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Past Articles by James Hull

James Hull is an animator by trade, avid storyteller by night. He also teaches 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... StoryFanatic.com

The Magic of the Storyform
December 2011

Can a computer program accurately predict the choices an Author would make during the development of their story? If the choices were made in the spirit of writing something meaningful and coherent, then the answer would be yes. Dramatica, an application built upon the mind's problem-solving processes, makes story structure a fascinating and magical area of exploration.

Rare is the opportunity for us nowadays to experience something truly wondrous. Sure, we might witness the birth of our own child or watch with bated breath as a satellite a billion miles away navigates its way through the rings of Saturn. But what about story?

If there is one quality that propels the Dramatica theory of story above all other paradigms it is that it can actually predict certain parts of a story. The program is smart enough to take the choices an Author makes regarding what it is they want to say with their story and give back to them parts of their story they hadn't even considered. The effect can only be described as pure magic. Things unknown about a story become known, revealing parts essential for the story to feel full, complete and meaningful.

Kurt Vonnegut, the writer behind Slaughterhouse Five, may have taken issue with computers and their attempts at "graphing" storytelling, but chances are he never had a chance to see Dramatica in action. Even if he did, he probably would have been disgusted at its accuracy in predicting some of the choices he made. How could a computer possibly mimic the intellect of a great writer? His disdain for such applications may have inhibited the wheels of progress for some time, but then, bruised egos often can't help themselves.

The fact of the matter is that we are learning at an exponential rate how our minds work. The Dramatica theory of story is simply one aspect of that research and a fascinating insight into why some stories work better than others. The best way to witness this uncanny feature or predictability in action is to answer the program's questions about a great story that already works, and see if what the application predicts actually fits the work in question.

Steadfast Characters and Their Problem

Before diving into the specific examples, it becomes important to understand the nature of a Steadfast Character and the Problem at the core of their Throughline. With Change characters, the Problem works as expected: it identifies the source of trouble in their life and the corresponding Solution signifies where their change will lead them. With Steadfast characters the Solution never really comes fully into play (it will in small doses throughout a balanced story, but never like the Change character) and thus, their Problem will appear to be more like the source of their drive rather than a true problem to be solved. It will define them, almost like a core characteristic. By looking at the Steadfast character's Problem within the following examples, one can get a sense of Dramatica's magical ability to predict elements of a story.

What is a Storyform?

For those unfamiliar with Dramatica, a storyform represents a unique collection of thematic dynamics and story points that communicate the meaning of a story. In the present incarnation of the program, there are 32,768 possible storyforms. The process of storyforming requires an Author to make structural choices about their work in order to narrow down that broad number to the one unique set of appreciations that matches what it is they want to say.

When analyzing a work through Dramatica, the analyst attempts to discover the one storyform that best matches the story being evaluated. They begin with the most easily-identifiable story points, slowly working their way to the less obvious until they get down to the one storyform. When that happens the storyform will magically "sing", predicting story points and thematic elements that the analyst did not provide. That's the moment when the analyst knows they've hit upon the right one.

And that's the moment we'll be looking for in the following examples.

Star Trek

J. J. Abrams' sci-fi lens-flare spectacular provides audiences with a solid, well-illustrated storyform. Starting with Kirk's Main Character Resolve of Steadfast (and thus, Spock's Resolve of Change), the Captain's Approach of Do-er and Linear Problem-Solving Style seem most apparent. So too do the Story Dynamics of Action Driver, Optionlock, Story Outcome of Success and Story Judgment of Good (an obviously Triumphant ending).

The Overall Story, with its chases and space battles, fits nicely in the Domain of Activity, as does Kirk's personal Main Character Domain of Situation (the ne'er-do-well son of a hero). This forces Spock's Influence Character Domain into Fixed Attitude -- and our first glimpse at the magic in action. Fixed Attitude describes Spock's Throughline perfectly: a Vulcan fixated on the rational. The Relationship between the two consequently falls into Psychology, meaning their battleground centers around conflicting ways of thinking. Once again -- magic. A perfect way to describe the conflict in their contentious relationship. They each have different ways of thinking how best to solve the problem at hand, both trying to manipulate the other into seeing things their way.

Here, things become less obvious. Certainly the Overall Story Concern must be Obtaining, particularly in a story about revenge, but beyond that is the story exploring an Issue of Self-Interest, Morality, Approach or Attitude? Perhaps Spock's Throughline would provide an easier way into the storyform.

Stepping down into the Fixed Attitude Domain and a Concern of Subconscious (what drives him!) we find four groups of four elements each. Scanning the four for the best grouping, the quad below Hope sings out the name Spock: Logic, Feeling, Control and Uncontrolled. If ever there was a group that described what problems a Vulcan goes through, this would be it!

The question now becomes, which one is his Problem? What is the true source of his inequity? It's clear that he believes his emotions get the best of him and thus, a Symptom of Feeling seems to be the best choice as the Symptom describes what a character thinks their problem is.

And with that, we're down to one storyform. And here is where the magic really begins.

The program has identified Spock's Problem as Uncontrolled and his Solution as Control. Think to his fistfights with the young Vulcans earlier on in the film for an example of his Problem, and his ability to control his emotions at the end for proof of his Solution. Hopping up to the Overall Story we see that the program has identified Uncontrolled as the Overall Story Problem as well (Nero anyone?) with Avoidance as the Symptom (warp-holing to prevent things from happening) and Pursuit as the Response (pursuing Nero to the ends of the universe). So far so good.

But the greatest instance of magic, the one that solidly identifies this particular storyform as being the one, is in Kirk's Domain. Based on the choices made previously, Dramatica predicts that Kirk's Problem would be Oppose. How could one possibly find a better term to describe him in this story? Not only does this trait show up in the opening scene where he borrows his step-dad's car, but also in every other scene where someone tells Kirk he can't do something. When people Oppose Kirk, he goes after them (MC Response - Pursuit -- more magic!).

Without any tampering from the analyst, Dramatica has accurately predicted the types of thematic elements that would make Star Trek work as a solid story. If one were looking to write this story within the first couple months of development, a simple adherence to the suggestions made by the program would help ensure that the final product would mean something - that everything would together in a seamless holistic piece.

But what about something a little less popcorn-predictable? Maybe something more scholarly, more character-driven?

Jane Eyre

No way a computer program can predict the intricacies of Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel, right? Well, if you plug in Jane's obvious Resolve of Change, her Approach as a Do-er, her Holistic Problem Solving Style (how else to explain her new home in the middle of nowhere?), and the Story Dynamics of Decision, Optionlock, Success and Good, the storyform begins to take shape.

Add to this an Overall Story clearly set in Psychology (conflict stemming from the myriad of characters who have designs on Jane) and an Overall Concern of Becoming (again, manipulating Jane to become what they want) and the program has narrowed down the possible storyforms to 16. One of those sixteen elements must be the Overall Story Problem - the problem plaguing everyone within the story. As with the analysis of Spock, the four quads of four are looked at as a group in order to determine which set feels more like the source of trouble within the story. Realizing that everyone creates trouble for themselves when they act from a sense of Obligation, an analyst could easily see how Logic, Feeling, Help and Hinder "sing" the nature of difficulty within this story. In fact, doing what is sensible (Logic) screams out as the actual Problem, particularly in light of Jane's final decision to go with her emotions instead (Feeling).

But where is the magic?

Hop on over to Rochester's Influence Character Domain (Fixed Attitude - how about that for starters?) and one can see how the program has predicted his Problem to be Conscience. How else would you describe a man who cares for a wife who so clearly belongs in a mental institution? Is that not doing the right thing, rather than taking the easy way out? Amazing, right? A computer program has accurately predicted the choices a mid-19th century author made during the writing of her novel.

Magic. Pure and simple.

The Enduring Model of the Mind

The reason Brontë's novel has lasted for nearly 200 years and the reason why people still feel compelled to retell that story is because it was based on a solid storyform. Storyforms are simply models of human psychology -- a snapshot of the human mind at work trying to solve a problem. Audiences recognize this fact and appreciate the care given to a story that thinks the way they do. They are drawn to stories that have something meaningful to say.

So does one need this program in order to create something as powerful and lasting as Jane Eyre? Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley had this to say:

The theory is a discovery more than an invention. The software is an invention based on the discovery.

These principles of story structure were in place long before the invention of the computer and the programs that followed it. So no, by trusting their instinct, an Author could conceivably create something enduring and everlasting. The theory is a discovery of the process of acquiring meaning already within us. The invention of the application Dramatica simply grants us the opportunity to see that magical process in action.

This article originally appeared September 3, 2011 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Chasing the Protagonist
November 2011

Story structure based on recognizable patterns garner legions of fans. They draw many in with their easy “fifteen steps to Hollywood success” and their claims of having unlocked the keys of story. Unfortunately, with simplicity comes great inaccuracy.

The popularity of these paradigms or screenwriting blogs can be traced to the elementary nature of their concepts. Protagonists are characters who want something badly enough to drive a story. Inciting Incidents are the moments when something new happens. These are easy concepts that one can tape to their monitor during NaNoWriMo, easy-to-grasp bellwethers for hobbyists.

Unfortunately, as easy as they fit on a yellow Post-It, these concepts and edicts ultimately prove insufficient towards creating holistically meaningful stories. Their reductive nature blinds many to the complicated psychological processes that complete stories are built upon, the end result revealing itself in illogical and inconsistent analysis. Worse, it only adds to the immense landfill of confused pointless storytelling.

Recently, Story Fanatic received a challenge regarding its series of articles on How to Train Your Dragon (beginning here). The area of disagreement focused on the article’s assertion that the Protagonist of How to Train Your Dragon was in fact NOT Hiccup as many would believe, but rather his father, Stoick. An explanation if you will.

What the Protagonist is Not

The dissenter defined the Protagonist as the character who wants something badly enough to drive a story. What character doesn’t? Placing the burden of narrative momentum onto a singular character leads to Hero-centric storytelling – a myopic understanding that confuses the function of a Protagonist with the perspective of a Main Character.

That original article’s purpose was to illustrate that the Protagonist of a story pursues the resolution of the story’s problem, while the Main Character of a story represents the audience’s viewpoint into the story. The Main Character presents a personal perspective on the story’s problem. The Protagonist drives a story forward.

Sometimes (more often than not in Western film) the two are portrayed by the same player. It is this trend that fuels the ever popular Hero’s Journey and Save the Cat! paradigms. This is fine. Until, of course, it leads to preconceptions – blind spots that motivate inaccurate analysis of unfinished works.

The reservations many have towards popular story gurus and constructs of story stem in large part to this misunderstanding that the central character of a story is always the one driving the efforts towards resolving the problem. Instinctively, everyone gets that this is not always true.

The Function of a Protagonist

The Inciting Incident introduces the problem of the story that affects everyone in the story. The Protagonist works to resolve that problem, the Antagonist to prevent it. Because of these intrinsic functions, they both must be aware of the problem and the efforts to resolve it. No sense pursuing the resolution of a problem you’re not familiar with, no sense trying to prevent it if you don’t know what it is you’re trying to stop.

The rabble-rouser who wrote in believed Hiccup’s goal as Protagonist was to win his father’s love. Fair enough. There is an element of truth to that notion. But who is actively preventing Hiccup from achieving this goal? No one, and thus – no Antagonist. Furthermore, how are ALL the characters affected or even concerned by this problem? Maybe Stoick’s friend Gobber and perhaps Astrid, but beyond that no one really cares what is going on between these two. It is an intimate problem, a subjective problem, shared between two competing perspectives.

Their struggle, thus, is not the all-encompassing main problem of the story. It is part of the story, but not the part that concerns the Protagonist and Antagonist objective character roles. More reason to stay away from the Hero-centric models. Thinking of the story strictly from Hiccup’s point-of-view blinds people to the other contexts existing within the framework of a meaningful story. Those who hold strong to those paradigms are not seeing the whole picture.

Looking Deeper Into a Story

The Dramatica theory of story provides the most accurate model of the inner workings of a story. It presents a holistic view of the thematic dynamics at conflict – a more comprehensive understanding that seeks to explore ALL sides of an issue, NOT simply from the viewpoint of a “protagonist”.

True, Hiccup wants his father’s love badly enough to motivate many of his actions. But this is only part of the story, what Dramatica would call the Relationship Story Throughline. When looking at a story through this context, the concepts of Protagonist and Antagonist fade in importance. From this perspective, the contentious relationship between the Main Character and their greatest personal challenger becomes the most essential issue.

Consequently, the Protagonist and Antagonist can only be seen through the context of the Overall Story Throughline – what most consider to be the “story” of a story. Both Overall Story and Relationship Story exist simultaneously within a single work. Understanding which context you’re taking when examining the structure of a story can go a long way towards properly understanding the dynamics at work. Knowing that both need to be there in order to explore both sides of an issue will go a long way towards appreciating the real power of narrative fiction.

The greatest benefit from thinking this way? Seeing story in this light protects one from having to defend faulty logic with caveats and special cases. The paradigm works universally.

Hiccup’s desire for his father’s love is only part of the story. The desire to train the next generation of dragon-killers and the effects those efforts have on the Vikings and the dragons is another. Subjective emotions drive the former, objective logistics the latter. The Protagonist and Antagonist are found in the objective half of a story. Main Character and their challenger, the Influence Character, are found in the other half. Complete stories – great stories – require both as they both work in concert to provide the meaning of a story.

Stories Without Archetypal Characters

To add to this, continuously looking for the Protagonist or Antagonist of a story is a broken approach because there are some stories that have neither. Protagonists and Antagonists represent a familiar collection of dramatic elements that an audience easily recognizes. Familiarity, though, breeds contempt. Classic Archetypes such as these, while clear and easy to understand, are not complex enough to warrant deep exploration of issues. Complex characters, on the other hand, do.

Othello endures without these strict Archetypes. Shakespeare infused that play with complex characters, characters consisting of unique and disparate dramatic elements. Yet, there are still some who cling to the notion that a story ALWAYS has a definite Protagonist who wants something. Thus, they contend that Iago is the Protagonist and that his Goal was the destruction of Othello and Casio. This line of logic presents us with a clear case of how chasing the Protagonist naturally leads to error.

Protagonists do not achieve their Goal in a Tragedy. By definition, a Tragedy tells of a failed effort to resolve a problem. Pretty sure Othello is a Tragedy. To place Iago in this role as Protagonist would somehow imply that he failed to achieve his goal of bringing down Othello.

Does that sound accurate?

Looking For Something That Is Not There

Understanding context helps align an interpretation of story with what is really going on. Realizing the dual perspectives of objective and subjective helps one to fully comprehend how a work of narrative fiction operates and allows one the best opportunity to address any problems within.

Protagonist and Antagonist are objective character functions. They exist to provide an objective “take” on the best approach towards solving the central problem of a story. Their wants and desires? Subjective context – those exist within the character. Trying to find the Protagonist from that perspective will only end in false assumptions and wasted efforts.

Appreciating the dueling perspectives of objective and subjective viewpoint that permeate a work of narrative fiction grants one the ability to make a coherent argument – a solid story worthy of time and attention.

This article originally appeared October 27, 2011 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Blockbuster Films and the Main Character
October 2011

Writers dream of capturing the hearts of their audience. To grab the attention of a group of people and have them become so involved with a character’s struggle that they forget their daily lives stands as the Holy Grail of wordsmithing. But how do writers expect this to happen if they don’t give the audience a way in?

It’s one thing to craft a harrowing plot of escalating complication, one that excites and surprises at every turn. To then be able to wrap it all up within a meaningful and thought-provoking exploration of thematic elements? Well, now you’re talking story. But unless the writer adds a clearly established Main Character Throughline all that work will be for nothing.

A Way In

By providing an intimate look at a problem and the personal struggle to overcome it, a writer grants the audience an emotional portal into the story’s events. The Main Character Throughline fuses story with audience. Leave it out and the audience will become simple observers. Weave it in as to be an essential component and the audience will jump in feet first, empathizing with the plight of the Main Character and consequently developing an emotional attachment to the story’s final outcome.

Blockbusters, by definition, demand repeat viewings. A strong Main Character Throughline invites audiences everywhere to become a part of the experience again and again.

Doing it Right

Star Wars excites with its laser battles and zero-gravity dogfights, yet it is Luke staring out at the twin sunset that ultimately draws us in. Inception compels attention with its intricate dreams within dreams concept, yet it is the guilt Dom feels for the participation in his wife’s suicide that makes us care about those dreams. Finding Nemo transcends the animated film genre with an epic undersea adventure like no other, yet it is Marlin’s father-knows-best attitude that forces us to empathize deeply with a computer-generated image.

The list doesn’t stop there: Toy Story 3, The Dark Knight, E.T., Spider-Man, Shrek 2 and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 – all blockbuster films with one thing in common: a clear, easily definable Main Character throughline separate from the larger overall struggle within the story.

The biggest film of all time, Avatar, strangely enough suffers from a broken Main Character Throughline. It may hiccup dramatically in some places, but at least the effort was made to bring the audience in on the adventure.

Doing It Wrong

Contrast this with Taken or 9 or the critically-acclaimed Of Gods and Men. None of these films offers an emotional path into the story’s events. Sure, we care about the abduction of Liam Nesson’s daughter, but do we become emotionally invested? Not at all. Same with 9. Why should we care about post-apocalyptic puppets if we’re not granted a personal struggle to latch onto? Who the heck is 9 and what are the issues most personal to him? Of Gods and Men? The acclaim rests solely in the subject matter there, not in the execution.

These films, and countless others like them that rely on spectacle and sleight-of-hand to lull the senses. They suffer at the box office because they fail to latch on to the audience’s sense of empathy. Audiences simply don’t care enough about these films to see them again (Some aren’t even seen at all – often there is a sense from the trailer whether or not a film has a potentially strong Main Character Throughline).

A Catalyst for Error

Identifying the Main Character Throughline of a story is simple, right? One simply has to look to the Catalyst – or Inciting Incident – and find the life-changing event for the Protagonist.

Not quite.

In fact, this line of thinking blatantly points out the reason why the Main Character Throughline must be clearly delineated from the Overall Story Throughline.

Taken provides a Catalyst that upsets the balance of things for Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson), yet the rest of the film becomes one mindless action scene after the next. No emotional development, no growth of character, no personal issues anywhere. Thinking only of creating a life-changing event does not guarantee audience engagement because the Inciting Incident/Catalyst is tied to the Overall Story Throughline NOT the Main Character Throughline. It upsets the balance of things for Bryan as Protagonist, not for Bryan as Main Character.

The Function of a Protagonist

The Protagonist operates within the context of the Overall Story Throughline. The Main Character operates within the context of their own personal problems. Sometimes (more often than not in Western film) these two functions can be found in the same player. Luke, Dom, Marlin, Elliot, Bruce Wayne, Harry Potter – all these films feature Protagonists who are also the Main Character.

But what about Rick in Casablanca, Red in The Shawshank Redemption or Sarah Connor in the first Terminator? These films feature very strong Main Characters with very personal issues we become privy to – yet are not the ones driving the Overall Story towards its Goal.

Identifying the difference between the Main Character Throughline and the Overall Story Throughline separates those who understand how stories work from those who work stories to death. How can one possibly fix the problems within a story if they don’t know where to look? (“They’re digging in the wrong place!” – Raiders)

A Problem Personal to the Main Character

Seeing the two as one is a common blunder that often results in soulless empty stories. Taken is a perfect example of this. If one doesn’t care about engaging an audience on an emotional level, then by all means, craft a Catalyst and move on. But if one is interested in elevating their storytelling, bringing it to a point where the events on-screen actually matter…well, then identify the problem most personal to that character.

The abduction of Bryan’s daughter isn’t a personal problem – everyone is concerned with it. The police, the daughter herself, the bad guys who took her, and yes, of course, the Protagonist Mr. Mills. The abduction creates sympathy not empathy – which is correct. Audiences should, and will sympathize with a Protagonist.

The Main Character Throughline, however, are those issues the Main Character would take with them into any story, not simply the one at hand. Their throughline, their struggle defines their character. This is why their connection to the Inciting Incident is not a prerequisite.

There are times, however, when the two coincide. The Sixth Sense is one example of this: the violent act that created Malcom’s unique “situation” also happens to be the Catalyst that forced his function as a Protagonist in the larger story of understanding what is really going on with Cole. He has that objective goal as Cole’s case worker, yet his personal issues – that big problem he’s dealing with all on his own – those issues define him as a character and are a part of his Main Character Throughline. It’s that intimate look at problem-solving, what would I do in the same situation?, that compels the audience’s interest.

Defined by Their Personal Issue

Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon was a 98-lb. weakling viking long before he destroyed his hometown of Berk – the Inciting Incident of that story. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, George’s “paunchy” appearance and lack of adequate pectorals had no connection with the decision to have some guests over for dinner. Black Swan’s Nina suffered at the hands of her mother’s maternal prison long before poor Beth was given the boot.

Asked to describe Hiccup or George or Nina and these throughlines would be the subject of what would be discussed.

The Character-Driven Story

Personal throughlines like this are perhaps easier to identify within smaller more character-driven pieces like Black Swan or Virginia Woolf because the emphasis is always placed on what is this character struggling with? or how can I give the lead actor something really meaty to chew on?

In Win Win, Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) shoulders the burden of his families’ financial misfortune all on his own. Keeping his actions a secret from his wife and from those who know him fuses the audience with him. Who hasn’t kept a secret that would certainly destroy their reputation? Mike may be doing something wrong, but we can’t help but feel for him (a natural reaction towards someone we empathize with). We root for Protagonists, we feel for Main Characters.

This personal throughline exists as well within the disconnected yet-always-on-a-connecting-flight Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) from Up In The Air. Layoffs and corporate restructuring may affect everyone in the story, but it is that carefree “I don’t need anybody” attitude that only Ryan and we as the audience are privy to.

A Story Is A Story, No Matter How Small

The drive to create a blockbuster does not negate the need for an effective Main Character Throughline. Whether it be a quiet character-driven piece like Blue Valentine or a monster-sized epic like The Lord of the Rings, the way a story works remains consistent. Key broadstrokes of structure – like the different perspectives of the Main Character and Overall Story Throughline – determine the ultimate success of any film.

Audiences know inherently when they receive a broken story. The box office reflects their disappointment.

By taking the time to clearly identify those issues personal to the Main Character, a story becomes something more than simply a Protagonist trying to reach a Goal. It becomes something more than simply a shell who endures some life-changing event. Stories with that emotional punch to the gut – stories that touch the heart – become a compedium of experiences that grant meaning and incite thoughtfulness.

Why strive for anything less?

This article originally appeared September 7, 2011 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Framing Devices and What They Mean
September 2011

While many may suggest that change is always good when it comes to storytelling, using that approach to describe the intent behind the use of “bookends” or a framing device can be potentially misleading. As always, a deeper look into the purpose behind such concepts can illuminate the reasons why they exist and how they can be best applied to one’s work.

In the commentary section of the Pirates of the Caribbean DVD, screenwriting legends Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot single out their five rules of screenwriting, with the first two being:

  • No Bookends and
  • No Bookends

Said with tongue firmly-in-cheek, Rossio and Elliot are clearly referring to the rather pedestrian use of a framing device to set the stage for the story itself. Films like Saving Private Ryan, A League of Their Own, and even Young Guns 2 employ this technique of having an aged character recount the story, typically with a voiced-over narration as well. This particular version of a framing device sits outside of the actual story, wrapping itself around the potentials within.

It is not a part of the Author’s proof, and simply serves as a means to create a context within which to appreciate the story.

Purposeful Framing Devices

A film like Titanic extends the idea of a framing device a bit further, taking these bookended scenes and infusing them with a story of their own. The central “1912” story was concerned with Main Character Rose (Kate Winslet) and her change at the hands of handsome Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio). The modern visiting-the-wreck story flipped things around with a now much older Rose influencing the change of character within Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton). This second story is far less complete than the one with the big block of ice, but it still attempts to depict the kind of growth of character that exists with a complete story. As such, it has its own meaning that, like its simpler narration-only cousin, sits outside of the story proper. These smaller sub-stories may share thematics or create dissonances with their bigger brothers, but they still aren’t an essential part of the main story’s argument.

Another fork of this concept has the Author jumbling up the order in which the events are told, or revealed to the Audience. Starting at the end, then rewinding to the beginning and playing through to the end again is a common technique used by Authors who want to play on the Audience’s preconceptions of how certain scenes appear to be at first glance. Films like Memento, The Usual Suspects and The Sweet Hereafter all incorporate this tecnhique to provide an enhanced appreciation the story’s message. Here, these scenes become an integral part of the story’s argument.

Yet, as meaningful to the story as they are, this particular version of a framing device still don’t provide the powerful opportunity for an Author to prove their central character’s resolve.

Moving Beyond Simple Bookends

Dramatica theory co-creator Chris Huntley sums up these instances of framing devices quite nicely in a recent conversation on the Dramatica Convore page:

Bookends are often storytelling devices that allow the author to put the story in context. Other times, bookends are storyweaving devices that show a bit of the end of the story at the beginning of the work, and then finish the end of the story at the end of the work. Another form of bookending involves having an establishing scene at the beginning that shows how things stand [with the Main Character] and then have a parallel scene at the end of the work that shows how [the Main Character] has changed (or not).

It is with this last example that the framing device begins to takes on a signficant and powerful meaning.

Why Resolve Matters

Lightly touched upon in last week’s article Dramatica: Mad Libs or Madly Accurate, the Main Character’s final resolve is used by an Author to help establish the meaning of their story. If the Main Character changes their approach and the end result is a triumph, then the Author is saying Changing your approach in this context is the right thing to do. If instead, the Main Character remains steadfast in their approach and the outcome is an abject tragedy, then the Author’s message becomes a cautionary tale – By sticking to your guns, you are setting yourself up for failure.

