A recent trend reveals filmmakers mourning the demise of story. Everyone, it seems, senses something amiss.
Steven Soderbergh, the director behind Traffic, Erin Brockovich and Out of Sight addresses the San Francisco Film Festival with a keynote that all but expresses his loss of hope. Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting), while calling out storytelling more than story itself, bemoans the lack of sophisticated adult fare at the cinema. Studio executives and producers feel it too, apparently turning to a statistician to help increase the odds of producing a better, more-profitable story.
Regardless of where they see the problem or their efforts to resolve it, filmmakers everywhere share a common thread: cinematic storytelling needs help.
The Science of the Inconsequential
Vinny Bruzzese, the statistician featured in a recent New York Times article, takes advantage of this common thread by offering a script consultant service unlike any other. By providing cold hard data on successful and not-so-successful films of the past, Bruzzese and his Motion Picture Group hope to alleviate the feared result of a box office dud.
Naturally, screenwriters fear the intrusion of Bruzzese’s number-crunchers:
“This is my worst nightmare” said Ol Parker, a writer whose film credits include The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. “It’s the enemy of creativity, nothing more than an attempt to mimic that which has worked before. It can only result in an increasingly bland homogenization, a pell-mell rush for the middle of the road.”
Parker and others have reason to fear: Bruzzese’s stats seem to only log singular instances of highly subjective data:
A cursed superhero never sells as well as a guardian superhero, one like Superman who acts as a protector.
Isn’t Batman a “cursed” superhero? Guardian or not, the writers behind Bruce Wayne’s alter-ego would undoubtedly concur that Gotham’s son was more a victim of fate rather than a symbol of protection. If so then, based on the data provided by Bruzzese, the producers behind this summer’s Man of Steel have a lot to look forward to based on the disappointing returns from The Dark Knight series.
To be fair, the New York Times article may be overtly poking fun at this process—cherry picking examples of data that simply portray these “script doctors” as another in a long line of snake-oil salesmen. Additional examples of the service include singling out films with bowling as low-scoring and stories of “targeting” demons more profitable than their “summoned” brethren. On the other hand, this could be an excellent representation of the service they provide.
Regardless, with data like this—and more provided by marketing groups and executive think-tank sessions—screenwriters might have a reason to be afraid. How does any of this further the cause for a better story?
Writers Know Writing
Bruzzese does make a mistake in his assessment of why some call for caution. Writers aren’t afraid of services like this because they want to protect their “babies” or because they’re more concerned with “making art.” They’re wary because instinctively they understand these stats have nothing to do with writing an actual story. These common factors trim narrative like so-much parsley—they can’t possibly claim responsibility for the meal itself.
Writers get that.
Removing bowling alleys and Ouija boards from screenplays recalls UCLA screenwriting professor Corey Mandell tongue-in-cheek “Food Propulsion” scene: that apparently common point in the middle of great films where food is dropped or thrown (please see the article Dramatica: Mad-Libs or Madly Accurate for more on this)— a common point that successful screenplays should mimic.
Correlation is not causation. The presence of one or two data points common to successful films in no way shape or form reflects the presence of a fully functional story. If anything, it merely outlines coincidence.
What Writers Would Like
In their latest Scriptnotes podcast professional screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin voice their usual concerns with the cottage industry of story consultants (a group they feel Bruzzese belongs to). They reiterate the idea that these data points correlate, but go further to outline the kind of causation-based data screenwriters can actually use:
“Here is why I think that (particular story point) is not going to work, because in this situation it’s going to track through this way, and we as the audience feel this way about the characters at the end because of the nature of what happened with that demon situation.”
That is a meaningful note that you can actually think about and use and implement throughout your script.
Screenwriters don’t want to know what should be in their story, they want to know why. They want to know why the audience interprets a scene the way they do and they want to know why a certain character’s motivation rings untrue.
They want the understand of story provided by Dramatica.
A Holistic Model of Story
Dramatica (narrative science theory) offers filmmakers a model of story bathed in causation. With Dramatica one can’t point to a single “data point” included in any of the on-site analysis and say, “This story point will guarantee you box office success.” One can’t single out The Godfather’s Overall Story Prerequisites of Being and say, Yep, if you want to go down in history as one of the greatest films of all time your characters have to act a certain way as one of the many steps along their way towards accomplishing the story goal. Likewise, one can’t hold up The Dark Knight’s Main Character Problem of Process as the key to that film’s runaway success. “If you want to rule the summer box-office have your Main Character driven by the inequity of the journey rather than the destination.” Ridiculous, right?
Dramatica theory only works when all of the structural story points found within a storyform present themselves clearly within the narrative. One can’t simply pick their favorites and hope for the best. The seventy-five or so structural elements within a Dramatica storyform work together to support and bolster the Author’s argument. Of course, key to this lies in the assumption that the Author has something meaningful they want to say with their own work. If they simply want to entertain, well then, why bother? But if they want to pass on some greater understanding, then Authors would benefit from an understanding of structural story elements that cause an emotional and logical response within the audience.
Take for instance, the ending of a story. Some end in triumph, while others tumble into tragedy. And still others end bittersweetly, with a balance of both good and bad. Great endings, meaningful endings, don’t just happen—they must be properly setup, developed, and grown into. Bowling balls and tossed spaghetti aside, everything that comes before leads to that inevitable ending. Dramatica theory states that if an Author wants to end a story in triumph then the order of elements that come before it must be structured in a very defined way. Tragedies share this reality as well, but the order of events would be different.
These are the kind of data points August refers to when he looks for causation instead of correlation.
Let it Ride
Now it may be that Bruzzese and his group of script doctors have the inside scoop on what it takes to pen the next blockbuster. If wealth beyond imagination appeals, then by all means, lay down 20 large and engage. If, however, the end goal ventures more towards a love of story and an appreciation for what narrative contributes to the human condition, then perhaps a more holistic approach might be in order. Dramatica, and its understanding of story as an analogy to the mind’s problem-solving process, may just be your very best bet.
A character at rest tends to stay at rest. Newton’s laws apply to story as well as they do to the physical world. What exactly then motivates a character to get up and start moving?
Stories begin with the interruption of peace. Sometimes referred to as the “Inciting Incident”, this disruption manifests within the Main Character an inequity, a separateness that must be dealt with one way or another. This inequity drives the Main Character forward, sparking the engine of story.
Problems That Really Aren’t Problems
The very best way to stop a Main Character from doing the kinds of things they do then, lies in resolving this inequity. Most authors recognize this process and write it in to their stories by virtue of satisfying the Main Character’s “needs.”
In Dramatica (narrative science theory), the Main Character’s Solution specifically identifies the nature of what is needed for this resolution. Confronted with the term “Solution” one would quite naturally assume the existence of a Problem, and Dramatica does not disappoint in this respect. For every Main Character Solution there exists an appropriate Main Character Problem.
Unfortunately this term is a bit of a misnomer.
Problems imply something bad, and unfortunately, this does not apply to every story. The Main Character’s Problem actually describes the nature of the inequity that infuses the Main Character Throughline with life. Inequities, unlike problems, don’t inherently claim the status of good or bad. They just are. How the inequity plays out within the story, however, does determine its positive or negative value.
An inequity that leads to positive growth appears to the Audience as a motivating force. An inequity that creates negative growth (or difficulties) looks to be a problem. Regardless of how they appear to the Audience, they still work the same within a story and occupy the same place within Dramatica concept of the storyform. They still push the Main Character into a story.
The Main Character’s Problem
These two alternative ways of looking at the same structural concept reveal themselves quite strongly through another key concept, the Main Character’s Resolve. When the Main Character changes (or flips if you prefer), the Main Character Problem will feel like a problem. When the Main Character remains steadfast, the Main Character Problem will feel more like a motivating force, or source of drive.
They both still operate the same way within a story, they still push the Main Character through his or her Throughline, but they do come across differently depending on how the rest of the story is constructed.
Interestingly enough, this same dynamic can be found in other throughlines as well.
