Just sit with it.
Yes I know it’s a bummer we had to wait four years for a Christopher Nolan film that wasn’t about brooding superheroes, and we ended up with this melodramatic space opera. And yes I know that while we love and eagerly anticipate a new Hans Zimmer score, that this one was mixed so indelibly loud as if to be to assaultive and less enjoyable than soundtracks past. But there is a tangible reason why we couldn’t get into the film and an explanation for why it scored a meager 74% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Look past the underdeveloped Influence Character Throughline and the practically non-existent Relationship Story Throughline. Look beyond surrogate Influence Character Brand’s (Anne Hathaway’s) seemingly out-of-nowhere diatribe about the “power of love.” And avert your eyes from the rather large, but practically unspoken about, elephant in the room (Why not? Everyone else did!): these “beings” from beyond that construct wormholes and 5th dimension tesseracts for us to play in.
The real reason we found it difficult to connect to the film? Main Character Cooper solved problems holistically.
Generally speaking male audience members find it close to impossible to empathize with holistic problem-solvers. They don’t get people who don’t think like they do. Unless they are presented a clearly definable step-by-step progression from one conclusion to the next, linear thinkers can’t follow the kind of leaps of logic (what they call intuition) that a holistic problem solver makes.
Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) sees the big picture. School authorities suspend his daughter because Cooper can’t stay silent on the connections he sees. He repurposes Air Force drones to drive his combines and he measures all options for the human race at once, rather than focusing almost pigheaded on Plan B like his fellow astronauts. Linear thinkers get Mann (Matt Damon) and Brand and Plan B. They don’t understand someone open to connections and the relationships between things.
Whether it be gravity or love, powerful forces operate within the narrative universe of Interstellar. It takes someone comfortable with the weight of “mass” and the dynamics between things to recognize and come to terms with both of these forces. Cooper fit that role perfectly. Unfortunately for many critics and fans of Christoher Nolan films (both groups predominantly comprised of linear “male” thinkers), a character operating on this level presents a significant challenge towards emotional investment.
So before you write off this film entirely, take the time to recognize time. The limits your linear-based mind impose on this 4th dimension skew your appreciation of the universe and tarnish the argument presented by this narrative.
Time, after all, is not fixed. It’s relative.
Complex story theory without the complications–is it even possible? With vocabulary rivaling even the most obscure foreign language dictionary, the Dramatica theory of story scares off many candidates. The key lies in understanding the importance of assessing the proper context.
When it comes to incorporating Dramatica into their workflow, many writers trip themselves up when it comes to the terminology. Forewarnings and Goals ring familiar, but terms like Prerequisites and Preconditions send many running for the hills. Even when it comes to the basic building blocks of a throughline–Domain, Concern, Issue and Problem–writers overcomplicate their illustration by failing to see the terms for what they are: different lenses on the same thing.
Why Throughlines Exist
Every complete story presents an audience four Throughlines. Distinctly different, yet subtly similar in some respects, these story lines encapsulate the conflict at the heart of the story. The Main Character Throughline grants us an intimate personal look. The Influence Character Throughline presents an intimate view as well but from a slight distance. The Relationship Story Throughline clues us in on the conflict between these two characters. Finally, the Overall Story Throughline covers the dissonance between all the characters (Main and Influence included).
When granted all these throughlines the audience gains insight into a particular problem without the bias that comes from only taking a singular point-of-view. It may seem that the Main Character of a story makes all the wrong decisions and takes all the wrong actions from a distant point-of-view, but dive in and walk a mile in his or her shoes (by exploring their personal throughline) and you may come away with a different understanding. The Throughlines exist to give the receiver of a story greater perspective.
Every Level a Problem
Understanding the importance of these disparate points-of-view and their function as a perspective on the same conflict makes it easier to appreciate the somewhat complex terminology found in each. The Domain, Concern, Issue, and Problem of a throughline act as different size lenses for the conflict at hand. What does this mean? It means you could substitute the word “problem” for Domain, Concern and Issue and still come out alright.
The Domain showcases the grandest view of the problem. Is it internal or external? Is it static or a process? That’s it. The combined answer to those two questions gives us the widest scope from which to view the problem. Static external problems find themselves in the Situation Domain. Static internal problems operate within the Fixed Attitude Domain. External processes? Those problems lie in the Actitivity Domain while internal processes find a home in the Way of Thinking or Manipulation Domain. Regardless of their location, the Throughline’s Domain still simply reflects the problem, just in a broader general sense.
Take one step down the chart and you’ll find the lens ratchet up a few stops. Moving from generality to a more specific view, the Concern isolates what Type of problem we are looking at. We still observe the same thing, only now we refine our focus. Those fixed external problems–do they have to do more with the Past, the Present, the Future or How Things are Changing? When looking at those external processes that cause problems do we see Doing, Obtaining, Learning or a Understanding to be a more detailed explanation of what is going on?
Note how the four Types fit nicely into the Domain above them. This happens throughout the entire Dramatica Table of Story Elements: the set of four items below describe the item above. Memories, Impulsive Responses, Innermost Desires and Contemplations depict Fixed Attitudes. Developing a Plan, Playing a Role, Changing One’s Nature and Conceiving an Idea represent a dysfunctional Way of Thinking.
The next level down increases our magnification ever more, focusing our attention on the Issues at hand. This level reflects the thematic point of study for the Throughline. Harmonizing this Issue with its dynamically opposed (diagonal) Counterpoint provides an Author the tools necessary to measure the relative value of compensations for the central problem. Guess what? Despite all that heady theoretical thematic mumbo-jumbo, the Issue still describes a problem. Sure, it may rest two steps away from looking at things in a general sense, but it still sheds light by describing the problem.
Finally at the bottom, we reach the actual Problem. Or have we? It may be labeled “Problem”, but is it still the Problem? Remember that each Throughline acts as a lens and as such, distorts the original image. We can never really see the original Problem–the inequity at the center of it all–because one can’t describe it.
If they could, there would be no need for stories.
The Problem at the bottom of a Throughline reports that Throughline’s version of the actual original problem. Granted, the level of detail at this level elevates its accuracy of depiction far beyond that of simply describing the Domain, yet it still merely represents the greatest magnification of the same thing.
Instead of beating your head against the wall trying to figure out what the difference is between a Domain or a Concern or an Issue, consider this: they’re all the same thing. If it makes it easier label them Big, Medium and Small (or if you want to be technically accurate, label them Biggest, Big, Medium and Small). By understanding what they represent one can more easily integrate how they function within a story.
Dramatica is a giant problem machine. Seeing every level as simply varying degrees of magnification of conflict renders the apparatus more approachable and grants Authors the opportunity to really get to the heart of their stories.
Some people can’t resist telling you about their favorite movie. Whether their favorite sci-fi flick seen in adolescence or one of AFI’s top 100, film buffs love to share scenes. Problems set in the moment they bring up said love affair in a story meeting. Does the beloved scene or group of scenes actually apply to the story point being discussed? Or is it simply an unfortunate instance of fancy taking control?
Regardless of what you may have heard online or read in books multiple stories exist. There is no one Hero’s Journey to rule them all. They might share a commonality of presentation but the substance–the real true meaning–behind every single book, novel or play claims a unique identifying code. Like the building blocks of DNA that–while small in number–combine to create thousands upon thousands of different people, the structural aspects of story combine to create a novel experience.
Occasionally a story might share the same code. West Side Story is simply Romeo & Juliet. Avatar is Pocahontas. Collateral is Finding Nemo.1 But for the most part, the stories we share differ enough as to be detrimental, rather than helpful.
Bringing them up as examples for breaking a story only compounds the problems.
Work This Story, Not That One
Writers often refer to other movies in order to support their potential fix for a certain story problem. It’s like in Usual Suspects when you started to see that night from Verbal’s point-of-view… Or Remember that scene in Goodfellas when Karen flushed the drugs down the toilet? It’s like that. If it worked for them, why wouldn’t it work for us?
Because we might be telling a different story.
Problems occur when the example called to task bears no resemblance with the structural issues present in the narrative being worked on. Sure, you can reference that “killer Steadicam shot” in Goodfellas or “that gun battle on the streets of L.A. in Heat without harm, but only because those are instances of storytelling, not storyforming. Storytelling operates independently of the thematic issues within a story. It’s the icing on the cake, the seasoning added later and parceled out at the Author’s behest. Writers can ape presentation with little to no effect upon the meaning; they can’t mimic substance without risking a confounding of purpose.
The storyform of a work of narrative carries the meaning of a story. It is the message and the purpose beneath the various levels of character, plot, theme and genre. It makes possible the transmission of bias. The story form is Author’s intent. If the film referenced endeavors to delivers a message dissimilar to the one at hand, then the reference can only manage to disrupt and garble the final communication.
Different Stories That Seem the Same
One sees this line of thinking often when confronted with the dual miscues of the Hero’s Journey and the Save the Cat! franchise. Refusing to dive any further beyond the surface, these digestible accounts of story conflate purpose with cultural trend. Do many cultures across the globe celebrate and pass on a similar legend? Yes. Do most films follow a predictable path as they lay out their individual sequences? Certainly. Does correlation confirm causation? Absolutely not.
Many consider Star Wars and The Matrix the same story. They see Luke Skywalker and Mr. Anderson as cut from the same cloth. While The Difference Between Neo and Luke Skywalker illuminates in greater detail why, understand that the elements of story that drive and motivate Luke and Neo rest in different dramatic camps.
Luke is motivated to test what he can and cannot do and it gets him into trouble. Neo is driven to disbelieve himself and it gets him into trouble as well. Luke needs to trust, Neo needs to believe. Two separate thematic messages. Similar? Very. But the solutions and moments required to satisfy one cannot be transposed to the other. Trust cannot fix disbelief. Faith cannot heal a testing nature.
Calling to mind Luke when writing Neo would only generate inappropriate solutions. Bringing up Back to the Future–a story all about finding and acquiring–when writing a story about misunderstandings only provides more rabbit holes to fall into. This is how broken stories remain broken stories.
Write Your Story
Instead of recalling scenes similar to those on which you’re working, reference your own imagination and set scenes and characters to the meaning you are trying to provide. Understand the conflict your story rides upon and illustrate those scenes. If your character keeps screwing up because he doesn’t believe in himself, don’t start writing scenes where he tests his mettle like Luke Skywalker simply because you saw the movie 110 times when you were a kid. You’re not writing Star Wars, you’re writing your story.
This is where Dramatica proves to be crucial during the creativity process: by maintaining the integrity of the narrative developed in other scenes, Dramatica focuses creativity in the right direction. Write the story at hand, not the story you love from your childhood. Do this and your story sessions will prove efficient, effective and most importantly–fruitful.
What we know simply marks the beginning. While comprehensive and enlightening, our understanding of story today will seem simple and elementary ten twenty years from now. Our responsibility as writers lies in excavating the truth beneath our superficial grasp on reality and applying that to the characters we bring to life.
The Relationship Throughline of a story consists of two unique perspectives. Typically we describe these two points of view, held by the Main Character and Influence Character, as coming into conflict over the best way to solve the story’s central problem. They argue over the appropriate way until finally one gives over to the other.
The reality of this coupling speaks of so much more.
Some relationships grow. Others dissolve. The presence of two perspectives naturally encourages comparisons of unity or sameness, while at the same time fostering division and differences.
The Dramatica theory of story circa 2014 touches lightly on this fascinating aspect of narrative. Assuming the bias towards Overall Story Throughline and Main Character Throughline, the model tends to sketch rather than enscribe the various forces at work within this more Subjective view.1 When delving into this area of a story, one senses the need for more to work with, more to explain and illuminate the intricacies of intimate engagement.
Same or Different
Bearing witness to the oft-used line of “You and I are Both Alike”, one sees how the notion of “Two Sides of the Same Coin” work within narrative. One side feels they are the same, the other sees only difference. This happens because in one context the two competing perspectives exhibit similar properties, in another they differ.