As introduced by Huntley above, a common technique to prove this resolve is to employ two scenes, one at the beginning and one at the end, that drop the Main Character into a similar set of circumstances, and in some cases even the same exact situation. If the Main Character responds the way they did in the beginning, then it becomes clear to the Audience that the Main Character’s resolve has stayed the same. If the Main Character somehow musters up the courage to react differently, to try a different method for solving their personal issues, then it becomes obvious that the Main Character has resolved to change their approach.

This is why it might be more beneficial to refer to this technique as the Author’s Proof of Resolve, rather than simply another instance of “framing device” or bookend. Beyond simply showing that something has “changed” or providing a context within which to appreciate the story, this sophisticated use of a framing device comes with the prime intent of helping an Author confidently prove the message of their story.

Proving the Author’s Argument

Referring again to last week’s article, The Godfather uses Kaye to frame Michael’s “proof of resolve”:

In the beginning he has no problem explaining the family business to Kaye. At the end, he lies to her face about it. He changes from a man driven by his feelings about the mafia to a man driven by the cold-hearted logic necessary to keep his family business alive.

Presented with the same set of circumstances, Michael has changed the way he approaches that problem. The two scenes prove his resolve.

In Top Gun, the aptly named Maverick (Tom Cruise) is a lone wolf, jumping into action at the drop of a hat, completely disregarding any responsibility he might have towards others. He starts the story abandoning his wingman in order to flip over and flip off a Russian pilot, complete with a Polaroid snapshot. The result? His terrified wingman almost loses his life on final approach.

At the end of the film, Mav finds himself in the same exact situation, only this time he refuses to leave his wingman. Proof of resolve once again. The Main Character has altered the way he solves the issues plaguing them. Granted, Top Gun is not Shakespeare or as well-crafted as The Godfather but the concept remains just as effective – the Author’s message is conveyed clearly and succintly. Control your impulses and you too can experience triumph.

In The Shawshank Redemption, Red’s proof of resolve sequence is made even more obvious by having it all take place in the same exact room! Facing the parole board at the beginning of the story we can easily see what the system has done to poor Red (Morgan Freeman). Beaten down, he cowardly grasps hat in hand and nods Yessir, whatever you say sir. Telling the board what he thinks they want to hear, he recevies his rejection notice with ease.

At the end, having gone through a lifetime of growth experience with Andy (Tim Robbins), he vehemently stands his ground and speaks up and out at them. No longer content with simply towing the system line, Red defies authority and in turn gains their respect. His stamp of approval is the Author’s proof of resolve, and the message clearly delineated: speak out and you too may find freedom.

More To It Than Simply Change

Bookends or framing devices are not revolutionary new concepts in storytelling. Understanding how they operate and how they can best be applied to one’s work is.

Save the Cat! creator Blake Snyder refers to bookends in the explanations of his Opening and Final Image:

These are bookends. And because a good screenplay is about change, these two scenes are a way to make clear how that change takes place in your movie…the final image in a movie is the opposite of the opening image. It is your proof that change has occurred and that it’s real

This could be considered a reasonable assessment from the Audience’s point-of-view (covered in Forget the Cat, Save Yourself!), but as far as the Author is concerned, why do these scenes of correlation exist and how can one manufacture meaning out of them?

If the framing devices are being used to show the Main Character’s change in approach (or lack thereof–equally as important!) towards solving his own personal issues, the why becomes clear. They are there to prove the Main Character’s final resolve. It is more than simply depicting change because good screenplays are about change, it is actually supporting the Author’s message, solidifying their reason for writing in the first place. Crafting scenes like this simply becomes a matter of understanding the problem at the heart of the Main Character’s personal throughline and creating scenes that exploit it.

Advanced Story Theory for This Article

Dramatica provides an Author with the key elements central to a Main Character’s Throughline. In the case of Red, Support is his Problem with Oppose falling into place as the appropriate Solution. The parole board scenes provide a perfect opportunity for the Author to show how Red’s willingness to fall in line can be “fixed” by speaking out and opposing their way of doing things.

If instead Red had been a Steadfast character, that final parole board scene would have him responding the same way he did in the beginning, supporting their every word.

Now, the story isn’t set up for that to make sense, but in a completely different story an Author could show how towing the line is completely the appropriate way to resolve an issue of insitutional thinking. Having been challenged in every scene in-between, Red could find him standing resolutely in the Support corner. If he were to be let go because of it, then the Author’s message would be clear and a bit subversive, be a yes man and you can be free.

If instead, he received his final rejection notice and went back to his cell head down, the message would come from the same point-of-view, yet be a completely miserable and downer experience. Tow the line and you’ll end up a sad and lonely man! Sad message, but a clear one to be sure.

This article originally appeared June 4, 2011 on Jim’s Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

How to Figure Out Your Character's Arc
August 2011

Many a story begins with a great character. That flash of inspiration that says I have to write a story about this person. Yet, so many stories stall out just short of that all-important finish line. Why is that?

The answer can often be traced to misplaced focus. So much attention is placed on fleshing out the character and providing them with greater and greater sources of escalating conflict, that the basic logic of their actual arc breaks down. In fact, sometimes it's not even there at all.

There is a simple dynamic that exists within all Main Characters, defined by the chasm between a problem and a solution.

Why the Main Character Exists

The purpose of a Main Character within a complete story is to present to the audience a personal perspective on the story's central inequity. Some stories explore Main Characters who create problems by testing themselves. Will Hunting and Luke Skywalker come to mind as central characters troubled by the fallout of personally imposed trials. Other stories take a look at Main Characters beset by problems of perception. Malcom Crowe from The Sixth Sense and Lester Burnham from American Beauty both suffered because of how they perceived the world around them. These inequities, which are seen as problems by the audience, exist independent of gender, genre or generation. They drive the Main Character forward through a story, coming complete with a corresponding resolution device, or solution.

Problems of test require solutions of trust. Both Will and Luke managed to find peace in trusting something outside of themselves. Problems of perception require a dose of reality. Both Malcom and Lester finally saw things the way they really are. Perceptive problems can't be solved by trusting something, and problems of trials can't be resolved by the reality of the situation. Every problem comes complete with one complimentary solution. Understanding what drives a character can help a writer determine what that solution is, thus revealing exactly how to resolve their character's arc.

Common Problems, Common Solutions

As mentioned previously, a Main Character's problem is about as far removed from genre as one can get. Take for instance three completely different films: Something About Mary, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Memento -- a raucous comedy, a kid's fantasy adventure, and a psychological thriller. Polar ends of the genre spectrum, yet they all feature Main Characters troubled by the same exact problem. And because they all come from the same dramatic place, one can predict where they will end up. Assuming, of course, that they ultimately resolve their problems.

Something About Mary

Ted had a bit of a disastrous date with Mary back in high school. In fact, it was so bad that he has dwelled on it, and continues to dwell on it many many years later. Ted is the kind of character who is unable to do the kinds of things he wants to do. This performance anxiety, which finds its roots in that dreadful day in the bathroom, is his problem. This inequity within him is a problem that determines what he can and cannot do in regards to Mary today, an inadequacy deep at the heart of his own personal angst.

Now, this might seem a little too much for a film that is supposed to be about franks n' beans right? We are talking about a sdlkfjsdf brothers film. But it is this kind of attention to character that elevates this film above others in its class. Ted suffers from a lack of ability and it shows. Harry Potter, on the other hand, suffers from too much ability.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Harry can talk to snakes (which I'm told is called Parsiltongue), he can ride a broom with little to no effort, and he can catch a Snitch just as well as his dad. Harry is a born Seeker. These skills set Harry apart from the other kids, increasing the angst he already feels at having been lableled The Boy Who Livved.

It's the same kind of problem Ted has, only it is weighted way over at the other end. Besides simply being incapable, one can be capable of too much, especially when they're not sure exactly what to do with it. In either case, both Ted and Harry experience an inequity that can be attributed to ability.

But what of a character who finds their problem encompasses all aspects of an inequity?


Leonard has a very clear problem defined for us from the start: he can't make new memories. Another way to put it? He is unable to make new memories. Leonard has a mental disability, a deficiency that drives his every move.

But like Harry, Leonard can also be seen as being too capable. In fact he is so capable of deceiving himself that, if left to his own devices, he could keep the quest for his wife's killer going indefinitely...

...which brings us to the resolution of a character's arc.

The Solution to a Problem

So how does one determine where a Main Character will end up? Understand the solution that will resolve their problem. When one is beset by problems of ability, like Ted, Harry and Leonard are, the answer can be found in desire.


Desire overcomes ability. Think of it this way: Let's say you're not very good at something. Perhaps you're an animator at a big-time studio and you don't draw as well as some of the other artists. This lack of ability (or disability if you like) is a tremendous source of pain for you as it holds you back from whatever purposes you strive for. In other words, it is a problem.

Now there are two approaches you can take to work this problem. The first involves staying the course, working the problem and the effects of it, until the problem is gone. Perhaps your drawing skills will improve. Perhaps the skills of those around will decline. In either case, the approach is one of steadfastness, that problem of ability still driving your every move.

The other approach is to simply give up wanting to be a great animator or, give up that desire. It may seem tragic (as some stories are), but when it comes to resolving a problem, the emotional consequences run second to the methodology needed to get there. Giving up that desire to be better, or wanting something else even more, will solve that issue one had of a lack of ability. That problem of ability simply disappears.

A Solution for Every Character

This second approach is exactly what happened to Ted. But instead of simply giving up on wanting Mary, he followed it to the very end, effectively increasing his desire for the girl of his dreams. He followed his heart and told Mary he came to Florida because he loved her. In doing so his feelings of inadequacy disappeared and Mary came running after him. Ted's arc was completed by the solution to his problem.

Same with Harry. Only his solution of desire came in the form of those at Hogwarts welcoming him in. His adventure with the Sorcerer's Stone found him a new home, a natural solution for someone who never had one, having suffered great alienation for so long.

Both Harry and Ted found peace at the end of their arcs. By replacing their problems of ability with a solution of desire they nullified the inequities at the heart of their personal struggles.

But what about Leonard?

Now Where Was I?

With those last four words it is clear exactly where Leonard is -- he's still stuck with that problem and probably will be for a long time to come. There was no instance of desire that could have abated his disability. There could have been perhaps with Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), but in the end she was using Leonard just as much as Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) was. That solution of desire never presented itself.

Because of this unfortunate fact, that unrest Leonard feels inside of him will always be there. In fact, there is no indication that he won't burn that picture of Teddy the next day and move on. After all, he has shown that he is quite capable of keeping his charade up indefinitely.

The End is In Sight

When a writer fully understands the kind of problems that their Main Character struggles with, determining how to wrap up their stories becomes a simple matter of figuring out whether or not the appropriate solution is put into place. For Ted and Harry the answer was yes. For Leonard, the answer was sadly no.

In either case, the arc carries with it greater meaning.

For Something About Mary and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone the message was that great happiness can be found when you replace your problems of capability with an overwhelming sense of heart. Whether by following it or feeling it from others, that sense of desire will resolve your personal issues.

For Memento, there was no resolution. Sure, Leonard's mental disability gave him the ability to seek revenge upon the killer of John G., but it left him feeling lost, still troubled by the demons he began the story with.

Find your character's true inner problem and the key to the end of their arc will be presented to you.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

Dramatica refers to this dynamic within the Main Character as the Main Character Problem and the Main Character Solution. In the three examples above the MC Problem was Ability and the MC Solution was Desire. In addition to the earlier examples of Test and Trust and Perception and Actuality, there are countless more problems that a Main Character can be driven by.

When the Solution comes into play, the story features a Change Main Character. Their Resolve has Changed, signified by the Solution taking precedence over the Problem. In Steadfast Main Characters, like the example of Lenny above, the Solution is never encountered. Technically it can be throughout the course of the story in order to make the struggle seem less one-dimensional, but when it comes to that final decision, that final Resolve, the Solution is never put into place.

And it doesn't always have to end Badly, the way it did for Leonard. Characters can refuse to use their Solution and come out ahead. William Wallace did (he came out a-head, sorry, couldn't resist!), but he stayed steadfast in his approach and managed to not only free Scotland but the angst he felt within him over his wife's murder.

This article originally appeared June 23, 2011 on Jim's website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.


Dysfunctional Families and Their Stories
July 2011

Stories of dysfunction are popular among writers who want to explore the conflict that can arise when the psychologies of characters clash. Nailing down exactly what those problems are and how best to dramatize them can be difficult, especially given the basic understandings of story prevalent today.

One popular sub-genre of dysfunction is that of the dysfunctional family.

Dysfunctional families experience difficulties because of psychological problems, problems that can't be resolved by defeating a bad guy or winning a race. Their problems stem from the way the individual family members think, rather than what they say or do. A successful resolution to their problems will find the family functional once again -- an outcome that will hinge upon the Goal of the story.

Determining the Story Goals of Dysfunction

Typically, when presented with a story like this the Goal has something to do with bringing the family back together. Whether that relies on maintaining the American dream as it is in American Beauty, or simply being the superhero family that they were born to be as it is in The Incredibles, the Goal of the story becomes less about what the Protagonist wants and more about overcoming the inequity at the source of the dysfunction.

How exactly does one determine the Goal of a story?

Story Goals are always about overcoming the inequity created by the Inciting Incident. The Goals of most Hollywood films are relatively easy to figure out because they are based on problems that require some kind of physical achievement by the characters in order to resolve them.

In Unforgiven there are some bad men that need killin'. In The Matrix humans need to gain the upper hand over their computer overlords. And in Casablanca there are two tickets of transit that spell freedom for a couple of lucky souls. External problems that require external solutions.

But what physical prize needs to be achieved in American Beauty, or Eat, Drink, Man, Woman or Little Miss Sunshine? For that matter, what about The Incredibles or Down n' Out in Beverly Hills or even the classic Frank Capra comedy Arsenic and Old Lace? All these films tell stories of dysfunctional families, yet have no clearly delineated external Goal for the characters to reach.

With Brad Bird's incredible The Incredibles one could argue that the Goal is to defeat Syndrome. But as discussed in the article Sophisticated Story Goals, pureeing the bad guy wasn't enough -- Violet had to take that final step and become a part of the family. With her force-field firmly in place, the dysfunctional Parrs became the functional Parrs, paving the way for them to finally enjoy Saturday juvenile sports just like all the other "normal" families.

Story Goals are not always about achieving things, yet they are always about resolving inequities. As Chris Huntley, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story recently pointed out (source):

By definition, a Story Goal is a form of accomplishment. Do not confuse the nature of the story point with the methodology to reach it. Otherwise, EVERY goal would be an obtaining goal, and that does not accurately reflect the way many stories are intended. Part of the problem lies in our cultural bias. We tend to look at the end as the point, and not the means.

Thus, while a Goal may appear to be some sort of achievement, that accomplishment is not as important to the meaning of a story as the means to achieve it. In order to determine how a dysfunctional family might mend itself, it becomes necessary for one to address what exactly the inequity of a particular story really is.

Inequities of Dysfunction

In American Beauty, patriarch Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is asked to put into words how his contribution to the workplace fits in. With that one Inciting Incident an inequity is created, an inequity of dysfunction that had been bubbling for years, an inequity that threatens the very stability of the Burnham's perfect American fairytale family. The Goal isn't about whether or not Lester sleeps with the 16-year old cheerleader (no matter how much he wish it were), it is something more psychological in nature. The only way to truly resolve the issues plaguing the Burnhams is for each character to put aside their own personal agendas and work to together to imagine a new concept of what their family life should be.

The same kind of inequity exists in the Richard Dreyfuss/Bette Midler comedy Down n' Out in Beverly Hills, albeit a bit less melodramatic. Set squarely in the late 80s, the dysfunctional Whitemans family is beset upon by a bum (Nick Nolte) with an eye for the truth. Again, as with American Beauty, there is no bad guy to defeat, no treasure to be gained, and no mountain to be climbed, yet there is still this feeling that something is wrong. That feeling finds its source with the role each character feels they have to play. The maid as mistress, the dutiful mother who would rather be anything else, the son who floats from filmmaker to glam-rocker in an attempt to express himself -- each of these are acts of pretense that must be put aside in order for the Whitemans to overcome their dysfunction.

In the slapstick classic Arsenic and Old Lace, drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) discovers that his two sweet aunts are really homicidal maniacs. Learning that his family's dysfunction extends far beyond just younger brother Teddy's delusions of grandeur (he thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt), Mortimer begins scheming and manipulating those around him based on the concern that he might, in fact, become mad like the rest of them. Avoiding this insane transformation is the only way the inequity of the story can be resolved, especially when a second dead body turns out not to be the work of his aunts, but rather his older brother, Jonathan!

Three different stories (four if you count The Incredibles), three different genres, yet they all focus the dramatic eye on the same kind of inequity -- problematic ways of thinking.

So How Does It All Turn Out?

In The Incredibles everything worked out for the Parrs. Down n' Out In Beverly Hills? The Whitemans awake from their wild party sans makeup, both real and psychological. The dysfunctional family now fully functional.

Arsenic and Old Lace? The aunts, along with both brothers, are carted away to the insane asylum. But more importantly Mortimer learns that he was adopted, and that the chances of he and his blushing bride creating offspring as wild and crazy as these nutbags disappears as quickly as it had come. That fear of becoming just like them has dissipated, and with it the inequity of the story.

American Beauty, unfortunately, does not have such a rosy ending.

Whether you look at Lester's tragic demise, or his wife Elle who discovers far too late how great he really was, or the Colonel who can't quite find a way to make who he really is fit into the concept of what he thinks he should be, the inequity of the story persists. The story is a failure, and if it weren't for Lester's cheerful take on the whole thing it would have been seen as a tragedy the likes of Se7en or Hamlet.

The Trouble with Dysfunction

The psychology story is an opportunity for an Author to explore issues of a different feather, issues left untouched by the majority of Hollywood films.

Why is that?

Those in the West rarely examine the way they go about reaching conclusions. They have no problem questioning their actions or the actions of others, but when it comes to matters of psychology they most often are not quite sure what it is they are dealing with. Confused as to the very nature of the story within their hands, they label it a personal drama story or feel the work in question if far too eclectic for common tastes.

In reality, the resistance shows itself in those who are uncomfortable with the thought that the way they go about coming up with ideas may in fact be fraught with issues and inequity.

The dramatists purpose, then, is to reveal it to them.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

Stories of dysfunctional families often find their Objective Story Throughlines in Psychology. In contrast to stories found within the Mind domain, OS Psychology stories explore the problems that arise from the way people think, rather than what they think.

Diving down further one finds the four Concerns of Psychology: Conceptualizing, Conceiving, Being and Becoming. Recent versions of the software offer users simpler terms to replace them. Conceptualizing becomes Developing a Plan, Conceiving becomes Conceiving and Idea, Being becomes Playing a Role and Becoming becomes Transforming One's Nature. While these new "layman" terms might be easier for the newbie to grok, they tend to narrow down and obfuscate what is really happening at this level. As with all things Dramatica, understanding what the terms truly mean becomes more important than the terms themselves.

Down n' Out and The Incredibles find their OS Concerns in Being. Arsenic and Old Lace in Becoming. American Beauty finds the source of its difficulties in Conceptualizing.

One of the more compelling ideas to come out of Dramatica is the notion that a particular Story's Goal will be similar in nature to the OS Concern.

In The Incredibles this means the Parr family has to Be themselves in order to overcome the inequity of the story. In Down n' Out they simply have to stop Be-ing. In Arsenic and Old Lace Mortimer needs to stop trying to Become like his adoptive family. And in American Beauty Lester and Co. need to Conceptualize a new model of the American family.

This article originally appeared June 12, 2011 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Keeping Your Story Limit Consistent
June 2011

One of the interesting things about the Dramatica theory of story is how certain aspects of it can show up in daily life.

For instance, have you ever played the game Boggle? It’s a word game where, in a set amount of time, you’re supposed to connect the letters to form as many words as you can. The hourglass flips over and you start writing as fast as you can. This game is based on a Timelock.

Time runs out - the game is over.

Well, I was playing it this weekend against my 6-year old son who, out of nowhere, decided to add another limit! He drew a series of 9 circles and said that for every word I got wrong, he would cross off one of the circles. After nine mistakes, the game would end and I would lose.

But what about the hourglass?! Where did this Optionlock come from?

Should I worry about the time running out? Well, if I did that then I might get one of the words wrong. And if I get one of the words wrong I’ll only have eight more chances. But it’s the time that really matters, right? Shoot! I got one of the words wrong. Now I only have eight chances left! But wait, there’s only a little bit of sand left in the hourglass. Precious moments left before time runs out. Which one is more important?! Time? Options? Options? Time?!


I think this is the same thing that happens to audiences when the limit is ignored or disregarded in a story. Like Speed or Wedding Crashers. In Speed there is plenty of confusion over whether or not it’s a timelock or an optionlock (re: Dramatica Storyforming “Speed Violation” page 3 PDF). They setup one limit, then ignore it and sort of switch to another. In this Dramatica Online Class Log, Melanie Anne Phillips adds:

Then we don’t know WHEN the movie is going to end for sure. We assume maybe when the bad guy gets it. But that wasn’t where our tension was headed…its something of a cheat and bit of a disappointment.

Fun movie, but still that little hiccup at the end. Wedding Crashers is a bit different. From my best recollection, they’ve got the weekend on the island to “get the girl.” Time runs out and he doesn’t get the girl. But there is still another 45 minutes left to go! As a consequence of the original Limit being ignored, we’re left shifting uncomfortably in our seats for the rest of the film just waiting for it to end. (I remember the same feeling from You’ve Got Mail - only there you’ve got the limit coming to an end what seems like an hour before the Subjective Story comes to an end!).

Events like my game of Boggle and how they relate to Dramatica have always been of interest to me. The theory is based on the mind’s problem solving process so obviously it’s going to show up in real life as well. When searching for meaning, the mind needs the consistent context of a limit. Change the context and you change the meaning.

Now if only the movies we watch could have this same consistency.

This article originally appeared November 1, 2005 on Jim's Story Fanatic website.  Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

What Story Structure Is and Isn't
May 2011

Beginning, middle and end. Aristotle figured it out centuries ago and the rest of us are simply repeating his work with new fangled terminology, right? Far from it.

Story structure is not simply opening and closing images, midpoints, darks nights of the soul, three acts that break at 30-60-90, spiritual transformations, progressive complications, whammies and reversals. These are all storytelling devices. They add flavor to a solid story structure, not meaning. This is why they don’t apply to every story, why the order in which appear can so easily be shifted, and why so often they seem like matters of interpretation. Their use varies depending on the individual style of the writer.

The Journey of Writing a Story

In a recent presentation writer/director Guillermo del Toro made mention of his disdain for story structure and for the familiar systems propagated by the Robert McKees and Blake Snyders of the world. Reiterating his analogous comparison between the competing writing philosophies of the structuralist and the naturalist to that of tourist and traveler, he began to expand on his particular approach to writing.

A tourist arrives on scene with a set itinerary, a list of popular sites to visit and a schedule within which to visit them. A traveler, on the other hand, experiences the foreign land with little to no boundaries, and no presumptions about what the trip will entail. Preferring the latter, del Toro explained that he would much rather experience “diarrhea in a corner” rather than be burdened with the expected.

What writer wouldn’t?

The allure of the wandering minstrel, of the romanticism involved with not knowing where one is headed, runs through the genetic code of any writer and of any artist. Who wants to be told what to do when creating? The problem is that this analogy is based on an all too familiar misconception regarding story structure.

Story structure exists to convey and support an Author’s argument, not to provide a framework of fifteen familiar beats.

Crafting an Argument

In that very same presentation, del Toro was asked if the themes of disobedience and choice clearly present within his masterful film Pan’s Labyrinth were subject matter that he intentionally set out to write, or if they were simply happy accidents he discovered along his travels. Without skipping a beat he answered quite confidently that yes, the problems of disobedience or rather lack thereof, were guiding lights in some of the decisions he made when writing the original screenplay.

This is story structure.

When an Author sets out to say something, to prove something to a willing audience, he or she is using story structure. Utilizing character, plot, theme and genre, an Author sets out to argue a particular point-of-view. To the extent that he or she aligns their work with the natural problem-solving processes of the human mind (as discussed in the previous article on The Real Magic Behind Great Stories), a story will feel complete and meaningful. The more “broken” or stilted this process is, the weaker or more meaningless a story becomes.

Pan’s Labyrinth works because Guillermo del Toro was trying to say something about the unquestioning allegiance to authority.

Different Perspectives on a Common Problem

When arguing a point, particularly when a writer can’t be there to answer any counter-arguments (as in the case of a film delivered to a wide and international Audience), it becomes necessary to cover all the bases. In story, this completeness of argument comes by exploring the four different contexts from which a problem can be seen–I, You, We and They. These correspond, respectively, to the Main Character in a story (I), the character who challenges their way of seeing things (You), the relationship that develops between the two (We), and the big picture story involving all the characters (They). Arguing only one side of the argument or only some of the perspectives leads to a story that feels pointless or lightweight. Thankfully Pan’s Labyrinth does not suffer from this, leaving many an audience member satiated and emotionally fulfilled.

An exploration of del Toro’s 2006 fairy tale classic begins with young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero). Seated at the emotional center of the story, she fulfills the first perspective on the problem, that of the Main Character. Through her eyes we experience what it would be like to be a slumbering Princess tasked with accomplishing three very important trials.

