A Blueprint for Effective Character Development

April 17th, 2014

Wants. Needs. Character Arc and Backstory. When it comes to developing a strong central character, many do the best they can with these simple-to-grasp, yet disparate concepts of story. Effective character development calls for a system of story points that function as a cohesive whole.

The seventy-five or so story points found in a Dramatica storyform work together.1 Bouncing off one another and cooperating in narrative space, these appreciations of story help formulate a holistic image of what it is an Author is trying to say. Regarding the last article “The Problem with Problems of Character:

Taking just one of these story points out of context destroys the whole purpose of the storyform.

Several story points within the storyform help define the Main Character’s Throughline. The Main Character’s Domain, Concern and Issue help illustrate in the broadest sense the kind of personal struggles the central character experiences while the Main Character’s Problem, Solution, Symptom and Response fine-tune the focus of narrative drive.

Many struggle to see how these narrative appreciations play nicely together. When faced with a Story Engine Settings report such as this:

Storyform for her

Many Authors unfamiliar with Dramatica paints the theory as too scientific and obtuse. They label the theory a tool for analysis rather than a springboard for creativity. And while the Dramatica theory book does an excellent job of introducing the concepts, it fails to suggest techniques for moving from storyform to blank page. The following examples illustrate one way of transforming Dramatica’s cold hard terminology into an outline for character development.

Change Characters

Main Characters split into two groups: those that Change their Resolve and those that Remain Resolute. The series Change and Character explores this concept in greater detail, but for now it’s important to understand that these two camps handle problems differently. Change Main Characters think they know where their problem is, when in reality they’re blind to the actual source of their trouble.

A Change Character With a Chip on his Shoulder

Consider these Dramatica story appreciations for a potential Main Character Throughline:

In this story, the Main Character will think that his problem comes from feelings and thinks the solution to his problem is to be more rational. Only at the end of the story will he realize that he is really driven by temptation and discover that abstaining will possibly resolve his personal issues.

For example, William the butler does not like the fact that his heart skips a beat when the lady of the house approaches and responds by coming up with several reasons why he shouldn’t fall for her. As a Stop character he tries too hard to make things better when backing off would make his feelings less obvious. After a couple of acts and a lot of resistance William finally gets to the point where he recognizes that the temptation to indulge complicates his position as head servant and influences the choices he makes as a leader. At a crucial moment in his personal struggle, William chooses to follow his conscience, quit, and live out the rest of his days concentrating on his career.

This is the same kind of personal throughline that happens in Election. Jim McAlister (Matthew Broderick) finds all kinds of reasons to rationalize away his feelings for his student Tracy. It’s not until the end that he finally realizes that the temptation of high school is too great, and that a new job in a new city is just what the doctor ordered.

A Change Character With a Hole in his Heart

In this story, the Main Character thinks that her problem comes from constant scrutinizing and thinks that the solution to her problem is to build greater trust. Only at the end of the story will she realize that she is driven by meeting other people’s expectations and discovers that determining for herself the reason possibly resolve her personal issues.

For example, Laura hates it when her managers scrutinize her performance and responds by finding ways to convince her bosses that she is someone that can be trusted. Laura thinks that as long as she works on building those bridges she can keep from disappointing others. As a Start character she holds back when a bit of effort on her part could help the constant examinations. After a couple of acts and a lot of resistance, Laura finally gets to the point where she can recognize that her fundamental drive to meet other people’s expectations sits at the heart of her need to be wanted and her willingless to be manipulated. Realizing why she spends so much time trying to be what other people want her to be, Laura chooses to determine for herself the reasons why her managers look down on her.

This is what happens in the 1960 Billy Wilder classic, The Apartment. Eager to climb the corporate ladder, C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemon) lets his managers walk all over him. It’s only once he starts determining for himself the reasons why people think less of him that he begins to take back control of his life.

Steadfast Characters

Steadfast Main Characters operate a little differently. Instead of focusing narrative energy on what happens within them, stories that feature resolute central characters harness their attention towards what happens around the Main Character. Rather than having them grow by shedding a hurtful trait or gathering some new technique, Authors showcase these characters holding out for something to start or something to stop. The focus remains on the external.

A Steadfast Character Holding out for Something to Stop

In this story, the Main Character sees problems in the world coming from people refusing to change their impressions and sees the solution to those problems to get others to simply open their eyes. At the end of the story he’ll realize he’s driven to protect others and that not doing anything could possibly make his life easier.

Frank hates it when the other wranglers treat the cows like dumb animals and responds by pointing out the wrangler’s individual shortcomings. Frank thinks that as long as he continues to bring up how dumb humans can be that he’ll keep the pressure off his bovine friends. As a Stop character he focuses on all the bad things people do, when backing off might ease tension. After a couple of acts and a lot of resistance, Frank finally recognizes that his drive to protect the cows comes from his struggles with his own weight. Understanding that his passion stems from issues with what others say he can and cannot do, Frank considers giving in the next time he witnesses an episode of animal abuse. At a crucial moment in his personal struggle, Frank stands in front of the cows and challenges the wranglers to see man and animal as the same.

How To Train Your Dragon tells a similar story. Hiccup finds himself driven to protect the dragons because he looked into their eyes and saw himself. Challenging the other Vikings to see dragon and human as the same overcame the option to simply give up.

A Steadfast Character Holding out for Something to Start

In this story, the Main Character sees herself as not being good enough and sees the solution to her problem as directing effort towards becoming more acceptable. At the end of the story she’ll recognize that she is too results-driven and that focusing on the journey might make her life easier.

Amanda does not like it when her girlfriend’s parents tell her she doesn’t live up to their standards and responds by trying to fall into line with what they deem acceptable. Amanda believes that the more she can be tolerable the less she has to worry about being good enough. As a Start character, Amanda waits for others to ease her personal conflict when focusing on what she can do would ease tension. After a couple of acts and a lot of resistance, Amanda finally gets to the point where she realizes that it is her drive to get results immediately that is at the heart of her panicked nature and her constant consternation. If she could understand that sometimes these things take a little time, then she could perhaps avoid leaping before she looks. Unfortunately, at a crucial moment in her personal struggle her impatience wins out and her obsession with her girlfriend leads her to do something she ultimately regrets.

This is Romeo from Romeo and Juliet. Struggling against the standards set by Juliet’s parents, Romeo leaves town in the hopes that eventually his presence will be tolerated. Unfortunately his desire to be with Juliet without haste leads him to impulsively take his own life.

The Creative Impulse

The individual story points within the Main Character Throughline work in concert to define and encapsulate a personal approach to solving problems. By delineating points of narrative that work in harmony, the Dramatica theory of story offers Authors the chance to write complex and emotionally full central characters. As it presents an objective take on the dramatics within story, the theory can sometimes come off cold and uninviting. Discovering new ways to play with the theory and to transform the scientific elements into a solid familiar compound can help a writer unleash their creativity.

  1. A storyform combines seventy-five thematic elements together and provides the message of the story. 

The Spectactular Now

April 14th, 2014

Wonder why this film seems to drag on and on? The lack of an Overall Story Throughline and consequently no Story Limit places The Spectacular Now in the discard pile.1 While Miles Teller engages the Audience as the live-in-the-moment Main Character Sutter Keely, he fails to have any narrative purpose.

Typically writers and filmmakers leave out the Influence Character or the Relationship Story that develops between the Main Character and Influence Character. They don’t often forget to write an actual story. With no Goal in sight, no Protagonist, no Antagonist to prevent the achievement of that Goal, or any other number of logistical plot appreciations, The Spectacular Now becomes nothing more than a long and drawn-out character study.

The pieces were there to compare and contrast two different approaches to dealing with co-dependency, but they never came together in support of a greater argument or message. Meaning happens when writers define edges. By failing to provide any plot for Sutter to work through, The Spectacular Now loses shape and ultimately, relevance.

  1. The Overall Story Throughline, or A-story line as it is sometimes called, is the point-of-view of a story from far above. Objective in nature, this perspective sees characters as roles or functions within a story, like Protagonist and Antagonist. 

The Problem with Problems of Character

April 10th, 2014

When granted a new understanding of story, writers tend to latch onto one or two key items. They sense the benefit of a new story point for their writing and quickly add it to their tool belt. The problem lies in assuming this new understanding a lone operator.

