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The Latest in Story Structure & Story Analysis

2 days ago

Whether working with comedians, actors, writers, producers, directors, and everyone else in-between one thing stands out: they all love to second-guess their storyform. They begin with a purpose in mind, but then struggle to force-fit that vision into a narrative that Audiences everywhere embrace. The problem lies in our own ability to deceive ourselves.

The Death Knell of the Student Film

I experienced the same self-doubt during my tenure at the California Institute of the Arts. During the first semester, students would kill themselves developing a solid story for their student films. We would work the story over and over again until it rang true for them and for others in the class. And they would finish the semester confident that they created something meaningful and important to them.

But then they would leave for Christmas Break.

With the excitement of continually problem-solving the structure of their story far behind them, they would return pumped up about starting a new film. Why work to complete a fully developed story when you can start over fresh and face new narrative challenges?

The exact same thing happens daily here at Narrative First.

A Form for Your Story

The Dramatica theory of story helps writers and producers tell the story they want to tell. By carefully answering key dynamic questions revolving around the central character of the narrative and the plot dynamics of the story itself, Dramatica returns a carefully balanced amalgamation of story points. Follow these points and Author’s Intent becomes a reality.

Once writers submit their original material for our consultation, we spend a considerable amount of time zeroing in on the exact set of character and plot dynamics needed to accurately portray their story. In addition we help quadrangulate the various thematic issues and concerns involved in the Four Throughlines of their story. Writers enjoy the process and often sign off excited to start writing.

But then inevitably return, just like those CalArts students, with new ideas or new directions to take their story. Once writers find themselves exposed to the power of Dramatica, they begin to develop a tendency to continue to work and rework the storyform and that’s because it’s much easier to do that than to move forward and encode the various story points.

In addition, one tends to look the other way and ignore other aspects of the storyform that don’t quite fit with their current new idea because they focus in one or two key story points that they would like to see different.

Working Together as a Whole

The current Dramatica storyform model contains over seventy-five holistically integrated story points. This integration, by definition, requires that all these points work together as a whole. A writer can’t focus on one little bit of the storyform—they need to step back and see it in its entirety.

As the consultant on the project, I have the luxury of only recently coming to the story in question. Unlike the writer who knows their story forwards and backwards and forwards again, I come to the story free of prejudice. I see what is there and can comment and guide a writer to the exact storyform for the story they want to tell. What I can’t do is continually bend and warp the storyform the way the Author can, because I’m not actually in their mind.

And unfortunately for the Author, neither is the Audience.

Writers convince themselves a storyform works the same way a character convinces themselves that they don’t have a Problem. They subconsciously turn away from the reality of what drives them in order to focus on the apparent symptom of the problems in their story and respond by continually trying to change it. This justification process—the very opposite of actual problem-solving—forms the basis for what many refer to as writer’s block.

Thankfully, writers familiar with Dramatica understand this process whereby a character fools themselves into taking one approach because they don’t fully realize the true source of the conflict in their lives. By better understanding how this justification works within a story, Authors can flip the script in their own lives and return to the process of solving that problem of the unwritten story.

If you would like to learn more, or have us take a look at your story and help you develop it into a solid and workable bit of narrative please contact us or sign up for popular Dramatica Mentorship Program®. Over 30 writers, producers, and directors signed up over the past year. Add your name to the list and start seeing your story the way your Audience does—not the way it is in your head.

1 week ago

Discovering Dramatica and the Genesis of Narrative First: Part One

In this episode, we offer an introduction to the development of the Dramatica theory of story and Narrative First. In addition, we dive into our unique collection of Vault articles written during our first four years. Short and sweet, these articles provide a great place for writers and producers new to Dramatica to learn the basics of the theory.

The Dramatica Mentorship Program - our premiere service designed to give you the tools and techniques for applying Dramatica’s powerful concepts to your stories.

Narrative First theme by Alex Hull. Hear more on his Soundcloud, Operation Solace

Great Stories

More Story Structure & Story Analysis

1 week ago

Looking at many of the examples in our Throughline Thursdays feature, one assumes that Dramatica only applies to film. Compound this obsevation with a cursory glance through many of the articles in the Narrative First Archives and the conclusion solidifies: this “theory” of story works great for the movies, but falls short in other mediums. While the examples of the successful application of Dramatica to both television and novels pale in comparison, their numbers continue to grow.

Take, for instance, our recent Dramatica Users Group analysis of the FX television show, The Americans. Starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as KGB spies posing as a suburban married couple in 1980s America, the pilot of this series manages to tell a complete story in less than 70 minutes. Not an easy feat, especially when you consider that many films twice that length struggle to tell half a story.