Diametrically opposed to her sits the fantastical creature, Pan (Doug Jones). He challenges the way Ofelia sees herself, manipulating her growth of character by presenting her with opportunities to act the way one of her nobility should.

Together they form a relationship and the third perspective on the story’s problem. It is within this context that one can begin to see the inklings of the argument. At first following orders without question, Ofelia gradually but determinedly begins to run counter to Pan’s demands. Her experience with the Pale Man, of opening a different door and eating the food she was explicitly told not to, keys an Audience in on the film’s message and the writer’s purpose in telling this particular story.

Contrast this with the fourth and final perspective, that of the adults and the Spanish Civil War, and the story’s argument becomes all too clear. While Ofelia’s experience with Pan gives an Audience a subjective look into the problems encountered when not questioning authority, it is through the battles between the Facists and the Rebels that we begin to see those problems from an objective third-person perspective. As the Doctor (Álex Angulo) so clearly points out in his rain-soaked scenes, he is not like the evil Captain Vidal (Sergi López). He does not follow orders without question. Again, more clues to the Author’s argument.

Four perspectives, four familiar contexts (I, You, We, They) on a single problem–in this case, an overabundance of trust.

Wrapping up an Argument

The ending of a story acts as a clue towards the Author’s original purpose in setting down those first words. In the case of Pan’s Labyrinth, the argument is being made that only by repudiating the voices of authority can one find triumph. Evident in Ofelia’s final gold-laced scenes, her act of defiance against Pan guaranteed her life-everlasting with both father and mother. If she had continued to do things the way she always had, following orders without question, the outcome would not have been as fulfilling.

And, as if to hammer home his position on the importance of disobedience, del Toro communicates the very same in the bigger picture, albeit with a grace and subtlety of expression that eludes most contemporary American filmmakers.

Problems begin in Pan’s Labyrinth when Captain Vidal’s son arrives with step-daughter in tow. Without Ofelia’s presence and the corresponding focus of attention on her threat to the baby’s natural progression as heir of Vidal’s reign, there would be no story…no problem to solve. Ofelia’s first interaction with Vidal can be seen as the first fallout from this Inciting Incident.

Pursuing the successful resolution of the Story’s Goal–a continuation of power flowing from grandfather to father and father to son–is Vidal himself, placing himself firmly in the role of Protagonist. While at first glance this may seem an unnatural choice, especially considering his villainous tendencies, impartiality must supplant value judgment when assuming the objective look at a story’s problem. A problem is introduced and the Protagonist works to resolve it; good and evil have little to do with it.

This is why Vidal’s eventual comeuppance feels less like a triumphant Hurrah! worthy of the halls of the Throne Room scene in Star Wars or the deck of the aircraft carrier in Top Gun, and more like the bittersweet successes found in The Lives of Others or Michael Clayton. Mercedes (Maribel Verdí), and her merry band of Spanish rebels, have prevented the successful resolution of the story’s central goal. Vidal’s son will never know his father’s name, the continuation of power will cease to exist. The Protagonist has failed. Proof of this lies in his final act of violence against Ofelia.

Whereas Ofelia eventually grew to a point where she could stand up and test those beliefs once held true, Vidal continues to act without question. Believing all along that Ofelia’s intentions were to kill his only son, Vidal had no choice but to shoot her. Instead of seeing the fruits of overcoming the story’s problem, the Audience bears witness to what happens when the problem persists. Subjectively we see the joy that comes from questioning a previously held belief, objectively we see the failure that comes from not questioning. The combination of the two provides a resonance of meaning unheard of in lesser films.

Effective story structure developed and finalized the original argument Guillermo del Toro set out to make. It was not an after thought.

Seeking a Destination with Purpose

Seeing story structure as a mechanism for providing meaning, for supporting an Author’s argument, flows effortlessly from that initial spark to create. Most writers of narrative fiction write because they want to create something that has weight, something that is greater than the sum of its parts. This intangible extra benefit they seek with their work comes as a result of giving an Audience something they can’t acquire in the day-to-day lives: a look at problem solving both from within and without, objective and subjective. Whether they realize they are doing so or not, writers who write with purpose utilize structure to communicate their message.

They may be traveling, but there is always a reason why they chose the path in the first place.

The more familiar understandings of story structure, as propagated by Snyder and the Hero’s Journey advocates of the world, make no mention of supporting an Author’s purpose in writing and thus, feel more like a didactic explorations of familiar cultural hotspots rather than a helpful shaman along for the trek. It is structure as seen from the eyes of the Audience, an unfortunate reality that will often feel like an imposition on a writer’s natural sensibilities.

In that respect, these paradigms of story will always feel like a tourist trap.

This article originally appeared April 8,2011 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Stories and the Mystical Power of Transformation
April 2011

Spend a few moments perusing the articles on this site and you’ll soon pick up on a pattern. Whereas other places seem to eschew the same ol’ Hero’s Journey/transformational arc paradigm, this site takes a decidedly different approach.

McKee, Field and Snyder certainly have value when it comes to understanding structure. Their diagnosis of story structure has helped many a potential writer take their first steps towards writing something more meaningful (including yours truly). Where they fall short, however, is in their attempts to be working models for all successful narratives. They simply don’t scale.

These paradigms of story often emphasize the transformational arc of the central character above all else. Very often this transformation takes on a spiritual undertone. The metaphysical takes presence, elevating story to a mythical pedestal that at times, can seem unreachable.

The time may have come to plant our feet firmly back on the ground.

Method to the Madness

In sharp contrast to an understanding based on magic, the articles within this site approach story structure from the perspective of problem-solving. Instead of allegories for spiritual transformation, stories here are seen as analogies to the human mind attempting to solve a problem.

This more objective-based approach supports the Author’s view of a story. Here, the mechanics and functions needed to effectively argue a particular point-of-view are presented in such a way that they become useful and trusted tools. The more popular subjective-based approach, those called into play by many others, supports the Audience’s view of a story. There, how a story is received becomes more important than how it is built.

Why Problem-Solving Instead of Transformation?

Compared to the lens of problem-solving, using the lens of transformation to interpret a story’s events becomes more of a subjective process open to individual interpretation. There is nothing wrong with this approach, it works for some and less for others. But in the end, it is still just an opinion, carrying with it all the mistaken assumptions that accompany one’s personal bias.

As mentioned previously, these more subjective interpretations of story enjoy their popularity because they perpetuate the idea that stories are somewhat unknowable, that they possess a quality almost otherworldly. With the utmost confidence, they often profess that this spiritual element explains our fascination with story.

The reality, as will be explained later, turns out to be less spellbinding (yet no less entrancing).

When something is misunderstood, it becomes much easier to chalk it up to magic rather than to dive in and fully assess the intricate mechanics at work. Sure, sometimes stories can be magical metaphysical explorations of transformation, but sometimes a story can simply be an exploration of the proper approach towards solving a problem. As it turns out, it actually always is.

Story Structure Without Bias

The reason for the superiority of the problem-solving approach to appreciating a story’s meaning lies within its objective look at story. There is no call for spiritual transformation, no demand that a protagonist die–either physically or metaphysically–and no need for a protagonist to come to life in some marvelous way. While one can add on this spirituality post facto, it is not a requirement for a story to feel meaningful and complete. In fact, most of the time it only adds more confusion to the discussion.

Recently I received an email from Robert Cornero of Hacking Hollywood questioning my focus on Salieri’s steadfast approach to problem-solving in Amadeus:

you might say a character like Salieri has now secured his place in Hell by the end of the movie. His humanity has died, throttled due to jealousy, where at the beginning he had some shred of it. He always could have stopped and chosen a different path, but he keeps choosing to take these steps further and further down this hellish road. And that’s sort of the sense I get from that film. Each scene is a fiery drumbeat, transforming honesty into lies, beauty into ugliness, and finally sanity into insanity, leaving Salieri reveling in his own personal hell, deluded. The tree has grown up crooked in every sense of the word.

Now, there is nothing wrong with this interpretation. It actually comes off as quite intriguing, definitely sexier than the rather cold psychological model of problem-solving and justification. But how does an Author use this understanding to construct a story? There are no tools, no structural elements that one can knowingly use to effect this kind of reaction. There are traces of it in the mentioning of Salieri’s delusion, but how would an Author go about reaching this point meaningfully? How does one craft this descent of character?

The objective view of the problem-solving approach provides the answer.

Seeking Accuracy Over Ease of Appreciation

This week there was discussion surrounding the character of Will in Good Will Hunting and his apparent passivity. Notes on this article can be found here, but in short, the lack of analyzing the film through the lens of problem-solving only served to provide a lightweight confused analysis of the story’s structure. One mistake that stood out was the belief that Matt Damon’s character was somehow “passive.”

However, every once in awhile, a movie is based around a character without a goal. In these cases, the character is known as “passive.” They’re passive because they’re not “actively” trying to obtain a goal.

The only way one can see Will as passive is by misunderstanding his role as Antagonist in the film. Will Hunting, Antagonist? Blasphemy! many would say. But as with Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon, Good Will Hunting serves up a Main Character motivated to both avoid the story’s goal and to force others to reconsider their own motivations. These are the primary elements of an Antagonist as Antagonists work against the successful resolution of the story’s goal.

They are anything but passive.

Subjectively, from the Audience’s point-of-view, Will certainly doesn’t fit the emotional “feeling” of an Antagonist. But when viewed from the perspective of the Author, of the one constructing the story, Will’s motivations are clear. Going forward with this Antagonist role, it is obvious how Will would react in each and every scene. Thus, the objective view provides useful meaningful tools.

The somewhat confused analysis in the linked article depicts quite clearly the problems involved with subjective interpretation. Main Characters are always Protagonists (not so!). Main Characters always need to have goals. Inactive characters are boring. These are all opinions on story structure, not story structure itself.

A Model for Everyone

Every human has a mind. Every mind operates under the same bio-mechanical process. While there are those who suffer from a deficiency of function, the underlying “structure” of the mind is the same for every human now or ever in existence. The process of coming to conclusions works the same for everyone.

However, not every human is spiritual. Not every mind has come to the same conclusion regarding the power of metaphysical transformation. Some have, but not all.

One approach stresses objectivity, the other subjective mysticism. One encompasses every human that has ever lived. The other…not so much.

Why write if you have no intention of reaching the widest possible audience? Why alienate those you wish to influence? The way towards universal meaning lies in an objective approach to story structure. Sure, there will be moments in writing where an Author will have to read their work and have their work read and assess how it is being received. But in the moment of creation, in the actual act of doing, it would seem more beneficial to have actual functional tools that are based in objective commonality.

A Tool for Universal Meaning

Identifying the problems and corresponding solutions within a story is a process that can only have one final answer. Whether or not the final product accurately explores the mind’s inherent road map towards working through these problems becomes the responsibility of each individual Author. If done properly, the end result will be an argument that cannot be legitimately confronted without intense subjective opinion.

This is why the Dramatica theory of story is superior and why this site focuses on that theory and the paradigm of problem-solving when interpreting the meaning of a story. Beyond its truly “magical” ability to predict what happens next within a story, the theory specifically defines the problems of a story from an objective perspective. No morality. No spiritual transformation. No mythical journey. No subjectivity.

There may be errors of interpretation in applying the theory to works that have already been written, but having a neutral framework from which to appreciate story always provides a convenient and confident fall back point from which to reset, regardless of personal bias.

In short, Dramatica becomes a touchstone for accuracy.

An Explanation for the Magical

Most importantly though, the theory provides an answer for the draw stories have upon us. In complete stories there isn’t one problem to solve, but several depending on the context taken (more on this can be found in the article, Writing Complete Stories). Problems are looked at from within, from the perspective of the Main Character, and from without, from the perspective of larger story (typically called the ‘A’ storyline).

The true fascination with stories then comes from the fact that they provide us a chance to hold both views simultaneously. In real life, we can’t truly be objective about our own personal problems. We can’t be both in and out. This is why others can easily see errors in our work and why they can effortlessly point out our own failed paradigms that we weren’t even aware of.

But complete stories can. They grant us that experience, a unique sensation that can often feel mystical.

So while stories may feel magical to an Audience, to an Author it becomes more important how the trick is performed. Seeing stories as analogies to the mind’s problem-solving process grants a writer their first look behind the curtain.

This article originally appeared April 1, 2011 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

The Illusion of Change
March 2011

Transformation is a process of letting go, a discarding of old ways with the hope that relief may come with new resolve.  Growth of character, however, makes no such assumptions of metamorphosis.

With the intelligent, well-crafted Inception dominating the box office for the second week in a row comes the opportunity to revisit one of Christopher Nolan's lesser-known -- though not lesser films -- The Prestige. Telling the story of two magicians fighting for fame and fortune in the Victorian Era, this 2006 thriller delivers concrete emotional wallop amongst the dark suspense and surprise that is common with Nolan's work.  Much of his success can be attributed to the sound story structure he diligently applies to every film.  Story structure that, like Inception, gives greater meaning to the events that unfold.

Dueling Magicians

One of the precepts for a meaningful story centers around the idea that when looking at the two principal characters one will transformationally change, while the other will remain steadfast.  While this may seem to run counter to the widely accepted notion that a character must change in order to arc, it actually speaks of a more accurate understanding of What Character Arc Really Means.  Two approaches are presented towards solving the story's major problem, one appropriate, the other not so much.  Which one is which is entirely up to the Author and the message they wish to communicate with their audience.  When both characters change there is nothing said, no greater purpose to the events on-screen, and therefore, no reason to remember the film some twenty-five minutes later when one pulls out of parking.

To a writer, change should be evaluated by comparing the character's final resolve at the end of the story with who the character was at the beginning.  If their character -- if the way they look at and see the world -- has somehow become drastically different from where they started, then yes they have had a transformation of character.  If on the other hand, they simply grew into a viewpoint they only somewhat believed in at the beginning, then they have actually held steadfast to their worldview.  They haven't changed, they have simply grown.

One can grow without changing who they are and how they see the world.

At first glance it may seem that both principal characters change in The Prestige.  Robert Angier (Huge Jackman) changes from a magician unwilling to get his hands dirty (as evidenced by his reticence to kill even the smallest of birds) to a man willing to kill himself over and over again for the roar of the crowd.  On the other side of the street, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) transforms from a man willing to do whatever it takes to keep his magic a secret (as evidenced by the prompt removal of two perfectly good digits) to a man willing to admit the truth of his situation regardless of who he may hurt.  So how can both be considered Change characters if in doing so, the story would be considered broken?

Ignoring this paradox for a moment, the similarities between the two -- the You and I connection -- become as equally important in the investigation of this story's structure.  Both magicians are driven by that desire for "the Prestige."  If the film had been written by an lesser artist, there might have even been an on-the-nose conversation where Angier calls Borden out:

ANGIER: You know...you and I...we're not that all that different.

BORDEN: And how's that?

ANGIER: We both would do anything for the sound of their applause.

Ugh.  As it stands, we do get something close to that in the final reveal scene, but admittedly with more artistry and professsionalism than the ham-handed example above.  Regardless, both characters are driven by that desire for recognition, but only one of them truly lets it go at the end.  To determine who, it becomes necessary to separate out the individual storylines.

The Main Character Throughline

The Main Character's Throughline, while woven into the thematics and plot events of the larger main story, maintains its own concerns and thematic issues.  In fact, these dramatic concepts are so unique to this character that he or she would take them with them no matter what story they went into.  If Luke had never run into R2 and instead was involved in a story about drag-racing across the dunes of Tatooine (Taladega Wars), he would still have found time to whine about how he was stuck on a planet where his spaceship fantasies could never become a reality.  Likewise, if William Munny had never heard of Big Whisky, and instead was involved in the great Oklahoma Land Rush with Tom and Nicole (Far and Unforgiven), he would still have had those issues with maintaining his wife's attitude that he "ain't a bad man any more."  If someone were to try and claim one of his stakes, why...well let's just say that Little Bill probably got off easy.

Thus, in order to truly understand what is most personal to the Main Character of a story, it becomes necessary to filter out all those elements that really are a part of the larger main story.  This is even more important in a film like The Prestige where the Main Character is also the Protagonist not always the case.  Far too many times what people think of as a personal moment from the Main Character point-of-view actually turns out to be a choice or action taken from their point-of-view as the primary driver of the main story.

If one were to overlook all of Angier's actions as Protagonist (and his goal of trying to understand how Borden does the Transported Man trick), his most personal issues deal with his desire to be the very best, his obsession with the adulation of the audience, and of making them forget their ordinary lives -- if even for a second or two.  These are the kinds of issues he would take with him into any story as they are the problems central to his very nature.  They coalesce nicely with the rest of the story, but they can be seen as separate and individual and most importantly, personal to him.

Scenes where we the audience see the Main Character alone are often chock-full of these sort of personal thematic issues.  In The Prestige we get such a moment during Angier's first performance of his own Transported Man trick.  Having successfully swapped places with his alcoholic look-alike, Robert takes his triumphant bow from below the stage -- out of sight of the adoring audience but thankfully within earshot.  His desire for that love, regardless of how he has to get it, speaks volumes about his character.

Another often-used device in communicating this personal throughline is to have another character in the story point out plainly and clearly what the Main Character's real problem is.  This is not the same as the Impact Character, who by their very existence in the story forces the Main Character to deal with their personal issues, but rather a character who simply comes out and says, "Hey, you know what your problem is?"  David Bowie's Tesla fills this role when he warns Angier of proceeding:

TESLA: I can make your machine, Mr. Angier.  But I can also give you some advice... (pointed) Go home.  Forget this thing.  I can recognize an obsession.  As Mr. Alley could tell you, I myself am given to one now and then.  It will not do you any good.

ANGIER: Have your obsessions done you no good?

TESLA: At first.  But I've followed them too long -- I am their slave.  Their whipping boy.  And one day they may choose to destroy me.

Angier looks into Tesla's eyes.

ANGIER: If you understand an obsession then you know you won't change my mind.

And thus we have a perfect example of a Main Character moment.  With these issues at the core of what Angier is personally struggling with it becomes obvious that he grew INTO his resolve, not out of it.  His desire began as a small kernel of motivation, but eventually grew into something that consumed him, resulting in his eventual destruction.  This was, of course, the meaning behind the whole piece.

Angier, therefore, was a Steadfast Main Character.

The Difference Between Resolve and Growth

Resolve, which is what we are concerned with when determining whether a character ultimately changes or stays true to their nature, sits apart from the actual character's growth.  Their growth is how they get there, how they end up at that moment of crisis, faced with that choice that will set in stone their resolve.  Main Characters can waffle back and forth through the story (and probably should for the sake of interest), but it is that final culminating moment that ultimately defines them.  Have they grown to a point where they are ready to let it all go and see the world anew?  Or have they determined for themselves that yes, the way they have been going about this is truly the way to go.

Angier's need to "get his hands dirty" was something he had to grow into, but was always something he had the potential for.  Only then could the audience begin to love him the way he wanted them to.  He had moments of doubt, moments when he considered changing, but in the end, in the end he stuck with that desire for fame.

Borden, on the other hand, completely transforms his worldview.  The key scene for this happens when his wife asks the twin brother (the one more interested in Johanssen) whether or not he really loves her.

Since the moment he met her, Borden has been driven to keep up the perception that both he and his brother were one and the same.  How else could he successfully pull off the trick of the century without this elaborate deception?  The only problem is that this success came with a price -- the emotional torture of his innocent wife.  Eventually, and in no small part to his interactions with Angier, Borden comes to a place where he just can't keep it up any longer and reveals to her the truth:


Sarah turns to face Borden.  Desperate.

SARAH: I can't live like this!

BORDEN: (angry) What do you want from me!

Sarah pauses.  Catches her breath.

SARAH: (quiet) I want you to be honest with me.  No tricks, no lies, no secrets.

Borden calms.  Looks into her eyes.  Nods.

SARAH: (CONT'D) Do you love me?

Borden looks into her eyes.  Sincere.

BORDEN: Not today.

Sarah takes this in.  Borden watches, helpless.

SARAH: (whispers) Thank you.

Borden watches her turn away from him.

Borden changes to someone no longer driven by illusion.  Reality has taken over as his new approach to solving problems and one can imagine that, moving forward, Borden and his brother might choose a different line of work.  Unfortunately, in undergoing this transformation of character, Borden breaks Sarah's heart, revealing to her that all along the trick was more important than their relationship.  Motivated by this new revelation, his wife feels as if she has no other alternative than to take her own life.

In sharp contrast, there is no way Angier would give up that stage for anything or anybody.

Clarity of Character

Separating out the throughlines, determining the difference between a character's resolve and their personal growth, clarifying which principal character transforms and which maintains their point-of-view -- all of these are tools a writer can use to insure that their story stays consistent and meaningful throughout.  When writing a story as complex and non-linear as The Prestige, understanding precisely what is going with the characters that populate it can go a long way towards making sure the audience does not leave befuddled or overcome with unanswered questions.  Those who prefer to leave such concepts left to chance, or to the whims of their individual muse, aren't really looking close enough because really...they don't want to know.

They want to be fooled.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

The storyform for The Prestige is so elegant and so precise that it almost seems as if Christopher Nolan himself is an avid user of Dramatica.  Then again, he may just be a naturally great storyteller!

When identifying the dramatics behind this great film, it was apparent that Borden's Problem was one of Perception, his desire to keep the illusion that there was only one of him alive the source of all his troubles.  This worked nicely with an Overall Story Problem of Perception and how the characters get into trouble because things don't appear the way they should.

The Overall Story was an Activity story (Two magicians battling it out on stage), and with Borden's Throughline firmly in place as a Situation character (twin brother), Angier's Throughline fell into the Fixed Attitude Domain.  When speaking of Angier's character it is quite clear that he is a man obsessed.

Angier Remains Steadfast while Borden Changes, resulting in an Objective Story Outcome of Success; Angier finally Understands the reality (OS Solution of Actuality) behind Borden's Transported Man trick.  Interestingly enough, Angier does enjoy his Solution of Ability the moment he is able to finally do the real Transported Man trick.  If he was a Change character this Ability would have resolved his issues.  Unfortunately, he continues on and devises a scheme (Relationship Story Concern of Conceptualizing) to seek the ultimate revenge on Bale.  His Problem of Desire overwhelms him and eventually takes him to a place where he can do nothing else but die unresolved -- no longer able to transport audiences to a world where dreams are possible (Story Judgment of Bad).

Steadfast, Start, Be-er, Male, Action, Optionlock, Success, Bad, Physics, Understanding, Senses, Perception

This article originally appeared July 29, 2010 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Of Ticking Clocks and the Ending of Stories
February 2011

Stories come to an end for one of two reasons: the characters either run out of time or they run out of options. Being told that there are only two ways of bringing about the end of a story can seem very stifling to an author; how can you possibly reduce the entirety of narrative fiction down to an either/or choice?

As with all things, a slight change in perspective can make all the difference.

It is true that when it comes to the Story Limit there are only two choices: a Timelock or an Optionlock. But there are different degrees of subtly that can be had when looking at this part of a story. It all comes down to where you place your focus on that Story Limit.


Take for instance, the Timelock. You can look at a Timelock as either a deadline or a duration of time. It's a subtle thing, but one that speaks to the elegance that can be had with a slight change of perspective.

The first kind of Timelock, the deadline, has you focusing on what is lacking -- the deadline that has not yet been met; the second, the duration of time, has you focusing on what is there -- the hours that are quickly ticking away. Armageddon (Used here as an easy example, NOT as an admission of great storytelling!) has more of the latter: there are only 18 days left to save the Earth from ultimate destruction. While that could be viewed as a deadline, the true focus in that story is on the time that is quickly running out. Notice how many times Billy Bob Thornton's Truman peers through sweat-stained eyebrows at the glowing LCD clock slowly ticking away his own mortality -- that's a Timelock focused on a duration of time. If the thought of Armageddon makes you cringe, think of 48 Hours with Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte.

This is in contrast to movies that come to an end because of a deadline, like The Philadelphia Story starring Cary Grant. Here the focus is on the all-important wedding taking place at noon on Saturday. The characters focus their attention on that impending appointment rather than on the hours ticking away. High Noon would be another good example of this.

Both versions are Timelocks, yet as you can see, both have completely different ways of weaving that limit into the story.

Focus Determines Meaning

This shift in meaning reminds me of a helpful analogy that can be used when trying to determine the Main Character's Growth. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the Main Character's Growth (what is commonly referred to as their Character Arc) basically clarifies whether the Main Character is moving away from something or growing towards something in their personal growth. If they are moving away from the something their Growth is said to be Stop. Conversely, if they are growing towards something, their Growth is said to be Start.

It's a subtle difference, but one that can be made easier by imagining the Main Character's personal issue as being a cup half-filled with either sludge or coins. One kind of Main Character will have you focusing on what is there; the other on what is lacking. The cup filled with sludge resembles the Main Character who focuses on what is there and moves away from it. The cup filled with coins resembles a Main Character who focuses on what is not there and grows towards that emptiness.

As you can see, this analogy can be helpful in determining the kind of Timelock that exists in a story. The Timelock focused on a deadline has the characters focusing on what is lacking, like the cup half-filled with coins. The Timelock focused on a duration of time has the characters focusing on what is there, like the cup half-filled with sludge. 

But what about Optionlocks?


In an Optionlock story you either have a finite number of options that run out or you have a pre-determined amount of space from which to operate in.  As with Timelocks, the difference lies completely in where you wish to focus your audience's attention.

The first kind of Optionlock, the finite number of options, again has you focusing on what is there.  This limit exists in movies like Seven.  In that film, serial killer Kevin Spacey methodically works his way through the seven deadly sins.  Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt know that once that seventh and last sin is visited upon them, the story is officially over.

