That rare instance when a sound structural narrative matters not, Ant-Man delivers a solid piece of entertainment that everyone can enjoy. Bolstered by performances from Paul Rudd and Michael Peña, this midsummer’s comic book offering skirts the need for a story to mean something by simply focusing on the likability of characters and entertaining fight scenes that deliver more than crumbling high rises.
The film stands as a Tale–not an actual story, at least not in the Dramatica sense of the word. The Dramatica theory of story defines a story as an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Ant-Man prefers gags and diversion over arguing the appropriate way to solve a problem.
And that’s OK.
The film is unbelievably fun and somehow unique and different when compared to most Marvel movies. If nothing else it exists as a prime example of how you can sometimes get away with putting narrative second–as long as you have Rudd and Peña to back you up.
When seen in its entirety, a story maintains a certain nature. Whether something external the Main Character needs to work through or something they themselves need to personally work through, the resolution of the story’s central inequity carries a code of greater understanding.
In the exploratory article Work Stories vs. Dilemma Stories, Dramatica co-creator Melanie Anne Phillips posits the idea of Work Stories and Dilemma Stories.
If the problem CAN be solved, though the effort may be difficult or dangerous, and in the end we DO succeed by working at it, we have a Work Story. But if the Problem CAN’T be solved, in the case of a Dilemma, once everything possible has been tried and the Problem still remains, we have a Dilemma Story.
Defined now as Story Nature, this is one of those Dramatica concepts that has developed over time. Chris and Melanie are geniuses when it comes to story,1 but they didn’t necessarily get everything right the first time around. Articles like this are compelling because you can sense the seed of some better understanding of story within the ideas. Through the years their understanding has improved and the definitions of the theory improved.
Dramatica defines the Nature of a story as:
the primary dramatic mechanism of a story
Which makes it sound super important. The truth is, like the Crucial Element, the Nature of a Story is one of those story points that is only important in so much as it informs the Author as to what kind of a story they are telling. You don’t need to know it to write a good story or to make sure you don’t have any story holes, but it is an interesting way to appreciate the kind of story you are telling.
Defining the Nature of a Story
The current version of Dramatica describes Apparent Work stories, Actual Work stories, Apparent Dilemmas, and Actual Dilemmas. The differentiator between Actual and Apparent lies in whether not the Main Character was on the right course or not when it comes to solving the story’s inequity. 2
- If their Resolve is Changed and they solve the story’s problem then it is an Actual Dilemma
- If their Resolve is Changed and they fail to solve the story’s problem then it was an Apparent Dilemma
This makes sense. When you feel compelled to Change your position on something it feels like a Dilemma: you’re choosing between one or the other. If you were right to change and you solve the story’s problem then it was an actual dilemma; you weren’t making it up in your head. If, on the other hand, you were wrong to change and you should have stayed the course then it was an apparent dilemma; the struggle was all in your head.
- If the Main Character’s Resolve remains Steadfast and they solve the story’s problem then it is an Actual Work story
- If the Main Characters Resolve remains Steadfast and they fail to solve the story’s problem then it was an Apparent Work story
These are even easier to understand. If the Main Character succeeds then they were right to Work their way through the problem; if they fail then the Work was a wasted effort.
The Steadfast Dilemma
In reality, both sets of stories have the Main Character faced with that dilemma-type decision whether overtly or subtle, conscious or subconscious. You can have Steadfast characters who waver at the end and Main Characters who are on that path to Change their resolve from the very beginning.
William Wallace faced a pretty real dilemma at the end of Braveheart (“confess …”) even though by definition his was an Actual Work story. And Dr. Malcolm Crowe never really faced a dilemma in The Sixth Sense; he basically rode a straight path to having his resolve changed even though by definition he was in an Actual Dilemma story.
These terms Apparent and Actual help clarify the story’s engine for the Author. They might be something the Audience eventually “gets” from the storyform, but it won’t be a conscious consideration. The story point is simply there to make it easier for the Author to stay consistent with the story’s purpose.
Locating the Nature of a Story
All four of these story points, or story appreciations, are available in Dramatica Story Expert. You can’t pick them specifically–the program identifies for you what kind of story you have based on other choices you have made. You can find this story point in the Audience Appreciation section either in the Query System or the Story Points section.
