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 rally 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 illicit 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 untillegible 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.
When we see things the way they appear, we don’t notice the distortion. Without a demarcation line marked TRUE in big bold letters, we have no idea the true nature of what it is we are looking at. This dissonance between the observed and observer pinpoints a major pain point for writers: the failed first draft.
In the latest trailer for Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s as-yet-to-be-released sci-fi flick, we catch a fleeting glimpse of the event horizon: that point-of-no-return between two regions of spacetime. Both within and without, the space traveler spots what was and what is from a vantage point inaccessible from either.
As writers of fiction, we have no formidable wormhole. We can sit within the heads of our astronaut and describe what he or she sees or does, but we have no idea what that will look like to an outside observer. Conversely we can sit back and watch the action of astronauts and interpret their intentions and motives, but we have no idea what it feels like to be them or why they do the things they do.
The typical writing process, that prescribed by everyone from junior high school creative writing instructors to Stephen King in his book On Writing, encourages writing non-stop without critique. Subsequent steps call for writers to seal their work away. Gain greater objectivity by making the pages unfamiliar and new. Emploring the watchful eye of a friendly critic functions the same but with the same unfortunate byproduct–wasted time.
In this age of accelerated production schedules, one wishes for an opportunity to circumvent the spacetime continuum between draft and weekend read. One dreams of a wormhole between creativity and critique. Thankfully, this wonder of the universe exists.
The Plot Sequence Report
One of the more controversial aspects of the Dramatica Theory of Story, the Plot Sequence Report attempts to show writers what the structure of their story looks like from the inside. Buried within the Dramatica Story Expert application, the PSR opens up pinholes between Author and Audience, shining a light of greater awareness on those who tell stories. While every other single report in the program seeks to distance the writer from his or her work by offering an objective view, this report outlines the thematic sequences from the character’s point-of-view. Shrouded in secrecy and hidden in plain sight, the PSR often goes unnoticed by those new to the theory.
In his book Dramatica for Screenwriters, Armando Saldana Mora thinks it’s a “pity” more people don’t use the Plot Sequence Report:
[it] makes the most complex parts of developing a plot effortless. It naturally produces events that are irreversible, meaningful, and true turning points…It gives the story a deep, extraordinary meaning, blending plot and theme and giving significance and progress to both. It may be considered the ultimate source of event material and the definitive map for the story lines.
Quite an endorsement. Armando continues to discuss his interpretation of the Plot Sequence Report and how best to use it when outlining the sequences and scenes of your story. Can’t recommend his book enough if you’re looking for a programmed instructional approach.
Jim Barker, a frequent contributor to the Dramatica community has this to say about the PSR:
I’ve slowly been going through, pluggin old scripts into the software and have been surprised on a few occasions with how well aligned they were already [with the Plot Sequence Report]…some of them took YEARS to get where they are so I can attest to the shortening bit.
Had Jim been familiar with Dramatica earlier, it’s quite possible that he could have shaved months, if not years, off his development cycle. Dramatica is a time-machine for writers. Circumventing the days long process between drafts the theory, and the application that supports it, purports to show Authors a skewed view of their story.
Building a Bridge
The previous article The Mechanism of Story at Work discussed the idea of lenses in regards to the different elements found in the Dramatica Table of Story Elements:
Looking at the base of the table we see 64 potential problems. In reality, these 64 are really the same four elements repeated. They only appear different because of the lens, or filter, from above.
Imagine if each of the layers of the table was a different color lens. If you took at a quad of elements–any quad–and moved it under each lens the quad would look different. Some elements would pop out, while others would recede, some would become more clear while others would disappear completely. Regardless if you’re looking at the quad containing Knowledge, Thought, Ability and Desire or the quad containing State of Being, Circumstances, Situation and Sense-of-Self they’re really the same thing, only one step away. These lenses, or filters, operate as different contexts–that’s what makes the different quads appear to be different.
An Animator’s Perspective
This happens all the time when animating in 3D. Before, when all an animator had was paper and pencil, they were in complete control. As masters of the two-dimensional page, these artists were able to draw the characters precisely where they wanted them. When the computer came along, all that changed.
In 3D a character could appear to be standing on a tabletop from a certain perspective when he really isn’t. Tumble that point-of-view to something deeper and off to the side and the reality of the posing becomes clear: the character rests several feet away from the table. From that limited initial perspective everything appears to be lined up, when really they weren’t as close as originally thought.
The Truth Revealed
The Plot Sequence Report gives you, the Author, the limited perspective of the characters. The Dramatica Table of Story Elements tumbles your view of the thematics and shows you where everything truly lies.
