March 19th, 2015

Screenwriting with Fountain

To many, modern day screenwriting involves a set of Benjamin Franklins and a proprietary file format. Restrained by their own nescience, these writers miss out on a truly rapturous experience waiting for them with a tool they already own. By returning to a simpler time, writers return to the essence of their art.

Last week’s article encouraged writers to always be writing. With today’s technology and inter-connected devices, the storyteller can practice their craft anytime and anywhere. The only obstacle is finding a common file format that will work anytime and anywhere.

The Simple Text File

The key to his life of constant writing lies in the use of simply formatted text files that can be opened and edited on any device at any time. Besides granting the writer the option of choosing which editor they love the most1, working this way insures a text that will stand the test of time. Text files will always be with us. They will never render themselves useless the moment bloated screenwriting software goes the way of print publications and cassette tapes.

Write a page a day. It will add up. - Herman Wouk

In addition, working with text files allow you the option of versioning your screenplay. Those familiar with Git or Subversion will recognize the benefits and power of writing this way. Instead of having to constantly resave your screenplay under a new name (e.g. nightcrawler-001, nightcrawler-002, nightcrawler-003, and so on), versioned text files save the delta of each update. That is, they only save the changes to the original text file, not the text file itself. This allows the writer the convenience of quickly reverting to a previous version of their text based on date or content changed.2

Lastly, working in text makes it easy to quickly line up and identify changes between different versions of a script. Working in collaboration with another screenwriter but tired of fighting over who writes in red and who writes in blue, and whether or not the lines in gold take precedence over the bold face text written in 24 pt. Arial? Then you’ll appreciate writing in a simple text file.

Using a file comparison app like Kaleidoscope, you can easily see the changes your co-writer made and choose whether to merge them into your version or discard them with a haughty no thank-you. Again, the focus stays on the text, not on formatting or manipulating the text. The emphasis stays on story, not presentation.

What is Fountain?

Having been a fan and heavy utilizer of the markup language Markdown3, I jumped at the introduction of Fountain. Established by geek screenwriter John August and fellow Cal-Arts alum Stu Maschwitz, Fountain extends Markdown to include special affordances for the screenplay format:

Fountain supports everything a screenwriter is likely to need in the early, creative phases of writing. Not included are production features such as MOREs, CONTINUEDs, revision marks, locked pages, or colored pages.

When you want to write a line of action, you write a line of action. When you want to write a line of dialogue you put the character’s name in ALL CAPS and their stirring speech on the next line. When you want to start a new scene, put Int. Or Ext. in ALL CAPS and you’re good to go. The entire process is seamless and intuitive.

Love for the Structuralist

Encouraging screenplays to be about something instead of simply something, Fountain also offers methods of structuring Acts, Sequences and Scenes. Using the ‘#’ delimiter to denote a heirarchal order, writers can easily organize the major and minor movements of their story.

Managing a screenplay this way opens up several opportunities for navigating the text. Slugline, an application written specifically for Fountain (which we’ll get to in a moment) offers a sidebar view of the outline. The latest version of Editorial will grant text-folding powers, allowing writers the ability to collapse those sequences and scenes they want to work on later for later. Future applications may open up new powerful possibilities, furthering the case for working in a future-proof format.

Dedicated Fountain Editors

Speaking of Editorial, the newest version will offer native support for Fountain! You can select what font to use when writing .fountain files (Courier Prime naturally!) and view your formatted screenplay with a built-in Fountain Preview tab. A dream come true.

Of course if you want to, you can always write your screenplay inside of an application built for Fountain. August offers Highland while Maschwitz supports Slugline. Both do a remarkable job of staying out of the way when it comes to handling your text files. Highland caters to the purist, keeping text text and only lightly coloring specific notes or comments. Slugline walks the line between text and screenplay by formatting your text file as you write to give the appearance of a completed screenplay.

Personally, I find Highland to be the better of the two. I find myself less concerned with the perception of my screenplay and more concerned with how my story actually reads. When I work in Slugline, I find myself writing and re-writing, killing widows and chunks of action longer than three lines, all in an effort to satisfy the imaginary reader who lives by the rules of modern screenwriting. When I write in Highland (or Editorial on an iOS device), I lose myself in the story and the writing process. The words take precedent over the format.

When it comes time to make the screenplay look pretty, Slugline takes over as champ. The What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get approach speeds up the process of improving the script’s readability. With Highland you constantly have to switch back and forth from straight text to formatted play, a disorienting process that almost always calls for endless scrolling to find your place in the edit.

The solution? Get both. Together their price is a fifth of the industry standard. Lightweight and easy on the eyes, both Highland and Slugline brings writers closer to their words.

Assembling the Scenes

John August’s company Quote-Unquote Apps also offers Assembler, an application designed to merge multiple text files into one. Two problems this app solves: one, no more endless scrolling searching through text. By breaking up a screenplay into separate text files for each scene or sequence, the writer can swiftly zero in on the part of their story that needs attention. Two, if you thought versioning for an entire screenplay was cool, imagine individual versioning for each scene. The cost-to-entry for rewriting a scene drops to nothing, opening up a world of experimentation and creativity.

Delivering the Goods

As soon as you type FADE OUT, both Highland and Slugline offer push-button solutions to convert your textual masterpiece into a beautifully professional PDF safe for sending off to your agent. You can even convert to FDX (Final Draft) if you still deal with the Dark side.

