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The Latest in Story Structure & Story Analysis

2 days ago

Malcom Solves Problems by Working the Balance of Things

Over the weekend, we removed the plastic wrap off FIVE of our premiere articles within our Vault:

The first three cover the Dramatica concept of the Main Character’s Problem-Solving Style. For those new to the theory, the MC Problem-Solving Style (originally the Main Character’s Mental Sex) sets the base-operating system for the story engine of a narrative. Linear problem-solvers seek solutions to problems by looking to cause and effect. Holistic problem-solvers seek solution to problems by looking to the relationships between things and shifting the balance to draw out change.

This difference requires Authors to make a choice as to how their Main Character functions as it explicitly sets the order of thematic material considered in each and every Act.

Why Act Order is More Important Than Time Spent explains why this order is infinitely more helpful (and useful) than the actual time spent within each Act. Think you need to “turn” the First Act after 25 pages in a screenplay and the Second after 75 or so? Think again: the actual substance of those Acts supersedes any of these considerations.

Finally, Thinking of Your Audience First takes an initial look at Dramatica’s Audience Appreciations. We provide this article within the context of history. The more recent series of articles The Audience Appreciations of Story dive into these illusive concepts with far greater confidence and accuracy.

Great Stories

More Story Structure & Story Analysis

5 days ago

Complete stories provide Audiences with an account of conflict from all different sides. Instead of focusing on one point-of-view to the exclusion of others, an effective narrative quadrangulates subject matter leaving no stone unturned.

For centuries, Authors fine-tuned this method into what can now be said to be one of the most powerful means of communicating a singular message to a mass Audience.

Four Equally Important Points-of-View

To maintain the continuity of an experience, Authors masquerade these various points-of-view under assumed notions of character and plot. The central figure in a narrative witnesses conflict for the Audience from a first-person I perspective. A secondary principal character bucks up against that point-of-view with an account of what You see as conflict. The Author manufactures a relationship between the two that offers to the Audience what We encounter as conflict. And finally, plot takes center stage as it generates aspects of conflict They engage.

All four perspectives exist simultaneously. The beauty of tying them all together into one seamless work rests solely on the talent and caliber of the artist behind it all.

The Captain

Matt Dunn, Silicon Valley’s head of Hooli, weaves together a tight-knit tapestry of conflict as the writer and director of Captain Fantastic. Not content to simply explore the drama of a family dealing with suicide, Dunn explores the intimate and personal fallout of such trauma through key integrated perspectives.

The Throughlines of *Captain Fantastic*

The player of Ben Harper (Virgo Mortensen) serves as father figure, Protagonist, and stubborn-headed idealist—fulfilling roles within the Relationship Story, Overall Story, and Main Character Throughlines. The latter finds Ben holding strong to unconventional beliefs that may or may not have contributed to his wife’s death. Intimate and personal, this Fixed Attitude perspective keys the audience in on what conflict I experience through the Main Character Throughline.

Working our way back, as Protagonist in the Overall Story Throughline, Ben struggles to get his children and others to conceive of a different way of life. Bringing Chomsky into the era of Wal-Mart and Trump, Ben transforms his family from dysfunctional to functional. The conflict They experience in this story—they including Ben, his children, and even his skeptical in-laws—centers around incompatible Manners of Thinking.

As father figure, Ben develops the soul and heart of the narrative through his relationship with his children. Emphasizing the connection between Son Reillan and Ben, this Relationship Story Throughline finds conflict in shared Activities. From this perspective, We struggle to recite literature, climb rock walls in the rain, engage in smash and grab covert operations against corporate America, and even sneak into a cemetery late at night to rescue Mom from her grave.

The only perspective missing from our analysis so far is that final point-of-view that communicates what You see as conflict through the Influence Character Throughline. In Captain Fantastic that perspective finds shape within Ben’s children. Abandoned by their mother at a key point in their development and forced to be different than every other kid in America by their father, the Harper children find conflict in their Situation. It is this fixed external point-of-view and the children’s methodology for dealing with their personal problems that challenges Ben to reconsider his own stubborn ways and adapt a different way of thinking for the family unit.