Let’s say the second Act of your story finds your Main Character struggling to traverse an unfamiliar land. Looking at the Table of Story Elements we see the Signpost of Doing under Activity and recognize this as the kind of problem our Main Character will be dealing with. Underneath we can see that the kind of Issues he will be dealing with will have something to do with Skill and Experience, Wisdom and Enlightenment. The unfamiliar part covers his lack of Experience in the area while his Skills at riding horses or hiking steep mountain will also come into play. His lack of Wisdom towards dealing with the inhabitants might also factor in, as will the Enlightenment he gains along the way. Knowing this, we can start writing our 2nd Act with these sequences in mind…or at least we can try.
Diving into the story and trying to write from the inside while knowing what it looks like from outside…is just plain weird. When writing the Main Character we want to become this person, we want to know what the world of the story looks like to him or her. A quick glance at the Plot Sequence Report generated by Dramatica satisfies our curiosity.
Let’s say the PSR for our Main Character tell us this:
Act two concentrates on “engaging in a physical activity (Doing)” and is explored in terms of Situation, Circumstances, Sense of Self and State of Being
Now this is something we can write. Our Main Character, a stranger in a strange land, finds himself struggling to cross a rushing river–warmth and food sitting on the opposite bank. He dives in but soon aborts, the circumstances of a childhood drowning accident too much for him to handle. His inflated self-ego refuses to let him stay put for long and he dives in again…only this time he finds he’s not a swimmer and the current carries him downstream.
From an objective view we see that our traveler didn’t have the skills to swim or the wisdom to find another way. His experiences as a child hampered his chance at getting across and clouded any insight he may have had into himself. But it would have been near impossible to reach that point in our writing if that was all we knew.
The subjective view provided by the PSR flavors our writing with emotion and empathy. Instead of dealing with pawns on a chessboard, we find ourselves deep within the conflict struggling to find our way out. The Plot Sequence Report invites us in because it knows our story. It knows what kind of ending we want, what kind of paradigm shift we want for our principal characters, and what kind of thematic focus we want established. The application winds up all these disparate point of story and shows us what it looks like from the inside. It gives us vision.
Warming up to Dramatica
The most difficult part about working with Dramatica lies in its objective take on the elements of story. Those who rant about the confusing nature of the program, the “steep learning curve”, or the obscure terminology are simply doing so as an act of rebellion against this unfamiliar point-of-view. When, if ever, do we get an opportunity to step outside of our work, or ourselves for that matter?
The Plot Sequence Report bridges the gap between the cold-hearted reality of what’s really going on and the fun subjective surprise of what’s next? The PSR feels more organic, less mechanical than the Table of Story Elements. With the TSE, every factor locks in as true–no variance, no surprise to flavor a story.
Writers want something more akin to painting. They desire dirt and grime and the messiness that comes from mixing and matching media and texture. The Table of Story Elements paints with primary colors; the Plot Sequence Report explicitly messes these colors up so that the end result feels less mechanical and structured. To the characters things may look a little bluer and maybe a little greener than they really are. So the writer ties those things together when the truth is–they’re really just blue and green.
If Dramatica comes off stodgy and cold, turn to the Plot Sequence Report. There you’ll find the colorful and playful aspects of narrative that probably attracted you to writing in the first place. Enjoy the ability to cross space and time with your Dramatica-fueled spaceship and write with the confidence that the universe beneath your feet won’t change.
A process for delivering meaning. Story exists as a carrier wave for an Author’s intent. Many want to say much, but much gets lost in the many ways of sending that message. Writers who comprehend the machine can convey their purpose with greater accuracy.
Everyone knows to divide a story into Acts. Ever since Aristotle first put into words “Beginning, Middle and End”, writers across the globe have grouped the events of their stories into large movements. Why not? It feels right and generally leads to a complete, well-rounded story.
But why do they feel that way? What purpose do these movements have?
An earlier article, The Reason for Acts, answered this question:
This is why Acts exist within a story. They signify the change in dramatic focus the characters take in order to solve the problems within a story. The reason there are only four acts in every complete story is because for every problem we can experience in our lives, there are four major contexts, or dramatic approaches, we can take in order to go about effective problem-solving.
The article gives examples of large movements within popular films and makes an argument why four movements cover conflict better than three. Investigating a set of mysterious deaths, and chasing down and capturing the men responsible mean nothing without an attempt to understand the motive for murder. A mysterious island playing captor to air-disaster victims, its dark and troubled history mixed with an almost certain doom of things to come falls short if it fails to also cover the deteriorating conditions of the fragile community the survivors have managed to construct. In each of these examples, the drive to solve propels the reader or Audience memeber from one movement to the next. Acts exist because the Audience has no idea where the solution of a story rests.