Relationship Problems for The Good
The 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In provides a wonderful opportunity to see this dynamic at work in other throughlines. While firmly rooted within the horror genre, this film focuses almost all if its attention on the growing relationship between a young boy and the 12-year old vampire he falls in love with. This throughline, referred to in Dramatica as the Relationship Story Throughline, sees Pursuit as the problem between them.
But when they pursue each other, it actually brings them closer, not farther apart as one would expect from a Relationship Story Problem.
Like the example of the Steadfast Main Character above, the Relationship Story Problem in this case, acts more like a motivating force for their budding romance. When she shows up at the jungle gym or when he chases after Morse code to get closer to her or even when she steps inside his apartment without being asked—all of these drive their relationship in a positive direction. Pursuit defines the inequity between them, not a specific source of difficulties in a negative sense.
Contrast this with the example of a Relationship Story Problem of Pursuit in another film, 1969’s beloved Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In this story, Pursuit really does act like a Problem between them. When Paul pursues Holly, she runs away—killing any chance of them being together. By pushing too hard to make a relationship, Paul insures there will never be one.
Only by applying the Relationship Story Solution of Avoidance, does Paul guarantee she’ll come running back to him. We need to separate and that will bring us together. That’s the kind of thinking at work here. And it does work.
Avoidance applied to the relationship in Let the Right One In guarantees the two youngsters will never be together. When Eli tells Oskar “we can’t be friends” she’s trying to avoid, or prevent the two of them from getting closer. When she leaves him at the end, she dissolves the relationship. Only when she returns, when she comes back to Pursue him does she finally see this relationship through. A lack of resolution, but a positive growth nonetheless.
Look to Inequity
When is a problem not a problem? When it acts more as a source of drive rather than a messenger of difficulties. The Problems located at the base of each Throughline indicate the nature of the inequity as seen from that perspective. Understanding this allows Authors the freedom to develop solidly structured stories without feeling hampered by unnecessary constraints.
Treacherous waters await those who set out upon the seas of storytelling. While the tossing and turning of indiscriminate waves threaten stability, it is the the company kept within that calls for caution.
The act of writing requires only one. Whether with pencil in hand or keys beneath, writers write with the understanding that in the end, they only have themselves to rely on.
Yet, the process can overwhelm one to such a degree that they consider looking to others for help. Some turn to professional screenwriters kind enough to log their experience and know-how in podcasts and blog posts. Others turn to story consultants and gurus familiar with narrative and its ability to bridge the gap between Author and Audience.
Confusions sets in once one discovers that the former don’t look too kindly upon the latter.
Consultants Who Can’t Do
In a blog post written several years ago, screenwriter Craig Mazin attacks script consultants:
What is NOT a smart move is listening to the people who DON’T do the job. And who are they? Oh, you know who they are. They’re selling books. They’re selling seminars. They’re “script consultants.” And for a small fee, or a medium fee, or a goddamned flat-out ridiculous fee, they’ll coach you right into the big leagues!
This inspired screenwriter John August (and Mazin’s co-host on the Scriptnotes Podcast) to chime in with his own version of Those who can’t do, teach:
I don’t endorse any of them. I haven’t found any I’d recommend to readers.
The two posts generated hundreds of comments (sadly those from August have been lost) both for and against, with the majority siding with August and Mazin. Why pay for someone to help write a better story when they themselves haven’t done it? If these “so-called experts” have all the secrets, why aren’t they sitting on a pile of money and critically-acclaimed screenplays instead of how-to books and blog posts?
Because story can be so much more than simple self-aggrandizement.
August keys in on the ulterior motive for these consultants with his sports analogy:
Many of the best coaches were never star players. Rather, the top coaches have the ability to extract the best efforts from the athletes they train. They recognize weakness and focus attention. It’s conceivable that the same could hold true for screenwriting. There might be individuals with a remarkable sense of both the broad narrative form and the precise on-the-page details.
To put it another way—those who can, do; those who care, teach.
Setting Ego Aside
The truth of the matter is a consultant does what he does because he is more interested in helping others rather than himself. Why spend one’s relatively short time on Earth marking territory and building shrines when one can turn the tide far beyond the boundaries of self-indulgence?
Story-telling, and in particular feature film screenwriting, needs fixing. Epic battles and latex-clad heroes can only last for so long before Audiences will finally give up what little faith they have in movies. How else can one explain the increase in acclaim for episodic television like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, or Mad Men if not superior storytelling?
The majority of feature films today lack a strong structural foundation. They tell tales, not stories. Following the muse works great as a step one; steps two and beyond require organizing that creative impulse into something more meaningful.
The Flimflammer’s Approach
In a recent Scriptnotes podcast screenwriter Mazin resumes his attack on consultants by echoing the oft-heard complaint against a structural approach to writing:
This whole “plot point one,” “pinch point,” blah, blah, blah, you’ve been suckered like so many before you into thinking that there is a calculator through which you can run ideas and out comes a screenplay and you just simply calculate your way to success. There is no faster, easier, simpler way to arrive at failure then attempting to calculate the process of screenwriting.
Many who struggle with Dramatica (narrative science theory) decry its apparent attempt to turn writing into a “calculated” endeavor. They see the boxes, they run into dead-ends trying to fit their convoluted story into its comprehensive paradigm, and they easily discount it as yet another in a long line of com-men eager to separate writers from their precious pennies.
They [script consultants] are flimflamming you, buddy. They’re flimflamming you.
Or it could be that the flimflammers have grown tired of incomplete and pointless stories. It could be that they have discovered a better, more comprehensive way of understanding why stories seem to require certain structural precepts (more on this later).
It could be that they simply want to share this information with as many people as they can.
The books that have been written are being written by people who have failed at screenwriting, possibly because they were over calculating, and now they offer you the gift of the very process that failed them. I am not a fan of this nonsense.
Thank God some of them have failed at screenwriting! If they hadn’t, they wouldn’t have taken the time to ask why. They wouldn’t have spent decades looking into the psychology of story and discovered its analogous relation to the mind’s problem-solving process. They wouldn’t have moved us beyond Aristotle’s ridiculous “beginning-middle-end” tripe.
Chris Huntley and Melanie Anne Phillips developed their brand of narrative science (Dramatica) after writing and directing a really bad movie—a movie influenced in part by established screenwriters and university professors. Instead of developing bad habits accumulated from years of capitulating to producers and studio executives who truly have no idea how to construct a proper narrative, these two “flimflammers” set out on their own and discovered something quite unique—an understanding of story we all know instinctively to be true, yet previously have been unable to quantify.
Truth Behind the Con
In the very same podcast in which he calls out consultants for subterfuge, Mazin pitches the importance of a structural approach to story and an understanding of narrative science:
One of them is the protagonist. The idea of the protagonist, traditionally, is that our capacity for drama as humans and such that we prefer — we prefer — that once character is the focus of internal change. One character is going to have an epiphany and a catharsis and a transformation.
But, another character with them can be instrumental to that. Another character with them can change, also. Another character can change in such a way that changes the protagonist.
Dramatica refers to these two characters as the Main Character and the Influence Character (the term protagonist—commonly mistaken or substituted for the Main Character—features elsewhere within the theory). Isolating the concept of Resolve between these two characters, one will experience a 180 degree “flip” or change in their point-of-view while the other will grow in his or her resolve by remaining steadfast to their personal paradigm (See the series Character and Change).
The protagonist sometimes isn’t the biggest one, or the most heroic one, but they’re just the one that changes. So, think about it that way. And just remember, we will be trying to — we will be connecting with somebody’s change. And if two people are changing we want to know which one is primarily changing. It’s just sort of ingrained in the way we experience story.
Dramatica (and narrative science theory) isn’t an elaborate scheme to swindle amateur writers; it’s an attempt to quantify and qualify this “ingrained experience” that we all instinctively understand to be true. Those engaged in its ongoing-development and education simply wish to pass on what they’ve found.
It’s a very… — You just have to know this stuff when you’re doing it, and you have to figure it out, but you can’t divide your attention. You have to actually — you have to know.