The other kind of Optionlock Limit exists in stories that are defined spatially.  Movies like Rainman or any other road movie where the characters work their way through a pre-defined limited space.  In these films the characters can take as long as they want, but when they hit the end, it's all over for them.  As opposed to the first kind of Optionlock which has a set number of objects, these kinds of stories have a set amount of spaces or places that the characters can go through.

Instead of checking things off, as characters would in the first kind of Optionlock, this second one has the characters focusing on how much space they have left; they're focusing on what is not there, like the cup half-filled with coins.  It's probably more helpful to think of this kind of limit as more of a Spacelock rather than an Optionlock.

Binary Does Not Equal Boring

Spacelock...Optionlock...they both describe the same thing just seen from different angles.  Your point of view determines the meaning of what it is you're looking at.  While many of the choices you have to make in writing a story boil down to a seemingly black or white choice, like a Story Outcome of Success or Failure or a Main Character Resolve of Change or Steadfast, the degree with which you can temper that answer rests primarily in how you look at it.

The artistry of your own story lies within your use of the various shades of gray that exist between those choices.

This article originally appeared October 25, 2007 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Writing a Screenplay with Dramatica
January 2011

Misguided conclusions abound regarding the Dramatica theory of story with many claiming that this revolutionary look at structure is only good for after-the-fact analysis, not writing. Such thinking flows from a lightweight understanding of what the theory is, and isn't.

When it comes to popular models of screenplay structure, whether it be Robert McKee, Michael Hague, John Truby or Blake Snyder, many writers flinch at the prospect of following a simplistic formula. How can the complexity of Hamlet or the subtlety of character growth in To Kill a Mockingbird be possibly broken down into a simple set of common sequences? This instinct to rebel seems appropriate given the reductive nature of many of these paradigms.

The problem isn't that these ways of looking at structure are particularly wrong. In fact, for many stories, they can be quite revelatory in their explanations of proper sequencing and emotional growth of character. Where they fall short, however, is in the breadth of their understanding. Accuracy becomes a casualty of these efforts to pare down the complexity of a complete story into a bite-sized catch-word paradigm.

An all-encompassing understanding of story

Dramatica sacrifices easy digestion for high accuracy. The theory is not easy to understand because story is a complex and complicated beast. When people in development say "trust the process," what they are really asking for is more time -- more time for their inaccurate or simplistic models of story to eventually arrive at a story that sort of works. This hopeful anticipation drives those long periods of development time when really it should be purposeful intent at the helm. Dramatica, while significantly front-loaded on the initial comprehension level, ultimately saves time by delivering a precise and meaningful understanding of the story an Author wishes to tell.

The key is the storyform

Once a writer determines what it is they want to say with their film, the Dramatica theory of story presents them with what is known as a storyform. This collection of sixty or so elements of structure elaborates in great detail the meaning or message the Author wishes to communicate. Balancing purpose with the sequence required to deliver it effectively, the storyform represents a holistic snapshot of the human mind trying to resolve a particular problem. And because complete stories are about solving problems, there can be no better tool to construct an effective work of narrative fiction than this simple one-page report.

Meaning exists independently of subject matter

While the storyform is precise in its arrangement of thematic elements, how they are exposed to an audience is left completely up to the creativity and talent of the individual Author. Take for instance the storyform for Dreamworks' How To Train Your Dragon. At first glance it might look less like an emotionally compelling movie and more like a collection of semi-scientific words that seemingly have nothing to do with telling a story. But upon closer examination, certain items might resonate with one familiar with the message of the film. Stoick's Problem of Non-Acceptance and his eventual Solution of Acceptance, as covered in the article What It Means to Fail, can be found under the Impact Character's Throughline. Likewise the bittersweet Personal Triumph of Success/Bad, as detailed in the article When Failure Becomes a Good Thing, sits up top under Plot Dynamics. In fact, the more comfortable one becomes with the terms listed in this report, the more obvious it is that this storyform is a very accurate representation of the meaning behind How to Train Your Dragon.

But it doesn't just have to be an animated film about Vikings and dragons. In fact, this storyform is the foundation for any story that wishes to explore the same thematics and come to the same conclusions regarding acceptance and learning.

Writing from intent

Let's say we wanted to write a modern sci-fi thriller, something along the lines of Moon or Sunshine. We know that the exploration of other planets and other worlds is the next step for human advancement and that one of the most interesting places to start would be the icy moon of Jupiter, Europa. Why? There are some in the scientific community that believe its thick icy crust protects an ocean of life unlike anything we have here on Earth. What if, in the middle of this century, there was a manned mission to uncover the truth beneath the surface and what if this mission went horribly wrong?

Following the current trend of single-word titles, we'll call it Europa. The film would be a taught character-driven piece about isolation and our influence on the universe around us and attempt to have the same emotional impact that Dragon had. It will follow an expeditionary force of astronauts, scientists and most importantly students eager to learn the right, and wrong way of collecting scientific evidence. Taking the above storyform as a basis for the dramatic intent of our piece, we can begin to outline or imagine how the film will play out.

Exploring the storyform

Before writing word one, we already know how the film is going to end -- the world is not going to learn what is under that icy surface (Story Outcome of Failure). We also know that our Main Character (Aaron?), as Antagonist, will be satisfied as to this outcome because he would have been the problem student working to prevent it all along (as Hiccup was in Dragon -- for further explanation, please see the article How to Train Your Inciting Incident). How exactly this will all play out is, of course, up to us, but we know going into it that the efforts to reach the Story Goal are going to end in Failure just as they did in Dragon.


We also know the Act order the characters will go through - Doing to Learning to Understanding to Obtaining. This means that in the First Act the scientists/astro-students will be landing on the surface of Europa, perhaps arguing over the best place to land, trying to balance their safety with the safety of the inhabitants below. This argument would showcase their conflict with Doing. Maybe, in an effort to Protect the sanctity of life below (Aaron, after all, is driven by Protection), our Main Character covertly hacks the ship's computer so that they are unable to land safely. This Action could be the Plot Point, or Story Driver, that pushes our story into the structural second act.

The Second Act

So then we have the monster of the Second Act to focus our attention on. No need to panic though because we know, in order for our story to be meaningful, that it will begin with our characters focusing on Learning and then somewhere past the middle, begin to focus on Understanding. Perhaps the Protagonist Head Scientist/Teacher (Marcus?), driven to succeed at all costs (his theoretical concepts are at stake here), mounts a daring excursion to the surface using the ship's unreliable escape pods (They've come all this way, after all...). They leave one crew member on-board to watch over things, then head down.

Once they're on the surface, we can begin to play out the conflict between Marcus as he tries to gather evidence of the mystery below the icy crust, and Aaron's drive to get them to reconsider the dangers of impacting life below. Marcus can't understand why Aaron would get so worked up about some fish, Aaron thinks all life is precious and autonomous. We could have all the classic back-and-forth arguments, with perhaps the group splitting into two factions. This would all come to change though with the shift into the second-half of the Second Act when they would stumble across some great deep revelation about life beneath the surface. Something along the lines of discovering that really big dragon in How to Train Your Dragon.

What if they realize that there aren't just single-cell fish underneath, but an entire ecosystem of alien life living in harmony beneath the surface? Marcus, and his drive to prove his theories appropriate, upsets the quiet world of the aliens and drives them to attack the expeditionary crew. Marcus would see this as the attack of monsters that must be destroyed. Aaron would see it as life simply trying to defend itself from outside influence. This new conflict over Understanding would come to be the focus of the rest of this Act.

They would race back to their escape pods, trying desperately to communicate with their ship above. Students and scientists would lose their lives, yet Aaron would still be working to protect this misunderstood alien-life form. Eventually it would have to come to an end with an Action as equally powerful as Hiccup's refusal to kill the fiery Monstrous Nightmare. Perhaps once they arrive back at the ship, maybe even with some alien specimens on board, Aaron destroys all radio communications. What better way to protect these guys than to make sure no one ever finds out about them?

Climax and Resolution

This Action would drive our story into its Fourth and Final Act, that of Obtaining. And here, the outcome of Failure falls perfectly into place. Aaron is going to win. He is going to prevent the world from learning about Europa, but how exactly? By destroying the ship and every crew member on-board. In this climactic battle, both Marcus and Aaron will face off, with Marcus wanting to arrive back safely on Earth. Perhaps even the remaining crew members would rebel and misbehave just as the young Vikings did in Dragon, maintaining the inequity created by Non-Acceptance. Aaron eventually succeeds, maybe by driving the ship into the heart of Jupiter itself, crushing him, and everyone on-board leaving no trace of their ever having existed.

This failure will mean that the Consequence will occur - something to do with Conceiving. Either the world will have to come up with some explanation as to why the crew never returned home or why they never even bothered to radio a message. It could be painted in a positive light as it was in Dragon, Europa could return to the peaceful quiet world it once was while Earth continues to revolve in constant turmoil. Beyond simply bringing the story to a close, this kind of ending guarantees that there was a reason for the story to play out the way it did and for existing in the first place.

Audiences love it when their time isn't wasted.

Personal Issues

But remember too that the storyform calls for the Main Character to have resolved their personal issues. As Aaron drives the ship into the eye of Jupiter, there will be a smile on his face. He will have overcome his own personal issues. In Dragon it was Hiccup's diminutive physicality, in Europa? Perhaps it could be Aaron's reputation as the under-achiever of the group. Maybe the crew was a tight-knit group of scientists who went to the same school or worked at the same place, and Aaron was always seen as an outsider. His scores on the aptitude test would have been drastically low compared to the others, and his scientific career a joke. The others would always see him as lazy or incompetent because he couldn't keep up with them. Well, saving an entire world from destruction and scientific experimentation could be seen as quite an accomplishment, couldn't it? This would give his decision to destroy the ship meaning and details again the power of the Dramatica storyform. While bringing about the failure of the mission, the Main Character would be overcoming their own personal angst of not living up to the others. He would have accomplished something no one else could have and all by remaining Steadfast to his core beliefs.

Filling in the Pieces

Already we have a pretty strong story, something more meaningful than what one usually finds in theaters today. But there is still so much more to work on. We have yet to identify the Impact Character. It could be Marcus, like it is Stoick in Dragons. But maybe we want to explore something even more deeper. After all, this could be a film that runs 110-120 minutes, not simply an animated film of 90. Maybe there would be another crew-member, one of the other scientists, a skeptical tough-as-nails astronaut who hates bookworm types or maybe even the ship's computer that would share that same perspective of not accepting Aaron for who he is. A relationship would develop between Aaron and this entity, a relationship that would eventually heal itself with the acceptance coming from the other party's significant change of character.

The point of all this is: we have the framework for a meaningful story that we can begin to write from. Whether or not the final work is a success is, as always, entirely up to us as writers. Is Europa a guaranteed blockbuster success? No. Does the story actually mean something? Does it have some purposeful intent behind the machinations of character, plot, theme and genre? Without a doubt. The Dramatica software, and the theory it is based on, does not write the story, does not flesh out the characters, or bring life to their dialogue. It simply provides the pieces needed and the order in which to lay them out in order to arrive at the meaning one wishes to achieve.

The rest is all luck.

A Million Different Stories

Now we could apply this storyform to any kind of genre: War Drama, Western, Romantic Comedy, it doesn't matter. All that goodness of color and human expression is left up to us. And this isn't the only storyform possible. The current incarnation of Dramatica offers writers over 32,000 different unique stories. With each storyform carrying the possibility of millions of different interpretations (as exemplified above), the possibilities for creative expression become endless. It should also be noted that the current model is only one portion of the entirety of the theory. There are actually countless more storyforms possible -- they would only require a different model and a different set of givens hardwired into the system. For now though, the model in place is excellent for providing Authors with the clues needed to write something meaningful and lasting well beyond their years.

This article originally appeared November 30, 2010 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

How to Train Your Inciting Incident
December 2010

When it comes to the construction of a solid story, there seems to be some confusion over how it actually begins.  In an attempt to generalize and make easily accessible the idea of the initial plot point, many have reduced meaningful storytelling to a generic assumption that can cause confusion among new writers.

Often referred to as the Inciting Incident, this first plot point is typically described as the moment when the Protagonist's world is turned upside-down, forcing them to react and engage in the story.  At first glance, this principle sounds reasonable and helpful in the creation of a story.

Assumptions That Beg Questions

Robert McKee describes it as something that "radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist's life."  Blake Snyder calls it the "Catalyst" and describes it as a life-changing event that happens to or is witnessed by the Protagonist.  John Truby defines it as an exterior event that causes the hero to take action.  But what about a film like How To Train Your Dragon, where the assumed "Protagonist" (Hiccup) is the one who upsets the apple cart that is the world around him?

The Problem With Dragons

In How To Train Your Dragon, problems begin when young Hiccup inadvertently wrecks havoc on his hometown of Berk.  As a result, the Vikings watch helplessly as many of the dragons escape with talons full of Nordic livestock.  Nothing happens that Hiccup reacts to.  A bomb doesn't explode, a meteor doesn't crash to the ground.  There is no external incident that Hiccup is reacting to.  In fact, the way it is presented it seems like raids like this happen on a pretty consistent basis.

If Hiccup had stayed put like he was told, the marauding dragons would not have made off with a majority of the Viking's supplies and things would have continued on as they always have.  His act of disobedience ignites the story's central inequity and inspires the drive to train new recruits. But if Hiccup is the instigator of the story's problem, how can the Inciting Incident be something that happens to him?

Confusing the Protagonist with Main Character

The problem lies with the popular notion the Main Character is also the Protagonist.  These two concepts of story are not always one and the same.  The Main Character represents the audience's eyes into the story.  The Protagonist is an objective character archetype whose main function in a story is to solve the Story Goal.  In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup is the Main Character.  His father, Stoick, is the Protagonist.

Protagonists are motivated to pursue the Story Goal and to consider the importance of doing so.  Antagonists are motivated to prevent or avoid the Story Goal from happening and inspire others to reconsider their own motivations.  The former sounds exactly like Stoick, the latter Hiccup.  But wait...Hiccup as Antagonist?

The Central Inequity Creates The Story Goal

Hiccup's opening attempt at glory breeds chaos, inspiring Stoick to pursue a new course of action.  This new course, or Story Goal, can be described as Training the next generation of dragon killers.  Why isn't the Goal to find a new way to live with dragons? (thus securing Hiccup as Protagonist).  Well for one, that motivation doesn't really arrive until further along when the Second Act begins.  Protagonists are motivated towards the goal from the very beginning of the story's problem.  Secondly, he isn't so motivated to pursue a new way as much as he is to learn as much as he can in order to avoid having to kill dragons.  Objective character functions are unchanging and consistent throughout the entire story.  Understanding that, it is clear that Stoick is on a course of pursuit throughout, while Hiccup is motivated to avoid it.

In essence then, those original interpretations of the Inciting Incident were correct -- the event does upset the Protagonist's world, requiring them to pursue a course of action to resolve it.  Their error was in assuming that the Protagonist is always the Main Character.

The utility (or futility) of the Central Dramatic Question

The central inequity is often referred to as a dilemma facing the Main Character: How can Hiccup learn to destroy these beasts at the same time he is befriending their most deadliest ally?  While this question is interesting from an audience's point-of-view, when it comes to writing a story, it becomes a little less than useful.  Instead of thinking of it as creating a Central Dramatic Question, the Inciting Incident should be seen as something that sets up the story's drive to resolve its central problem.

Thinking of this inequity as a Central Dramatic Question only becomes helpful after the fact, when looking at the story from the perspective of the audience.  This is why many look to the works of story gurus and see them as counter-productive or unnecessary during the process of writing.  On the other hand, thinking of this inequity as a problem that wishes to be solved becomes significantly more productive when sitting down to write. Suddenly the author knows what problems are at hand and can devise scenes that explore the best way to resolve them.

What an Inciting Incident really is

David Mamet comes closest when he speaks of "disordering events."  If stories are all about solving problems, then it only makes sense that there should be some genesis of that problem, some point at which the inequity of the story is created.  This inequity exists because of the Inciting Incident.

Trying to establish it as something connected to the Protagonist, particularly when there is confusion between Protagonist and Main Character, can only serve to muddy the waters of effective and meaningful storytelling.

Without the Inciting Incident, there would be no story

Inciting events can come from anywhere and from anyone. Defining precisely what the reason for this initial spark is and the result of its introduction into the story can go a long way towards clearing up any inconsistencies within previous understandings of story.  All this event must do is create the problem within the story at large.  Whether it is something that happens to the Main Character or something they brought upon themselves, all that matters is that an inequity is created that every character in the story finds themselves wanting to resolve.

This article originally appeared November 11, 2010 on Jim's Story Fanatic website.  Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Applying Pressure to the Main Character
November 2010

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 decension 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 originally appeared October 28, 2010 on Jim's StoryFanatic website.  Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Sophisticated Story Goals
October 2010

Comic book movies are huge nowadays. Whether because it's easier to sell a known property with a built-in audience, or because that built-in audience is now in charge of what gets made, the numbers don't lie. Hollywood wants tights.

Sometimes the results are well worth the effort. Really really worth it, like The Dark Knight or The Incredibles. Sometimes the results are absolutely horrible, like Daredevil or the more recent Iron Man 2 movie. What gives? Clearly they cover the same material. What is it that sets The Incredibles apart from other comic-book style films like the original Superman or Jaws where defeating the bad guy was everything?

Some Pretty Incredible Storytelling

Is every superhero story really about beating the bad guy? Brad Bird wouldn't have you think so. In his masterful The Incredibles, Bob and friends pair off against the measly and less-than-incredible Syndrome. In the end, they defeat him, bringing the story to a resounding Triumphant success. But does defeating him really solve their problems? Is the problem that there is this well-funded wannabe wrecking havoc across the city or is there perhaps something a little more sophisticated going on?

Stories Are About Solving Problems

The Inciting Incident brings an inequity into the lives of the characters within the story, creating an imbalance that begs for some sort of resolution. This is why stories exist in the first place -- to grant us some greater meaning when it comes to solving problems in our own lives. The Inciting Incident is simply the first step in that process.

Sometimes those inequities are resolved, as with Inception or The Town, other times they are not. Films like Rain Man or Into the Wild are perfect examples of films where those efforts to resolve problems end in failure. Either ending is perfectly acceptable. All that matters is that the Author knows what it is they want to say, and is clear about saying it.

The Incredibles issues begin with Bob's loss in court against failed suicide-jumper Oliver Sansweet. Before then, everything in Bob's world was hunky-dorey; after that lawsuit, not so much. It forces he and his family and every one of his friends into hiding. This event spawned an inequity within the lives of the characters, an inequity that Syndrome had relatively little to do with it (yet). Defeating him would not correct things as he is not the source of the problems in their lives.

Superheroes Who Don't Get to Be Superheroes

This is the real problem at the heart of The Incredibles. With Bob's loss in court, the Supers were forced into hiding, unable to be what they feel they were born to be. Bob doesn't get to save the world, Helen has to pretend to be a happy housewife, and Dash has to act just like all the other kids in school. Those are some pretty hefty inequities at work there. Bob and his family have to do all these mundane activities because they can't live up to their potential. And they would continue to do so, if it weren't for the story working out the way it did.

Resolution and Defeating the Antagonist

Beating Syndrome's robot didn't resolve the story's issues. Neither did beating him back at home. If he really was the source of all problems in the story, then his unfortunate cape incident would have made everything better. It would have cleared the inequity.

However, it was only once Violet put up her shield and lived up to her full potential that the problems in the story were finally resolved. Bob's family, and by extension the rest of the Supers, found a way to be all that they can be. Sansweet's settlement was righted.

Meaning Within the Ending

This solution of fulfilling one's potential was what was really at stake in the film. By constructing the story this way, the Author (Brad Bird) says, Look, see, if you go about solving your problems this way, this is the kind of result you can expect.. And the images of Bob and his happy family were proof positive that they had taken the right approach.

Sophisticated goals come as a result of storytelling that doesn't focus on the same old obvious, tried and true treasure that lies at the end of the road. They revolve around unique and often unconsidered inequities that we as the Audience have dealt with at one time or another.

This article originally appeared September 26, 2010 on Jim's StoryFanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives. In addition, there is now a free 24/7 chat room available for those interested in discussing the theoretical concepts covered here.

Plot Points and the Inciting Incident
September 2010

Plot points can sometimes be difficult to pick out, especially when there is confusion as to the purpose of such a device in a story.  If one accepts the idea that stories are about solving problems, the reason for Inciting Incidents and Act Turns becomes all too clear.

Every problem has its own genesis, a moment at which the balance is tipped and the previous sense of oneness is lost.  With separation comes the awareness of an inequity, and a desire to return back to a state of parity.  Every problem has a solution, and a story explores that process of trying to attain resolution.

In a story, this Opening Event -- or beginning of a story -- is commonly referred to as the Inciting Incident.

The Exciting Incident

The Inciting Incident (or "exciting incident" as someone once referred to it) is the event or decision that begins a story's problem.  Everything up and until that moment is Backstory; everything after is "the story."  Before this moment there is an equilibrium, a relative peace that the characters in a story have grown accustomed to.  This incisive moment, or plot point occurs and upsets the balance of things.  Suddenly there is a problem to be solved.

Stories are about solving problems.  Sometimes they are solved, as is the case with Star Wars, Casablanca or Inception.  Other times, as with stories like Hamlet, Amadeus or Se7en, they aren't.  Regardless of outcome, this Inciting Incident gets the ball rolling by introducing an inequity into the lives of the characters that inhabit the story.  The Protagonist seeks the solution, the Antagonist seeks to prevent it.

Every story works this way.

The Reason for Plot Points

The two central objective characters, Protagonist and Antagonist, battle it out until approximately one-quarter of a way into a story, some other event or decision occurs that spins the story into a brand new direction.  This second plot point is referred to as the First Act Turn as it turns the story from the First Act into the Second.  This is a further development of the problem, not the beginning of a problem.

Other plot points -- the Mid-Point and Second Act Turn -- continue to escalate the issues surrounding the efforts to resolve the problem until finally, the Concluding Event, or Final Plot Point, ends the story.  As mentioned above, this does not necessarily mean the problem has been solved.  It simply means that the efforts that were undertaken by the Protagonist have come to their natural end as every resource has been exhausted.

These plot points naturally split a story into four parts.  For fans of Aristotle, the first part is the Beginning, the second two are the Middle and the third is the Ending.  There is a meaningful reason why there are four parts.  In short, for every problem there are four basic contexts from which you can explore the way to solve a problem.  Once you have explored all four contexts, the story is over.  Any continuation would simply be a rehash of something that has already been investigated.

The most important thing to take away from all of this is that the First Act Turn is NOT the Inciting Incident.  This is a common mistake by many first time writers, and is generally caused by a lack of understanding exactly why these plot points exist in the first place.  One plot point starts the problems, the other furthers the complications of said problem.

Inciting Incidents and First Act Turns

The following is a list of great stories with their corresponding Inciting Incidents and First Act Turning Points.  The numbers provided are either based on page numbers, Kindle percentages or minutes depending on what source material was easily accessible.

For those who don't know, the general idea is that one page of a screenplay generally lines up with one minute of screen time.  A 120 page screenplay often lasts two hours on screen. or 120 minutes.  Thus, the Inciting Incident would occur on or near page 0, while the First Act Turn would happen somewhere near page 30 (out of 120).  If we're talking percentages, that would be about one-quarter of the way into a story.

Star Wars

The Inciting Incident of Star Wars is Darth Vader's attack on Princess Leia's ship (1/120).  While there was a civil war going on prior to this event, it isn't until the Empire shows its true colors by illegally boarding a ship purported to be on a "diplomatic mission" that the real problems of the story begin.  The Empire has grown ruthless in its efforts to contain any rebellion, this inciting event is only the beginning of many more to come.

The First Act Turn begins with the Empire's sinister agents attack on peaceful Jawas and ends with their barbeque of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru (30-31/120).  Suddenly, what began as a simple conflict over jurisdiction has now turned into an all-out rampage that affects even the most remote and more importantly, innocent, members of the galaxy.  The problem has grown in its potential for even greater conflict.

The Matrix

The Inciting Incident of The Matrix is Morpheus' decision that Mr. Andersen is the One they have been looking for (2/130).  This one decision drives the entire rest of the story, for if he hadn't picked Tom the rest of the world would have stayed comfortably numb in their battery pods.  Without the Inciting Incident, there would be no story.

The First Act Turn begins with Neo's decision to come in off the ledge (21/130).  It isn't until this true sign of character that Morpheus is forced into taking even greater strides to break poor Mr. Andersen out of the Matrix.  These deliberations by Neo -- continuing with his "giving the finger" scene, choosing whether or not to stay in the car, and culminating with his decision to take the red pill -- all create resistance to Morpheus' initial selection.  It isn't until Neo finally decides that he is the One (121/130) that the problems in the story come to a successful resolution.


The Inciting Incident of Unforgiven is Little Bill's leniency towards Quick Mike (5/120).  Little Bill is known for dealing with criminals in his own special way, why the sudden change of heart?  His refusal to respond in kind creates a rift within the story at large, and forces the whores to seek out their own justice.  The first Act Turning Point only makes matters worse with the arrival of English Bob and his refusal to surrender his sidearms to "proper authority"(33/120).

The Sixth Sense

The Inciting Incident of The Sixth Sense is Vincent's attack on Malcom (8/109).  Without this gunshot, there would be no story and no compulsion for Malcom to meet with Cole.  The First Act Turning Point comes with Cole's revelation that he might suffer from the same violent tendencies that Vincent did.  His steps back and his conclusion that Malcom can't help him only furthers the problems caused by the perception that Cole is merely a "disturbed" child (22/109).


