violent.

    Unproven describes an understanding suspected to be true but not substantiated enough to call it fact

    That watchful eye on what has yet to be verified is the soul of this narrative. The film’s brutal final moments only confirm America’s failure to verify rampant racism.

    With BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee proves that America is racist by focusing on that which is Unproven.

    Understanding the Unproven

    I never fully understood the narrative Element of Unproven until I saw this film. Visualizing the unverified as a Source of Conflict always left me searching for answers.

    It’s important to understand that Unproven is not merely the negative of Proven. It’s not a lack of proof or false proof. Instead, Unproven defines that motivating force that intuits an imbalance—a singling out, or an itch—that drives one to seek resolution because something is specifically unverified. It’s that knowing without needing evidence to back that knowledge up.

    The difference between Proven and Unproven, in the context of a narrative, is akin to the disparity between Cause and Effect. Proven is to Cause as Unproven is to Effect.

    With Causes, you can trace a single line back to the root “cause” of a problem. You can see the proof.

    When looking to Effects, there is no direct line back to something, yet there is still a problem. Something unproven as of yet. It’s that same feeling one gets when considering the effects of conflict that courses beneath the lifestream of Unproven.

    A notion that something is not right.

    Witnessing Both the Subjective and Objective

    With KkKlansman, Lee expertly plays both sides of Unproven. Externally—and objectively—he explores the covert racism of the Klan and the unwillingness of many to do anything about it. Internally—and subjectively—he explores the naïveté of Colorado’s first black cop, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington).

    Ron’s notion that “Not all cops are bad” seeks to write-off lousy behavior because it is Unproven. It amplifies and magnifies the suffering by relying on the unverified to determine right or wrong.

    Only someone driven by the intolerable—someone who sees the disparity and is ready and willing to call others out on their willful blindness—can unseat this deep-seated justification.

    With Ron, that point-of-view rests within Patrice (Laura Harrier).

    The Influence Character

    The Influence Character of a narrative challenges the Main Character to rethink his personal biases. Often coming from a seemingly alien point-of-view—yet always knowing just what to say at the right time—the Influence Character upends the Main Character’s inertia by shining a light on heretofore hidden preconceptions.

    Patrice’s point-of-view challenges Ron by always looking to the results of looking the other way: This is what we get, and this is what will happen if we don’t do something. And it’s not merely a point-of-view that rests solely within Patrice. The very moving portrayal of the results of The Birth of a Nation carries this sad fact of reality straight to the heart.

    Doing your part and engaging in the process of elevating the conversation becomes the only meaningful response. This is how Patrice is able to challenge and influence Ron to grow beyond his preconceptions. Patrice’s point-of-view on valuing Black America works as the fulcrum to dislodge Ron’s limited perspective.

    The Relationship Story

    When making an argument, it’s not enough to just put two competing points-of-view against each other. Besides witnessing the two approaches at work within the light of an overall context (the Overall Story), the narrative must also explore the relationship that exists between the two opposing forces.

    You maintain your personal problems. Your spouse experiences her own. Your marriage carries an entirely different set of conflicts outside of individual concerns. Yes, the personal points-of-view influence and inform the friction within the relationship—but they are not the relationship.

    Ron and Patrice strike up an unlikely bond. At the heart of it rests an imbalance of continuation—the idea that they keep running into each other and feel driven to maintain their friendship fuels their interactions.

    Ron and Patrice work as a proxy for the relationship that exists between the naive and the vigilant. An imbalance of wisdom between the two results in a cautious bond that starts and stops starts and stops.

    It’s only when the vigilant can no longer “hang”—and the two split—that the relationship finally finds its inevitable conclusion.

    Dysfunction in Society

    BlacKkKlansman is a dysfunctional dark comedy. The twisted psychologies that lead to mail bombs and secret societies blame the assumed results of not taking action as impossible to avoid. An “integrated” America is the outcome they seek to prevent by burning crosses and processing meaningless IDs.

    In the end, America fails to change its essential nature. Though they managed to prove one single cop’s tendency towards prejudice, the system and the Klan go unpunished. Burn the evidence, destroy the proof, and learn to deal with the consequences of allowing the unverified to persist deep beneath the surface—

    —consequences of failure that erupt into violent action in August of 2017.

    Yet, BlacKkKlansman is also a story of Personal Triumph. While the conflict in the overall scheme of things remains unresolved, Ron himself finds relative peace. No longer content to hide behind the phone and his white alter-ego, he calls David Duke and boldly verifies the reality of Ron Stallworth’s true identity: a man who doesn’t have to hide—a man willing to show his true color(s).

    Essential Storypoints Supporting the Narrative

    The following are critical Storypoints found within the storyform for BlacKkKlansman:

    A Personal Triumph consists of two Dynamic Storypoints: a Story Outcome of Failure and a Story Judgment of Good. It’s Good because Ron feels comfortable in his own skin. It’s a Failure because of those scenes at the end in August of 2017.

    When an argument seeks to make a case for Failure, the Consequences persist. The Story Goal of BlacKkKlansman is Being, the Story Consequence is Doing. This can be interpreted as the balance between who we are and what we do.

    By failing to prove the Klan’s hidden influence (an Overall Story Solution of Proven), America gets to keep its identity. Lee contends that if Ron’s investigation, and countless other items of racism, had been brought to the surface and Proven—then America would have to act differently (a Story Goal of Being).

    That didn’t happen.

    And it continues not to happen.

    The “proof” is the video footage of Americans running over other Americans—a genuine Consequence of Doing.

    Lee is apparently done with us—as evidenced by the shattering of the relationship between Audience and filmmaker, between the naive and the vigilant. That fantasy sequence at the end shatters expectations, breaking the unbroken bond of trust between Author and Audience.

    And it’s all on purpose.

    Lee can no longer “hang” with us—a Relationship Story Solution of Ending that both supports his narrative argument and leaves us with the task of doing something about it.

    It’s our turn to prove that there is a problem.

    This article, BlacKkKlansman, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds and hundreds of insightful articles, analyses, podcasts, and blog posts can be found Inside Narrative First.

    The Definition of a Protagonist and Antagonist
    February 2019

    Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse features a cast of characters who defy the law of physics. Tumbling through the air, smashing through walls, and stopping massive machines with the touch of a hand, amazing superheroes save the day and bring conflict to an end. Yet as individualistic and fantastical as they appear on the surface, underneath it all these characters portray various facets of the same human mind.

    Multiple “characters”—one single mind.

    A Storymind.

    The Storymind Concept

    The best way to understand the motivations of a character is to stop thinking of him as a real person. Instead, think of all the characters as different motivations of one real person—that person being the story itself.

    A complete story, then, is an analogy to a single human mind trying to resolve an inequity. The various characters represent the different considerations and forces that operate within the psyche as the mind evaluates and re-evaluates its approach to resolving conflict.

    This Storymind concept is at the heart of the Dramatica theory of story and foundational in the development of Subtext.

    Characters are not real people—they’re individual parts of the same person.

    Taking this approach ensures a holistic understanding of the forces at work within a narrative.

    Protagonist and Antagonist

    The dual forces of Protagonist and Antagonist represent the mind’s motivation towards Initiative and Reticence, respectively. The Protagonist pursues; the Antagonist avoids.

    In Spider-Verse, Miles Morales is the Protagonist and Kingpin is the Antagonist. Mike pursues, and Kingpin avoids.

    At first, the notion that Kingpin avoids anything in this story sounds odd. If anything, Kingpin pursues a course of action to bring back his deceased wife and son.

    And that’s when it’s important to realize that these characters are not real people—they’re facets of one single human mind trying to resolve an inequity.

    In Spider-Verse, the inequity is a machine that rips a hole in the space-time continuum. The very presence of this machine draws the different Spiders in from alternate universe and threatens to tear open a black hole beneath the city of Brooklyn.

    That is the inequity—or Problem—this one Storymind considers, and shares with the Audience.

    With that Story Goal in mind, Kingpin’s motivation towards avoidance rings clear. He is motivated to avoid reversing the effects of the Large Hadron Collider. As a “person,” he wants to bring back his family—as a facet of a single mind he avoids or prevents (the active side of avoidance) the successful resolution of the Story Goal.

    Just like every functioning Antagonist.

    Miles, as Protagonist, pursues that Story Goal.

    Miles Morales in *Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
    Miles Morales in *Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

    Breaking Down Archetypal Characters

    Miles doesn’t just pursue the Goal, he is also motivated and motivates others to consider the pros and cons of destroying the machine. The guilt trip he lays on Peter B. Parker and his disappearing act in Aunt May’s lab sit as evidence of the Storymind in the act of Consideration.

    Kingpin balances this motivation with instances of Reconsideration. His refusal to turn off the machine when danger arises and his hope that his family will somehow reconsider their feelings towards him counteract the simple act of thinking with rethinking.

    These collection of paired narrative Elements—Pursuit and Consider, Avoid and Reconsider—signal the presence of Archetypal Characters within the Storymind.

    The drive to pursue pairs naturally up with a drive to consider. The motivation to avoid, or prevent, typically matches up with a call for reconsideration.

    That’s why the concept of a Protagonist is even a thing in our lexicon of language: we recognize a shared purpose of motivations within a mind, brought them together into a single vessel, or “player,” and then labeled him or her the Protagonist of a story.

    The Protagonist isn’t the one who changes the most—the Protagonist is a perfect set of motivations that define a clear and shared drive of initiative in the context of the Story Goal—the current inequity under consideration by the Storymind.

    Same with the Antagonist. He or she is not “the bad guy,” but rather, the final alignment of forces analogous to the drive towards reticence in the Storymind.

    Characters are not required to follow this alignment in every complete story. In fact, higher interest and increased delight occur when an Author mixes and matches these various narrative Elements.

    Miles is your pretty standard Protagonist. And Kingpin is your classic Antagonist.

    Kingpin in *Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
    Kingpin in *Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

    But what about Peter B. Parker and Miles’ Uncle Aaron?

    What facets of the Storymind do they represent?

    And more importantly, why do they appear more interesting as characters when compared to the driving forces of Protagonist and Antagonist as described above?

    More on that in our next article in this series on Demystifying Character Archetypes.

    This article, The Definitions of a Protagonist and Antagonist, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

    The Essential Ingredient of Every Complete Story
    January 2019

    When carefully crafting the ultimate meal, chefs obsessively focus on choosing the right ingredients. They know that taste relies on choosing how much of each to put in and when they choose to add them into the dish. In a way, an Author is like a chef and should know the ingredients they have to choose from—not rely on how they think their story will taste.

    In the past few weeks, we focused our attention on the Audience Appreciations of story—those Story Points that help up predict and understand what kind of an Audience will embrace our story and how the experience of that story will feel to them. Turning our attention to the essential base ingredients of story, we shift our focus towards a better understanding of how to craft that experience.

    We shift our attention towards the Dramatica theory of story.

    Dramatica is based on the idea that a complete story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Character, plot, theme, and genre? These concepts are not about three-dimensional people or complicating events of rising tension. Rather, they function as analogies to what goes on in that gray mass behind your eyes.

    And it all started around a campfire.

    The Storymind Concept

    Way back when, Ugga and Orga would return from their day’s adventure and recount what they saw to their fellow cavemates. They told what them what to expect and what to avoid out in the wild. Danger. Excitement. Food. Everything. Eventually, Ugga and Orga wanted to extend their reach beyond their own campfire so they could help out the cavepeople on the other cliff and down in the valley.

    In essence, they were the first bloggers.

    But they didn’t have access to Twitter or Facebook, and lacked the means to back up their stories or answer any questions posed to them. The only way to effectively communicate what they discovered was to develop a system that covered all the bases, answered all the questions, and accounted for the various counter-arguments other cavepeople might have in regards to their narrative. What if the sabre-tooth tiger didn’t come after me? What if I climbed that tree and didn’t find a berry? Ugga and Orga needed a way to counteract these trolls. They needed to develop a mind for the others to inhabit.

    Over centuries this matured into the storymind—a self-contained model of the human mind at work. Along the way, some tried to define this model to make it easier for others to communicate. Aristotle. Joseph Campbell. Syd Field. Christoper Vogler. Blake Snyder. With each generation understanding grew, yet somehow was still incomplete.

    Unfortunately, the hundreds and thousands of years between Ugga and Snyder hid the fact that stories were really just a way to communicate the most appropriate way to solve a problem. Without that reality in mind, any attempt to define story naturally got lost in subjective interpretations of who the characters were and whatever spiritual or transformational journey they appeared to be on. In an attempt to define the who, what, and how, they forgot the why.The true nature of story, it seemed, would remain buried beneath the oceans of time for all eternity.

    Until Dramatica.

    The Storymind at Rest

    In 1993, Chris Huntley and Melanie Anne Phillips released the Dramatica theory of story. Instead of looking to stories for patterns and trends of character development and spiritual growth, Chris and Melanie sought to identify the ingredients of story from the other side—from the Author’s point-of-view. Those other story paradigms? They explain the experience of hearing or participating in a story.

    Author’s don’t experience the story they write, they craft and create the story they write.

    Ugga and Orga weren’t interested in the experience—they were more concerned with this process of communicating their message as clearly and as completely as possible. Those first storytellers realized you can’t serve a delicious meal by simply taste-testing your favorite dishes.

    You need to know the ingredients first.

    The Author’s Role

    This is the Dramatica Table of Story elements at rest:

    The Dramatica Table of Story Elements
    The Dramatica Table of Story Elements

    Impressive and imposing, yet perfectly at peace. Self-Interest sits across from Morality. Pursuit from Avoid. The Past from the Present. And even Inequity from Equity. Every single last diagonal relationship within this model tells of a perfect balance.

    No inequity. No story.

    In order to make this model messy and create the potential for a story, someone needs to get in there and twist and turn it until the theoretical rubber bands tying these elements together begin to strain under the pressure. Until they verge on the brink of snapping. Someone needs to get in there and start making choices to wind this model up to the point where one tap will send it unravelling, spinning over and over again until it returns to that state of peace.

    Someone like you.

    The Eight Dynamic Questions

    If you want to get your hands dirty writing a story, you’re going to have to answer a few questions. Eight, to be exact. These eight dynamic questions set the amount of pressure applied at various locations within the model. If you want a different kind of story, you twist it up a different kind of way.

    Dramatica labels these eight questions dynamic because they claim responsibilty for twisting and turning the model at rest into a fully-realized packed-full-of-potential storymind. Other questions and story points concern themselves with structural aspects of a narrative. These fellas focus on the movement between the various structures.

    When developing a story, Authors must know the answers to these questions. If they don’t, their story will likely sputter out and crash three feet in front of them like the rubber-band airplane they didn’t take the time to wind up properly.

    Take the time to wind up your airplane.

    Character Arc

    The first two dynamic questions work together when it comes to defining the forces inherent within a narrative. The Main Character Resolve and the Main Character Growth pair up to define what most see as the “character arc” of the central character of a narrative. This concept of development is so important—not because of the journey it defines—but rather, because of where it sets the Main Character Throughline in relation to the Overall Story Throughline.

    Every problem is really seen as an inequity between the way we see the world and the world as it truly is. The Main Character Throughline versus the Overall Story Throughline. Understanding where the two converge and which one lies closer to the truth helps us determine how to jumble up that model of the storymind.

    The Main Character Resolve simply asks:

    At the end of the story, does the Main Character Remain Steadfast in their worldview or did they Change and adopt the Influence Character’s point-of-view?

    For those who don’t know, the Influence Character represents the alternative approach towards solving problems in a story. Typically a mentor, but sometimes a father, or a brother, or a lover, the Influence Character exists to challenge the Main Character by showing him or her the path not taken. They offer an alternative perspective on what the MC could have been.

    The other half of character arc, the Main Character Growth, defines the direction of the Main Character’s development:

    Does the Main Character grow by losing a trait or by gaining a trait? Do they Stop doing something or Start doing something?

    The exact application of this second Story Point adjusts depending on the answer to the first question. In a Main Character with a Changed Resolve, the Growth works as expected by adding or dropping a trait. In a Steadfast Main Character, the Growth is seen in the Main Character’s relation to the outside world: Are they holding out for something to stop or holding out for something to start?

    By putting the answers to these two questions together, an Author winds up the model of the storymind resulting in four very different kinds of stories.


    In these stories, the Main Character changes the way they see the world by adopting the Influence Character’s point-of-view. They may kick and scream the entire way but by the end, they change their resolve by dropping some trait or character flaw.

    Changed/Stop Stories
    Changed/Stop Stories

    Neo stops doubting himself in The Matrix and starts thinking more like Morpehus and Trinity, Joe (Tony Curtis) stops living the life of a distrustful irresponsible ladies’ man in Some Like it Hot, and Sully stops scaring the crap out of little kids in Monsters, Inc.


    In these narratives, Authors tell stories of Main Characters who change the way they see things by adding something to their lives. They still adopt the Influence Character’s perspective, but they do so by Starting something:

    Changed/Start Stories
    Changed/Start Stories

    Red starts standing up for himself in The Shawkshank Redemption, Matt King (George Clooney) in The Descendants starts defending his family, and Oscar (Kåre Hedebrant) engages in a little of the unspeakable in Let the Right One In.


    In sharp contrast to the Changed Resolve stories, these Main Characters stand up for themselves and end up changing the way the Influence Character sees the world. This is an important concept to understand: If the Main Character Remains Steadfast, then the Influence Character HAS to Change their Resolve. If they don’t, or if they both change, then the Author has communicated nothing.

    Ugga and Orga were trying to communicate the most appropriate way to solve problems in their community. In order to combat all those trolls in the cave down by the river, they had to match up one way of solving problems against another. By showing the result of one approach winning out over the other, they were able to effectively argue and convince those idiots how best to lead their lives.

    The process hasn’t changed.

    Author’s can communicate the best way to solve problems by showing the wrong way first, or by showing the right way first. Either way it doesn’t matter, as long as one side effectively “wins” over the other. As long as one changes to the other’s point-of-view.

    The Main Characters of these stories Remained Steadfast, holding out for something—or someone—to Stop and change to their point-of-view:

    Steadfast/Stop Stories
    Steadfast/Stop Stories

    Hiccup holds out for his father and the other Vikings to stop killing Dragons in How To Train Your Dragon. His dad eventually gets the point. Captain Kirk holds out for Spock and the rest of his teammates to stop running hogwild throughout the galaxy in Star Trek and the Vulcan eventually stops flying off the handle all the time. Marty McFly holds out for his dad and everyone else to stop running away from trouble in Back to the Future and eventually George balls up his fist and takes that swing.

    Even with those short explanations, one can see the difference in dynamic tension set by these two essential ingredients of story when compared to Changed stories. That difference lies in the method by which the storymind winds up, and by the potentials the windup ultimately creates.


    Finally we look to the Main Characters who hold out in the desparate hope that something will Start:

    Steadfast/Start Stories
    Steadfast/Start Stories

    Remy holds out for everyone to start seeing him as a real chef in Ratatouille, Ray Kinsella buys into the whole “If you build it, he will come” idea and dutifully holds out for that moment to start in Field of Dreams, and Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) holds out for the other jurors to start coming to the realization that this kid is innocent in 12 Angry Men.

    Again, very different dynamics at work in these kinds of stories. The Main Character in these stories represents the right way to solve problems. By Remaining Steadfast and digging their heels in, they eventually manage to convince the other side to change and adopt their point-of-view.