Aligned diagonally across from each other when assigned their prospective domains, these Throughlines both exist as either states or processes. If Situation and Fixed Attitude, then they share a static (state) commonality of conflict. “You and I are both alike, we’re both stuck,” would describe the perspective that sees these similarities. If Activity and Way of Thinking then they share a procedural (process) commonality of conflict. “You and I are both alike, we just can’t stop ourselves, can we?”
The other context sees these Domains in terms of external or internal. Situation and Activity tell of external conflict. Fixed Attitude and Way of Thinking describe internal struggles. If set in Situation and Fixed Attitude one character might say “we are both alike, we’re stuck” whereas the other would retort, “We’re nothing alike. I know where I stand (external), you don’t even know yourself (internal)”.
When caught up within the turmoil of a relationship, one character will see the forces driving them towards a shared sameness while the other will only see apparent differences. Neither claims accuracy: they’re both right, and they’re both wrong. The direction of their relationship determines how close to unity they ultimately will reach.
Growing or Dissolving
At the heart of every Relationship sits a motivating source of inequity. Dramatica refers to this disparity as the Relationship Story Problem. Whether a lack of faith or trust, an inability to accept or a longing for something more, this Problem motivates the Relationship forward.
Problems naturally call for Solutions. You can’t have one side of the equation without the other, you can’t have inequity without equity. The “problem” with the term Solution lies in the assumption that this resolution brings the two characters together. Naturally one would assume that if there was a problem, then the solution must heal their differences.
But what about relationships on the decline?
Relationships rely on tidal forces. Ebbs and flows. Directions and tides. When situated on the path for dissolution, a relationship turns to the Solution to end it all, once and for good. Whether together or not, the resolution of the inequity in their lives ends the conflict between them. Contrast this with the Solution for a Relationship on the rise. Here resolution brings two hearts together, ending conflict by bringing two together.
Neither approach claims superiority over the other. The responsibility for determining the direction of the Relationship and the proper application of the Solution lies within the writer. They must appreciate this reality of narrative for themselves and for their story.
In Ernest Lehman’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957) Main Character Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) joins fellow Hunsecker pawn Susan Hunsecker (Susan Harrison) in a somber display of a relationship in decay. Tasked with ruining Susan’s relationship with Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), Sidney uses their friendship to slither in close enough to gather the information he needs. Whether great friends or simple acquantences prior to the story’s start, the two slowly move apart. The banter between them, centering around inferences of the other’s weakness in the presence of J.J. (Induction), drives their relationship towards its inevitable end. Once Susan concludes her brother’s involvement and Sidney’s part in it (Deduction), the friendship dies. Having learned how to play the game herself, Susan moves past Sidney and moves on.2
Contrast this with the growing relationship between Christian (Ewan McGregor) and Satine (Nicole Kidman) in Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge!. Driven to torment by Satine’s apparent ease with which she gives into lustful desires (Temptation), Christian begs, argues, and ultimately insults his love on the public stage for all to see. Only by mutually refusing to take the easy way out and forgoing their own egos (Conscience) do they finally find a place where they can come together. While death tempers this synthesis, resolution completes the Relationship’s positive development.
A Greater Truth to our Work
The Relationship Throughline whispers something more than simply the presence of two alternate perspectives. The growth and development of this kinship in conflict calls for an appraisal of its direction and a nod to their similarities and differences. The Dramatica theory of story represents a watershed moment in the history of our understanding of narrative. However what we know now and appreciate as reality only scratches the surface of effective and lasting storytelling. Delving into the forces at work opens our minds and encourages greater breadth to our own writing.
Some cry contrivance. Others lament convention. And even more bemoan the influence of the ideologue. Writers will do anything, it seems, to avoid understanding what it is they are really doing.
As my story consultancy grows, I begin to witness patterns in behavior. Writers act like other writers. They safeguard themselves from the pain of unraveling what they know about story by hiding behind Aristotle, claims of artistic integrity, or the stifling weight of an outline. Their most consistent mistake rests in the assumption that the main plot of a story (or “A” story line) is simply the framework that all the really important stuff hangs from; that character and relationships reign supreme.
It’s all important stuff.
True, some writers emphasize character over the machinations of the story world at large, but in the end both still need to be present in order for the Audience to make sense of what has happened.
The Interlocking of Character and Plot
Character cannot claim prominence over plot as both exist simultaneously within a piece of narrative, regardless of Author’s intent. Character represents a subjective context on the matters at hand, while plot portrays an objective context. One can’t simply cast the other unimportant because they find it unnecessary any more than they can disavow general relativity because stars are pretty. A subjective context presupposes an objective one.
The Dramatica theory of story exposes the difference between the objective view and subjective with its concept of the four throughlines. The Main Character Throughline and the Relationship Story Throughline manage the subjective view of the narrative while the Overall Story Throughline and the Influence Character Throughline handle the objective. Writers who write from the heart often leave out these last two. They may pay lip service to an Overall Story Throughline by casting the Main Character into the role of Protagonist and claiming the events “his” story, but by doing so fail to properly explore this throughline by centering on one character’s point-of-view.1
That’s not objective.
Objective sees Goals and Consequences. It sees Protagonist and Antagonists and Limits and Plot Points.2 Requirements, Forewarnings, Costs and Dividends. Success or Failure determine its Outcome and each and every character holds itself at arm-length, described only by its function within this view.
Many writers consider this larger perspective to be “unnecessary” or just the “MacGuffin” or mechanical” or “too limiting” to their work. Writing this perspective offers little in terms of emotional expressionism. The fun part of writing–the reason many take to pen in the first place–lies in jumping into the character’s heads, becoming them, feeling what they’re feeling and working towards communicating the emotions they feel inside. Writers such as these wish to express their fanciful associations to the text.
That’s the fun stuff.
Objective, overall–these are not the words of a writer who wears his heart on his sleeve or one who wears his heart on the page. But they are the words of a writer who enjoys mastery over his or her own text.
An Objective Look at Things
Conflict arises as a result of inequity. Everything before the story = equity. Everything after the story starts = inequity. The first “event” upsets the equity of things and compels one or another to bring about resolution.3 If that person is successful then the story has resolution and equity returns. If that person fails, then the story ends with inequity.
That person is the Protagonist of the story.
The concept of the Protagonist exists as a shorthand term to describe the character pushing for this resolution. The Antagonist operates as a shorthand term for character(s) preventing this resolution. One works for the Goal and successful resolution. One works against the Goal and would prefer the Consequences instead. Stories without these two forces lack narrative drive.
The Slice of Life Cop-Out
Stories that fail to provide these two alternative views cannot claim to be stories. Whether a slice-of-life tone poem (The Tree of Life) or a simple tale designed to satiate the senses (any Transformers movie), narrative that offers one offers offers only a part. From the perspective of an artist living present within the spirit with which gives him or her rise, this approach fulfills. Understand, though, that Audiences desire more and may not be as forgiving or appreciative of only one-half of the story. They expect and deserve a complete story.
Every audience member brings with them a mind to interpret and interpolate the narrative in question. Every mind operates under the same biological and biochemical process. Though our individual capabilities might fluctuate, our mechanism of problem-solving functions the same. Conflict resolution requires context and an appreciation of the difference between subjective and objective. If a story only provides one side of the story, the mind rebels, walks out muttering something about “story holes” or “false characters” or simply “a bad story.” Audiences expect some greater context to appreciate the relationships between the characters.
The Great Models of Narrative
All great narratives work this way. The external conflict generated by the inequity of the story reflects itself in the juxtaposition between the smaller inter-personal relationship between two characters and the larger objectified relationships between all the characters.
In Pride and Prejudice you have Elizabeth and Darcy and their romantic relationship set against the social challenges of 19th century England’s upper class values tow marriage and choice. One can see the problems of the Wickhams, the Collins, the Bingleys, and, of course, the Bennets more than simply backdrop for romance. Their actions compliment and inform the conflict between the choices and actions taken by the two beginning a new love. Where would Elizabeth’s struggle with first impressions and temptation be were it not for her youngest sister giving in to the same?
Comparable conflicts lie within Romeo & Juliet. The interpersonal relationship between the two takes center stage, but Shakespeare also manages to weave in the war between the Capulets and the Montagues. Misplaced expectations and a rush to resolve intolerable circumstances describe the personal as well as the extra-personal. Friar Lawrence, Tybalt, Lord Capulet and Mercutio need be present for the relationship between the star-crossed lovers to carry with it some greater meaning.
And then finally we have the greatest novel of the 20th century–To Kill a Mockingbird. Here one can see the prejudice and racism that comes with the Southern murder trial of a black man reflected in the interpersonal prejudice between a young girl and the boogeyman across the street. The genius of that novel lies in the positioning of these two views. One sees Atticus the Protagonist trying to resolve the inequity perpetuated by Antagonist Bob Ewell and others: the false accusation of rape against Tom Robinson. But one also gets to experience racism and prejudice from the inside by taking the journey with Scout and her shedding of preconceptions in regards to Boo Radley.
Audiences need both the subjective and the objective to emotionally understand and ultimately make sense of the conflict presented to them.
The objective view of a story sounds mechanical and boring and formulaic and prescriptive. It is. And it is so because it is, in fact, OBJECTIVE. This view is mechanical and boring and prescriptive.4 The writer must assume an objective view of conflict resolution and ask Who are the players? What are they motivated by? How does it all play out in the end?
Key Questions to Ask When Writing this Perspective
- When does the story actually start? When does inequity upset the balance of things?
- What sort of goal would resolve this inequity and bring everything back into balance?
- Who works towards this resolution? Who works against it?
- How does the conflict resolve itself?
Those familiar with Dramatica will know the exact answer to each and every one of these questions. The first finds itself in the Story Driver. The second in the Story Goal. The third in the Archetypal Characters known as the Protagonist and Antagonist and finally the last in the Story Outcome.
Those who don’t only have themselves to blame for a story that lacks direction or fails to capture and engage the minds of their Audience.
The Search for Meaning in the Meaninglessness
Great narrative grants us both a subjective experience and an objective experience simultaneously. Stories give us something we can’t find in real life. One can’t be simultaneously inside their own head while also hovering high above watching the actions unfold. The juxtaposition between these two views provides the meaning of the experience–a synthesis that exists between the words and between the individual frames of film. Real life, unfortunately, has no meaning. Until we create some objective context from which to appreciate it (religion, nationalism, or any -ism for that matter), everything means nothing.
Stories offer more.
A writer makes his or her story fuller by adding this all-important layer of the objective view. Fear not heart-driven writer, for undertaking this approach does not take away from the very important relationship story. Stories require both character AND plot. Audiences need that greater context that includes the two principal characters AND the rest of the cast in order to make sense of what it is they feel. Writers want their characters and the relationship between them to mean something; providing an objective view and a greater understanding of when things happen and how they resolve grants an Audience an answer as to why they should experience the story.
The easy road to success. Everyone wants it. Relatively few admit it. The hypocrisy of the skeptic reveals itself the moment the agent of doubt calls for proof.
To be skeptical is to take the easy way out and the first line of defense for an insecure mind. The Dramatica theory of story too confusing? Too frustrating trying to force your broken story into a comprehensive model of narrative? Then blame your lack of comprehension on “pseudo academic language” and marketing schemes. Heaven forbid you admit your own deficiency and do something to try and fix it.
Simpler to take the easy road yourself.
The skeptic hides behind its call for verification as a means of avoiding the uncomfortable task of growing. Want to take the real easy road? Ask another to prove themselves.
The Skeptic’s Call to Task
From time to time a frustrated writer, fed up with the psychological struggle that is the comprehension of complex theories of narrative, takes time off to lambast and denigrate the work being done with Dramatica. This latest diatribe expresses the vexation one feels working through Dramatica’s Query System:
Now with a Ph.D in Shakespeare I don’t think I’m that thick, but I find the whole process [of working with Dramatica] deeply de-motivating, confusing and counter-productive. The software forces me to follow very strictly delimited paths, with the end goal of producing a treatment from which the actual piece of fiction can be created. My problem is that by this point I’ve lost all interest in the story and characters, and most of the will to live.