The Stick in the Aquarium
Chris Huntley, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story, often refers to the analogy of a stick thrust into an aquarium when discussing the hidden nature of a story’s problem. When you look at a stick from different angles, submerged in the water, you can’t tell whether it is straight or bent. Is it a straight stick that looks bent because of the water, or is it a crooked stick that looks straight for the same reason? When looking from a single perspective–as you do when only looking at it from the viewpoint of a single Act–you really can’t tell. When you see things from a limited point-of-view, you don’t notice the distortion. You have to look at the stick from all the different angles (all the different Acts) before you can safely answer that it is most likely straight or most likely bent.1
More than an opportunity for increasing complications, Acts work to round out and complete the argument being made by helping us hone in on the actual problem.
The Spiral Locator
Imagine a coiled spiral. Somwhere on this spiral lies the inequity at the heart of a story. As we encounter this spiral at the beginning we have no clue as to where the problem sits. It could be at the top of the coil, at the bottom, or somewhere lost in the middle. We have no idea. We just know something is wrong.
We traverse the coil–moving up, moving down–looking for that bump, looking for that pea under the mattress until finally we hit upon it. Now we may still have more coil to investigate. Just because we think we’ve found it in one area doesn’t necessarily mean the problem won’t rest in another. So we continue our trek until we have fully examined every inch of that story spiral. Only then can we confidently say–the problem most likely rests here.
Of course, then we need to check the spiral from alternative angles (the other Throughlines of a story) to cross-reference and remain honest with ourselves, but regardless, the mechanism is the same. View the conflict of a story from different contexts in order to determine the best possible area for resolution.
Plot as Context
The storyform for her shows how the unique pairing between Theodore and Samantha generates a Concern of Understanding between them. The previous article The Relationship Behind Every Great Story discusses how the Concern of the Relationship Story Throughline can also be seen as a Goal for their relationship. In order for Theodore and Twombly’s relationship to work out, they need a better understanding of each other.
Diving deeper, the storyform for her lists the Act order for the relationship as Doing, Obtaining, Gathering Information and Understanding. This means the relationship between man and machine will be explored in terms of Doing in the First Act, Obtaining and Gathering Information in the Second, and Understanding in the Third. Take note of that last Act. The story takes the time to examine Understanding between them, even though that has been a Concern all along. As a Static Plot Point Appreciation, the Concern of a Throughline exists in every Act. It’s there all the time. If Understanding was a Concern or potential Goal, why did they wait until the very last moment to explore it as a potential area for resolution?
Remember the spiraled coil. Just because something is a Concern doesn’t mean you know up front that that is what needs to be achieved or reached. The Author knows, but the Audience does not. This is the difference between the objective view of a story held by the writer and the subjective view held by those experiencing the story.
Self-centered behavior drives the wedge between Theodore and Samantha. Self-awareness seen in terms of Doing is different than self-awareness seen in terms of Obtaining or in terms of Gathering Information or in terms of Understanding. By virtue of plot, the Audience looks at the same thing in each Act–only through a different context, a different lens. By viewing through these different lenses, the Audience gains a better understanding of where the problem truly is and ultimately how best to solve it. It might look like a problem in one context, but something entirely different in the next. The nature of the Act structure is one of realization: by the end of the story, the Audience knows as the Author does.
When we look at the objective view of story provided by the Dramatica Table of Story Elements, we see time. When viewed from the subjective view of the Audience, a story seems boundless and open to anything. The Author may have encoded the meaning, but as an Audience member we’re along for the ride. Temporal elements, like Signposts and Acts, have to be explored piecemeal in order to suss out that meaning. Plot acts as a filter. This mechanism of Acts acts as a lens granting greater resolution.
Looking at the base of the table we see 64 potential problems. In reality, these 64 are really the same four elements repeated. They only appear different because of the lens, or filter, from above. When we look at these elements from a single perspective, as we do with the example of the stick in the aquarium or through a single Signpost (Act), we can’t tell its true nature. We know it’s crooked. We sense the pea. We just can’t be sure what it is because we don’t know the level of distortion.
We need those multiple perspectives. We need those multiple contexts and subsequent Acts in order to better triangulate (really quadrangulate) the source of trouble.
In her, Theodore and Samantha fail to reach that greater Understanding of one another. Having traversed those Acts and witnessed the same failure in the larger story, we know a greater awareness of our surroundings to be the answer to their interpersonal problems. We sense that relief that comes when Theodore walks up and outside and soaks in the world around him. We may have failed in our relationship, but we now know.
And we owe that greater understanding of what the films means to the mechanism behind it all.
Protagonists fight for the central Goal of a story. Antagonists prevent it. Amidst this epic struggle a relationship develops between two principal characters, a relationship that reflects and balances out the more obvious fight between good guy and bad guy. To maintain this parity between big picture and bonding, Authors may find the idea of a Relationship Story Goal helpful.