The Inciting Incident of Casablanca is Ugarte's decision to give Rick the letters of transit (15/127).  While the murder of the two couriers seems to get things rolling, problems don't really start until Ugarte decides to give them to Rick.  After all, people get murdered in Casablanca all the time.  But give them to someone whose allegiances are in question?  Now we've got a problem.

More than just a "Macguffin", these papers and the efforts to retrieve become the major source of conflict for everyone involved in the story.  This is why Rick's deliberations over what to do with them, including his refusal to help out Ugarte ("I stick my neck out for nobody"), propel the First Act into the Second (30-45/127).  With Rick in charge of who gets them and when, Laszlo's mission becomes that much more difficult.  

The Lives of Others

The Inciting Incident of The Lives of Others is Minister's Hempf's decision to have Georg Dreyman "watched." (10/135).  Without this bigwig's desire for Dreyman's girlfriend, Wiesler would have continued his life as he always had, and quite possibly would never have crossed paths with this writer and his friends.

Like Casablanca, the First Act Turn comes more as a wave than an actual singular event.  This time it is Dreyman's best friend, the director Albert Jerska, and his constant ruminations over the purpose of his life that progressively complicate a simple spy operation into something far more reaching and grander in scope.  Jerska's dark contemplations of suicide inspire Dreyman to write and give reason for Wiesler to better understand the kind of struggles and torment these artists go through as a result of the state's actions.

The Incredibles

And finally, the Inciting Incident of The Incredibles occurs with the overwhelming flood of lawsuits stemming from Mr. Incredible's loss in court against Oliver Sansweet, the man he rescued from suicide (14/127).  This rush to sue forces the Supers into hiding, promising "to never again resume hero work."  These previously costumed guys (and girls) now can't be who they want to be, and thus yet another story inequity has been created.  If it had just been Sansweet, then perhaps things would have simmered down.  The flood of lawsuits tipped the scales.

Problems escalate when Bob and Frozone almost get caught during the fire in the apartment building sequence (32/127).  Before, Bob had found a way to deal with the initial problem by moonlighting with his best friend.  This event, and their near apprehension by local authorities, forces Frozone to decide that this night was the last one.  What was once a manageable problem has now become an even bigger one, and eventually provides the motivation for Bob to accept the mysterious invitation from Mirage.

Plot points drive a story towards the resolution of its problem.

Not Just About Movies

But what about other forms of narrative fiction?  Surely this is just a "formula" for Hollywood-wannabes to follow...

Story is story regardless of the delivery device.

The Inciting Incident of Shakespeare's Hamlet is the death of Hamlet's father.  As with The Matrix, where the actual inciting event happens "off-screen", the story immediately opens up with the characters plagued by the problem's effects:

Let me not think on't!  Frailty, thy name is woman--
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow'd my poor father's body
Like Niobe, all tears -- why she, even she --
O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn'd longer--

Quick translation: Hamlet has been thrown into great despair because of his mother's impulsive move to quickly marry his father's brother, Claudius (10%).  The fact that she couldn't even wait a month drives Hamlet mad, thus creating a problem in Elsinore that calls for some sort of resolution.  This problem grows in importance when the Ghost of Hamlet's father informs his son of what really happened:

GHOST: A serpent stung me.  So the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abused.  But know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father's life
Now wears his crown.
HAMLET: O my prophetic soul!  My uncle!

No longer an inequity that must be suffered, the death of Hamlet's father now becomes something that must be avenged (20%).  The dramatic energy produced by the news of his father's passing has waned to the point where something new must come along and drive the story further towards its inevitable conclusion.  This revelation of a "murder most foul" is that event, and can be considered the First Act Turning Point of the play.

Problems, Energy, and Plot Points

Determining the events or decisions that escalate a story's problem should be Job One for the working dramatist.  It is one thing to create an opening scene that wrecks havoc on the characters in the film and forces them to deal with this new problem, quite another to ensure that the inequity persists until the closing curtain.

Eventually, as with Hamlet, the potential for dramatic conflict will decline throughout the course of an Act.  It is the same drop in potential that one feels as the pain from a pinch or slap in the face subsides over time.  In order for the problem of a story to continue to drive the characters towards an eventual solution, a new potential must be introduced.  These new dramatic forces, escalating the problem beyond that initial blast, drive the story forward in such a way that the characters themselves could never return to who they were or what they did during that first initial response.  There can be no turning back.

Act turns exist to re-energize the potential of a story's problem, not to satisfy page-counting readers or paradigm-happy script gurus.  Connecting the two first plot points to this problem, and making sure that they aren't simply the same event, will give an audience something to engage in and something to become invested in.  The fact of the matter is that no audience member can resist the draw of the problem solving process as it unfolds on the big screen; it's human nature to see what greater meaning can be gained from how the resolution plays out.

This article originally appeared August 5, 2010 on Jim's StoryFanatic website.  Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.  In addition, there is now a free 24/7 chat room available for those interested in discussing the theoretical concepts covered here.

The Difference Between Neo and Luke Skywalker
August 2010

While a superficial understanding of story principles makes for a great YouTube video, it does nothing but further the confusion that can exist over effective character development.  The greater the level of accuracy on the part of the writer, the greater the experience for the audience.

As with the article last month regarding why Everything Is Not a Hero's Journey, there also exists a certain group of people that seem to think many popular Protagonists are really just carbon-copies of one another.  To them, every central character in a story is simply another evolution of Gilgamesh.

Now, to a certain extent, they are right.

Both Neo (Keanu Reeves) in The Matrix and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil) in Star Wars fulfill the role of the classic Archetypal Protagonist; that is, they are the ones who are pursuing the successful resolution of the story's primary goal.  In this purely objective context they do resemble each other.  But where their similarity breaks down is in the deeper investigation of what is really going on inside of them personally.

Many central characters find themselves faced against apparently insurmountable odds.  Many grow to a point where they fundamentally have to change the way they see the world (though this is not always the case).  And many find emotional relief from their personal issues at the end of a story -- many reach a catharsis where they overcome that which held them back.

When using the above as touch points for examining a story, sure, it looks like every Protagonist is the same.  Both Neo (Keanu Reeves) in The Matrix and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars easily fit into these generalized observations regarding story.  But that's just it -- they lack specificity.  Not only are these concepts of story useless to a writer in figuring out exactly what to do with their story, they also prove to be ultimately detrimental because of their blatant inaccuracies.

Constructing a story -- a meaningful story -- is a hard and demanding process.  There can be no room for best guesses or gross generalities.

Both The Matrix and Star Wars, while similar at face value, really are quite different.  One concerned itself with faith, the other with trust.

What Motivates a Character

Every Main Character comes to a story ripe with personal baggage.  Whether it be some deep psychological issue from when they were a child, or something that just happened to them yesterday, this personal issue -- or problem -- is what motivates them to participate in the larger entity that is a story.

In The Matrix, Thomas Andersen (Neo) suffers from a preponderance of disbelief, both in himself and in the world around him.  When asked by Morpehus to climb out on the ledge in order to escape Agent Smith, Thomas doesn't get very far before turning around.  "I can't do this, " he claims as he cowers back inside.  It is this idea that Neo is so unpersuadable, both inside and outside of the Matrix, that sits at the heart of his personal struggle.

In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker consistently gets into trouble because of his relentless need to test himself.  When R2 goes missing, he leaps at the chance to prove his mettle and promptly gets his ass handed to him by the local natives.  This flaw haunts him at every turn.  In earlier drafts, there was even a sci-fi take on the classic 50's drag race, complete with the requisite scene of Luke pushing his dragster beyond the limits of safety in order to test his abilities against his fellow desert delinquents.  This drive to test himself at every turn was Luke's major personal problem.

Clearly these two characters are coming from two different places.

Luke never had a problem believing in the Force; he was on-board with the whole thing from the moment he lost his aunt and uncle.  Likewise, Neo didn't create problems because he felt this need to test himself all the time; if left to his own devices he probably would have still been there camped out in front of his computer screen.

They both were motivated by two distinct and separate problems.

Why does this matter?

A Solution For Every Problem

Different problems require different solutions.  You wouldn't use masking-tape to hold together soap bubbles anymore than you would use a hammer to make a sandwich.  Each problem defines its own appropriate solution and nothing less will than that one particular solution will resolve it.

Disbelief requires faith as a solution.  Test requires trust.

Thomas Andersen eventually grows to a point where he can begin believing that he is, indeed, Neo.  Faith resolves his issues.  Luke eventually grows to a point where he is willing to let go.  Trusting in the Force resolves his issues.  Both characters managed to resolve their individual problems by using the correct solution for the issues that plagued them.

Now, at first glance, faith may seem an awful lot like trust.  Couldn't you argue that Neo was really trusting Morpheus when he decides not to run from Agent Smith?  And couldn't you say that Luke started believing in the Force when he turned off his targeting computer?  Not really.

Neo would not be the superhero he was at the end of the first film if he simply trusted in Morpheus.  There was no way he was going to be able to stop those bullets until he truly believed that he could.  Similarly, we already established that Luke believed in the Force -- he even had an argument with Han about it back when he was first training on the Milennium Falcon.  Luke needed to simply trust in this otherworldly "force" for the torpedoes to hit their mark.

Why then is it so important to delineate the exact nature of the problem in a story?

The Problem Defines the Story

The Main Character's problem represents the finest level of granularity from which one can appreciate the true meaning of a story.  That's why an exploration of it can so often seem like splitting hairs.  It is important though to make this distinction, because there is so much more that is built on top of the problem, so much more that relies on the accurate understanding of it, that to get it wrong would only cause greater problems in the story at large.

The Main Character's problem is intimately tied to the problems suffered by all the characters in a story.  It's why this particular Main Character is even in the story in the first place; and it is the answer to the question Why now? so often referred to in story meetings.  If for some reason these two problems are at odds (the external and internal), the Main Character may seem out of place, or worse, inconsequential to the resolution of the story.

In addition, there will be a discrepancy between the kinds of goals in stories with dissimilar problems.  Problems of belief will naturally lead to goals focused on accomplishing some insurmountable task.  Problems of trust organically lend themselves to goals more focused on simply doing something.  Like the distinction between faith and trust, the distinction between acquiring something and doing something is a very important one.

This is why Luke would not have fit into the story that was The Matrix, and why Neo would have had a hard time finding a home amongst the inhabitants of Star Wars.  Each particular story goal required a different central character, a different vessel for the meaning of the story.

The Right Man (or Woman) For the Job

The goal of The Matrix was to gain control over the software program, to bend it to the will of the humans.  Simply fighting Agent Smith and his well-dressed friends was not enough (as evidenced by Morpheus' years of trying).  Neo was the lynch-pin for the successful achievement of that goal because the one thing that would allow them to gain that control -- unwavering belief -- was an important factor of Neo's character development.

Luke, as described above, had no problem with believing.  Trying to replace Neo with Luke would have broken the logic of the story structure and diminished any appreciable meaning.

In Star Wars there was no attempt to gain control over the Empire or the tyrannical systems they employed.  Instead, there was only the will to find a competent way to fight them.  That was the goal of the story.  And like Neo, Luke was the key to the successful achievement of that story goal because learning to trust was a crucial part of his individual character development.  The only way for the Rebels to successfully fight against the Empire was to trust in something other than themselves.

Neo trusted Morpheus from the very first IM he received.  To swap him for Luke would have destroyed that story's meaning and shortened the film to about thirteen minutes.  These two characters are simply not interchangeable.

The Need for Clarity in Storytelling

Not every story is the same.  There are tens of thousands of different meaningful story structures, each with its own unique perspective on why things are the way they are.  And because each unique story structure requires a specific kind of central character, it follows that there are just as many variations of Main Character.

The Matrix was trying to prove how having more faith can lead to greater happiness, while Star Wars was trying to prove that trusting in something other than yourself is the way to go.  While looking at them through the lens of the Hero's Journey they might seem the same, the truth is that they carry two very distinct and separate messages.  This is yet another reason why the Hero's Journey is a failed device for appreciating the meaning of a story.

By definition, everything in a meaningful story is connected.  Character flows through plot which flows through theme and finally closes the circle through genre.  The machine that is a well-told story is a delicate balance of passionate storytelling and solid logical story-structure.  To be inaccurate on even the smallest of matters is to invite failure in the construction of the story at large and a breakdown in the communication of the message the Author hopes to send.

This article originally appeared June 16, 2010 on Jim's StoryFanatic website.  Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.  In addition, there is now a free 24/7 chat room available for those interested in discussing the theoretical concepts covered here.
Not Everything Is A Hero's Journey
July 2010

There is a sickness running through the world, a sickness that attempts to twist every instance of narrative fiction through the siphon of errors that is the "Hero's Journey" story structure paradigm.

Made popular in the 90s through the work of Christopher Vogler, this understanding of story makes the claim that every great story can be traced back to the monomyth as uncovered by Joseph Campbell. From error-ridden snarky videos to lightweight analysis of plot elements, the Internet teems with those who think every story is the same and that this similarity can be attributed to man's need for mythic transformation.

There can be nothing more destructive to the world of storytelling than this compulsion for spiritual metamorphosis.

Stories are about solving problems. Sometimes, solving those problems require the centerpiece of a story, the Main Character, to undergo a major transformation in how they see the world. Sometimes they don't. There is nothing inherently better about a story where the Main Character transforms.

See Chinatown and/or Amadeus for more on this.

Forcing the Change

Besides the aforementioned spiritual implications, the Hero's Journey fails because it is so general. The specifics are open to interpretation. This is why mental gymnastics abound when a story doesn't quite fit into the paradigm.

When the Protagonist doesn't change, the claim is made that there are actually two Hero's Journeys going on. What about stories where the Hero Crosses the Threshold before they've even met the Mentor? No problem, because order has no meaning in this paradigm. A writer can do whatever they want as long as they hit the required points.

For a paradigm to be accurate, there should be no need to warp it or bend it to fit stories that are obviously successful.

Take for instance how Campbell describes the Hero at the end of his journey:

The individual, through prolonged psychological disciplines, gives up completely all attachment to his personal limitations, idiosyncrasies, hopes and fears, no longer resists the self-annihilation that is prerequisite to rebirth in the realization of truth, and so becomes ripe, at last, for the great at-one-ment. His personal ambitions being totally dissolved, he no longer tries to live but willingly relaxes to whatever may come to pass in him; he becomes, that is to say, an anonymity.

The Hero loses himself and is reborn. This is exactly what happens to Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs and Randy the Ram in The Wrestler. Wait. No it isn't.

This complete transformation of self is a key component of the Hero's Journey. To leave it out, as is done in this interpretation of Star Trek as Hero's Journey, is to ignore the true meaning behind the Hero's becoming a Master of Two Worlds. Fans of the Hero's Journey paradigm cherry pick which precepts of the monomyth fit well with thier argument. They use what they need and leave out what doesn't work.

Furthering this cafeteria-style approach to story structure (in addition to employing the ridiculous notion of the MacGuffin), the article defends its interpretation by adding that Spock underwent a Hero's Journey as well. This is the same mistake Stuart Voytilla made in his book Myth and the Movies and his analysis of Disney's Beauty and the Beast. The idea that there are two instances of a Hero's Journey in one story is a clear indicator that there is a misunderstanding over the relationship located at the heart of every complete story.

The Two Principal Characters In A Story

In every complete story there is a Main Character and an Impact Character. The Main Character comes to a story with some emotional baggage. The Impact Character enters and by virtue of their own presence, brings the Main Character's baggage to the surface. They have an "impact" on them. One way or another, the two argue over the proper way to solve the problems in the story until at the end the Main Character has to come to a decision: Either keep doing things the way she always has, or change and adopt the Impact Character's way of seeing things.

This exists in every great story because it is the way an Author proves their argument. Once the Main Character makes that choice the story will either end in success or failure. This is the Author saying, See, make this change and great things will happen or See, make this change and tragedy will befall you. Stories are about solving problems, not mythical journeys of spiritual transcendence.

In Disney's Beauty and the Beast Belle is the Main Character and the Beast is the Impact Character. Both don't fit in with the rest of society, but one -- Belle -- has found an appropriate way of dealing with it. In the end, she continues to do things the way she always has. The Beast, however, is the one who has the major transformational change. This is NOT the physical transformation but rather, the transformation of character that he undergoes. He changes and the spell is broken. The Author's proof that Belle made the right choice is apparent in the smile on her face as they dance into the clouds.

No need for two heroic journeys. No need for mental warping.

Same thing happens in Star Trek (though instead of purple clouds we get shiny lens flares!). Kirk is the Main Character and Spock is the Impact Character. Both come to the story with different approaches towards dealing with the Nero problem, two different approaches that clash when they come into contact with each other. Kirk is all about the relentless pursuit of the goal while Spock prefers to take a more reserved "logical" approach. Throughout the story, they argue over the proper approach until finally Spock relinquishes control and finds a way to allow a little freedom into his life, both in the world around him, and more importantly, inside of him emotionally.

Spock has undergone the major transformation of character. Kirk is still driven by that need to pursue, to win no matter what it takes. He has not lost a portion of himself on his way towards becoming a Master of Two Worlds.

In this way, screenwriter John Rogers had it right:

He starts as an arrogant sonovabitch, and becomes a slightly more motivated arrogant sonovabitch. He does not learn to sacrifice, he does not learn to work well with others -- he takes over the goddam ship. He's right all the time, he never doubts he's right, and the only obstacle he occasionally faces is when other people aren't sharp enough to see how frikkin' awesome -- and right -- he is as quickly as they should.

Beautifully written and 100% accurate. Rogers uses the term revelatory arc to describe Kirk's lack of change, but what would be even more precise would be to refer to him as the Steadfast Main Character. Every Main Character has their resolve brought into question. Some change, others remain steadfast. It really is that simple. A simple, but powerful tool available to any writer who wants to create something with meaning.

Time to Move Forward

Rogers' article is a celebration of Star Trek's apparent breaking of the rules. However, the film really doesn't break the rules as much it points out clearly that the present understanding of the rules is simply wrong. It all comes down to a misunderstanding over What Character Arc Really Means. It is true that the two principal characters must grow, but they don't both have a heroic transformational change of character.

The love affair with the Hero's Journey had its time. Turning every character into a Threshold Guardian or a Mentor or a Shapeshifter does nothing to really help the evolution of storytelling as much as it does to satisfy the hubris of those who hold such axioms dear. To impose such things on a writer should be deemed tyrannical and completely counter-productive to the creative instincts of potential artists everywhere. In the 21st century, there needs to be a push towards an even greater understanding of story theory and the structures that support it.

Story structure exists to carry the message, not inform it.

This article originally appeared June 9, 2010 on the StoryFanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles like this one can be found in the Article Archives.
Story Theory for the 21st Century
June 2010

In the 80s it was Syd Field.  In the 90s it was Christopher Vogler and Robert McKee.  In the 'aughts it was Blake Snyder and McKee yet again.  What do the teens, the 20s and beyond hold in store for writers?

McKee, the most well thought-out of the bunch, may last another decade or so.  Snyder too may survive, though without his personal touch, a decline in interest will probably occur.

But if there is to be any hope for the future of storytelling though, the Dramatica theory of story should take center stage.  Based on the fundamental concept that a story is analogous to a single human mind trying to solve a problem, this story theory cogently explains why stories exist and why some are better than others.  It is the most advanced, most complete model of storytelling available to us today.

The previous paradigms don't even come close.

Bill Didn't Use It

That being said, the most frequent argument against Dramatica goes a little something like this:

It's too complicated...makes you wonder how Shakespeare was able to write all those great plays without it! LOL

And not just Shakespeare.  They'll cite Casablanca or To Kill A Mockingbird.  Basically, insert any classic writer's name or great story into the above straw man argument and you'll have the basis for why so many people give up on learning this theory.  But the above is less of an argument and more of a mask -- a mask used to shield an insecure mind from facing anything more challenging than "Fun and Games" or "progressive complications".

In addition to exemplifying an error in critical thinking, this snarky half-witted comment fails to take into account the radical changes between this century and those that proceeded it.

The Reality of Today

The difference between our world and the one inhabited by the Epsteins or whoever wrote those beautiful Shakespeare plays is the level of distraction.

Writers in 2010 are constantly bombarded by a multitude of inputs.  Twitter, Facebook, blog posts, email, instant message -- each one beneficial or detrimental depending on the context and the time within which you receive them.  The easy solution, the one that is offered up without much thought, is to cut oneself off from these notification based social-networks when writing.

Those who makes these suggestions don't get it.

There are countless times when these little snippets of information can turn into sources of great inspiration for even better creative writing.  Creativity occurs when the mind forgets and replaces that space with new material from which to build even more networked ideas upon.  If anything, this new world order of distraction leads to greater and more original works of art.  More random inputs naturally lead to more spontaneous connections.  Damming the flow would only stifle.

Of course the danger is that in allowing chaos to run the show, authors risk writing something with no ultimate point to it, no message.  Spontaneity in the moment is great, but quickly turns into an unwanted bedfellow if the purpose of one's work is to establish some greater meaning.  These random pieces must be connected thematically.

Furthermore, it is silly to think that you can somehow be a part of this culture without using these social networking tools.  Writers must exist in the world they hope to send a message to if that message is ever to be communicated clearly. The box has been opened and these things are not going away.  You need to know how to communicate to everyone by engaging in the culture growing and developing around you.

Thankfully, Dramatica can manage this chaos.

Dealing with Distraction

Dramatica gives you the tools necessary to deal with this new world.  In short, the theory helps you define what the message of your story is and then, makes sure that you keep that message consistent throughout your piece.   It sets the purpose behind your work of fiction in stone.

In this way, you can still keep up on what your sister had for lunch through her Facebook updates, while simultaneously making sure that all the characters in your story maintain the thematic issue that selfishness leads to disaster (or whatever the thematics behind your message call for).  Why is this important?  Well, besides keeping up a positive sibling relationship, it is possible that her tuna sandwich might inspire your Main Character's backstory to center around a desire to stop destructive over-fishing.  Or her latest picture of her daughter's school project might spin your spy-thriller down an unexplored path filled with macaroni and glue.  Why shut this possible source of inspiration off?

Dramatica allows the chaos to seep in, but is always there to constantly remind you what it is you wanted to say.  By setting the story engine into place, you are capturing your intent in digital form.  As a steadfast writing partner, Dramatica will ensure that you remain honest to the meaning you hope to communicate.

But doesn't a work of art ebb and flow and change purpose as it is developed?   Some do, and when that happens you can rework Dramatica's story engine to incorporate your changes.  The important thing to understand is that whatever it is you're trying to say, Dramatica will help you focus on it.

The Ever-Dwindling Window of Time

If you're anything like me, you're lucky if you get an hour a day to write something that is dear to your heart.  For me, it usually takes anywhere between twenty and twenty-five minutes before I am even able to get into the zone and begin to feel that my subconscious is taking over.  Then, if I'm lucky enough not to be interrupted by kids, phone calls, or IMs, that leaves a little over thirty minutes of quality writing a day.  Thirty minutes.

It's safe to say that Shakespeare had a bit more.

With Dramatica, you sit down for those thirty minutes and instantly step back into the message of your story.  Because it is so accurate and it because it maintains an unwavering consistency, it frees you to concentrate on writing the story you intended to write instead of wasting time remembering what it was you were trying to say.

Knowing that your intent will remain intact, you can let your mind wander and soak up all that happens around you.  When you sit at your keyboard you can craft this madness that swims throughout your head into a meaningful and well-thought out argument.  Your story will mean something.

Use the Tools

Steinbeck and friends were able to write great works of fiction without Dramatica because it didn't exist back then.  Those who use this line of logic to argue against using the theory might as well argue that we should stop using computers for basic word-processing because Shakespeare used a pen.  Extending it further, we should stop self-publishing on blogs or manufacturing digital content because the greats didn't have access to these same electronic tools.

What a ridiculous notion.

Why not use the latest and greatest?  We have the ability now to write complete stories the like of which the world has never seen.  Hamlet and The Great Gatsby were only the beginning.  You should use the tools your lifetime provides to you.  Why not use Dramatica to write your next novel or screenplay and stop worrying about emulating the greats that have come before you?  Who knows, maybe you'll write something better...

This article originally appeared May 5, 2010 on the StoryFanatic website.  Hundreds of insightful articles like this one can be found in the Article Archives.

Redefining Protagonist and Main Character
May 2010

Red and AndyThe currently accepted definition of the Protagonist as being the character the audience empathizes most with is inaccurate.  Those who hold onto it are robbing themselves of the opportunity to create unique stories that defy convention.

As stated in my linked item concerning The Confusion Between Main Character and Protagonist, the idea that these two concepts are one and the same is an outdated notion from yesteryear.  While there are several films and stories where the two are masterfully combined, there is a relatively unexplored and misunderstood area that seeks to create unique meaning by separating the two.

To Kill A Mockingbird, The Terminator, The Counterfeiters (Die Falscher), The Shawshank Redemption, and The Lives of Others (Des Leben der Anderen) are just a few of the many wonderful stories that have Main Characters who do not drive the story forward.  In this article, we'll be taking a look at that last two and hopefully clarify the structure beneath the sheen.