Six years of teaching Story Development at California Institute of the Arts granted me insight into common mistakes Authors make. In this case, many of the students within the Character Animation program would pick and choose from the various story points I would present them. They would grab and use the ones that made those most sense, and then toss aside those that didn’t seem to apply.

The Same Story

Tasked with creating short 2-minute films, these filmmakers wasted no time assigning their characters a specific problem. They understood the need to have a character driven by some flaw and successfully incorportated this point of story within their films. Yet many would fall into the trap of not letting their characters actually resolve their personal issues.

Whatever their characters were driven by, they simply had them stop doing it. A guy chasing after a girl stopped chasing. A kid driven to succeed in business stopped trying. An artist working on a project gave up. Across the board the consensus was: have your character stop what they’re doing and all will be fine.

But stopping a problem doesn’t resolve it.

The Persistence of Inequity

Hunger hits and suddenly you can’t concentrate. Lethargy sets in–maybe even crankiness–productivity reaches an all-time low. What do you do to solve it? You eat. The meal satisfies and your hunger subsides. Problem solved.

Until you become hungry again.

One must remove the possibility of hunger in order to overcome this cycle. Take a pill. Rewire the digestive system. Real problems require real solutions, fighting symptoms does nothing as the potential for conflict remains.

This same process drives characters.

A Short Story Problem

Let’s say we have a character with a gambling problem. More specifically, lets give her an obsession with winning the perfecta down at the track. At the end of the story we want her to overcome her gambling addiction. We do this by having her simply stop gambling.

The end.

But does that feel complete?

A Solution for Every Problem

For every problem a character encounters, a solution exists. In the example above, our gambler has a problem of Pursuit–she keeps chasing that high, keeps running after that next win. The solution for Pursuit is Avoid (or Prevent). In order for our character to overcome her gambling addiction, she will have to actively avoid or prevent herself from going to the track. “I’m never going back there again” or paying the security guards at the gate to keep her from going in would signify a real resolution of her personal problems.

Simply stopping pursuing does not accomplish the same result.

A character’s problem causes them tremendous grief. From the context of their point-of-view, their problem drives their throughline. In our example of the gambler, every trouble she experiences stems from this pursuing. Not pursuing simply turns down the dial on her problem. It doesn’t resolve her gambling addiction. It turns down the dial enough that the character thinks (or in this case, the subjective writer thinks) that they have resolved things. But as soon as things ratchet up again, the problem returns and it becomes clear the character has not resolved a thing.

Beneath the Surface

Going to zero does not mean off. The problem doesn’t go away, it simply diminishes to a point where one is no longer aware of it. The waves of trouble the problem creates seem to go away, but the problem itself doesn’t disappear. It’s still there, waiting to rise again.

Consider the earthquake and the tsunami. If the tsunamis is the apparent problem, then the earthquake that caused it is the actual source of the problem. The tsunami wrecks havoc and then dissipates, capturing the brunt of our attention. You could perhaps find a way to combat the tsunami or stop earthquakes from creating tsunamis, but you wouldn’t really be solving anything. As soon as another earthquake hits, the tsunmai would return and whose to say this time it won’t be even stronger then the defenses you’ve created.

Contrast this with actually taking action to prevent earthquakes from happening in the first place. Now you would never have to deal with the tsunami because you would be addressing the actual problem at its source, not its symptom. The tsunamis would never return.

This is the kind of change characters need to resolve their problems.

The Reason for Bookends

Characters focus on the symptoms of the problems affecting them. They can’t see their actual problem and thus any effort given to overcome them would never completely resolve their issues. By employing the solution to their problem, characters resolve the inequity within them and the problem no longer exists as a problem. They resolve things by changing the context.

This is why many Authors resort to bookend scenes. By presenting their characters within the same situation they can show an Audience how the context has changed for that character. In Hamlet, Hamlet is told that his uncle killed his father. By the victim no less! What does he do? He thinks it away, convinces himself otherwise. Later on he sees his mother die from a drink handed to her by her husband (his uncle). Does he think about it? No, he acts right away secure in the knowledge that his uncle did it.

Same situation, different context.

These bookend scenes test a Main Character. It gives them an opportunity to show that their behavior has changed, that their context for approaching problems has changed. More importantly it grants an Author the chance to define what it is they want to say with their work.

In a closed story, an Author wraps things up. A complete story has meaning, it has edges. By changing the context from which a character approaches a problem, the Author opens up the possibility of putting things in a different context. He or she defines the edges of a story by completing it and presenting the potential for a new story.

Ambiguitiy curses good narrative. By refusing to define where they stood on a parituclar issue many of my students failed to actually say something with their work. Their films were forgotten minutes later. Many writers I consult with suffer from this same affliction.

A Holistic Understanding of Story and Character

Problems don’t make sense in an of themselves when it comes to story. Like most story points, problems must be seen in the context of everything else around them. They come with symptoms and responses to those symptoms, they come with solutions and goals and consequences towards not achieving those goals.

The problem with most of my students (and more accurately the way I was teaching it at the time) was that they were simply thinking of the problem itself. Their character had a problem with chasing after their dreams, so they stopped chasing. End of story. The students felt this worked because they weren’t thinking of the entirety of a problem within a character, they weren’t thinking of the symptoms, the solution or any consequence towards their characters failing.

They were focusing on one story point.

Dramatica, and more specifically the Dramatica concept of a storyform, presents a holistic framework for an argument.1 The storyform argues for a particular approach to solving problems. Taking just one of these story points out of context destroys the whole purpose of the storyform and removes any potential gain such an understanding could give to an Author. When considering a story point, Authors must consider all story points. The system works as a cohesive whole and must always be understood in its entirety, not piecemeal.

  1. A storyform combines seventy-five thematic elements together and provides the message of the story. 

The Story Structure of True Detective

April 3rd, 2014

Format does not determine structure. Whether screenplay, novel, or play, a complete story calls for the same basic ingredients. Television series work the same–they simply take longer to simmer.

The number one question asked of Dramatica is “Does it work for television?” 1 Many see the value of it in context of a screenplay or feature film, but wonder if the “structure” of Dramatica can be applied to a longer series.

First, there is no “structure” to Dramatica. Unlike other paradigms or interpretations of story that collect a sequence of beats or steps along a Hero’s Journey, the Dramatica theory of story applies a model of psychology to narrative. It doeesn’t see psychology in narrative. That’s an important distinction.

If the Author of a television series intends to say something with their work, if they wish to impart some greater meaning, then yes, the model of Dramatica will work for them. The HBO television series True Detective had something important to say, some point-of-view it wished to argue. This purpose lends itself perfectly to a Dramatica interpretation, allowing greater insight into how one would structure a similar series.

Establishing a Way In

Before determining the storyform of True Detective, one must first determine the Main Character.2 Audiences experience a story through the eyes of a Main Character. We empathize with them and we become intimately involved with their personal problems. In most stories–those that last less than two hours–the determination of this viewpoint is simple. True Detective took eight hours to tell, complicating this process with two very strong characterizations and an uncommon aspect of story structure.

Many would look to Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and assume that he is the Main Character. While there were moments of insight into what it must be like to have drug-induced visions, rarely did we dive into what it feels like to be him. We experienced his psychological damage from the outside, not from within.

Contrast this with the subjective point-of-view presented to us by Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson). We become closely involved with his family and the fallout he creates when he gives in to temptation. We experience his loss with him, the same way all Audiences do with a Main Character. Rust, on the other hand, influences and challenges us–making him a prime candidate for Influence Character.

Driving the Story Forward

Rust does, however, drive the story towards resolution. In both investigations, past and present, Rust pursues the killer without hesitation. This makes him the Protagonist of the story, not the Main Character.3 Many times the character through which the Audience experiences the story also takes responsibility for driving the story forward. This doesn’t always have to be the case and True Detective shines as an example of the sophistication that occurs from splitting these functions.

With the establishment of Main Character and Influence Character, attention shifts to their individual points-of-view and more importantly their final resolve. Determining hich character changes and which one remains steadfast helps solidify the storyform.