Love stories present a challenge to writers. Buddy films like Toy Story or 48 Hours, father/son films like How to Train your Dragon or October Sky, and mentor films like The Matrix or Kung Fu Panda inherently provide rich conflict because of the nature of the relationship between the two principal characters. Bringing meaningful conflict to a romantic relationship, one where both find themselves enamored of the other, requires greater investigation. Key starting point? Find what it is that must be done for the relationship to succeed and you’ll find a source for conflict.
The Source of Trouble
Four Throughlines, four Problems. Overall Story, Main Character, Influence Character and Relationship Story. Each represents a different perspective on a story’s central inequity. By showing an Audience member that what they thought was the problem actually looks like something completely different from another point-of-view, a writer can insure that what they want to say comes across without reticence. The story functions as a whole and complete argument.
The Problems in each Throughline well up from the base of a story and create what are known as Concerns. Luke constantly tests himself in Star Wars generating a Concern for himself that his life isn’t progressing fast enough. The oppressive control by the Nazis in Casablanca fashions a Concern of obtaining Letters of Transit. Nemo’s headstrong refusal to see his disability as a hindrance in Finding Nemo begets a Concern of how he’ll be able to survive without his dad around. In each of these examples both Problem and Concern function as Static Story Points, meaning they persist from beginning to end.
Positioning Towards the Goal
Alleviating these Concerns becomes the primary focus of each Throughline. The energy directed towards their completion can make them appear as individual Goals. Nemo wanting a future he can call his own, Luke wanting to constantly move on to the next step in his own personal “evolution”–these Concerns give each Throughline a point to aim for. Point of fact, the Concern for everyone in the story (the Overall Story Concern) serves as the actual Story Goal within the Dramatica storyform. Take a look at any storyform found in the Analysis section of the Dramatica website and you’ll find that Overall Story Concern shares the same apprecation as the Overall Story Goal. In Casablanca Nazi control leads to everyone wanting Ugarte’s Letters of Transit (Story Goal: Obtaining) but that authority also results in Renault bargaining for sexual favors and requiring that he always win at Rick’s–a general Concern for everyone (Overall Story Concern: Obtaining).
While Dramatica doesn’t call for a Main Character Goal or an Influence Character Goal, their individual Concerns come closest. This is because the Type level of the Dramatica Table of Story Elements–the level at which the Concerns rest–approximate what most think of as “plot”. Obtaining, the Future, Changing One’s Nature and Understanding all sound like plot-level story devices.
Our Greatest Concern
When it comes to the Relationship Story Throughline, the Concern between the two gives pause. Is it one’s concern about the other? Is it something they wish they always argue about? No and no. The Relationship Story Concern functions exactly as the Concerns in the other Throughlines in that it marks a point for aspiration. It differs from the other Throughlines because instead of providing focus for an individual or group of individuals, the focus remains on the relationship. Yet like the other throughlines, this focus can be seen as a Goal.
Terry Malloy and Edie Doyle from On the Waterfront have to get their heads around how they’re going to fit together when they’re two completely different people. The film her shares the same dynamic between two completely different people (one human, one computer), yet their struggle lies in their lack of understanding of one another. The couples in both films have to figure out how they’re going to make it work, but both require a diiferent endpoint. Both generate a different Concern.
Terry’s capacity for illegal activity creates a Concern in their relationship over conceptualizing how to make it all work out. They’re so different they can’t wrap their heads around it. The self-obsessiveness between Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) begets a Concern of misunderstanding of intention and purpose to their relationship. This is what their individual Concerns look like from the outside. Dive into either story and ask the individual characters whether they felt these Concerns and the answer would most likely be no.
Becoming Familiar with a New Perspective
The Dramatica storyform presents an objectified view of the Author’s argument. It is not subject matter nor does it provide points of reference for dialogue. The Relationship Story Concern looks to us–from the outside as Authors and Audience–as the kind of thing needed to bring the two together. To bring peace and equity in their relationship. Looking at this story point from a more objective view alleviates the confusion that comes when we try to get into the minds of our characters and figure out what they personally are concerned with.
The struggle most writers encounter with Dramatica is detatchment from their own work. The fun part of writing, the reason most are writers in the first place, lies in entering into the story and becoming these differenct characters and living their different lives. Stepping back seems alien and cold and completely unintuitive–and they’re right. Objectivism provides no shelter for intuition.
But in order for a story to make sense, in order for it to exist without holes and without admonition, a tool like Dramatica becomes ultimately necessary. We can’t see our blind spots. It’s original slugline–The Ultimate Writing Partner”–fits best as it describes the relationship between the program and Author. It’s like that one friend who you loathe sending your work to because you know they’re going to find exactly what’s wrong with it. Dramatica works the same, providing an objective view of your story.