Writers have to know this stuff, yet they can’t seek help from those who know. Why can’t they seat both professional screenwriters and theoreticians/consultants in captain’s cab along with them?
A Synergy for Story
For the very best example of this needed collaboration in action, one need only look to the real world example of animation directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders. The former, a member of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! Writers Group excels at structure. The latter, a creative powerhouse, brings the unexpected and touching character moments to the table. Together they create heartfelt stories full of purpose and meaning. Apart, not so much. Lilo and Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon, products of mutual collaboration, showcase stories that satisfy the head as much as they fulfill the heart. The Croods—directed without the assistance of DeBlois’ attention to structure—meanders aimlessly, ending only because animated films last 90 minutes—not because an actual story had been told.
The Croods may be heartfelt and inventive, but without something greater to pull it all together—something more than the sum of its parts—the film falls into insignificance. Years from now the majority will be hard pressed to remember even a little of The Croods. Contrast that with the legions of fans who count Lilo or Dragon one of their very favorite animated films and one can begin to see the importance of having both.
Purpose and heart can and must co-exist. One can glean all the experience and industry know-how from August and Mazin while at the same time benefit from the enlightenment and wisdom of those outside of the system like Phillips and Huntley. Want to know how to conduct yourself in a meeting or how best to receive and respond to those notes you’ll inevitably run into? Listen to the former. Want to understand the connection between your Main Character’s personal issue and the larger thematic issue affecting everyone in the story while at the same? Partake in the latter. Regardless, taking both along for the ride ensures a pleasant and purposeful experience.
Someone to Talk To
A recent article from screenwriter/consultant Erik Bork sums it up nicely:
Certainly it’s true that many writers who succeed never hired “script consultants”. But I would say virtually all of those writers had access to their equivalents at some point, as I did — to augment their ardent self-study.
Access to those who know. The certified consultants featured on Dramatica’s Story Consultant page understand narrative science better than anyone else in the world. They might not have a clue how to conduct themselves within a meeting or how to avoid the dreaded air duct clam, but they do know how to use character, plot, theme and genre to construct a convincing and solid story. They do understand the commonality of the almost 300 films, novels and plays (yes, even Shakespeare understood that ingrained experience!) featured on the site’s Analysis pages. And they understand how to work with writers to give their work gravitas—to make those words count for something more than yet another on the pile of disdained and forgotten films.
Yes, the seas ahead promise turbulent violence. Crews may lose hope or find themselves lost without trusted companions there to help navigate the waters of story. But with the assistance of hardened screenwriters and inquisitive theoreticians, the voyage can continue with confidence. One to set the course. One to keep the boat steady.
Safe harbor awaits those brave enough to set sail.
Some characters do things even their own Authors don’t understand. Understanding how the problem-solving technique of a character works within story can help clear things up and hopefully bring those Authors closer to their own work.
Male and female. Linear and holistic. Two different ways of categorizing the mind’s problem-solving style. The first (Male/Linear) operate step by step, the second (Female/Holistic) by juggling balances. Recognizing the connections between? That’s the wheelhouse of the female/holistic thinker. Examining the evidence and deducing the next stage of investigation? That’s for the male/linear thinker to decide. Both believe their style to be the most accurate, yet both are blind to what the other can see. Set them to the resolution of the same task and conflict ensues.
Problem-Solving at Home
Showtime’s popular series Homeland presents a shining example of these two psychologies at work.
As CIA analysts tracking down terrorists within, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) and Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) clash over the quickest and most efficient way to prevent the next attack. Carrie prefers a more holistic approach. her beloved corkboard a visual representation of what goes on within her mind. To Saul her ideas come across as simple guesses, mere intuition to be disregarded at the earliest convenience. Instead, he demands of her a direct linear connection. “Connect the dots for me Carrie”. Saul cant see what Carrie sees until she draws that line from a to b to c. The conflict between the two of them, and that special something that makes this show so dynamic, centers around these disparate problem-solving techniques.
Contrast their interaction with the rather vapid discourse between Maya (Jessica Chastain) and Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) in Zero Dark Thirty. The audience has no idea why Maya feels it necessary to yell so much or how her approach differs from Bradley’s or for anyone else within the agency for that matter. Compare Maya’s empty vessel with that of Carrie’s and one can easily see why so many characterize the film as “boring”.
The Main Character of a story—regardless of medium—needs that well-defined psychological process to clue the audience in on how the Main Character thinks and thus, what kind of conflict to expect.
Seeing Things Differently
In How to Train Your Dragon Hiccup and the dragon he shot down, Toothless, engage in a fun drawing game. Hiccup starts the ball rolling with his very linear approach to art. Direct and representational, Hiccup’s sketch reaches for nothing more than a good drawing.
Toothless, on the other hand, grabs the opportunity to make simple sketching something more. Ripping a tree from its roots, the playful dragon carves lines in the sand setting up boundaries for Hiccup to discover. The Viking boy, of course steeped in linearity as he is, doesn’t get it. He crosses Toothless several times before he finally figures it out. Only once he determines Oh, if I step here then he’ll growl. If I step here he smiles is Hiccup finally able to complete the game and get closer to a dragon than any other Viking before him.
This scene presents an opportunity to discuss a golden “rule” when it comes to the disparity between the two approaches: Linear thinkers don’t get holistic thinkers.
To most male audience members (and like-minded Authors for that matter), holistic thinkers do wacky things. In Juno, the titular character recreates the room she and Bleaker first did it in on his front lawn as a way of telling him the big news. Sybylla Melvyn from My Brilliant Career shifts the balance of power between her and wealthy Harry Beecham by pulling him into an area reserved for the lower class. “Did I make you jealous?, she asks, knowing the tide has turned. Carrie, again from Homeland, saunters in to a private veteran’s support group where the man she believes to be a terrorist is a member.
Upon witnessing characters act like, most linear-thinking audience members (males) cry out Why is she doing that? Why doesn’t Juno just tell him straight out? Why doesn’t Carrie work on gathering more evidence and stop playing these silly games?
But they’re not games.
To the logical thinker they come off as manipulative and shifty, but to the holistic thinker they appear as valid attempts to shift the balance in favor of resolution. An easier way to recognize which technique is being used—particularly if one happens to be a predominantly linear thinker themselves—rests in asking whether or not the approach is direct or indirect. Technically they’re both direct, but to a linear cause and effect guy holism feels more indirect.
It might not make much sense to linear thinkers why Sybylla suddenly wanders off into that part of town until they recognize her efforts to indirectly work on the relationship between her and Harry. By taking this approach she engages in the same manner of thinking Carrie does with her cork board: concentrating and paying attention more to the relationship between rather than focusing on the individuals themselves. To holistic thinkers, the connection counts for everything even if it does come off as indirect and manipulative.
Recognizing Problem-Solving Style
Indirect or not, the application of problem-solving technique to story provides the necessary fodder for conflict and growth within the Main Character. Leaving it out deflates potential and severs the connection between Audience and narrative. Instead of avoiding techniques of problem-solving that don’t gel with their own, linear writers should embrace the idea of holistic thinking and find ways of incorporating this foreign approach within their own work.
Lots of yelling and lots of torture, lots of faces with little to no character, Zero Dark Thirty bores as it labors over the hunt for the world’s most despised terrorist. One supposedly accurate event after the other with absolutely no context does not a story make. Great historical dramas find a way to plus that which happened, for in the final analysis real life means nothing save for what we add to it. Unfortunately this film seems content to simply move us from A to B to C with no true narrative. What is it about Maya’s way of thinking that separates her from the other analysts? Is it enough that she’s a woman in a man’s world or was there something more, something unique and character-driven that allowed her insight apparently no one else had? A two and a half hour tale that takes forever to get to the good part, Zero Dark Thirty comes off boring because that’s what shopping lists of past events are. Great stories engage Audiences by offering the intangible.
Audiences come to story with the hope of experiencing the new. Key to drawing them in and keeping them there lies with the proper application of the Main Character’s perspective. Lose sight of the Main Character and writers risk losing their Audience.