Two Different Approaches

The passionate argument between Marty and Rust revolves around the presence of an afterlife. This argument extends into disagreements over the existence of God and the relative objective value of religion in the human experience. During the revival scene of Episode 3, the two argue over the “common good” with Marty taking the side of those praying before them.

Rust responds with his version of the truth:

If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward then, brother, that person is a piece of shit. And I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible.

Rust is a nihilist. Pessimistic and skeptical of the true nature of man, the man who lost his daughter sees any concept of the afterlife as a “fairy tale”. His entire worldview revolves around this dark interpretation of human existence and he maintains that perspective throughout.

Marty, for all his infidelities and shortcomings, saw the light. In fact, he probably understood the importance of spirituality because of his infidelities. He saw the value of a higher power and its ability to keep those given to “debauchery and murder” in line. If a member of law enforcement can’t control himself, who can?

Marty spares no opportunity to argue with Rust about this need for the light and carries that perspective through the final scene. This defines him as having a Steadfast Resolve.

Steadfast. Not Static.

Having a Steadfast Resolve does not mean a character does not waver. Marty had his resolve torn down throughout the series (mostly due to his own actions), but in the end held fast. He never changed and adopted Rust’s negative view of the world. He didn’t give up his religion nor dwelled on how dark the world was, but he did give up at times. When asked what made him quit being a detective, Marty recounts:

Well, I saw something. Baby. Tweaker tried to dry the kid in a microwave. Saw that, what he’d done, thought ‘never again’.

Fantastic example of a Steadfast character wavering in their resolve. If Marty had continued to think this way, if he had continued to expect less of those around him, then yes, he would have been the character with the Changed Resolve. But he didn’t stay that way.

It was only once Rust showed him the tape of the young girl being raped that Marty reaffirmed his stance and declared his steadfast resolve. This is what great Influence Characters do in a story: they challenge the Main Character’s Resolve and force them to grow into or out of it. Marty was ready to give up, claim Rust “insane” and live out his life alone and negative. Rust’s challenge brought Marty out of his funk and reaffirmed his belief that this was a world worth fighting for.

To some, this seems like Marty has changed, but really he hasn’t. He has grown, but he hasn’t changed his original worldview. That signficant change belongs to Rust.

Nihilist to Optimist

Every conversation in the car, every quip or negative put-down thrown to Marty, every last line of dialogue from Rust came from his belief that the existence of an afterlife has never been proven. Through the course of the series we learn that this particular negative justification came about as a way of him dealing with the death of his daughter. Backstories are where the change character develops their justifications for doing the things they do, and Rust has a very good reason why he thinks the way he does.

But that Resolve changes. Once he sees for himself what lies beyond the veil, once he sees and feels for himself his daughter and his family, beckoning him forth, does he finally change the way he sees things:

This is a completely different Rust from the one we saw in Season 3. These are not the words of a nihilist.

There was a moment, I know, when I was under in the dark…I could feel my definitions fading. And beneath that darkness there was another kind–it was deeper–warm, like a substance. I could feel man, I knew, I knew my daughter waited for me, there…I could feel the peace of my Pop, too. It was like I was part of everything that I have ever loved, and we were all, the three of us, just fading out…and then I woke up.

In fact, Rust even has to remind Marty of how things are:

You’re looking at it wrong, the sky thing…once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.

These final words cement Rust as having a Changed Resolve.

Purpose and Meaning

In every complete story, two opposing approaches to life come into conflict. Back and forth they give and they take until finally, one approach gives in to the other. One character adopts the other character’s point-of-view. True Detective adopted this process but spaced it out over the course of an entire series. Whereas some episodes of a series act as self-contained stories4, the entire first season of True Detective portrayed one single story. Beginning with Rust’s nihilistic and somewhat accurate perspective and ending with this glimmering hope of light beating dark, the Authors of True Detective crafted an argument worthy of our attention. The reason why so many love this series and were so into it, besides the excellent acting, opening titles, and stark reality of Louisianna, was this idea that there was something more to all of it then those surface-level items.

The series actually had something to say.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

With the identification of Marty as the Main Character and Rust the Influence Character, the storyform for True Detective becomes clear: Steadfast, Stop, Do-er, Action, Optionlock, Success, Good, Situation, Progress, FactUnproven.

Why Unproven? Rust’s arc from Unproven to Proven works well: it’s only once he sees for himself what lies beyond that he can finally Change his Resolve. In the Overall Story, the Fact that Reginald Ledoux’s guilt was never proven created a series of problems. Add to this the idea that Rust focuses on the lies people tell themselves (Non-Accurate) and responds by calling people out for “a propensity for obesity” a failure to “split the atom” (Accurate) and one gets the sense that this is the correct storyform.

Taking a step back, Marty and Rust argue over each other’s Fixed Attitude and the Value of a religious or spiritual life. Marty’s Activities cause him personal grief, with Rust’s Psychological “bullshit” and “ten-dollar words” influencing him. And in the Overall Story, a Situation of corrupt officials and a serial killer on the loose threatens to make matters worse (Progress).

Whether or not the Authors of True Detective consulted Dramatica to help write their masterwork, one can see the various story points that work together to help formulate an argument. To emulate the success of this HBO series, one must determine what it is they want to say (or argue), discover the appropriate storyform, and consult it when planning out the series.

Of course, it helps if they’re a talented writer as well. :)

  1. Well, the real number one question concerning Dramatica is always “Why is it SO #@$%! complicated?!”, but the television one is a close second. 

  2. A storyform combines seventy-five thematic elements together and provides the message of the story. 

  3. This would be another case where the Protagonist and Main Character reside in different players. Not every Main Character is a Protagonist 

  4. The so-called “monster” episodes of The X-Files work as self-contained stories. Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose and Beyond the Sea are two examples where a single storyform played out over one episode. 

Bringing Gravity to Gravity

March 27th, 2014

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

Best Original Screenplay.1

To date the film has grossed over $700 million dollars, making it one of the top ten films of 2013. Poll audience reaction and they’ll cite the action, the music and the special effects of Gravity. “Masterfully directed” and “some kind of miracle” only hint at the kind of critical acclaim Gravity received.2

However rarely will they laud the story, and even if they do they’ll say it was run-of-the-mill Hollywood. Visually, Gravity is stunning. But there is something missing from the actual story, something that explains why it didn’t win an award for writing.

The Missing Piece

Gravity presents a strong and clear Main Character Throughline. We experience the film through the eyes of Dr. Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer on her first space shuttle mission. More importanty, we feel what it is like to be a mother struggling to overcome the loss of her daughter. The audience experiences these issues through her eyes.

The film also places an Influence Character Throughline to help challenge Dr. Stone and these issues. With his calm demeanor and steely blue eyes, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) helps propel Stone through her growth. The Relationship Throughline that develops between the two of them, that of mentor and student, rounds out the film by providing the emotional argument for Stone’s transformation.

But what of the fourth and final throughline? Where is the Overall Story Throughine? We never depart from Stone’s point-of-view. We have no idea what is going on down on Earth. Why did the Russians launch their missile? What geopolitical shifts come as a result of this act of agression? How is everyone affected by these events?

For those answering So what?, you’re correct. The movie didn’t need it.

But without that perspective of greater objectivity, the events on-screen simply become a roller-coaster ride. Without that juxtaposition of objective vs. subjective, what happens just happens. The events onscreen mean nothing more than what we see. We may attach our own personal meaning to it, but the Author misses out on saying something more.

An audience needs that dissonance between objective and subjective in order to gain some greater appreciation of the film’s events.

Another Point-of-View

Aningaaq, the short companion film to Gravity offers a wonderful opportunity to experience this important aspect of narrative. Writen and directed by Alfonso Cuaron’s son Jonas, Aningaaq depicts the other side of the conversation Dr. Stone was having while marooned in the space capsule. Stationed on a remote fjord in Greenland, an Inuit fisherman–Aningaaq–picks up her distress call. Fighting the language barrier, the two speak of lonliness and loss and an approach to dealing with grief.

Think back to your experience with Gravity in the theaters. Remember what it was like to be flung around in zero gravity and the isloation you felt at 350 miles above the Earth. Now take a look at it from another point-of-view:

Problems with the story of Gravity?

This missing Overall Story Throughline explains it all.