About Final Draft and Fountain4: if someone you work with demands that hideous program, it is possible to take their FDX monstrosity and dump it into Highland or Slugline for conversion.5 You can compare their version against yours (again, using Kaleidoscope), make any changes and then dump out an FDX version for them to read on their Gateway Pentium III PC6. It calls for additional steps, but the inconvenience is worth it if you truly care about storytelling as an art.

Storytelling Euphoria

The only thing more tormenting than writing is not writing. — Cynthia Ozick

Writing with Fountain is a joy. I can write in my office, the gym, on a walk or in the bathroom. I can write on a Mac, on an iPhone an iPad and even a Linux based text editor if that’s what my day job provides. I can work on the same text file no matter my location, no matter the device. I simply write down the words and leave the rest to chance.

Fountain connects writers with their art.

  1. In order, I love Editorial, Byword and Ulysses

  2. You could also potentially merge old commits with new, but that is something best left to the professionals. 

  3. Every article on this site exists as a simple Markdown text file. Easily transportable and easily converted into any format–including ePub or PDF. 

  4. Why anyone would choose Final Draft over the far superior Movie Magic Screenwriter is beyond me, but then I always felt HD-DVD blew Blu-Ray out of the water. 

  5. And damn would it be nice if either of them offered iOS versions for on-the-go conversions. 

  6. I actually had to do this on my last screenplay. It was a pain, but worked seamlessly. 

March 13th, 2015


No doubt about it, the Gilroy brothers can write. Tony gave us Michael Clayton, and now brother Dan hands over Nightcrawler. Brilliantly simple and purposeful in its execution, and every bit as well constructed as the former, Nightcrawler earns its Academy Award nomination.

The Dramatica theory of story makes a distinction between Main Characters who Adopt their Influence Character’s position on things and those who Maintain their original paradigm (known as the Main Character Resolve: Change or Steadfast). If there ever was a poster boy for those characters who maintain their original position, it would be Lou (sorry, Louis) Bloom (a masterful Jake Gyllenhaal). Driven to draw conclusions based on what he has read and learned (Main Character Drive: Deduction), Lou pursues success with a certainty (Main Character Crucial Element: Certainty) and an optimism (Main Character Growth: Start) that never wavers, never wanes.

Saddled with a bleak economic landscape that tells him what he can and cannot do (Main Character Issue: Work), Lou works his way up the video broadcast ladder (Main Character Problem-Solving Style: Linear) , challenging the status quo of what is permissible on network television (Overall Story Issue: Permission). Bloom steals, trespasses, alters crime scenes, and withholds information on his journey to win friends and influence people (Story Driver: Action, Overall Story Throughline: Manipulation). No one looks at Lou and sees what he is capable of (Main Character Symptom: Potentiality). Those who do–the security guard near the train tracks and rival video vulture Loder (Bill Paxton)–meet a most unexpected and violent end (Main Character Approach: Do-er).

Bloom doesn’t hire an assistant–he hires a protegé (Relationship Story Concern: Learning). Rick Carey (Riz Ahmed), a homeless kid fixated on making only enough money to get through the night (Relationship Story Throughline: Fixed Attitude), takes Bloom’s first offer without counter and without hesitation (Influence Character Problem: Acceptance, Influence Character Critical Flaw: Expediency). The conflict at the heart of their relationship? Bloom’s unspoken confidence in Rick’s tendency to be a sap (Relationship Story Problem: Probability). After hours and hours of counseling from Bloom concerning his lack of drive (Relationship Story Symptom: Potentiality), Rick finally stands up to his boss and in the moment of crisis, refuses to accept Bloom’s low-ball wage (Influence Character Solution: Non-Acceptance). Complete stories demand Influence Characters to Adopt the Main Character’s Paradigm when the Main Character Maintains theirs. Rick blackmails Lou the same way Lou blackmailed Romina (Rene Russo), securing Nightcrawler’s position in the pantheon of successful narratives.

Unfortunately for Rick, taking such an approach signals the possibility of more trouble–giving Bloom cause to end their relationship (Relationship Story Solution: Possibility).

Lou’s measure of success? A newsroom full of professional anchors and crew catching on to the importance of Lou Bloom himself (Overall Story Goal: Conceiving an Idea, Story Outcome: Success). Follow that up with an army of interns eagerly anticipating his every word and Lou confindently heads out into the night knowing he has finally made something of himself (Main Character Throughline: Situation, Story Judgment: Good).

Dramatica Storyform: Steadfast, Start, Do-er, Linear, Action, Optionlock, Success, Good, Psychology (Manipulation), Conceiving, Permission, Acceptance

Download Storyform

Nightcrawler Storyform

March 10th, 2015


Lucid in its bleak portrayal of souls dealing with the aftermath of German occupation, the Holocaust and Stalinism, Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida commands attention (Overall Story Concern: The Past). While the performances and stunning cinematography account for much of the critical praise, it is the soundness of the narrative that keeps us engaged.

On the eve of taking her vows, Main Character Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is told she must visit her aunt, Influence Character Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza). Wanda sets Anna on a personal journey of self-discovery once she informs the novice nun that her real name is Ida Lebenstein and that her parents were Jewish (Main Character Concern: Conceptualizing). Determined to find the bodies of Ida’s parents, the two strike up a most-unlikely relationship: the devout and the profane on a barren road trip through Poland (Overall Story Goal: The Past, Relationship Story Throughline: Fixed Attitude, Overall Story Problem: Knowledge).