On their own, these distinct perspectives tell a tale of overcoming emotional trauma. Placed together and masterfully woven into a coherent tapestry of meaning, these points of view combine to tell a story—a story of growth, both from within and without.

1 week ago

Joe and Lee work things out

The “Inciting Incident” is a nebulous term and therefore insufficient in matters of story structure and analysis. Some see it as the event that starts the story while others see it as the “Call to Adventure”. Even Hero’s Journey advocates find it less than useful:

The Inciting Incident is a confusing term and, in general, not very helpful. Within the context of the Hero’s Journey, it could represent a few points of action…Perhaps the Inciting Incident is useful in [infantile] three, four or five act structures, but amidst the complex Hero’s Journey, it is less useful.

Ignoring the ridiculous comparison between the Hero’s Journey and other “infantile” understandings of narrative structure, one witnesses a lack of agreement over the function an Inciting Incident actually performs.

The Call to Adventure

From a Dramatica point-of-view, the Call to Adventure is simply the moment where the Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines meet for the first time. R2D2’s delivery of Ben’s message in Star Wars weaves in Luke’s constant need to find ways to test himself against the larger world’s concern of finding someone skilled enough to help fight the evil Empire. The revelation that brother Joe listed Lee (Casey Affleck) as guardian to son Patrick in Manchester by the Sea pits the empty black hole of wanting anything within Lee against the bigger picture concern of a dying man’s wishes.

This functions as a sufficient definition of Inciting Incident—if it weren’t for the fact that these stories don’t start with those moments.

The First Story Driver

Instead of relying on amorphous “Inciting” moments, the Dramatica theory of story looks to the initial creation of the central inequity within the Overall Story Throughline. Dramatica refers to this initial event—whether it be an Action or a Decision—as the first Story Driver. This moment marks the dividing line between the world at peace and the world embroiled in conflict—the world that needs a story to make meaning of the efforts to resolve that conflict.

Death Vader’s illegal boarding of Princess Leia’s ship is the initial Story Driver of Star Wars. Sure, the Rebels and Empire were at odds before the story began, but it was an equitable conflict—like the Cold War between the US and Russia. His blatant display of hubris upsets that tender balance and motivates everyone to search out a way to fight back.

Joe’s diagnosis—shown out of temporal sequence within the movie—is the initial Story Driver of Manchester by the Sea. Lee’s personal problems start sometime later, yet it is this dire set of circumstances that forces Joe, his wife, his attorney, and his friends to begin the process of making key decisions in the planning of Patrick’s future.

Diagnosing the Start of a Story

As you can see, knowing the identity of the Inciting Incident does little for an Author. While masquerading as the beginning of a story, this mixed-up charlatan confuses issues and mixes perspective in its attempt make things easier. Authors need to understand the difference between conflict as seen from the Main Character point-of-view and conflict as seen from the objective Overall Story point-of-view. A term like Inciting Incident blends the two, leading to all kinds of subjective misinterpretations of conflict.

The Main Character Throughline naturally collides with the Overall Story Throughline at some point within a narrative. Knowing when it does, or the nature of it, matters little to the actual meaning of a story.

2 weeks ago

Recently, I received an email questioning our narrative analysis of Arrival. The writer took issue with my assignment of Be-er to Louise’s Main Character Approach, thinking the story featured more instances of her solving problems externally, rather than internally. In fact, this writer listed over 40 different examples to back up his claim.

Unfortunately, each and every one of them described Louise’s function as Protagonist in the Overall Story, not the Main Character Throughline.

Main Characters, Protagonists and Perspective

When a single player represents both the Overall Story function of the Protagonist and the first-person perspective of the Main Character, it can be difficult determining what portion of the storyform a certain event holds.

Seeing the Main Character Throughline as a perspective, not a storyline, makes the process easier.

The easiest way to find the part of the story that applies to the Main Character Throughline, and therefore a clue to the Main Character Approach story point, is to look to that personal baggage that the Main Character would take with them into any story—not just this one. Find something unique to the Main Character and the Main Character only, and you’ll find this personal baggage.