Well that’ s not good. But it is a common response from writers new to the theory. One must liken the process of working with Dramatica as coming to terms with an objective perspective on one’s own process of rewriting. These paths the skeptic refers to only become delimited as a consequence of narrative choices made earlier in the process. No different than reading a draft and determining which scenes to keep and what lines of dialogue must go. The Author makes choices and delimits future options down the road. Dramatica merely provides a framework for making those decisions.
In the end, it’s the same process writers have been using for hundreds upon thousands of years. Write, analyze, rewrite, analyze, rewrite, analyze, write and so on and so on. Only now writers have the opportunity to be objective about their their own work.
A Process of Developing One’s Sense of Narrative
One can approach Dramatica holistically, eschew the linear story guide and the “boxes” of restriction, and find consistent success but they need to toss aside preconceivied notions of what a software application provides to them. This is not EasyCalc or GarageBand. You won’t end up with a pretty graph to frame or a finished song to impress your friends.
Dramatica is a theory of story. It sees a piece of narrative as an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. As such it doesn’t tell one what to write but rather helps solidify a coherent line of thinking before putting words to paper. Dramatica restructures one’s concept of story, removes it from the ethereal world of make-believe, muse and intent and concretizes the drive to connect with an Audience. Why waste time stumbling in and out of drafts, searching for artificats of cognition when an understanding of the end of the road can be arrived at midstream?
Working with Dramatica, filling in those blanks and challenging one’s own preconceptions of narrative develops the Author’s mind and focuses their efforts towards something palatable and illuminative. You may not end up with a step-by-step outline to plug into Scrivener but you will understand the various expressions of conflict, the nature of backstory and the justifications characters encounter as a result. In short you are learning as you struggle. More importantly, and as a consequence of this education, you will develop your sense of story to the point where you can confidently and accurately identify areas of concern for those you write for.
Good in the Room
“Good in the Room” refers to a Hollywood professional’s ability to inspire confidence. Whether facing the studio executive, the head of marketing, or the fellow executive producer a writer intent on “selling” their story must have an unbelievable knowledge of narrative itself. Studio executives want the assurance that they won’t have to hold the writer’s hand throughout the development process. Executives shouldn’t have to give notes or figure out why a character would be motivated to act a certain way or what to do about a slow and plodding plot. That’s the writer’s job!!
An understanding of Dramatica provides Authors the knowledge needed to give “the money” exactly what they’re looking for. They want a complete story. They want something figured out. They want to be told a story. They don’t want to have to write one.
As someone proficient in Dramatica, I’ve found it easy to quickly identify areas of concern within a narrative and provide ready solutions to quickly resolve it. Many look back with faces scrunched and dumbfounded at a perspective of story presented several steps removed. Where did that come from? crosses their minds, soon followed by But something about it feels right. They don’t know where it originated, but they know what they like. They like stories that work.
And they like that they have one less thing to worry about.
Skeptics love to rally against Dramatica’s language:
This is one of the biggest problems with Dramatica Pro, it has it’s own terminology, or uses concepts in a way that makes it extremely hard to grasp what the program is asking for, even with copious explanatory notes.
And this comment from another:
Any sane person can see that the terminology in the software is so vague and twisted that it could mean anything.
The assertion that Dramatica’s language is anything closely related to vague speaks volumes of the comprehension skills of the accuser. In order to define a theory that is 100% accurate regardless of medium (film, novel, play, short story), certain accepted terms needed to be redefined. Protagonist and Main Character needed to be separated, the concept of “change” within a character more accurately defined and paired with Growth. In addition there are areas of the current Dramatica model that are difficult to describe with the English language–the difference between Being and Becoming a prime example.1
While this approach might seem vague and pseudo-scientific to the simpleton, the gain in accuracy is a welcome addition to those who work in story day in and day out.
Gregory, an advocate of Dramatica’s approach had this to add:
All the sterilizing is not Dramatica’s fault, yet this review wants to make this Dramatica’s fault, as if it is ruining story telling. This is no more true then the theory of relativity ruining the experience of watching a moonrise. If you want to understand how it works it is going to be a totally different experience. It is up to the one who makes that choice to set that aside so they can enjoy the magic of the result once again. It is almost a cliche to say that ‘I wanted to learn how something worked, to only find after it had lost it’s magic.’ But if you want to be able to do it, and do it well, you have to understand how it works. Dramatica helps you understand how it works and makes sure that those choices make sense. You can of course break those rules but most often for most stories those rules will make it a better story not a worse story. [emphasis added]
Only Good for Analysis
Another favorite of the skeptic dwells in the attempt to stifle Dramatica’s use as a creative tool:
If you look at the website you can see lots of examples of the method being applied retrospectively to films, which makes me think that it has more appeal as a rather odd method of formalist critique than as a writer’s tool.
Thrice now I have personally witnessed the silence and lack of substantial notes after pitching stories crafted with Dramatica. As touched upon in the previous article Structure is not What Happens When these stories left no room for critique by design. Once may have been coincidence. Repeated exposure to this effect leads one further away from Providence and closer to fervent belief.
Yes, the theory helps you analyze what you’re written, but Dramatica goes one step further and tells you information about your story that you never told it..that’s beyond groundbreaking. Now you have an objective writing partner helping you with the actual process of rewriting pointing out exactly how to fill those “holes” in your argument.2 There really is nothing else like it. Whether you’re looking back and analyzing or looking forward and creating, Dramatica has you covered.
some of [Dramatica’s questions] would baffle Aristotle: “Which personal issue affects the hero: Chaos, Knowledge, Order or Thought?”
I agree Aristotle would have been baffled by Dramatica. But he would have been equally baffled by Copernicus. The guy who came up with the ground-breaking concept that stories have a “beginning, middle and end” would stare slack-jawed at the idea of a Main Character Unique Ability or an Overall Story Benchmark. Best not to equate one’s line of thinking with that of someone ill-informed on the reality of the Universe.
Skeptics don’t know because it is simply the easier way to lead one’s life. Ignorance is bliss and all that. Rewiring takes time, patience and fortitude. Many don’t have these qualities. One wonders what the skeptics will say in the wake of Dramatica success stories now at their genesis. Will they take the time to really understand or will they continue to attack superficial concerns?
It took thousands of years for people to realize that the Sun was the center of the Solar System. Hopefully we won’t have to wait as long for our own collective understanding of story to evolve.
Separating out structure from writing leads to disaster. Failure to understand that the two work in concert to provide a message of intent to the audience fractures productions and removes responsibility of content from the creators. Story is structure.
One of the most frustrating experiences for someone proficient in the Dramatica theory of story dwells in listening to professional writers speak with inaccuracy towards structure. They might refer to the “MacGuffin.” Or they might claim that one could remove all of structure and “still have a story.” Or worse: they could attempt to marginalize the efforts of a consultant who just the day before had helped them propel an idea into production. Regardless, the ego-driven machinations of voices less than secure with their own contributions perhaps are best left for the therapist’s couch.
Unless, of course, those voices persist in denigrating the work of story consultants.
Rather Be Seen Than Heard
Professional screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin love to beat up on the “story guru.” Painting these story consultants as snake-oil salesman intent on robbing the innocent of what few dollars they have left, both August and Mazin assure their authority by tearing down the work of others.1
The latest Scriptnotes Podcast, Making Things Better By Making Things Worse, offers yet another opportunity to defend the work of the consultant and to clarify the Dramatica approach to structure. One gets the sense that the two hosts–both staunchly critical of script consultants and screenwriting books in the past–would actually appreciate the perspective of narrative provided by Dramatica, if only they would take the time to understand the concepts.
No page numbers. No step-by-step guarantee of success. And no formula driven cookie-cutter order of sequences to follow. Trying to say something with that character? Then you’re going to need this other character to challenge her and provide the necessary counterpoint to your thematic argument.2 Need the story to end a certain way? Then you’ll need to address some of these particular issues earlier rather than later.3 Dramatica completes the Author’s message by filling in the blind spots inherent within the intention for writing. The purpose is never to write a Dramatica story. Rather, the purpose is to write the Author’s story, with Dramatica filling in the blanks where necessary.
Dramatica is not easy. The theory– and the application that supports it–does not make screenwriting or any other form of writing less complex. If anything, it requires more complexity from Authors in the presentation of their stories. The purpose of the Dramatica theory of story is not to make it easier to write a movie in 21 days or to provide an easy set of 15 beats for writers to follow. Dramatica’s sole function is to provide Authors the tools necessary to argue their points effectively and succintly.
When to Reveal and Structure
In their first of their many inaccuracies with regards to structure John August, the screenwriter behind Go and Frankenweenie, has this to say about writing:
Structure is really about when things happen and when you reveal certain information. And I get frustrated by screenwriting textbooks because they always talk about structure as when in the sense of like on this page you’re supposed to do this, and on this page you’re supposed to do this, and hitting these page counts, when really it’s so much more subtle than that.
Most of the books that August refer to identify those page numbers as 30, 60, 90 (or somewhere nearby). One could be cynical and assume that the gurus Mazin and August refer to seek easy-to-follow numbers in order to compensate for some deficiency of talent. Or one could see how the process of dividing a typical 120-page screenplay into four even movements naturally leads to those numbers. Either way the fact remains the same: every complete story consists of four Acts.
The Dramatica theory of story makes no reference to page numbers. It does, however, provide an explanation as to why Acts exist, why there seem to be four of them in every complete narrative, and helps shed light on the order of the thematic material for each of these major movements.
The theory also provides a clear distinction between when things happen within a story and when they reveal themselves to the Audience.
It’s when are you giving a piece of information to the audience so that they have — it’s how are you dolling out the information to the audience to get the best sense of what your story is.
Here August blends storyWEAVING with storyFORMING. Dramatica’s storyform captures the complex process of problem-solving and distills it down to an arrangement of story points.4 This process, represented by the Signposts beneath each throughline, relies on the order of these story points to convey its conclusion. How that information is “doled out” to the Audience rests entirely in the talent and taste of the Author. The storyform forms during the storyFORMING phase of crafting an argument:
The storyENCODING phase attaches specific instances and unique identifiers to what would otherwise be a cold and mechanical presentation. Stories with similar storyforms rely on this phase to place distance between them.
The storyWEAVING phase finds the Author deciding on what to reveal and when. Starting with the end and working backwards may instill a level of apprehension or suspense, but it has no effect on the actual structure of the story. Unravel Christopher Nolan’s Memento into its original chronological order and the storyform would remain the same. It most certainly would not have been as effective, but the meaning of the story–the argument encoded within the storyform–would have been understood to be the same.
The storyRECEPTION phase unfortunately relieves Authors of any remaining control over their story and thus, sits outside the purvey of this article. Suffice to say any number of intrusions, distractions or disruptions can contribute to the failed intent of a work. The Author can only write and hope that what they want to say will be heard and understood in the manner it was presented.
A Call for Better Storytelling
Presumably August and Mazin produce their podcast to inspire and enlighten those legions of writers who dream of seeing their work on-screen. Why then would they continue to disseminate disinformation in regards to structure? In a pattern that seems to repeat itself without fail, I have now been a part of three separate productions that plead no contest to the story provided to them. Not one single note. The reason for this rests in the fact that I was able to help the individual writers5 involved craft what Dramatica refers to as a “complete story. ” By focusing the talent and passion towards a larger purpose, we left studio executives elated and thankful. This response owes much of its success towards the structure and understanding of narrative provided by Dramatica.
In the end we all want a memorable and heart-warming story. A well-structured narrative, informed by the Dramatica theory of story, captures hearts and minds–leaving those on the receiving end wanting even more.
Structure is not what happens when. Structure is why it all happens in the first place.
Sometimes you feel like you’ve seen this movie before. The faces may have changed. Or they may be rocketing through space instead of riding horses through Monument Valley. Still, something about the overall feeling of the experience screams familiarity.