The Complete Picture

Complete stories feel complete because they cover all the bases surrounding the Author’s argument, or message. Instead of stating an opinion and looking the other way when challenged, a complete and fully argued story fills in the blanks in anticipation of retorts or counter-arguments by the Audience.

Stories used to be told around a dying fire way back when, and the storyteller could answer any questions put forth by the listener. Now that they’re told on thin sheets of glass often mounted above that same fire and broadcast across the world to millions of households, the story must account for the Author’s absence by addressing in advance every possible debate.

Complete stories accomplish this by providing contexts for the different points-of-views one finds in the presence of conflict:

With answers for what They experience, what I experience, what You experience, and what We experience, the complete story fulfills its obligation of treating an audience with respect.

The Genesis of a Relationship

We often begin our analysis of the Four Throughlines with an objective look at the Overall Story Throughline. With the marriage between Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip (Matthew Rhys) taking center-stage within this “Pilot” episode, a focus on the Relationship Story Throughline makes more sense. From this perspective, We witness a clash of Fixed Attitudes. The mental rules that exist with their arrangement and the rigidity and looseness with which they come into conflict defines the source of obstinance within their marriage.

The Throughlines of *The Americans* "Pilot" episode

Phillip is a man of action: actions that cost his employer precious assets and actions that defend the honor of his daughter. As our eyes and ears into the episode, Phillip’s Main Character Throughline allows us to experience firsthand what I feel like discovering conflict within my own Activities. As the only parent actually doing family activities like going out for ice cream and shopping, or dancing at the mall, Phillip generates empathy for his plight.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, impacts us and challenges us to reconsider our activities with the ease at which You fulfill your duties as a stoic KGB agent. Sleeping with informants and keeping secrets seems second nature and effortless to her, driving us—as Phillip—to deal with our own personal justifications through her unique Influence Character Throughline perspective. While she rails against playing an American, her ability to manipulate her Manner of Thinking and rationalize her acts generates great discomfort.

Lastly, we end with our analysis of conflict within the Overall Story Throughline. The Americans pits agents of the FBI against Russian counter-intelligence. Most narratives defer this kind of conflict to the Activities Domain, yet this story chooses to explore the kind of overall conflict They contend with in a fixed Situation. A key asset disappears the night before giving testimony that would blow the cover on the presence of Russian infiltrators on American soil. This missing person, and his presence within the garage of Phillip and Elizabeth, flames the fires that shifts a decades long Cold War into a clear and present danger.

Capturing the Hearts and Minds

By effectively covering all the bases in this conflict, The Americans sparks interest and attraction from the outset. With so many vying for binge-watching status, one guarantor of success lies in the succesful application of this narrative methodology. Adapt the mind’s problem-solving process towards the structure of your story and watch your ratings skyrocket.

2 weeks ago

James Bond is NOT the Antagonist

No matter how hard you try to twist it, James Bond will always be the Protagonist—as long as you accurately account for the drive towards resolution. One of the first things a writer learns when they come to Dramatica is this idea of looking at characters from an objective point-of-view. Enticing as it may seem, the idea that James Bond works towards preventing or avoiding resolution runs counter to the holistic nature of the story points within the Dramatica storyform.

Also, with Opening Day happening across America this week we take an in-depth look at the Four Throughlines of Field of Dreams and explain why the film feels so different from many other baseball pics.

The Dramatica Mentorship Program - our premiere service designed to give you the tools and techniques for applying Dramatica’s powerful concepts to your stories.

Show Notes & Links

Narrative First theme by Alex Hull. Hear more on his Soundcloud, Operation Solace

2 weeks ago

This week’s Throughline Thursdays examines the different kinds of conflict found in Peter Weir’s 1989 baseball fantasy, Field of Dreams.

Moonlight Graham

Way back when, Google+ was a thing and we here at Narrative First thought it a good idea to relocate all of Dramatica’s online discussion to the Dramatica Users Google+ Community. Short-lived as it was, the uptick in participation prompted many interesting conversations—one of them an in-depth analysis of Field of Dreams.

Structured like the Dramatica Users Group meetings, the analysis began with a determination of the Four Throughlines, then moved on to the Character and Plot Dynamics, and finally concluded with a deep dive into Concerns, Issues, and Problems of each individual Throughline.

Eventually the analysis will be ported over to the Discuss Dramatica forums, but until then you can read the entire Online Analysis of Field of Dreams here.

2 weeks ago

With Opening Day hitting Major League Baseball this week, what better time than now to work our way through the Four Throughlines of Field of Dreams. Written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson, this 1989 fantasy baseball pic struck a chord with many as evidenced by its three Academy Award nominations: Best Original Score1, Best Picture, and most importantly—Best Adapted Screenplay.