The Goal of Every Relationship
Every potential bond seeks a merging of two. Like the union that develops in a story between the two principal characters, Authors must find hallowed ground for both subjective and objective, for both their intuition and an objectified view like Dramatica. When it comes to the Relationship Story Concern between two lovers, focus not on what the characters themselves would be concerned with, but rather ask what is needed for this romance to work out, from an objective standpoint? This Goal is not a goal for the characters, but rather a goal–or mark–for the Author to hit. Strike this balance and you’ll find yourself well on the way towards mastering narrative.
A disappointment. After 2009’s truly remarkable A Separation, the expectations for Asghar Farhardi’s latest dysfunctional family thriller could only lead to a let down. Slow and laborious as it sputters to a start, The Past aims high…and lands low.
Two major missteps–an Overall Story Throughline that takes forever to begin and a Main Character who goes missing for a third of the film–contribute to the general dissatisfaction.1 While the film scored a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, closer examination reveals reviews apologizing for the film’s lack of pace and direction. In the end, The Past paints the portrayal of a screenwriter who started out writing one thing but ended up writing something else.
The Overall Story Throughline, that of a woman who committed suicide upon learning of her husband’s affair, doesn’t begin until daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) reveals what she knows. This lack of a general “plot” imparts the question within the viewer, What is this story even about? and When is this going to end? The Throughline eventually kicks in, leading to Samir’s investigation into the truth about his comatose wife, and Farhadi masterfully composes the action in such a way that one can’t help but be on edge for something as banal as a stained shirt. Yet, this is the same time the Main Character drops out of the story.
Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), an Iranian man caught between two worlds, returns home to finalize his divorce from his wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo). As Main Character, Ahmad provides our eyes and ears on the story’s events. As one mystery unfolds after the other we journey with him, discovering the tenuous relationship between our ex-wife and her lover’s son. What Ahmad learns, we learn. When he departs the story, so too does our level of empathy.
The argument could be made that Ahmad hands-off the Main Character Throughline to Samir (Tahar Rahim): both men find themselves caught between two worlds–an unfortunate circumstance that threatens to tear apart everyone around them. But then who challenges this new vessel for our emotions? Worse, why leave the final culmination in the literal hands of a character we barely know?
The Past received several nominations but only won 1/4 of them. A Separation received twice as many nominations and won 3/4 of them. The reason? The latter had at its core a solid and well-structured story, the former struggled to get one started–and when it did, the film took us right out of it.
A malaise threatens the landscape of screenwriting. A dark pretentious cloud of misunderstanding and misdirection, this fiend fogs the minds of would-be Authors and reduces the beauty of subtle complication to clickable buzz words. It’s name? The Trope.
Bandied about from coffee house to story room, the trope carries as much significance to the structure of story as the MacGuffin; that is to say, it’s completely worthless.1 Like it’s Hitchcockian cousin, this notion of story breeds a level of confidence in comprehension that when fully examined, simply doesn’t add up. Frustration sets in the moment one hears the trope thrown about with so much familiarity from accomplished screenwriters. Why waste bandwidth on an ineffectual understanding?
Definition not Really
From the TvTropes “wiki” page:
Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.
In other words, clichés.
Tropes are not cliches…The word cliched means “stereotyped and trite.” In other words, dull and uninteresting…We are here to recognize tropes and play with them, not to make fun of them.
Yet, in creating this massive glossary of familiar cultural shortcuts TvTropes has done just that–made storytelling dull and uninteresting. They have made the act of writing a story something stock and commonplace. Something banal and imitative.
Worse, the meme of tropes gives birth to atrocious infographics like this Periodic Table of Storytelling:
Presented in this fashion one gets the sense that tropes are crucial towards the formation of a story. If the original Periodic Table of Elments illuminated the chemical makeup of gasses and solids in our Universe, then surely this Table of Storytelling Elements must shed the same light on narrative. Yet this chart says nothing of the true chemical composition of story. It says nothing of how to craft an argument with a mix of character, plot, theme and genre. It doesn’t share insight on how to deliver something meaningful about the human condition. It says nothing signficant.
Instead, it tells us that an Act is more popular than 3 Acts and that Chekhov’s Gun beats out Backstory when it comes to subjective interpretations of storytelling devices found in cinema and in television. Sounds more tripe than trope. The popularity of one cultural shorthand in reference to the other fails to offer Authors better insight towards getting what is in their heart out and onto the page. By pretending to grant wisdom, the trope deceives the writer.2
The Young and the Lesbian
Consider the character trope Young and in Charge:
the leader is a person younger than all the rest, maybe even a kid. This usually shows that the young leader is smarter than his or her adult lackies, or that some manner of higher authority (usually their powerful parents) has placed them in charge. In any case, this usually makes for an interesting character dynamic.