Ever watch Finding Nemo and start hallucinating that Marlin is the Jamie Foxx character from Collateral and Nemo is Tom Cruise? No? What about Back to the Future? Ever notice how Shrek is Marty and Fiona is Doc? Still no? You can’t see how Shrek and Marty both have to fight against others’ preconceptions of them and how Doc and Fiona stop running away and start pursuing a course of resolution in the end?
Let’s start with some simpler, more obvious examples of familiar storytelling. Everyone knows West Side Story as a remake of Romeo and Juliet. Warring families and star-crossed lovers permeate both narratives with each finding resolution in the unravelling of it’s lead character. Tony and Romeo both end their lives lost and in despair.
Many also understand Bridget Jones’ Diary as a modern re-telling of Pride and Prejudice The former wastes little time pretending to be anything other than a reinterpretation of the Jane Austen Classic. The evidence? Both tell a story where temptation drives the efforts of characters to better their station in life. If that weren’t enough Helen Fielding, the novelist behind Bridget Jones, named her romantic lead Darcy, even going so far as to describe him like Colin Firth (who portrayed Austen’s Darcy in the 1996 BBC version).
Adaptations and remakes naturally rest on common thematic ground. They’re telling the same story after all. But what about those stories that end up supported on the same foundation without even meaning to do so?
The Form Behind Narrative
The Dramatica storyform holds the message of a narrative. Seventy-five different, yet connected, points of story communicate the intent of an Author to the Audience. Unlike other paradigms that see narrative as different takes on the same story (usually heroic) Dramatica sees well over 32,000 separate and unique stories.
And this is only the current model. The theory of Dramatica contends that there could be 4x that number of specific storyforms beyond the current Western-biased model. They would require further research and development to identify, but theoretically they exist.
Ignoring those for the time being, Dramatica’s current ability to single out 32,000+ helps to provides us with a comprehensive and functional model of how stories work. It also grants us insight into the similarities between films, novels and plays that on the surface, seem to explore different thematic material. And occasionally–but less often than many would have you believe–Dramatica identifies narratives that have the same exact structural makeup, regardless of genre or intent.
Unforgiven and The Terminator
Turns out James Cameron’s 1984 sci-fi thriller and Clint Eastwoods 1992 Oscar Western share the same thematic endoskeleton. Both The Terminator and Unforgiven feature a plot of revenge to take lives (Overall Story Goal of Obtaining) and showcase a Main Character who learns that stepping up and preventing others from doing things actually solves problems (Main Character Growth of Start, Overall Story Solution of Avoid/Prevent, and an Overall Story Outcome of Success). William Munny and Sarah Connor would rather work their personal problems out internally (Main Character Approach of Be-er) which makes things difficult as the story itself requires external action to get things moving (Story Driver of Action and Story Tendency: Unwilling). And both probably wished they had stayed home as the end of their respective stories leaves gunfighter and waitress in a bad place ([Story Judgment of Bad*).
The similarities in thematic content continue. Kyle Reese and Ned Logan challenge their Main Characters to grow in similar fashion (Influence Character Throughline). Each bring up concerns of what will be–Kyle with his doomsday scenario and Ned with the financial struggles of a farmer (Influence Character Concern of *The Future) Both bring up issues of staying open to the possibilities of what could be–Kyle with his affection for Sarah and willingness to travel across space and time to be with her, and Ned with his openness towards going on the mission when he just finished saying he wasn’t like that anymore and his eagerness later to get some upstairs with one of the house ladies (Influence Character Issue of Openness). When you have a story driven by the pursuit of revenge that centers around a character who ends up completely changing how he or she solves problems, you need a character like Ned or Kyle to bring them there. No other catalyst will suffice.
Kung Fu Panda and Erin Brockovich
What possibly could the stories of an overweight Panda bear and a badly-behaved amateur lawyer have in common? More than one would have guessed. Both Kung-Fu Panda and Erin Brockovich present Main Characters defined and saddled by their outwardly appearance (Main Character Throughline of Situation). Creating problems for themselves by refusing to back down from their passion to help others, both computer-generated and real-world personalities ultimately find redemption for their actions (Main Character Problem of Help, Main Character Resolve of Steadfast, and Story a Judgment of Good). Unlike William Munny and Sarah Connor above, Erin and Po can’t wait to participate in the story’s events and jump into action as required by the story in order to get things done (Story Tendency of Willing, Main Character Approach of Do-er and Story Driver of Action).
Munny and Sarah feel like different characters than Po and Erin. The former group comes across reluctant and introverted; the latter eager and extroverted. Dramatica identifies the precise reason for this: all four stories require action for resolution, only one group feels comfortable doing so.
Defeating Tai Lung? Same as defeating PG&E. (Story Outcome of Success) Inspiring the master Shifu to prevent the monster his Dragon Warrior crusade created? Same as inspiring Ed Masry to stand up and prevent PG&E from delaying the case any further (Influence Character Resolve of Change and (Influence Character Solution of Prevent/Avoid). When you have a story where the Main Character refuses to back down from their drive to help and they end up changing the world around them for the better you’ll have a character like Shifu or Ed to personalize that modification.
Stories Like Other Stories
Out of the 300 films, novels and plays analyzed through Dramatica, a handful of doppelgängers exist:
(Thanks to Dramatica user Bob Raskoph for compiling this list)
Stories function through the same process of problem-solving. The details of the particular problem being solved and the manner in which resolution, if any, is achieved determine the Act structure of each individual story. Characteristics, costumes and scenery only alter a story at face value. The superficiality of scenery and genre does little more than flavor the deep thematic intent at the core. To witness this reality of narrative strike up a double-feature using the pairings above. Once you see past the shimmer of storyTELLING to storyFORMING you’ll never go back.
Dramatica functions like a time machine. Speeding you past months of rewrites and dead-end alleys, the theory sheds light on bad story choices while it offers up potentially better ones. Unfortunately, learning how to use it slows time down to a crawl. You need to trick your brain into thinking it’s not using Dramatica in order to get back up to speed.
In previous articles, we explored a new process of using Dramatica called The Main Character Playground. By applying a handful of random Gists to a single storyform, we broke free of our own preconceptions and learned more about the story we want to tell by completely avoiding it. The last step in those articles–Step Four–had us illustrating the random Gists with as many different genres of storytelling in an effort to find our Main Character. The process resumes in this article as we gently move back to our own work.
Step Five - Find Your Story
Spread out your various story illustrations, look them over and see if one speaks to you. Chances are this happened while you were writing them. Several times I’ve finished an illustration only to want to immediately drop everything I’m working on and start in this new story! That’s a good sign. You’ve written something that really inspires you and gets to the core of who you are. Save it for later.
Out of all these various illustrations that have the same thematic components as your original story, which one of them feels like someone you would want to spend days, weeks, maybe even months getting to know better?
Step Six - Blow the Whistle
Play time is over. Time to call your main Character home and set him to the task of illustrating your story. Having found the randomly illustrated character that speaks to you, simply replace his or her name with the name of the Main Character in your story, change a location or two and you should be good to go.
Variations on a Theme
Now there might be something more you have to adjust in order to make the illustration fit your genre just right, but try to maintain the flavor or nuance of your original storytelling. That uniqueness, that “fun” that you had illustrating those Gists? Try and keep the integrity of your words when it comes to folding them back into your story.
If you still can’t find one that rings out, try taking bits and parts from different Playgrounds and mix them together. I’ve taken the thematic “meat” as it were from one story (the Domain down to the Solution) and mixed it with the Benchmark from another and the Signposts from two other stories. Because I’ve generated so much story material to work from, an embarassment of riches awaits from which to pluck out the rarest and most exhilarating gems.
More often than not you’ll find the perfect story that only requires changing the name, maybe the gender association, and that’s it. That has usually been my experience. Other times you’ll have to do more and mix and match as I have described. The important part is maintaining that creative spark that you felt while you were doing them. Dramatica made it possible for you to forget about the structure and simply have fun writing and it will show in ways that should shock and surprise you. Just don’t lose that astonishment as you roll it over into your story and you should be quite pleased with the results.
Out of Nothing
And just like that, you’ll have your Main Character. You’ll know exactly what his or her problem is. You’ll know what issues he will be dealing with, the kinds of things he will be doing to avoid dealing with his real problems, and you’ll know how it all works out for him in the end. Along the way you’ll have a good measuring stick to determine his progress (the Benchmark) and you’ll have landmark-sized destinations for his emotional journey that you should hit along the way (the Signposts). In all you will have created a Main Character you never even knew existed the week before and one that fits perfectly into the story you have constructed so far. You’ll have a Main Character that jibes effortlessly with the kind of story you want to tell and the message you want to get across. You will have saved mountains of needless rewrites and weeks of frustration all because you wrote something that wasn’t even your story!
Inviting More Friends
Of course, now that you’ve finished the Main Character Playground, you’ll want to dive into the other Throughlines in your story and see what other new and exciting things to invent.
Before you do, take some time off. At least a day or two. The different Throughlines describe different points-of-view within the human mind and in doing so require different techniques to conceptualize. I’ve found it nearly impossible to switch to illustrating the Relationship Story or Influence Character after spending a couple days with the Main Character. You need time for your brain to reset and realign its receptors to the new perspective.
A week is ideal. Two weeks even better. After three weeks you will have completely forgotten what you did for the Main Character playground and that’s exactly where you want to be. When you maintain the entire story in your head the tendency is to blend certain items which risks losing the uniqueness. Save the combining and eventual shorthand for the writing process. Try to keep the Throughlines as distinct and individual as you can so you can get a good idea of what their respective thematics are really about.
We started with the Main Character because that is often the easiest to communicate and the Throughline most writers feel comfortable with. The other Throughlines–the Overall Story, the Influence Character and the Relationship Story Throughlines–all have their own unique spins on the Playground exercise. Understanding what these Throughlines represent makes clear the difference: different perspectives require different contexts and different contexts necessitate different interpretations.
The Influence Character Playground
When it comes to the Influence Character Throughline you’ll want to focus on their influence or impact on others. Too many times those new to Dramatica simply write that Throughline as another Main Character. The Influence Character only exists as a challenge to the Main Character’s way of doing things, so write that difference. Instead of “The unfair working conditions of Chinese immigrant workers drive Frank the railroad man to drink” as an exploration of Inequity as a Main Character Problem, think “Sam delights in treating the Chinese immigrants unfairly and makes sure the railroad men under his command watch and even participate” as an example of an Influence Character Problem of Inequity.1 One is personal, the other impersonal, and challenging.
The Relationship Story Playground
When it comes to the Relationship Throughline, save its Solution until the very end. Write the Signposts and feel where you think their relationship will end up. As of now, Dramatica supplies no indication as to whether or not the Relationship Throughline resolves, so you’ll have to rely on your instincts for that answer. If you can’t definitively choose one way or another, do both and see which one speaks to you more.
The Overall Story Playground
You may wish to skip the Playground on this one. Many Authors already have a pretty good idea of how things will work out objectively, it’s usually the subjective part of the story–the part designed to encompass emotion and point-of-view–that trips them up.
Assuming that is not the case, make sure you write the Overall Story Playground from the point-of-view of the group and use roles in place of personal pronouns and proper nouns. Ignoring names tends to make things more objective (key to this Throughline).
When faced with a Gist that reads “Stuck in Traffic,” write A group of travelers finds themselves stuck in traffic, for “Cooking,” write A group of students challenge each other to a cook-off. Always keep the Overall Story Playground focused on the group.
Unlike the Relationship Story, the Overall Story has an indicator as to how it resolves: the Story Outcome. As with the Story Judgment and the Main Character, the Story Outcome clues you in to how to end your story. In short, if the Outcome is Success then the Overall Story Solution will come into play. If Failure, then the Solution could occasionally come into play but in the end, the Overall Story Problem will win out and the inequity for the group will still exist.