Defining Goals

Before determining the Protagonist of the story, it helps to first define what the Story Goal is.  The Story Goal is something everyone in the story is concerned with.  The successful achievement of this goal will resolve the story's central problem.  This problem is presented early on in a story and disrupts the natural balance of things.Andy succeeds in his role as Protagonist

In The Shawshank Redemption, problems in the story exist because an innocent man has been unjustly incarcerated.  Without Andy's innocence there is no problem and thus, no story.  This problem affects everyone -- from the warden to the hardest screw to the inmates and so on.  Once Andy is freed, the problems in the story will be resolved and the story will be over.  This is the Goal of the story -- freeing an innocent man.

In The Lives of Others, problems in the story exist because a jealous state official wants dirt, real or imagined, on a potentially subversive writer.  This problem affects everyone -- from the writer himself, to his girlfriend, to his neighbor and to the Secret Police captain assigned to his case.  If the truth about this writer remains a mystery, then the story will be resolved and the story will be over.

Defining Protagonists

The Protagonist is defined as the character pursuing the Story Goal.  In Shawshank, this responsibility lies in Andy.  Though we don't know it until much later, he spends a lot of his time digging a giant hole and preparing everything for his eventual escape.

Warden Norton loses in his role as AntagonistThe Antagonist is defined as the character preventing the Story Goal.  Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) fulfills this role.  He's the one preventing Andy from escaping and gives him plenty of opportunities to rethink his escape plans (throwing him in the hole, shooting Tommy, etc.).  This is another property of the Antagonist, his or her drive to get others to Reconsider their actions  (For more on the characteristics of Archetypal Characters like this, please read my article Character Motivation Defined).

In The Lives of Others, the Protagonist is the writer Georg Dreyman (codenamed "Lazlo" for you Casablanca fans!) and the Antagonist is the jealous state official, Minister Hempf.  Georg is constantly pursuing a course of action wherein his blacklisted friends (director Albert Jerska) can have an opportunity to make their art.  Hempf does everything in his power to prevent him, including stealing away his girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland.

Identifying the Main Character

But in both these films we don't experience the events that happen through the eyes of their respected Protagonists.  The Main Character is defined as the character through whose eyes we experience the story.  We never get to feel what it is like to be in that hole for a month with Andy.  We see him go in.  And we see him come out.  When he plays the music over the loudspeaker, we're not in there with him, we're experiencing it from outside.  It's Andy's impact we are feeling (which leads to his other dramatic function as the Impact Character, explained in this article The Second Most Important Character in a Film).

Instead, it is through Red's eyes that we witness the events of the story.  While he does supply the dramatic function of Narrator, there are deep thematic issues going on within Red that we are personally privy too as well.  We are emotionally invested in his journey, due in no small part to the particular shot selections made by Darabont and his crew.  In fact, whenever Red makes that long walk to his parole hearings, we the audience assume his position.  Those P.O.V. shots are a clear indicator that the filmmakers themselves considered this character the one the audience should empathize with the most.

Learning to be a good man.

The same could be said for The Lives of Others and the Main Character of that film, Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (brilliantly portrayed by Ulrich Muhe).  We are emotionally invested in him because again, we are privy to things about him that many others in the story don't know (his pathetic and secluded home life, the hidden looks on his face as he listens in to the conversations below, etc.).  The emotional meaning of the story is wrapped around whether or not people like him (the Stasi) can change.

Meaning and Accuracy

And the emotional meaning behind The Shawshank Redemption is also wrapped around whether or not Red can change.  He is more than just the one telling the story.  Through him we get to feel what it is like to have become "institutionalized" and a person who has lost all hope.  Likewise, in The Lives of Others we get to feel what is like to be someone struggling with the negative labels people ascribe to us.  As a member of the Secret Police, Wiesler knows many consider him a "bad man."  The emotional meaning of the story lies in whether or not he can resolve these personal issues.

This is why it is important to separate out the concepts of Protagonist and Main Character.  When stories are broken or feel incomplete, the reason is usually because the argument being made by the author is inconsistent or illogical.  Blending the logical driver of the story (the Protagonist) with the emotional driver (the Main Character) can lead to this confusion.  Sure, they can be combined as they have been in many great stories (Up In The Air, The Wrestler, The Silence of the Lambs, Braveheart, The Godfather, and so on), but to require that they must always be one and the same is to discount the subtle and beautifully complex emotional arguments that are being made by films like The Shawshank Redemption and The Lives of Others.

Accuracy should prevail if the art of storytelling is ever to evolve.

Read this article and many more at StoryFanatic.com.  

Complete Stories: Part 3
Exceptions and Pixar
April 2010

In this final article on writing complete stories, we take a look at the exceptions to the rule.  You can, in fact, write very successful movies that are not complete stories.  Several successful films have done this.  The only problem is that you run the risk of becoming forgotten.  Complete stories stay with audiences for a lifetime.  One has to look no further than the archives of Pixar to see that such a case is true.

The Exceptions

There are occasional exceptions to the failure of incomplete stories.  In 2009 we were treated to three entertaining movies that fell short of supplying us with a convincing argument.  Taken had neither the Opposition Throughline nor a Relationship Throughline.  That's OK, because the purpose of that film was to show Liam Neeson kicking ass throughout Europe, not provide audiences with some deeper meaning.

Incomplete Stories that Rock Likewise, Inglorious Bastards from Quentin Tarantino missed the mark in the complete story department.  The entertainment value that came from the uniqueness of the subject matter and some captivating performances superseded the audience's need for some greater understanding.

And finally, Coraline wasn't trying to be anything more than a beautiful tale (there is a difference between a tale and a story).  If you've seen the film you know there's a scene towards the end that seems to come out of nowhere.  Coraline's mother, constantly distracted by the pressures of her career, brings home a gift for her daughter.  It feels like the right thing for her to do, but at the same time it feels awkward as she never really grew to that point.  If they had developed the relationship between Coraline and her mother more (i.e., a Relationship Throughline), the story would have meant something more than simply beautiful character design and technically superior animation.

But they didn't, and the box office languished because of it.

Films suffer when a throughline is missing.  Luckily, there is one studio who understands that.

The Pixar Secret

As mentioned above, sure, you can get by with an incomplete story if you have fabulous production design, but you'll always be doing just that: getting by.  Audiences crave meaning. It's why they go to movies and why they cherish the films they do.  And you don't have to look much further than Pixar Animation to find films that people cherish.

Their secret?

They Write Complete Stories

They write complete stories.

Of the ten films produced at that studio in the last fifteen years, each and every one has a full and complete story.  All four throughlines are present in each film.  In fact, the greatest of them all, Finding Nemo, actually has two complete stories in it!  We have the father/son story that focuses on, well, finding Nemo, and we have the secondary story with Nemo and Gil in the aquarium.  The latter is less defined than the former, but it is still treated as a complete story. It's why the film feels so "full."

When reviewing a Pixar film, critics overwhelmingly point out the abundance of heart.  This is because every single film has a meaningful relationship at the core.  Woody and Buzz, Bob and Helen, Sully and Boo, Wall-E and Eve -- these are all classic heart-felt relationships that will be remembered by audiences for years to come. 

In addition, every film focuses on one central character from which the audience can experience the story. Cars has Lightning McQueen and Toy Story 2 has Woody.  And every film has an opposition character that forces the Main Character to deal with their issues.  Lightning has Doc, Woody has Jesse.

The presence of these four throughlines explains why audiences (particularly children) can watch them over and over again.  They're getting something out of it that they can't get in real life.  They're gaining meaning from solving problems both objectively and subjectively.  When life seems pointless or confusing, these films can help supply comfort or greater understanding in the form of meaning.

And that's all there is to it.

Great Expectations

As the world of fiction grows more fragmented and people become more and more distracted by the meaningless, the need for complete stories becomes apparent.  If a writer wishes themselves to be heard and to have a profound effect on those who experience their story, they will have to provide them with a complete argument.  Anything less, and those long hours at the keyboard will simply become fodder for the refuse pile that is Tweets and YouTube clips.

Audiences want complete stories.  It's up to the authors of the 21st century to make it so.

Complete Stories:
A Matter of Perspective -- Part 2

March 2010

Last month we took a look at how meaning is achieved when an argument presented from all four major perspectives.  This month we dive further into complete stories and discover how those four perspectives translate into throughlines.

The Four Throughlines

The four perspectives correspond with the four throughlines found in every successful story.  The I perspective matches up nicely with the Personal throughline.  From this context an audience member can feel what it is like to personally deal with a problem.  The You perspective matches up with the Opposition throughline, as in "You have a different way of seeing the world."  The We perspective corresponds with the Relationship throughline of a story and finally, the They perspective matches up with the Big Picture throughline.

The Big Picture Throughline

This throughline is what most consider the main story, the plot, or if you prefer, the A-story line.  A majority of screen-time is spent telling this throughline (at least in American cinema).  This is the part of the story you describe when you're asked, "What was the story about?"  From here, the audience gets to see the central problem from a bird's eye objective view.

The Personal Throughline

This throughline concerns itself with who the story is about.  Most story experts agree that a successful story revolves around one central character, most often referred to as the Main Character.  This throughline is also sometimes called the B-story line.  From here, the audience gets to experience the central problem from a completely subjective personal viewpoint.
The Opposition Throughline

This throughline provides the opposing viewpoint necessary to force the Main Character to deal with their own issues.  Most accurately referred to as the Impact Character, this character has also been labeled the personal antagonist.  From here, the audience gets to experience a personal viewpoint of the problem that is not their own.
The Relationship Throughline

This throughline is the heart of every story.  It concerns itself with the relationship created between the Main and Impact Character and whether or not that relationship is growing or dissolving.  From here, the audience can gather some emotional meaning from the problem unavailable in any of the other throughlines.

Incomplete Stories

Incomplete stories exist when one of the throughlines is missing.  When the Relationship Throughline is missing, you have a story without heart.  In Monsters vs. Aliens, the Main Character Susan is left to deal with her personal problems on her own.  Because of this, her change at the end seems forced and unbelievable.  Main Characters need that Impact Character to help draw them out.  Towards the beginning of the film there is a scene with Dr. Cockroach that seems like the beginning of a Relationship Throughline, but it is not followed through with.

This missing throughline is the primary reason for the poor performance of this film overseas.  Audiences outside of America love stories with heart.  Don't give it to them, and they won't show up.

When the Personal Throughline is missing, you end up with a story that is cold or uninvolving.  In 9, we never learn who "9" is or what emotional baggage he brings to the story.  This is why it becomes difficult to become emotionally involved with the film.  Storytellers must provide this gateway into a story less they risk an audience checking out.

What if you leave out the Big Picture Throughline?  In film, it is virtually impossible.  Novels, not so much.  The book version of Twilight suffers from an underdeveloped Big Picture Throughline. We know a lot about Bella, and Edward and their budding romance but we don't know anything about the big bad vampires until 3/4 of the way into the story.

This is why most men will toss the book aside after twenty pages or so.  When you leave out the Big Picture Throughline, you end up with stories that don't make sense.  This is also why, in the movie version, they sprinkled in bits with those three baddies from the very beginning.  You need to have a sense that a story is going to make sense if you want to retain male viewers.  Having a Big Picture Throughline goes a long way towards making this happen.

Complete stories are stories in which all four throughlines are present.

Complete Stories:
A Matter of Perspective
-- Part 1
February 2010

Most everyone who delves into the complicated world of storytelling eventually comes to the realization that in the end, stories are about solving problems. The concepts of story -- character, plot, theme, and so on -- were all developed as a means to communicate the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of the approach used in solving those problems. When done properly, an audience is provided with meaning.

All meaning is derived from context. The idea that "one man's trash is another man's treasure" is based on the chasm that exists between two opposing contexts. I may see the world differently than you, but from my perspective I am right. Likewise, from where you stand the way you see the world is correct. Meaning depends on the perspective we take.

There are four perspectives from which we can extract some meaning in our lives: I, You, We and They. As we go about our daily lives, we can easily shift perspectives from one context to the next, using whichever one will help us achieve our goals or make us feel better. The only thing we can't do is assume all four perspectives at once.

In our view of ourselves, we can take the I perspective and see what it is like to personally have a problem. We can also see a viewpoint opposite from ours (the You perspective) and have a relationship with others as well (the We perspective). But we cannot step outside and look at ourselves objectively. It's an impossibility.

Conversely when we look at others, we can view them objectively from the They perspective, we can have a relationship with them (the We perspective), and have an opposing view to theirs (the You perspective). But we cannot be them. We cannot simultaneously be both objective and subjective.

Stories can.

If you take the central problem in a story, you can see how that problem would appear different depending on what perspective was taken. The approach one character takes may seem an appropriate way to solve the story's problems while completely inappropriate to another character. It's only once we examine the central problem from all four perspectives that we are finally able to comprehend some truth to the matter and thus arrive at some greater meaning.

This is why stories have such a profound effect on us and why sometimes you can't help but read or watch the same stories over and over again. Stories offer us something we cannot get in real life, namely - meaning. When a story covers all four perspectives at once, it effectively has made a complete argument that an audience will be powerless to ignore. They'll have nothing to say because all the bases have been covered.

Read this article and many more at StoryFanatic.com.

Character Motivation Defined
January 2010

Characters are more than the labels they are so easily defined with.

As explained in the previous article introducing the Dramatica Archetype, each character is defined by their function within the main story line. Protagonists pursue goals while Guardians aid the effort towards that goal.  While these quick definitions make it easy to understand their purpose in a story, they fall short of actually providing an author with the means to use these characters in a story. To find those tools within the archetypes, they first must be broken down into a finer resolution.

The Elements of Character

If you want to know what motivates your character, you must move beyond the labels of Protagonist and Antagonist and look at the elements that created that label in the first place.  Looking this closely at a character, we can see that there are motivations that lead to action and motivations that lead to decision making.  An archetype happens when just the right action element is matched up with just the right decision element.  Put the two together in the same character and the labels we’ve grown so familiar with will “ring out” as if striking the right harmonic chord.

Below you’ll find the second part of my presentation on Archetypal Characters where I focus my attention on defining the elements that work well together.

So a Protagonist is driven to Pursue a goal (their Action element) while at the same time possessing the motivation to Consider (their Decision element) the pros and cons of attempting that goal.  The Antagonist is driven to Prevent that goal and to force the characters in the story to Reconsider whether or not they should take action in the first place.  Match the right Action element with the right Decision element and you get an Archetypal Character.  While there may indeed be some cultural significance to these characters (as witnessed by Jung/Campbell/Vogler), their real power lies in their objective reality.

At first glance, it may be difficult to decipher the difference between Consider and Reconsider.  The former describes a character who weighs their options, makes a decision and moves on.  The latter describes a character who has already made a decision, but now finds themselves debating whether they made the right decision or not.  It’s difficult to make sense of at first, but once you see it at work, over time it will start to become apparent (I promise).

In addition, it’s important to note that these elements do not necessarily have to be “within” the character themselves, they can be attributed to or seen as properties of that character by others within the story.  The Antagonist represents the motivation to Reconsider, whether they are driven to do it themselves or whether they motivate others to Reconsider.  Regardless of how it is exposed within a story, all that matters is that they represent that part of the story’s larger argument.

Character Archetypes in Star Wars

The following clip is one of my favorites.  In it, you’ll find examples of each Archetype broken down to their motivation elements. Link to video.

You can see how the murder of Luke’s aunt and uncle is really an attempt by the Empire to get the Rebels to Reconsider their rebellious efforts.  It’s not so much that Mr. Tarkin is pacing back and forth deliberating whether or not he made the right choice as it is that he and his compatriots represent the motivation to Reconsider.  Lucky for the galaxy, Luke decided to stick with his original Consideration.

Now What?

But Archetypal Characters are boring, right?  For the most part, I agree.  Sure, maybe one or two within a story is OK, but all eight? Probably not a good idea nowadays (unless you’re purposely trying to create a throwback to 20th century fiction).  The trick is to realize that you don’t have to match up the right Action element with the right Decision element.  You can mix and match to your heart’s desire. In other words, you can let your creativity take over!

Woody Harrelson’s character in Zombieland, Tallahassee, is a unique mix of elements from the Guardian Archetype and the Contagonist Archetype.  As Guardian to Jesse Einsenberg and the girls, Tallahassee represents the drive to Help the group reach the amusement park.  But it would be quite a stretch to say that he also represented the other Guardian element, Conscience, in the story.  If anything, he is motivated by Temptation.  You don’t have to look much further than his addiction to Hostess Sno Balls for proof of that.  This is what makes his character so unique and interesting.  The fact that he is motivated by conflicting elements creates an interestingness factor to him that Ben Kenobi can’t quite live up to.

You can even combine Archetypal Characters as they did in the original Toy Story.  Woody is both the Protagonist and Reason character of the story.  As Protagonist, he Pursues the goal of reuniting with Andy while also Considering the pros and cons of taking Buzz back with him. As Reason, he applies Logic (as in the opening sequence when all the other toys are freaking out during Andy’s birthday party) while at the same time maintaining Control over the group and the situation.

To Creativity and Beyond

This understanding of Character Archetypes is precisely what makes the Dramatica theory of story superior to all previous understandings of story.  As opposed to the Campbell/Hero’s journey paradigm, the Dramatica Archetypes are seen as stepping stones towards more complex storytelling.  While you can use them as is, their real power lies in their ability to easily communicate a real understanding of character motivation.  In fact, once you understand the elements that make up an Archetypal Character, the only limit to character development is your own imagination.

If you wish to see the original article at StoryFanatic.com, click here.

Archetypes That Make Sense
December 2009

Wouldn't it be nice if you had a set of eight basic characters from which to draw upon while writing a story?  And wouldn't it be nicer if they operated completely independent of the "hero"? As previously explained, the character archetypes found in the Hero's Journey mono-myth are a complete waste of time for anyone interested in writing a story.  They define a vision of character that is so narrow, that they become useless to anyone trying to write a story that isn't about a "hero's transformational journey."  And there are a lot of writers who aren't. The Dramatica Archetypes on the other hand are, by design, objective and therefore can be used in any story regardless of purpose.

Light Swords and Explosions in Space

It should be obvious that the impetus for writing Star Wars had little to do with the intricacies of refined character development.  As such, the characters in that film come off flat and to a point, obvious.  Yet, they still work.  Why is that? The following is a collection of slides from one of my classes on Character Archetypes.  Definitions of each are provided, along with their corresponding character within Star Wars.  Examples from the Robert Zemeckis film Contact are also provided. Contaga-wha?

Archetypes and Balance

There is balance within the archetypes.  Protagonists have their Antagonists, Sidekicks have their Skeptics, and Reason has Emotion.  Without that balance, a story will feel one-sided and the audience will feel cheated.  You can't have one side of an argument without supplying the other.  To that end, it is important to bring up the concept of the Contagonist. The Contagonist is solely a Dramatica innovation and one that becomes demonstrably necessary when considered within the context of balance.  The Guardian character, perhaps one of the most widely used character archetypes in all of narrative fiction, cannot exist in a vacuum.  That character needs their counterpart in order for their function within a story to seem genuine.

Useful Tools for Writings

So there you have the eight basic character archetypes, defined clearly and objectively without the use of "masks."  Each has a function within the story: the Protagonist pursues the goal while the Antagonist tries to prevent that from happening.  The Sidekick cheers them on while the Skeptic cynically disapproves.  Reason gives level-headed advice while Emotion provides the right side of the brain with comfort.  And finally, the Guardian chips in and actually helps out while the Contagonist just gets in the way.

But what makes these far superior to Tricksters or Shapeshifters is that they are defined NOT by their relation to the hero, but rather by their function towards or away from the story goal.  Sidekicks don't have to be attached to the Protagonist and Contagonists don't have to act as servants to the Antagonist.  All that matters is that they perform their functions in regards to the story goal.  Regardless of what kind of story you are trying to write, and as long as you buy into the idea that stories are about solving problems (which I think everyone can universally agree on), it then becomes clear that archetypes based on the goal of a story actually serve as useful tools for a writer.  Any kind of writer.

The only problem with these guys is that they're kind of boring if used as is.  Coming up next, we'll dive into these characters in more detail, see what makes them tick, and show ways of actually making them interesting.

If you wish to see the original article at StoryFanatic.com, click here.

Stories Are Not Always About Transformation
Novmeber 2009

Early last month I posted a link to a sneak peek at Blake Snyder's forthcoming book Save the Cat Strikes Back! At the time I stated that I had a "mountain of disagreement" with some of his concepts and ideas and so, this article is an attempt to explain myself more clearly.

I present this rebuttal with all due respect.  Blake Snyder was a massive inspiration to many writers (yours included) and I have no desire to denigrate or downplay his contributions to the wide world of story.  I hope the following is taken as it was meant to be, a simple disagreement between two fans of great storytelling.

Growth, Not Necessarily Transformation

The thing I disagree most with in the chapter, is his notion that stories are always about transformation.  This is a common misconception among storytellers that revolves around two similar, yet definably different aspects of character: growth and transformation.  Transformation is defined as “a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance.”  Metamorphosis, conversion, remake, overhaul—these are all terms that can be found in the thesaurus entry for transformation.

Growth on the other hand is defined as “the process of developing or maturing physically, mentally or spiritually.”  Maturation, development, progress—these are the terms that are closely related to the idea of growth.

Because a story is not a static entity, characters have to grow.  The progress of time is an essential element towards the creation of a story, so yes, without a doubt that growth has to be prevalent.

But not every character has to transform.  For a more in-depth explanation of why be sure to check out the article entitled what character arc really means.  To categorically say stories are about transformation implies that if your Main Character doesn’t undergo some major change in how they approach life, the story somehow doesn’t work. Check out the video in the linked article above and see if those stories don’t work.

Characters need to grow certainly, but they do not need to transform.

Character Development

From the sneak peek chapter:

This is the part [the finale] where the hero has to find that last ounce of strength to win but can’t use normal means to do so.  And lest you think this is a goofy, “formula” thing, in fact it is the whole point of storytelling.  For this is the part we’ve waited for, the “touched-by-the-devine” beat where the hero lets go of his old logic and does something he would never do when this movie began.

I can’t tell you how grossly inaccurate that last statement is.  Sure, this happens in stories where the Main Character changes…but that only applies to 50% of the stories that can be told!!  (I loathe exclamation points, but here I find it is necessary).

To prove my point Blake goes on to compare Luke’s turning off the targeting computer with Maximus’ (Russell Crowe) finding “that last bit of energy to stab Joaquin Phoenix.”  What?  I agree that the Star Wars example is transformative, but Gladiator?  Maximus is a classic Steadfast Main Character.  His finding “the last bit of energy” was proof that he didn’t change, he always had it in him.  Regardless of what was thrown at him and regardless of all the crap he had to go through, Maximus still found it within his character to give that one last try.  There was nothing remotely transformative about it at all.

I do agree with his idea that a story is about “stripping away” the Main Character’s baggage till they get to a point where “only by stepping into the unknown—and trusting—that the hero could find the way to triumph.”  That sounds right (although it implies that every story should end triumphantly).

But it is also possible to step into that unknown by doing what you have always done.  There is power in that message and the consequences that come from taking such an approach.  That is essentially what Maximus is doing at the end of Gladiator.  He’s stepping into the unknown when he faces Commodus.  He is not sure how it will turn out, but he knows deep down within his heart that this is the approach he should take.

There can be great meaning found in stories like this.

Better and Better Stories

On this much, I’m sure both Blake and I would agree.  Fantastic storytelling is a wonderful aspiration for any author.  Whether it is achieved by following Blake’s teachings, or by finding inspiration from the concepts discussed on this site, the end game is exactly the same.  We want great stories.

Presently, the goal of brining people back into movie theaters is being met with promises of greater and greater advancements in technological presentation.  “3-D Adventures of a Lifetime” are becoming so commonplace, they almost seem like cover-ups for bad storytelling.  Believe it or not, they are even promising suits that shock you when someone on screen is shot.  Trust me, these suits work, I’ve tried them on.  But that jolt isn’t what audiences everywhere are craving.

They want meaning and that meaning can be found in stories of growth.  Transformation may occur, but it does not always have to happen within the Main Character.  Sensory stimulation is window dressing.

In the end, audiences want the shock of a well-told meaningful story.

If you wish to see the original article at StoryFanatic.com, click here.

What Character Arc Really Means
October 2009

When asked to define character arc, most people think it has to do something with how the Main Character changes within a story.  While in some respect this is correct, it is inaccurate to assume that this means every Main Character needs to undergo some major transformation.  Understanding the difference between growth and change is essential to the proper implementation of character arc in a story.

Without a doubt, Main Characters need to grow.  A story cannot develop organically if the principal characters within it do not grow and adapt to the shifting dramatic tides.  When an act progresses from one area of exploration to the next, the Main Character needs to progress as well.  That's how stories work.  Therefore, it is easy to see how growth, and in particular the Main Character's growth, is inherent in the mechanisms that run story.

But when you talk about change and how the Main Character "has" to change, you're making an assumption about the nature of that growth.  Not all growth is transformative.  Sometimes a person can grow by maintaining their position, shoring up their resolve against whatever is thrown at them.  This is no less meaningful than the kind of growth where someone changes who they are or how they see the world.

When the Main Character reaches the crisis point or climax of a story they are faced with a very important question: are they on the right path or the wrong path?  Some stories are about characters who realize they have been doing things wrong the whole time.  These characters change and adopt a new way of seeing the world.  Other stories are about characters who realize that the way they have been doing things is in fact the right way to approach their problems.  These characters remain steadfast.  In both cases, this realization that they arrive at is an extension of, or better yet, result of their growth.

Now whether or not their decision turns out to be a good thing or a bad thing is a completely different area of discussion.  The takeaway here is that in assuming that every Main Character has to change, you are effectively ignoring or discounting fifty percent of the stories out there.  And we're not talking about weak stories or stories that have problems.  Amadeus, The Silence of the Lambs, Chinatown, the list goes on and on.  These are fantastic stories that are on the top of every Top 100 list.  Non-transformative growth can be a powerful means of expressing an author's point-of-view.