    Taking It Back

    Already one can see the variety of dishes available with only these two ingredients. Essential as they are to the eventual taste and experience of the meal, the Main Character Resolve and Main Character Growth paint an incomplete picture. In order to completely wrap up the storymind into something full of dramatic potential, six more questions must be answered.

    In the coming weeks, we will discuss these essential questions—essential questions that Ugga and Orga knew instinctively centuries ago. By understanding the true purpose of telling a story and appreciating the methods by which the potential of a story manifests, Authors everywhere should be well equipped to create the most savory and flavorful meals.

    That should keep the trolls quiet.

    This article, The Essential Ingredients of Every Complete Story, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

    Problems of Character Reflected in Story
    December 2018

    Effective story structure is more than hitting familiar emotional beats or rising complications of plot. Structure exists to grant Audiences a better appreciation of the problems in their lives. The narrative’s ability to shift contexts while looking at the same thing presents an opportunity of understanding unheard of, and thus demands careful consideration.

    Our last article, A Blueprint for Effective Character Development, discussed how to take Dramatica’s sometimes cold and impersonal view of story structure and turn it into something organic and writer-friendly. Offering an approach to interpreting story points like Problem, Symptom and Response, the article focused its attention on only one Throughline: the Main Character. Main Characters do not operate in a vaccuum. They need an Influence Character to challenge their approach and a Relationship with which to grow from. And while it may seem the furthest thing away, they also need an objective look at their Responses and Resolve. They need an Overall Story Throughline.

    Objective Take on the Subjective

    More than simply a battleground for objective character functions like Protagonist, Antagonist, Skeptic and Sidekick, the Overall Story Throughline presents an outside look at the problems faced by the Main Character. Sometimes referred to as the ‘A’ story line, or simply plot, this Throughline compliments the other three Throughlines found in a complete story. While the Main Character Throughline offers an intensely personal, first person “I” perspective on things, the Overall Story Throughline grants an objective “They” look at what befuddles the characters. The remaining two Throughlines–Influence Character and Relationship Story–present counter-arguments to those first two in the form of “You” and “We” perspectives.

    What happens when you don’t have all four of these throughlines? If you’re a fan of self-inflicted pain take a night to watch National Treasure. While crafty in its hunt of hidden treasure, the film itself offers nothing in terms of emotional relevance. One cannot connect to this film. The reason can be found with the complete lack of a Main Character Throughline. Sure, there is an attempt to give Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) an issue with the family name, but this is quickly forgotten and never develops into moments of quiet reflection or angst regarding his true identity. Compound this with the lack of any challenging Influence Character to oppose him (despite the obvious candidates in the form of the beautiful girl and the skeptical dad) and the complete absence of any Relationship Story and the film quickly becomes an exercise in self-inflicted torture.

    Crafting a story with Four Throughliens becomes priority one for writers who want to say something with their work. But even more important they need to find a way to weave the Main Character’s Throughline with the Overall Story Throughline. These aren’t simply separate occurrences or disparate storylines. The Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines offer an objective and subjective look at the same problem.

    Magic in the Machine

    Before Dramatica, writers had to figure this out on their own and often did so by reflecting the Main Character’s personal problem in the Overall Story (or vice versa by reflecting the Overall Story Problem in the Main Character).[1] By doing this, audiences get an overall logistical take on how to best solve problems while at the same time receviing an intimiate look at what it feels like from inside to have these very same problems. When you put the two against each other within the same work magic happens. Magic, because this is something you can’t do in your real life. You can’t be both within and without. You can only be without. And then within. Never at the same time. This is what makes stories so special and so unique to the human experience.

    A Way to Combine Thematic Material.

    So how does one go about doing this? Better yet, let’s take a look at classic stories and how the personal problems of the Main Character find themselves reflected in the larger Overall Story. (and of course, we’ll do it the other way as well)

    The Problem With Cutting Oneself Off

    In Casablanca, refugees filter through Rick’s cafe on the way to America. They seek freedom. Freedom from Hitler and internment camps and tyranny. Major Strasser and the Nazi party he represents seek to control every movement in and out of Europe.

    What better way to experience this tyranny from inside than to create a character shut-off and isolated from his own feelings? A character so determined to control his emotions that he hardly bats an eye when a teenager asks him whether or not she should sleep with the Captain of the Police in exchange for a ticket to America. Rick (Humprey Bogart) seeks to have control over himself every bit as much as the Nazis wish to exert their control over the citizens of Europe. By showing us an objective look on how to solve a problem of control (“Round up the usual suspects”) while simultaneously granting us a subjective personal take on how to overcome control (“Here’s looking at you kid”), Casablanca argues the very best approach to solving control: freedom.

    The Problem with Me Me Me

    In the Academy Award winning screenplay for her, self-absorbed hipsters attempt to envision better relationships through technology. Whether it be scolding a friend for juicing their fruits and eating their vegetables or walking aimlessly through downtown without recognizing a single soul, the crushing amount of self-absorbtion threatens our future selves.

    What better to way to experience this self-centered approach than to create a character who only sees the effects of his divorce on himself? Obssessed with his wife’s anger towards him, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) becomes locked within his own memories, playing them over and over again in an effort to determine why me? By showing how a greater awareness of his own contribution to the demise of his marraige released Theodore from his obssession while simultaneously presenting the failure that occurs when the machines seek even greater self-awareness, her argues for an end to this tendency to draw inward.

    Adding Distance to the Problem

    This works for half of the stories out there. Stories where the Main Character does a complete 180 on their point-of-view will find the Overall Story Throughline and the Main Character Throughline sharing the same kind of problem.[2] The other half, the half that feature a Main Character who stays resolute to their core beliefs, will find the same similarity between the Overall Story Throughline and the Influence Character Throughline. The juxtapostion between between objective and subjective still exists, only in these stories the subjective is once removed.

    For instance, in How to Train Your Dragon how else can you make the struggle to overcome the non-acceptance of winged monsters more personal than by presenting a character who refuses to accept his only son? Stoick’s rejection of his son matches the Viking’s refusal to compromise when it comes to killing dragons. Unlike her and Casablanca above, the problem rests outside of the Main Character, yet its influence still affects us on a personal level. As Hiccup, we feel it. But this time, instead of my problem, it’s his problem.

    Same thing happens in Back to the Future. What better way to juxtapose the trouble that happens when you try to prevent or avoid an unwanted future than by inserting a character who avoids conflict at all costs? George McFly (Crispin Glover)–like future boy and the doctor–splits and runs in the presence of danger, yet through this nebbish science-fiction fan we feel its impact personally.

    Within and Without

    Regardless of whether we feel the problem as our own or through someone close to us, this conflict always finds itself reflected in the larger scheme of things.

    We can’t really determine for ourselves the best approach to solving a problem until we’ve seen it from all sides. The power of story lies in its ability to offer both subjective and objective views of the same problems. We simply can’t experience that in real life. That is why stories eventually developed the four Throughlines and that is why we keep returning to them day after day. By showing us the ramifications of problem-solving in different contexts, stories gift us powerful insight to approaching and solving the problems in our own lives.

    1. Dramatica is a theory of story that represents the next chapter in story development. Presented in 1994, Dramatica theorizes that every story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem.  ↩

    2. 50% of stories feature a Main Character who Changes their Resolve. The other 50% offer a Main Character who Remains Steadfast in their Resolve. The series, Character and Change covers this unique aspect of story structure.  ↩

    This article, Problems of Character Reflected in Story, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

    Applying Pressure to the Main Character
    November 2018

    While the growth of the Main Character through a complete story is regarded as one of the most important aspects of a story, it is also the most difficult to quantify.

    Previous attempts to describe this process (those that rely heavily on the Protagonist as Hero model) often resulted in paradigms that confused a character’s development over time with their actual final resolve at the moment of crisis. The fallout from such thinking produced the well-worn, yet highly inaccurate, notion that every Main Character needs to change.

    Proficient writers know instinctively that Main Characters need not always transform.

    Understanding Pressure and Who Sits at the Controls

    Imagine climbing into a diving bell and being lowered into the deep, blue sea. As you descend, the pressure on the outside of the bell increases. This requires you to compensate for the pressure by building up pressure on the inside so that there remains a balance between internal and external. Each change in depth requires further attention towards maintaining that balance.

    If you raise the diving bell, the pressure on the inside becomes greater than the outside and there is the threat of an explosion if internal pressure isn’t reduced. If instead you were to lower the diving bell, the pressure on the inside would become less than the outside and there would be the threat of an implosion if internal pressure isn’t increased.

    Internal or External: Which One is Unpredictable?

    In a complete story, either the external or internal forces applied to the diving bell will seem to flow naturally (or predictably), while the other will seem to have some sort of uncontrollable or unreasonable element to it. In this second example, the one at the controls will be the unpredictable factor.

    In stories where the Main Character ultimately transforms, they will appear to be the unpredictable side of the equation. As the external pressure increases or decreases, the Main Character either cannot stop using the controls of the diving bell and overcompensates, or is unwilling to use the controls sufficiently enough to prevent discomfort or harm. An example of the former would be Cobb in Inception. Surprise trains and playful children manifest themselves as projections of his attempts to overcompensate for the guilt he feels for his participation in his wife’s suicide. An example of the latter can be found with Bud in The Apartment. His unwillingness to stand up for himself describes perfectly that character who, for whatever reason, refuses to change the pressure within the bell. The imbalance increases until finally he has no other choice than to change.

    When the External Becomes Erratic

    In stories where the Main Character maintains their resolve throughout the moment of crisis, the Main Character is perfectly willing to go along for the ride, but whomever or whatever is controlling the ascension or descension of the diving bell is erratic or uncompromising. A perfect example of this can be found in any one of the Bourne movies. Jason Bourne, while somewhat unpredictable from an external perspective, is completely unwavering on the inside, much like his country cousin James Bond (except for the most recent Casino Royale where Bond breaks the mold as a Steadfast Main Character). In these types of stories it is the other principal character, the one with which the Main Character develops a meaningful relationship, that becomes the unpredictable factor.

    In the first Bourne movie, The Bourne Identity, it is Bourne’s girlfriend Marie who is the uncontrollable one, her allegiance and complicity with his actions forcing him to maintain balance. In the second, The Bourne Supremacy the person working the crane holding Bourne’s diving bell is CIA Analyst Pamela Landy. Like her counterpart Sam Gerard in The Fugitive, Pamela works as the wildcard, erratic in her attempts to fully assess the situation. And finally, in The Bourne Ultimatum it is fellow assassin Paz who is uncompromising in his efforts to lower Bourne deeper and deeper into the ocean.

    In all three films, it is that other character that ultimately transforms and brings back balance between the internal and external worlds.

    Who Is At Fault Here?

    In stories where the Main Character ultimately changes their nature, they often appear to be the cause of their own difficulties. Inception, Star Wars, Hamlet–stories of transformation deal with characters who have trouble keeping that pressure level bearable within that diving bell. In stories where the Main Character remains true to their nature, they will appear to be the victim or pawn of larger forces. Trapped within that diving bell, they do what they can to maintain equilibrium. Jason Bourne, Dr. Richard Kimble, Salieri - stories of steadfast resolve center around characters at the mercy of external forces.

    Advanced Story Theory for this Article

    This concept of the diving bell and the Main Character originated with an initial conversation with Chris Huntley, one of the co-creators behind the Dramatica theory of story. It is an attempt (a fantastic attempt) to qualify the difference between Main Character Resolve and Main Character Growth.

    When it comes to Main Character Growth, Stop and Start affect the controls of the crane raising and lowering the diving bell (external world), as well as the controls inside the bell increasing and decreasing the internal pressure (Main Character).

    In a Change story, the Main Character is the unpredictable element. In a Stop story, the Main Character can’t stop using the controls or overcompensates as pressure increases and decreases. In a Start story, the Main Character is unwilling to work those controls.

    In a Steadfast story, the Main Character is willing to go the prescribed course, but whomever or whatever is controlling the ascension or descension of the diving bell becomes the erratic or uncompromising factor.

    Stop and Start describe the Main Character’s efforts to come into balance with the external pressures, so that once there is a close equilibrium, he can then take that final step toward removing the inequity entirely (through Main Character Resolve).

    This article, Applying Pressure to the Main Character, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

    Narrative Drive and Weak Protagonists
    October 2018

    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, Narrative Drive and Weak Proagonists, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

    Finding the Plot of Your Story Through Theme
    September 2018

    Regarding the argument over the integration of Characters into Plot, the barometer of Theme rarely enters the conversation. Understood more as a simple statement of right and wrong, Theme observes from a distance–an outcast on the sideline of storytelling. The truth calls for Theme to step forward and play an integral part in the development of a narrative.

    A Thematic Premise Leads to Nothing

    Many primers on creative writing refer to Theme as the story’s premise. Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing popularized this idea with his definition of the composition of a “good premise”:

    “Every good premise is composed of three parts, each of which is essential to a good play. Let us examine ”Frugality leads to waste. The first section of this premise suggests character–a frugal nature. The second part, leads to.” indicates conflict, and the third part waste, suggests the end of the play.

    Greed leads to generosity. Ruthless ambition leads to destruction. Jealousy destroys itself and the object of its love. Anyone who has taken to pen to paper in the hopes of writing a great story recognizes this concept.

    In his book, The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success, Dr. Stan Williams describes a process of placing the premise on a continuum between vice and virtue. No longer content with “Ruthless ambition leads to self-destruction,” Dr. Williams adds “Ruthless ambition leads to self-destruction, but Benevolent justice leads to rightful honor.”

    With this in mind, the young Author begins her story. Scene after scene, she depicts the fall of ruthless and ambitious characters; in-between she writes of benevolent and righteous characters ascending to great heights. And in the end, the Audience finds itself bored to tears with this black-and-white argument.

    As a professional screenwriter and Scriptnotes podcast host Craig Mazin notes:

    [A Moral Premise] is not a “theme” for the purposes of writing a movie. That’s a motif or subject matter. I mean, you can call it a theme, but it’s useless to the writer. It doesn’t help the writing.


    The Bridge Between Character and Plot

    Look to the Dramatica Table of Story Elements hanging in your writing space or download a fresh copy from the official Dramatica site. Four towers cascade down the page, starting with Genre and working their way down to Character. Theme fills the gap between Plot and Character, tying the two narrative concerns of methodology and motivation with a barometer of evaluations.

    The Dramatica Table of Story Elements
    The Dramatica Table of Story Elements

    Self Interest and Morality provide a sliding scale for evaluating “Ruthless ambition.” Same with “greed,” “generosity,” and “jealousy.” In fact, a sampling of examples from Egri and Williams tends to reside in the same limited location of the narrative model; the same story told over and over again.

    A brief scan of Dramatica’s thematic landscape reveals Commitments and Responsibilities, Senses and Interpretations, and Preconceptions and Openness. The totality of human evaluation lies waiting at this level for any Author to grab hold and make their own.

    These evaluations also give clues towards the plotting of a narrative.

    What You Find Above Exists Below

    Consider the thematic Issues of Self Interest, Morality, Approach, and Attitude. These four exist as a family of evaluations under the standard banner of Obtaining. A story that explores this area of theme–like The Matrix, Unforgiven, Reservoir Dogs, or Back to the Future sets a common Concern and Story Goal of Obtaining.

    The thematic family of Instinct, Conditioning, Senses, and Interpretation requires plot development focused on Understanding something. The Usual Suspects, Inception, The Sixth Sense, and The Prestige toy with these four evaluations. Preconception, Openness, Delay, and Choice find a home in Concerns of the Future. Boyz n the Hood, Witness, Juno, and The Shawshank Redemption look to the Future as a common Goal of interest to the characters and plot themselves accordingly.

    In all of these examples, the Type-level Concern that umbrellas the thematic evaluations below sets the plot for that particular narrative. Theme is more than a simple measuring stick between vice and virtue–Theme locks in the progression of Acts within a story.

    Get Out

    Understanding the connection between Theme and Plot helped me in my recent analysis of Get Out. At first, I felt the title of the film, and the dramatic concerns of the characters led to a shared interest of Conceiving: conceiving of a way out of both their heads and the dreaded Armitage family estate.

    Looking at the family of thematic Issues resting below the Type-level Concern of Conceiving, I began to sense something incongruent. Permission, Deficiency, Need, and Expediency failed to describe the kind of conflict accurately, and thematic issues dealt with in the film.

    Scanning the general area in and around these issues–as I knew, overall, that the kind of conflict explored dealt with Psychological manipulations and dysfunctional lines of thinking–I ran across State of Being, Sense of Self, Situation, and Circumstances.


    These four thematic issues summed up the entirety of writer/director Jordan Peele’s narrative. Georgina, Walter, and Andre Hayworth’s Sense of Self. Mr. and Mrs. Armitage’s State of Being really awful people (actually, the entire family). Chris’s Situation of being the only black person in a sea of white people. And the overwhelming Circumstances of your physicality failing you. Put together, this unique family of disturbing Issues shapes the thematic conversation of Get Out.

    And they also set the Plot of the film.

    With Conceptualizing functioning as the shared mutual concern and Overall Story Goal, the Failure to reach that Goal brings about a Story Consequence of Understanding.

    Exploring these issues during the Obama era, Peele originally wrote a Failure ending for Chris. Instead of best friend Rod emerging from the red and blue lights, police offers converge on the bloodied and hapless Chris, with guns drawn. MisUnderstanding Chris as a cold-blooded murder they lock him up for life.

    Regardless of Peele’s decision to break structure, the Plot Concerns of both Story Goal and Story Consequence remain the same. Choosing to focus on the problematic evaluations of State of Being, Sense of Self, Situation, and Circumstances locks in a Goal of Conceptualizing and a Consequence of Understanding.

    Theme determines Plot.

    Different Story, Same Story

    While vastly different regarding characterization and genre, American Beauty shares the same connection between Theme and Plot as Get Out. As with the Armitage estate, the process of trying to integrate with one another creates problems for everyone.

    Witnessing the shirtless guy next door lifting weights and this neighbor’s strange relationship with a teenage boy challenges Col. Fitts’ State of Being gay. Climbing the ladder of local real estate and envisioning a better life involves engaging in an illicit affair (Situation) for Carolyn. Figuring out where one fits into the high school caste system alienates Jane from cheerleader Angela through Sense of Self. And remaining catatonic to fit into suburbia with an obviously gay husband creates unacceptable Circumstances for Fitts’ wife, Barbara.

    Like Get Out, this collection of thematic issues set a Story Goal of Conceptualizing–or integrating–and a Story Consequence of Understanding for American Beauty. In contrast to Peele, both writer Alan Ball and director Sam Mendes kept their original ending and allowed the plot to end in Failure: Lester realized the real beauty of his life moments before Fitts ended it because of the embarrassing misUnderstanding between them.

    An actual failure to integrate into each other’s lives.

    An Understanding of Theme That Helps

    Instead of relying on outdated and unproven notions of “moral premise,” look to Dramatica’s robust and comprehensive understanding of Theme as the bridge between Character and Plot. Scour the topology of thematic Issues for words and concepts that speak to you as an Artist, and connect with that Intention deep within your heart. Once you hear their signal, acknowledge the family of Variations and look to the Type-level concern that wraps them together. There you will find a focal point for your Plot and a destination for the Characters in your narrative.

