Latest Thoughts on Story
Throughline Tuesdays have been a popular addition to the site here, but it didn't take long before one of our mentor clients pointed out to me that I was missing out on a great alliteration opportunity--Throughline Thursdays! So I'm moving the feature to later on in the week. This clears up some time for the podcast and for our new weekly feature next week--EleMondays!
That's right--in addition to taking a look at the Throughlines of a particular story, I'll take time out each week to look at the Problem/Solution/Symptom/Response quad at the bottom of a Throughline. This group of four
Elements is an essential part of every Throughline as it motivates everything that works above it (
Domain). If some of this seems confusing, don't worry--I'll try to clear it up more next week when EleMondays starts.
For now, onto this week's Throughline Thursday...
Beasts of No Nation is a tremendous film that didn't receive the kind of recognition it deserved. If you saw the first season of True Detective and loved the directing style, you will absolutely love Beasts (same guy).
At first, one would think to find Main Character Agu (Abraham Attah) in
Situation. After all, he is orphaned at a young age and forced to engage in a brutal and ruthless African civil war. But he is not the only one.
This is the key to identifying the
Main Character Throughline: Find the problem and conflict unique to the Main Character that no one else deals with, or at least no one we see deals with. Through Agu's eyes we get to see and feel what it is like to engage in all these awful and morally comppromising
Activities. The scene on the bridge is a disturbing, yet important, key to the development of his Throughline. As an Audience member we are Agu, engaging in violent behavior.
Contrast this with everyone else in the story and you will see that the
Overall Story Throughline is one dealing with a
Situation: the state of a nation locked in civil war, turning to children to accomplish their goals. Here, the film doesn't look to the activities of these children as the source of conflict as much as it does look to their indentured servitude as soldiers. No one gets out. And no one can leave.
One too would be tempted to see the relationship between Commandant (Idris Elba) and Agu as one of
Manipulation or a
Manner of Thinking. But Commandant manipulates everyone. If there ever was a shining example of an
Influence Character Throughline of
Way of Thinking it would be the Commandant. The power he exerts over these children to kill for him and to do unspeakable things for him influences and challenges Agu to examine his own despicable activities.
This leaves the
Relationship Story Throughline in
Fixed Attitude. Certainly, with the loss of his father, Agu looks to the Commandant for a fatherly relationship. This worship and unquestioning loyalty lies at the heart of their relationship and fuels the love and eventual distrust and hate that builds between them. The final scene where Commandant looks to Agu to affirm their relationship and the roles they play in each other's lives speaks to this problem of what they think creating conflict.
When it comes to identifying the Throughlines of a story, a tender balance must be struck between each of the four perspectives. While it could be possible to see Agu in a Situation, trying to force the Commandant into a Fixed Attitude Domain seems an unlikely and troublesome fit. He is not one for Memories nor quiet Contemplation as a character in that Domain would.
For every complete narrative, there will always be one arrangement of all four that simply feels better. Developing this intuition is key for a writer wanting to explore all aspects of conflict through narrative.
By far, the most popular post on this site is an article I wrote six years ago called Plot Points and the Inciting Incident. And by popular I mean 5x-8x more views then the 2nd most beloved article.
When I first published it back in 2010--when this site was called Story Fanatic--I had included a bunch of stills that better illustrated the difference between the what most poeple refer to as the Inciting Incident and the First Act Turn. Well I finally found time today to add those images back in.
If you haven't read it, I would highly suggest you do as it does a great job of explaining why Syd Field's concept of the Inciting Incident is deficient when discussing how a narrative works. Truthfully, any discussion of Inciting Incident lacks saliency as it is a completely subjective appreciation. A more accurate, refined take would be to think of the
Story Drivers and how either Actions or Decisions propel a narrative from beginning and throughout each Act.
Last night was our monthly Dramatica Users Group meeting where we gather together with theory co-creator Chris Huntley and analyze a film through the lens of Dramatica. This month was the super happy sing-along Sophie's Choice starring Meryl Streep, Peter MacNicol, and Kevin Kline.
Story analyst confession here right at the start: I couldn't finish the whole thing. I had seen the choice Sophie makes on YouTube awhile back and found it one of the most upsetting scenes I've ever seen. I thought maybe this was the reason why I turned it off 45 minutes in--that maybe I just didn't want to get to that place again. Plus, it was kind of boring, and I had yet to watch Game of Thrones this week. And because my best friend ruined the spoiler in The Empire Strikes Back for me when I was nine years old, I have this thing about seeing movies and shows when everyone else does.
Turns out there was something else going on.
Main Character Throughline in Sophie's Choice is revealed through the character of Stingo (Peter MacNicol). One would assume that, because he is a man and because I am a man, and because I'm supposed to assume his position in the story that I would be able to relate to everything he says and does. But that wasn't the case.
The Dramatica theory of story identifies a story point known as the
Main Character Problem-Solving Style. This point of reference sees the Main Character solving problems either through
Linear problem-solving or through
Holistic problem-solving. Generally speaking, guys have a harder time relating to Holistic thinkers. They do great with Linear thinkers because hey--who doesn't like someone who thinks like them? But Holism? It just doesn't make sense to linear thinkers that you would waste your time trying to balance out things when you could go right for the throat.