A disturbing trend of late seems to be on the rise within narrative fiction: that of the undefined or ill-defined Main Character Throughline. The Croods, End of Watch, Prometheus, and the latest James Bond thriller Skyfall all fail to offer Audiences consistent points-of-view from their Main Characters. Sure, they might entertain us with visual delights from worlds light-years away or they might engage us viscerally with uniformed life on the streets of L.A., but without consistency in where we witness these events from the experience falls into insignificance.
As popular as Skyfall was, what exactly was the film trying to say? Failure to recall key moments or arcs of character often indicates a failed and broken story. Try it with this latest Bond film and consternation surely ensues. The film began as an exploration of what it means to be at the end of one’s career—a new young hipster Q, the physical struggle to keep up with the demands of the job (holding on to the elevator platform)—but then somehow lost track. The story clearly sets up the issues of Bond aging out, yet for some reason forgot to address these problems shortly after the first act turn. Like an amusement park ride, Skyfall offers thrills, chills and spills, that last for a moment yet ring hollow days after.
Story can be so much more.
A Way In
The Main Character offers more than simply someone to cheer for. This unique and central character grants the Audience a way into the mind of a story. Dramatica theory (Narrative Science) suggests that the Main Character holds the first-person “I” perspective on the problems within a story. From this point-of-view the Audience gets to experience what it is like to personally face this issue.
Contrast this with another important perspective, the “You” point-of-view offered by the Influence Character. The Audience does not experience what it is like to actually be this character, but rather watches what this character does and how they behave. This experience of watching another work through a problem “influences” us the Main Character (as the Audience we have assumed the collective position of the Main Character) to reconsider our own issues and how we approach them.
Thus, the Main Character Throughline offers the Audience a reference point from which to interpret everything that happens on-screen or in print. When arguing a particular approach to problem-solving it becomes necessary to establish who we’re looking at and who is looking at us. Conflict does not occur within one viewpoint but rather between disparate viewpoints. You and I. Because of this reality, perspective regions supreme.
The Dangers of Altering Perspectives
Baz Luhrman’s take on The Great Gatsby should prove to be interesting. Will he repeat the all-too-common mistake of interpreting Nick Carraway’s narration as simply that: narration? Most adaptations fail to see the thematic connection between Nick’s point-of-view and the rest of the story.
From the looks of the film’s the trailer (set to release in May 2013), it appears as if the great Gats himself (Leonardo DiCaprio) will assume the Main Character’s point-of-view while Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) will take on the Influence Character role. This runs counter to what can be found in the original novel. According to the official Dramatica analysis of The Great Gatsby, it is Nick (Tobey Maguire in the film) that operates as the Main Character while Gatsby actually takes on the Influence Character role. True, we get hints of a first-person perspective from Nick (Tobey Maguire) within the trailer, but the majority of scenes depict the struggles of Gatsby and his relationship with Daisy.
Altering these key points-of-view threatens the meaning of the story. Classic novels claim their immortal status for a reason. Are we looking at Gatsby and his over-the-top actions, or are we experiencing what it is like to be someone who acts that way? The answer to that question will define what the Audience appreciates from the story’s events. Altering the perspectives because of a fascination with a particular performance (which seems to be the case here) can lead to confusion over the message of a story.
Lessons from the Past
Consider Neil Simon’s classic Barefoot in the Park and the Main Character of that story: Paul Bratter (Robert Redford). Clearly the original play called for us to see Corie (Jane Fonda) through Paul’s eyes: Simon went so far as to even call Paul out for being a “watcher, not a Do-er.” Yet here too, the adaptation devoted so much of its attention on Fonda’s inspired and captivating performance that it lost sight of Paul’s personal issues. Many probably don’t even remember what Paul’s issues were (assuming they’ve even seen the film).
The Dramatica analysis of Barefoot in the Park correctly identifies Paul’s issues of being overly-responsible when it comes to juggling time spent with his new wife and time spent with his new job. His fuddy-duddy “stuffed-shirt” nature runs counter to Corie’s vivacious and randy ways and drives a huge wedge into their six-day old marriage. Coming to terms with this dysfunctional way of thinking and appreciating the value of freely running barefoot in the park resolves the problems within the story.
Unfortunately the concentration on Fonda’s performance undermines this message—something clearly important to the original Author (why else would he title it “Barefoot in the Park”?). Like Bond in Skyfall, Paul’s struggle falls to the wayside threatening the Author’s original intent in the process.
Adaptation and Medium
Part of the problem lies in the fact that this film originally existed as a play. It becomes rather difficult to establish perspective when the Audience’s actual point-of-view towards the performance of a play remains fixed (i.e. in their seats, watching the stage). Short of extended soliloquies the stage offers little help for writers attempting to center their Audience. In film, shot selection and composition can set and delineate perspective concretely. In The Shawshank Redemption the Audience experiences what it is like to walk the long hall down to a parole-board meeting and what it is like to become friends with a cold-blooded killer like Andy Dufresne by witnessing these events through Red’s eyes. Like Nick’s narration in The Great Gatsby, Red’s narration offers a glimpse into what it is like to think like an institutionalized man—supporting the system instead of standing up against it.
The same technique could have been applied to the film adaptation of Barefoot in the Park with great effect. Occasionally the writer affords the Audience this viewpoint—the Staten Island ferry scene wherein Paul confesses Corie’s apparent sins to his mother-in-law (“Just look at her”)—but scenes like this come few and far-between.
Thankfully—and quite unlike Skyfall—Paul’s throughline comes full circle. The resolution of his throughline mixes with that of the larger story granting the Audience a satisfying and emotionally fulfilling ending.
The Present of a New Perspective
Writers must keep the point-of-views solid throughout their stories lest they wish to severely disorient those engaging with their work. Centering the Audience with the conflicting perspectives of both Main Character and Influence Character helps clarify what the Author wishes to say with their work. Audiences want meaning, they want something more from their stories. Authors have the ability to provide them with this unique gift—they only need to better understand how to package it.
For almost two decades, the artists at Pixar Animation Studios have delighted audiences everywhere with captivating and compelling stories. Creatives everywhere have long respected the studio’s ability to fuse heart and soul into enduring classics of narrative. How is it then that Pixar apparently has no idea how they do what they do?
Last summer, Pixar story artist Emma Coats tweeted a list of 22 story “rules” she learned while working there. Retweeted and passed around ad-nauseam, many took to the list in the hopes of discovering the secrets to the studio’s long time success. Unfortunately, what they found were mostly superficial tips to help writers during the process of writing—not necessarily the reason why Pixar’s film excel over all others.
To be fair, these rules were originally presented as “tweets” and thus were constricted by the 140 character limit. Nothing much of value can be presented in such a short space. Still, many continue to uphold this list as great insight into the construction of a Pixar-like story.
The real secret, it turns out, can be found elsewhere.
The Not-So Helpful
First up, the bad:
Rule 3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
Another call to simply trust the process—woefully turning a blind eye to meaningless writing in the hopes that it will all somehow “magically” work out. Creative writing certainly requires a fair amount of exploration, but the sooner you know what it is you want to say the sooner you can actually go about writing what it is you want to say. The danger, of course, lies in beginning production before that theme—or purpose—has made itself known. Cramming it in last minute requires multiple re-dos and countless hours of overtime.
Rule 4: Once upon a time there was ____. Every day, ____. One day ____. Because of that, ____. Because of that, ____. Until finally ____.
A formula for writing a tale? No thanks. If one wanted to put out a statement (which is all a tale really is) then one could use Twitter or a Facebook update. Stories argue, tales state. Unfortunately the tip above usually leads to the latter.
The balance of the less-than-helpful tips lie somewhere between simple writing advice and the kind of feel-good hand-holding typical of a weekend writer’s retreat in Sedona. “You have to know yourself”, “You gotta identify with your situation/characters”, and “Let go even if it’s not perfect” do not really reveal the reason why so many of Pixar films remain beloved in the hearts of millions let alone how to construct one of your own. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next” and Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind work as great brainstorming techniques but they don’t expose any meaningful secret approach. If it is really true that “those who can’t do, teach” then the corollary to that must be “those who can, can’t teach.”