    This article, Finding the Plot of Your Story Through Theme, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

    Writing Short Stories with Dramatica
    August 2018

    How do you possibly squeeze in all 75 storypoints of a Dramatica storyform into a story 6,000 words long, or a short film that runs less than 5 minutes?

    You don’t.

    The Dramatica theory of story reveals an approach for creating effective arguments. Straw-man or one-sided arguments? Dramatica can’t help you there.

    There’s a reason most films run close to two hours: that’s the shortest amount of time required to form a complete and well-balanced argument. Anything longer and you might have two storyforms in there; anything shorter and compromise the integrity of the debate.

    That said, sometimes the purpose of a work of fiction isn’t to argue a particular approach or message—but rather, to just entertain or inform.

    To tell a tale, instead of a story.

    An Approach for Short Stories

    If the scope of your work is shorter than is required for a full argument, then “slice and dice” your way through the Dramatica model to find a quad of elements that resonate with you.

    Keep it to one quad—any quad—and use that to help guide your story.

    So it seems like the best use of Dramatica in my case may be due to a “cross-cut”? Taking part of say… the MC and IC since I have that dynamic set up? Just trying to wrap my head around what this actually looks like in practice–do I narrow down a complete story form, then just use the one quad as my guide? Or parts from two? As far as the one quad… how does one assign the different POV’s using one quad?

    In a short story, you don’t have enough story “real-estate” to work through the various POV’s (by POV the writer above means the Four Throughlines of Main Character, Influence Character, Relationship Story, and Overall Story Throughlines).

    Consider this post, Short Stories from Big Time Writers, from our first incarnation Story Fanatic. In that early blog post, I explain the minimalist story structure at work behind Scott Frank’s short story, The Flying Kreisslers.

    Frank won an Academy Award for writing Logan.

    Unfortunately at this time, I can’t seem to find a copy of the actual story (please write to me if you see it!), but you can appreciate a sense of the story structure in the blog post.

    The Flying Kreisslers is a short story about a dysfunctional family of trapeze artists that eventually turn to murder. While there is no sense of an actual defined Throughline, you can still see a Plot Progression of sorts:

    • Being
    • Conceptualizing
    • Becoming
    • Conceiving

    From pretending to be OK with things, to come up with an idea for murder—with scheming and changing one’s nature mixed in the middle—that’s the basic structure of Frank’s story.

    These four Types exist at the Plot level in the Dramatica Table of Story Elements. And you find them under the larger Area of Psychology—which is where you always find problems of dysfunction.

    The Psychology Domain
    The Psychology Domain

    But then, how did Frank come up with that Act order? Did he build a Dramatica storyform and then take the Plot Progression from the Overall Story Throughline?

    Most likely not.

    Letting the Storyform Go

    Writers use Dramatica storyforms to make their arguments, they don’t argue Dramatica storyforms.

    But one still does narrow down to one overall story form, yeah? Just ignore the other parts?

    No. By writing a short story, you’re making an incomplete argument. Audiences get that. The contract is already set with them, and they’ll be OK with the arrangement.

    What you can do, however, is use the plot progression of a quad to help set up the structure of your story and make it feel like there is something more there.

    Make it read like you’ve put some thought into it.

    Look at the Dramatica Table of Story Elements (or use Subtext), find a quad that seems interesting to you, and use those elements to give your narrative a sense of flow.

    One last thing… so if I’m just looking at the raw Dramatica Chart and picking a quad to help my short story… do I have to worry about how Memory actually deals with the elements in Subconscious? Or do I just write about Memory in terms of Truth, Evidence, Suspicion, Falsehood as they exist under that part of the quad?

    It depends on how far down you want to go—how much time you have with your short story. Use the size of your story to determine your scope.

    And don’t worry about shifting quads and seeing them in different contexts.

    Writers familiar with Dramatica will know that once a story is set, the nicely balanced Table of Story Elements is all jumbled-up. You could be faced with Being in terms of Fate, Prediction, Interdiction, and Destiny (all issues found within a context of the Past, not Being) or Conceiving in terms of Prerequisites, Strategy, Analysis, and Preconditions (issues found under Learning). This “screwed-up” version is what your story looks like before you tell it—when tension is at its highest.

    And when you’ve set up the potential for a complete argument.

    When you shoot for something less, you can screw the model up any way you want—it won’t make a difference because the model is intended to build an argument.

    When it comes to short stories, use sets of quads that resonate with your artist’s intuition.

    Back to what you said about how with a short you’re just emulating what appears to be a complete story form, yeah? So… it’s not necessary, but would it hurt an author to have figured out a larger story and use that “fully solved storyform” only focusing on one bit? I guess it wouldn’t matter cuz you just said you can do literally anything, haha

    He pretty much answered the question himself. You can develop a storyform and then take a slice or dice of that…or you cannot prepare one and merely search the Table of Story Elements for issues that work for you. If you do the former, the Audience may or may not have a sense of the larger storyform— depending on how much you’re able to communicate and squeeze in—and of course, how much they’re actually paying attention. But the Audience will still be merely guessing at what it is you’re trying to say.

    And if you have something more substantial to say…then why not write a complete story?

    Delivering the Goods

    With a short story, you’re not making a complete argument, so it really doesn’t matter which quads you use for your story. With short stories, there aren’t any rules because you’re not trying to make the one thing that Dramatica helps you make—an argument.

    You’re merely using bits and pieces to kind of guess at how the narrative should flow. And when it comes to guessing, the quads could be screwed up or correctly balanced—in the end, it’s entirely up to you.

    Dramatica’s quads of quads of Elements can help you frame the narrative of your short story. Gather up a family of four and write something awesome. Bouncing from one Element to the next will give a semblance of completeness—a “short” version of a grander story.

    This article, Writing Short Stories with Dramatica, originally appeared 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
    July 2018

    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 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, Why the Main Character’s Approach, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

    Rethinking an Analysis of The Florida Project
    June 2018

    Time reveals all in everything we do. As an initial understanding fades, a better appreciation of purpose and intent rises to the surface. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get a film the first time around—a great story forces you to work your way through to its message.

    And the Dramatica theory of story gives you the tools to arrive at that better understanding.

    Sean Baker’s The Florida Project haunted me weeks after my first viewing. Relating the story of a mother and a daughter struggling to survive on the outskirts of Walt Disney World, this film portrays an air of reality that stalks your every waking moment. As someone involved with Dramatica for quite some time, I know this feeling to indicate a healthy and vibrant storyform—something meaningful behind the scene.

    After a month of watching a hunch grow into a certainty, I returned to my original analysis of The Florida Project to find it lacking substance:

    The Florida Project, while stunning and socially relevant, fails to encapsulate an argument with the framework of a complete story. The result is a lack of attachment, a distancing from the predicament portrayed. It is as if we’re watching a beautiful reenactment of real-life events, rather than actively participating in a collaborative attempt to resolve the conflict at hand.

    I no longer felt this way.

    Two events added to my disconnect: a post on the Discuss Dramatica boards and a conversation with Dramatica Story Expert Jon Gentry after our recent Users Group Meeting. The former saw a correlation between those films in 2017 that scored high on Rotten Tomatoes and the presence of a “solid” Dramatica storyform. While outliers exist, those films that breech 95% do so because of their stable story structure.

    Hearing Jon express his love and admiration for the film was the final push I needed. I returned to Dramatica with the intent to unravel the code behind The Florida Project’s powerful message.

    An explanation of Author’s intent

    The Dramatica storyform is a blueprint of Author’s intent. My first clue revealed itself in an explanation how the filmmakers shot the final scene:

    Baker filmed the final scene at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom Park “very clandestinely”, using an iPhone 6S Plus without the resort’s knowledge. To maintain secrecy, the filming at the resort used only the bare minimum crew, including Baker, Bergoch, cinematographer Alexis Zabe, acting coach Samantha Quan, Cotto, Prince, and the girls’ guardians. Baker intended the ending to be left up to audience interpretation: “We’ve been watching Moonee use her imagination and wonderment throughout the entire film to make the best of the situation she’s in—she can’t go to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, so she goes to the ‘safari’ behind the motel and looks at cows; she goes to the abandoned condos because she can’t go to the Haunted Mansion. And in the end, with this inevitable drama, this is me saying to the audience, ’If you want a happy ending, you’re gonna have to go to that headspace of a kid because, here, that’s the only way to achieve it.”

    That final shot reveals Moonee retreating into an even higher level of fantasy. This scene sets a Main Character Resolve of Changed and a Story Judgment of Bad. While the director refers to “a happy ending”, from an objective Dramatica point-of-view the argument posed is one of Tragedy. This fantasy life is not a “Good” thing.

    More importantly, this explanation confirms the intent to argue or communicate something more profound beneath the surface.

    A storyform exists.

    Riding the wave of narrative elements towards a better understanding

    My first stop was the Element of Non-accurate for Halley (Bria Vinaite), Moonee’s mom and Influence Character. Her inappropriate behavior and inadequacy as a mother challenge and drives the young Main Character to grow into those delusions. Halley’s obstinate and fixed state-of-mind influences Moonee’s hopeless predicament (Influence Character Throughline of Mind and Main Character Throughline of Universe).

    While running yesterday, I conceptualized the connections between the Influence Character and Overall Story Throughlines. Knowing the Steadfast Character of a narrative shares the same Focus and Direction with the Overall Story Throughline, I started to guess at the dynamic pair resting with Non-accurate and Accurate.

    After twenty years of Dramatica, I know by rote the top three levels of the mind. Classes, Types, Variations—those are easy to remember and unique to each Domain. The bottom level, the 64 Elements, repeat within each Domain, their arrangement shifting according to the context above them.

    As I ran, I thought Non-accurate and Accurate shared an Issue of Worth with Ending and Unending. I liked that, as I could see Halley focusing on the end of each month and doing whatever she needed to keep her unstable, yet workable, living conditions perpetually cycling.

    I followed those Elements over to the Psychology Domain and Concern of Being. The Overall Story Throughline of The Florida Project points out the dysfunctional ways of thinking that lead to this situation in Orlando. Tourists and residents looking the other way, pretending the problem doesn’t exist, defines the inequity everyone faces in this story.

    The mother/daughter relationship of conning innocent tourists out of money, both overt and behind the scenes (with Moonee in the bathtub) strengthens this focus. An Overall Story Throughline of Psychology and an Overall Story Concern of Being require a Relationship Story Throughline of Physics and a Relationship Story Concern of Doing—which fits perfectly with their precarious relationship.

    With Ending and Unending under Thought (again, what I imagined) that would give an Overall Story Problem of Result and an Overall Story Solution of Process.

    Result: the ramifications of a specific effect

    Result felt great.

    A paradigm of story based on Author’s intent

    The Dramatica theory of story—what makes it so tricky for Authors to understand—pinpoints what the story is about, not what the characters think is going on. The characters in The Florida Project don’t consciously or subconsciously go around worrying about the Results in their life—the Author is making a statement regarding the results of this society we’ve constructed. He shines a light on the Results of all of us turning a blind eye—of knowing what is going on—yet not doing a thing (an excellent indication of the Overall Story Issue of Knowledge), and showing the tragic circumstances that inevitably arise.

    I knew Results was the right Problem Element for both the Overall Story and Main Character Throughlines. A narrative with a Main Character Resolve of Changed positions the same problematic element at the heart of both the objective and subjective views of the story. Moonee fails to ever take responsibility for the results of her actions—fallout from her unique position at the fulcrum between these two Throughlines.

    Confident that I found the right Throughline—all while exercising—I returned home, grabbed my phone, and loaded up the Narrative First Atomizer

    —only to find that I was wrong about the arrangement of Elements.

    Working towards the right answer

    With the new Element model in the Atomizer, one easily navigates from one Domain to another. The entry page for Non-accurate not only present a list of examples and definitions but also paints a picture of its contextual families.

    The Element of Non-accurate within a Context of Worry
    The Element of Non-accurate within a Context of Worry

    Non-accurate and Accurate share Result and Process under Worry/Mind not Ending and Unending.


    I liked that Result and Process were in there, but as Focus and Direction, they seemed entirely off. Clicking on Result showed me that it shared a quad with Proven and Unproven under Knowledge. The Issue of Knowledge sparked my initial thoughts about everyone knowing and looking away, but I couldn’t resolve Proven and Unproven with Moonee’s Throughline. Neither direction, from Proven to Unproven or Unproven to Proven, felt like the story of a young girl regressing into fantasy to save herself.

    So instead, I went the other direction.

    If Results was the Problem—as I previously thought—what would that mean for Halley’s Influence Character Throughline?

    Tapping Unproven revealed the quad of Proven and Unproven, Cause and Effect under the Mind Domain. Effect as a Problem or source of drive for Halley?

    A quick glance at the list of examples of Effect in action gave me all the proof I needed:

    Examples of Effect in Narrative
    Examples of Effect in Narrative

    Of course. Having a Negative Effect on Someone. Once again, Dramatica is not identifying what Halley herself sees as a problem—it’s what the Author sees as her problematic influence. Halley doesn’t lament the effects of what is going on around her, nor does she feel she needs to have a more significant impact on others. By portraying Halley the way he does in The Florida Project, Sean Baker is saying that it’s a huge problem the kind of effect this mother has on her child.

    The rest of the storyform exploded in my brain like a hundred million stars going supernova all at once.

    Confirming the new storyform

    Result and Process find a home under an Issue of Security with Cause and Effect in Moonee’s personal Throughline. The issue of security and the insecurities she feels stranded alone for long stretches of time fuel the kind of fantasy life Moonee needs to survive. The fact the young girl so easily avoids blame by re-channeling her energies towards creating all sorts of equally problematic chain reactions confirms a Main Character Focus of Cause and a Main Character Direction of Effect.

    The Relationship Story Issue of Wisdom makes a strong statement about parental stupidity and its effect on the child. Interestingly enough, the storyform flips my original observation that they moved away from Ending and into Unending. One can see the broader connection that exists beneath a shared appreciation of this situation going on forever and ever and finding some way to bring it all to an end (Relationship Story Focus of Unending and Relationship Story Direction of Ending). The Relationship Story Benchmark of Learning finds relevance in the caseworkers learning about this toxic relationship and of Moonee learning what others think of her mother.

    A better appreciation of a work of art

    I plan to rewrite my formal analysis. In the meantime, the complete storyform for The Florida Project exists within the Narrative First Atomizer.

    The Florida Project in the Story Atomizer
    The Florida Project in the Story Atomizer

    One thing is clear: The Florida Project is a sophisticated and highly complex narrative masterpiece. The meaning, so tightly woven into the fabric of the film, takes months before it finally dawns on you: Oh, that’s what they were saying.

    This is what makes story so special.

    The idea that a work of art can continue to influence and impact us, even when we least expect it—when we’ve moved on and are off doing other things—that’s something only a great story can claim as its own.

    The storyform bridges the gap between Author and Audience, and pulls the two closer together by granting meaning to the events of the story. By appreciating the specific elements of a narrative, we better understand the message and the intent to give us a reason to pause.

    And to think.

    This article, Rethinking an Analysis of The Florida Project, originally appeared March 21, 2018 on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

    Dramatica: The Journey Towards a Better Understanding of Story
    May 2018

    A productive and meaningful exploration of narrative structure requires a specific strategy. One must be rigid in the application of proven theoretical concepts while simultaneously leaving themselves open to the possibility of merely being wrong about how they see things. To rest on the defense of self-perception is to cut one’s journey of development off before it even begins.

    A challenge to the objective nature of the Dramatica theory of story, one often heard, arose on the Discuss Dramatica board:

    I think there can be more than one interpretation since unless a writer used Dramatica to structure a story, it is very likely not going to align well. Map versus territory.

    This statement is not entirely accurate; if the story “works”—and tells a complete argument—then it will map correctly within Dramatica’s model of narrative. Shakespeare didn’t have access to Dramatica. But he did have access to all the processes of problem-solving that every one of us possesses: a mind.

    A Form to the Structure of a Story

    In sharp contrast to the various paradigms of story that base structure on mythical journeys or sequencing of “birth moments,” Dramatica outlines seventy-five objective Story Appreciations. These story points—means by which the Audience can appreciate the meaning & intent of a story—broadcast the Author’s purpose. These appreciations coalesce to give form to an Author’s argument.

    This form—or Storyform—is objective. A Dramatica storyform is not victim to subjective interpretation. Given a room full of experts well-versed in the theory and a story complete in execution, one comprehensive and accurate storyform makes itself known. Unfortunately, because of the complexity and space needed to separate storyform from storytelling in the analysis process, many writers default to the “many ways to interpret a story” rationalization. Instead of availing themselves of this deficiency in understanding, they turn a blind eye—and in the process, make the whole world blind.

    The Dramatica theory of story assumes that every complete story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Assuming everyone possesses a working and functioning mind, the identification of similar techniques of problem-solving will always result in agreement on one accurate storyform.

    I don’t think it’s a very defensible position to say there is only one way to interpret a story, nor to presume all people using Dramatica (or any other theory for that matter) will see a story exactly the same way.

    If the analysts understand the Dramatica theory of story with competency and accuracy–and don’t fall back on the Well, that’s just how I see it defense–then yes, they will arrive the same storyform. For proof of this confirmation in action, listen to the latest Dramatica Users Group analysis of La La Land.

    A Chance to Dream

    Convinced that the film’s dream tail-end dream sequence indicated a Story Outcome of Failure, I spent several hours trying to convince a room full of Dramatica Story Experts to agree with me.

    I failed.

    The only two people on the planet who understand Dramatica better than me are the theory’s co-creators, Chris Huntley and Melanie Anne Phillips. I spent two decades learning the ins and outs of every last concept of this beautiful and sophisticated understanding of narrative, and I still subjectively misinterpreted this fundamental dynamic of story structure.

    I look back on that night now and wonder, “How the heck could I ever see that dream sequence as anything more than a fairy tale?” Neither of the principle characters changed their point-of-view in this sequence. The key to a complete argument—to a whole story—is a changed perspective. Without change, there is no argument—no argument, no story. That sequence was nothing more than a tale—an idealized fairy tale of what could have been.

    Open to Re-evaluation & Greater Understanding

    I could have responded with, ”Well, that’s just how I see it. I have so much more experience than everyone else in the room, and I’m entitled to my opinion. Besides, there isn’t one way to interpret a story.” But I would have been doing a disservice to everyone in the room, everyone interested in genuinely understanding narrative, and more importantly—to myself. By holding my interpretation as valid as any other, I would ruin the opportunity for greater understanding. My ego soothed, accounts of these different analyses would regress the development of future writers.

    By falling back on feeling good about myself, I would have screwed things up for everyone else.

    But I didn’t. I listened to what EXPERTS in the room we’re saying–writers who spend a considerable amount of time learning & understanding what the Dramatica theory of story is all about–and I finally realized my mistake.

    Before the meeting I uploaded “my” version of the storyform to the Narrative First Atomizer—a service where I maintain the most accurate catalog of Dramatica storyforms. Did I leave that version up because my subjective interpretation of the film was just as critical? No—because that’s silly and ultimately counter-productive to the whole purpose of offering such a service.

    I promptly fixed it, republished the most accurate version, and now—when anyone goes to check into the story points of La La Land—they won’t be confused by any counter-analyses.