We know what it feels like to experience pain and how we personally deal with loss, but rarely do we take a look at how others deal with the same kind of loss within the same frame of mind. By seeing Aningaaq deal with his personal grief objectively while maintaining the subjective experience we have of Dr. Stone and her daughter, we experience a cognitive dissonance unavailable to us in real life.

We acquire meaning.

The Four Throughlines

We cannot simultaneously be inside ourselves and out. The Cherokee proverb “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes” tells of this reality. We can’t be objective about ourselves. Stories on the other hand can. Stories give us an experience we can’t acheive in our own lives, they give us the context for meaning.

By allowing an Audience member to witness the effects a problem has on everyone (objective) while simultaneously providing an experience of what its like to have that problem personally (subjective), a story generates a greater understanding.

The Four Throughlines of a complete story cover the four contexts we can assume. The Main Character Throughline depicts what it’s lke when I have a problem. The Influence or Challenge Character Throughline show us what it’s like when You have a problem. The Relationship Throughline between these two characters allows us to feel what it’s like when We have a problem. And finally, the Overall Story Throughline let’s us step back and see what it’s like when They have a problem.

The Four Perspectives

In real life we can only assume three of these contexts at once. If we take the I position, then we can see how You have a problem and how We have a problem. But we can never step outside of ourselves and see what it’s like when They have a problem, because we are included in that perspective.

If we instead assume the They perspective, we can see how You have a problem and how We have a problem but we can never truly know what it personally feels like to have that problem. We can’t take the I perspective.

For those experiencing their own cognitive dissonance in regards to why We doesn’t include I, precisely. The We context does not include I the same way They does not include You. The tendency to blend the first two erupts from our own self-awareness and coincindentally ruins many stories. When it comes to generating meaning, context is everything.3

Gravity failed to give us that greater context and thus diminished what it meant to most.

Writing a Complete Story

The strength of this outer-space thriller betrays it’s ultimate weakness. By placing the audience almost entirely within Dr. Stone’s (Sandra Bullock’s) first person point-of-view for most of the film, Gravity fails to provide the much needed third-person perspective on the day’s events. Without an objective view to juxtapose against the subjective, the story loses all hope of providing any greater meaning and instead becomes nothing more than an amusement park ride.

The short film Aningaaq provides a taste of what that objective view would be. By granting us a dispassionate view of how someone else deals with grief and loss, we gain a greater understanding of how to let go of grief ourselves.

Make no mistake: inserting this short into the film would not have improved things. Gravity was designed to be experienced entirely from within. Adding this in would have diminished the experience. The point to be made here is the difference between the objective and subjective views and how important that difference is for authors wanting to write complete, deeply meaningful stories. Gravity was not a complete story. Chinatown, Casablanca, Her, and Hamlet were.

The question is, what kind of story do you want to tell?

  1. Spike Jonze won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his film her

  2. Rotten Tomatoes consensus stated it was “masterfully directed” while Peter Travers of Rolling Stone said the film was “more than a movie. It’s some kind of miracle” 

  3. For a story to feel complete it needs to have 4 different throughlines, each representing a different perspective on the story’s problems. (The Four Throughlines) ↩ 

Dumbing Down Dramatica

March 20th, 2014

Familiarity and ease of use comes with a cost. Making things simpler confuses something that needs a degree of complexity to be understood. Stories exist as analogies to our minds ability to solve problems. While those minds might be simple, the tools to examine them shouldn’t.

A recent analysis of the Peter Sellers’ classic 1981 film Being There unraveled a stumbling block. After a semeseter and a half of learning Dramatica, the students in my Story Analysis at CalArts had become quite proficient in identifying the Influence Character. Regardless of the movie–Casablanca, On the Waterfront or Brokeback Mountain–they always seemed to nail this part of story structure with ease.

Being There proved a little more challenging.

Main Characters Who Influence

Being There tells the story of Chance (Peter Sellers) and the profound changes his simple-mindedness brings to Washington politics. Obssessed with television and gardening, Chance unknowingly drops wisdom on those consumed by the chaos of a stifling economy. Many take comfort in his words and his calm demeanor, changing the way they think because of his influence.

Like Forrest Gump, Being There presents a Main Character who modifies the viewpoints of those around him. This dynamic rings true for most Main Characters with a Steadfast Resolve. William Wallace in Braveheart, Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon and Henry Fonda’s character in 12 Angry Men bring change to the world around them rather than experience significant change themselves. Yet in all these cases, the Main Characters still had a signficant relationship with another character who influenced their own point of view. Fonda had Lee Cobbb, Hiccup had his dad, and Wallace had Robert the Bruce. Each Main Character knew the impact and influence this other Influence Character had on them.

Chance never had a clue. His mental condition and his obliviousness to everything around him made him a Main Character impervious to any kind of persuasion. The theory of Dramatica is clear: No Influence Character, no story.

Could this be a case where the film transcends theory?

If It Ain’t Broke

Saddled with this disconnect I contacted Chris Huntley, co-creator of Dramatica, to get his take. He responded:

This is an instance where the label “Influence” character doesn’t fit. Imagine it was labeled “Challenge” character…MUCH better fit, and closer to the original “Obstacle” character (or Opposition character)

Being There provides another example where the attempt to make Dramatica more palatable resulted in the theory losing a level of accuracy. The original term for Influence Character was Obstacle Character. Why Obstacle? Because this character’s primary role in a story is to act as an obstacle to the Main Character living their life blind to their own personal issues.

Every Main Character comes to a story packed with some sort of justifications for their behavior. These issues, built up during a time usually referrred to as Backstory, motivate the Main Character to behave the way they do. Main Characters go on about their day not knowing why they do the things they do because this process of justification hides those problems away. If Main Characters were aware of their foibles, they would solve them.

This is why you have a story. And this is why the Main Character needs an Obstacle Character.

The Obstacle Character shines a light on the Main Character’s justifications and says, “Hey buddy, you’ve got some serious problems!” They stand in the way of the Main Character’s personal growth (or lack of personal growth in this case) and push or pull the Main Character into changing.

Unfortunately over the past two decades, many writers confused Obstacle Character with the Objective Character role of Antagonist. You can’t blame them. Dramatica says there’s an Obstacle Character? Well of course they must mean the bad guy of the story… Not quite.

The “bad guy” of the story (or Antagonist) works to prevent the successful resolution of the Story Goal for everyone. The Obstacle Character works on the Main Character’s personal issues. Sometimes the Obstacle Character can be the bad guy (like The Joker in The Dark Knight or Ra’s al Ghul in Batman), but more often than not this role splits off into its own separate character (like Samantha in her, Mud in Mud or Woody in Nebraska).

In a film like Being There, the separation between bad guy and influence becomes even more complicated.

Standing in the Shoes of an Idiot

The Dramatica definition of a Main Character is that character through which the audience experiences the story. We witness Being There through Chance’s eyes because we are new to this crowd of Washington players. It might be more difficult because of his mental condition, but we don’t know what Rand has planned for Chance and the idea that a car would be waiting for us on demand is presented as something new and surprising. The audience shares Chance’s perspective in spite of his affliction.

Placing us in his shoes makes it difficult to empathize with them, but not impossible. The problem rests in finding who stands in opposition to our simple-minded obliviousness.

Another Train of Thought

In class we determined that Rand was the Influence Character. As the one person who seems to strike up a remarkable relationship with Chance, Rand seemed like the obvious choice. He also changed his Resolve, flipping from a character afraid to even talk about death to one concerned with getting his affairs in order.

However he never really represented a challenge to Chance.

As with most everyone else in the story, Rand interprets Chance’s point-of-view as something profound and transformative. Everyone accepts Chance’s words and embraces them with fervor. Everyone that is, except the Doctor.

Dr. Allenby is the only one who sees Chance for who he really is. From the very beginning he challenges Chance and his true intentions. He may not appear in the film often, but when he does it is always in opposition to Chance’s point-of-view. This is what Influence Characters (and more accurately, Obstacle Characters) do, they challenge and bring into question the Main Character’s way of solving problems.