Ok. So now that I know that having a kid in charge is “interesting”, how does that help me write my story? Better yet, what sort of thematic statement does this trope portend? The answer to both questions is, it doesn’t.
Writers will jump to their feet and, pointing index fingers high in exultation, exclaim “Johnny’s that trope of Young and in Charge!” Fellow writers nearby, having paid their dues online memorizing these concepts, will nod in agreement and elbow each other with a shared confidence usually reserved for FreeMasons. But what really has been accomplished here? Johnny is young. And in charge. But is this some destiny he has wanted to avoid all his life? Perhaps his position, a lie built on the false memories of aging elders, engenders feelings of hatred and plots of revenge amongst his peers. We’ve said nothing of the true dramatic potential at the center of his position, yet somehow we come away with this feeling that we understand something profound about our character–something that ties him into a long history of similar characters before him. In reality, we verge on the precipice of cliché.
Many turn to tropes in an attempt to better understand story:
Regarding Schoolgirl Lesbians. Does that trope apply if the characters are schoolgirl aged but the setting doesn’t involve school?
Does it really matter? Regardless of whether the trope applies or not, in the end it will have absolutely zero effect on what it is you’re trying to say with your work. What do you want to say about Schoolgirl Lesbians? Do relationships like that require special attention to thrive and grow? Does the idea that they belong together no matter what threaten to destroy them both (as in Heavenly Creatures)? These are questions writers should be asking, questions that leads to a better understanding of the purpose behind the words on the page, questions that call upon structural elements to support that conclusion. Not questions about schoolgirl lesbians that can only lead to answers like this:
Difficult to say. It sounds to me like there’s a huge amount of overlap with Romantic Two-Girl Friendship, but that page specifically says that if the relationship is “explicit” then it falls under “Schoolgirl Lesbians”. Based on that, I would assume that it applies to two girls who are of schoolgirl age regardless of being in school, but only if they are definitely seen to be in a relationship.
Nonsense. Nonsense that wastes time categorizing storytelling shorthand, not story.
Ingredients Over Presentation
In truth, the trope speaks of superficiliaty, not superstructure. The Dramatica theory of story makes a clear distinction between the actual story, or storyforming, process of writing a narrative and the way in which those structural elements unfold on screen or on the page. Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story may share the same storyform, yet they differ in their storytelling. Turning to examples of storytelling when in the development of a narrative leads to emulation, not understanding. It may not be dull and uninteresting, but the natural progression of a trope leans towards cultural cliché. The subject of a narrative takes precedence over the substance.
The Cancer of Cynicism
Tropes. A misunderstanding masquerading as insight–insight that spawns destructive memes like “Everything is a Remix”. This idea that it has all been done before flatters the shallow crowd with false wisdom and an untested assurance that they know. This idea that we repeat and remix strikes the soul of a potential artist with cataclysmic cynicism. Why bother creating if it entails replicating the past? Depression ensues.
This same thinking wafts up from the mob of Hero’s Journey advocates or Save the Cat! aficionados. “Luke Skywalker and Neo are the same character, man. They’re both Dudes with a Problem.” Luke and Neo couldn’t be more different if they tried, and yet there are those who still can’t see otherwise.3 Luke needed to trust in something that had yet to be proven while Neo needed to believe he was the one. Trust and faith are not the same, but you won’t find that discussed amongst the online halls of tropedom. Instead, you find arguments over the differences between the Evil Overlord, President Evil and Mayor Pain.
With assumptions and subjective interpretation acting as veins for the TvTropes site, one can hardly be surprised at its entry for Dramatica. Neo a Be-er? Bruce Wayne/Batman in The Dark Knight a Steadfast Main Character? Pretty sure “becoming the villain that Gotham needs” describes a Resolve of Change more strongly than anything I’ve seen in years, but perhaps I should consult the Schoolgirl Lesbian.
Reading the entry for Dramatica, one can almost breathe in the cynical air of a troper. Witnessing the false accusations and blatantly incorrect presumptions presented on that page allows one to discount the entirety of the trope. In thinking they know, they reveal their lack of depth.
The End of the Trope
We are also not a wiki for bashing things. Once again, we’re about celebrating fiction, not showing off how snide and sarcastic we can be.
Well now I feel bad…but only for a moment.
Like the ridiculous and useless MacGuffin (a favorite of bullshit-artist screenwriters everywhere), tropes must die if the human race ever wishes to progress in its understanding of story.