Again, understanding the difference between growth and change is the key.  Not all growth requires a different mindset.  As the video above clearly shows, there is great meaning to be found in stories where a character's "arc" requires them to stand their ground.

(The original post for this article can be found here.)     

Stories Exist for One Purpose: Meaning
September 2009

It should come as no surprise that super-egos run rampant in Hollywood. "Why bother having a story based on familiar structures? I don't care about character development or plot progression. I've got a better way of telling a story. Audiences are tired of the same old thing." Are they?    

It is my belief that that is the only reason someone wants to be told a story - to see something familiar.  Familiar so far as they’re able to accurately synthesize something greater out of it. An audience wants and expects a greater understanding of life that they cannot receive any other way.  From the Dramatica website:    

We look to stories for meaning, for answers to everyday life experiences. More specifically, stories are arguments that provide us with solutions to problems we may encounter in life—they provide a way to examine inequities with an eye toward resolving them. We use different points of view available to us (I, You, We, They) to examine conflict created by the inequity at the center of a story. And, by looking at the conflict in the context of the perspective, gain insight into the nature of the inequity—hence meaning.    

You cannot look at your own life objectively.  Conversely you can’t look at someone else and know what it’s like to be in their mind.  Both contexts are impossible to achieve at the same time - except in a story.  

But someone who has a proven track record of success in Hollywood knows better, don’t they? “Following the same old formula is boring.  Audiences want something new - something unexpected. They’ll love my new way of telling a story.”    And then they’re shocked with the lack of applause.    

The human mind searches for meaning in everything.  From the beginning of time we have survived because of our ability to recognize patterns: Large paw prints and flesh-stripped bones signal dangerous animals lurking nearby.  Bushes with this color berry are good, bushes with that color berry are very very bad.   

Nothing has changed.    

Do you really think audiences nowadays are somehow beyond looking for a greater meaning in a story?  These are the same people who see the Virgin Mary in potato chips.  Of course they want your main character’s actions and the world around him to mean something.    

And it’s not enough to simply make the main character likable or have him change at the end of the story - there has to be a reason for it that has been setup from the very beginning. Meaning comes from a progression of story events and that meaning starts with the potentials you put in place during the first act.    

It’s like a great powerful electric circuit that courses through the audience’s mind for 2 hours.  You can’t give them that jolt at the beginning and then not provide the conduits to allow that current to run its course.    

You cannot cheat the audience of meaning for the sake of your own ego

Of Tragedies and Triumphs
August 2009

There are tragic endings, and there are triumphant ones.  There are celebrations of personal achievements, and cautionary tales of pushing too far.  The meaningful ending is the purpose of a story, it is the essence of what the author is trying to say.  Understanding the mechanics of what makes a story a tragedy or a triumph can go a long way towards insuring that every audience member ends their experience both satisfied and emotionally fulfilled.

A Theoretical Basis for Understanding

In this series on Meaningful Endings, I've set out to examine exactly what is going on with well-told stories.  While the two core questions asked (Did the good guys win, Does the main character go home happy or sad) may seem overly simplistic, they are actually based on a very sophisticated theory of story known as Dramatica.  If you're a regular reader of this site or know me at all, you know that I consider this theory the be-all end-all of story theory.  Pretty much everything I write is either informed or heavily inspired by what I've learned from studying it.  In other words, I think it's super-cool.

Interestingly enough, this idea of meaningful endings can be found elsewhere.  In Derek Rydall's I Could've Written a Better Movie Than That!, four are identified:

Happy Ending - The protagonist achieves the "outer" and "inner" goal.  In other words, the hero gets the gold and becomes a better person.

Bittersweet - The protagonist achieves the "inner" goal, but fails to get the "outer" goal.  In Rain Man, Charlie doesn't get "ownership" of his brother, but he does grow from a self-centered narcissist to a more selfless brother.

Cautionary Tale - The protagonist gets the "outer" goal, but fails to achieve the "inner" transformation.  In Citizen Kane, Charles Foster gets the power and wealth (outer), but dies empty and unfulfilled ("Rosebud" represented the innocence and joy of his childhood).

Tragic - The protagonist achieves neither the "inner" nor the "outer" goal, Leaving Las Vegas was, in my opinion, a tragedy (although, you could argue that the protagonist's goal was to "drink himself to death" -- which he did accomplish).

Sound familiar?!

Now whether or not Rydall was influenced or aware of Dramatica is not fully clear as it isn't mentioned anywhere in his book (I suspect it is as there are more than a couple instances where the theory shines through).  Either way, it's a fantastic read, especially if you have any interest in becoming a story analyst.  I bring it up only to show that this concept of connecting the results of the main story line with the results from the personal story line is a sound technique for analyzing what a story is trying to say.

Two questions: Did the good guys win or lose? and Did the main character go home happy or sad?  The sum of which adds up to a purposeful ending.

The Good Guys Win or Lose

When you talk about this half of the equation, what you are really focusing on is the Objective Story Throughline.  Typically referred to as the "A" story line (or "outer" story), the Objective Story Throughline is that part of the story that involves everyone.  It is labeled Objective because it is looking at the story's central problem from an objectified 3rd person point-of-view.  Characters don't have names when taking this perspective, they have roles.  So Mav in Top Gun becomes the "Hot Shot Fighter Pilot", Marge in Fargo becomes the "Plunky Sheriff", and Miranda in The Devil Wears Prada becomes the "Evil Magazine Editor" (of course there are other names you could call her, but let's keep it clean!).

It's a good trick because when you stop using character's real names, you tend to focus less on their own personal issues and more on how they function in the story.  This is the part of the story where Protagonists, Antagonists, Sidekicks and Guardians reside.  Again, function over the personal.

So when you ask the question, "Did the good guys win or lose?" you are in essence asking "Did the Protagonist's efforts to achieve the goal end up in success or failure?"  The Protagonist, nine times out of ten, is someone the audience would interpret as the "good guy" and it is this interpretation that they use as a baseline when they want to know the logistical meaning behind a story's conclusion.

The Dramatica theory of story labels the answer to this question the Story Outcome.  Was it a Success (good guys win) or was it a Failure (good guys lose)?

The Main Character Goes Home

On the other side of the meaningful endings equation lies the Main Character.  When asking whether they go home happy or sad, what you are really trying to establish is whether or not the Main Character resolves their own personal problems.  These internal issues are the sole property of the Main Character; other characters may comment on it or be a part of it, but the heart of that emotional turmoil belongs to the Main Character.  So Stan has his Wendy-induced anxiety, Detective Somerset wants to retire, and Charlie Babbitt has his daddy issues.  The story these Main Characters inhabit serves as an opportunity for personal growth.

So when you ask the question, "Did the Main Character go home happy or sad?" what you are really asking is "Did the Main Character resolve their own personal angst?"  The audience uses the answer to this question as a baseline for determining the emotional meaning behind a story's conclusion.

Dramatica labels the answer to this question the Story Judgment; Judgment because it is the Author's evaluation of the Main Character's efforts to work through his or her issues.  Was it Good (main character goes home happy) or was it Bad (main character goes home sad)?

A Purpose to Storytelling

Choosing the answers to these two questions locks in the meaning of a story.  A storyteller can only hope for confusion if he or she does not fully appreciate the concept between these two story structures.  Audiences reach to stories for an explanation of why things are the way they are.  Sure, there is a certain entertainment value that they may be seeking, and sadly, perhaps, even a thoughtless desire for distraction.  But overwhelmed by the crushing flood of information and bite-sized video clips available from monitors and phones everywhere, audience members will quickly comment on anything less than purposeful as "Meh."  They want more.

Giving them a meaningful ending overcomes all that noise.

A story provides the audience a welcome respite from the meaningless and a chance to ponder why.

The original article can be found at http://storyfanatic.com/articles/story-structure/of-tragedies-and-triumphs/

How to End a Movie
July 2009

There are basically four different ways you can end a movie: Happy, Sad, Bittersweet Happy, and Bittersweet Sad.  Afraid that might be a little reductive?  Not when you realize that there are a zillion different ways of presenting these endings.  So how do you determine exactly what ending a story might have?

It’s really quite simple.

To determine the type of ending you have to figure out the answer to two questions.  Do the good guys win? Does the Main Character go home happy?  That’s it.

We’ll start out with Happy Endings, which we can also call Triumphs.

Happy Movies

These are the kinds of movies that everyone thinks most stereotypical studio executives love.  While I don’t have any deep scientific research to prove why, I’m pretty sure it’s because Happy Ending films have the biggest box office draws.  The majority of people want to see a movie with a happy ending (Personally, I prefer something a little more complex, but we’ll get to that in a different post).

The good guys win and the Main Character goes home happy.  Plain and simple…

We start out with the super cheesy celebration of all things male, Top Gun .  What does the end of the film reveal?  Well, if you look closely, you’ll notice that the good guys are jumping up and down while they thrust their fingers in the air, proclaiming their victory over the Evil Empire.  In the following scenes, Maverick (Tom Cruise) has finally resolved his personal issues concerning Goose and living under the shadow of his father.  Tossing his buddy’s dog tags into the ocean, he’s now “free” to kick ass on his own terms.

The good guys have won and the Main Character heads back to Miramar happy— Top Gun is the very definition of the Happy Movie.

What about something a little more sophisticated?

As wonderfully complex as Amelie is, it still ends the same way as the missiles and chicks flick.  This time though, the good guys are less a force to be reckoned with than a group of people who successfully overcome their own problems with the help of the title character.  Of course, even Amelie herself can’t avoid a happy ending as she scooters her way through the streets of Paris, hugging her new-found love.

I love the way in which Jean-Pierre Jeunet visually reveals this kind of ending with the kinetic camera work, i.e. using the medium to describe the emotion.  Awesome.

Lastly, we have the bawdy South Park movie.  Satan is sent back to Hell, thus reverting the quaint Colorado town back to its idyllic roots.  Stan, the main Main Character (the film actually has several main characters, as described elsewhere on StoryFanatic.com ) also has resolved his personal issues with Wendy…albeit, a bit messier than she probably would have liked!

Good guys win.  Main Character goes home happy.

Three completely different films.  All with the same structural ending.

Three Other Endings

In forthcoming articles we’ll take a look at the other ways you can end a story.  Hopefully the above clips serve to show that, even with the stifling notion of only four kinds of endings, there are a zillion different ways that you can incorporate those endings into your story.


Setups and Payoffs and The Lives of Others
June 2009

Sometimes the student educates the teacher. At least, that’s what I found during my first year teaching story at the California Institute of the Arts .The idea that you learn more by teaching, I think, has more to do withwhat is given back more than it does with having to memorize theconcepts and ideas you are trying to get across. Never was this moreapparent to me than after a recent screening of The Lives of Others in one of my classes. A student approached me and offered aninterpretation of a key moment that completely blew me away. Why hadn’tI seen that before?!

One of the Greatest

To me, The Lives of Others is one of the greatest films of all time. It certainly has become my favorite foreign film and as far as personal ranking goes, it’s one very small notch below The Shawshank Redemption . Besides the captivating acting and the rewarding story structure, the film sails effortlessly along a constant stream of setups and payoffs. No event, no turn is wasted. Everything is there to eventually be paid off later, almost to the point of being too obvious.


In an effort to cut to the chase, I won’t list out exactly every single thing that is setup and paid off, but if you have a chance to watch the film, do so with that in mind. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how economical the story is. Christa-Maria’s drug problem, the joke-teller who we find out was indeed sent down to the mail room, the typewriter that only has red ink - all of these are brought around again in the end. The last one in particular seems almost silly afterwards. Really? The only ink they could find for that particular typewriter was red? Of course it was, if you were setting up a clue for the author, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) to discover later on.

But the one thing I could never figure out was why the Brecht poem? What significance did it have? It was obvious that, structurally, Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) was enchanted by it enough to inspire some change in his character, but I wasn’t quite sure why it was never paid off. That is, until one of my students pointed it out to me.

Despair When Love is Lost

If you don’t quite remember, there is a point in the film when Wiesler breaks into the Dreyman’s room and steals the Brecht book. Back at the safety of his small apartment, Wiesler lays on his couch and reads the following lines:

It was a day in that blue month September
Silent beneath a plum tree’s slender shade
I held her there, my love so pale and silent
As if she were a dream that must not fade.
Above us in the shining summer heaven
There was a cloud my eyes dwelt long upon
It was quite white and very high above us
Then I looked up, and found that it had gone.

It is a beautiful poem, but how was it paid off?

Of course! It’s so obvious now right? Almost as obvious as the red ink in the typewriter. The Brecht poem foreshadows the ultimate tragedy that will occur, the loss of someone truly and deeply loved. Holding his love “so pale and silent” - certainly sounds like that last scene, does it not? Even Christa-Maria’s bathrobe is pale white! Sorry if this was obvious to you, but I get really excited about figuring this sort of stuff out.

A Point to the Poetry

Those lines are from the poem, Remembering Marie A . I think it’s fair to say that it is no coincidence that the subject of the poem also shares the same name as the woman in the film. The point of impetus for Wiesler’s change comes from Dreyman’s intense love for this woman. From what we can gather, Wiesler has never experienced a love as strong as this and thus explains why the poem has such an effect on him. How can Wiesler continue on his life without experiencing this kind of love at least once.

The poem continues:

And since that day so many moons, in silence
Have swum across the sky and gone below.
The plum trees surely have been chopped for firewood
And if you ask, how does that love seem now?

Despair for a love lost. Plain and simple. And now, an understanding to why that particular poem appeared in the film. Christa-Maria’s death calls to Wiesler’s mind those lines and the tragic realization that now he knows first hand what Brecht was writing about.

The Impact Others Have On Us

Without a doubt, teaching this past year has had an incredible impact on my life. So many things I thought I knew, I didn’t, and so many things I didn’t think to know, I already understood. And just like Hauptmann Wiesler, I too feel myself propelled into a greater understanding of story (and by extension, life) because of the wisdom of one of my students. My thanks to Jee Sung Yang for his insightful analysis of one of my favorite films ever. A film that keeps getting better each and every time I watch it.


"The Wrestler" is Not a Tragedy
May 2009

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a famous story guru’slecture.  As I had only previously read his concepts and ideas inbooks, the lecture was both illuminating and enlightening.  Towards theend of the lecture, he fielded some questions from the audience.  “Whatwould be an example of a modern-day successful tragedy?” someoneasked.  Smiling, I leaned back in my chair and eagerly awaited hisanswer, knowing for sure what the easy answer was.

To my surprise he rather confidently replied, “ The Wrestler .”

The Wrestler ?  Really?!  I almost shot out of my seat.  If there ever was a film that was the exact opposite of a tragedy, it would be Darren Aronofsky’s latest work.

I understood why he gave that answer and wished that there was someway I could clear it up.  That’s when I remembered I had this site ( storyfanatic.com ) where I used to write articles about the theory and structure behind stories…

Analyzing stories can be a tricky process, mainly because everyone comes to the analysis process with their own set of story terms and definitions.  There are some concepts that everyone can agree on (although even the readily understood notion of the “Protagonist” can also have a different interpretation ( see my article : When the Main Character is not the Protagonist ), but more often than not fans of story can find themselves arguing the same position.  You may be arguing that something is “green,” while I’m arguing that “No, in fact, it’s round!”—when all along we’re both talking about a grape.  We both see the same thing, but we’re using two different standards of evaluation.

Of course, everyone stands by their standards and that’s usually where the confusion sets in.  I’m no different.  I have my own standard of evaluation ( dramatica.com ) and will be using that in proving why I think this movie is the farthest thing from an actual tragedy.

Tragedies and Personal Tragedies

Without a doubt, the ending to The Wrestler is beautifully tragic…from an audience’s point-of-view.  Randy “The Ram” Robinson effectively commits suicide by participating in one final match with his arch nemesis, the Ayatollah.  While his death is not explicitly shown (a masterful move by Aronofsky if I may), it is pretty safe to assume that this is what actually happened.  He dies.  We feel sad.  But could it really be considered a tragedy in the strictest sense?  Did it share in common the same sort of structural bones that say Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet has?  Is that, in fact, what the story was really trying to tell us?

I would say no.

When it comes to determining whether or not a story is a tragedy or a personal tragedy (the difference I’ll get to in a second), there is a simple question one can ask.  Did the Main Character overcome his or her personal angst?  Every writer and fan of story understands that the Main Character of a story has his own throughline, his own set of problems and issues that are unique to him.  It is through these personal issues that we the audience experience the story right alongside the Main Character.  A tragic ending will have the Main Character still beset by these issues; he will not have resolved them.

The difference between a tragedy and a personal tragedy lies in the outcome of the main story line (or A-story line as it is often called).  A full-blown tragedy, like Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet , will have the efforts to overcome the problems in the A-story line fail.  A personal tragedy will see those efforts result in success.  Now, whether or not you see The Wrestler’s main story line as being either about his quest for some connection or more simply, his quest to fight that one last fight, the fact of the matter is that those efforts in the A-story line ended up in success.  Randy found his connection and he fought that last fight.

So we know that, by this definition, The Wrestler is certainly not an honest tragedy like those Shakespeare masterpieces. The question then remains about Randy’s personal throughline.  Did he resolve his personal issues or did he not?

The Dude Has Got Some Major Issues

In The Wrestler , Randy’s personal problem is clear: He’s a “broken-down piece of meat” that nobody wants.  Having been forced into early retirement with a detrimental heart attack, Randy struggles to find a connection with somebody, anybody, outside of the ring.  He tries the local neighborhood kids, fellow wrestlers, his estranged daughter and his favorite stripper Pam.  All of them reject him.  Even his one successful connection in the film (the date with the girl from the bar) requires that he dress up like a fireman.  Even those that want him, don’t want him the way he is.

Lost and alone, Randy agrees to fight once more, to return to that connection that will always be there for him, his fans.  He grabs the microphone and explains as much to his fans - they’re the reason why he’ll keep fighting, no matter what anyone tells him.  Pam arrives and tries to convince him not to do it, but Randy refuses to listen to her.  The cheers of the audience beckon him into the ring.

So he fights the Ayatollah and his heart gives.  But he still carries on, struggling to pull himself up to the top rope in preparation for his signature move, “The RamJam.”  For a second, he looks out to the stands and searches for Pam.  She’s gone.  We cut back to Randy and see that his suspicions have been confirmed - nobody wants him.  Nobody, that is, except his fans.  As he stands tall, the roar of the crowd grows intense as they give him the connection he has so desperately longed for.  His final leap is proceeded by a tearful smile…

...and that’s precisely why it is not a personal tragedy.

Randy has resolved his angst.  The key is that look on his face right before he jumps.  Sure, he feels awful that Pam isn’t there and that he ultimately couldn’t connect with his daughter.  But he did find solace in his fans, he found where he belonged.  That smile betrays the entire meaning of the story.  If instead his face had been filled with pain and torment, like say Mel Gibson’s did in his version of Hamlet , then the story would have taken on an entirely different meaning.  That, to me, is where the bittersweet feeling of the film comes from.  Here you have this guy who is knowingly going to his death, but going there with his heart full.

The events are tragic, but the story is not.  In fact, by the definitions given above, The Wrestler is a story of triumph - the complete opposite of a tragedy.

The Easy Answer

So what was the film I thought he would answer with?  Why, The Dark Knight of course.  From what I can tell from the box office receipts, that was a pretty successful film!

Bruce Wayne/Batman begins the film tormented with the kind of influence he has had on Gotham.  Is he a force for Good or is he instead a catalyst for Evil?  He spends the entire film mulling over his role as the Batman, desperately trying to find someway out or someone to replace him.  In the end, he takes Two-Face’s place as the villain - someone the people of Gotham can hunt and chase down.  As the closing narration tell us, he becomes the Dark Knight.

In that film, Bruce Wayne has failed to resolve his angst.  No smile there.  He’s still stricken by the fact that he has this negative influence on the city of Gotham.  That’s the very definition of a personal tragedy - a Main Character still stuck with the issues that they began the story with.

The Triumph of Spirit

The Wrestler is more of a triumph than a tragedy, for Randy and for Mickey Rourke, the actor who plays him.  That is why the film is so wonderfully unique.  We know the story of the actor behind the character, of the struggles he’s gone through, and we have witnessed firsthand his return in a wonderful film.  Both character and actor were broken down and counted out, yes, but the triumph of will shines through in Mickey Rourke’s performance and elevates this film to something much more than a simple character study.


The Headline and Heartline of a Story
April 2009

A great story consists of two fundamental arguments: theheadline and the heartline. One argument plays towards the logical sideof our existence; the other plays more towards the emotional. Both areessential. Why? Because you want to create stories that are bothlogically satisfying and emotionally fulfilling. Leave one side out andthe audience feels cheated.

The two major arguments in a story can be referred to as the Objective Story and the Subjective Story .  The Objective Story, often referred to as plot, engages the audience from the point of view of logic.  Here the artist behind a story attempts to prove their argument by presenting characters as chess pieces, logistically weaving their way in and out of plot points in their attempts to achieve or prevent a common overall goal.  From this point of view the characters seem cold to an audience member.  While we may care about them, it is more their influence on the overall plot that we are concerned with.

On the other hand, the Subjective Story attempts to engage the audience from the point of view of feelings or emotions.  Here the artist argues their case by creating empathy between the audience and two major characters.  From this point of view we are more interested in how these two characters work together towards creating some level of fulfillment (or unfulfilment as the story requires).  This is the heartline of a story and without it a story becomes cold, dispassionate and forgetful.


Stories Without Heart

The Kingdom - One Sheet Two films from last year unfortunately suffer from this dispassionate lack of heart.  The Kingdom , directed by Peter Berg and written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, does a terrific job of presenting the problems and chaos surrounding the investigation of a terrorist attack in present day Saudi Arabia.  And while the kidnapping of Jason Bateman’s character Adam Leavitt and his eventual place in front of the camera as a potential beheading victim certainly elevates one’s anxiety level (I was scared s—-less!), it does little more than that to really suck us into the film on a personal level.  I have no idea who Adam is, what his personal problems are, or why I should really care about him (beyond the fact that I’m a huge Arrested Development fan).

Jamie Foxx — The Kingdom Besides he’s not really the one we’re supposed to be identifying most with anyways—Jamie Foxx’s Ronald Fleury is.  But beyond a little moment with his son in the beginning, we really have no clue as to any personal baggage he may be carrying with him into this story.  This is how you engage an audience’s heart—by presenting them a character with which they can identify with, one they can have empathy for.

Secondly there is no opposing character with which to challenge Fleury’s personal viewpoint.  There is a character at the beginning of the film, the Saudi guard beaten for his apparent connection with the crime, who would have fit perfectly into this role.  Yet for all the time spent setting his character up, he disappears for most, if not all of the second act.  As such we are left with a very visceral yet disappointingly frigid connection with this film.

Many point to this film’s subject matter as being the cause of its disappointing box office performance.  While it may be true that it is a subject many are not yet ready to explore, I would advocate this lack of heart as the real reason audiences stayed away.

Sunshine - One Sheet Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (Written by Alex Garland) also suffers from this dilemma.  And I have to say it comes as a huge disappointment to me as I loved the film—really really loved it.  The visuals, the concept, the sound design, the music, all of it was just so perfect…yet there was still this lack of heart I had to contend with.  There is absolutely zero time spent on Cillian Murphy’s Capa.  Zero.  We have no idea who he is, where he came from, or why he makes the decisions he makes.  We know he doesn’t get along with Chris Evan’s Mace, but their argument never moves beyond the purely physical “I don’t like you” stage.

This film would’ve been a masterpiece if we had come to empathize with Capa’s personal baggage; if we had somehow been brought into his story.  Again, I loved the film, but it is not one I’m anxiously wanting to watch again because I know that emotional argument is missing.  If only they had spent as much time developing his character as they did playing that awesome music whenever he jumps into his spacesuit, I wouldn’t have been left as cold as the frigid space he so desperately tried to avoid.

Sunshine - Cillian Murphy

Bringing Heart to a Real Life Situation

Michael Moore’s Sicko might seem like a strange film to examine in this context.  After all it is a documentary and not a straight piece of fiction like The Kingdom or Sunshine (your definition of fiction may vary).  Still, it is a fantastic example of a film that argues both logic and emotion effectively.

Sicko - One Sheet In Sicko director Michael Moore presents us with two arguments.  The first is the argument that the American health care system doesn’t work.  This is the headline or objective story behind Sicko and the part of the film that provides the fodder for many a political argument .  Moore, of course, has his own viewpoint and in a systematic and step-by-step manner argues the case for free universal health care.

The second argument, and the one that makes this piece so effective, is his argument that we’re not taking care of each other.  This becomes less easy to argue against.  Notice the use of the word we .  In the Dramatica theory of story this is precisely the point of view one takes when examining the Subjective Story Throughline of a film.  Contrast this with the impersonal They perspective that is used when looking at the Objective Story; as an audience member we are more emotionally attached to the former.

Sicko - Laughing Patients Consider how weak this documentary would have been without this emotional argument.  Sure, we would’ve felt sympathy for the guy who had to choose which finger he wanted re-attached.  And true, we still would’ve laughed at the confused expressions on the faces of Canadian and British patients when faced with the question of how much their hospital stay cost (If you haven’t seen it, the answer is zero).  But we would not have cared so much if he hadn’t presented us with this argument of me vs. we.

Notice the pull on your heart when he asks, “When did we stop taking care of each other?”