    What to Do If You’re Wrong

    So what should you do when you come up against a group analysis that runs counter to your interpretation? Nine times out of ten this is an indication that you are projecting your life experience onto the story’s meaning. In those rare moments when this isn’t the case, writers submit their counter-arguments with a logical explanation as to the disagreement. If proven out, we alter the original storyforms to reflect that higher understanding. The Sixth Sense, Captain America: Civil War, The Terminator, and Reservoir Dogs showcase storyforms changed from their original state to reflect a more accurate understanding.

    More often than not however, the one doing the challenging often learns something about Dramatica they misunderstood. My revelation above about La La Land’s tale ending arrived during a subsequent lunch discussing the analysis with Chris Huntley. My strategy moving forward requires searching out the argument being made within a story; if it’s not there, then the story is a tale.

    Developing as a Writer

    “There isn’t one way to interpret a story” defense always indicates a person who refuses to learn.

    Many paradigms of story and gurus of story seek to “empower” or encourage writers through techniques refined in self-help circles. Dramatica is not a theory of making writers feel good about themselves, it’s a theory of narrative—the most accurate and comprehensive theory of narrative structure around—IF used correctly.

    Subjective misinterpretations occur because the story points—those appreciations of story structure—are being seen as indications of storytelling, not storyforming. The Overall Story Concern isn’t merely what everyone in the story is concerned with; it’s a means by which the Audience appreciates how those concerns indicate conflict. Without inequity(conflict), a story point is not attached to the storyform.

    To continue with the rationalization that all analysis is equal paints a picture of mass confusion and dissolution of the accuracy of the Dramatica model of story. By maintaining the validity of your interpretation shift move away from the objective nature of a storyform—and move away from what Dramatica defines as a story. Experts in the theory, like me, leave themselves open to being wrong because an accurate storyform is infinitely more important than their self-worth.

    Allowing Dramatica to Get in the Way of Writing

    Some writers, faced with the reluctance or inability to change, rely on artistic self-defense to justify a refusal to learn:

    Nor is it helpful if it discourages me from trusting my own process of making meaning to the point that I rely on the consensus to tell me what a story means. In such a case, I would be allowing my own creativity and critical thought process to be sidelined, and myself to be disempowered.

    Many writers turn to Dramatica as a means of enlightening and inspiring their own creative muse—confirming their own intuition and expanding their own understanding to improve the quality and breadth of their storytelling.

    Under my guidance, I’ve seen Dramatica help novelists expand the world of their characters and give form to the hundreds of pages awaiting their care & engagement, and I’ve seen television series and animated features snatch green lights with little to no resistance. In every case, the heart of the artist reigns supreme—it’s merely a matter of knowing how to connect that intent with an accurate storyform.

    The biggest mistake people make with dramatica is believing that they have to follow the theory or a given storyform to the letter, and in doing so lose touch with their own creative, meaning-making process. People give up on dramatica when they feel they have to choose between the theory and their own creativity.

    Writers also give up when they think there isn’t an objective basis by which to measure the various story points when constructing their story. "Well, there isn’t one way to skin a cat dilutes what is otherwise a compelling and enlightening theory of narrative.

    If I start worrying about doing everything “right” according to the theory or the software, or if it compels me to replace meaningful ideas with bland ones, and as a consequence I experience writer’s block or end up with a less meaningful story, then dramatica has ceased to be helpful.

    Every writer is free to break structure and do whatever their heart tells them. The writer/director behind Get Out purposefully broke structure at the end of that phenomenal hit. He didn’t worry about doing something “wrong” with his film.

    It is a complete misunderstanding to suggest that the Dramatica theory of story is trying to tell writers what is “right” and “wrong” with your story—the Dramatica theory of story is showing you how to write a convincing and reliable argument—whether or not one feels it is right or wrong to do so is entirely up to the writer. Writers should feel confident enough to break structure whenever they want.

    Losing touch with the creative process isn’t the issue here–inaccurate storyform analysis is.

    Psyching Oneself Up for the Road Ahead

    Putting the label of “Dramatica” on an analysis when it is grossly inaccurate does a disservice to other writers. It leads them down the wrong path, fooling themselves into thinking they’re using Dramatica when they’re just inventing their own theory–no better off than they were without it. “Well, that’s just how I see it” makes everyone think they can come up with whatever they want when it comes to analyzing a story. They certainly can—they just can’t call it Dramatica.

    This “alternative interpretations” crowd advocates the same Tower of Babel that existed long before Dramatica came along. Hero’s Journey, Sequence Method, Save the Cat!, Syd Field, Robert McKee, Lajos Egri, and Aristotle—each came close, each missed the mark. The Dramatica theory of story brings sanity to an area self-expression relegated for much of human history to something resembling the dark arts, held in secret esteem by a privileged few.

    Dramatica possesses the ability to help improve the quality of your storytelling for all time—if used as intended. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve arrived at the end of your understanding of narrative structure merely because you acknowledge the difference between a Main Character and Protagonist. Challenge yourself—challenge what you hold to be true by measuring up against like-minded experts in the field.

    The journey towards a greater understanding of narrative structure is a long and ever-changing road with stunning vistas and deep and dark chasms. Just when you think you have it all figured out, your own justifications rise to the surface. Faced with the awareness of your own blind spots, you must make the decision: persist in my own self-delusion, or free myself from the shackles of my own limited perception.

    The answer determines your lifelong growth as a writer and an artist.

    This article, Dramatica: The Journey Towards a Better Understanding of Story, originally appeared February 14, 2018 on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

    Wrangling the Scope of an Entire Narrative
    April 2018

    Faced with a confusing or undefined narrative, writers sometimes defer to the easy-get of the ticking time clock. When things slow down, or a story plods from one scene to the next, why not induce a little tension with a looming deadline? Unfortunately, the nature of that deadline can lead many a writer astray in the construction of their stories.

    The writers on the Discuss Dramatica board recently delved into the story appreciation known as the Story Limit. While most of the discussion regressed into intellectual considerations of the difference between time and space (and whether or not time existed at all!), the notion that some struggle with this concept sparked a desire to explore the Story Limit in greater detail.

    To me, the Story Limit is a foregone conclusion. Unless a ticking time clock appears on-screen or the characters continuously fret over a deadline, the Limit is almost always an Optionlock. Out of the 380+ storyforms currently in the Narrative First Atomizer, only nineteen limit their narratives by setting a Timelock. That’s 5%.

    Narratives with a Story Limit of Timelock

    Narratives with a Story Limit of Timelock

    The reason for this has more to do with Audience Reception than anything else,[1] but practically speaking 9.5 times out of 10 the narrative in question defines its scope regarding space, rather than time.


    The original term for Optionlock was Spacelock. Fearing confusion among those repulsed by science-fiction, the Dramatica theorists switched out Space for Options–and in doing so, introduced the familiar kind of misunderstandings that occur with the simplifying of all of Dramatica.

    The difference between time and space

    The Dramatica theory of story is a mental model of the mind, specifically the mind’s problem-solving process. Part of this process involves understanding whether the problem exists within a context of time or space. The methods by which we resolve issues adjust to these concerns.

    Same with a story.

    If stories are indeed an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem,[2] then allowing for the different considerations of time and space is needed. Thus, the Spacelock or Timelock.

    A narrative isn’t potentially limited by Options; it’s potentially limited by Space. Characters think in terms of options, not space–illuminating the source of all confusion: the Dramatica storyform is not concerned with how the characters think, it’s interested in how the Author thinks. It’s interested in how the mental model of the mind is thinking. By changing Spacelock to Optionlock, Dramatica shifts the Author’s thinking towards a subjective understanding of the limit, rather than an objective understanding.

    And the Dramatica storyform is all about objectivity.

    The rose petals of Beauty and the Beast

    An easy example of the difference between a Spacelock and a Timelock lies within Disney’s animated film Beauty and the Beast:

    There’s a rose with a limited number of petals. It’s also tied to the Beasts 21st birthday. Technically you can look at the rose and see how many petals there are, but I’ll be darned if I could tell you that number. I also have no idea how long it is until his birthday. So is it an Optionlock or Timelock. It seems that it doesn’t matter. It can be one or the other, both, or neither. By falling in love with the Beast as the last petal falls, Belle is essentially cutting the wire as the clock reaches zero. She takes the final option just as she runs out of time.

    It’s not about her final option; it’s about the story’s opportunities coming to a close.

    The litmus test in determining the Story Limit is this: Would changing the supposed limit change the MEANING of the story? If not, then the limit is not functioning as a Story Limit. If it does, then the limit could be an instance of the Story Limit.

    In regards to the Story Limit of Beauty and the Beast, changing the actual date of the Beast’s 21st birthday would not appreciably change the meaning of the story. And appreciation is what the storyform is all about.[3]

    As an Audience member, we possess no clue as to how long the film lasts. We don’t know if it takes three days, three weeks, or three years. The Authors never indicate the Beast’s starting age, nor do they continuously refer to any sort of time throughout every Act.

    But they do regularly refer back to the wilting rose.

    The Story Limit of Beauty and the Beast
    The Story Limit of Beauty and the Beast

    The rose signifies the approaching deadline, but it does so through a comparison of space, not time. A Timelock is a definite amount of time. By the end of a story with a Timelock, you know exactly how much time it took because Time was an essential part of that story’s meaning.

    Consider a film like Ex Machina. Caleb Smith (Domnhall Gleason) arrives for a week of fun and intellectual curiosity with tech-magnate Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac).

    One week.

    While the film refers explicitly to the ticking off of days with its sporadic use of title cards, time defines that looming deadline, not space. In sharp contrast to a wilting flower with no particular attachment to a definite unit of time, those days count down the time until the helicopter returns to take Caleb back to civilization.

    Caleb says goodbye for seven days in Ex Machina
    Caleb says goodbye for seven days in Ex Machina

    In Ex Machina, time is of the essence. In Beauty and the Beast, it is the dwindling number of options for transforming the beast from monster to man that sets the pace and arrival of the climax.

    Space is of the essence.

    The apparent blending of time and space

    What about a film like Pixar’s Cars? Lightning McQueen has one week to travel across the United States to participate in a race in California. Is that a story limited by time, or a story limited by options?

    At first glance, it may seem like time. After all, the narrative sounds like Ex Machina in that there are a specific date set and a set amount of time within which to reach the racetrack.

    But if you were to extend the date of the race, move it back a couple of days or move it forward a couple of days would that appreciably change the meaning of the story?

    Regardless of when the actual race occurs, it is the crossing of the finish line–the dwindling number of competitors who could get closest to that finish line that determines the climax of that story. The number of people you have to use and walk over on your way to victory–that’s what the story is all about, not the amount of time or lack of time you have to get there.

    The same situation occurs with Richard Donner’s Sixteen Blocks. Det. Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) needs to transfer Edward “Eddie” Bunker (Mos Def) to court to testify in a police corruption case. The grand jury is set to convene at 10am–two hours for Bruce to make that trek. If he doesn’t succeed, a bunch of crooked cops gets off scot-free.

    Sixteen Blocks is all about time.

    Bruce and Mos make their way across Sixteen Blocks
    Bruce and Mos make their way across Sixteen Blocks

    While the narrative continually refers to the amount of space Bruce needs to travel and how close he gets (even the title defines space: sixteen blocks!), changing that limit–making it twenty-three blocks or four blocks–wouldn’t change the meaning of the story. The question is Can you get there within two hours?, not Can you get across four or sixteen or twenty-three blocks?

    Change the time of that court hearing and suddenly the meaning of the story–the approaching climax shifts appreciably. The Story Limit is tied directly to the climax of a narrative. Set the grand jury hearing to 11 a.m. or 2 p.m. or even 6, and suddenly Bruce has more time for funny lines and taking out bad guys. Set the clock to 9:30 am and suddenly he has no time for quips–that’s an appreciable change, especially in a Bruce Willis action thriller!

    The limit from the character’s point-of-view

    How does altering the limit of a story change the meaning of a story? After all, there is a subjective component to a mind trying to solve a problem. Understanding how the meaning changes for the characters when the Author changes the limit is as simple as understanding the difference between these two contexts:

    • How far can you get in a certain amount of time?


    • How much time will it take to get that far?

    The first is a Timelock, the second an Optionlock. The first sets in stone a deadline and asks you to consider how much space you can traverse. The second sets in stone a distance and asks you to focus on how long it will take. The limit sets the scope of what it means to resolve that story’s problem.

    Confusing space for time

    Even narrative experts fall prey to subjective misinterpretation.

    My first draft of this article mistakingly identified a secondary Story Limit of Pixar’s Coco to be a Timelock. Wrapped up in this exploration of the difference between stories limited by time and those framed by space, I deferred to the subjective experience of watching that film and the feeling that “time” was running out.[4]

    A sunset is NOT a Timelock.

    Aspiring young guitarist Miguel (Anthony Gonzales) crosses over into the land of the dead to discover a long-forgotten relative Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal). Finding a way to return his photograph to the family altar sets the focus of the narrative, and the reality of the situation defines the scope: a fixed amount of Space within which to make the journey from the dead to the living.

    An essential component of this Spacelock lies in Miguel’s downward spiral from boy to bones. If he doesn’t make it back to the land of the living by sunrise, he’s never making it back.

    Miguels impending doom in Coco
    Miguel’s impending doom in Coco

    One might mistaken this limit for Time–after all, we measure time by the sun’s location in the sky, don’t we?

    The key word here is position. Like the rose petals in Beauty and the Beast, where the sun’s position marks the Limit, not when.

    The sunset thing ticks me off the most, because “the amount of degrees in the sky the sun has to pass through” is time. Like, literally, that’s what time is. If the passage of a minute and hour hand around a clock is acceptable, then surely the passage of the sun through the sky is, too…Meet me when the sun is at is highest peak“ and ”Meet me at high noon" are the same thing!

    The first is a reference to spatial awareness, the second temporal. This difference in awareness calls for different approaches to resolution–different stories.

    What are waiting for? The sun to reach a specific place or the sun to reach a specific time? In High Noon, it’s 12pm (like Sixteen Blocks and even 3:10 to Yuma, it’s in the title!). In Coco, it’s dawn.

    With dawn, we look to the sun’s place in the sky. With 12pm we look to the passage of time.

    Defining the edges of meaning

    A complete narrative seeks to argue a valid approach towards solving problems. A storyform–of which the Story Limit is an integral part–defines the intent and purpose of that argument. The storyform is an objective account of the story’s message, not a subjective account from the character’s point-of-view.

    As Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley explains:

    KEEP IN MIND: All Dramatica story points are from the objective Author’s point of view, one in which everything has already played out, and all is known. That means the question of the Story Limit: Timelock or Optionlock? asks to identify what IS (objectively), not what seems to be from a subjective point of view

    Characters think in terms of options, Authors think in terms of space (or at least, they should). The Story Limit, whether Spacelock or Timelock, sets the scope of the efforts to resolve a problem.

    Without a definite or consistent Story Limit, the Audience fails to empathize with the approaching climax. They need a baseline–an objective baseline–from which to evaluate the actions and decisions taken to resolve the story’s conflict.

    Set the scope–or Story Limit–of a narrative in stone and keep to it. Refer to it at least once per Act, and allow the Audience to become an integral part of the message you seek to convey. The result is a greater appreciation of why you wrote the story in the first place.

    The result is a greater understanding of you.

    1. Timelocks eliminate half your Audience.  ↩

    2. A given of the Dramatica theory of story.  ↩

    3. This is why Dramatica uses the terminology of the appreciations of story structure–you’re appreciating that particular element of narrative structure.  ↩

    4. Thanks to Gregolas for pointing that out.  ↩

    Interested in learning more about stories with similar structure in a fun and visual way? Register now for the Narrative First Atomizer and get to know story at a molecular level. The Narrative First Atomizer breaks down successful narratives into their essential ingredients—providing you the know-how to craft and develop your own meaningful stories. Visit Narrative First to learn more about this exciting service.

    The Most Important Event in Any Story
    March 2018

    When you come to the end of a story and you look back on everything that happened, what event could you call the most important? Was it the one at the end that brought everything to a satisfying close? Was it that tragic downturn that brought the Main Character to their lowest point? Or was it in fact, that event that started everything off–that event that, if removed, would erase the need for anything that came after it?

    This “Most Important Event” is not a new idea; many refer to it as the Inciting Incident or the first Major Plot Point. My brother prefers to call it the “Exciting Incident.” Whatever their favorite term, almost every writer/story guru recognizes the importance of the event as it gets the ol’ story ball rolling. Often it puts the Main Character in instant jeopardy, increasing the conflict in such a way that a story must proceed.

    But as with all things, a different perspective can you give a different understanding of story. Lets say you’ve written a story but you’re not sure if you’ve got that Most Important Event in there; perhaps you have something, but you don’t feel that it is quite strong enough. Well, coming from the usual perspective of looking at the beginning of your story it can be difficult to really tell if it is working correctly or not.

    A different perspective can give you a different understanding.

    But if you start at the end of your story and take a look back, you begin to see things differently. Is there an event there at the beginning, that if you took it out, would preclude any need for a story to follow? If you can’t find one, then your story never really started in the first place. You’ve got to have that first event that really upsets the balance of things and sends all your characters into a tizzy.

    Finding Nemo
    Finding Nemo

    Too many times, writers concentrate on the emotional aspects of a story at the expense of the logical portion of their narrative. Take Finding Nemo–some think that the Inciting Event of that story occurred when Nemo’s mother was killed.

    Not true.

    Sure, it had a profound effect on the emotional makeup of Nemo and his father–but it had little to do with the logical part of the narrative. The story really started when Nemo left the safety of the Reef. Soon after he was caught by the dentist, therefore upsetting the status quo for everyone.

    It’s noteworthy that this event applies to all the characters in a story, not just one or two principal characters. When looking at where a story starts logically (from an objective standpoint), it’s got to be something that upsets the balance for everyone.

    Star Wars
    Star Wars

    What of Star Wars? Some think it has something to do with the plans. Well what about the plans? If Princess Leia hadn’t stolen them, would there still be a story? I would think so; there’s still quite a large inequity going on in that part of the galaxy. Turns out the Inciting Event of Star Wars had more to do with a tyrannical Empire boarding a diplomatic ship. Problems in this sci-fi spectacular occur because those in power continue to test the extent of their dominance. Without that scene of black-cloaked tyranny stepping onto a counselor’s ship, there would be no need for chasing droids, teaching ancient religions and bulls-eyeing womprats. There would be no story.

    What about E.T. The Extra Terrestrial? Easy – E.T. gets left behind. The Iron Giant? The Iron Giant crashes to Earth. What about something more serious, maybe even historical, like Hotel Rwanda? The murder of the Hutu president by Tutsi rebels sets off that explosive story. Serious or light-hearted, it doesn’t matter much; point is you’ve got to have that event that creates the inequity–for all the characters in a story.

    What about something on the complete opposite side of the spectrum, like Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Because there is such a huge emphasis on the emotional part of that story,[1] deciphering exactly where the story begins for all the characters can be a tricky process. But there is one event that, if didn’t happen, would’ve stopped the story dead in its tracks: the decision Paul makes to grant Holly shelter through his bedroom window.

    True, he didn’t really welcome her with open arms, but he certainly didn’t say no! If he had, the rest of the world would’ve carried on as it always had. Holly would still be getting her weather reports and Paul would still have nothing but a ribbon-less typewriter.