Extracting the Gems
That said, some of these rules provide useful concrete information that many can actually use to structure a meaningful story worthy of the Pixar name. Some of these actually explain why their films work so well. The first that stands out:
Rule 16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
Dramatica (Narrative Science theory) refers to these stakes as the Story Consequences. Most writers understand the concept of Goals and how they motivate characters to take action, but relatively few understand the importance of providing their characters consequences should they fail. Both exist in a story and both require each other for meaning. In Toy Story, failure to keep up with the move condemns the toys to a life of perpetual panic. Consequences work as a motivator to help propel a story forward—a solid tip that gives a foundation for good strong narrative.
Rule 6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
Very helpful. If one wishes to write a story about the first African-American baseball player and all the issues of preconception that run along with such a predicament, throwing his “polar opposite” against him would help increase the conflict and give him reason to grow. But what would that opposite be? Someone who doesn’t believe he should be playing ball because of the color of his skin? That would challenge him, but it wouldn’t really challenge his own personal point-of-view as he would have been dealing with that his entire life already. Better to throw someone in there who shares a similar predicament but goes about solving it in a different and “opposite” way.
Thankfully the current model of Dramatica provides us with clues where to find this similar, yet different character through its concept of Dynamic Pairs. Pursuit and Avoid, Faith and Disbelief, Perception and Actuality all work as dynamic opposites to each other—put the two Dynamic Pairs in the same room and watch the sparks fly.
In the case of our famed baseball player we would want to construct an Influence Character that was deep in denial. Perhaps an aged coach well beyond his years, obsessed with bringing a losing team to the World Series. Or maybe the baseball player’s wife who, regardless of all the talk of extra-martial affairs and excessive drinking on the part of her husband, stands by his side through thick and thin. Either way, this dynamically “opposite” character would force the baseball player to examine his own issues of prejudice and preconception and whether or not he was living in denial.
So yes, challenging characters to deal with their issues by providing “polar opposites” certainly helps in the construction of a story. Again, concrete, solid advice that can help one write a powerful story of their own.
Rule 7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
Another good one, even if it seemingly runs counter to tip #3 above. Should writers go with the flow or are they supposed to know where they’re going? A meaningful ending bases itself on the thematic arguments that preceded them. They work together to help define the Author’s argument. Which brings us to…
Rule 14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
The argument an Author makes runs tantamount to all. The “belief burning within you” lies in the Author’s point-of-view on how to solve a particular problem. Narrative Science helps to give those beliefs a reference point and offers suggestions for formatting a strong and coherent argument to support that belief.
While fun to retweet and pass along, the majority of these 22 rules of Pixar storytelling do little to explain the rampant success of that studio during their first decade. If it is true that these were gleaned from “senior colleagues” then it is quite possible that those responsible for such great storytelling have no idea how they were really able to get there in the first place.
The real secret to Pixar’s undeniable success lies in their ability to write complete stories. Whether it be the dynamic clash between Woody and Buzz in the first Toy Story or the thematic interplay between Linguini and Remy in Ratatouille, each and every story effectively argued a specific approach to solving a problem. Managing to incorporate all four throughlines necessary to convey this message over a decade of production astounds those who managed to only do so maybe once every ten years. Pick any film and one can easily identify the Overall Story Throughline, the Main Character Throughline, the Influence Character Throughline and the Relationship Story Throughline. Other studios and other films can usually only claim to be able to do the first two (though some even struggle with that). Finding Nemo went so far as to weave a second smaller, yet no less important, sub-story into the final product. A truly remarkable accomplishment that bears full witness.
The reason for the apparent drop-off in love for their most recent films? A departure from these principles of solid story structure. Both Brave and Cars 2 fail to weave convincing arguments, the former going so far as to have both principal characters flip their point-of-views—a tragedy leaving many wondering what the film was even trying to say (beyond how cool Merida’s hair looked).
For the genius to continue and for those interested in repeating that success, an understanding of how narrative works to argue an approach to problem-solving becomes necessary. Narrative Science theory, and Dramatica in particular, provides that insight. It provides the secret “keys” everyone hoped to find when they first stumble across these 22 rules of storytelling. Understanding why so many of their films appeal to both the hearts and minds of countless millions can go a long way towards insuring the same kind of love and acceptance in one’s own work.
Main Characters make decisions and they take actions. They engage in deliberation and they get things done. Yet for some reason, Narrative Science seemingly requires both Analysts and Authors to force their Main Characters into choosing one or the other.
Referred to in Dramatica (the first version of Narrative Science) as the Main Character’s Approach, this story point files the great characters of literature and the silver screen into two boxes: Do-ers or Be-ers. The former act first then ask questions later, while the latter first internalize before then making their move. Limiting and reductive at first glance, the reason for this determination lies in a better appreciation of the mind’s problem-solving process and its place within the structure of a compelling and meaningful story.
A Place to Begin
Functioning stories exist as models of human psychology—in particular, the process of problem-solving. One of the first steps to take when solving a problem lies in determining exactly where to place one’s effort while attempting resolution. Should I try to change the world around me or should I try to change myself? Answering this question initiates the process of problem-solving. Ignoring it ignites the process of justification (or hiding the problem from ourselves).
Problems don’t exist outside of us, nor do they exist within us—rather, they exist in the area between us and our environment. Because we can’t address that inequity directly, we must focus our efforts on one area or the other—thus, the Main Character’s Approach.
When faced with internal issues we focus on ourselves. When faced with external issues we focus on our environment. Why? Finding internal solutions for internal problems is much easier than searching for external ones. Likewise, exploring external solutions for problems within the external environment becomes a much easier task than searching for an internal one.
This Approach often shows itself as a preference on behalf of the Main Character. Do-ers prefer to do the work outside, Be-ers prefer to do the work inside.
The Path of Least Resistance
A Main Character facing personal issues growing from an external state of affairs or an external activity will approach their problem first by taking action. As a poor playwright with nothing to show for his efforts, William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) searches externally for a new muse in Shakespeare in Love. Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) from The Iron Giant seeks adventure and action from a life that has neither.
Conversely, a Main Character experiencing personal issues emanating from an internal attitude or dysfunctional way of thinking will approach their problem first by modifying their behavior. Sully (John Goodman) from Monsters, Inc. finds his greatest asset—fright—to be a behavior in need of change if he is to ever grow closer to Boo. Meanwhile “Deanie” Loomis (Natalie Wood) from Splendor in the Grass attempts to re-wire her behavior—even going so far as to accept institutionalization—in order to keep from slipping further into madness.
In each of these cases, the Main Character approaches their personal problem by first taking that path of least resistance. External takes external, internal takes internal. Realizing this, one can easily see how the Main Character’s Approach can be used to identify the source of that central character’s personal problem as well as their response to it.
Assuming the Right Perspective
Key to pinpointing the source of these personal problems remains an accurate account of point-of-view. Are we taking a first person perspective or are we looking at it from a distance? Is the inattentive parent on the bus letting their child run rampant out of neglect, or is it because they’ve just received devastating news that they’re to raise the child on their own? One can’t can’t asses inequity without first taking into account perspective.
Same with story.
The examples of story given above focus on the issues facing each of those Main Characters personally. They may have other concerns within the larger picture or within other relationships, but when it comes down to dealing with my problems, and what am I facing (as required by the Main Character perspective) that first-person point-of-view becomes all important.
Creating a Mind for the Audience
It isn’t as if Main Characters can’t both Do and Be within a story. The concept of Main Character Approach certainly allows for well-rounded characters exhibiting both qualities. But the end-game can’t become a quest to capture down on paper “real people”.
Approach plays out as a preference because stories do not replicate real life. Rather, stories exist as constructs designed to communicate meaning by creating a “mind” for the Audience to possess. The Main Character represents the first-person perspective of this mind and thus, from that point-of-view sees the problem as being either internal or external (because it can’t see that true problem in-between the two). Taking the path of least resistance this story-mind approaches that problem by tackling external problems with actions and internal ones with behavior modification.