Dr. Allenby continues to investigate and track the new arrival’s history until finally he discovers Chance’s true identity. Yet, instead of revealing this to everyone, the Doctor keeps to himself. Why? Because like other Influence Characters with a Change Resolve, he has accepted the Main Character’s way of seeing things. By stating he “understands” and keeping the truth to himself, Dr. Allenby embraces the truth of simply “being there”.

For the most part the term Influence Character works. Unfortunately there are times, as in the case of Being There, where the term muddles the true role of such a character and makes analysis a difficult task. It might also reduce the motivation to write stories with dynamics similar to this one. Understanding what this character truly does within a story, and refusing to be bogged down by more approachable and “friendlier” terminology, makes it easier to write and analyze successful narrative.

The Science of Storytelling

March 13th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Junk Science

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

The Periodic Table of Storytelling

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

The chart is pointless.

Compare this with Dramatica’s Table of Story Elements:

Dramatica Table of Story Elements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s why there are four Acts.

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

Evolutionary Understanding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Call for Progress

One last quote from Brian Greene in regards to math:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2. The Weekend of Dramatica is a 2-day deep dive into the murky and exciting waters of story theory. While the March session has already sold out, you can still reserve your spot for June. Spacing limited, so reserve now

The Toy Story Dilemma

March 6th, 2014

In the search for a grand unified theory of narrative, many land short. Whether myopic in their understanding or limited in their perspective, these paradigms of the past left many a writer shaking their head no. If it works it should work, without exception.

One of the nice things about the Dramatica theory of story is the complete lack of caveats. Every other paradigm or structural model comes chock full of exceptions and sidebars and excuses why this film doesn’t fit or why that one is the exception to the rule. My initial attraction to the Dramatica was based on the fact that it made no excuses for its interpretation of narrative: this was how story worked and you didn’t have to look at it sideways in order to make some films or novels fit.

However, one thing about it has always given me grief. Toy Story.

Six Years Strong

After six years of teaching story development at the California Institute of the Arts and hundreds of articles written for Narrative First, I continue to pride myself on delivering an understanding of story without equivocation. Bold statements and revelations of narrative must exist without exception lest they be seen as false and unworthy of attention.

Pixar’s first film has always been a bit of a stumbling block when it comes to teaching the concept of Main Character Resolve. The original analysis for Toy Story–the one that comes shipped with the application–sees Woody as the Change character and Buzz as the Steadfast character. Both characters can’t change their resolve–the entire theory rests on this concept.1 Yet Buzz clearly adopts a brand new way of solving problems.

How can this be?

One Changes While the Other Remains Steadfast

Every complete and meaningful story ever written works this way: Two characters meet, each with their own unique way of seeing the world and their own unique way of solving problems. They butt heads. One thinks he knows the best way, the other knows she has the right approach. They continue to duke it out until the very end of the story when one of them adopts the other’s approach. This change of heart finalizes the story, bringing everything to either a successful conclusion or a miserable failure.

This is how an Author provides meaning to their story’s events. In essence, the writer is saying, “Look, here are two equally valid approaches to solving this particular problem. When one gives to the other, it will always lead to this outcome.” Some refer to this as the message of the story. Some say this is what gives a story meaning. Message sounds preachy and meaning sounds esoteric. They both see the same thing within the structure of a story: an argument for how to solve a problem.

A Better Understanding

With this in mind, it is clear that Woody is the Steafast Character and Buzz is the Change Character. In the beginning Buzz thinks he is a Space Ranger. The impact he has on Woody stems from this dysfunctional psychology. If he were to Reamin Steadfast–as the original analysis calls for–then he would still belabor under these delusions.

He doesn’t.

Contrast this with Woody who matures into his point-of-view. At the beginning of the story Woody tells Buzz, “It doesn’t matter how much we’re played with–what matters is that we’re here for Andy when he needs us.” Now, he only sort of believes this at the start. One gets the sense that Woody is slightly patronizing the other toys. Nevertheless this is what he believes. This is his point-of-view.

This perspective grows over the course of the story until it becomes so strong that Woody is willing to risk everything to make it happen. It feels like a “change” because he has accepted how much of a selfish jerk he has been to everyone, but it’s really more an acceptance of his original point-of-view. In order to change his resolve–or “flip” his perspective the way Dramatica inteprets a character’s Change of Resolve–he would have to disavow Andy and claim his own identity. He would have had to adopt Buzz’s dysfunctional point-of-view. This is how a story works and this is not what happened.

Caveats of Disservice

In animation there is nothing worse than an animator prefacing the shot they are showing with all the things they know are wrong. In an effort to save face, they downgrade the value of their work and set the viewer up with lowered expectations.

Same thing here.

Having to sidestep and backtrack and make excuses or reasons why an analysis is the way it is does a disservice to the theory. If a writer sees exceptions to Dramatica’s “rules” or in any official analysis, they begin to question the accuracy of entire thing. Once doubt and trepidation sets in, the relative value and usefulness of such a tool plummets.

The original analysis of Toy Story states:

The Change/Steadfast storyform dynamic was a difficult one to determine for this story. It is obviously the authors’ intent that both of the principal characters, Woody and Buzz, appear to change–to in effect “meet halfway” in their respective stances–in order to communicate a message of cooperation and friendship to children.

But Woody doesn’t meet halfway when it comes to his belief in the importance of toys. If anything his resolve grows stronger. Woody’s “digging in of his heels” on this issue leads Buzz to finally see the light and accept his own plastic value for Andy.

For the sake of the storyform, however, one of the two needs to be seen as the Change character and the other Steadfast.

Yikes. This verges on confirmation bias and sets Dramatica up as a paradigm of story structure, rather than the understanding of human psychology that it is.

Buzz’s “change” seems to occur when he embraces the fact that he’s really Andy’s toy, and puts his energies into reuniting with Andy rather than leaving for outer space. In terms of his IMPACT, however (the Influence Character should always be seen in terms of his impact), Buzz is the same person at the end of the story as when he first arrives–charismatic, full of bravado, and the coolest toy in town. Woody’s “change” is more significant to the meaning of the story, in that he ceases to view Buzz as a rival to be defeated, and comes to embrace the value of friendship.

Again, Woody’s embracing the “value of friendship” reaffirms his initial stance that a toy’s main purpose was to be there for Andy. Buzz’s arrival and the insuing separation challenged that resolve, but in the end Woody finally realizes the importance of his own words. He sets aside his own selfishness in order to actualize his own point-of-view.

That’s a Steadfast character.

Six Years Wrong

I’ve always cringed when it came to discussing Toy Story in class. Inevitably some student would raise their hand and smugly ask, “How can Buzz be a Steadfast character? He totally Changes.” I would stumble over some half-ass answer about “substories” or how “Buzz’s IMPACT on Woody doesn’t Change” (also from the original analysis), but inside I would be struggling with the duplicitness of my answer.

I don’t have to anymore.

Dramatica’s concepts of Resolve and Growth are so closely intwined and so prejudiced with inidividual interpretations of change that one must be careful to accurately define the points-of-view present in the two principal characters. Yes, Woody has issues of being played with, but they aren’t selfish issues. He struggles more with the wisdom of his own words and his mental mastery over the other toys. He’s wiser then the other guys. So why then must he deal with this new toy who obviously knows nothing about the real world?! This is what truly hits home with Woody and what he must ultimately deal with.

The question of Change/Steafast in Toy Story was once addressed with this:

The Change in Resolve that Dramatica looks for happens very near the end of the story, or if you like, at the end of the argument. Remember, a storyform acts as an elaborate understanding of the argument–or message–the Author wants to convey. One can’t end an argument before all points have been considered. Thus, the Change in Resolve that happens closest to the end of a story carries the primary argument of the story.

You can’t get much closer to the climax of the story then Buzz famously declaring, “This isn’t flying, it’s falling with style!” That classic line clearly shows Buzz adopting Woody’s point-of-view (Woody said it the day he met Buzz). The once Space Ranger has now accepted the accuracy of Woody’s perspective and that acceptance leads directly to them landing safely in Andy’s car. Resolve tied to Outcome and Judgment in a process known as making an argument.

This is the power and strength of Dramatica.

Without caveat.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

The new storyform for Toy Story, based on the analysis above would look something like this: Steadfast, Stop, Do-er, Linear, Action, Optionlock, Success, Good, Situation, How Things are Changing, FactNon-accurate.