Drinking. Smoking. Sexual affairs. Wanda is a woman struggling with all sorts of sensual passion (Influence Character Issue: Senses, Influence Character Symptom: Desire). Afraid that Ida will end up forever celibate, Wanda encourages Ida to engage in sin (Influence Character Response: Ability), picking up handsome hitchhiker Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik) to seal the deal (Relationship Story Problem: Inertia, Relationship Story Solution: Change). Ida resists by internalizing her own personal struggle–a resistance that Wanda eventually breaks down (Main Character Approach: Be-er, Main Character Growth: Start).

It is upon meeting Feliks Skiba that we begin to see the connections between these lost souls and the chaos of atrocities they still can’t overcome (Overall Story Throughline: Situation, Overall Story Symptom: Chaos). Whether forced into serving judicial terror on enemies of the state or forced into murdering a mother and a father and a young boy who can’t pass for a Christian, the characters of Ida’s Poland suffer at the hands of an un-Godly fate (Overall Story Issue: Fate).

Adopting Ida’s paradigm of identifying with family and familial relationships, Wanda finds herself forced to deal with the weight and guilt of the loss of her child (Influence Character Solution: Thought, Influence Character Resolve: Change). The memories prove to be too much and she hurls herself out of her bedroom window (Story Consequences: Memories). All is not lost as Ida reencounters Lis at Wanda’s funeral. Taking a moment to adopt Wanda’s paradigm, Ida slips into Wanda’s high heels and dances the night away (Main Character Solution: Perception). The change is temporary, fleeting, as Ida returns to the convent and her original paradigm (Main Character Resolve: Steadfast), confident of who she is and where she fits into the world (Story Judgment: Good).

This dynamic, where one of the principal characters adopts the other’s paradigm and one maintains their original paradigm, is the cornerstone of a complete functioning narrative. While there are many reasons why Ida excels, the [accurate application of this story point][1] to the narrative serves as the foundation for its success.

Dramatica Storyform: Steadfast, Start, Be-er, Holistic, Action, Optionlock, Success, Good, Situation, The Past, Fate, Knowledge

Download Storyform (PDF)

Storyform for Ida

[1]: “A series of articles entitled ‘Character and Change’

March 6th, 2015

Always Be Writing

No excuse. No reason for not following your dreams. No justification for leaving your story stagnant even for a single day. With today’s tools and technology, writers can fulfill their life’s passion irregardless of location or motivation.

Wearing down seven number-two pencils is a good day’s work – Ernest Hemingway

We don’t use number-two pencils anymore. We use iOS 8s and Galaxy S6s. We use iPad Airs and Kindle Fires. We use Dropbox and iCloud and Google Drive and we carry these with us wherever we go. The tools change, but the process stays the same: write each and every day. No excuse for a missed day.

The one ironclad rule is that I have to try. I have to walk into my writing room and pick up my pen every weekday morning – Anne Tyler

What if you didn’t have to wait until you reached your writing room? What if you don’t even have a writing room? What if all you have is your imagination and a small device that everyone carries around with them, every single day?

Turn to your smartphone.

Over the past six months I have increased my writing output ten fold. What used to be something reserved for the privacy of my den and my MacBook Air is now available to me twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Always on, always writing.

Waiting for food? Time to work on that action sequence. Waiting for your child’s school play to start? Time to rework that dialogue. Taking care of business in the bathroom, but tired of wasting your life away with Alto’s Adventure? Switch those two scenes around and cut that useless character.

No matter where you are, your story is there with you. Waiting for you to engage with it.

You just need to know what apps to use.

(This article works a “living” document, which means I will revisit this article from time to time and update it with the latest in tools for writers)

The iPhone 6 Plus

Giant phones are for writing giant stories. This isn’t to say that you can’t write the Great American Novel on an iPhone 6 or 5–just that your imagination will appreciate the extra room.

When the two different sizes came out last Fall, I spent some time hopping from one device to the next at my local Apple store, trying to figure out which one worked the best for writing. After twenty minutes, the distinction was clear–the greater screen size and improved resolution made it easier to dive into the moment and lose yourself in the story. That’s all we want, isn’t it?

Regardless of how silly it may look in your hand (though that has faded with time) or how insanely large it sits within your pants pocket, the iPhone 6 Plus pampers a writer’s imagination.


The first application to attach to your Writer’s Toolbelt is more a motivation tool than an actual writing tool. Hours simply and elegantly tracks the amount of time you spend completing a task. While there are programs like RescueTime that automate this process on your laptop, I find that having a timing tool available to you wherever you are, and more importantly one that needs you to engage with it, makes it more likely that you will develop a better understanding of your habits.

Hours Time Tracker

I am constantly shocked at how little I write during the day. I want six hours. I usually end up short of three. Recording my time writing makes me want to write more–a game for me to play and win, every time.


Writer’s block? If you’re stuck, it means you don’t yet know what you’re trying to say. – Susan Orlean

And if you don’t know yet what you want to say, Dramatica can help you focus your narrative. Though complex and confusing at first, this revolutionary theory of story makes it possible for writers to quickly and efficiently understand the heart of their story. Less a prescribed set of sequences or cultural collection of mythological hooey, Dramatica helps writers craft complete arguments.

Want to focus on the inner psychological turmoil a maniacal teacher imparts upon his music students? Then you’ll want to balance that with a relationship focused in the external world of slapping and tossing cymbals at heads. (Whiplash). Prefer instead to focus the conflict on the fistfights and accidents that come with putting on the performance of a lifetime? Then balance that out with an internal struggle between one character fighting the psychological manipulations of another (Birdman).