Why then ask for the Main Character’s Approach during the course of crafting a story? In answering that question, one can help solidify the Audience’s position within the mind of a story while simultaneously granting clues as to the work and effort put forth by the Main Character to resolve their personal issues.
If story exists as a model of human psychology as Narrative Science claims, then there can be no better instance of what it must feel like to inhabit an ADD-saddled mind than The Croods.
Bouncing from one unconnected encounter to the next, this episodic tale offers little in terms of real substance. Most of this has to do with its confusion over who the Main Character is. Curious daughter Eep (Emma Stone) begins the film in that position but somehow loses it somewhere in the middle to risk-adverse father Grug (Nik Cage). Is it a daughter/father story or a father/daughter story? With no real clear answer in sight, the Audience loses connection with who they’re supposed to be, and thus loses empathy for the on-screen events. Heavy-handed dialogue at cliff’s edge tries to resurrect that symbiotic relationship between Author and Audience, but it’s too little too late.
This, however, is not The Croods worst offense.
In perhaps the most bizarre example of flawed emotional logic ever put on film (virtual or otherwise), overly protective father Grug changes his resolve before completing his growth of character. “Never not be afraid” becomes “Never be afraid” and then we see him evolve to that place in an entirely new sequence. The result delivers a second-hiccup to the film’s half-baked ending—one that already feels more like a Midpoint than a Crisis of Character. Order carries with it meaning. The reason you have a story is to bring a character to the point where they can make that decision—to switch the order defies the natural order of things and just plain feels weird.
Occasionally funny and certainly colorful, The Croods should work well for the easily distracted crowd.
Propaganda at its finest—Life of Pi weaves a visually stunning tapestry as it subtly manipulates the Audience into accepting its spiritual point-of-view.
At first glance it may seem obvious that Pi fulfills the Main Character role with his striped companion Richard Parker taking on the role of Influence Character. Upon closer examination though, this proves an incorrect assumption. Pi withholds key information from us—information that places us outside of his experience—not within as is required of a Main Character. As such, we the Audience take on the Main Character Throughline (occasionally shown on-screen by the empty-vessel reporter) while Pi and his story play the role of Influence Character.
By leaving a Throughline out while simultaneously fleshing out the others, the Authors manipulate the Audience into changing their point-of-view. We ourselves fill in the blank areas left open by the lightly-sketched reporter, leaving us no other choice than to change and accept Pi’s point-of-view on spirituality. We complete the storyform hinted at within the film, taking the Story Mind created on-screen and assume it as our own. It may appear that Pi leaves us the option to choose which story to tell…but really, he has manipulated us into accepting only one.
By thinking ourselves in control of that final decision, we complete the process of propaganda. Often seen as a negative force, propaganda carries no inherent morality to it. This change forced by Pi’s story could be seen as good or bad depending on your attitude towards God and spirituality (although, truthfully the story’s dynamics force it to be seen as a good thing). The trouble with propaganda lies in our awareness of when it is being used and our lack of self-awareness when we make decisions and take actions because of it. Understanding the psychology of story helps us to better appreciate what is really going on.
In that case, it becomes less important which story we tell and more important that we see which story is being told.
Parsing meaning from story requires an eagle-eye for detail and a refusal to participate in generalities. Along with this greater focus on accuracy, however, comes the responsibility of making allowances for deeply held beliefs over how and why a story operates.
No greater does this responsibility make itself known than in the argument over whether or not certain characters change within a story. Dramatica, the first iteration of Narrative Science, seems to only call for one major character to change. How can that be when one considers stories like Toy Story, The Sixth Sense and Pride and Prejudice where it is very clear that both principal characters change?
Counter-intuitive as this must seem in light of these examples, an effective story demands it.
A Rule That Supports Meaning
As covered in the previous article The Reason for Rules, an effective story proves the Author’s argument by featuring two principal characters with conflicting perspectives on how best to solve the story’s central problem. One gives way to the other resulting in a rational and emotional outcome. If the one that “wins” ends up bringing everyone to triumph, then the Author has successfully argued for the efficacy of that winning perspective. If instead the winning approach leads to tragedy, then the Author has argued that that perspective was most inappropriate.
Authors use the perspectives of the two central characters to prove their take on the world.
A Change of Resolve, Not a Change of Growth
Dramatica’s first story point deals specifically with the perspective of one of these principal characters—the Main Character. Referring to this bit of story structure as the Main Character’s Resolve, it simply asks whether the Main Character Changes or Remains Steadfast in their resolve. In other words, has the Main Character stayed consistent within their worldview (Steadfast) or have they “flipped”, and completely adopted a whole new way of seeing things (Change)?
As an aside—and another “rule” of story structure—whatever the Main Character’s final Resolve happens to be, the other principal character in the story, the Influence Character, will seemingly share the opposite resolve. More on this in just a bit.
Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, Rick in Casablanca and Ralph from Wreck-It Ralph all clearly adopt a brand new way of seeing things. They shed the old for the new.
But Dr. Richard Kimball (Harrison Ford) from The Fugitive, Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) from Field of Dreams, and Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) from Eastern Promises clearly don’t behave in this manner. Instead of growing by transferring their point-of-view to another track, they stand their ground and grow by remaining true to what they hold most dear.
These Main Characters grow, but they don’t change their mindset. Change as Dramatica sees it speaks of adopting a brand new point-of-view—one that requires eschewing all remnants of the past. Still, even with this explanation firmly in mind many struggle with the idea that of some Main Characters not changing.
A Problem of Semantics
Unfortunately Dramatica runs into this issue quite often. Greater accuracy and insight into how story structure actually works often requires a redefining of some terms previously taken for granted. The concept of Protagonist works in a general sense, but when delineating the objective perspective of the Overall Story from the personal first-person perspective of the Main Character, the common general approach muddles the Author’s argument (For more on this, please see Redefining Protagonist and Main Character). When answering Dramatica’s structural questions or trying to determine a certain aspect of your story’s structure, you have to know what it is you are actually looking at.
But perhaps this use of the word “Change” and applying it to only one of the principal characters becomes too much. It may be the most accurate way to describe the process of a fully-functioning story, but it might also be creating confusion where there shouldn’t be. Like many of the terms found in earlier versions of Dramatica such as Preconscious and Obstacle Character (now Impulsive Responses and Influence Character respectively), a slight modification might be in order.
Suggestions for Clarification
Instead of asking whether or not a character has changed or remained steadfast, perhaps we should be asking if their initial perspective has stayed consistent throughout the end of the story or has it been transferred or rejected, or even better—has it “flipped”? Instead of Main Character Resolve: Change or Steadfast, perhaps Main Character Perspective: Consistent or Flipped. In this way we drop the rather-charged word of “change” from the equation and make it easier for Authors and analysts to define where and when a story needs fixing.
More importantly though, we should drop the idea that the converse is true (if the Main Character stays consistent the Influence Character will flip). Why? Because stories define Influence Characters by their impact on the Main Character, not by how their perspectives have changed personally for themselves. Structurally speaking we don’t jump into their shoes the same way we do with the Main Character. From the vantage point of the Main Character (the perspective needed to grant the audience that meaning) it’s not important whether or not the Influence Character’s Perspective stays consistent or is rejected, but rather whether or not their influence over the Main Character has stayed consistent or grown irrelevant.
With this in mind the problems concerning the dynamics between the Main and Influence Characters in Toy Story, The Sixth Sense and Pride and Prejudice quickly fade away.
Clearly, all three Main Characters (Woody, Malcom and Elizabeth) reject their initial perspectives. Woody shares the top spot with another, Malcom sees things for how they really are, and Elizabeth agrees to marry the man she promised she never would.
But now looking at Buzz, Cole and Mr. Darcy, we begin to see the importance of identifying their influence over their respective Main Characters and where that ultimately ends up.