It’s a wonderful piece of propaganda to place us, the audience, at the center of the story.  Each of us individually becomes the Main Character of the piece.  At times, Moore assumes our position and asks questions that we might ask, but for the most part we are the central character of the film.  Whereas we sorely missed the personal baggage present in Cillian Murphy or Jamie Foxx, we all came to Sicko charged with our own baggage connected to the idea of universal health care.

In a future article I’ll go into more detail on how effective this documentary is from a structural standpoint, but for now it’s enough to recognize the presence of both heartline and headline.

Appeal to Both, Appeal to All

At first glance it might be an relatively easy concept to understand—stories must be argued both to the heart and to the mind.  Unfortunately it more often than not is a concept that is drowned in the excitement that surrounds creating a motion picture.  I’m sure this is what happened with Sunshine ; so much attention was spent on creating the reality of a world suffering from a dying sun that they forgot to give the audience an emotional touch point.  And the same with The Kingdom ; there is so little we know about that corner of the world that the fascination with the unknown overcomes the emotional needs of an audience.

The most effective way to reach an audience is to provide them with both.  Give them the logistics while also capturing their hearts with a fulfilling emotional argument.  And while not every writer may be seeking to persuade an audience in the same fashion as a Michael Moore, I can guarantee you that many opposed to free universal health care had their minds changed by his film.

Regardless of what kind of story you are writing, there is still something you are trying to say, something you want to communicate—an argument you are trying to make.

Why not make it the best?


Every Character Should Have An Arc
March 2009

But not every character should necessarily change. This runs contrary to the prevailing wisdom in modern storytelling. From screenwriting gurus to studio executives, a successful screenplay is thought to be one in which the principal characters in a story undergo significant change. But is that really true? Must every character grow in such a way that they see the world through different eyes? Partly yes, and partly no.

My first stab at putting into words the difference between growth and change came with my article, Character Arc is Not All About Change. Looking back it’s clear that my original post was a bit light and maybe a tad belligerent in its execution (it was supposed to be slightly humorous - sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t!). The reason why I’m taking another crack at it here is because that difference between the two clouded my judgment during a recent analysis.

An arc, as understood and accepted by most in the industry, represents a significant change to a character’s way of being. Compare the way they are at the end of the film to the way they are at the beginning—if they’re a different person then they have “arced”. If they aren’t, then you’ve got a problem with your story. This is where conventional understanding of a character arcing falls short.

Powerful stories exist with characters who don’t follow this model of growth.

My understanding of story now is that you can split this concept of “arc-ing” into two separate items: resolve and growth. The idea being that you can have growth in a character while at the same time they maintain their resolve. Characters like this dig their heels in and bolster their courage in order to “stick to their guns.” There is no significant perspective change in this kind of character, but there is movement. In this way, you can have growth without significant change. Conversely you can have so much growth in a character that they ultimately throw away their cherished beliefs and resolve to see the world in a different light. This would be the commonly accepted use of the term “arc.”

Deciphering between these two is not always as cut and dried as the above explanation. Especially if you come into contact with a wonderfully rich story.

Recently I had the extreme pleasure of finally seeing the Sony Pictures Animation film, Surf’s Up. For various reasons I had avoided it—the primary one being the fact that I was completely burnt out on penguin films at the time of its release. From afar I always appreciated the great sense of character design and knew of course, that the film was in good hands (both directors were teachers of mine during my CalArts days). But little did I know how wonderful the story would turn out to be. Looking beyond all the the witty, sincerely charming character moments (any scene with Tank in it, the smashed sea urchin, etc.), one can find honest character development that is both meaningful and fulfilling.

When referring to characters arcing, it’s important to realize that we are really only talking about the two principal characters in a story. These should be the only two who experience significant emotional growth. The rest of the characters in the story need to remain static emotionally as they provide the logistical backdrop for these two to develop against. If other characters grow significantly, it’s safe to say that there is probably more than one story going on. Unfortunately, multiple stories in a single piece, especially within the confines of a 2-hour film, often result in incomplete and meaningless stories.

Thankfully this wasn’t a problem in Surf’s Up .

Without a doubt, the easiest part of this story to identify was the Main Character. If there is any character we are to empathize most with, the character through which we experience the story’s events, it would have to be Cody Maverick. From the very beginning we get a sense of what it is like to be in Cody’s world. Here we have the classic penguin-out-of-water story: a penguin with aspirations of surfing finds himself stuck in the doldrums of a cold and bitter Antarctica. Voiced with charming sincerity by Shia LeBeouf, Cody rebuffs the scorn of his older brother and other penguins as he dreams of surfing in a championship like his hero, Big Z.

The other principal character in the story, the one with which Cody will share a deep and meaningful relationship with, is also easy to identify. Although there are moments when his role as that special character is handed off to Lani (the “love interest” voiced by Zooey Deschanel), Big Z (Jeff Bridges) represents the character who has an alternate way of seeing things to Cody. The function of this character is to impact and influence the Main Character to grow in such a way that their personal viewpoint is challenged. Big Z fits that role perfectly.

But just exactly what kind of growth occurs is the most interesting part.

In any complete story one of the principal characters will undergo a significant change in the way they see the world, the other won’t. This is not to say that the one that remains true to themselves won’t undergo some degree of growth. Characters, like the people they’re often based on, must grow if there is to be any honesty in their portrayal. Stagnancy is death. But growth in a character is seen here separately from a complete change of heart. As defined earlier, one can grow in their resolve to stay devoted to the way they see the world.

So it was with this knowledge that I confidently approached my initial analysis of Surf’s Up .

At first, it was clear to me who changed and who remained steadfast. At the beginning of the film Cody is so excited about surfing that he tends to over-control everything. Cody was the kind of surfer who would force his way over any wave. He meets Big Z and as their relationship develops, Cody learns to stop trying to master every wave that comes his way. His climactic moment occurs during that wonderful point-of-view shot during the final race. Ignoring the voices of disapproval in his head, Cody focuses on simply riding the wave - just like Big Z taught him. Consequently, he rides the wave out to great applause. By learning to subvert his controlling tendencies, Cody overcomes his own personal problems.

Pretty cut and dried - Cody was the one who changed. Sounds right, doesn’t it?

Not exactly. Not if you look deeper into what is really happening.

As that climactic wave builds in force and Cody begins to breathe harder and harder, voices from his past start voicing their disapproval, threatening to dissuade his resolve. And therein lies the key to what is really happening internally to Cody, and additionally the source of my initial error in analysis. Those voices were challenging his resolve - his initial drive to surf like a champion. Had he given up then yes, he would’ve been a change character. But he didn’t. Instead, he had learned a new technique to better hold on to that resolve. His perspective, his unique point-of-view that winners always “find a way” remained the same.

Contrast this with another famous Main Character who learned to “let go.” When Luke Skywalker turned off his targeting computer in the original Star Wars , he was seeing the world in a completely different light. From the very beginning, Luke was always testing himself and his abilities against others—Biggs (in the original screenplay), the Sandpeople (“Let’s check it out”), and even Han (“I’m not such a bad pilot myself”). It’s only when he finally lets go and trusts in something outside of himself that he ultimately finds the outcome he had always been searching for.

But unlike the stories of Luke and others with Main Characters who have undergone the same sort of “letting go” process (Steve Martin’s Gil Buckman in Parenthood comes to mind. That film ends with a very visual representation of his character learning to “ride the rollercoaster” that is parenthood), Surf’s Up still had more story to tell. That key moment with Cody on the surfboard was not the penultimate emotional moment that every story works towards. If you watch the film, note how different that scene is when compared to the one with Luke in the trench. The latter is rich with resolution, the former still feels like there is more left to say.

I sensed this when I was first watching the film, but figured I was just out-of-practice when it came to analysis. Turns out I was, just not in the way that I had thought!

Big Z starts out the story alone - a recluse who would much rather live in isolation than live as a loser. Faced with an apparent loss to Tank, Big Z went against everything he stood for, and quit. Faking his own death, he determined, was the only acceptable option when confronted with the ultimate shame of being called a loser.

But then Cody comes into his life.

And through this relationship with that young idealist, Big Z discovers that there can be salvation in losing. During the climax of the story, Cody throws the race in order to help out his friend, Chicken Joe (Jon Heder). The moment Cody has worked so hard and so long for is quickly tossed aside for something he believes even more strongly in: standing up for his friends. Cody sets the example of a true winner by losing—a meaningful gesture that unfortunately results in him surfing into deadly rock-filled waters.

Big Z has no other choice than to risk exposure. Going against everything he stood for at the beginning of the story, Z heads out to save Cody from certain death. He has no idea how he’ll be received by the other penguins, but at that point he doesn’t care.

This is a significant emotional change in Big Z’s internal nature and represents a huge fundamental paradigm shift in the way he approaches the world. It’s no longer about winning or losing for Z, it’s how he plays the game. It’s the kind of emotional change that I had anticipated when Cody took that big wave, the kind that makes a story feel complete and meaningful. While Cody certainly grew emotionally, it was Big Z’s growth into change that was at the heart of this story.

Cody brought Z out of his shell and forced him to confront the lifestyle he had chosen for himself. No matter what obstacles were thrown Cody’s way he always kept steadfastly true to those words he had heard when he was a little kid, “A winner always finds a way.” Words that Z once believed himself, but had forgotten in an effort to hide from certain shame. Cody takes every opportunity, whether consciously or not, to remind Z of his own inspirational words. Eventually he was transformed by them.

Every great story shares this dynamic: Two characters come into contact and influence each other in such a way that one’s worldview is significantly changed. Why don’t both change? Because you measure the change in one by the steadfastness of the second. If both change then audience members will have no reference point from which to meaningfully measure that amount of change. It’s like trying to measure the distance between two moving cars with a rubber band —you have to keep one constant for the measurment to be meaningful!

There is a difference between growth and growth into change. By all means you want your principal characters to grow, to “arc,” but you also want to clarify precisely what kind of growth is occurring. Take your two principal characters and compare the way they are at the end of the story with the way they were at the beginning.

One will seem to behave completely different. Their former self will seem almost alien to them, as they now see the world through different eyes.

The other will behave the same whether we find them at the beginning, middle or end. The subtle difference is that now, at the end, their behavior will be a more informed one. They will have learned something, perhaps better coping skills or new techniques, but ultimately they will be going about things the same way. This is what it means to grow into one’s resolve; to grow but to remain dedicated to one’s worldview.

Cody grows. Big Z grows into change. And it is Big Z’s throughline that gives this story the fundamental paradigm shift it requires to be meaningful. While Cody grew internally, he remained steadfast in his belief that a winner always finds a way.

And in doing so, he helped Big Z find his.


The Importance of the Story Limit
February 2009

AStory Limit is one of the most important things you can put into yourstory. Whether it be a Timelock or an Optionlock, a writer must let theaudience know when the story will be over; to leave this out istantamount to lying to your audience. And while it is important to pickone of these and stick to it, it turns out that there are some storiesthat are a bit more nebulous when it comes to defining how theirendings will come about. I've written more than one post about theimportance of a Story Limit. Why is that? More often than not, when astory doesn't work it's because there is no limit or the limit is notclearly defined or worse -- the limit is broken. Quick recap:Meaningful stories are arguments; successful arguments are made withina set amount of borders. They have clearly defined endings that helpone decide the value of such arguments.

However, while it is important to clue the audience in to when the story might end, it turns out that there are some stories that can go either way.

Take for instance the wonderfully acted and confidently written, The Queen . For those unfamiliar with it, the film centers around the tragic events of Princess Diana's death and the response, or lack thereof, from the Royal Family. Recently elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) believes the Royal Family should break tradition and respond in a way that shows the rest of their country that they actually care; Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren) and those who surround her believe a more "reasonable" response is required.

In the end, the Queen decides to give her subjects what they want and makes an unprecedented appearance at the makeshift mourning taking place in front of Buckingham Palace. But what exactly brings about this climax?

While watching the movie I had the distinct feeling that there was a Timelock placed upon the Objective Story. Progress in the story is marked by days of the week; a title card appears every now and then, announcing the days of the week as they pass. It was my feeling that these cards were put there to emphasize what little time the Royal Family had to react. Princess Diana's funeral was to occur the following Saturday and the closer they got to that deadline the greater the tension placed on the Royal Family and specifically Queen Elizabeth to engage in some kind of public reaction.


An interesting thing happens with a story that has a Timelock on it -- as time runs out, the characters in the story will feel like they are running out of options. At first this may sound like I'm just muddling the two concepts together but if you put yourself in place of a character in a story, or if you've had an important deadline recently, you can see how as the minutes tick away you'll feel like you're running out of things you can do in that set amount of time. This is the kind of pressure a Timelock puts on characters.

Conversely, a story with an Optionlock on it will have the characters feeling like they are running out of time. If you're at the mall and you've got to find a present in one of those stores, the more stores you go through empty-handed the more you'll feel like you're running out of time.

Understanding this, I believed the Story Limit for The Queen was a Timelock. The Royal Family was aware that they were running out of options as Princess Diana's funeral grew closer and closer. Surely, they must provide some sort of response before that deadline.

That being said, there was another way of looking at the Story Limit.


You can also see the Story Limit in The Queen as an Optionlock. How? Well, the crisis at hand is much more than simply dealing with Diana's family. The story starts with the election of Tony Blair -- that's when problems really begin for the Royal Family. The central problem in the story is now How are they going to survive in this new progressive environment? The limited options they have towards dealing with that (meeting with the new Prime Minister, responding to Diana's death, etc.) are, in fact, the narrowing options of the Optionlock.

The days of the week that I thought were indicative of a Timelock were really simply indications of how the pressure was mounting against them. Instead of seeing the "Wednesday" title card and thinking, "Oh, wow, they only have 3 days left to react," the Royal Family in fact was thinking "Wow, it's been 3 days since we've done something to show our support. We're taking too long (feeling Time slip away) to respond."

It is a subtle difference but a difference nevertheless.


It was so subtle that during our initial analysis I wondered if perhaps this would be one of those stories where it didn't matter whether it was a Timelock or an Optionlock - that the meaning of the story would essentially stay the same.

When you use the Dramatica software to create a story you are first presented with over 32,000 possible stories. As you answer the basic 12 questions those possible stories are narrowed down until you finally reach the one unique storyform that you are looking for. The storyform is the DNA of your story; it contains all the information necessary to create a satisfying and fulfilling story.

When answering these questions, it is a good idea to leave blank any that you are uncertain of. Often, by virtue of your selections, those blanks will be filled in by the software. This is the voodoo or magic behind Dramatica that makes it so powerful ((Trust me. It works.)).

This is what we did with our analysis of The Queen . We left the Story Limit question blank and answered all the others. Guess what we discovered?

The Story Limit was still open to interpretation! See where it says only 2 storyforms remaining? One will have a Timelock, the other and Optionlock. Some stories will require a certain limit to be put in place; this one apparently didn't.

Just to be sure we also checked the Plot Progression screen for this particular storyform. The Plot Progression scene is where you can view the different items that will be explored in each Act and in which order they should appear. If there would be any effect on the story due to the Limit, it would be there.

Looks like the Act Order has already been filled in for us which means...the Story Limit will have little to no effect on the basic meaning of the story. If you were writing your own story it would be important to know what it is and to reveal it to your audience; but for the purposes of analysis the Story Limit has no effect on the essential meaning of the story behind The Queen.


The storyform is a very unique way of looking at and interpreting a story. But every story is not created equal. Some absolutely require a tragic ending while others insist that the Main Character remain Steadfast in her resolve. Some maintain that the plot must be driven by actions while others state that the Main Character must solve his problems linearly. The important thing to take away is that every storyform is unique in its own fashion and therefore every story will emphasize certain parts over others.

In The Queen , the Story Limit was not emphasized as it was not essential towards the meaning of the story. Sure on the micro level there might be some miniscule difference, but in the grander sense of things (which is really all that matters in a screenplay or a movie) the limit turned out to be not all that important. It's why I sensed or felt that the story was limited by Time while others saw it limited by Options. Even though I fully accept the argument for an Optionlock now, at the time I really felt that both interpretations were valid.

Whether limited by Time or limited by Options, the structural and dynamic meaning behind a story like The Queen would essentially stay the same. While I still maintain that every story should have a Limit and that Limit should stay consistent throughout, it is clear to see that not all stories rely so heavily on this concept in order to provide a meaningful experience to the audience.


A Good Impact Character Makes Things Uncomfortable
December 2008

Main Characters generally start out a story with everything worked out. Although they may have some deep-seeded problems, as far as they’re concerned, everything is hunky-dory. Until of course, that pain-in-the-ass Impact Character comes along and ruins everything!

In my first case study of Breakfast at Tiffany’s I made an argument for why the Audrey Hepburn character Holly Golightly was not the Main Character. Instead, I offered some reasons for why the George Peppard character, Paul Varjak was a better match for Main Character.

Why does Holly work so well as an Impact Character?

When we first meet Paul everything seems to be OK with him. While we soon discover that his method of earning a living is a bit socially unacceptable, he seems to be fine with it; he justifies being a male gigolo with the idea that it provides him the resources and the time to write.

Only he hasn’t written anything in over six years.

And who is it that finally brings that to his attention? Who is it that shines that light of awareness upon his dark and hidden justifications and makes his life uncomfortable?

It’s Holly.

Even though they are falling in love, Holly wastes no time in calling Paul out on the life has created for himself. If he is a writer, why hasn’t he written anything in six years? And why is there no ribbon in his typewriter? Seems to Holly that if Paul really was what he says he is, he’d at least be able to type something.Download:

Holly has become an irritant to Paul. She’s the one that clues him in to the fact that the only thing keeping him from writing is himself. In doing so, Holly has become Paul’s Impact Character - a constant reminder of all the things he has hidden away from himself.

And while this 1967 Romantic Comedy could not be more different than the dark and brooding 1992 Clint Eastwood Western Unforgiven, this idea of the irritating Impact Character exists there as well.

We Ain’t Bad Men

Eastwood’s Munny thinks it will be relatively “easy” to kill a couple of cowboys responsible for abusing a prostitute. His friend and longtime riding partner, Ned Logan (played by Morgan Freeman) thinks otherwise.

Munny, although not completely sold on the idea, was still ready to go without too much trouble. Ned, not as eager to put his life in danger, asks Munny how long it’s been since he’s fired a gun. Munny reluctantly answers, a bit annoyed that Ned would bring that up.

When Ned tells him that if these guys had done something bad to him he would understand, Munny answers back that they’ve done jobs for money before. He goes on to tell Ned exactly what it is these guys did - exaggerating the event as to make it justifiable in his own head as well.

But it’s only once Ned brings up the memory of Munny’s dearly departed that things start to get really uncomfortable. She would not be happy with his decision to return to his old ways. The conversation comes to a dead stop and Munny gets up to leave.

Keep It To Yourself

Both Peppard’s Paul and Eastwood’s Munny wish that they’re respective Impact Characters would just mind their own business. Deep down inside, they both know that what they’re doing is wrong, but it’s not until that external view of themselves comes along that they really start to see what it is they’re doing, or not doing.

All Main Characters should be so lucky.


The Case of the Missing Heart
November 2008

A common complaint of many films is that while they are stunning visually, they somehow lack heart. Often it is hard to describe exactly what is missing, let alone come up with the necessary pieces to fill that hole in a story. This is due to the nature of what is missing, i.e. it’s not so much one thing that is missing as it is two.


When you speak of emotions or “heart,” what you are really describing is the relationship between things. You can’t really experience love or sadness without the context of that emotion as it relates to something else. Emotions exist as a result of an inequity between two separate things, whether they be objects or in our case, characters. The nature of emotion requires a relationship.

So when you see a film or read a story that seems cold, or lacking heart, what you are really missing is that heartfelt relationship between two characters.


In the Dramatica theory of story this relationship between two characters is referred to as the Relationship Throughline. In other story theories or screenwriting books this throughline is sometimes called the C story line or the “heartline.” Put simply, this throughline explores the emotional meaning of a story’s message. The relationship in question always revolves around the Main Character and one other Primary Character. This other character (sometimes called the Impact Character or Pivotal Character) stands in direct opposition to the Main Character’s point-of-view and represents the greatest challenge to the MC’s approach towards solving the story’s central problem. This character provides the alternative.

But while the Main Character will have their way of seeing the world and the Impact Character will have theirs, this does not fulfill the needs of the relationship throughline. As Chris Huntley wrote in this Dramatica Tip from May 2004:

Many writers confuse the relationship throughline for the characters in it. Though the characters are party to the relationship, the [Relationship Throughline] is not about the characters as individuals…it is about the relationship.

So while you may have your own personal problems or issues, and your significant other might have his or her own issues, the two of you also have a relationship that carries with it its own separate set of issues. Now these relationship issues might spill over into the personal and may possibly even be informed by them, but it is important to clearly identify them as separate, especially when writing a story. You need to explore what is wrong with this relationship; why it’s growing or why it’s falling apart and how that impacts the two parties in question.

By doing so you will have supplied your audience with an emotional argument, or message, that will coincide with the more plot-oriented logistical argument of the “headline” or A story.

But most importantly, you will have given them something to feel.


As mentioned in a previous article, Tim Burton’s films, while always visually amazing, often seem to be missing something to me in the final analysis. Until my understanding of the above concept, I always chalked it up to his films simply being “dark” or ”quirky.”

But upon further analysis it’s easy to see that what is often missing is the Relationship Throughline. Case-in-point: The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Now, I really like this film and I make sure to watch it every Halloween season. It’s apparent that many others do as well, especially when you consider that 15 years later it still runs in limited engagement every October at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, CA. It is a technical marvel. But even that simple description accurately reveals what many feel is missing from this work — namely, heart.

Every time Jack and Sally (Main Character and Impact Character respectively) are just about to get together and have some meaningful contact, somebody or something interrupts them. One time would be understandable, maybe even two, but these undead lovers don’t connect emotionally until the final scene! Jack doesn’t even really verify her existence until the very end. It’s very frustrating.

Some would argue, “Yes, but what about all those other great romantic films where the two characters don’t finally get together until the very end? It’s a very common device.” It might be, but I’m guessing that in those successful films there is a reasonable amount of emotional development throughout. Although they might not meet each other physically until the end, their relationship grows, ebbing and flowing until that final heartfelt scene. A relationship can’t just “pop” into existence, it needs to develop into fruition.

Nightmare lacks this development and therefore suffers from a lack of heart.


A Story is an Argument
October 2008

There is a significant difference between stories and tales. A tale is merely a statement; a linear progression from one event to the next culminating in one singular outcome. It can be thrown out immediately and disregarded as a one-time occurrence primarily because it has relatively little to stand on. A story, however, offers much more to an audience member.


This Fall I began teaching Story Development at the California Institute of the Arts in their much-vaunted Character Animation program (from which I am a proud alum). Personally it has been a blast for me as I get the opportunity to talk about my life’s obsession to a relatively captive audience. One of the things I’ve really been trying to communicate to them is this idea of the difference between a story and a tale.


In sharp contrast to a tale, a story is an argument; a course of logical and emotional reasoning aimed at proving that a particular approach is either a good one, or a bad one. Because it is an argument it can be applied to all kinds of similar and not-so-similar situations. Whereas a tale can quickly be disregarded and ultimately forgotten because of the proliferance of exceptions, a well argued-story must be accepted by an audience member as one possible truth.

An argument’s ultimate goal after all is tell some truth, of relaying some meaning to an audience.

This is where the power of stories lies.


You cannot possibly come away from The Shawshank Redemption without the understanding that no matter what your situation, there is always hope. It is what Stephen King and Frank Darabont were trying to communicate to you through the method of storytelling - there was intention behind their creation.

Likewise you can’t watch Fight Club and not believe that sometimes anarchy and self-destruction is the only answer. David Fincher certainly has a point of view about the hopeless reality of life and more often than not executes it brilliantly. Walt Disney’s Pinnochio is less subtle about the meaning behind it all — just do the right thing.

But it is in the The Sixth Sense that we can clearly see how meaningful stories work on all levels.

Malcom had been fooling himself (as many Main Characters do) into believing that what he saw and what he perceived as being reality was in fact, real. It was only by working his way through the story and allowing the influence of Cole into his life that he finally understood what was really going on. The truly great thing about this story was that this understanding was reflected not only in Malcom’s personal throughline but in the larger story as a whole. Many of the characters in the film (Malcom included) perceived Cole’s outlandish actions as symptomatic of a heavily disturbed mental psychosis. Cole must be a victim of some sort of child abuse or he’s acting out because his father is gone…he couldn’t possibly be seeing real ghosts.

As it turns out, they were dead wrong.

Both throughlines of perception were shown to be deception, deliberate or otherwise.

See, when people talk about the importance of story, of creating narrative that matters, what they are looking for is some way of bringing meaning into the piece. It has to be in there from the beginning as the parts necessary to bring about that meaning need to be carefully designed. The Sixth Sense was such a film. And it made a wonderfully powerful argument that maybe we should look beyond what we see to what really is.

SOURCE: This concept of a difference between a story and a tale comes from the Dramatica theory of story. If you are interested in reading more about it, you can visit the original definition of this concept there.

The Second Most Important Character in a Film
September 2008

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. However, there is another, less understood character that is primarily responsible for influencing growth in the Main Character. This character is known as the Impact 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 Impact 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 Impact 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 Impact 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 Impact Characters, three who Change and three who Remain Steadfast, and applied the above axiom.


Score one for Marshall Samuel Gerard. 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)…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.

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.


And now we move on to Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) 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 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)? 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.1


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 Impact 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 Impact 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.


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.

Hundreds of more articles are available in the Story Fanatic Archives