When Playtime is Over
What happens when you’ve exhausted your festive resources? Take a break. Clear your mind for a week or two and then start writing. Combine the four separate stories into one. Using Armando’s excellent Instant Dramatica technique for combining all these disparate pieces, start breaking down yor story into four major movements. Domains, Concerns and first Signposts in Act One. Issues, Counterpoints and second Signposts in Act Two. Symptom and Responses and the third Signposts in Act Three and finally, Problem and Solutions and the last Signpost in Act Four.
Within those independent Acts, move the information around. Shift the dynamics to tell the story you want. This is where the art comes into it and where you’ll find rules non-existent. Truth be told, the Problem, Solution, Symptom and Response should be in very Act. Armando’s technique works for a synopsis. if you want something deeper, use it as a base outline and expand from there. The only rule? Keep the Signpost order the same and don’t move on to the next Signpost until you’ve finished addressing all the signposts for that Act.2
Fooling Yourself for Success
The classic how-to book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, tasks artists with illustrating their subjects upside-down. When inverting their depicted objects, artists concentrate more on line and form rather than replicating the perfect apple or the perfect tree. Far too often writers find themselves trapped writing and rewriting the perfect tree. The Main Character Playground exercise, and its accompanying brothers and sisters in the other Throughlines, frees writers from their own self-imposed limits and grants them an opportunity at creating something truly wonderful and unique. Something uniquely them. Something no one else–computer or otherwise–can copy.
Hopefully this exercise has given you a good idea of how to take Dramatica’s somewhat complicated theoretical ideas and put them to good use. If you’re stuck and can’t figure out the right Main Character for your story, or if you simply keep writing the same relationship over and over again, the Playground technique can help energize the creative writer in you and help you discover new and exciting characters to write about.
Artists need that permission to stretch their legs and run rampant on the blacktop in order to meet new friends and find out what they’re capable of. Hear the bell ringing?
It’s time to play.
NEW WORKSHOP! Interested in learning more exercises like this one in a hands-on environment? The new Dramatica Writers Workshop begins this September 2014. Designed to help put Dramatica to work for you, this two-day workshop features the Main Character Playground as one of its exercises. Tell me more!
Discovering a character true to your voice is one thing. Making sure that character fits with everything else you want to say is quite another. Thankfully, writers of the 21st century now have a tool to make that process easy and productive.
In the last article The Main Character Playground we discussed a technique for generating new characters from the same set of thematics. Relying on Dramatica’s storyform to keep it focused and the Random Gists feature to inspire a new course, we brainstormed a character both familiar and fresh. Step Four continues as we return to try a different take on our original storyform.
Random Gist #2
- Domain: Being the Last Vampire - Concern: Having Someone’s Condition Grow Progressively Worse
- Issue: Receiving Death Threats from Something vs. Security
- Problem: Having Low Expectations of a Particular Group
- Solution: Determining a Resolution for a Particular Group
- Symptom: Lacking a Plausible Theory about Something
- Response: Having an Intuition about Someone
- Benchmark: Going On with Something’s Everyday Business
- Signpost 1: Relating a Particular Group’s Origins - Signpost 2: Being Focused on Something’s Immediate Concerns
- Signpost 3: Slowing Something - Signpost 4: Being Promised to a Particular Group
What kind of a character would struggle with “Being the Last Vampire” and face “Having Low Expectations of a Particular Group” as their problem? Perhaps an aged Count who has little to no hope for the werewolves taking over his nightly reign of terror. It’s a decent start…
Being the Last Vampire and Having Someone’s Condition Grow Progressively Worse: Count Vladimir the Vampire refuses to leave his coffin most nights anymore. Having contracted a severe case of acne at age 433, Vlad prefers to stay indoors where his powers of seduction don’t have to compete with his rampant ugliness. As the nodules increase and his condition grows progressively worse, one thing becomes perfectly clear: Vlad will be the last vampire.
Again, Dramatica spurs a new creative direction! I had no idea why Vlad was going to be the last vampire, but now I have a reason and the explanation is inherently part of the story’s thematics. Wonderful!
Receiving Death Threats from Something vs. Security: To make matters worse, Vlad has started receiving death threats from the Order of Horror–a non-profit organization responsible for maintaining the integrity of nightly terrors. Vlad is a Vampire and thus–ugly or not–must continue to recruit new talent. The Order is not one to be trifled with, especially when they offer such a fantastic pension plan.
Having Low Expectations of a Group: Vlad’s disdain of the modern American female and their excessive superficiality drives him into hiding. With such low expectations of his prime demographic, why bother showing up?
Lacking a Plausible Theory About Something and Having an Intuition About Someone: Vlad’s friends try to comfort him, but not a single one has a plausible theory about the constant rejection Vlad receives that makes more sense than his foul appearance. His friends challenge him to try anyways, but he refuses. It’s hard to give it your all when your intuition tells you otherwise.
Going On With Something’s Everyday Business: The more Vlad continues to go on with the everyday business of Castle Bludskull (the upkeep, the finances, etc.) and finds that he has a place where he belongs, the less he cares about his growing acne condition.
Determining a Resolution for a Particular Group: In the end, Vlad has a change of heart. Instead of excessively worrying about his looks, Vlad determines a resolution for all monsters: that they all be welcome in his new Order housed at Castle Bludskull–the Order of the Grey Pimple.
Relating a Particular Group’s Origin: The story begins when Vlad fails to impress his latest victim with his family’s illustrious history of vampiring (Usually a sure thing). She can’t help but stare at the unsightly boil on his cheek.
Being Focused on Something’s Immediate Concerns: Vlad quickly loses sight of his personal problems once he receives notice of an imminent foreclosure on Castle Bludskull. He pours all his energy into saving his family’s castle.
Slowing Something: Business grinds to a halt as Vlad fails to bring in more customers and his reputation as a friend to the monsters slowly fades away.
Being Promised to a Particular Group: Dedicating himself to the future well-being of all monsters, Vlad sheds his well-worn vampire skin and promises to be a Concierge to the horrific.
Vlad’s story turned out to be quite different than I had originally thought. Gone were all references to werewolves and disdain for their lackluster takeover. Instead, Vlad’s story became one of accepting one’s hidden talents found when forced into a new job.
Interestingly enough, this story shares much more with the story of 16-year old Malina than simply the storyform’s thematics. Whether mere coincidence or a sign of something deeper within, this idea of finding the silver lining when trapped in an unbearable situation keeps resurfacing. Perhaps it appeals to something deep within me…perhaps it is something I truly want to write about.
Beyond bring a fertile playground for creative brainstorming, these exercises evoke the true writer within. By placing aside thematic intent and concentrated purpose, the Main Character Playground
allows a smooth extraction of that interior voice. Patterns of spirit rise to the surface, making it easier to identify a Main Character that truly represents who we are.
Things to Consider
Having found great success with this exercise, I’ve learned some important things:
Trust the Gists
Occasionally you’ll run into the same random Gists for different storyforms. Don’t change them! Keeping them the same will force you into working even harder to come up with something unique.
Trust the Gists Again
Other times you’ll run across a ridiculous Gist that doesn’t fit your current illustration at all. “In a Declining Market” for a story about space aliens and the Alps? Don’t change it! “Stealing Fire from the Gods” in a romantic story about two people who never meet? Figure it out. Take the challenge as an opportunity to stretch your dramatic wings.
Illustrate Problems, not Gists
A common mistake dwells in the act of simply copying down the Gist and using it as subject matter. “Being Depressed by Something” becomes “Adelaide gets depressed by sad classical music.” “Spur of the Moment” becomes “Chad joins Violet on a trip to the Ozarks.” Ok. But why are these problems? Everything in Dramatica revolves around the inequity. Domains, Concerns, Issues and Problems describe the same thing, only seen from a different perspective. Always make sure to illustrate the conflict the Gist creates and you’ll have a richer story.
Don’t Stop Playing
Sometimes your illustrations will fail. You’ll feel it as you go into them as your confidence level will drop to zero and you’ll think to yourself, I’m wasting my time with this nonsense. You’re not. Keep forging forward and finish the exercise. Know that in failing and flailing, you’re growing.
Don’t Force Your Story
Thrusting your original story idea onto these playgrounds will only scare away the children of your imagination. Approaching the process with baggage stunts the creative process and returns you right back to where you started. Don’t do it. Forget your story (and your ego) and force your mind to go somewhere it’s never been before.
Repeat as Needed
Now that you’ve done the exercise twice, do it again. And again. And continue to do it until you can’t do it anymore. Then do two more.
I’ve always found it takes about seven different trips to the Playground before I’m happy with the results. For some strange reason, the fifth iteration always strikes me as being particularly strong, but only if I continue on and do two more. If I stop at five, or at least know I’m going to stop, that fifth becomes an exercise in “getting it over with” quickly and sloppIly.
Experiment with what works best for you , but do push beyond your limit. The event horizon of your creativity holds the keys to your a brand new universe of writing.
As discussed in the previous article:
By distancing ourselves from that which we hold near and dear, we actually open up opportunities for potentially better storytelling.
It’s one thing to have a paradigm of story structure that can be applied to any story, a pattern that many can easily emulate. It’s quite another to provide tools that unleash untapped potential and illuminate subconscious desires. When writing a Main Character, there can be no more important task than getting to the heart of who we are and what we want to say and experience. The Playground Exercise, along with Dramatica’s Gist feature, rewards Authors with a chance to see within themselves.
Many voice concerns over Dramatica’s apparent write-by-numbers approach to storytelling and the restricted nature of some of its vocabulary. Those who never examined the theory beyond a cursory glance would do well to try a visit to the Playground. An immeasurable difference in their words to come awaits.
Many writers rail against story theory. How can a construct of chains possibly compete with the intuition of the artist? Story gurus and theoreticians can pontificate all they want, but their uncertified claims lie dormant. The proof, it would seem, lies in a writing exercise designed to ilicit the strengths of both the inspiration of the artist and the wisdom of the structuralist.
Blind spots exist in every writer. They motivate us to put pen to paper and thoughts into action. Unfortunately they also stick out like a sore thumb when it comes to our stories. A complete narrative demands the absence of blind spots. Failure to do so results in “story holes” the size of asteroids.
A Shining Light
The Dramatica theory of story sheds light on the blind spots within us. By providing a comprehensive objective view of our narrative, Dramatica supports us by filling in the holes. Have a great idea for a story but no idea who the Main Character is or what kind of issues he or she should have?.Dramatica has you covered. Have a great Main Character but no idea what to do with or how to develop a poignant relationship between him or her and another character? Again, Dramatica screens you from the emptiness of writers block.
Unfortunately much of what the theory provides looks something like this:
- Domain: Situation
- Concern: Progress
- Issue: Threat
- Problem: Expectation
- Solution: Determination
- Symptom: Theory
- Response: Hunch
- Benchmark: Present
- Signpost 1: Past
- Signpost 2: Progress
- Signpost 3: Future
- Signpost 4: Present
An unintellegible clinical assertion of something that is supposed to be beautiful and inspired and artful.
As a writer, I might have an idea of how to write a character dealing with Threat and Expectation, but looking at Hunch and Determination I’ll probably take a sidetrip to the Dramatica Dictionary and remind myself of what they mean. By the time I’ve wrapped my head around Dramatica’s precise terminology, I will have lost all interest in writing and instead want to find out what makes Dramatica work or read articles online about the theory (this last one is not so bad if you come here). Regardless the next step taken, I’ve lost all drive to continue writing and my story still sits unfinished.
Thankfully there now exists a way to get your creative mojo kicking with the latest version of Dramatica. Need help figuring out the perfect Main Character for your story? Someone who fits seamlessly within all the other themes and plot po ints you have going on? Or maybe you have parts of the Main Characters Throughline down, but some of the appreciations sit there and mock your inability to illustrate them succinctly. Dramatica can help, and it all starts with an exercise I call The Main Character Playground.
Room to Stretch
The key to this exercise lies in the generation of multiple revisions of the same story. By distancing ourselves from that which we hold near and dear, we actually open up opportunities for potentially better more original storytelling. It seems contradictory to say that by creating stories we don’t care about we actually find ones we really do, but it’s true. Let me show you!