If you look at Louise and the totality of Arrival, you’ll see that the biggest personal issue for her is the loss of her daughter. She is the only player, the only point-of-view really, that suffers through that loss—and it is those memories of her daughter, those painful memories, that connect us the Audience to the narrative. The Author specifically places within her point-of-view in order to experience a unique understanding of time.

A completed story intertwines the various elements and perspectives into one “piece”, so it can be difficult at times to parse out the different contexts for the Four Throughlines. If you can look to those elements of story that are unique to the Main Character and unique regardless of external “plot” or Overall Story, then you will find the path to the Main Character Throughline.

A Greater Perspective

Realizing that not every Main Character is a Protagonist broadens a writer’s mind towards a more comprehensive understanding of narrative; seeing the Main Character as a perspective, not a character, opens up even greater channels and opportunities for storytelling.

Arrival is challenging to analyze because Louise is both Main Character and Protagonist. She not only suffers through the loss of her daughter but also drives the plot forward from Act to Act. Separating her function as the one pursuing and considering a successful resolution for all from her emotional point-of-view ensures an accurate assesment of its central narrative dynamics.

2 weeks ago

Discovering Dramatica and the Genesis of Narrative First: Part Two

In this second part of our two part series, we continue our introduction to the development of the Dramatica theory of story and Narrative First. Join us as we unearth the top 16 articles on story structure & story analysis, everything from evaluating competing paradigms to exploring the magic of Dramatica to the essence of perfect scene structure. If you’re new to Dramatica or Narrative First, this podcast series beckons you forth. And if you’re not new—you just mind fond something you missed the first time around.

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

2 weeks ago

In the end, there are two alien species living on the planet, each in possession of the secret the other seeks, but that they do not know they have and could not communicate if they did.

Melanie takes time out to blow us all away with a greater understanding of the difference between the way the two sexes think in order to better appreciate how Dramatica predicts elements of narrative:

Not to be cryptic, but perhaps the answer you seek cannot be found from the wisest man because the answer is just beyond what men can see. It is also just beyond what women can see, but then it is a different answer. What men seek is the special knowledge that women possess and women seek the special knowledge that men possess.

Personally, I wholeheartedly agree with her dislike of the terminology switch from Mental Sex (Male or Female) to Problem-Solving Style (Linear or Holistic), and hope it switches back in succeeding versions.

2 weeks ago

Back from the Vault, part three in our four part series on Main Character and Meaning: How Main Characters Approach Problems. Beyond showcasing my turning of the phrase “Main Characters have a myriad of approaches”, the article introduces the concept that where the Main Character prefers to solve problems indicates the kind of conflict he or she experiences in the story.

If they prefer to solve problems externally as a Do-er, their personal problems will center on problematic situations or activities. If they prefer to solve problems internally as a Be-er, their personal problems will revolve around manners of thinking and fixed attitudes.

2 weeks ago

A complete story consists of Four Throughlines: the Overall Story, Main Character, Influence Character, and Relationship Story Throughlines. With many of the narratives found in our Throughline Thursdays feature, the distinction between these various perspectives is easy to find. Some stories, however, feature subject matter that blurs the line and makes it difficult to determine what is a Relationship Story Throughline and what is an Overall Story Throughline.

Why Bother?

The Four Throughlines provide an opportunity for the Author to communicate his or her point-of-view on the best way to approach solving problems. Rather than thinking of them as “storylines” or individual characters, if you see them for what they really are—four separate perspectives—their purpose shines clear.

The Main Character Throughline shows what it is like when I experience a problem. The Influence Character Throughline clues us in on what it is like when You run into conflict. The Relationship Story Throughline lets the Audience in on what it is like when We struggle to sort things out. And finally, the Overall Story Throughline shows the kind of conflict They encounter.

With all four perspectives accounted for, an Audience member accepts the narrative without the doubt and trepidation that accompanies half-baked arguments.