Tropes disrupt creativity, injecting themselves in the writing process somewhere between spark and action. Does the tried and true engender confidence or does it somehow limit the potential of the writer by saying, “You’re just another in a long line.”? Faced with the possibility of simply recycling or re-hashing “tropes” (which sounds remarkably like trudging) writers begin to develop an all-knowing superiority of knowledge that stifles any real educational development.
In their confidence the tropers express ignorance. So sure of their tried and true truisms of story they fail to fully comprehend the elegant complexity of Dramatica. Certainly the Schoolgirl Lesbian and the Large Ham tax the mind at a lower rate than a Story Prerequisite of Learning or a Relationship Story Catalyst of Expediency, but at what cost to the evolution of our understanding of narrative?4
Forgo the False God of the trope and move towards a deeper appreciation of why stories capture our attention. Make the investment to learn Dramatica.
Twisted and engaging, the South Korean film Mother (2009) tells the endearing story of one parent’s love for a child. While language may temporarily separate a Western audience from this film, the solid and complete story at the heart of it all breaks through any cultural barriers. Story works the same across the entire globe.
With her son Do-joon (Won Bin) imprisoned for the murder of a young girl, Mother (Kim Hye-ja) drives an investigation to find the real killer (Story Driver: Action and Story Goal: Understanding). Her mentally-disabled son, prone to seeing whatever anyone tells him (Influence Character Problem: Perception), tries desperately to remember the events of that fateful night (Influence Character Concern: Memory).
In a brilliant revelatory scene of character, his efforts to recall drum up disturbing events earlier in Mother’s life (Main Character Concern: The Past) and she screams in panic. The son functions as he should in a complete story: by challenging the Main Character’s justifications, the Influence Character draws the MC out of their own psychological malaise.
This discovery accelerates the development of their sparsely illustrated Relationship Story Throughline while also leading the way towards Mother’s eventual adoption of Do-joon’s problem-solving techniques (Main Character Resolve: Change). Having discovered the identity of the girl’s murderer (Story Outcome: Success), Mother has no other option than to forget what she has seen (Story Judgment: Bad).
A brilliant film that proves the theoretical concept that all great stories act as analogies towards a single human mind trying to solve a problem–regardless of its country of origin–Mother drives home the idea that some parents will do anything for their children.
Storyform Settings: Change, Stop, Do-er, Linear, Action, Optionlock, Success, Bad, Activities, Understanding, Instinct, Desire
Effective story structure is more than hitting familiar emotional beats or rising complications of plot. Structure exists to grant Audiences a better appreciation of the problems in their lives. The narrative’s ability to shift contexts while looking at the same thing presents an opportunity of understanding unheard of, and thus demands careful consideration.
Our last article, A Blueprint for Effective Character Development, discussed how to take Dramatica’s sometimes cold and impersonal view of story structure and turn it into something organic and writer-friendly. Offering an approach to interpreting story points like Problem, Symptom and Response, the article focused its attention on only one Throughline: the Main Character. Main Characters do not operate in a vaccuum. They need an Influence Character to challenge their approach and a Relationship with which to grow from. And while it may seem the furthest thing away, they also need an objective look at their Responses and Resolve. They need an Overall Story Throughline.
Objective Take on the Subjective
More than simply a battleground for objective character functions like Protagonist, Antagonist, Skeptic and Sidekick, the Overall Story Throughline presents an outside look at the problems faced by the Main Character. Sometimes referred to as the ‘A’ story line, or simply plot, this Throughline compliments the other three Throughlines found in a complete story. While the Main Character Throughline offers an intensely personal, first person “I” perspective on things, the Overall Story Throughline grants an objective “They” look at what befuddles the characters. The remaining two Throughlines–Influence Character and Relationship Story–present counter-arguments to those first two in the form of “You” and “We” perspectives.
What happens when you don’t have all four of these throughlines? If you’re a fan of self-inflicted pain take a night to watch National Treasure. While crafty in its hunt of hidden treasure, the film itself offers nothing in terms of emotional relevance. One cannot connect to this film. The reason can be found with the complete lack of a Main Character Throughline. Sure, there is an attempt to give Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) an issue with the family name, but this is quickly forgotten and never develops into moments of quiet reflection or angst regarding his true identity. Compound this with the lack of any challenging Influence Character to oppose him (despite the obvious candidates in the form of the beautiful girl and the skeptical dad) and the complete absence of any Relationship Story and the film quickly becomes an exercise in self-inflicted torture.
Crafting a story with Four Throughliens becomes priority one for writers who want to say something with their work. But even more important they need to find a way to weave the Main Character’s Throughline with the Overall Story Throughline. These aren’t simply separate occurrences or disparate storylines. The Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines offer an objective and subjective look at the same problem.