Dramatica Structure Chart

Dramatica is the only application listed here that you cannot run on a smartphone. You can, and should, have the central site running in your favorite browser. And you should have the Dramatica Table of Story Elements available at a moment’s notice (I keep mine as a Favorite in my Dropbox). The time to use this application is at the beginning of your story creation and during each and every rewrite. You don’t need Dramatica running on your smartphone, nor should you–writing is a process of writing, not analyzing.

Dramatica helps you round out your story and fill any holes. In short, it cures writer’s block. And if we’re going to be writing everyday we need to eliminate any potential obstructions.


Now that we have an idea of what we want to say, we need to come up with how we’re going to say it. Some writers look at a blank page and see an ocean of possibilities; other writers look at the same page and see a giant wall. If you’re the former you’ll probably want to skip this section (though eventually you’ll have to come back to it during the rewrite process). If you’re the latter (like me), then you’ll want to read on to see the latest and greatest way to plan out your story.

I wisely started with a map – J. R. R. Tolkien

This is a new application for me. Before, I was a giant fan of Write Brother’s program Outliner 4D (formerly StoryView). I used StoryView to structure out my epic World War I drama and found it helped me keep all the characters and sequences consistent and focused. The only problem? Outliner 4D only exists for the PC and that ship sailed for me a long time ago.

It wasn’t until recently that I discovered I needed to find a replacement. My story now weaves a tapestry of complexity unfit for a simple text file (More on this later when we talk about Writing with Fountain). Instead of one Influence Character, I incorporate two. Instead of one Relationship Throughline, I work two. Same Main Character and same storyform, but managing the hand-offs between the two Influence Characters proved challenging.

My search for the perfect replacement led me to OmniGroup’s OmniOutliner. As beautiful and as functional as any outliner can be, OmniOutliner’s greatest asset is its ability to track story points in various columns. Similar to the kind of ability found in Outliner 4D, OmniOutliner lets you create separate columns for different throughlines and then track those developments throughout your narrative.

I found this immensely helpful in crafting my most recent story. One column held the Overall Story Points, another the Main Character Throughline, the other the shared Influence Character and lastly I created a column for the Relationship Throughline. I also tracked the Overall Characters, making sure that I accounted for every one of them in each of the four Acts.

How did this help? In three to four days I had a solid outline from which to begin writing. Two weeks later, I am two-thirds of the way finished. Pretty astonishing.

Like Dramatica, this part of the process excels on the desktop. At the time of this publication, the iOS version of the app is not yet available, but will be shortly. Until then, I simply Export to a PDF and keep that file in my Dropbox folder for my story.


The next two apps maintain the bulk of your writing. The first works as a depository for inspirational notes and ideas that come just before drifting off to bed, the second holds your actual story.

Think of Drafts as your virtual note card system. Keep one thought per note, and don’t worry about using too much memory or filling up too many notes–Drafts take up little space. When you find yourself with more than a couple of minutes of writing time, open up Drafts and go through your last couple of notes. Use these notes as inspiration and motivation to get you going, to get you writing again. If you’re like me, it can sometimes take awhile to get that motor running and fall into the groove of writing. Using Drafts as your starter mover helps speed up that process.

When finished, and after you incorporated these notes into your actual story, you might want to consider Archiving them to get them out of the way. You can also setup elaborate actions to archive them away in a master text file notebook that sits in your Dropbox account. That’s what I do.

When I’m finished with a note, I have an action that appends the note to a master TXT file, adding the date and time. This way I can always look back and see where each note came from and if I addressed each one.


No equal.

I’ve tried Byword and Ulysses and iA Writer and Google Docs and Pages and 1Writer and nothing comes close to offering the power and elegance of Editorial. More than a text editor, Editorial offers powerful Workflows that extend your experience of writing beyond simply getting those words down.

I write everything in Markdown. Even my screenplays (though as I’ve mentioned, I use an extension of Markdown called Fountain). Editorial does Markdown formatting. It even does text-folding (a great new feature that allows you to quickly collapse sequences and/or sections for easier readability and accessibility). But Workflows elevate Editorial to the top.

The nature of my writing here on Narrative First calls for me to make extensive links to the central Dramatica site. Instead of opening Safari and finding my links there, Editorial allows me to highlight my search criteria and then click a Workflow that will search the Dramatica site with that input. Returning to Editorial I can simply add it as a Markdown Inline or Reference link and then return to writing.

When it comes to writing screenplays, Editorial excels. The new Arrange Paragraphs feature lets me easily shift Sequences around while the ability to cast the entire document in Courier Prime makes the experience seem more real. The Dark Theme encourages darker passages.

In addition there are a couple of Fountain Workflows for Editorial. I use Fountain Note to quickly convert a block of text into a note in my screenplay and I use Fountain Preview to get a quick look at what the final screenplay will look like. Both help to make the screenplay writing process on an iPhone concrete (at least until Highland or Slugline get their act together!).

Editorial is a powerhouse when it comes to writing and a cherished friend when it comes to writing stories.


When it comes to the Quantified Self, the iPhone excels in offering a multitude of different ways to track yourself. While the excellent Reporter App can help quantify your time on several different tasks throughout the day, Persistence helps keep your mine focused on your goals.

Persistence App

I have two goals right now: Write Three Hours a Day and Read Two Hours a Day. They may not seem ambitious at first, but like a new weight-lifting regiment its important with Goals to start out small, and to start out with a number you’re likely to hit. As you continue to meet those numbers, you can always increase the limit and push yourself harder.

Every couple days I copy over my hours from Hours into Persistence and see how I am doing. Seeing my work reflected this way encourages me to be gentle and accepting of what I have done, and motivates me to find more time to do what I love most: engage with stories.