Which is why I checked out so early.
I mean, I love Moulin Rouge!, but combine that scene I knew that was coming up with a Main Character who thinks that just by inserting themself into a situation that somehow someway they will be swept up and pulled along...and I'm checking out to catch up with the Starks and the Lannisters.
Other key points we learned last night:
- The actual "story" of the choice Sophie makes in her old life is really part of another tale, rather than an essential element of the storyform we discovered. It informs and motivates some of the action, and certainly her Throughline. But you could cut it out altogether and still have the story presented make sense to an audience who didn't know any better.
Overall Story Throughline of
Situation can be attributed to the unconventional threesome going on here and how one lives directly above the other. In addition all three principal characters suffer problems having to deal with the
Past. Add to that "dress-up" nights and a Pink Palace Victorian house that seems to be trapped forever in yesteryear and you have all the makings of problems having to do with people stuck in an external state.
Overall Story Consequencesof
Memories comes into play because of the
Story Outcome of
Failure. This can be seen in the evidence that their memories have destroyed them. To cope, Sophie drowns her memories in sensuality.
The entire class can be seen here: Sophie's Choice -- Dramatica Users Group on YouTube. A podcast will be available in the near future on the Sophie's Choice Dramatica analysis page.
Next month is the equally as happy Kramer vs. Kramer. Summertime fun!
Complete stories break down into four easily identifiable
Throughlines. These Throughlines correspond with the four different ways we can look at conflict:
Main Character Throughline is the I perspective
Influence Character Throughline is the You perspective
Relationship Story Throughline is the We perspective
Overall Story Throughline is the They perspective
Match those up with the four different kinds of conflict we can look at:
Situation or fixed external problem
Activity or shifting external problem
Fixed Attitude or fixed internal problem
Way of Thinking of shifting internal problem
And you have yourself the potential for a great story.
Up in the Air is one of those great stories. Written by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, this study of one man’s attempt to shove everything he has into a simple, easily transportable backpack makes for a wonderful Throughline Tuesday study.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has a point-of-view that he wants to share with the world and because he represents the
Main Character Throughline of the story, we share that perspective with him. Traveling from city to city to deliver his motivational speeches, he reveals his problematic
Fixed Attitude. Ryan finds joy in freeing one’s life of troublesome burdens: essentially, living life with a free mind.
Overall Story Throughline we see employees from around the country dealing with the psychological fall out of being “let go.” This attempt by Ryan and the people he works with to manipulate, or shift the
Way of Thinking, for these hapless souls exposes the source of conflict for everyone.
But Ryan doesn’t take this task on alone. The
Influence Character Throughline gives us Natalie Keener, a young upstart eager to make the process of laying off people easier for those who have to do it, suggests a point-of-view that doesn’t even involve the person doing the firing to be present in the same room. This atrocious
Situation appalls Ryan and hits him right where it counts in regards to his whole backpack methodology. Isn’t he essentially doing the same thing Natalie suggests in his own personal life?
Annoyed with her approach, Ryan takes her under his wing and the two develop a mentor/mentee relationship within the
Relationship Story Throughline. The difficulties involved in teaching the fresh-faced new hire how to speak to people faced with the crushing emotional reality of being jobless speak to conflict generated by
Up in the Air received critical acclaim when it was released. The presence of all four Throughlines and the soundness of the story had much to do with that praise.
The Dramatica: Secrets of the Quad class last night was absolutely insane. Melanie explained all you ever wanted to know about how Dramatica works and why everything under the sun seems to break down into quads. While she didn't reveal the secret sauce that powers the engine, Melanie did provide weeks and weeks of material for us to chew on.
Even for someone who has studied the theory for twenty years, I found the class overwhelming and mind-blowing. It's a rare treat to hear the mind behind a theory of story explain how it all works together.
On a side note, Melanie and I will be teaching a class on developing characters with Dramatica this Saturday. You can read more about it here.
Round two of the Jim & Melanie show starts up again this Monday night at 7pm Pacific. Tune in (or show up in person) and plug in as Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story, clues us in on the hidden meanings behind Dramatica’s quad structure:
Dramatica’s “quad” pattern has far more hidden within it than meets the eye! It serves to illuminate relationships among our own motivations, among characters and among the people in our real world lives. The quad can illustrate the process by which justifications are built, how blind-spots are made, and how archetypal characters interact. It provides timeline information about the order in which events should happen in your story and the nature of the progression of character arcs. It even functions as a template for scenes by treating them as dramatic circuits with a Potential, Resistance, Current, and Power. Ultimately the quad is a looking glass through which any subject, and topic, any perspective or feeling can be most clearly understood.
The event will be broadcast live and recorded for your viewing pleasure. You can watch it all unfold at the Storymind Presents: Secret of the Quad event page.
Want to learn more? Join the interest list to stay informed.