    Think of it this way–the world of a story is a calm mountain lake with no breeze on a crisp cool autumn morning. There is the potential for great conflict, but it lies just beneath the surface, muffled and hidden out of sight. The narrative is at balance. Suddenly, a huge boulder drops out of the sky, breaking the surface of the once placid lake. Fish scatter. Sediment shivers. Waves, both large and small, ripple their way towards the shoreline. An inequity has been introduced; the narrative is now out of balance.

    You’ve got to figure out what the boulder of your story is. You’ll know when you’ve found it because your story will cease to exist without it. Without that giant boulder your work will remain a peaceful quiet lake, high in the mountains of Stories That Never Were.

    Stories That Never Were
    Stories That Never Were

    1. After all, it is their romance that everyone remembers!  ↩

    Interested in learning more about stories with similar structure in a fun and visual way? Register now for the Narrative First Atomizer and get to know story at a molecular level. The Narrative First Atomizer breaks down successful narratives into their essential ingredients—providing you the know-how to craft and develop your own meaningful stories. Visit Narrative First to learn more about this exciting service.

    Unravelling the Story Structure of Tangled: The Series
    February 2018

    The season finale for the Disney channel’s animated show Tangled: The Series premiered last week. As a story consultant on the series, I found the reaction from fans rewarding:

    “Wow, a season-ending cliffhanger! i LOVE season-ending cliffhangers, but didn’t expect it from a children’s show! I’m pleasantly surprised and can’t wait to see what Rapunzel and Eugene’s adventures in season 2 will hold!”

    This level of gratitude and anticipation, common with most of the responses, arises because of the care and thought that went into writing a complete story for the first season.

    Detailed in the article Outlining a Television Series with Dramatica, the process involved listening to the various ideas for character, plot, and theme and converging all into singular storyforms for both the entire series and the individual seasons.

    “believe me when I tell you that everything has significance and is meticulously crafted. The writing is amazing.”"

    That “meticulous” craftsmanship? 100% purposeful and deliberate from the very beginning. The narrative structure of the series accounts for part of the show’s success and helps to explain much of the positive feedback.

    • The first season told a complete storyform–setting up the Audience’s expectation for more thoughtful narratives
    • The start of the second season storyform begins in the final moments of the first season—setting the stage for the next storyform
    • The storyform for the entire series ties both of the first two seasons together—they’re related to each other by the series’ first two structural Signposts

    The storyform for the first season—the special narrative code—can be found in the Narrative First Atomizer, a service built from the ground-up to support the development of amazing stories.

    Digging Deep Down

    When Executive Producer Chris Sonnenburg first approached me with the idea of creating a deliberate and purposeful path for the series to follow, he stressed one phrase in particular:

    Plus est en vous

    French for “there is more in you,” the phrase appears in the journal Rapunzel’s mother gifts to her near the beginning of the series. Everything within the first season revolves around this theme.

    How then do you tie intention to narrative structure?

    You make your purpose part of the structure.

    The following image, taken from the Atomizer, displays the quad of character elements found at the center of Rapunzel’s personal Throughline.

    Rapunzel and her Quad of Character Elements
    Rapunzel and her Quad of Character Elements

    The engine behind the Atomizer relies on the Dramatica theory of story—a comprehensive approach to story that sees complete narratives as models of the human mind at work.

    Translated into common tongue, the quad above says ”Rapunzel, driven by speculation of what she might become, focuses her attention on an apparent problem of self-awareness, and responds by seeking greater external awareness.”

    Plus est en vous is telling Rapunzel to look inwards, to become more Self-aware. Her lack of understanding of what that means drives her to seek out a higher Awareness of everything around her. Everyone Speculates what she could be, but what indeed is her Destiny?

    The Complete Throughline for Rapunzel
    The Complete Throughline for Rapunzel

    Looking upwards through the model, we find an Issue of Destiny situated directly above these four character elements. Rapunzel’s core drive naturally leads to this thematic issue of Destiny—another instance of Sonnenburg’s intention. Find what’s inside of you so you can carve out your path through life.

    Intent that Carries Throughout

    Setting Rapunzel’s Throughline to this quad of elements, integrating a Triumphant ending, and granting her father the most significant shift in personal point-of-view locks in the balance of the story’s thematic appreciations.

    King Frederic, Rapunzel’s father and Influence Character for the first season, challenges his daughter and the rest of the kingdom with his efforts to repress painful memories. His lies and attempts to make things appear better than they define an Influence Character with Issues of Falsehood and a Problem of Perception.

    King Frederics Influence Character Throughline
    King Frederic’s Influence Character Throughline

    These thematic elements do not arise haphazardly—they perfectly balance out Rapunzel’s issues of Destiny and Speculation. The problem with Destiny is the question of whether or not we’re fooling ourselves–a character who finds success in fooling himself and those around him is perfectly situated to challenge a character beset by issues of Destiny. Are we just lying to ourselves with the belief that there is something more, and that our struggle leads to something meaningful? Or is the lie real?

    For example, think of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. The Main Character in that film, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) shares Rapunzel’s focus on Destiny and the idea of “waiting for a train…knowing where you hope it will take you, but you can’t be sure.”

    Rapunzel and Dom partake in the same thematic issue. Their respective Influence Characters challenge them with half-truths and falsehoods: Frederic with his professed ignorance of problems in the kingdom and Dom’s wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) and the lie she holds onto regarding being in a dream state.

    Influence Characters and their challenging point-of-view exist to impact the Main Character and force him or her to deal with their justifications. Rapunzel holds tight to her focus on something more within her, causing her father to fundamentally shift his point-of-view.

    Instead of continuing to persist a lie based on appearances, Frederic shifts his attention to the reality of the situation and of Rapunzel’s unique role to play. Her father “arcs” from Perception to Actuality.

    Bringing Purpose to Children

    This effort towards meaningful character development and sound narrative structure brings a cohesiveness to the series typically absent in most children’s programming. Some may question overthinking a show that exists only to babysit and distract for 22 minutes at a time. Placing aside the reality that regardless of age, every one of us problem-solves with the same psychological process, children know when they’re being talked down to and instinctively ignore those who pander to them. Why shouldn’t they be shown the same amount of respect and attention to detail found in more adult programming?

    Don’t they deserve great stories?

    Going Above and Beyond

    The first season of Tangled: The Series was not a matter of lucky happenstance. The creators set the path from the very beginning and referred to this narrative storyform throughout, to keep the series focused on Rapunzel’s most personal problem.

    The first season consists of 19 half-hour episodes and three one-hour specials. The pilot episode Tangled: Before Ever After and the finale Secret of the Sundrop account for two of these specials, a mid-season special Queen for a Day (Episode 17) furnishes the last. While these three form the bulk of the first season’s storyline, the episodes in-between support and subtly inform that central purpose.

    Remember that the development of this series began three years ago—three years before binge-watching and multiple streaming services were a thing. Anticipating this particular situation and eager to present something more than merely another children’s show, the series’ creators lobbied hard to make the serialized nature of Tangled: The Series a reality. This effort would likely be a foregone conclusion today given the landscape and appetite for season-long storyforms that draw Audiences in with the promise of something more.

    This first season of Tangled, and the seasons to come, showcase the kind of impact intentional storytelling brings to the final work. That “I can’t wait to see the next installment” is a reaction to complete and as-yet-to-be completed storyforms. You hook them with the anticipation of a greater understanding of the issues and problems we all face. Give your Audience a meaningful structure that says something, and they’ll respond with appreciation and gratitude.

    Enjoy the show!

    Interested in learning more about stories with similar structure in a fun and visual way? Register now for the Narrative First Atomizer and get to know story at a molecular level. The Narrative First Atomizer breaks down successful narratives into their essential ingredients—providing you the know-how to craft and develop your now meaningful stories. Visit Narrative First to learn more about this exciting service.

    Identifying the Storyform of a Complete Story
    January 2018

    Many writers write without any clue as to the relevance of their last scene. Self-doubt and panic sets in the moment they start to question if what they wrote fits in with the rest of their story. A Dramatica® storyform erases this skepticism by guaranteeing a purpose-driven approach to scene writing.

    Six days a week for nine months? Most view this kind of employment situation untenable. For those us working on completing How To Train Your Dragon in time for its release in 2010, it was an incredible honor and lasting experience. Why?

    A singular vision propelled the narrative.

    Creating Vision

    The purpose of this series on Preparing to Write a Complete Story is to help writers strategize an approach for figuring out the basic structure of your story. When you know where the conflict starts, and what is needed to resolve it, it’s easy to determine which scenes are necessary and which scenes you can save for another day.

    The articles on Identifying the Goal and Consequence of a Complete Story and Identifying the Protagonist and Antagonist of a Complete Story help you determine the forces at work within the conflict of your narrative. Identifying the Domains and Throughlines of a Complete Story and Identifying the Influence Character of a Complete Story aid in positioning the various perspectives on that conflict within your narrative.

    Before you fire up the Dramatica® Story Expert application and begin making selections, you need to consider what it is you want to say with your story. What message do you want to convey? The answer to this question ties those six steps above into a single hologram of meaning.

    This final article in the series gives shape to that hologram through a concept of Dramatica known as the storyform.

    The Storyform

    Many think of story structure as something you apply to a series of events or a group of characters. They ascribe mythical journeys to these individuals and a set of predetermined cultural beats to log the progression to a higher self.

    Not with Dramatica.

    As confirmed in the previous articles on Identifying the Influence Character:

    A complete narrative is not an investing and compelling account of something that happened–a complete narrative is a cohesive analogy of a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre–these are not parts of a story–they’re parts of the human mind.

    Learning the important scenes becomes a process of determining that mind.

    The storyform is a snapshot of the human mind at work.

    If you want to write something meaningful, it’s time to stop fooling yourself. Stop thinking of your characters as real people with real feelings and start seeing them as elements of a single identity. That’s the way to a cohesive narrative.

    The Great Debate Over Captain America: Civil War

    The impetus for this series rests in the huge debate over the Main Character perspective within Captain America: Civil War. As evidenced by the amount of discussion in the Discuss Dramatica forums on the topic, confusion abounds in regards to this purpose of Dramatica’s storyform.

    The storyform is not there to tell you more about your characters or what they’re thinking or what they’re going through–the storyform is there to tell you what your story is about. Problem, Solution, Resolve, and Outcome? These, and the seventy other story points found in a storyform make an argument for how one should approach life:

    • Stop testing and start trusting and you can make the world a better place (The LEGO Batman Movie)
    • Stop testing and start trusting and you can fight a rebellion against an empire (Star Wars)
    • Embrace the good and the bad as if it all balances out in the end and understand the meaning of life (Arrival)
    • Embrace the good and the bad as if it all balances out in the end and figure out how to live life in a new city (Inside Out)

    The LEGO Batman Movie and Star Wars share similar storyforms. Aside from choices that skew Genre (the former is Dysfunctional Family Comedy, the latter SciFi Action/Adventure), the message of both films is the same: Success comes when you Stop Testing. A Main Character who Changes their Main Character Resolve by Stopping a Main Character Problem of Testing results in a Story Outcome of Success.

    Arrival and Inside Out share a similar relationship. Again, discounting Genre selections (one a Sci-Fi Thriller, the other a Dysfunctional Road Trip Comedy), the message communicated by both storyforms is the same: Success comes when you Start seeing Equity (balance). A Main Character who Changes their Main Character Resolve by Starting a Main Character Solution of Equity results in a Story Outcome of Success.

    In all four examples, the storyform communicates a message to the Audience. It’s not about Joy or Sadness, or Louise or Heptapod aliens, or Luke Skywalker or Batman–its about the intent behind the creation of the narrative itself.

    What is the Author trying to say?

    I Don’t Know What I Want to Say

    If you don’t know what you want to say, Dramatica can help you with that. You can make selections within the application based on what you have written and wait for Dramatica to respond with choices to round out and complete your argument. Dramatica is the only story structure “paradigm” that can help you do this.

    Write what you feel deep inside. Turn to Dramatica to help you uncover what is you’re trying to say.

    The storyform defines the edges of an inequity so one can adequately communicate it to someone else.

    The Conflict That Cannot Be Spoken

    Many writers new to Dramatica grow frustrated over this idea of inequity. Where is it in the model? and How can I figure out the inequity of my story?

    Well, you can’t. Because an inequity is not a real thing.

    The mind senses an inequity, or imbalance between things, and begins imputing all sorts of problems and solutions to that imbalance. But these problems and these solutions–they’re made up in the mind.

    The inequity isn’t a problem.

    The mind’s justification process–that’s a problem.

    The inequity of a story sits at the center of all four throughlines. It’s not something you can describe or define–if you could, you would call up your friend and tell them. But you can’t, and that’s why you write a story.

    An inequity exists between things and as such, can only be approximated by looking at it from the several different viewpoints offered by the various Throughlines. Main Character, Influence Character, Overall Story, and Relationship Story–these are points-of-view on that fundamental inequity.

    Note that they’re all looking at the same thing. That shared focus is an important concept to understand when making the final decision for the thematic story points within your narrative. Everything needs to point to the same thing if they’re going to add up to the message you’re trying to prove.

    If you don’t have that purpose in mind, you’re going to end up all over the place–as evidenced by that discussion surrounding the Main Character in Captain America: Civil War.

    Tying Personal Issues to The Story at Large

    Reading through that post, some see Tony Stark (Iron Man) as the Main Character, others see Steve Rodgers (Captain America). The ones who see Tony assuming the position of the Main Character sense the challenging influence brought on by the perspectives of Steve and Peter Parker, and witness the resolution moment where Iron Man chooses for himself what is right and wrong and “eyeballs” a shot at the Winter Soldier.

    Those who try to position Steve as the Main Character flounder when it comes to defining a consistent, challenging perspective from an Influence Character. They may insert concerns from the comic book series or their appreciations of the characters, but those understandings exist outside of the work in question. They bring in material inconsequential and, in some respects, contradictory to the singular storymind presented within the film.

    No challenge exists for Steve. No moments of consideration. No defining resolution moment that ties his conflict with the external conflict of the Overall Story Throughline. The defining moment of his perspective–the decision to decide whether it was right or wrong to keep Bucky’s past a secret–was made off-screen and out-of-sight.

    As presented in the film, this secret was something You did, not something I did.

    Tony’s uncontrolled rampage is the kind of thing Zemo hoped for when he set out to split the Avengers. By tying Tony’s personal resolution in with the results of the overall story, the Authors prove their message:

    When you stop trying to control yourself and start letting go, you split the ties that bind a team together.

    Positioning Tony’s perspective within the Main Character Throughline outlines a cohesive storyform that argues the above without equivocation.

    The Narrative First Approach to Dramatica

    Over the years, I have developed a method for preparing writers and their stories for Dramatica. Before arriving at the one single storyform out of the 32,768 possible storyforms available within the current model, I like to develop a holistic sense of what the Author is trying to say with their story…

    …because it’s nice when you can get the narrative first.

    My process before opening Dramatica is simple:

    1. Identify the Initial Inequity (Story Driver)
    2. Determine what will resolve that initial inequity (Story Goal)
    3. Determine what happens without resolution (Story Consequence)
    4. Identify the forces of initiative towards that Goal (Protagonist)
    5. Identify the forces of reticence away from that Goal (Antagonist)
    6. Identify the personal point-of-view and its challenger (Main Character Throughline and Influence Character Throughline)

    All of this can be done without the Dramatica Story Expert application and within a short amount of time. This series of articles walks you through that process. The key is staying objective and knowing what it is you want to say.

    And if you don’t know, say half of it and let Narrative First and Dramatica help you with the other half.

    The Disaster of Not Knowing

    Imagine the disaster inherent within the animation studio system and without the aid of Narrative First and Dramatica. Not only do you have a situation where everyone vies for the validity of incongruent ideas, but you also have a situation where everyone competes for ideas based on these characters being real people and having real feelings. You don’t have everyone focused on a single mind, and you don’t have everyone focused on a single purpose.

    The reason the first How To Train Your Dragon feature ranks superior to the second regarding storytelling is the simple fact that the studio system that bucks against a singular vision didn’t have enough time to intervene. After several misspent years in development, the original directors of the film were taken off, and Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders were brought in to save the day.

    In three months, Dean and Chris tossed out the original book, cast Toothless as a giant and appealing character,[1] and reworked the entire film into something everyone loves.

    The second film? Not so much. And it’s a shame–Dean’s original pitch for the next movie in the series generated high emotional impact–because it was based on a robust and complete storyform. Unfortunately, with the second, the luxury of time worked against the production. With much riding on the series, studio executive and managers stepped in, reworked the story, and excised what used to work for the first film.

    The original How To Train Your Dragon represented a singular vision–not from one person, but from two people sharing a common purpose. With Dean and Chris tuned into the same storymind, we worked those six day weeks with passion and with gratefulness–because we knew we were working towards something meaningful.

    You can experience that same kind of passion by determining the storyform of your own story.

    The Purpose of a Complete Story

    Everything they told you about story in the past is wrong. McKee was wrong. Snyder was wrong. Syd Field was wrong. And so was Campbell and anyone who bought into the whole idea of the Hero’s Journey.[2]

    Even Aristotle had it wrong.

    A story is not something built with structure. A story exists because of structure.

    Stories exist because of who we are.

    A complete story is a functioning model of the human mind at work. Characters aren’t real people; they’re representations of the forces of motivation within the mind. Plot isn’t something that happens to characters or because of characters–plot is how the mind goes about solving the current problem. And Theme? Theme isn’t what you want to say with your story, theme models the evaluation processes going on within the mind.

    The storyform–that’s what you want to say with your story.

    The Narrative First method for identifying and dealing with the central inequity of your narrative is your first step towards nailing down that purpose and intent behind your story.

    Your next is to write the damn thing.

    1. You can find the original design for Toothless in the movie. Look for the tiny little green dragons that cuddle up next to him. Those were the original models for Toothless. Thank you, Dean and Chris!  ↩

    2. I was one of those people…until I started to see all kinds of inconsistencies and caveats.  ↩

    Interested in learning more about stories with similar structure in a fun and visual way? Register now for the Narrative First Atomizer and get to know story at a molecular level. The Narrative First Atomizer breaks down successful narratives into their essential ingredients—providing you the know-how to craft and develop your own meaningful stories. Visit Narrative First to learn more about this exciting service.

    The Same Story: Aliens and Blade Runner: 2049
    December 2017

    Many recognize the similarities in the structure of different narratives. While many point to a familiar sequence of beats seemingly inherited from one generation to the next, the reality is the similarity lies in a like-minded purpose. With shared intent comes a shared structural foundation.

    What do Jamie Foxx and Marlin have in common?

    Both Collateral and Finding Nemo tell the same exact story.

    The Belly of Nonsense

    When speaking of similar story structures, we refer to the underlying storyform of the respective narratives, not some heroic journey steeped in the cultural mythos. Refusing the call to grab the sword from the belly of the beast to return with the transformative elixir is not story structure.

    It’s seeing the Virgin Mary in a potato chip.

    Many believe The Matrix and Star Wars to be the same story; Luke Skywalker and Neo are interchangeable.

    They’re not.