First thing you want to do is grab yourself the latest version of Dramatica. Now called Dramatica Story Expert, this most recent iteration comes with a feature essential for this exercise–Gists. One of the theory’s co-creators Melanie Anne Phillips explains:
[Gists] are subject matter versions of the story points. For example, rather than reading as “obtaining” a goal might read as “stealing the crown jewels.” There are thousands of gists for you to use as story ideas, and you can create your own as well. Plus, you can even access them in the “Spin the model” feature which picks an arbitrary storyform structure, then populates it with randomly chosen subject matter to help you come up with story ideas!
Instead of Determination you get Working Out a Settlement for Something. Instead of Hubch you get Having a Sense of Foreboding. Melanie’s last point clues is in on the approach we will use to encourage brainstorming.
Step One - Nail Down Your Storyform
Hard to generate multiple version of the same story if you haven’t yet figured out what story you want to tell. The current version of Dramatica offers over 32,000 unique individual stories, or storyforms.1 Countless resources exist elsewhere to help you find the unique structure for your story (including my own Dramatica Mentoring service), but if you really have no idea what kind of story you want to tell or want to follow along, head on over to the “Project > Pick Random Storyform” and Dramatica will randomly generate a storyform for you.
Step Two - Generate Random Storyforms with Gists
Now for the fun part. If you’re not there already, open up “Project > Spin-the-Model”. Whether you have decided to create a random storyform or are going to use one of your own, make sure you select “Keep Existing Storyforming Choices” before proceeding. We want to make sure we’re working with the same thematics. This isn’t the real world where everyone throws in their opinions regardless of thematic consistency!
Next make sure “Assign Random Gists” is checked and select “Replace Existing Gists” below that. Pick a number between 1 and 20, then click the “Spin” button that many times. Eventually you’ll land on a version of your story with your original thematic choices intact but the actual storytelling random and unique. For example, using the storyform choices outlined above, a random selection of generated storyforms with Gists could be:
- Domain: Being a Winner
- Concern: Having a Particular Group’s Condition Grow Progressively Worse
- Issue: Being Threatening to Someone vs. Security
- Problem: Having High Expectations
- Solution: Forming Conclusions Based on Circumstantial Evidence
- Symptom: Writing a Thesis about Someone
- Response: Suspecting Someone is Not True
- Benchmark: Being at Hand for Something
- Signpost 1: Studying Early Historic Cultures
- Signpost 2: Improving One’s Situation
- Signpost 3: Having a Future
- Signpost 4: Coping with the Current State of Affairs
A little more writer-friendly wouldn’t you say?
You’ll notice that I skipped the Unique Ability and the Critical Flaw. These two story points tie the Main Character Throughline to the Overall Story. Without the context of the Overall Story (i.e., we don’t know what it is) we can’t properly illustrate these appreciations and thus, will leave them out of this exercise. If you ended up using this exercise to further develop your Overall Story (or if you had done the Overall Story first) then you could come back and flesh them out for your Main Character. For now, we will concentrate on the Main Character Throughline exclusively.
Step Three - Get an Overall Feeling
First thing to do is to scan over the terms and get an overall feeling for who this Main Character is. What kind of a character would have problems with “being a winner” and would struggle against people having “high expectations” of him or her? How about a 16-year old gymnast fresh from her gold-medal performance at the International Olympics? That sounds good for someone who might have issues with “being threatening to someone” and might ponder “having a future”.
Now, we lucked out with this one. Sometimes Dramatica will spit back a collection of Gists that in no way shape or form should be in the same story. That’s a good thing! We want spontaneity, we want contrasting story points, and above all we want originality. Dramatica’s unique story engine will make sure that all these Gists, regardless of subject matter, will thematically function together. So don’t worry if your Playgrounds speak of “Having Alzheimer’s Disease”, “Having a Song Stuck in Your Head” and “Stealing Fire from the Gods”…Dramatica will make sure they operate as a whole.
The key here is to create a character who is nothing like the Main Character you might have in mind for your story. The further away from what you know the better. The more fun you have with it the better. Change the genre, change the gender, the age, the occupation…change it all! Move away from your story in order to get closer to it.
Step Four - Start Illustrating
Now that we have a general idea of who this character is and we have obliterated any preconceptions we had of them, we can start writing about him or her.
For this step, I sort of use the technique described in Armando Saldana Mora’s book “Dramatica for Screenwriters” and included in the latest version of Dramatica–Instant Dramatica.
I say sort of because I slightly modify it for this exercise and for the Main Character Throughline.2 For the Main Character Playground I write two or three lines for each of the following (and in this order):
- Domain and Concern
- Issue and Counterpoint
- Symptom and Response
- Signpost 1
- Signpost 2
- Signpost 3
- Signpost 4
If this were the Relationship Throughline I might delay the Solution illustration to the end, especially since I have no indication within the storyform whether or not the Relationship will be resolved. Presumably we know this for the Main Character: if their Resolve is Change then the Solution will come into play. If Steadfast, then their Solution might fluctuate in and out of the story, but ultimately will not displace the Problem.
In addition to considering the Main Character Resolve, it’s also a good idea to factor in the Story Judgment. The Resolve will let us know whether the Problem or Solution wins out, the Judgment will clue us in to how the Main Character feels about it. For our purposes we have a Main Character Resolve of Change and a Story Judgment of Good.
Back to our gymnast and my first take on this Main Character Playground:
Being a Winner and Having a Particular Group’s Condition Grow Progressively Worse: 16 yr. old Malina struggles with her win at the 2002 Olymipcs. Everyone looks up to her as a champion, even her fellow teammates who, week by week, perform less effectively. Malina’s status as America’s “Golden Idol” makes it harder and harder for her to fit in with the team and other girls her own age.
Being Threatening to Someone vs. Security: Malina feels like a monster. Whether it’s on the mat or down at the mall, girls feel threatened by her and gang up on her any chance they can get. It’s an even bigger issue because, as an only child, she always liked the security she felt being part of something bigger than herself. Now her own success threatens that.
Having High Expectations: Malina’s problems stem from her having such high expectations for herself, not only as a gymnast, but as a friend, as a daughter, and as a student. The pressure is unrelenting.
Writing a Thesis about Someone and Suspecting Someone is Not True: This pressure carries over into school where she struggles with writing a thesis paper about another young prodigy, Mozart. Supporting conclusions about his notoriety become so difficult that she suspects her teachers are wrong about him. And if they’re wrong about Mozart, she suspects her teachers and even her coaches are not telling her the truth about her future potential.
Forming Conclusions Based on Circumstantial Evidence: Eventually Malina has a change of heart and decides that her teachers, the coaches, the girls on her team and the girls her age are all forming their conclusions about her based on circumstantial evidence. Just because she won a Gold Medal doesn’t mean she’s a winner at everything. With a great weight lifted, Malina walks the halls of her high school happy and comfortable in her own skin.
Being at Hand for Something: The more Malina has to be at the beck and call of her teammates to support them the more concerned she becomes with how badly they’re doing.
Studying Early Historic Cultures: Malina’s story begins in history class when a discussion of the Worl’ds Greats inevitably leads students to guessing whether or not she will join the history books.
Improving One’s Situation: Malina combats the jealousy by honestly trying to help her teammates improve their performance and their ranking among other teams.
Having a Future: Malina discovers she has a future far beyond simply performing at Olympics–she has the skills and temperance of a great coach.
Coping with the Current State of Affairs: Malina copes with being part of a team of mediocre players–a team she is proud to be a part of.
Ramping Up the Creativity
As you can see this is an amazing leap from that initial Dranatica report. Instead of a few stunted lines about Progress and Expectation and Theory, we now have a fully realized character–a Main Character we can easily fit into our story.
Note how the progression of Signposts simply works. They fees like the development of a character who shifts their world-paradigm and by doing so, resolves her personal issues. Dramatica determined the order of signposts heeded to elicit that kind of ending. The Gists help us move away from Dramatica. Tr y writing a downer ending using that order of Signposts and you’ll he hard pressed to do it. It won’t feel natural. That’s the power of Dramatica’s story engine.
We haven’t finished yet. Next week, we will cover the steps required to finish off the exercise and develop our creativity beyond where we ever thought possible before.
NEW WORKSHOP! If you found this article compelling, you might be interested in a new Dramatica Writers Workshop starting this September 2014. Designed to help you put Dramatica to work for you, this two-day workshop features the Main Character Playground as one of its exercises.
Learning to work with Dramatica challenges the mind. On an intuitive level writers sense the accuracy of its concepts and endeavor to incorporate these new understandings in their work. Unfortunately, trouble can sometimes arise when putting theory to practice.
When studying Dramatica one inevitably runs into the curse of James Bond. Presented with revelation after revelation of narrative, writers fascinated with the theory begin accepting everything they read without question:
For example, in most of the James Bond films, Bond is actually the Antagonist and Main Character because although he represents the audience position, he is also called into play AFTER the real Protagonist (the villain) has made his first move to achieve a goal (of world conquest.) It is Bond’s functional role as Antagonist to try and stop it!
Compelling thought, right? Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of Dramatica often cites James Bond as an example of a Main Character Antagonist. Theoretically speaking she is right (of course), but in practice this strict adherence to the Pursuit element of the Protagonist and the Prevent or Avoid element of the Antagonist only serves to confuse and muddle application of Dramatica. Is James Bond trying to prevent the Villain from carrying out their dastardly plan (as an Antagonist) or is he pursuing a course of action to stop the Villain from carrying out their plan (as a Protagonist)? Understanding when a story starts, the inequity that comes as a result, and the efforts to resolve that inequity can help one easily avoid any mental consternation.
Stories and Inequities
Stories start when the balance of peace shifts. Where once equity reigned, now an inequity sits demanding attention. Whether it be something that happens or some decision that is made, this Inciting Incident of a story automatically creates a drive for rebalance–a Solution for the Problem created.1 As mentioned in The True Nature of the Inciting Incident the Protagonist leads the charge for that resolution:
When it comes to the Inciting Incident of a story the general consensus is that it is the event or decision that creates the problem for everyone in the story…These are all significant events that create the inequity the Protagonist hopes to resolve, and force more actions or more decisions to take place.
Who came first matters little when it comes to resolving this particular problem. While the Villain of a James Bond piece may have indeed instigated the problem by pursuing some sort of world domination, the drive to solve that problem rests in James Bond. The drive rests in the Protagonist.
The Story Goal gives an outlet for the Protagonist’s drive.
Cheering the Failures
One must also consider the Story Outcome when determining the Protagonist and Antagonist of a piece:
Keep in mind that the Story Outcome is tied to the Story Goal. This is a good indicator as to how the author wants the audience to understand who the protagonist and antagonist are.
Triumphant endings leave an Audience with a sense of resolution. The Protagonist “wins” by solving the problem. Consequently, the Antagonist loses.
In what James Bond film does the Audience leave without that logistical sense of resolution? The bad guy always loses. Triumphant endings define themselves by their Story Outcome of Success.2 The efforts to resolve the story’s initial inequity come to resolution, the drive towards that solution proves a successful endeavor. The Protagonist “wins” yet again.
If Bond was the Antagonist then his success would mean a Story Outcome of Failure and would signify the presence of a Tragedy. While some versions may fare worse than others, the 007 franchise is anything but tragic.
Main Characters Who Antagonize
To find real world examples of Main Characters as Antagonists, one must simply find a central character driven to avoid or prevent the successful resolution of the inequity. Hiccup in the original How to Train Your Dragon comes to mind. The eager young Viking destroys his village promoting his father Stoick to pursue the Goal of Training the Next Generation of Dragon Killers. His father loss denotes a Story Outcome of Failure and helps give meaning to the films bittersweet ending.3
The titular character in Michael Clayton also serves as a wonderful example of one who works to prevent resolution. Arthur Eden (Tom Wilkinson) loses his mind during a deposition and Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) is sent to clean things up before the situation gets worse. As the one working towards a resolution, Karen is the Protagonist.