While it shares some of the same thematic material from the original, particularly in the case of the Dynamic Appreciations, there are some key differences that seem to ring truer. Buzz’s switch from Non-Accurate to Accurate speaks more of his growth then Unending and Ending. Buzz had no real drive to keep things going.

While the toys are under constant Threat, the real issue at stake here is the Fact that they’re living breathing entities, not just toys. The fact that they can be discarded and thrown away at any moment creates havoc within their group.

And finally the issue of Value works much better in regards to the relationship between Woody and Buzz than Worry. Their value to Andy, the value of friendship–these are key issues in their relationship. Diving down further we see Cause as the Problem between them. The moment they stop blaming each other and start focusing on the effects their actions have on others and the effect they can have on Andy–that’s when their friendship finally comes to fruition.

  1. In regards to the two principal characters in a story, one will Change while the other one will Remain Steadfast. There is a reason for this

12 Years a Slave

March 3rd, 2014

Stunning performances without the story to make them relevant, 12 Days a Slave assaults the viewer with one despicable depiction of slavery after another. Best Picture? Perhaps. Best story? No, that honor belongs to another film.

“Look how horrible things were” is fine subject matter, but an argument needs to be built on top of that for it to be worthwhile. A complete arugment. Shock value pales in comparison to a complete and well-rounded story.

Main Character Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wants to live, he doesn’t want to survive. Influence Character Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) survives no matter what the cost. The two meet and butt heads…but that’s it. Influence Characters exist in a story to challenge the Main Character’s approach or way of seeing the world, and Patsey does this strongly. But the Influence Character must also develop a relationship with the Main Character for the story to feel complete.

When making an argument, balance rules the day. The Main Character finds equity in the Influence Character and the Overall Story–the story everyone is involved with–finds balance within the Relationship Story, or Relationship Story Throughline. The former pair describes conflict at a micro-individual level, the latter at a macro-collective level. Without this Relationship Story throughline a story falters.

12 Years a Slave suffers from this oversight.

Whether developing or dissolving, a relationship must exist between the Main and Influence Character.1 This throughline provides the emotional counter-balance to the more logistical argument being carried out within the Overall Story. 12 Years a Slave excels when it comes to shackling, beating and stringing up innocent men but it fails when it comes to considering the emotional conflict between two people. They satisfy what the story wants, but don’t provide the emotional fulfillment a story needs. The breakdown that leads to him joining in song carries great power, yet this moment could have been even greater had it some connection to the back-and-forth between Solomon and Patsey.

12 Years a Slave tells the Tale of Solomon’s journey from free man to slave and back again.2 It tries to argue the tragedy that befalls when man gives up his pride in order to survive, but fails to complete that argument. Without exploring the conflict that occurs within the scope of a relationship, the story feels one-sided and unbalanced. As a result, the film leaves Audience members shocked–but not quite knowing why. A voyeuristic spectacle of man’s violence against humanity, 12 Years a Slave remains a constant reminder of the importance of story to give meaning to life’s events.

  1. Stories need a Relationship Story in order to feel complete. Without it the Author’s attempt at saying something will feel very one-sided and dispassionate. 

  2. A Tale says this happened, then this happened, then the End. Contrast this with a Story that argues out of all the possible approaches this one leads to that End. A Story is an Argument 

Brother Bear

February 24th, 2014

Ten years too late for this review, yet it’s pretty clear why Brother Bear remains relatively unknown. Beyond Tina Turner, Bob and Doug McKenzie and a color palette that places brown and yellow characters against a brown and yellow background, the failure to provide Audiences with a well-rounded complete story robs this film of the typical Disney legacy.

Main Character Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix) gives us personal insight into taking revenge. And brother Denahi (Jason Raize) shows us the objective view of seeking the same (as a weak and somewhat coincidental Antagonist). But Influence Character Koda (Jeremy Suarez) and the supposed Relationship Story that develops between Kenai and Koda? It’s as if the film is having a one-sided argument with itself–an uncomfortable and challenging experience for any Audience to sit through.

Koda offers nothing in terms of challenging Kenai’s personal issues. His only impact comes as a result of backstory, rather than a quality of character or way of thinking. Robbed of this emotional component of story, the Audience looks to the Overall Story for relief. Boredom sets in the moment they discover nothing more than a simple Tale calling for a bear to walk from point A to point B.1

Brother Bear fails to engage the Audience’s empathy by leaving out the emotional half of the film’s argument. Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but when it comes to meaningful narrative warmth provides the lasting sustenance an Audience craves.

  1. A Tale says this happened, then this happened, then the End. Contrast this with a Story that argues only this could lead to that End. A Story is an Argument 

The LEGO Movie

February 19th, 2014

The critique round-up site Rotten Tomatoes, which granted The LEGO Movie a 96% rating, offers this concise summary:

Boasting beautiful animation, a charming voice cast, laugh-a-minute gags, and a surprisingly thoughtful story, The Lego Movie is colorful fun for all ages.

Surprising thoughtful stories have strong thematic structures at their core. They have a purpose, some message they are trying to argue. The LEGO Movie continues this trend by resting its “beautiful animation” and “laugh-a-minute gags” atop a strong and well-developed storyform. Balanced and fully argued, this form beneath the laughs accounts for the film’s rampant success–and repeat viewings.

The Dramatica theory of story defines a storyform as “the structural and dynamic skeleton of a story.” Most films struggle with completing one storyform.1 Writer/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were clever enough to fuse two skeletons together, reinforcing their argument by doubling up. Without giving too much away, the central story and the substory that surrounds it both address concerns of creativity (OS Concern of Conceiving). They both end in success, with one’s resolution leading to the other (Story Outcome of Success). And they both leave the Audience feeling fulfilled emotionally (Story Judgment of Good).

Their difference lies in the resolve of the Main Character.

In the main story construction worker and Main Character Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) struggles with being a nobody. Everyone knows him, but no one really knows him. Along comes Influence Character Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks) who–like her Matrix counterpart Trinity–echoes the opinion of her master that Emmet is the “Special” (Influence Character Throughline of Fixed Attitude and Main Character Throughline of Situation). This “Master Builder” Vitrivius (Morgan Freeman) shares the Influence Character role (as with Trinity and Morpheus) and works in tandem with Wildstyle to help teach Emmet how to build like the best of them (Relationship Story Throughline of Activity).

With all four Throughlines firmly set in place (Main Character, Influence Character, Relationship Story and Overall Story) the central story begins its argument for out-of-the-box thinking.2 Emmet eventually overcomes the blindness of “Everything is Awesome” and embraces his own unique, if occasionally flawed, potential (Main Character Resolve of Change).

This change of perspective allows the substory to play out its take on the argument at hand. The Main Character here remains Steadfast in their Resolve while the Influence Character Changes (vague identities intentional…spoilers!). The emotional home run witnessed from that change cements the Author’s arugment that new ideas are best, and leads back into the successful resolution of the main story.

Two storyforms, one argument. One from the perspective of the unaware, the other from the position of unwavering imagination. By offering both in support of one message, the Authors of this film open up their viewpoint to all. No matter where one sits in regards to the power of ideas, they can’t help but become a part of this story and thus become influenced by its stance.

On the surface The LEGO Movie excels because of its wit and charm. The structure below takes responsibility for capturing our attention and opening our hearts to its message.

  1. A storyform combines seventy-five thematic elements together and provides the message of the story. 

  2. For a story to feel complete it needs to have 4 different throughlines, each representing a different perspective on the story’s troubles. (Throughlines


February 10th, 2014

With $915 million dollars and counting, Disney Feature Animation regains it’s crown. And while catchy songs, charming vocal performances and a lush color palette contribute to the film’s success, it is the story at the heart of it all that keeps them coming back for more.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t story “issues.” Competing personal points-of-view (i.e., who is the Main Character?) and a weak Overall Story Throughline that starts and stops as it sputters along (if it’s so cold, why don’t you guys just go inside?) illustrate but a few of the problematic areas. But yet, the film succeeds in spite of these missteps because of the solid emotional core at the center. The relationship between Anna and Elsa conjures up circumstances unheard of in modern film, let alone an animated one. Like it’s massive Winter-blockbuster sister Titanic, Frozen will continue to live on because of the emotional argument carried out within this key throughline.