    Luke doesn’t possess a problem with faith, and Neo doesn’t maintain an issue with trust. While sounding reasonably similar, Faith and Trust inject different motivations into a narrative. Dramatica defines Faith as accepting something as certain without proof, Trust as an acceptance of knowledge as proven without first trusting its validity. One looks to certainty without proof, the other to experience without checking validity. Splitting narrative hairs to be sure, but when trimming a story of the useless and contradictory fat and fluff competency demands accuracy.

    The Difference Between Neo and Luke Skywalker is the storyform.

    The Storyform and Purpose

    The storyform of a narrative is a specific collection of seventy-five story points that function as a carrier wave, transmitting Author’s Intent to an Audience. The story points relate holistically, the nature and meaning of implied story points every bit as important as though specific points set forth by the Author.

    Occasionally, completely different stories share the same storyform. Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story exist as one example of shared intent. Aside from the six-week time limit introduced in the more modern telling of dueling families, the core thematic structure rings familiar.

    Same with Collateral and Finding Nemo. Marlin and Jamie Foxx’s character Max struggle with the same problem of Avoidance: Marlin is driven to prevent his son from suffering the same fate as his brother and sisters; Max is motivated to avoid following any of his dreams.

    Regardless of genre or medium, if individual Authors seek to argue a similar approach to the same exact inequity, the structure of those arguments line up from beginning to end.

    The Dramatica theory of story is the first paradigm, or understanding, of story structure that codifies and defines this storyform. Every complete story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to resolve an inequity. The storyform argues an individual approach towards resolving a single inequity. Sometimes it presents this argument through tragedy (Se7en or Hamlet), other times the storyform uses triumph to make its point (Moonlight or Kingsman: The Secret Service).

    Both Aliens and Blade Runner: 2049 employ the second means.

    Overall Story Throughline

    In Aliens the desire to exist and to thrive motivates conflict in every scene. Blade Runner: 2049 shares the same exact motivating force. That inherent survival instinct—whether inherited or programmed—serves as the basis for conflict in both films. The aliens protect their Queen, the replicants rise to fulfill their original programming and claim their rights as something other than slaves. Aliens vs. Space Marines, Humans vs. Replicants—groups on both sides conflict over Desire.

    • OS Throughline: Physics
    • OS Concern: Understanding
    • OS Issue: Instinct
    • OS Problem: Desire
    • OS Solution: Ability

    In a narrative where the Main Character adopts the competing paradigm presented by the Influence Character, the Problem elements of both the Overall Story Throughline and the Main Character Throughline rest on the same element.

    Both Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and K (Ryan Gosling) change their Resolve to address the story’s central inequity.

    Main Character Throughline

    Ripley awakens to find she outlives her daughter. Frozen in the darkness of space for decades, the mother returns home to find her loved one buried and passed on. Absent from the Original Version, the Director’s Cut of Aliens presents critical insights into this personal throughline and explains the pain she feels for a wish that can never find fulfillment and love that cannot find a recipient.

    • MC Throughline: Universe
    • MC Concern: Past
    • MC Issue: Interdiction
    • MC Problem: Desire
    • MC Solution: Ability

    In Blade Runner: 2049 K shares a similar motivation with his overwhelming desire to be loved. Ripley’s willingness to give motherly love harmonizes with K’s hope for that maternal bond.

    Many look to the “wants and needs” of a character to express the driving force of a narrative. Here, both narratives explicitly focus on the problems of wanting or lacking. Neo struggles with a Problem of Disbelief; Luke with a Problem of Testing. These elements motivate their “wants and needs,” but they don’t explicitly tell of a problem with wanting something.

    K and Ripley do.

    A functioning narrative presents an opportunity to see what an inequity looks like both from within, and without the problem. We can’t simultaneously be in our heads and outside of ourselves—stories give us that experience.

    Resolving Both Overall and Main Stories

    The solution to a problem of Desire is Ability.

    Many understand how Faith resolves Disbelief and how Trust concludes Testing. Comprehending how Ability resolves Desire requires a further exploration.

    Ripley longs to be a mother to her lost child. It’s once she gains the ability to fight for herself that she sheds this debilitating drive. “Get away from her, you Bitch!” rids her psyche of desire: I can’t do anything about what happened in the past, but I can do something. And what she does is engage in Ability.

    This shift also brings a successful conclusion to the Overall Story Throughline. Her change of Resolve grants her the Ability to eject the Queen out of the ship, allowing her, Newt, and Bishop the ability to return home with a greater understanding of what happened on the colony outpost.

    The same resolving dynamic manifests in Blade Runner: 2049.

    Joi points to K and calls him “Joe,” resulting in a paradigm shift that begins his turn away from Desire. I can’t keep wanting and longing, but there is something I can do.

    “Dying for the right cause, it’s the most human thing we can do.”

    K sacrifices his wants and desires for the evolution of the collective. He chases Deckard down, chokes out Wallace’s replicant, and safely returns father to daughter—granting them the ability to meet face-to-face finally.[1]

    Different galaxies. Different constellations of characters. At the heart, both the Overall Story Throughlines and Main Character Throughlines of Aliens and Blade Runner: 2049 resonate with a similar exploration of thematic structure.

    Their particular Influence Character and Relationship Story Throughlines challenge one to look deeper into the storyform.

    Influence Character Throughline

    With an Overall Story Throughline and Main Character Throughline focused on external Problems of Desire, the nature of the implied story points demand further introspection:

    • IC Throughline: Mind
    • IC Concern: Memory
    • IC Issue: Suspicion
    • IC Problem: Perception

    If Elvis’ rendition of Suspicious Minds in Blade Runner: 2049 wasn’t enough to inform you of the competing and alternate approach to resolving the inequity, the belief systems of Joi and Deckard should. Both Influence Characters challenge K with their focus on what they know to be true. Their perceptions reign supreme and their drive to alter perception—particularly on the part of Joi—force K to reconsider his point-of-view.

    In Aliens, Newt’s illustration of a Problem of Perception steers down a different path. Emanating from the point-of-view of a scared and frightened child, abandoned by her parents at a young age, Newt knows they’re all going to die. The young girl finds herself so locked in her perception of reality, so challenged by the memories of her long lost loved ones, that she doesn’t suspect for one moment that someone can be there for her.

    This perspective challenges and influences Ripley the same way Joi challenges K to give in to his ability. Whether looking at a positive application of Perception in Blade Runner: 2049 or a negative instance of Perception in Aliens, Influence Characters in both narratives obstruct their respective Main Characters from remaining in comfort by looking to an element of Perception. Completely different illustrations rising from the same touch point; both necessary to balance out the Problems in the Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines.

    Relationship Story Throughline

    Blade Runner: 2049 illustrates the Relationship Story Throughline needed to round out the narrative more fully than Aliens. As K and Joi attempt to integrate into each other’s lives, tension mounts as each adapts and changes themselves to fit within the other.

    • RS Throughline: Psychology
    • RS Concern: Conceptualizing
    • RS Issue: State of Being
    • RS Problem: Change

    Aliens tells of a similar dynamic between mother and daughter but to a lesser extent. The Relationship in Blade Runner: 2049 turns to prostitution and technology to minimize friction between the two, while Aliens turns to conversations regarding dreams and nightmares. Adapting to this new mother/daughter dynamic defines the conflict between Ripley and Newt and resolves with an exclamation of Mommy! as Newt leaps into her arms.

    An Approach That Works

    A look at the Four Throughlines for Aliens and the Four Throughlines for Blade Runner: 2049 tells of stories with a similar personality.

    The Throughlines of Aliens
    The Throughlines of Aliens

    Their shared storyforms broadcast the same conclusion: A move towards ability resolves an apparent inequity of desire, bringing success and fulfillment. With Aliens, this plays out objectively with Ripley’s stand aboard the mothership and their eventual ability to bring home an understanding of what happened with that lost colony. Subjectively, Ripley resolves the angst for her missed opportunity with a chance to dream of a new one.

    The Throughlines of Blade Runner: 2049
    The Throughlines of Blade Runner: 2049

    Blade Runner: 2049 argues the same approach. Do what you can do, be the person others need you to be, and find success and fulfillment of those desires that held you back. Logistically, K makes it possible for Deckard to reunite with his daughter and for a greater understanding of her birth and the revolution to come. Emotionally, K rests comfortably knowing he is more human than human.

    The storyform encodes the message behind the narrative. You can change the setting, change the cast, the period, even specific illustrations of every story point—but you can’t run away from the single approach argued by a particular storyform. Stories exist as models of the way we think and solve problems.

    In some respects, a great story is more human than human.

    1. Though that glass partition seems to tell of an inability to touch—a greater Understanding of their deep divide. Either way, it satisfies the Overall Story Solution of Ability.  ↩

    Interested in learning more about stories with similar structures in a fun and visual way. Register now for the Narrative First Atomizer and get to know story at a molecular level. The Narrative First Atomizer breaks down successful narratives into their essential ingredients—providing you the know-how to craft and develop your own meaningful stories. Visit Narrative First to learn more about this exciting service.

    The Power of Implied Story Points to Frame a Narrative
    November 2017

    Anyone can tell a story. This event happens, then that happens, and then finally that happens. Listing events in chronological order is indeed one way to tell a story—an even better idea is to find a meaningful relationship between those events.

    The Dramatica® storyform lists seventy-five individual story points that holistically work together to argue a single approach for solving a problem. One finds over 300 individual storyforms on the central Dramatica site and well over 200 here on Narrative First. Vetted and confirmed by a group of Dramatica Story Experts, these storyforms represent the most accurate way of defining their individual narrative structures.

    At least, this was the standard understanding until I taught Story Development at the California Institute of the Arts. In my second year, a group of students successfully challenged the storyform for M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense.

    Analysis Part Two

    In our first analysis of the film—completed in 1999 as a part of the Dramatica Users Group series-we saw Universe as the context for Malcolm’s problems and Mind the source of impact emanating from Cole’s perspective. Malcolm is dead but doesn’t know it, and Cole’s disturbed nature challenges Malcolm to wake up.

    The second analysis—first brought to light by my students more than ten years later—challenged this initial understanding by flopping the Main Character and Influence Character Throughline perspectives. Instead of seeing Malcolm’s problems as a matter of externalized consequences (he’s dead), the students interpreted his issues within the context of a fixed internal mindset (Malcolm doesn’t know he expired). They saw Cole’s influence as coming from a place of Universe and an external state he cannot escape (I see dead people).

    Sensing the greater clarity in this new storyform, I presented it to Chris Huntley, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story, and he agreed that it was a better representation of the film’s narrative dynamics. The correct analysis of The Sixth Sense on the central Dramatica site reflects this better understanding.

    The Litmus Test for Domains confirms our decision. If Malcolm suddenly escaped limbo, would that resolve his issues? The answer is no. If Malcolm fled the mindset that he is still alive, would that address his concerns? The answer is yes.

    This answer places Malcolm’s Main Character Throughline firmly in Mind.

    What is Meant by Implied Story Points

    As evidenced by the disparity in Sixth Sense storyforms over time, one can always make an argument for a single story point to the exclusion of others. One could argue Physics or Psychology as the Domain of Malcolm’s personal issues just as quickly and convincingly as the arguments made above for Mind and Universe. It’s when you look to the implied story points that all the other choices begin to pale in comparison.

    Malcolm’s perspective in Mind implies Cole’s influence emanates from Universe. Main Character and Influence Character perspectives always sit diagonally across from each other; this ensures the highest amount of conflict and a shared similarity between the kinds of issues they face.

    The argument for Malcolm in Mind and Cole in Universe holds up against scrutiny: Cole can’t help but be in the presence of dead people, he can’t escape the situation (Universe). And this problematic perspective eventually draws Malcolm’s to his Changed Resolve.

    If the area of conflict from Malcolm’s perspective is in Universe, that implies Cole’s influence emanates from Mind. This arrangement fails to hold up: Cole’s mindset and the mindset around him does not directly challenge Malcolm to move to a Changed Resolve.

    We can make a convincing argument for Malcolm in Mind and Malcolm in Universe; the relevancy of one over the other reveals itself when we look at the implied story points based on our choice of Domain.

    The Source of Conflict

    When it comes to crafting a narrative with the Dramatica theory of story, one must always look to the source of conflict in each Throughline. Cole is sad and lonely because he sees dead people—he doesn’t see dead people because he is sad and lonely.

    • I’m sad and lonely because I see dead people (Influence Character in Universe)
    • I see dead people because I’m worried and lonely (Influence Character in Mind)

    One ascertains this source of conflict while knowing the entirety of the narrative, from beginning to end. The Dramatica storyform captures time and space into a single meaningful document. The story points and appreciations found in the storyform don’t represent a what if?, they tell of What Is.

    The revelation that Cole sees dead people arrives halfway through the story yet exists throughout the entire narrative. The reveal reframes everything before in greater context and motivates Malcolm to grow out of his justifications.

    Finding the Most Accurate Storyform

    Storyforms exist at varying levels of accuracy for a particular narrative—but only one rings true.

    Consider the choice of conflict within Malcolm’s Throughline and the implied source of conflict in the alternate Influence Character Throughline:

    • I think I’m alive because I’m in limbo (Main Character in Universe)
    • I see dead people because I’m sad and lonely (Influence Character in Mind)

    This arrangement suggests that Cole’s attitude of being sad and lonely influences Malcolm to escape limbo.

    Contrast that storyform with this one:

    • I’m in limbo because I think I’m alive (Main Character in Mind)
    • I’m sad and lonely because I see dead people (Influence Character in Universe)

    This arrangement suggests that Cole’s reality of being stuck around dead people influences Malcolm to realize the lies he tells himself about being alive.

    The latter sounds more like The Sixth Sense.

    Also, the second alignment of Throughlines offers a reason for Cole and Malcolm to be within the same narrative. They’re both stuck—one internally, one externally—yet the way they proceed couldn’t be more different. Cole’s Chaotic life challenges and impacts Malcolm’s Perception of reality.

    Considering the Implications of Choices

    We see the world from a subjective point-of-view. This reality blinds us to the real state of things—and creates the need for narratives to understand better the means by which we solve problems.

    With the Dramatica theory of story, that subjective blindness falls away. Offering a comprehensive look at all perspectives within a single context, Dramatica fills those blind spots—or story holes—with implied story points. Choosing to see a conflict in one area naturally develops conflict in another.

    The key to everything in Dramatica is this: One story point does not identify a story—it’s the nature of the implied story points that determine the accuracy of the structure. The relationship between the perspectives and the story points within frame those implications and create the storyform.

    It’s on us to appreciate the totality of the message.

    This article originally appeared on Narrative Firsta site dedicated to helping writers flourish and finish their very best work. Want to develop your story sense or learn how to fix your current story? Would you enjoy more articles like the one above delivered to your inbox every week? Join the thousands of novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights who subscribe to The Narrative First Weekly Newsletter become a master of your art and craft.

    Identifying the Protagonist and Antagonist of a Complete Story
    October 2017

    To many, the determination of key players within a narrative remains simple: identify the good guy and identify the bad guy. Unfortunately, assumed notions of morality fail to take into consideration the actual inequity of the story. Sometimes the efforts to resolve an inequity turn out to be a good thing; other times, they do not.

    The key towards maintaining the integrity of a narrative from beginning to end lies in the correct identification of the fundamental inequity of a story.

    Seeking Resolution of the Inequity

    In the article Identifying the Goal and Consequence of a Complete Story, the moment where a story begins determines the type of Goal to resolve it:

    to accurately define the objective Goal of a narrative, one must first identify the beginning of conflict–the moment when equity turns to inequity–within the scope of that one story.

    This injustice calls for some resolution. In some stories–like Star Wars, Arrival, Moonlight, and Captain America: Civil War–resolution arrives. In other stories–like Hamlet, Doubt, The Devil Wears Prada, and Manchester by the Sea–the resolution of the initial inequity fails to materialize. The first group tells of triumphs, the second of tragedies.

    When determining the character functions of Protagonist and Antagonist, look to the objective context provided by the Overall Story Throughline perspective. What are they trying to achieve? And when it comes to deciding they, assume no superiority of “good” over “bad.”

    Good Guys and Bad Guys

    Good or bad is a point-of-view, and in the Dramatica theory of story, point-of-view is accounted for in another location within the model. In fact, four points of view exist:

    The Protagonist and Antagonist of a narrative operate within the Overall Story Throughline perspective of They, as in they’re fighting against one another or they’re manipulating one another. Good or bad may play into their pursuits of fighting or manipulating or any other kind of conflict through thematic judgments, but the quality of “good” or “bad” within the context of the Protagonist fails to matter when considering the function of a Protagonist.

    The role of a character takes into consideration direction of movement. With the initial inequity created and the Goal to resolve that inequity determined, one character moves towards the achievement of that resolution, the other works to prevent it:

    • The Protagonist pursues resolution of the inequity
    • The Antagonist avoids or prevents resolution of the inequity

    Value judgments of good or bad fail to factor into this determination.

    By all accounts sane and righteous, Michael Clayton’s Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) is a “bad” guy. Yet, her actions reveal her to be the Protagonist–the one pursuing resolution of the story’s inequity.

    The narrative begins when Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) suffers a manic episode in the middle of a deposition. His actions set off the inequity of the class action lawsuit for everyone in Michael Clayton. As the conglomerate’s chief counsel, Karen pursues a successful resolution of the situation–no matter what it takes.[1]

    In How to Train Your Dragon, the destruction of the Viking hometown of Berk upsets the balance of things and drives the Vikings that inhabit that island to seek resolution. Their leader, Stoick (Gerard Butler) pursues a course aimed at training the next generation of dragon killers. His son, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), does everything in his power to avoid, or prevent, the achievement of this goal. Stoick is the Protagonist of the film, Hiccup the Antagonist. Both play “good” characters in the story.

    Manchester by the Sea explores conflict resolution surrounding the death of a single father. Once Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler) discovers he has ten years left to live, he sets out to find a way for his brother, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) to figure into the raising of his son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). While deceased for most of the narrative, Joe functions as Protagonist driving the successful resolution of this inequity. Lee avoids or prevents, the accomplishment of this Goal both consciously and subconsciously. In some respects, Lee’s behavior can be seen as “bad,” yet the Author positions him as a “good” guy throughout the narrative.

    When looking dispassionately at the events of a story, a narrative wastes little time considering the goodness or badness of a motivational force in the context of inequity resolution.

    A Method for Determining the Protagonist of a Story

    This means of determining Protagonist and Antagonist within the context of the Overall Story Goal builds upon the approach discussed in the article on identifying the Goal and Consequence:

    1. Identify the initial inequity
    2. Determine what will resolve that inequity
    3. Set the type of Objective Story Goal that generates that resolution
    4. The Protagonist pursues that Goal
    5. The Antagonist prevents or avoids that Goal

    Consider the example of Captain America: Civil War. The initial inequity of that narrative begins when the Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) uses telekinesis to protect Captain America (Chris Evans) from an explosion. She grabs the explosion and throws it into the air–accidentally killing innocent humanitarian workers in a nearby building. Everything that follows–the Sokovia Accords, helping the Winter Soldier escape the authorities, the fight at the airport, and even the fight between Captain America and Iron Man–claims this act as the initial motivating force.

    Stopping the Avengers, or tearing them apart, is the objective Story Goal that resolves that initial inequity. Allowing innocent people to continue to die is the Story Consequence of failing to achieve that Goal.

    In a moral world where everyone knows right from wrong and submits to a familiar ethereal authority figure, the idea of tearing the Avengers apart as a Story Goal seems ridiculous. But these are the good guys, why would the story work against them? In this scenario, assumed righteousness determines the objective context, not the events of the story itself.