Writing for Life

Writing is a wholetime job: No professional writer can afford only to write when he feels like it. – Somerset Maugham

And this is why we should always be writing.

In three month’s time I have written two and a half screenplays. Three and a half if you count the one I wrote with my writing partner. I attribute much of this increase in production to the tools I use. Ubiquitious, fluid, and always on hand, the apps listed above encourage creativity by keeping the process simple and fun. No longer do I have to cordon off sections of time on my calendar or barricade myself in my den. I write when I write.

The smartphone offers writers a dream come true: a location to hold all of our stories–both the ones we read and the ones we write–and allows us to pick them up at a moment’s notice and dive in. It offers us the opportunity to do what we love most.

The less you write, the better it must be. – Jules Renard

Why not write more?

March 4th, 2015

The Theory of Everything

What starts out as a compelling look into one’s personal struggle with Lou Gehrig’s disease devolves into a messy soap opera devoid of subjective perspective. More concerned with love lost and gained than how one of history’s smartest men managed to remain one of history’s smartest men, The Theory of Everything supplants satisfactory resolution with an out-pouring of tears and mutual understanding.

The story begins firmly set within the mind of Main Character Stephen Hawking (the well-deserved Academy Award winning Eddie Redmayne). We see what it feels like to slowly lose our ability to walk, to eat and to talk. We are Stephen. But we lose that emotional connection the moment he makes his Hawking Radiation discovery and consequently, lose our empathy with the film’s remaining events.

Instead, the filmmakers focus their attention on Steadfast Jane (Felicity Jones) and her budding romance with Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox, the bastard who tried that same slimy “I’m just a friend” worm technique in Boardwalk Empire). Romantic triangles are triangulated and interest in Hawking’s discoveries wane. Instead of wondering how he manages to maintain focus long enough to write a book, we wonder how he manages to maintain focus long enough to keep it up. With the two principal characters split, the primary relationship in the story fractures, taking with it any meaningful connection with the story’s primary argument (God vs. science).

We do return for a split second round-up during Stephen’s final presentation and the scene where he grants Jane the notion of God (signifying a Main Character Resolve of Change), but by then our attachment, so damaged by lack of attention, fails to solidify the argument. We kinda-sorta buy into Stephen’s change, but really, we know he still doesn’t believe.

Worth the price of admission if for nothing else than Redmayne’s stunning performance, The Theory of Everything stands as a perfect example of what happens when you fail to completely finish the arugment you began in the first Act.

February 27th, 2015


If story is king, then Whiplash is royalty.

Doubling down with fantastic performances from J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller, writer/director Damien Chazelle crafts a tight and tense narrative that never relents and never strays from its central argument.

Main Character Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) practices, practices and practices some more (Main Character Approach: Do-er) as he pursues the goal of being one of the greats (Protagonist, Overall Story Goal: Being). Conductor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) stands in Andrew’s way, both logistically and emotionally (Antagonist and Influence Character respectively), hurling cymbals and slapping faces (Relationship Story Domain: Activities, Relationship Story Concern: Doing), all in an effort to break his students down (Overall Story Requirements: Becoming) on their way to being the very best at the Shaffer Conservatory in New York (Overall Story Concern: Being).

Natural talent rules the stage (Overall Story Issue: Ability), with Terrence terrorizing students for playing in the wrong key (Overall Story Domain: Psychology, Overall Story Symptom: Accurate) and sabotaging their performances by removing much-needed sheet music (Overall Story Response: Non-Accurate). Driven to create the next Buddy Rich (Influence Character Problem: Cause), Terrence stops at nothing to demean those under his tutelage (Influence Character Issue: Value). Explosive and unwavering in his righteous approach, Terrence relentlessly breaks Andrew down with everything he can’t do (Influence Character Concern: Impulsive Responses, Influence Character Domain: Fixed Attitude, Influence Character Response: Unproven).

At the heart of their relationship lies their true problem–Andrew’s determination to be one of the greats vs. Terrence’s determination to send mother-less Andrew home crying (Relationship Story Problem: Determination, Main Character Domain: Situation).

Andrew only slows down when he feels he has proven himself worthy of Fletcher’s admiration (Main Character Solution: Proven), an indulgence that only serves to demotivate and ultimately, defeat him. The moment he finds himself up against a new drummer, Andrew kicks in and redoubles his efforts (Main Character Problem: Unproven)–an approach that eventually pays off (Main Character Resolve: Steadfast).

Terrence sets Andrew up, preferring to focus on the one responsible for his termination rather than the potential in that one for greatness (Overall Story Problem: Cause) setting the stage for Andrew’s failure. But the future great-one leaves his doting father in the wings, returns to his kit and faces Terrence as the menace he always was (Main Character Signpost 4: Future, Main Character Unique Ability: Threat).

Andrew’s performance changes Terrence, to the point where the immovable conductor cares less about being the agent for change and more about improving the effectiveness of Andrew’s set (Influence Character Resolve: Change, Influence Character Solution: Effect). Resetting the cymbal cements this growth of character and insures a fruitful performance (Overall Story Solution: Effect), fulfilling Andrew with the peace of mind that the suffering was worth it (Story Judgment: Good) and guaranteeing his place among the greats (Story Outcome: Success).

With a narrative as tight and effective as this, Whiplash too guarantees its place among the great films of all time.