Magic in the Machine
Before Dramatica, writers had to figure this out on their own and often did so by reflecting the Main Character’s personal problem in the Overall Story (or vice versa by reflecting the Overall Story Problem in the Main Character).1 By doing this, audiences get an overall logistical take on how to best solve problems while at the same time receviing an intimiate look at what it feels like from inside to have these very same problems. When you put the two against each other within the same work magic happens. Magic, because this is something you can’t do in your real life. You can’t be both within and without. You can only be without. And then within. Never at the same time. This is what makes stories so special and so unique to the human experience.
A Way to Combine Thematic Material.
So how does one go about doing this? Better yet, let’s take a look at classic stories and how the personal problems of the Main Character find themselves reflected in the larger Overall Story. (and of course, we’ll do it the other way as well)
The Problem With Cutting Oneself Off
In Casablanca, refugees filter through Rick’s cafe on the way to America. They seek freedom. Freedom from Hitler and internment camps and tyranny. Major Strasser and the Nazi party he represents seek to control every movement in and out of Europe.
What better way to experience this tyranny from inside than to create a character shut-off and isolated from his own feelings? A character so determined to control his emotions that he hardly bats an eye when a teenager asks him whether or not she should sleep with the Captain of the Police in exchange for a ticket to America. Rick (Humprey Bogart) seeks to have control over himself every bit as much as the Nazis wish to exert their control over the citizens of Europe. By showing us an objective look on how to solve a problem of control (“Round up the usual suspects”) while simultaneously granting us a subjective personal take on how to overcome control (“Here’s looking at you kid”), Casablanca argues the very best approach to solving control: freedom.
The Problem with Me Me Me
In the Academy Award winning screenplay for her, self-absorbed hipsters attempt to envision better relationships through technology. Whether it be scolding a friend for juicing their fruits and eating their vegetables or walking aimlessly through downtown without recognizing a single soul, the crushing amount of self-absorbtion threatens our future selves.
What better to way to experience this self-centered approach than to create a character who only sees the effects of his divorce on himself? Obssessed with his wife’s anger towards him, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) becomes locked within his own memories, playing them over and over again in an effort to determine why me? By showing how a greater awareness of his own contribution to the demise of his marraige released Theodore from his obssession while simultaneously presenting the failure that occurs when the machines seek even greater self-awareness, her argues for an end to this tendency to draw inward.
Adding Distance to the Problem
This works for half of the stories out there. Stories where the Main Character does a complete 180 on their point-of-view will find the Overall Story Throughline and the Main Character Throughline sharing the same kind of problem.2 The other half, the half that feature a Main Character who stays resolute to their core beliefs, will find the same similarity between the Overall Story Throughline and the Influence Character Throughline. The juxtapostion between between objective and subjective still exists, only in these stories the subjective is once removed.
For instance, in How to Train Your Dragon how else can you make the struggle to overcome the non-acceptance of winged monsters more personal than by presenting a character who refuses to accept his only son? Stoick’s rejection of his son matches the Viking’s refusal to compromise when it comes to killing dragons. Unlike her and Casablanca above, the problem rests outside of the Main Character, yet its influence still affects us on a personal level. As Hiccup, we feel it. But this time, instead of my problem, it’s his problem.
Same thing happens in Back to the Future. What better way to juxtapose the trouble that happens when you try to prevent or avoid an unwanted future than by inserting a character who avoids conflict at all costs? George McFly (Crispin Glover)–like future boy and the doctor–splits and runs in the presence of danger, yet through this nebbish science-fiction fan we feel its impact personally.
Within and Without
Regardless of whether we feel the problem as our own or through someone close to us, this conflict always finds itself reflected in the larger scheme of things.
We can’t really determine for ourselves the best approach to solving a problem until we’ve seen it from all sides. The power of story lies in its ability to offer both subjective and objective views of the same problems. We simply can’t experience that in real life. That is why stories eventually developed the four Throughlines and that is why we keep returning to them day after day. By showing us the ramifications of problem-solving in different contexts, stories gift us powerful insight to approaching and solving the problems in our own lives.
What starts out entertaining enough ends up a painful and seemingly endless Shaggy Dog tale. The attempt is made to say something meaningful about man’s potential for civility or debauchery, yet without the proper construct the argument falls flat and on deaf ears.
Complete stories require four Throughlines to encapsulate conflict: the Overall Story Throughline, the Main Character Throughline, the Influence (or Challenge) Character Throughline and the Relationship Story Throughline. These throughlines grant Audiences a opportunity to see conflict from different points-of-view (They, I, You and We respectively). With this latest film, writer/director Wes Anderson gives us maybe one of those Throughlines (and even that is incomplete).
The Grand Budapest Hotel is best experienced in still images or short clips on YouTube; easier to enjoy the silliness and frivolity in small chunks, rather than suffer swallowing the whole mess at once.