    When determining the integrity of a narrative, the story must reign supreme–not one’s understanding of right or wrong.

    Captain America: Civil War goes through great extremes to present a balanced argument on both sides. No one is good, and no one is bad. Fans of the characters may choose their favorite side, but in the end–the narrative claims final word over inequity resolution.

    The Bad Guy Protagonist

    With the initial inequity determined, and the efforts to resolve that inequity and the consequences that ensue if those efforts fail identified, the Protagonist of Captain America: Civil War comes into focus:

    Helmut Zemo. The bad guy.

    Zemo (Daniel Brühl) is the character pursuing efforts to tear the Avengers apart. Also, he motivates other characters to consider reasons why the Avengers should be split apart. His effort to generate disinformation in regards to the bomber’s true identity and his endeavor to present a new context for Tony’s familial grief fulfills the objective character element of Consider.

    In the Dramatica theory of story, an archetypal Protagonist consists of two motivation elements: Pursuit and Consider. Pursuit is defined as a directed effort to resolve a problem and Consider is described as weighing pros and cons. Put these two motivations into one player under the context of an inequity requiring resolution, and you have a Protagonist.

    Opposing Zemo’s efforts to pursue and consider tearing the Avengers apart is the Antagonist of Captain America: Civil War:

    Captain America. The good guy.

    From the beginning, Captain America reconsiders and inspires others around him to reconsider efforts being made to restrict the Avengers. His struggle to prevent Bucky’s capture and prevent further loss of life amongst the police forces sent to capture Bucky exemplify the character element of Avoid from every angle. His motivation to prevent champions both sides.

    Objective character elements consider neither good nor bad; they think force and direction.

    In Dramatica, an archetypal Antagonist consists of two motivation elements: Avoid (or Prevent), and Reconsider. Note how these two oppose the Protagonist’s elements of Pursuit and Consider. Avoid is defined as stepping around, preventing or escaping from a problem rather than solving it.

    That sounds like Captain America.9

    Reconsider is defined as questioning a conclusion based on additional information. Again, Captain America. Put these two elements of Avoid and Reconsider into the same player and you have an Antagonist.

    Regardless of whose side they fight on.

    The Importance of Remaining Objective

    Objective character elements do not see “sides”; they see inequity and the motivation to resolve or prevent resolution, of that inequity. Confusion and misattribution of purpose arrive when the Author projects their understanding of right and wrong upon the motivations of the characters, instead of relying on the actions and decisions of those characters–within the context of the narrative–to determine the morality of the events within a story.

    Proper setup of the initial inequity, along with a consistent and cohesive context to consider the motivations of the characters to resolve that inequity, guarantees a reliable and complete narrative.

    1. For those who don’t know, Karen participates in some pretty socially unacceptable behavior.  ↩

    This article originally appeared on Narrative First—a site dedicated to helping writers flourish and finish their very best work. Want to develop your story sense or learn how to fix your current story? Would you enjoy more articles like the one above delivered to your inbox every week? Join the thousands of novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights who subscribe to The Narrative First Weekly Newsletter and become a master of your art and craft.

    Narrative Structure Gives Purpose to Story
    September 2017

    The structure of a narrative defines the purpose of a work. More than simply giving an Audience what they expect, the proper formation of character, plot, theme, and genre communicates the Artist’s deepest Intent. Story structure may not be everything, but everything purposeful needs structure.

    Story structure isn’t everything.

    Ever since I sat across from Melanie Anne Phillips–one of the co-creators of Dramatica–and she told me that “no one goes to the movies for perfect story structure,” my thoughts stray towards imagining how best to apply that to our work here at Narrative First.

    For instance, I recently published the latest in our Storyforming Series–a collection of video tutorials that focus on delivering insights and techniques for rapidly defining the storyform for a particular narrative. The latest episode centers on Woman Woman. In 20 minutes I discuss the observations and choices I made that led to my official analysis of the film.

    I’m really excited about this series and can’t wait to add more videos to the series in the coming weeks and months.

    Referring back to Melanie’s words, these videos focus on the storyform–something apparently no one goes to the movies to see.

    Two decades of experience with Dramatica and narrative says something quite contrary.

    Twenty Years That Say Otherwise

    Without a doubt, the closer a film or novel or play approaches Dramatica’s concept of a complete story–or storyform–the greater the final result. To Kill a Mockingbird, Hamlet, The Lives of Others, Whiplash, and Inside Out all share the common denominator of complete stories within the eyes of Dramatica.

    But they also possess a quality that elevates them above everything else.

    Three Different Ways to Preach Story Structure

    Recently I found three new films that demand attention: Logan, Get Out, and A Monster Calls.


    Logan was super sad–but thankfully told a complete story. I should say it almost told a complete story. The individual Throughlines were present and well constructed, but the Relationship Story Throughline in particular failed to develop with enough detail. As a result, the film comes off cold and almost heartless.

    Sad, but more sad in the logistical sense. Beloved characters die and that’s unfortunate; but the real tragedy of a failed relationship fails to fully materialize.


    Logan is an example of story structure told lightly to the point of almost being invisible.

    Get Out

    Get Out stuns from start to finish. A comedic and dark psychological thriller that, while on the surface appears to not maintain a complete storyform, actually communicates a message so subtle and so sophisticated that many might overlook it. The end result is a film that works its message on you without you even knowing it (just like the film itself!).

    Get Out
    Get Out

    Get Out is an example of story structure that creeps up on you without even knowing.

    A Monster Calls

    A Monster Calls claims the prize of the most heartbreaking and sweetest movies of the last decade. With a concrete story structure that works a kind of Arrival-esque holistic relationship between the Influence Character and Main Character Throughlines, this simple story of a child dealing with loss lightens the burden of those suffering through the same. The end result is a deeply moving message that is apparent, but not preachy.

    A Monster Calls
    A Monster Calls

    A Monster Calls is an example of story structure told through imaginative and unique imagery.

    Three different ways to relate story structure to an audience: lightly and on the brink of incoherence (Logan), subtle and manipulative (Get Out), and imaginative and unique imagery (A Monster Calls).

    Contrast this with the latest from Illumination, Sing!

    Story Structure and Nothing Else

    Like the films above, Sing! tells a complete story. But quite unlike those examples—that is all the movie does. The structure itself sits right there on the surface, almost to the point where you feel like you can see through to the bones of the narrative. A disturbing and uncomfortable experience, as evidenced by the numerous reviews that qualify the film as “familiar” and “contrived.”

    The experience is an obvious one–we all instinctively know how structure works. The Dramatica theory of story explains narrative so accurately because the concepts rest on the notion that a complete story represents a single human mind working to resolve a problem. Thus, we know how story works because we work through problem-solving each and every minute of each and every day.

    Unfortunately, seeing it there exposed unsettles the mind. We know how our minds work–but we don’t want it revealed to us. The more we understand why we do the things we do, the less inclined we are to do things we do. Motivation requires blind spots. Remove those blind spots and remove the impetus to problem-solve.

    Remove the impetus to watch a movie that does the same.

    Giving Them Something More

    Story structure insures purpose. The storytelling, the shades and colors the Author–or artist–applies to that structure, elevates the work into something unique and truly lasting. The Authors of the above films do more than simply relate story structure, they tell their stories.

    James Mangold (Logan) entertains you with a visceral experience that masks a message of advocating rash and impulsive responses when fighting against those who oppose progress. Jordan Peele (Get Out) hypnotizes you by making you think you’re just watching a scary movie when really he infects you with an approach for getting out of your own head. And Patrick Ness (A Monster Calls) offers a method for dealing with loss and emotional trauma through imagination and storytelling itself.

    So yes, Audiences don’t go to the theater to experience perfect story structure–but they do go to see a perfectly structured story.

    In this respect our Storyforming videos, and everything else we do at Narrative First, continue to provide that foundation for a great storytelling experience.

    The goal is not perfect story structure–but rather, a method for perfectly structuring your story.

    This article originally appeared on Narrative First—a site dedicated to helping writers flourish and finish their very best work. Want to develop your story sense or learn how to fix your current story? Would you enjoy more articles like the one above delivered to your inbox every week? Join the thousands of novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights who have subscribed to The Narrative First Weekly Newsletter and become a master of your art and craft

    Why You Need Four Acts Instead of Three
    August 2017

    Many writers break narrative down into Three Acts. After all, what could be simpler than Beginning, Middle, and End? Unfortunately, this idea that the “Middle” somehow stands equivalent to Beginning and End leads many to write incomplete and broken stories.

    But isn’t everything a Three-Act structure?

    Shooting TIE-Fighters

    Everyone knows how the first Star Wars movie ends, right? Moments before Luke Skywalker completes his run, the ghost of Ben Kenobi tells the young farmboy to turn off his targeting computer. Against all better judgment Luke complies, and ends up taking that one perfect shot that destroys everything.

    At that very point in time, Luke replaces his motivation to Test his skills with the drive to Trust in something other than himself. This Change of Resolve completes his character arc and saves the day. This act proves the message of the film that by trusting in something outside of yourself you can do impossible things.

    Now, here’s the interesting part: that final moment in the trench only works because of the TIE-Fighter Attack Sequence during the escape from the Death Star shortly after Ben’s sacrifice.


    The Context of Acts

    One of the purposes of story is to show us the appropriateness and inappropriateness of taking certain actions within different situations or circumstances. The central purpose of an Act is to provide a context for problems the characters face. When a story shifts from one Act to the next, that shift the Audience feels is actually a shift in context.

    In Star Wars the four contexts, or Acts, play out like this:

    • Act One: Misunderstandings of what happened to the rebel plans and a greater understanding that the Empire means business now (the context of Understanding)
    • Act Two - Learning where the plans are and teaching the Rebels that the Death Star can actually destroy an entire planet (the context of Learning)
    • Act Three - Fighting against the Empire in a space battle pitting the Milennium Falcon against TIE Fighters and following the Rebels back to their hidden base (the context of Doing)
    • Act Four - Moving into position to destroy the Rebel base and taking that one great shot that destroys the Death Star once and for all (the context of Obtaining)

    Four contexts, four Acts. Understanding to Learning to Doing to Obtaining. You need to cover all four when writing a story where physical Activities–like laser gun fights, light sword duels, and spaceship battles–depict the kind of conflict within the story.

    Different Contexts for One Problem

    Each of these Acts provides a context for the central problem of Test in Star Wars. In Act One, the Empire boards a consular’s ship in an attempt to test what they can get away with. In Act Two, the Empire tests the destructive force of the Death Star on Alderaan. In Act Three, Luke and Han test themselves against the Empire…and the Empire provides a semi-challenging test to make it look like they were trying to stop them from escaping (not really). In Act Four, the Rebels test their collective strength against the Empire.

    After that fourth context, there is no other place for the story to go. One can’t provide another context for Test within the greater context of problematic Activities. The only thing you could do is start another story, and start the process all over again.

    Or you could do what Luke does and stop testing and start trusting.

    Complete Stories Require All Contexts

    This is why stories require four Acts to function as a complete narrative. Jumping from Learning to Obtaining skips an essential area of exploration. In fact without that Doing context, Luke’s final gesture would appear meaningless.

    Some successful stories skip context in order to force the Audience to synthesize their own understanding. 2017 Best Picture Moonlight takes this approach. Jumping from Chiron’s act of violence straight to his new life as Black, the film skips over explaining progress in the Overall Story. What happened in the interim? And more importantly, where did Chiron get the idea of putting up a front?

    By leaving these questions up to the Audience to both formulate and answer, Moonlight makes the experience of watching the film deeply personal. Instead of being force-fed a montage of growth and personal re-invention, we supply our own history of development and self-actualization and become a part of the story.

    Star Wars is not Moonlight.

    An Old Problem Seen in a New Context

    If Star Wars skips over the experience of Luke testing himself against the TIE-Fighters from within the Millennium Falcon, no real dilemma–no real choice–exists when it comes to turning off the computer.

    In order to successfully provide Luke with the quandary of deciding whether or not to turn off his targeting computer, the narrative needs to grant the boy an opportunity to see testing actually work. The story needs to show Luke a context where Test functions as expected. That way when Ben pipes up and sticks his spiritual nose into the final sequence, Luke has reason to doubt the Old Man and refuse. “Hey, I just showed that I can DO it by myself–I already passed the test, ” he thinks. Why not leave the targeting computer on and see what I can do.

    Thankfully for the Rebels, Luke chose otherwise. He tried trusting instead, and that change in approach results in the successful destruction of the Death Star

    Explaining the Middle

    A narrative requires all four Acts in order to provide an Audience with a comprehensive understanding of the story’s central conflict. By exploring all four contexts, the Author ensures a full and complete evaluation of the story’s problem and potential solution. If the Author mistakingly skips one, the Audience instinctively knows. They sense a hole in the narrative and toss the entire thing out–discounting it as “a bad story.”

    Leaving key portions of the “Middle” out works for a film like Moonlight because of its intention to create a deeply personal and subjective experience. For Star Wars–and for a majority of films out there–breaking the Middle down gives greater context.

    The Beginning sets the potential; the End reveals the outcome. The Middle functions as transition between the two–a journey that shifts context from one location to the next. To equate the Middle with the previous two is to deny its very essence as a passage of greater meaning and understanding.

    Authors use narrative to communicate a message–to argue that a particular approach to solving problems is better than another. The passing through is very bit as important as the final result. By fully depicting the implications of deciding to go one way or the other, Authors ensure their message–or argument–rings true and remains in the hearts and minds of their Audiences.

    This article originally appeared on Narrative First—fine suppliers of expert story advice. Want to develop your story sense? Join the other novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights who have enrolled in the Dramatica® Mentorship Program and become a master of your art and craft.

    Losing Sight of Your Main Character
    July 2017

    Audiences come to story with the hope of experiencing the new. Key to drawing them in and keeping them there lies with the proper application of the Main Character’s perspective. Lose sight of the Main Character and writers risk losing their Audience.

    A disturbing trend of late seems to be on the rise within narrative fiction: that of the undefined or ill-defined Main Character Throughline. The Croods, End of Watch, Prometheus, and the latest James Bond thriller Skyfall all fail to offer Audiences consistent points-of-view from their Main Characters. Sure, they might entertain us with visual delights from worlds light-years away or they might engage us viscerally with uniformed life on the streets of L.A., but without consistency in where we witness these events from the experience falls into insignificance.

    As popular as Skyfall was, what exactly was the film trying to say? Failure to recall key moments or arcs of character often indicates a failed and broken story. Try it with this latest Bond film and consternation surely ensues. The film began as an exploration of what it means to be at the end of one’s career–a new young hipster Q, the physical struggle to keep up with the demands of the job (holding on to the elevator platform)–but then somehow lost track. The story clearly sets up the issues of Bond aging out, yet for some reason forgot to address these problems shortly after the first act turn. Like an amusement park ride, Skyfall offers thrills, chills and spills, that last for a moment yet ring hollow days after.

    Story can be so much more.

    A Way In

    The Main Character offers more than simply someone to cheer for. This unique and central character grants the Audience a way into the mind of a story. Dramatica theory (Narrative Science) suggests that the Main Character holds the first-person “I” perspective on the problems within a story. From this point-of-view the Audience gets to experience what it is like to personally face this issue.

    Contrast this with another important perspective, the “You” point-of-view offered by the Influence Character. The Audience does not experience what it is like to actually be this character, but rather watches what this character does and how they behave. This experience of watching another work through a problem “influences” us the Main Character (as the Audience we have assumed the collective position of the Main Character) to reconsider our own issues and how we approach them.

    Thus, the Main Character Throughline offers the Audience a reference point from which to interpret everything that happens on-screen or in print. When arguing a particular approach to problem-solving it becomes necessary to establish who we’re looking at and who is looking at us. Conflict does not occur within one viewpoint but rather between disparate viewpoints. You and I. Because of this reality, perspective regions supreme.

    The Dangers of Altering Perspectives

    Baz Luhrman’s take on The Great Gatsby should prove to be interesting. Will he repeat the all-too-common mistake of interpreting Nick Carraway’s narration as simply that: narration? Most adaptations fail to see the thematic connection between Nick’s point-of-view and the rest of the story.

    From the looks of the film’s the trailer (set to release in May 2013), it appears as if the great Gats himself (Leonardo DiCaprio) will assume the Main Character’s point-of-view while Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) will take on the Influence Character role. This runs counter to what can be found in the original novel. According to the official Dramatica analysis of The Great Gatsby, it is Nick (Tobey Maguire in the film) that operates as the Main Character while Gatsby actually takes on the Influence Character role. True, we get hints of a first-person perspective from Nick (Tobey Maguire) within the trailer, but the majority of scenes depict the struggles of Gatsby and his relationship with Daisy.

    Altering these key points-of-view threatens the meaning of the story. Classic novels claim their immortal status for a reason. Are we looking at Gatsby and his over-the-top actions, or are we experiencing what it is like to be someone who acts that way? The answer to that question will define what the Audience appreciates from the story’s events. Altering the perspectives because of a fascination with a particular performance (which seems to be the case here) can lead to confusion over the message of a story.

    Lessons from the Past

    Consider Neil Simon’s classic Barefoot in the Park and the Main Character of that story: Paul Bratter (Robert Redford). Clearly the original play called for us to see Corie (Jane Fonda) through Paul’s eyes: Simon went so far as to even call Paul out for being a “watcher, not a Do-er.” Yet here too, the adaptation devoted so much of its attention on Fonda’s inspired and captivating performance that it lost sight of Paul’s personal issues. Many probably don’t even remember what Paul’s issues were (assuming they’ve even seen the film).

    The Dramatica analysis of Barefoot in the Park correctly identifies Paul’s issues of being overly-responsible when it comes to juggling time spent with his new wife and time spent with his new job. His fuddy-duddy “stuffed-shirt” nature runs counter to Corie’s vivacious and randy ways and drives a huge wedge into their six-day old marriage. Coming to terms with this dysfunctional way of thinking and appreciating the value of freely running barefoot in the park resolves the problems within the story.

    Unfortunately the concentration on Fonda’s performance undermines this message–something clearly important to the original Author (why else would he title it “Barefoot in the Park”?). Like Bond in Skyfall, Paul’s struggle falls to the wayside threatening the Author’s original intent in the process.

    Adaptation and Medium

    Part of the problem lies in the fact that this film originally existed as a play. It becomes rather difficult to establish perspective when the Audience’s actual point-of-view towards the performance of a play remains fixed (i.e. in their seats, watching the stage). Short of extended soliloquies the stage offers little help for writers attempting to center their Audience. In film, shot selection and composition can set and delineate perspective concretely. In The Shawshank Redemption the Audience experiences what it is like to walk the long hall down to a parole-board meeting and what it is like to become friends with a cold-blooded killer like Andy Dufresne by witnessing these events through Red’s eyes. Like Nick’s narration in The Great Gatsby, Red’s narration offers a glimpse into what it is like to think like an institutionalized man–supporting the system instead of standing up against it.

    The same technique could have been applied to the film adaptation of Barefoot in the Park with great effect. Occasionally the writer affords the Audience this viewpoint–the Staten Island ferry scene wherein Paul confesses Corie’s apparent sins to his mother-in-law (“Just look at her”)–but scenes like this come few and far-between.