Buzz may see things personally in a different light, he may have seemingly “changed” but when it comes to his actual influence over Woody—his intense bravura, his over-the-top charismatic charm and his I’ve-got-it-all-under-control point-of-view that drove Woody nuts from the very beginning—it’s still there in the end. “This isn’t flying, this is falling with style” proves a consistency in influence. This pressure on the Main Character may have grown in a different direction, but it certainly hasn’t flipped.
Same with Cole in The Sixth Sense. He may understand what it is the ghosts want from him and he may be finally facing his fears, but that influence he has over Malcom—that stubborn denial of peer pressure and verbal attacks against his character—that’s still there as well. He puts up with everyone thinking him a “freak” because he sees things others don’t, an attitude that ultimately influences Malcom to open up his own eyes.
And lastly, in regards to Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, the man in question may have endeavored to prove how much he is willing to change for Elizabeth, but his pride and general demeanor which held influence over her did not become wholly irrelevant. Why else would her father still question her final decision if he did not still sense that sense of pride within Mr. Darcy? His quality of charcter may have subdued a little by taking a different direction, but it was not rejected outright.
Contrast these three instances of consistent influence with those of Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones), and Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen) from The Fugitive, Field of Dreams, and Eastern Promises. These characters grow in such a way that their influence ultimately becomes inconsequential to their respective Main Characters. Gerard’s “I don’t care” turns into “I care enough to keep the Police from killing you.” Mann’s refusal to open the door to his own apartment turns into a willingness to step into the unknown. Nikolai’s rise to power insures the safety of the baby and ultimately Anna herself.
All of these reflect instances where the actual influence upon the Main Character to question their own way of seeing things essentially vanished. By becoming inconsequential, these characters solidified the stalwart resolve of the counterparts.
Change Clouds the Meaning within a Story’s Structure
To search for change within a story’s structure only befuddles the observer. Change is everywhere. The change from one Act’s Signpost to another, the change within the Story Limit as time runs out or options disappear, and yes, the change within the Main Character as they grow to a point where their resolve comes into question.
Talented writers know change must happen, they know their characters must grow else the story lie dormant and dead. To tell these same writers that only one principal character actually changes while the other remains steadfast runs counter to their instincts and fuels the fire for the inaccuracy of Dramatica and Narrative Science as a whole. Better to quantify and clarify what the storyform actually seeks out rather than stay true to original terminology..
By seeking instead for the consistency or “flipping” of the Main Character’s perspective, writers and analysts close the story structure book on this issue of changing or not changing. In addition, by understanding the true role of the Influence Character within the structure of a story and how it is their influence that should be judged, not their personal resolve, and understanding of how these two perspectives work together to define the meaning of a story, writers and analyst can confidently get back to the work of creating fully functional and purposeful stories.
Rules tend to offend the sensibilities of creative writers. The intricacies and nuances of crafting living, breathing characters from ink and type require free abandon. They rebel at the very thought that there could somehow be some order to their chosen form of expression.
Yet, works bred of ego and blind ambition often flounder when crossing the finish line that is Audience Reception. They show up—yet ultimately have nothing meaningful to say, in part because they didn’t follow the “rule”.
The First Rule of Narrative Science
By “rule”, of course, we refer to a standard set when looking at story as an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Rather than yet another in a hundred and some odd ways to beat the Hollywood reader, this reality occurs because of the processes that go on within the act of working out a problem. Dramatica (the first iteration of Narrative Science) sees story this way. If you don’t, if you see story as having no boundaries and no limitations then by all means, write to your heart’s content. Fly, be free.
Just don’t expect the rest of us to remain engaged in your work.
Audiences expect stories to think like they do. Run counter to their instinctual responses and they’ll turn away in droves.
One of the very first of these rules to be encountered within Dramatica states that when it comes to the two central characters of a story—the Main Character and Influence Character—one will change, and the other will remain steadfast.
If they both change the story breaks.
How Can a Character Not Change?
Eventually this standard finds the need to defend itself when it comes to certain great films. Consider Toy Story. Certainly both Woody and Buzz change. Woody finds it within himself to allow another toy the top spot and Buzz discovers he’s not really the Space Ranger he thought he was. What about The Sixth Sense? Obviously Malcom Crowe (the Bruce Willis character) changes, but doesn’t little Cole change as well when he finally musters up the courage to visit the poisoned girl? And what of Pride and Prejudice— doesn’t that classic beloved novel tell the story of two characters meeting in the middle?
Perhaps Narrative Science misses the mark. Perhaps there are exceptions to this rule…
The problem lies in Dramatica’s definition of change and what most people mean when they think of characters changing.
How Narrative Science Sees Character
Contrary to centuries of thought on story, Dramatica sees the two central characters of a story not as fully imagined three-dimensional people, but rather as a context for perspective. Remember the basic given about stories as analogies to problem-solving? To fully comprehend and gain meaning from this act of problem-solving, all perspectives need to be addressed. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter? That’s the kind of dissonance differing perspectives offer; that’s how a story grants greater meaning to its events.
The Main Character gives the Audience an intimate perspective of the story’s central problem. From here we experience what it is like to actually deal with the problem personally, as if “I” have the problem. The Influence Character offers up an alternative to the Main Character’s stance by showing how someone else deals with the problem. From there we experience what it is like for “You” to deal with the problem.
The Overall Story Throughline and the Relationship Story Throughline round out those perspectives by offering us a chance to see how “They” experience the problem and how “We” experience the problem, respectively. But for now, seeing the Main Character and Influence Character as perspectives rather than fully-realized people makes it easier to explain the reason for that first rule.
Giving Meaning through Problem-Solving
The Influence Character enters the picture and tension mounts. Conflict now occurs because two competing perspectives have come into play; two different approaches towards solving the story’s central problem. Both believe their view correct, both believe the other wrong. In order for this model of story as problem-solving process to work out, one must eventually give way to the other. Capitulation leads to resolution which in turn, leads to meaning. By showing whether or not the “winning” perspective leads to triumph or tragedy, the Author proves the appropriateness of using a certain perspective to solve problems.
The Author crafts greater meaning to a story’s events.
Sometimes the Influence Character was right, the Main Character changes perspective and the story results in triumph (Star Wars, The King’s Speech and Finding Nemo). Sometimes it was the Main Character who was right, the Influence Character justly surrenders and the story results in triumph (Star Trek, In the Heat of the Night, and The Iron Giant). Sadly though there are times when being “right” was actually wrong. The Main Character “wins” with the Influence Character changing perspective, yet the result tumbles into tragedy (Brokeback Mountain, Moulin Rouge! and Reservoir Dogs).
Regardless of the particular combination, the reason one character “changes” and the other “remains steadfast” becomes apparent: by showing the result of one taking one perspective over another an Author offers up their take on the appropriate (or inappropriate) way to solve a particular problem. In plain-English, the writer basically says, “Take this approach and you’ll likely end up in the dumps”(The Wild Bunch) or “Adopt his way of seeing things and you’ll likely end up triumphant” (Amélie).
The rule gives purpose to story.
But What About Meeting Halfway?
If both principal characters change their perspectives, the outcome of the story loses all purpose. Who’s approach was the best? How am I to solve my own problems in life? What exactly was this story trying to say?
Surely compromise solves problems. But in order to tell that story, one character would have to maintain an all-or-nothing perspective while the other would call for greater synergy. The former would eventually change and the story would end in triumph, proving that compromise solves problems.
When a story simply shows two characters coming together, both changing, that alternative perspective ceases to exist and a hole the size of Texas (or perhaps Antarctica) opens up within the story’s argument. The Author fails to show the problem from all sides. Suddenly the Author leaves space for exceptions, giving opportunity for an Audience to dissent and eventually discount their work wholesale.
In other words, no one will go see the movie.
A Call for Greater Clarity
Rules of story structure—at least the kind of “rules” found in Dramatica—exist to give purpose to the telling of a story. Break them and the story itself becomes dysfunctional. Rare is the Audience member who voluntarily hangs out with a schizophrenic mind.
Still, one can’t argue with the success and greatness of Toy Story, The Sixth Sense and Pride and Prejudice. Do these stories fail in making their arguments? Clearly the principal characters in each changes their perspectives. How does one explain their effectiveness as complex stories within the context of this rule of change and steadfast?