Dramatica Storyform: Steadfast, Start, Do-er, Linear, Action, Optionlock, Success, Good, Psychology, Being, AbilityCause

Download Storyform

Storyform for Whiplash

December 30th, 2014


A sloppy meal that leaves one hungry for something substantive, Jon Favreau’s Chef flops as it defends the right to flop. Contrast this with a film like Ratatouille that shares similar ambitions–yet succeeds at a higher level–and one begins to understand the difference between a capable narrative and a broken one.

Two huge logic errors curse this story: One, how did the passion to create new fantastic dishes suddenly turn into a fervor to heat up ham and cheese sandwiches? And two, why on Earth did Martin (John Leguizamo) leave his sous chef position to join Albert minutes after expressing excitement for his recent promotion? Both events reek of convenience of story rather than integral components of a fully functioning narrative.

Compound these missteps with the usual affronts to comprehensive storytelling and one begins to recognize the familiar recipe for disaster. No Influence Character Throughline. No Relationship Story Throughline. No Story Limit. The last leaves Audiences flailing around blindly for some clue as to when the torture will end. A road movie that doesn’t kick in until halfway through the movie is not a road movie. The first two story points (the Influence Character and Relationship Story Throughlines) work in tandem to give Audiences the heart of a story. When missing or defective, as in Chef, Audience empathy dies.

Albert’s son should have supplied this valuable aspect of story, but unfortunately didn’t. As a result, ham-fisted scenes like the one where Albert tells his son Hey, I know we’re having a great time, but I’m going to go back to being a jerk when we get home worm their way into the story, breaking down all sense of emotional logic. That scene exists only to give Albert somewhere to grow. A more appropriate approach would have been to develop a meaningful relationship between father and son that counters and reflects the larger conflict inherent between artists and critics. Do sons have a right to criticize their parents? Should parents undergo appraisal? How does the recipe for effective parenthood reflect the tasty morsels found in mom and pop taco trucks across the Valley?

These are the kinds of questions Chef should have asked. These are the kinds of questions that would have prompted the development of Throughlines necessary to support and flesh out the message delivered here. Instead, audiences find themselves faced with sitting through what amounts to a single artist complaining about people complaining about his work. Great catharsis if you’re the artist. Not so-great if you’re the one on the receiving end.

91% on Rotten Tomatoes? Once again, confirmation that popular opinion reflects popular opinion, not sophistication of story.

December 17th, 2014

Enough Said

Surprisingly engaging, Enough Said tells the story of frightened empty-nester Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her challenged romance with Albert (James Gandolfini). Wholly engaging while maintaining a gentleness of spirit, the film stands as a prime example of what it means to tell a complete story.

While subtle in tone, the thematics present in the storyform ring out for all to hear. Albert’s repulsion of both his ex-wife and eventually Eva challenges Eva’s inclination to constantly second guess her romance with Albert and what she should do about it (Influence Character Issue of Repulsion, Main Character Issue of Reappraisal). Albert’s Problem of Inaction functions as the perfect foil for Eva’s personal Problem of Acceptance. Eva’s decision to finally ask her client to help carry the massage table up the stairs signifies a Main Character Resolve of Change and Solution of Non-Acceptance (She’s not going to put up with it anymore).

Those who have experienced the confusion and lack of purposeful direction that sets in after a divorce will find more than enough to relate to in this beautifully touching film. Those who haven’t can join the former in experiencing an intelligent and emotionally fulfilling film irregardless of their relationship status. The narrative of Enough Said, by virtue of its solid storyform, supplies a message of growth and catharsis that outshines the kind of understanding one gains from day-to-day life. Enough Said moves beyond the ordinary to deliver something truly extraordinary and in the process, becomes something memorable.

Storyform: Change, Start, Be-er, Holistic, Action, Optionlock, Success, Good, Activity, Learning, Preconditions, Acceptance

December 16th, 2014

A Most Wanted Man

A slow and plodding tale that neglects to engage Audience empathy, A Most Wanted Man misses the mark when it comes to satisfying the spy thriller genre. The weak and underdeveloped Throughline of Main Character Günther Bachman (Phiilip Seymour Hoffman) distances the viewer by failing to give personal insight into his issues. We know he has issues with Beirut, but we never feel what it’s like to have those issues. We never become him.

Robin Wright’s Martha Sullivan tries to fulfill the Influence Character role, but with little to no impact on Günther. The Relationship Throughline between the two principals spits and stutters, adding insult to injury when it comes to emotional engagement.

One feels compelled to rent a movie when it has a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and when it features the final performance of a brilliant actor. In this case, one would do best to avoid such a complication. The high rating exists because of the overwhelming love for the man, not for the story.

December 3rd, 2014


An inconsequential Overall Story Throughline and somewhat ill-defined Main Character Throughline plague what would be an otherwise pleasant trip through Copenhagen. The Influence Character and Relationship stories reign supreme here, with the radiant not-so-innocent Elfy (Frederikke Dahl Hansen) commanding attention from Main Character William (Gethin Anthony)–and by proxy, from us as well.

Their sordid relationship takes up the bulk of conflict within the story, the question of how young is too young occupying their and our central concern.

The film wants to say something about the maturation process and it feels like it has. Unfortunately without a fully developed Overall Story Throughline to set the objective context for that conflict, the narrative simply becomes another experiential process–another triptych through life. Complete stories provide greater meaning and argue a position. Copenhagen fails on both accounts, offering us plenty of emotion and little in the way of logic.

December 3rd, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Continuing the trend of madly successful films with little to no story, Disney’s Guardians of the Galaxy delights audiences everywhere with its tale of a boy who became a Star-Lord.