    Thankfully–and quite unlike Skyfall–Paul’s throughline comes full circle. The resolution of his throughline mixes with that of the larger story granting the Audience a satisfying and emotionally fulfilling ending.

    The Present of a New Perspective

    Writers must keep the point-of-views solid throughout their stories lest they wish to severely disorient those engaging with their work. Centering the Audience with the conflicting perspectives of both Main Character and Influence Character helps clarify what the Author wishes to say with their work. Audiences want meaning, they want something more from their stories. Authors have the ability to provide them with this unique gift–they only need to better understand how to package it.

    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 enrolled in our Dramatica® Mentorship Program and accelerate the development of your own sense of story.

    Genius Doesn’t Know Genius
    June 2017

    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 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 enrolled in our Dramatica® Mentorship Program and accelerate the development of your own sense of story.

    Dramatica Simplified
    May 2017

    Dramatica can seem a bit overwhelming when you first start out. One need only flip casually through the theory book dictionary before instantly coming to the conclusion, “This is insane!”

    But greater comprehension comes with time. Eventually terms like Universe, Preconscious, and even Conceptualizing as a Story Concern begin to make sense in a way that can significantly benefit the process of writing. The difficulties with the language slowly fade as one realizes the reason for their foreign nature.

    They’re Complicated Because They’re Accurate

    If the terms were simpler, or put into more “writer-friendlier” terms, they might be easier to comprehend, but they would distill down the power of Dramatica. The theory seeks to accurately map out the psychological processes of the human mind. The mind is not a simple machine. And why should it be? It provides us with a mechanism for determining meaning, a way to buttress context against context.

    If the theory was painted in broader strokes, the Main Character would always be the Protagonist, want and need would replace Problem and Solution, and metamorphosis/transformation would replace Resolve and Growth. In other words, it would be just like every other story theory.

    However, if you don’t mind dialing the accuracy back a little, the initial Eight Questions the theory poses become easier to deal with.

    A Simpler Take on Story Structure

    • There are two major characters in your story. One who will significantly change his world view and one who will stand his ground.
    • One of these characters will like to build things, use their hands, and get things done. The other would rather change themselves or act a different way.
    • One will want to find how things fit together, while the other would prefer to solve problems.
    • In your story you will have good guys and bad guys. In some stories the good guys win. In other stories the good guys lose and the bad guys win.
    • The people you are rooting for will feel like they are running out of time or running out of options. Again, it doesn’t matter, just keep it consistent and don’t change it halfway through.
    • Your story will either have major events that happen to these characters or they themselves will decide to take action. Both will be in there, but one will feel stronger than the other.
    • The character you care about the most will either be at peace at the end of your story or he/she will still feel at odds with the world around them.
    • This same character will grow throughout the story by trying something new or by discarding an old trait.

    The above relate (in order) to: Main Character Resolve, Main Character Approach, Main Character Mental Sex, Story Outcome, Story Limit, Story Driver, Story Judgment, and Main Character Growth. When you first set out to map your story, the above eight questions may be a convenient and easy way to start.

    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.

    Finding the Major Dramatic Question of Your Story
    April 2017

    Writers love to place themselves in the shoes of their characters. Pretending to be someone else and emoting with the needs and desires of another mark the starting block of the writer’s initial foray into a lifetime of discovery. One problem: without a proper map they end up lost and confused, doubling back on themselves without even noticing.

    The first artice in this series on Plotting Your Story with Dramatica recognized The Difference Between Becoming and Being in Dramatica. Understanding the various Types of conflict that exist in a story and how they feel shifting from one to another built the foundation for Identifying the Number of Acts in Your Story, the second article in the series. With that knowledge in hand, we now steer our foucs towards answering the question of dramatic tension within a story.

    An Objectified View of Story

    Dramatica deals almost entirely with the objective view of a story. While The Audience Appreciations of Story like Reach, Essence, Tendency, and Nature bridge the gap between the objective and subjective, this objectified view of narrative is what separates Dramatica from everyone else. It is why some refer to its approach as too “abstract” and why others find the terminology “obtuse” and over-complicated. Writers write from inside the point-of-view of their characters; anything outside appears foreign and manufactured.

    The unfortunate side-effect of remaining locked in a subjective view rests in the very definition of a subjectified view: blind spots. Without access to the totality of everything going on around us, we often mistake our perceptions for reality. Films like The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects, and American Beauty explore this exact problem.

    However, a completely objective view lacks the one thing that subjectivity claims as its own: compassion. The phrase One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter describes the ability of the subjective view to empathize and care about the particular point-of-view one takes. In story, we want the Audience to relate to our characters and to be moved by their thoughts, their words, and their actions.

    A powerful and meaningful narrative finds substance in both the subjective and objective views. The greatest writers dive into their stories and write subjectively, and then come up for air and take a more measured and objective view of their words. After assessing and determining the moments of subjective indulgence, they dive back down and make the necessary adjustments.

    Dramatica helps with the objective part of the process. Countless other paradigms and understandings of story help with the subjective part—only, they don’t make attempts to bridge the gap between the two. Our new understanding of Dramatica makes it possible to do both.

    A Question of Dramatic Tension

    Google “the question of dramatic tension” and you’ll find many articles detailing the subjective approach to writing a story. They focus on methods for keeping the audience “hooked” into the story, and for keeping up audience involvement. The blog Writing for Theatre: Tips & Tricks for Beginner Playwrights has this to say about dramatic tension:

    One of the main ways of creating tension is by planting questions in the “mind” of the audience. As soon as a play begins, audiences have questions they want answered by the playwright. Where and when is the play set and why? What are the characters doing? Are they important characters? Where will the play head? What is the theme of the story?

    Many refer to the question on everyone’s mind in the Audience as the Major Dramatic Question, or “Central” Dramatic Question. As Doug Eboch, the writer behind Sweet Home Alabama explains in his post on The Dramatic Question:

    The Dramatic Question is the structural spine of your story. Remember how I said last time that a story consists of a character, a dilemma and a resolution? On some level all Dramatic Questions can be boiled down to “Will the character solve their dilemma?” Of course that’s not very helpful to the writer trying to crack a story. You need to ask that question with the specifics of your character and dilemma.

    The above bears repeating:

    “Of course that’s not very helpful to the writer trying to crack a story.”

    This is where the subjective approach to constructing a story breaks down. Even if you ask the question with “the specifics of your character and dilemma” you will find yourself no further along than before you asked…because you will still be trying to construct the foundation for a narrative that affects each and every character from a subjective point-of-view. Subjectively, we are all blind to what is really going on. Why should it be any different from the point-of-view of a character?

    Subjective Blind Spots

    On Scott W. Smith’s blog Screenwriting from Iowa he presents a collection of Major Dramatic Question examples from around the globe:

    • E.T.: Will E.T. get home?
    • The Silence of the Lambs: Will Clarice catch Buffalo Bill?
    • Erin Brockovich: Will Erin bring justice to a small town?
    • Finding Nemo: Will Marlin find his son?

    Anyone familiar with Dramatica will notice that each of these questions finds genesis within the Story Goal of the narrative:

    A Goal is that which the Protagonist of a story hopes to achieve. As such, it need not be an object. The Goal might be a state of mind or enlightenment; a feeling or attitude, a degree or kind of knowledge, desire or ability.

    And interpreting the essence of these questions objectively, one could easily assign Obtaining as the Story Goal for each of these stories:

    Obtaining includes not only that which is possessed but also that which is achieved. For example, one might obtain a law degree or the love of a parent. One can also obtain a condition, such as obtaining a smoothly operating political system. Whether it refers to a mental or physical state or process, obtaining describes the concept of attaining.

    E.T. achieves freedom. Clarice captures Buffalo Bill. Erin brings justice. And Marlin finds Nemo.

    Unfortunately, if you were to set Dramatica’s story engine to Obtaining for all of those films you would be short one Oscar for screenwriting.

    Subjectivity Breeds Blindness

    E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, Erin Brockovich, and Finding Nemo find conflict in their individual stories through Obtaining. The government agents try to capture the alien and the kids try to win his freedom in E.T.; Erin digs into the case and tracks down evidence of coruption in Erin Brockovich; Marlin, Dory, and Nemo escape from sharks, whales, and aqauriums in Finding Nemo. If the question of Dramatic Tension sets the spine of a story then yes, questions of Obtaining fit…for these films.

    The Silence of the Lambs is an entirely different monster altogether. Rather than focusing on achieving or Obtaining, this film gathers its attention on How Things are Changing:

    The FBI is concerned with its discovery of an increasing number of victims and the progress it is making toward locating Buffalo Bill; Clarice Starling is concerned with her progress as an FBI trainee; Buffalo Bill is concerned with the progress of his “suit of skin”; Hannibal Lecter is concerned with the progress being made toward better accommodations (and escape); etc.

    Writing Silence from the point-of-view of Will Clarice catch Buffalo Bill? results in all these missed opportunities for potential conflict. Where would Hannibal Lecter be or Buffalo Bill if it was simply about capturing the villain? Digging into the case and tracking down clues—like you would in an Obtaining story like Erin Brockovich—leaves out Clarice’s progress as a trainee, Lecter’s progress towards better accomodations, and more importantly—the progression of victims at the mercy of Bill’s developing “suit of skin.”

    Asking from a Place of Objectivity

    Once we identify the source of conflict in The Silence of the Lambs as progress, or How Things are Changing, it becomes easier to identify the true dramatic question of the film:

    Will Clarice be able to stem the tide of Buffalo Bill’s murderous rampage?

    Far more interesting, and far more compelling than simply whether or not she will capture the bad guy, asking a question that brings to mind all the devolving forces working against Clarice inspires greater creativity and sophistication within the narrative. The artistry that sets Silence apart from all other films in this Genre is this focus on the rising tide as the center of conflict—not capturing and evading. Focusing on the “wants and needs” and “dilemma” of the central character would only guarantee mediocrity.

    And the Academy doesn’t hand out awards for mediocrity.

    An Approach that Answers Everything

    The problem with asking dramatic questions and taking a subjective approach to structuring a story lies in the very nature of subjectivity—you don’t see everything that is going on. In fact, this approach seems ludicrous when you consider that an Author is the God of their story—they know and see everything!

    Anchoring the subjective point-of-view to an objective understanding of the true nature of conflict within a narrative is the only way to guarantee a powerful and meaningful story.

    By all means, write from within. Take that character’s point-of-view and run with it. But anchor it to an objective view that ties plot, theme, character, and genre into one.

    Ask questions, but know that those questions have answers. Dramatica’s concept of the Story Goal helps writers nail down and ask the right question by asking them to identify the true nature of their story’s conflict. In fact, Dramatica goes one step further by helping to provide the answer to that question through its concept of the Story Outcome.

    Subjectively we can only ask as we experience a story. That is why approaches to writing from within focus on these questions of dramatic tension. Why restrict ourselves as writers to simply asking questions, when there exists a foundation for both the question and the answer?

    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.

    Identifying the Number of Acts in Your Story
    March 2017

    In Hollywood, every film is a Three Act structure. Roam the halls of the story department at one of the big animation studios or saunter in to a lunch meeting for production executives on a live-action film and you encounter the same sight on every white board: a sequence of events broken down into three separate sections.

    But not every story is a Three Act structure.

    Some narratives tell the story of a rise to power followed by a great fall (The Dark Knight); others start with the fall, then end with the rise (The Matrix). These stories split dramatic tension into Two Acts. Any attempt to force them into a Three Act structure only encourages dissension and disagreement among collaborators.

    Still others–like The Godfather or Platoon–break off into four distinct movements. Almost episodic in nature, yet still tied together thematically at the core, these stories clearly function on top of a Four Act structure. Force a Three Act paradigm here and you risk breaking a masterpiece.

    The key to effortless development dwells in understanding the type of narrative structure your particular story requires. Every complete story feels complete because it addresses the different contexts where problems find solutions. Each Throughline focuses on one particular area of conflict, and each of these areas divides naturally into four different Types of Conflict.

    Types of Conflict

    Problems of Activities split off into Understanding problems, Doing problems, Gathering Information problems, and Obtaining problems. Chris Huntley, one of the co-creators of the Dramatica theory of story, describes the difference between these four Types in the Dramatica Users Group narrative analysis of Zootopia at the 1:21:40 mark in this video:

    As Chris explains, Doing is about engaging or not engaging in an activity whereas Obtaining is about achievement or loss. Both require “doing” but the focus in each instance is different. Understanding is figuring out how things are related to one another whereas Gathering Information is the process of learning about something.

    Observe the athlete:

    • Some love the training and the preparing, the quintessential perpetual student (Gathering Information)
    • Some want to win a gold medal (Obtaining)
    • Some want to simply do the exercise all the time (Doing)
    • Some want to understand the effects of training on their body and life (Understanding)

    Again, focus is key. Some enjoy reading, while others want to read all of the books in a series and perhaps own the largest library in the world. The former focus on the Doing, the latter on Obtaining. Think of these different Types of Conflict as different dimensions of the area of conflict they explore; in this case, Doing, Obtaining, Learning, and Understanding reflect different dimensions of an activity.

    In addition to Problems of Activities, complete stories examine Situational Problems, Fixed Attitude Problems, and Problems of Manipulations. Situations divide up into problems of the Past, problems of the Present, problems of the Future, and problems with How Things are Changing. Fixed Attitudes find problems with Memories, problems with Contemplations, problems with Innermost Desires, and problems with Impulsive Responses. And finally, problems with Manipulations split into Conceptualizing problems, Conceiving problems, Being problems, and Becoming problems.[1]

    The Natural Progression of A Story

    With four Types of Conflict in each Throughline, The Reason for Acts becomes clear:

    They signify the change in dramatic focus the characters take in order to solve the problems within a story.

    Stories don’t naturally separate into four parts because they need a beginning, a middle, and an end. They don’t break down into fours because of Syd Field’s Plot Points and Midpoints. And they certainly don’t divide up into four movements because film reels were only 10–15 minutes long.[2]

    Stories break into four parts in order to completely evaluate the four different Types of Conflict in each Throughline.

    Exhausting Every Alternative

    The characters may explore problems of Activities by Doing first, then Obtaining, then trying to Gathering Information, and finally working to make others Understand. This is what happens in The Matrix:

    • Everyone searches and chases down Neo (Doing)
    • Neo escapes the Matrix and hides from Agent Smith (Obtaining)
    • Agent Smith interrogates Morpheus (Gathering Information)
    • Agent Smith & Co. appreciate Neo’s true power (Understanding)

    In another story, the characters may try Understanding first and when that doesn’t work switch to Learning. With no solution in sight, they try Doing and eventually find resolution with Obtaining. This is what happens in Unforgiven:

    • Strawberry Alice and others realize there is no justice (Understanding)
    • Little Bill teaches everyone what happens to reward-seekers (Gathering Information)
    • Ned can’t kill Dave (Doing)
    • Munny collects his reward and exacts his revenge (Obtaining)

    Both films, miles apart in terms of storytelling, focus their attention on the same kind of conflict: Activities. The sequencing of the types differs, but the feeling of completeness exists in both. The characters exhaust every potential resource in their drive to find a solution to their problems.

    The Feeling of the Act Order

    What about a film where they start off focusing their attempts to find resolution by Gathering Information? Having exhausted that area, they then move into Doing something which eventually leads to Obtaining–but still, no resolution. It is only once they move into Understanding that they find a solution.

    This is what happens in Collateral:

    • The federal grand jury set for the next day incites everyone to prepare for the testimonies (Gathering Information…or Hiding Information if you’re Vincent)
    • Vincent carries out his mission with Max in tow (Doing)
    • Fanning makes the connection between the deaths and Felix (Obtaining)
    • Max tries to get Annie to realize she is the final target (Understanding)

    Note the difference in feeling here between the Act order of Collateral and that of The Matrix or Unforgiven. The dramatic tension for the first two is clearly a rise-fall situation: rise-fall for Eastwood and friends, fall-rise for Keanu and pals.

    Collateral on the other hand features three distinct movements. The preparations for the grand jury (and the efforts to keep the witnesses permanently quiet); the assassinations; and the effort to save Annie (and end Vincent).

    The last movement shares the same subject matter as the second one–preventing or engaging in a murder–yet feels distinctly different. Why is that?

    And why does the Act order of The Matrix or Unforgiven clearly feel like only two movements?

    The Meaning Behind Act Order

    Doing and Obtaining feel the same. Ask anyone unfamiliar with Dramatica to explain the difference between the two and most find it difficult, if not downright challenging to answer. Same with Understanding and Gathering Information (or more precisely, Learning). Where does Learning stop and Understanding begin?

    When shifting into a type of conflict that feels the same, the sense in the Audience is that this is a continuation of exploration. The delineator between the two is hard to find. Act turns feel like major turning points because they represent a shift into a decidedly different dimension of conflict. The shift from Obtaining to Understanding grabs your attention because of the differential between the two. Same with Learning into Doing.

    In the 10th anniversary edition of The Dramatica Theory of Story, Huntley coined this shift a “Bump” or a “Slide”. Bumps represent vastly different dimensions, while Slides refer to similar concerns.

    This is why The Matrix and Unforgiven feel like Two Act structures. The first half of The Matrix covers Doing to Obtaining; the second half follows Learning to Understanding. The first half of Unforgiven focuses on Understanding to Learning; the second Doing to Obtaining.

    Act Order Determined by Thematic Structure
    Act Order Determined by Thematic Structure

    In sharp contrast, the first half of Collateral moves from Learning to Doing–a clear distinction between dimensions of conflict. We know when Learning stops and Doing begins. That body smashes down on the roof of Max’s cab and we are off for the entirety of what is traditionally known as the Second Act.

    The second half moves from Obtaining to Understanding. Again, another clear marker between the two. Max gets wind that Annie is next and no longer do we focus on achieving–we put all efforts into getting her to understand the severity of her situation.

    Questions Concerning Dramatic Tension

    Three acts. Two acts. Four. Why does any of it matter?

    When it comes to deciphering questions of dramatic tension, trying to graft a traditional Three Act understanding on to what is clearly Two Act structure results in confusion, distraction, and a complete waste of the writer’s resources.

    If you were to write Unforgiven and felt yourself struggling to answer the question of dramatic tension in “Act Two”, you might convince yourself of the need to graft an incongruent point-of-view onto your story. This one mistake could potentially set you back weeks–if not months–into a series of pointless rewrites trying to determine the essence of your story. Structuring a narrative without considering the underlying Types of Conflict and dynamic forces at play results in disastrous consequences.

    Thankfully the Dramatica theory of story, and the application that supports its findings–Dramatica Story Expert–make it easy for writers to determine the number of Acts in their story. Once you dial in your storyform, look to the four Signposts in your Overall Story Throughline and take note of the order.

    • Slide-Bump-Slide is a Two Act structure
    • Bump-Slide-Bump is a Three Act structure
    • Bump-Bump-Bump-Bump is a Four Act structure

    In next week’s article we will take a look at using this understanding to help you determine the thematic makeup of dramatic tension in each Act.

    1. Last week’s article covered The Difference Between Becoming and Being in Dramatica.  ↩

    2. The most ridiculous notion of them all–that structure relied on the format of the medium.  ↩

    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.

    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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?


    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.


    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?


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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


    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?


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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):


    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.


    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:


    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?


    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