The answer lies within the next in this series on Character and Change: Flipping Perspectives
Lest the opening horror-on-VHS flicker by unnoticed, ParaNorman endeavors in earnest to deliver a delightful love-letter to the macabre of old. With beautiful animation and a rather adult wit (a bit too much for the under-8 crowd), the film takes zombie-convention and spins it on its flesh-decaying ear.
No greater is this unique and imaginative take on display than in the final sequence between social-outcast partners Norman (Kodi Smit-Mcphee) and Aggie (Jodelle Micah Ferland). With silence and subtly, 3D printed heads offer more heart and tenderness than many of their human counterparts.
Sadly, however, this sequence comes so late into the story that it simply functions as yet one more episode in a long and sometimes plodding tale.
Contrast this with last years’s best animated feature Wreck-It Ralph wherein the relationship between the Main and Influence Characters (in this case, Ralph and Vanellope, respectively) blossomed in the First Act and had time to mature and develop until the very end. The tenderness became part of something greater—it became something larger than itself. Norman’s encounter with Aggie brings that emotion, but brings it without much substance.
An argument earlier in the film between Norman and superficial sister Courtney brings the kind of needed emotion to sustain Norman’s development, but because it popped out of nowhere and featured two characters that weren’t really the heart of the story the Authors had no other choice than to have local meathead Mitch (Casey Affleck) respond “Well that was dramatic.” It’s the right response to such a forced interaction, but unfortunately stood out as the only moment of emotion within the first hour.
That said, the final sequence works wonders and gives hope for the future of animated storytelling.
A beautifully touching film that parasails effortlessly upon the wings of its performances, The Intouchables charms the heart as it tells the tale of aristocratic paraplegic Phillipe (François Cluzet) and his “nurse”-maid Driss (Omar Sy). Unfortunately, this film—continuing the trend of recent movies like The Master and The Sessions—focuses all of its attention upon the Relationship Throughline.
In addition to the Relationship Throughline, three other Throughlines must be addressed in order for a story to function as complete. As with the aforementioned films, the Main Character and Influence Character Throughlines of The Intouchables come through loud and clear—it’s the Overall Story Throughline that gets little respect.
After decades and decades of films dedicated to simply exploring the Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines, the pendulum has swung too far to the other side. The Intouchables is a heart-warming experience—as any story focusing on the Relationship would be—but it still lacks that greater quality timeless stories possess. It lacks that meaningful purpose. The heart must be juxtaposed by the head.
Light and fun, The Intouchables makes for an enjoyable night, but ultimately a forgettable one.
A question I’m often asked is “How can you possibly take a beautiful creative expression like the art of writing and quantify it into tiny little boxes and mathematical equations?”
Some wonder how I sleep at night while others flippantly ask for my credentials. Regardless their response to my investigation of story structure as human psychology, their consternation comes as little surprise considering the onslaught of ego-driven writing advice abundant in most circles.
The answer to these questions requires a little background.
A history of disappointment
I cannot tell you how many countless hours, how many wasted weekends spent away from family, and how many stress-related ailments I have suffered through over the past twenty years because the films I had been working on had horrible stories. Stories so bad that the last three or four months of production were spent running around re-animating and re-crafting new scenes in an attempt to somehow make sense of the work that had already been done.
And I mean horrendous stories.
90% of the productions I worked on didn’t even have a Third Act in mind when they began. Many couldn’t even decide which character was the actual Main character. I mean, out of all things, how simple is it to determine who the Main Character is?!
A great story weaves elements of character, plot, theme and genre throughout all Four Acts. Each connects meaningfully with the one after and ties in sweetly with the one before. You can’t just make it up as you go along. You can’t simply “trust the process” and hope it all works out in the end. It never works out. Instead, you end up saddling yourself with mountains of overtime and pointless “gag” passes hoping that someone, anyone, will like the final product.
The relatively few movies I’ve worked on that I am proud of—those that actually stand the test of time and warm the heart as much as they challenge the intellect—had one thing in common and one thing only: Something meaningful the Authors (directors/writers) were trying to communicate.
In other words they had a plan.
Chancing upon hope
A little over 15 years ago I discovered a unique perspective on storytelling called Dramatica. While overwhelmingly complex in its attention to the details of storytelling, Dramatica’s central idea lies in the idea that every great story works as an analogy of a single human mind trying to solve a problem.
The math and the boxes come later.
With this single “given” in mind, the extent to which a work in question follows those natural processes of problem-solving determines how well received the story will be and thus, how “successful” it will be in the long run.
Of course, most of the encounters many a writer has had with “structures” or writing “paradigms” leave them with a sour taste in their mouth. Hero’s Journeys, McKee’s Story and Snyder’s Save the Cat! persist an unwelcome idea of “writing-by-numbers” resulting in a stifling and restrictive stranglehold on an artist’s creativity. When faced with the added complexity that is Dramatica, many turn in disgust and discount before fully taking the time to research and understand what it really is all about. (I’m told even McKee himself, when presented with Dramatica, threw his hands up in the air, proclaimed his hatred of such things, and immediately stormed out of the room!).
This site, and the eventual publications bred from these articles, will function as a virtual log of my experiences and discoveries made while attempting to gain a greater understanding of story. For the first seven years my writing fell under the banner of Story Fanatic. It helped identify my voice and explain a bit perhaps why anyone would spend so much time learning and writing about these things.
But now, with concentrated focus and new direction, the masthead shifts to reflect greater purpose: Narrative First. Why start a project, whether it be film, novel or play, without first understanding what it is you are trying to say? Why waste the efforts of so many talented and creative individuals on something that doesn’t make sense? Why spend hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars on a film that most will answer with, “Well, that sucked.”
Better off writing a tweet and forgoing the lost man hours than building the house of cards that is pointless storytelling.
But these are real people, not formulas!
Characters are not real people. If they were, there would be no need to put them in a “story”. A story is a construct, a functioning living entity designed to grant the viewer/reader a greater understanding of how things work (meaningful problem-solving). Characters function as different facets of that single mind trying to solve a problem. If they were real people, the mind (story) would come off schizophrenic and dysfunctional!
Dramatica, and the study of Narrative Science that it eventually spawned, identifies these functions, grants meaning to the order of plot events, and classifies the different thematic appreciations of story in such a way that an Author can be sure that what they are saying has a point. It makes sure that an Author’s passion has purpose.
So when faced with the question as to why Narrative Science, why treat storytelling as serious subject matter and why quantify what so many have failed to do in the past, I simply answer, “Because it’s needed.”
Roger Ebert, in his review of The Master, notes:
“The Master” is fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air. It has rich material and isn’t clear what it thinks about it.
The phantom meaning Mr. Ebert refers to exists because the film itself fails to offer an Overall Story Throughline.
Every great story consists of 4 inter-connected parts: a Main Character Throughline, an Influence Character Throughline, a Relationship Story Throughline and an Overall Story Throughline. Each corresponds to a different point-of-view the Author offers on the story’s central problem. The Main Character grants the ‘I’ perspective, the Influence Character the ‘You’ perspective, the Relationship Story the ‘We’, and the Overall Story gives us the ‘They’ perspective.
The Master lacks an objective view.
As such, we get great insight into the issues of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and the Relationship between the two of them. But we only get an occasional taste as to what ‘The Cause’ (Scientology) really is and how dealing with that interacts meaningfully with the aforementioned personal drama. Of course, doing so requires judgments to be made on that particular subject matter and and the consequent protracted lawsuits that many have faced doing so in the past.
Narrative Science (and the theory of Dramatica from whence it came) doesn’t exist to provide a formulaic step-by-step approach to writing a story. It exists to help identify the nature of the holes within a work of fiction and how best to address them.
Ebert concludes his review with this:
“The Master” shows invention and curiosity. It is often spellbinding. But what does it intend to communicate?
Crafting an Overall Story Throughline would have provided the Audience with a much-needed objective view and the meaning Ebert so desperately wanted.