Stories About a Relationship

Romances often position the central relationship smack dab in the middle of the Overall Story Throughline perspective. Moulin Rouge! finds conflict in what everyone thinks Christian and Satine should or shouldn’t do. Heavenly Creatures focuses on what everyone thinks about Juliet and Pauline’s “unhealthy” relationship. A Room with a View finds everyone concerned about the relationship between Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson. Differentiating these concerns from the actual relationship presents a difficult challenge—until one thinks in terms of perspective.

They may share concerns about the relationship, but We ourselves share our own private concerns. They may worry about what Satine and Christian may become, but we struggle about claiming exclusive rights to one another. They may express concern over Lucy and George’s budding romance, but we encounter conflict surrounding finding something uniquely ours.

They may see our relationship in a particular light, but we ourselves experience it very differently.

The Throughlines of Jane Eyre

Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre and the film adaptation by Cary Fukunaga1 focus attention on the relationship between the two principals: Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska) and Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Everyone expresses their concern over the romance developing between them: Lady Blanche Ingram for whom Rochester intends to marry, Richard Mason who reveals Rochester’s marriage to Mason’s sister Bertha, and eventually Bertha herself. Their various Manners of Thinking set the stage for the Overall Story Throughline.

Yet, it is the Activities Jane and Rochester engage in that define the edges of the Relationship Story Throughline. The physical experience of being in the relationship, the passion and illicit conjugations, sit front and center within that We perspective. By juxtaposing these two points-of-view on the same relationship, objective plural and subjective plural, an Author develops greater more comprehensive understanding within the minds of their Audience.

The Throughlines of *Jane Eyre*

As the focal point of the Main Character Throughline, Jane suffers through various Situations that lock her down throughout her life. An abusive aunt, trapped in a room with her dead uncle, the Lowood School for Girls (more abuse), governess at Thornfield Hall—all instances of conflict bred from untenable situations.

Finally, Rochester himself—a veritable force of nature driven by untold rage and anger—acts as the Influence Character upon Jane’s Main Character. His Fixed Attitude and brooding demeanor challenge Jane to rise above any setbacks and determine for herself what she truly wants and desires.

A Form for Romance

Many romance narratives position the Four Throughlines this way—with the Overall Story Throughline in Psychology, or Manner of Thinking, and the Relationship Story Throughline itself in Activities. The various objective dysfunctions surrounding the development of a new relationship balance out nicely against the subjective concerns of possessing one another both in and out of bed.


  1. Fukunaga, of True Detective and Beasts of No Nation fame ↩︎

May 2

Melanie posits an excellent distinction between the internal order of events within a narrative, and the external revelation of those events:

Plot, then, is really that internal progression of events, while the reader/audience order is more precisely referred to as Exposition.

The timing on this post couldn’t be better. In an effort to better serve the writers and producers we work with, we’ve been fast at work developing a tool that can easily bridge the gap between these two views…

…all the way down to the Scene level view.

For an author, it is important to separate the two. Otherwise it is too easy to overlook a missing step in the logical progression of the story because the steps were put out of order in Exposition.

The response to this new way of working with Dramatica has been overwhelmingly positive and we can’t wait to share it with you.

Using this system, you will ensure that everything that happens in your story is not only interestingly revealed, but also makes an unbroken chain of sense.

Without a doubt, this corresponds with our own internal data. Help the writer develop his or her plot so that it makes sense, then guide them to expose that plot through an emotionally meaningful experience.

May 2

Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story, offers a new way to look at the Story Limit:

In a time lock story, you are rushed. In an option lock story you are pressured (because the undesired situation remains an irritant until you finally find a solution).

With only 10 days to go before his wedding, Jack Cole (Thomas Haden Church) feels rushed to hook up in Sideways. With only so many people to turn to, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) feels pressured to honor his brother’s wishes in Manchester by the Sea.

Everyone loves subjective perspectives on Dramatica’s cold and objective storypoints. The popularity of our series of articles Plotting Your Story with Dramatica speaks to this wave of interest.

Melanie’s latest take on the Story Limit adds to this recent trend in making Dramatica more palatable to the everyday writer. More importantly, her latest post offers new understandings of a fascinating and groundbreaking theory of narrative.

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