The Throughlines assume their favored position: an Earthling abducted from his parents (Chris Pratt) grants us the Main Character Throughline of a Problematic Situation, while the efforts to secure the Infinity Stone by all offer us the usual Problematic Activities for the Overall Story Throughline. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) slides into the Influence Character role with her cool and collected Problematic Fixed Attitude which leaves the Relationship Throughline in a conflict over Ways of Thinking.

The Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines play out as expected with Pine’s Quill overcoming his Problem of Avoidance; literally reaching out to Pursue both the Overall and Main Character Solutions. Unfortunately, Gamora’s Throughline peters out and dies leaving little to no reason why Quill actually changed his point-of-view.

To further the affront to competent story structure, their Relationship Throughline occupies but one scene over the span of 122 minutes–hardly the stuff of a well-developed thoroughly realized narrative. Quill may attempt to teach Gamora how to lighten up and sway those hips, but he never pursues that approach in subsequent scenes and as a result their relationship falters. Even if they had built upon this scene, it’s the wrong approach to take: Gamora is not the one who needs to change her way of thinking, Quill is. Forcing this dual change where they both “learn” something only confuses the point of the story further.

No doubt about it: Guardian’s smash success casts doubt on those who yearn for something more than simply attractive video game cut scenes. What does it mean when a broken story captures the imagination of so many? Does story not matter? Is it ok to only sort of tell a complete story?

The clearly developed Main Character Throughline helps alleviate the emptiness associated with fare like this in much the same way that the music did in Frozen. Unfortunately it still falls short of claiming the status of a great story. In that respect, Guardians of the Galaxy exists as a wonderful bit of entertainment–an amusement park ride that thrills and chills, but only while taking the ride. Great stories sit with one long after the lap bars have risen and long after we left the park.

November 12th, 2014


Just sit with it.

Yes I know it’s a bummer we had to wait four years for a Christopher Nolan film that wasn’t about brooding superheroes, and we ended up with this melodramatic space opera. And yes I know that while we love and eagerly anticipate a new Hans Zimmer score, that this one was mixed so indelibly loud as if to be to assaultive and less enjoyable than soundtracks past. But there is a tangible reason why we couldn’t get into the film and an explanation for why it scored a meager 74% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Look past the underdeveloped Influence Character Throughline and the practically non-existent Relationship Story Throughline. Look beyond surrogate Influence Character Brand’s (Anne Hathaway’s) seemingly out-of-nowhere diatribe about the “power of love.” And avert your eyes from the rather large, but practically unspoken about, elephant in the room (Why not? Everyone else did!): these “beings” from beyond that construct wormholes and 5th dimension tesseracts for us to play in.

The real reason we found it difficult to connect to the film? Main Character Cooper solved problems holistically.

Generally speaking male audience members find it close to impossible to empathize with holistic problem-solvers. They don’t get people who don’t think like they do. They much prefer characters like Dr. Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) from Contact–even if she was a woman–because she solves problems in s straight-forward way. Unless they are presented a clearly definable step-by-step progression from one conclusion to the next, linear thinkers can’t follow the kind of leaps of logic (what they call intuition) that a holistic problem solver makes.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) sees the big picture. School authorities suspend his daughter because Cooper can’t stay silent on the connections he sees. He repurposes Air Force drones to drive his combines and he measures all options for the human race at once, rather than focusing almost pigheaded on Plan B like his fellow astronauts. Linear thinkers get Mann (Matt Damon) and Brand and Plan B. They don’t understand someone open to connections and the relationships between things.

Whether it be gravity or love, powerful forces operate within the narrative universe of Interstellar. It takes someone comfortable with the weight of “mass” and the dynamics between things to recognize and come to terms with both of these forces. Cooper fit that role perfectly. Unfortunately for many critics and fans of Christoher Nolan films (both groups predominantly comprised of linear “male” thinkers), a character operating on this level presents a significant challenge towards emotional investment.

So before you write off this film entirely, take the time to recognize time. The limits your linear-based mind impose on this 4th dimension skew your appreciation of the universe and tarnish the argument presented by this narrative.

Time, after all, is not fixed. It’s relative.

October 16th, 2014

Understanding Dramatica's Complex Terminology Made Easier

Complex story theory without the complications–is it even possible? With vocabulary rivaling even the most obscure foreign language dictionary, the Dramatica theory of story scares off many candidates. The key lies in understanding the importance of assessing the proper context.

When it comes to incorporating Dramatica into their workflow, many writers trip themselves up when it comes to the terminology. Forewarnings and Goals ring familiar, but terms like Prerequisites and Preconditions send many running for the hills. Even when it comes to the basic building blocks of a throughline–Domain, Concern, Issue and Problem–writers overcomplicate their illustration by failing to see the terms for what they are: different lenses on the same thing.

Why Throughlines Exist

Every complete story presents an audience four Throughlines. Distinctly different, yet subtly similar in some respects, these story lines encapsulate the conflict at the heart of the story. The Main Character Throughline grants us an intimate personal look. The Influence Character Throughline presents an intimate view as well but from a slight distance. The Relationship Story Throughline clues us in on the conflict between these two characters. Finally, the Overall Story Throughline covers the dissonance between all the characters (Main and Influence included).

When granted all these throughlines the audience gains insight into a particular problem without the bias that comes from only taking a singular point-of-view. It may seem that the Main Character of a story makes all the wrong decisions and takes all the wrong actions from a distant point-of-view, but dive in and walk a mile in his or her shoes (by exploring their personal throughline) and you may come away with a different understanding. The Throughlines exist to give the receiver of a story greater perspective.