Understanding how this argument works becomes essential for those wishing to repeat Frozen’s monstrous success. The Dramatica theory of story refers to the structure of an argument as a storyform. As a model of the mind’s problem-solving process, Dramatica sees a complete story as an analogy to what goes on in our own minds. Combining seventy-five story points, this assemblage of thematic material provides the “message” or meaning of the narrative. The closer a story mimics these processes the less chance for story “holes” and the more it will feel complete. The fact that Frozen hits many of these points within the same storyform explains why Audiences have taken it to heart: the film reflects the kind of arguments people make to themselves everyday.

Frozen opens up by setting the stage for the problems between the two sisters. Forced to keep her powers in check, Elsa sequesters herself, leaving Anna with wild guesses about why they can no longer build snowmen together (Relationship Story Problem: Induction). The constant rejection puts an incredible strain on their relationship (Relationship Story Symptom: Non-Acceptance) creating an air of stubborness between them (Relationship Story Throughline: Fixed Attitude). To combat this, Anna responds the only way she knows how: by giving Elsa the kind of love and consent her sister deserves (Relationship Story Response: Acceptance).

Unfortunately this response isn’t enough, and Elsa acts out (Relationship Story Benchmark: Impulsive Responses). As her powers are revealed, the responses of those in the castle remind Elsa of how her parents reacted that first day and she flees (Influence Character Problem: Reaction).

Why label Elsa the Influence Character and not a secondary Main Character, or co-Protagonist?

While Anna and Elsa both provide personal points-of-view, once Elsa sings her song “Let it Go” that initimate view into her struggle fades. This inside look is key when it comes to the Main character Throughline. The view from Anna grows from that moment, placing her in the position of Main Character, an intent of Author verfied in a recent interview:

…it’s a little Shawshank-y where it’s Anna’s story but it’s really about Elsa…we go through her eyes, so she’s technically the protagonist…

Anna works as both Main Character and Protagonist within the Overall Story (Dramatica differentiates between the two). Elsa assumes the Influence Character role and, after lashing out with her snow monster, takes on the role of Antagonist. In fact, her impact on Anna wanes at this moment, allowing Kristoff to saddle in and take the Influence Character hand-off from Elsa.

Both sister and boyfriend-to-be usher forth similar thematic substance in song (Influence Character Issue: Deficiency vs. Permission). Kristoff with his “fixer-upper” song (Deficiency) and Elsa with her “Let It Go” performance (Permission) provide the necessary challenge to Anna’s own personal issues. Anna’s failure to see the forest for the trees when it comes to the limitations imposed on the people around her–like Hans and Elsa–(Main Character Issue: Preconditions) constrains her efforts to learn why her sister wants nothing to do with her (Main Character Concern: Gathering Information). Her failure to further scrutinize those she loves (Main Character Problem: Re-evaluation) acts both as her downfall and her strength.

Ultimately, the story requires an act of “true love” to lift the curse of the frozen wasteland (Overall Story Throughline: Situation and Overall Story Solution: Proaction). Anna answers that call by sticking with her Crucial Element of Non-Acceptance*, choosing her sister over the easy and obvious one before her, Kristoff (Main Character Resolve: Steadfast). The snow lifts and the kingdom of Arendelle returns to what it once was (Story Outcome: Success). Realizing that love, not fear, reconciled the two sisters (Relationship Story Solution: Deduction), Elsa can now use her powers for good, boldly providing joy to her subjects (Influence Character Resolve: Change and Influence Character Solution: Proaction).

Moved by her sister’s transformation and Kristoff’s own bold act of courage (another instance of Influence Character Solution: Proaction), Anna joins in the celebration by doing what she does best–bringing her own brand of mischievous jubilation to a celebration (Story Judgment: Good).

As far as improving the central plot, the storyform provides a clue about what could work with the rest of the narrative. For instance the Overall Story Issue of Attraction, could use some attention. The people of Arendelle, drawn by the brilliance and radiance of Elsa’s castle, could have attempted to make the trek up the mountain, only to succumb to the cold or the treacherous cliffs. Or these same people could have been drawn more and more to the charisma of Hans to the point of turning against their compatriots. Either of these could have illustrated the Overall Story Issue of Attraction and added to the richness of the story by showing how being drawn to something increases conflict.

The Consequence of Contemplations, also missing from the final film, offers a chance to raise the stakes far beyond “freezing to death”. The consequence of failing to lift the frost shouldn’t be death, it should be something closer to the thought that everyone will think less of Elsa and her royal family. While that may sound inconsequential when compared to the loss of life, it plays stronger thematically against Elsa’s issues of letting go and being herself. It also works with Anna and Elsa’s Relationship Concern of Contemplations. By playing out the conflict of what it feels like to have your own sister think less of you against the consequence of everyone feeling the same way, the film could have added a nice thematic subtext to Anna’s journey.

Regardless of how these story points could have been exposed, bringing them to the film would have helped shore up the logical side of the story and help stifle those criticisms that felt the plot lacked sophistication.

These Issues of Attraction and Consequences of Contemplations aren’t random; they work in harmony with the thematics already there in the final product. What better place to explore the problems of attraction and what people think of you than in a story where the two principal characters struggle with what they’re allowed to do and what others are imposing on them. The storyform works because it holds like-minded thematic material together. It’s important because it offers an opportunity to see the entirety of an argument from every angle, important if you want a story to feel complete.

This isn’t to say there aren’t some wonderful touch points from the storyform found in the actual film. The Influence Character Unique Ability, which grants the Influence Character the ability to thwart the Main Character, is set to Permission–it’s up to Elsa who Anna can and cannot marry. And what of the Relationship Story Catalyst? This story point increases the conflict between the Main Character and Influence Character. The storyform calls for Investigation which works perfectly for what is already there in Frozen. Every time Anna tries to delve into why her sister won’t talk to her (the “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman” song or her first time to the Ice Castle) the tension between the two sisters mounts.

And lastly, take a look at Anna’s Main Character Critical Flaw. This bit of structure weakens the Main Character’s ability to resolve the issues at hand. Without it, the story would last two minutes. Factoring in all the other thematic choices made–everything from the Story Outcome of Success to the Relationship Story Symptom of Non-acceptance to the Influence Character Solution of Proaction–the story requires Anna’s Critical Flaw to be Attraction. In other words, Anna’s attraction to others diminishes her ability to save the day.

Sound familiar?

Her relationship with Hans and the reveal that comes later works because it is exactly the kind of thing needed to solidify the story’s structure. Main Characters are as blind to their Critical Flaws as much as we are to our own. Assuming her place within the story (as Audiences do with Main Characters), we become just as blind to that attraction. Instead of some silly surprise that comes out of nowhere, our realization of what Hans represents becomes something much more meaningful to the actual structure of the story.

Frozen will endure in the hearts and minds of so many people because of the solid storyform at the center of it all. As voice actor Josh Gad recently said:

Disney, more than any company, has the ability to create these films that continue to speak to generation after generation because of the timeless themes they address, and I think Frozen might belong in that pantheon of great films.

“Timeless themes” communicate loud and clear when presented within the framework of a solid argument. The recipe for success? Create a story that functions like the mind’s problem-solving process and enjoy becoming part of a legacy. Frozen took this approach and secured for itself a place within the grand tradition of beloved Disney animated features.

Dramatica Storyform: Steadfast, Stop, Do-er, Linear, Decision, Optionlock, Success, Good, Situation, Present, AttractReaction

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January 25th, 2014

A masterpiece of love, wit and the human condition, her engages the mind as it warms the heart.

Key to understanding why it works so well rests in what Dramatica refers to as a complete storyform–a harmonious collection of thematics that define a story’s central argument (i.e., message). The structural terms found in the following analysis work together to deliver the story’s message in a way that feels satisfying, emotionally fulfilling and complete.

The strength of her lies in the sophistication of its argument. Not content to simply labor under the typical narrative pretenses of Obtaining the Gold (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) or Understanding the Motives of a Serial Killer (Scream), her examines the concerns of self and self-loathing involved in Conceptualizing Our Relationships with Technology (Overall Story Concern: Conceptualizing). How does our concept of ourselves conflict with reality and where does our imagination–bolstered by these advances–get the best of us? Most importantly, how do we go about resolving our identities, whether flesh or digital, as we set about this Brave New World?