One would assume Michael Clayton to be the Protagonist–after all he is sent to clean things up as well. Yet, his task is to manage Arthur not the U-North class action lawsuit that affects everyone. Minor difference, but an important one. The Protagonist works to resolve the inequity that affects everyone in the story and continues to do so throughout the entire story.
Michael manages Arthur but eventually gives that up to prevent Karen and her U-North buddies from succeeding. His antagonism stays consistent up until the final scene where he lays it all on the line for her, offering a chance to cut a deal. Of course, no deal exists as she’s already lost… and Michael, as antagonist, wins. Like the original Dragons, Michael Clayton ends with a bittersweet failure. The ending feels like a win, but not the kind of win one finds in Top Gun, Star Wars, or The LEGO Movie.4
A Process for DeterminIng Protagonist
The determination of the Protagonist in a story comprises three steps. First, identify the inequity that starts the story. Second, determine the potential solution that will resolve that initial inequity. And lastly, establish the goal of the story.
As mentioned in the series of articles The Story Goal, this established endpoint is universal in that it applies to all the characters involved:
Note that this Goal does not come attached to any one character. No one owns the Goal of a story, rather it attracts and repels everyone within. Some will be for it while others would rather the inequity persist. Some may even be responsible for starting the problem in the first place. Regardless, look not to individual wants and needs for the Goal of a story. Seek the initial inequity and work from there.
The Protagonist–regardless of personal issues–will push towards that Goal, the Antagonist will oppose it.
Overkill? Perhaps, but the lets-see-what-happens approach that scoffs at such deep thinking often leads to broken and dysfunctional stories that sorry, cannot be saved in the final four months of production. A little forethought goes a long way towards ensuring direction of effort.
Respect and Accuracy
This question of Bond’s potential antagonism shows up from time to time online and in my *Introduction to Dramatica* class. If Melanie says so, it has to be true!
With all due respect, this notion of Bond as Antagonist only confuses those new to the theory. I remember years ago, when I was first introduced to Dramatica, that I loved this idea of Bond as Antagonist. As my understanding grew, my ability to defend such a claim became harder and more arduous. Add to this the fact that one of the theory’s co-creators advocates this position and the confusion only grows.
When Dramatica functions correctly, it is effortless. No mental gymnastics and no preventing the pursuit of negative goals that need to be reconsidered. Follow the three step procedure above and the process of identifying the Protagonist of your story should be painless and clear.
As a children’s film that advocates violence over a talk-it-out policy, How To Train Your Dragon 2 packs an uneven and chaotic wallop. Rife with emotional scenes that–while strong and compelling–lack any thematic connection, Dreamworks’ last gasp at greatness flounders under the crushing impact of its Alpha-male message. While Hiccup never fully adopts Stoick’s manly-man approach of “protecting our own”, the abandonment of a more measured point-of-view and the subsequent defeat of Drago Bloodfist conveys the reprehensible message by proxy. Securing his place as chief of the tribe, Hiccup proves to be no better than his father before him (though the ensuing happy song and pseudo-Quidditch match do their best to mask the meaning).
Stories argue a point-of-view.1 They employ character, plot, theme and genre in their efforts to advocate one position over another. Whether consciously considered or not, this fact of narrative carries message to Audience. In a medium predominantly seen as a safe-haven for children, a film that recommends aggression over temperance seems irresponsible and misguided.
Add to this a complete lack of any thematic heart to the piece and the message comes across as cold and heartless as the villain it purports to fight. Sure there are sad moments, but where is the Relationship Throughline?
Hiccup has his point-of-view and Stoick has his. They argue for a second–much like they did in the first movie How To Train Your Dragon–but then drop it as the young Viking ventures off on his own. Mother Valka picks up her husband’s point-of-view and for a marvelous split-second continues the Influence Character’s Throughline. While dad advocates protecting Vikings, mom advocates protecting dragons–both vying for protecting “our own.” Genius Influence Character hand-off.
Unfortunately the Relationship Throughline between parents and son withers and dies. The inequity between them persists, but the flashback-laden film leaves little time for any emotional development of their argument. Contrast this with the first film’s talented juggling of plot and character development and the failure of story here becomes clear.
How To Train Your Dragon 2 continues Dreamworks’ track record of squandering good will from the first Dragon film. Like Rise of the Guardians, Croods, Turbo and Peabody & Sherman before it, the dysfunctional narrative of Dragons 2 will drive Audiences away and fail to attract positive word-of-mouth. Stellar animation and heartfelt moments can only do so much when it comes to a poorly conceived message and an uneven delivery system.
When does story theory overcomplicate the writing process? The drive to understand all that is Dramatica sometimes works against Authors. In a case where too much knowledge can be a bad thing, suppressing the urge to overthink may prove beneficial.
Dramatica’s Crucial Element. In a theory as complex and comprehensive as Dramatica, the idea that one part may be more crucial than another tends to be an attention-grabber. Further examination proves the concept to be less important as the name implies. The Crucial Element is crucial to the storyform, not the story itself. It details the connecting tissue between the Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines, not the lynchpin for your story’s success.1 In other words the element is more crucial to the Author in understanding his or her story, rather than an element crucial for the Audience to pick up on. If you ignore it, other story points will make sure that the message comes through loud and clear.
Still not buying it? Chris Huntley, co-creator of the theory has this to say about the crucial element:
When all is said and done, the crucial elements are only ONE of MANY pieces of the storyform. Leaving them out of your story won’t ruin the experience for your audience, but adding them does tend to make the story stronger.
See? You don’t have to worry about it…
…still here? Sigh. Ok. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you. Time to crawl down the rabbit hole of structure.
The Problem with Crucial Elements
If you followed the above link, or have researched the Crucial Element previously, you came across this:
If the MC is change and the outcome is success, the MC crucial element is the same as the MC problem.
If the MC is change and the outcome is failure, the MC crucial element is the same as the MC solution.
The first makes sense. The Main Character was part of the problem everyone was facing (like Luke in Star Wars or Neo in The Matrix); they change and everything works out.
The second doesn’t. How can the Main Character have the Solution element and the Problem element. If his Main Character Problem defines who he is, how can he possibly be defined in the Overall Story Throughline as the opposite element? It makes sense that if our Main Character is dealing with Actuality and sees things for how they are, then logically he should have that same element in the Overall Story. Yet here is Dramatica saying otherwise. Won’t this make our Main Character schizophrenic?
The answer requires a little perspective.
Objective and Subjective Views
If a story represents an analogy to the problem solving process of the mind then it follows that a story should showcase views from within and without.2 Inequities (conflict) look different depending on your point-of-view. The efforts to resolve conflict will appear differently as well, depending on the kind of story you want to tell.
So while your Main Character may personally be suffering from too heavy a reliance on what actually happened (Actuality), objectively they might be driven to alter how things seem to be (Perception). Especially if you want to tell a story that ends in a Failure.
The following is an excerpt from an email I sent to a reader exploring this somewhat duplicitous stance Dramatica takes. The storyform in question identified these key story points:3
- MC Resolve: Change
- OS Goal: Understanding
- Story Outcome: Failure
- MC Problem: Actuality
- MC Crucial Element: Perception
Putting the Crucial Element to Work
“…when it says your MC has a Crucial Element of Perception that is referring to his or her function in the Overall Story. I’m not sure exactly what your Overall StoryThroughline is about but if, for example, all your characters were concerned with figuring out why 1/3 of the world’s population simply disappeared (totally ripping this off from HBO’s “The Leftovers”), then you might look at it this way.
Let’s say your Main Character leads a new religion based on the perception that the reason they are left here is because of something wrong they have done in the past, i.e. the 1/3 disappeared because of the “Rapture” and the rest are left to stay and ponder what they themselves did wrong.
OK. That is the Overall Story Throughline.
Now let’s say the Main Character Throughline is all about the man’s dead wife. He can’t get over the fact that he was responsible for her death (Kind of ripping this off from Inception). He was the one driving the car the night she was killed, he was the one who had too much to drink that night, he was the one who thought he could make it past the intersection in time…you get the point–regardless of whether or not it was an accident the facts of the matter are–he killed her. And he can’t get over it.
You see how this plays nicely into the Overall Story…here’s a guy who is torn up over what he did, and now projects that guilt onto everyone else around him, perceiving that this worldwide event is punishment for wrongs they all have done.
Perception when it comes to everyone else and those leftover. Actuality when it comes to killing his wife. The inequity at the heart of the story remains the same, it remains a singular instance of separateness. It simply looks like Actuality from within and Perception from without.
Your story is a Change/Failure/Good story. This means your Main Character will somehow Change their point-of-view, flip it to approach life more like the Influence Character, and will therefore resolve the angst and guilt he felt for his wife.
He does this by taking the Perception he was putting out for everyone in the Overall Story and placing it instead within his own Personal Throughline.
So instead of going to those religious zealot meetings and continuing the perception that they all are guilty, the Main Character turns it back on himself–maybe through therapy or whatever–and finds that the only way to get rid of his guilt is through changing his own perceptions of what happened that night. Essentially fooling himself into seeing that–yeah, maybe he was right to try and make it past that intersection. Just because he was drunk doesn’t mean to him it wasn’t the right decision at that time. The facts don’t lie, but he was the one actually driving the car…from his point-of-view he made the right decision…and that’s all that matters.
But see, by “taking” this element out of play of the Overall Story and using it for his own personal problems, the Main Character removes the opportunity for that Perception to have a positive impact on everyone. It is true that all these people disappeared, and it is a lot of pain for those left behind to go through–almost the same kind of pain the MC felt living a life without his beloved. A little perception–no matter how misguided–could have helped alleviate the suffering and depression of millions…but that’s not the story you’re trying to write.
Your story ends in Failure. Which means everyone in the big picture story–everyone “leftover” from this cataclysmic event–will be left unable to understand why any of this happened. The efforts to Understand (Overall Story Goal) will end in Failure. Instead of coming to place where they Understand that sometimes s*** happens, they’ll be forced to simply imagine what happened to their loved ones and work towards figuring out a plan to live out their lives alone (Overall Story Consequence: Conceptualizing).
Seeing Everything at Once
You can see how the Crucial Element plays out nicely in a story like this. What a character deals with personally may be different than what he or she puts out there in the real world. His or her personal “stuff” will still be connected–just not the way you think it will because you’re looking at things from a single perspective.4
Beyond simply connecting the Overall Story Throughline with the Main Character Throughline, the Crucial Element ensures a continuity of thematic intent–the whole Change/Failure/Good Actuality to Perception storyform you have decided to tell comes through loud and clear for everyone in the Audience to understand. In addition, the storyform has made the Main Character a complex character, conflicted on different levels. Always a good thing.
The question now is…is that the story you wanted to tell?
Dramatica can read your mind. Sure, it can help you define the conflict in your story, silo off motivations for your characters or even prevent your story as a whole from becoming an unintelligible mess, but the real magic happens when it starts predicting what happens in your mind.
Or, at least, the mind of your story.1
After twenty years of studying this incredible theory, I can tell you that the most impressive aspect of Dramatica–the thing that drives me to write hundreds of articles here and to teach weekend long classes– is its uncanny ability to accurately identify the missing pieces of a narrative. Every time I witness it in action I’m surprised and awestruck. Every single time I see it I feel like I’m witnessing something that should be impossible.
I’m seeing magic.
Interlocking Story Points
Dramatica’s core concept, that of every story acting as an analogy for a single human mind trying to solve a problem, makes this mind-reading a reality. In order to paint the thematic picture of a story to its Author, the theory offers the storyform. As a collection of seventy-five or so thematic story points, the storyform represents a holistic representation of the human mind at work. By showcasing both time and space simultaneously (with Static Story Points and Dynamic Story Points) the storyform argues a meaning–it argues the Author’s message. Many call for form, not formula when speaking of structure. While minds may differ on what they formulate and the conclusions they come to, they all carry the same format.
Stories work the same way.
Story points do not operate in a vacuum, rather they work together to create that single mind for the Audience to assume. If the Overall Story finds characters concerned with Obtaining something (either the gold doubloons or stopping a madman on the loose), then the emotional core of the story will find the relationship between the two principal characters transforming into something it never was.