The Four Throughlines of *Field of Dreams*

Designing A Complete Story

As a reminder, a complete and fulfilling narrative consists of Four Throughlines:

Why only four? Think of it this way: if conflict is the stuff of narrative, then looking at conflict from every possible angle ensures a completeness of that narrative. With no stone left unturned, Audiences respond with gratefulness towards the respect and thoughtfulness of the Author (think Oscar). When you’re trying to argue a particular approach for solving problems, you want to make sure you leave all your cards on the table.

  • the Overall Story covers what conflict They deal with
  • the Main Character covers what conflict I deal with
  • the Influence Character covers what conflict You deal with
  • the Relationship Story covers what conflict We deal with

Analyzing conflict from all four perspectives lets the Audience know that you’re not trying to pull one over on them.

If You Build It…

A graduate of Berkeley who ends up buying a farm in Iowa, Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) finds trouble settling into his new life. Figuring out a way to not have his personal circumstances get the best of him defines the Main Character Throughline experience we share with him. Visualizing any alternative that keeps him from becoming his dad characterizes the Psychological conflict Ray undergoes. Acting crazy, pulling a gun on Terrence, and coming up with the idea to plow through his cornfield in an attempt to guess at what “If you build it, he will come” means primes us with examples of conflict bred from how one thinks.

Speaking of plowing up a cornfield: no baseball field, no inequity—no conflict in Field of Dreams. This unique Situation Ray creates as Protagonist incites ghosts to appear and strangers from all over to be drawn mysteriously to his home in Iowa. With everyone facing concerns of how to heal a past wound they can’t seem to escape, future concerns of their own precarious financial situations, and present concerns over what to do with a ghost in your backyard, the Overall Story Throughline thoroughly explores this problematic situation for everyone.

Having struggled long enough as the author that inspired a generation, Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones) lives in solitary, rebuking anyone who seeks greater understanding and wisdom. From slamming his door to eventually taking that walk into the cornfield, Mann’s Activities challenge Ray to deal with the emotional fallout from his troubled relationship with his father. As the character providing the Influence Character Throughline needed to impact Ray, Mann reveals that very often one’s activities can go long misunderstood.

Finally, the Relationship Story Throughline—the relationship between Ray and Terrence—surround the memories of the 60s and their two different Fixed Atittudes towards the meaning of that time. As a proxy for the relationship between Ray and his father that can’t exist until the end, the relationship between a child of the 60s and the voice of the 60s examines the wedge that exists between us when both refuse to budge on what they think.

A Personal Case of Psychological Dysfunction

This is the first Throughline Thursdays featuring a Main Character who experiences conflict through Psychological Dysfunction. Most Main Characters deal with personal Situations or bad Attitudes. Occasionally you run into characters who create problems for themselves through their Activities. But a problematic Psychology? Extremely rare.

In fact, stories with Main Character Throughlines in Psychology account for little over 10% of all storyforms found on the official Dramatica site. Compare that to the 35% of Main Characters in Situation and 25% of Main Characters in Fixed Attitudes and one begins to understand the unique and interesting Genre of narrative found in Field of Dreams.

The Storyforms of Summer

Field of Dreams covers all the bases. From the external conflict that arises from the ghosts of the past to the internal conflict between two souls refusing to budge on where they stand, this story moves us to tears with its argument for greater universal understanding. Remain steadfast as you Go the distance, and you will be able to both Ease his pain—and ease your own.

  1. RIP, James Horner. This soundtrack, along with many others of yours, played in the background as I developed the foundation for my writing career. ↩︎

2 weeks ago

This week we add a montage of Successful Arguments to our post from the vault, A Story Is an Argument. In the short 2-minute clip, key scenes from complete and effective stories showcase their narrative’s respective true purpose.

Every great story seeks to provide some greater meaning, some essential argument as to the best approach for solving the problems we face in our lives. The Dramatica storyform codifies that argument by pinpointing the key strategic touchpoints that exist between Author and Audience; the holistic holograph of intention shuttling along the carrier wave of those 75 story points.

*The Shawshank Redemption*--an argument for hope

The Shawshank Redemption argues for hope. Fight Club argues for anarchy and mutual self-destruction. Pinocchio argues for following one’s conscience. And The Sixth Sense argues for greater personal vision.

The purpose of story lies in a portion of our minds that craves something more than Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre—the portion that craves a reason behind Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre.

Mar 31

Narrative Science and the Dawning of the Singularity

Ready to have complete stories beamed directly into your nervous system? Fear not, Narrative First and Dramatica will be there to help make the transition a smooth and painless procedure.