This weekend marked the third installment of my advanced writer’s workshop for writers and producers interested in learning how best to use Dramatica to improve the narrative structure of their stories. Purposefully designed to answer the question OK, I have a storyform, now what?, the twelve hour workshop takes a story from idea to detailed sequence outline with several opportunities for digressions related to deep narrative theory.1 Having taught story at the California Institute of the Arts for seven years, I’m familiar with the creative leaps students take when inspired; I wasn’t prepared for the explosion of creative growth that this collection of writers brought to the table.
The key was writing a story that wasn’t our story.
This weekend was quite simply the most productive story meeting I have ever participated in. Not only did we work through one writer’s entire story, but we also managed to slip in the exploration and discovery of another writer’s storyform, taking him from concept to storyform in less than one hour. Using the Dramatica theory of story as our basis of shared understanding, we cut through the ego and skeptical negativity that typically plagues writer’s groups and created structurally sound viable stories. We worked in true collaboration as we let the theory maintain the integrity of our narrative, freeing each of us to focus on brainstorming new and unique ways for telling the story, not the story we individually wanted to tell.
As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand. – ERNEST HEMINGWAY
The weekend centers around a brainstorming technique for Dramatica that I developed last year called The Creative Playground or “spins” for short. Once we determine the storyform for the story in question2 we then proceed to the Brainstorming section of Dramatica and “spin” the model – keeping the structure of the story intact, but allowing the gist of the individual story points to randomize.
We then develop throughlines for stories completely foreign to the one we’re working on. The story in question this past weekend involved Nazis and spies, our brainstorming sessions catered to time travel and accountants immersed in the Occult. The reason? To focus on the narrative dynamics at play underneath our story so that we could understand what the story was about, rather than our own individual impressions or interpretations of the story.
With these brainstorming sessions in hand, we walk back to the original work and mix and match those story points that seem to fit best. Sometimes this involves broad reimagining, other times it simply requires a name change. Regardless, we can better detail our sequence outline because we appreciate how those same story points would work in an entirely different story. We understand the point of the story point in question.
With the right group of people this process can be explosive–as I discovered this past weekend. The depth and breadth to which we developed each story point only contributed more towards an impressive and deeply meaningful final product. Having tried this process alone several times, I can unequivocally say that two heads is better than one. Five heads–with Dramatica holding tight to the structure–is unstoppable. I’m not sure I would want to develop a story by myself ever again. Dramatica makes sure you don’t leave anything out, your collaborators make sure you don’t let everything out.
Collaborating without Dramatica is a nightmare. Witness the countless story meetings driven by separate egos desperate to get their version of the story out, with little concern for the collective version. Witness the countless story meetings usurped by an executive with a completely different agenda in mind. A Dramatica storyform insures that everyone shares the same story. It frees everyone involved to stretch and explore and try something new, maybe even try something daring. And it makes sure that once everything is said and done, the work was not wasted time–the brainstorming adds up. Dramatica is the safety cable for the death-defying storyteller.
Where are the risk-takers?
Learning Dramatica is one thing; using it effectively in a professional environment is a completely different beast.
All you can do in a story meeting is gently guide people on your project towards making the right decisions for the story you’re trying to tell. Never ever bring up Dramatica and just know that the end result will always veer away from the storyform.
Recently I was in a story meeting on a script that didn’t correctly encode the Main Character’s Resolve. The end of the story happened as a matter of circumstance, not as a result of character growth. Without using any of the terminology I simply suggested that the Main Character should be responsible for the culminating moment and ensuing results. After a brief silence (Dramatica based story notes are always met with stunned Where the Hell did that come from? What are you talking about? silence), the man in charge agreed and the story was saved.
The Dramatica storyform maintains the presence of a single mind. Collaboration naturally runs counter to this. Your best bet is to keep the integrity of the storyform in your own head and use that as a platform for communicating a consistent point-of-view towards others. When working with others, you need to focus on communicating how the story could work. Your strength will always be that you know how the story should work, your struggle will always be you know how the story should work.
Once you’re in a significant position of power, you be able to guarantee a uniform story. Even then you’ll be hit with a deluge of notes from other minds seeking to impose their argument, their storyform, onto your project. Use the storyform as the cornerstone of any argument about the story. As the storyform is technically an argument, you should naturally have the upper hand and be able to speak confidently knowing that you won’t contradict yourself.
Rich, thematic narrative built upon a solid storyform. By setting the engine to a Tragedy that focuses on a horrific past and a Main Character who refuses to back down, Dramatica predicts that Mitchell (Ian Holm) would be motivated by Chaos–namely his daughter’s random and upsetting phone calls.