Formula? Not really. The internal equivalent of getting something new is simply transforming how we think and a story–as a means of projecting an argument–needs that balance between external and internal. Without balance, the argument feels skewed and empty. Story holes are holes in the story’s argument and the Dramatica storyform makes certain the pieces of the Authors argument interlock in a solid and unbreakable way.
I Know What You’re Thinking
Understanding then the purpose of Dramatica’s storyform one can see how the mind-reading process plays out. The Author selects story points dear to them, perhaps a Triumphant Ending or a Main Character Who is Not the Protagonist, and Dramatica supplies the counter-balance to those choices. Writers can become so caught up in the minutiae of storytelling detail–like the color of a soldier’s uniform or the family history of a group of characters–that they completely forget what it is they’re trying to say. Dramatica keeps them honest and keeps them on track. You want your story to end in Tragedy? Then you’re gonna need this…
The magic persists when it comes to analysis. Whether working from the end to find the beginning or setting out to reach the conclusion, the problem-solving process remains consistent and coherent. Plug in what you observe and Dramatica will return what should be there. The feedback returns equal amounts of surprise and confirmation, with the former feeling more like sorcery than computational guessing.
When It All Falls Into Place
Analyzing a film or story with Dramatica? Nothing like it. With practice and insight, one can quickly observe and classify the reasons for a story’s success (and unfortunately, sometimes its failures). The most difficult task lies in figuring out a storyform that works from all angles. When writing your own work it’s a simple task to tweak and offset story points to make the storyform work. When analyzing the work of another those story points have already been set in concrete.
Dramatica will let you know when you have successfully figured out the form, or mind, of a story. Beyond simply working from all angles, the application will actually surprise you with information about the movie you never entered. It won’t simply work, it will conjure up the right answer…without you even asking!
How Did You Do That?
My analysis of Disney’s mega-blockbuster *Frozen* proved difficult. While I acknowledge its overwhelming success, I attribute that to more song and relationships than I do the actual story itself.2 The Overall Story lacks any real Consequence and the hand-off of Influence Character from Kristoff to Elsa feels abrupt and ill-timed. Knowing too that the final result was more a culmination of ten years of collaboration and capitulation rather than the singular vision of a driven artist, I was skeptical that any storyform could be found.
Imagine my surprise when–after selecting the story points I believed were reasonably close–Dramatica told me that Anna’s Critcal Flaw should be Attraction.3
A computer program told me that.
What is a Critical Flaw in Dramatica terms? In short, this means that the only thing keeping Anya from solving the story’s problem is an over abundance of attraction…sound familiar? Of course–her attraction to Prince Hans. How perfect Is that?!
Dramatica can do this because it understands story. Like the predictive text in the new version of iOS8, Dramatica can predict where a story should go based on what has already happened. With all of the other thematics–the “frozen” situation everyone was in, Anna’s eventual Steadfastness and a Story Driver of Action (among many other things)–Anna’s Critical Flaw had to be Attraction. The filmmakers came to it serendipitously because they all have minds that solve problems the same way. Instinctively, Attraction fit best. How long it took the filmmakers to arrive there is another thing.
I’ve glimpsed this invocation of wonder countless times. When analyzing Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon I knew that Stoic’s problem, and the problem facing everyone, was a refusal to accept dragons and weakling sons. What blew me away was when I went to check out the nature of Hiccup’s drive and saw that Dramatica says it should be Protection. That described the meekly Viking wonderfully! In order to combat issues of acceptance, a defensive posture must be taken. That’s what the story was about: Stand up and protect and things will work out.
An analysis of A Separation provided the same experience. As documented in the series “A Deep Analysis of A Separation” the selection of the Main Character’s Problem allowed Dramatica to work it’s sleight-of-hand and determine what everyone else in the story would be dealing with:
By selecting Cause as Nader’s Main Character Problem, Dramatica took the initiative and calculated the rest of the thematic material needed to tell a compelling story. Yes, thats right. The power of Dramatica, and its unique ability over any other paradigm of story, lies in its ability to take the parts of your story you know and provide with the bits you haven’t even thought of yet.
How can a computer program predict the necessary thematic elements of a story? Rather than relying on subjective interpretations of cultural narrative or sequences of beats that bring to mind visions of the Virgin Mary in tortilla chips, Dramatica stakes its claim on the human mind itself. We all instinctively know how to problem-solve. Why not use that process to determine the effectiveness of our stories?
Watching Dramatica predict and illuminate narrative reminds me of my first magic show. Poised on bended knees, I watched in awe as the magician seemingly made things appear out of thin air. I knew it couldn’t be real; magic is make-believe. Yet I still found myself drawn in, caught up in the delight of the experience, and anticipating the surprise and wonder of making something out of nothing.
Two decades since it’s first introduction, the Dramatica theory of story continues to amaze by finding just the right piece for just the right spot. Its extraordinary powers of perception elevate it beyond a simple outliner and make one wonder, like a mind undeterred by cynicism and ego, *perhaps there is real magic after all. **
‘Tis not a typo. If a functioning story resembles a single human mind trying to solve a problem then the duplicitous and haphazard nature of Pixar’s Brave suggests a split-personality. A psychotic mess of storytelling, this film of two minds exemplifies the need for a better understanding of story structure.
Pixar Animation Studios wrote the book on story during the turn of the century. Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Monster’s Inc., and The Incredibles set the bar for intelligent and well-structured storytelling. Strange then that their thirteenth film, Brave should grab a C+ on the critic compilation site Rotten Tomatoes. Logic dictates that success build upon success ad infinitum. Their film the year before, Toy Story 3, scored 99%.1 Brave racked up a paltry 78%. What went wrong?
A Tale of Two Directors
Writer director Brenda Chapman originally conceived the project in 2008 (then called The Bear and the Bow). When the film went into production she became Pixar’s first female director. This lasted until 2010 when she was replaced by Mark Andrews over creative disagreements. This split in vision, regardless of Chapman’s eventual acceptance of the film, fractured the story’s narrative and melded two incomplete stories together. Merida did turn out to simply be a boy in woman’s clothing (as speculated in the 2011 article Female Main Characters who Think Like Female Main Characters) and the film faltered on three key aspects of story structure: the Story Driver, the Story Limit, and the Main Character’s Resolve. Addressing these issues might have saved the film from the under-80 club.
For stories to argue their points effectively they need to establish impetus up front. Decisions will call for actions which will call for more action and so on. Once the Author sets the argument in motion with either an action or a decision, he or she must honor that structural point of reference. If a decision or deliberation ignited the fuel of a story’s problem then a corresponding decision or deliberation will eliminate it. Same if the spark had been lit by an action–a corresponding action would smother the flames of conflict. Actions can’t solve decision making problems and choices can’t solve problems of action. Audiences expect the second half of the action/decision decision/action equation to be found as a result of the first. Without it they can’t determine the causality of the argument.
Brave is driven by both actions and decisions, depending on which story you’re looking at. In the first story, the parent’s decision to invite suitors and the suitor’s acceptance of the invitation forces Merida to compete for her own hand. Had her parents and suitors decided otherwise, Merida would never have raised her bow and torn her dress. This story ends when Merida’s mother Elenor capitulates and motions for Merida to break with tradition. That decision brings to an end the argument over individual determination vs. predestined tradition.
The second story sits smack dab in the middle of the first and quite coincidentally, consists of a Plot Witch (or more appropriately a Plotwhich). Beginning with mother’s ingestion of the poisoned cake and ending with the sun rising on the second day, this alternate narrative finds itself driven by actions. Mother transforms and questions arise. Do I tell Dad? Merida might ask. Or do I keep it a secret and ask the Witch for my money back? What do I decide to do? Contrast this with the first story and its parental decree of betrothal. What can I do to fight back?
In either case, the narrative breaks. The two stories don’t form separate arguments the way one would expect when a work consists of different stories (Jerry Maguire, As Good As It Gets or Lord of the Rings). Instead what one finds is the sane argument being made in a way that contradicts itself. Do actions drive decisions or do decisions drive actions? In Brave the answer is yes.
Arguments need boundaries. They need borders to help define their scope and refine their aim. In story these markers appear as a finite number of options or a finite amount of time. Are we witnessing the pressure to solve a problem when time is running out or when options are taken from us? Again, in Brave the answer is yes.
In the first story you have a finite number of suitors: the clans MacGuffin, Macintosh and Dingwall. Add Merida to the mix and you have four little Indians to work through before mom and dad (really mom) has to make the final decision.
But before any of that can play out, Merida makes her deal with the devil and the countdown begins. Now, instead of being concerned with dwindling options we find ourselves racing against the clock. Is it about the promise of betrohal or the witch’s curse? Again, yes. The story feels like it ends when mom circumvents the original Optionlock and allows Merida to do what she wants, but it doesn’t. In fact, it goes on for another 20 minutes as we patiently wait for something to happen before the sun rises on the second day. What exactly we don’t know, because that all-important decision leap-frogged the original scope of the story.
When Both Characters Change
Regardless of the previous missteps-forgivable with the proper storytelling–the greatest offense to narrative occurs with that very same decision. Merida, inspired by her mother’s unique situation as a bear in a castle that hates bears, steps out in front of the clans and takes control of the chaos. Confessing her act of selfish defiance Merida proclaims her willingness to give up the bow and choose a suitor. At the very same time–and in a surprisngly touching emotional moment–Elinor also changes her point-of-view, insisting that Merida be allowed to choose in her own time.
What the what?
You can’t have both principal characters change their point-of-view within the same context. The original argument found individual determination pitted against tradition. To have both switch sides doesn’t resolve the conflict, it only swaps the players. The Main Character and Influence Character of a story represent unique points-of-view on the same thing. This is why you frequently come across the cliched line of dialogue, “You and I are both alike.” The conflict exists between these two characters because they’re both looking at the same thing. One side has their approach, the other has theirs.
Take the arument between black and white. Really, there isn’t an argument because black and white represent two different contexts. No conflict. Instead, the more appropriate argument would be to pit black and white against shades of gray. Now we’re looking at the same thing from two different points-of-view. Some see black and white, some see gray. Conflict ensues. To then have both sides switch and somehow argue for a compromise between them doesn’t work. You can’t argue black and white and gray because there are elements of black and white within gray. It’s either one or the other.
As covered in the article A Reason for Rules and the series Character & Change:
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.
Selfishness is one context. Compromise another. The context in which both Merida and her mother come into conflict surrounds the idea of doing what you want vs. following tradition. They both changed on this issue, ultimately proving nothing. Even more disastrous–they made this emotional change-of-heart before the Final Act.
The Natural Development of Character
Acts exist not to divide a story up into convenient sections. but rather to grant a subjective character the necessary growth needed to come to a place where resolve can change. Finding solutions to problems requires characters to examine all the different contexts. Leaving one out blinds the character to a possible resolution and cheats the audience out of a well-rounded argument. Acts exist to provide these different contexts, different areas where they can try out a solution.
Both Merida and Elinor change before they have a chance to look into that final context, that final Act. This False Moment is why the film feels like it ends early and why we have no idea what we’re waiting for as the sun rises. Why–after having this major emotional breakthrough in the banquet hall–would Merida continue to sew that blanket? (while riding horseback of all things). She already mended the bond torn by pride. Having her continue to sew would be like Luke saying “I’m not such a bad fighter pilot myself” AFTER turning off his targeting computer!
Watching Brave allows one the opportunity to experience the sensations of a mental breakdown. With two minds to choose from, separate contexts within which to measure change, fluid borders to throw our sense of time and space off, and a complete lack of logical and emotional progression, the events of Brave depict a state of mind in psychosis. Losing contact with the reality of proper narrative loses contact with the Audience. The result? Critical meh.
As a story consultant I’m frequently challenged with, “Why can’t both characters change?” Brave offers an easy reference tool and a cautionary tale for the insanity that occurs when one breaks with the tradition of story structure.