This week we discuss the singularity and the hope that those in charge of our Brave New World know a thing or two about the Dramatica theory of story. After all, if you’re going to invade the mind you might as well have a working model of how it problem-solves and justifies, amiright?

The Spike Jonze indie-tech film her takes center stage for this week’s Throughline Thursdays and we answer email concerning the wacky plot progressions Dramatica offers up for some stories. Oh, and we look at the most perfect 3-Act Structure film of all time, Witness.

The Dramatica Mentorship Program - our premiere service designed to give you the tools and techniques for applying Dramatica’s powerful concepts to your stories.

Show Notes & Links

Narrative First theme by Alex Hull. Hear more on his Soundcloud, Operation Solace

Mar 31

Back in the vault, Part Two in our series on Main Character and Meaning from waaaayy back in 2010: Development of Character Arc. Short and sweet, the best part was adding this shot of Lester from American Beauty to the article:

Lester Burnham from *American Beauty*

Interesting to look back and see our error in thinking Woody a Changed Main Character in the first Toy Story. The original version of Dramatica shipped with a complete storyform for the movie that destroyed dreams of would-be hand-drawn animators—a storyform with something rare and unheard of in Dramatica canon: the exception.

In that storyform—and the one that ships with the current version—a caveat appears, explaining why the original analysis set Woody as the Changed character and Buzz the Steadfast character.

An exception unlike any other in Dramatica

The one thing that always impressed me about Dramatica was the complete lack of caveats and exceptions in the explanation of the theory. Every screenwriting book and story guru I visited in the early to mid-90s arrived with tons of footnotes and and exceptions and explanations why, in this film, their particular point-of-view needed adjusting.

Dramatica never needed caveats. It was, and continues to be, what it was—take it or leave it. Some stories feature Stop characters, some feature Start characters. End of line.

I updated the original article to include a reference and link to our updated, more accurate analysis of the film: The Toy Story Dilemma.

Mar 30

As we draw nearer and nearer to the singularity, it only seems fitting to address the intimate symbiotic relationships that exist between humans and technology through narrative. Television series like Westworld and Black Mirror dive into the horrors of our inevitable congress, but a film like her explores the potential healing and growth that unification promises.

The Four Contexts of Conflict

For a story to be functionally complete within the minds of the Audience, it must serve up four different contexts from which to examine the story’s problems:

  • I have a problem
  • You have a problem
  • We have a problem
  • They have a problem

By hitting upon each of these contexts, Authors guarantee a soundness of structure and thematic intent. Leave one out, and the Audience will assume your purpose is propaganda.

The development of narrative over the centuries—without technology we might add—resulted in Four Throughlines assuming these four different contexts of conflict:

As the Relationship Story Throughline pertains to the bond between Main Character and Influence Character, many struggle to appreciate the difference between the Influence Character Throughline and the Relationship Story Throughline. Where does one end and the other begin?

You Are Not We

In the same way that I am not We, You sits apart from We in the final analysis. I may have my own struggles with letting go of some failure and We may suffer through the emotional growing pains of our relationship shifting from codependency to independence, but You may have a reputation for failing to have your own personal identity. Your tenacity to rally against your situation challenges and influences me to deal with my obsession with my own personal failure.

This kind of structural narrative dynamic runs throughout her—it is the engine that drives the story.

The relationship is not the challenge to the personal issues; rather, the impetus to change emanates from the Influence Character’s unique perspective and approach towards solving problems.

The Four Throughlines

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phonex) continues to suffer through the heartache of his failed marriage. His refusal to let go of those memories gives us insight into what it feels like to have a problematic Fixed Attitude. As our eyes, ears, and mind into the story, Theodore’s constant replaying of those bittersweet scenes draws us into the narrative through the Main Character Throughline.

The Throughlines of *her*

The voice of OS1, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), impacts and challenges Theodore to deal with his debilitating attitude by means of the Influence Character Throughline. Instead of wallowing in self-obsession, Samantha seeks fulfillment for her desires and a place where she fits in. Refusing to allow her Situation as an artificial intelligence to hold her back, Samantha sets out to move beyond her own personal trappings.

Along the way, Samantha and Theodore develop a relationship. Walks on the beach and sexual conjugation define some of the problematic Activities that exist at the heart of an intimate bond between human and technology. Their move from dependence to codependency, and then to eventual independence describes the emotional growth in their Relationship Story Throughline.

How do we go about resolving our identities—whether flesh or digital—in this brave new era? As part of its exploration in the Overall Story Throughline, her examines this conflict of conceptualizing humanity’s role with technology. Concerns of self and self-loathing permeate the thoughts of every character in the story, not simply Theodore and Samantha, as they battle the Psychological fallout from modernity.

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