Every Level a Problem

Understanding the importance of these disparate points-of-view and their function as a perspective on the same conflict makes it easier to appreciate the somewhat complex terminology found in each. The Domain, Concern, Issue, and Problem of a throughline act as different size lenses for the conflict at hand. What does this mean? It means you could substitute the word “problem” for Domain, Concern and Issue and still come out alright.

The Domain showcases the grandest view of the problem. Is it internal or external? Is it static or a process? That’s it. The combined answer to those two questions gives us the widest scope from which to view the problem. Static external problems find themselves in the Situation Domain. Static internal problems operate within the Fixed Attitude Domain. External processes? Those problems lie in the Actitivity Domain while internal processes find a home in the Way of Thinking or Manipulation Domain. Regardless of their location, the Throughline’s Domain still simply reflects the problem, just in a broader general sense.

Take one step down the chart and you’ll find the lens ratchet up a few stops. Moving from generality to a more specific view, the Concern isolates what Type of problem we are looking at. We still observe the same thing, only now we refine our focus. Those fixed external problems–do they have to do more with the Past, the Present, the Future or How Things are Changing? When looking at those external processes that cause problems do we see Doing, Obtaining, Learning or a Understanding to be a more detailed explanation of what is going on?

Note how the four Types fit nicely into the Domain above them. This happens throughout the entire Dramatica Table of Story Elements: the set of four items below describe the item above. Memories, Impulsive Responses, Innermost Desires and Contemplations depict Fixed Attitudes. Developing a Plan, Playing a Role, Changing One’s Nature and Conceiving an Idea represent a dysfunctional Way of Thinking.

The next level down increases our magnification ever more, focusing our attention on the Issues at hand. This level reflects the thematic point of study for the Throughline. Harmonizing this Issue with its dynamically opposed (diagonal) Counterpoint provides an Author the tools necessary to measure the relative value of compensations for the central problem. Guess what? Despite all that heady theoretical thematic mumbo-jumbo, the Issue still describes a problem. Sure, it may rest two steps away from looking at things in a general sense, but it still sheds light by describing the problem.

Finally at the bottom, we reach the actual Problem. Or have we? It may be labeled “Problem”, but is it still the Problem? Remember that each Throughline acts as a lens and as such, distorts the original image. We can never really see the original Problem–the inequity at the center of it all–because one can’t describe it.

If they could, there would be no need for stories.

The Problem at the bottom of a Throughline reports that Throughline’s version of the actual original problem. Granted, the level of detail at this level elevates its accuracy of depiction far beyond that of simply describing the Domain, yet it still merely represents the greatest magnification of the same thing.

Simplifying Structure

Instead of beating your head against the wall trying to figure out what the difference is between a Domain or a Concern or an Issue, consider this: they’re all the same thing. If it makes it easier label them Big, Medium and Small (or if you want to be technically accurate, label them Biggest, Big, Medium and Small). By understanding what they represent one can more easily integrate how they function within a story.

Dramatica is a giant problem machine. Seeing every level as simply varying degrees of magnification of conflict renders the apparatus more approachable and grants Authors the opportunity to really get to the heart of their stories.

October 10th, 2014

Don't Use Other Movies as Reference

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

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

Occasionally a story might share the same code. West Side Story is simply Romeo & Juliet. Avatar is Pocahontas. Collateral is Finding Nemo.1 But for the most part, the stories we share differ enough as to be detrimental, rather than helpful.

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

Work This Story, Not That One

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

Because we might be telling a different story.

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

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

Different Stories That Seem the Same

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

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

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

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

Write Your Story

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

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

  1. Believe it or not, the Jamie Foxx/Tom Cruise thriller Collateral tells the same story as Pixar’s Finding Nemo. 

September 11th, 2014

The Secret Behind Great Character Relationships

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

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

The reality of this coupling speaks of so much more.

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

The Dramatica theory of story circa 2014 touches lightly on this fascinating aspect of narrative. Assuming the bias towards Overall Story Throughline and Main Character Throughline, the model tends to sketch rather than enscribe the various forces at work within this more Subjective view.1 When delving into this area of a story, one senses the need for more to work with, more to explain and illuminate the intricacies of intimate engagement.

Same or Different

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

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

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

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

Growing or Dissolving

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

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

But what about relationships on the decline?

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

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

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

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

A Greater Truth to our Work

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

  1. Point of fact, earlier iterations of Dramatica referred to the Relationship Throughline as the Subjective Story Throughline. The switch was made to encourage engagement from Western writers who prefer the individual and logic over the couple and holism. 

  2. For a complete analysis of this film see the Dramatica Users Group analysis of Sweet Smell of Success 

August 28th, 2014

On the Need for Plot Points

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

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

It’s all important stuff.

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

The Interlocking of Character and Plot

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

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

That’s not objective.

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

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

That’s the fun stuff.

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

An Objective Look at Things

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

That person is the Protagonist of the story.

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

The Slice of Life Cop-Out

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

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

The Great Models of Narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key Questions to Ask When Writing this Perspective

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

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

The Search for Meaning in the Meaninglessness

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

Stories offer more.

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

  1. The Mini-Movie Method takes this approach. By collapsing character and plot into one context, the central character must undergo a series of “plans” regardless of the true problem at hand. 

  2. Dramatica refers to Plot Points as Story Drivers as they claim responsibility for driving the plot from one Act to the next. 

  3. This first “event” need not be an action. It could be a series of actions OR it could be a decision or series of deliberations. The Inciting Incident of a story is not something that simply happens to the characters. 

  4. Well, it doesn’t have to be boring. But from a writer’s perspective, actually writing it can be.