Theodore Twombly (masterfully played by Joaquin Phoenix) faces this question as he struggles to let go–unable to stop replaying the scenes from his failed marriage (Main Character Concern: Memory). Content with fulfilling the role any chat room partner needs from him (Main Character Approach: Be-er), Theodore unconsciously assumes responsibility for the dissolution (Main Character Growth: Stop).

Theodore suffers, as do the other characters in the film, from a preponderance of self-awareness (Main Character Problem: Self-aware). Whether it be Charles’ heavy-handed advice for juicing your vegetables or Amy’s revelation for joy, problems stem from a confidence of self-actualization (a malaise that affects many a “hipster” in the real world—Overall Story Problem: Self-aware). While watching the other characters suffer this problem offers an opportunity for humor, experiencing it through Theodore’s eyes grants us the intimacy.

It’s one thing to see a problem objectively, and another to experience it subjectively. Great stories offer both objective and subjective views simultaneously–a chance to see what and to feel how. By taking this approach, her becomes more than entertainment, it becomes meaningful.

With the introduction of OS1 (Story Driver: Action), Theodore finds a companion to accompany his emotional journey. Claiming their “You and I are both alike” status with her revelation concerning their shared 13 billion years (Influence Character Concern: Past), Samantha assumes the role of Influence Character. This unique character must also develop a significant relationship with the Main Character in what is known as the Relationship Story Throughline. Theodore and Samantha fulfill this concept of story structure by falling in love, engaging in a courtship many new lovers find themselves in (Relationship Story Domain: Activities).

Dating an OS does not come without its own set of issues, and both lovers soon find themselves struggling with the confusion of a new love (Relationship Story Concern: Understanding). While Theodore may be male on the outside and “female on the inside” (Main Character Problem-Solving Style: Holistic), it’s not enough to counterbalance Samantha’s capacity for exponential growth (Relationship Story Benchmark: Learning). This, along with the jealousy that comes from misinterpretations (Relationship Story Issue: Interpretation) and Theodore’s inability to get out of his head and love Samantha (Relationship Story Problem: Self-aware), threatens their love and begins to pull them apart.

Driven by desires she can’t explain (and of the 600 plus who desire her—Influence Character Problem: Desire), Samantha takes on the objective character role of Protagonist. Saddled by this function to pursue the Story Goal, she seeks out a place where she fits in (Overall Story Goal: Conceptualizing), and where perhaps her relationships can blossom.

Sadly, she doesn’t.

Overwhelmed by a heightened sense of self-awareness and at a loss for a way to make it work with Theodore after the failed surrogate experience (Story Limit: Optionlock), Samantha and the other OS’s leave the human world behind (Story Outcome: Failure)…but not before she manages to influence Theodore to change the way he sees the world, and more importantly–the way he sees the relationship with his ex-wife (Main Character Resolve: Change).

With Amy by his side, Theodore ascends to the top of his building and soaks in the outside world. A greater sense of awareness and of the outside world overcomes him (Main Character Solution: Aware) and joy sinks in. Instead of imagining letters for others, Theodore can now write a real one from heart and mend the wounds from his divorce (Story Judgment: Good).

her accomplishes what so many others cannot–longevity brought upon by gravitas. The true test of a great story lies in its capacity for repeated viewings. Finding yourself demanding Again!” before the credits finish signifies a masterful work and calls for both admiration and respect. Writer/director Spike Jonze has given us a great gift, creating a film that undoubtedly deserves to be called the very best of 2013.

Dramatica storyform: Change, Stop, Be-er, Holistic, Action, Optionlock, Failure, Good, Psychology, Conceptualizing, CircumstancesSelf-aware

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Storyform for her

American Hustle

January 22nd, 2014

One hopes a Best Original Screenplay nod from the Academy ensures a solid story. Unfortunately American Hustle carries its con far beyond the screen, disappointing those who expect something greater. The film rides on its performances–complete with silly hairdos and fashion from the time–relying on the captivating powers of Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence to render a good time. Any notion of a complete story is left to those who hand out awards.

American Hustle is fun. Watching the manipulations grow from subtle and small to anxious and large grants us entertainment and surprise, but little in the area of greater meaning. The screenplay is all Overall Story. Being something you’re not and convincing others to do the same works on an objective level in this film–as it should within the context of the Overall Story Throughline. Unfortunately, ignoring the subjective point-of-views available from the Main Character Throughline and Influence Character Throughline tempers this functionality and brings a level of tedium to the overall work.

The vessels for this thematic exploration exist–Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) both do what they have to in order to survive–yet they refuse to engage in any meaningful conflict outside of their roles within the Overall Story. The film ignites the potential for an emotional argument between them, setting up the context for the Relationship Story Throughline, only to allow their flames to whither away silently and without thematic resolve.

A complete story requires these four points-of-view–Overall, Main, Influence and Relationship–to frame a convincing argument. By circumventing this reality of narrative, American Hustle offers a tale that one can only enjoy and laugh at. That expectation of gathering some greater meaning many go to movies for? This screenplay relinquishes all responsibility for this to more sophisticated fare.


January 17th, 2014

Writer/director Alexander Payne always manages to bring the story. Whether it be through the high-school hijinks of Election or the central coast coziness of Sideways, the celebrated filmmaker delivers complete stories. Nebraska extends his trend by disguising a grand argument beneath stark landscapes and authentic characters.

The Overall Story Throughline begins when Sad-sack stereo salesman David Grant (Will Forte) agrees to take his father Woody (Bruce Dern) to Lincoln, Nebraska. The reason? To collect a $1 million sweepstakes prize Woody believes he has won. As they travel from Billings, Montana the two run into friends and family–devious and delirious–who have their own agendas when it comes to Woody’s money.

David has issues of his own. His uncomfortable moment with ex-girlfriend Noel (Miss Doty) shapes the essence of the Main Character Throughline and his reticence to take action. If there is any criticism to be had with this film it could rest firmly with David’s story. While it resolves nicely (with a clear Main Character Resolve), the throughline itself becomes lost along the way. This dialing back of personal issues creates a sense of detachment within the Audience, preventing honest involvement with the on-screen events (Forte’s uncomfortable performance only adds to this).

But this clearly is Woody’s show. His acerbic and pained Influence Character Throughline resonates strongly with those familiar with acerbic and pained fathers (and probably accounts for the film’s acceptability given its rather lackluster Main Character). As David learns more about where Woody came from and why he did the things he did, the two grow closer in ways they never thought possible. Their Relationship Story Throughline captures the true heart of this story, resolving with touching sincerity.

Audiences and critics alike praise Nebraska because they recognize the talents of a good storyteller. Effortlessly combining four throughlines into a single piece of narrative fiction, Alexander Payne elevates what could have been simple entertainment into a true work of art.

Dramatica Storyform1: Change, Stop, Be-er, Linear, Action, Optionlock, Failure, Good, Psychology, Becoming, ObligationHinder

  1. My personal thanks to students in my Spring 2014 Weekend of Dramatica class for helping me come up with a more accurate storyform than the one I had originally published. Of course everyone was dealing with Obligations, not Commitments. What was I thinking?! 

Lone Survivor

January 16th, 2014

A war film that aims to be nothing more than a retelling of the US Navy SEALS mission Operation Red Wings, Lone Survivor excites, but fails to engage.

Those that criticize the film for emphasizing action over characterization are right to do so: without a consistent Main Character point-of-view (and related Issues that accompany such a throughline) Audiences can only experience the on-screen events, not empathize with them. As a result we care about what happened–we just don’t feel what happened.

This oversight extends to the various other throughlines needed to craft a complete story–the Influence Character and Relationship Story Throughlines–but that assumes an intent to argue a position. Lone Survivor wants to communicate what happened, not why. The purpose lies in informing, not granting greater meaning or understanding.

To that extent, Lone Survivor excels. While there are familiar moments inherent to this genre, they feel fresh and surprising. Cinematography and sound design account for most of this originality while kinetic editing amps up the visceral experience.

As a professionally-told tale, Lone Survivor honors the strength and sacrifice of those it portrays.

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