Mitchell has no idea when his daughter will call, and it is that Chaos that drives him forward throughout the entire story. It motivates his Understanding of the world and an Interpretation of events that he tries to force upon others in his role as Protagonist.
As far as Desire as a Problem in the Overall Story is concerned, an overwhelming sense of Desire weighs everyone down. Those behind the suit want a better situation, they want retribution and revenge. Those against the suit share a lack of Desire, a lack of wanting things to be better. They’ve given up and essentially stew in their own lost Desires.
If the townspeople were somehow Able to bring their children back (Overall Story Solution: Ability) or at the very least Able to make someone pay, then perhaps they could get over the Past.
But they can’t.
And the Consequence for all of this are the Memories of those they lost. Their refusal to collectively move past their Desires forces them to face the consequences of Memories they cannot escape.
Desire as a Problem also appears in the incestuous relationship between father and daughter–a Desire that set a tragedy every bit as devastating as the loss of a bus full of children into motion. Nicole’s act of revenge, when she is finally Able to remember the events of the day, represents her Changed Resolve. The children have become every bit as predatory as their parents.
(Storyform Settings: Steadfast, Do-er, Linear, Action, Optionlock, Failure, Bad, Situation, The Past, Interdiction, Desire)
A lack of narrative focus compounded by its affinity for endless fight scenes, Avengers 2: Age of Ultron is the ultimate comic book movie for the generation that loves spectacle over substance.
Interesting dichotomies exist: Iron Man & Ultron and their argument of saving the world by destroying it; Black Widow & the Hulk over what it means to be a monster. Unfortunately neither pays off in a significantly meaningful way. Neither tells a complete story. In fact, Thor interrupts the first’s culminating moment with a very literal deus ex machina. Always depressing to see happenstance or a God resolve a story’s core emotional argument.
Joss Whedon can write, leaving one to assume that scenes resolving the narrative effectively more than likely exist in the hour or so of footage exorcised from his original cut. Whether or not he was pressured by outside forces to remove this material for commercial reasons, the end result is a genuine popcorn flick. Fun & tasty, but ultimately unfulfilling.
One day this generation will grow up and the zeitgeist will eventually bounce back to more serious and thoughtful fare. Until then, fans of meaningful narrative have television. And novels.
When it comes to the reception of a story, the receiver, or Audience member, can often mistake the elements of story for something else. In the same way one finds difficulty estimating the ingredients of their favorite dish when they only have the meal, looking at story from the outside leads to misinterpretations of the meaning, or meat, of the story. The problem deepens when accompanied by confidence.
As misleading as the MacGuffin, the concept of the “two-hander” spawns many errors in the construction of a story. Led to believe that these are two “main” characters rather than characters who share a unique relationship, Authors create narratives that breakdown under the weight of their own schizophrenia. In the same way that mixing and swapping the terms Protagonist and Main Character results in a confusion between personal goals and objective goals, the term “two-hander” leaves the impression that the story might contain two stories.
In a Scriptnotes podcast last year entitled Making Things Better by Making Things Worse, professional screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin dished out something they usually rally against–namely, rules and education:
A two-hander is a story with two important characters, where basically both characters are roughly equally important in the progress of the story … generally each of the characters have something that he or she wants. And sometimes they have a shared goal, but they each have their own individual goals.
So each of these characters has something they want? Insightful. More illuminating would be the understanding that what these characters want are connected in a very deep and meaningful way, far beyond simple wants and needs. Comprehending this connection allows writers to develop strong and powerful stories.
John August’s screenwriting.io site gives an even simpler definition of this concept:
A two-hander is a movie where there are two main characters of roughly equal importance to the story, and whose arcs are given roughly equal screen-time.
Sweet and simple. Elsewhere he elaborates:
Romantic comedies and buddy cop movies are often two-handers, but almost all genres have their examples. The Sixth Sense is a thriller two-hander, for instance.
So The Sixth Sense, 48 Hours, and presumably The Shawshank Reemption all function as two-handers. The list could go on and on and on.
Only it doesn’t explain what is really going on.
The films listed above do not feature two “main” characters with the their own “arcs” who roughly share “equal screen-time.” Well, the last might be accurate, but how is that a measurement of the meaning of a story?
Structure is the machine that communicates the Author’s meaning, a framework for what the story is about, rather than what happens. In the Dramatica theory of story this structure is called the storyform. Determining the ingredients or elements of this structure makes it easier for Authors to construct a machine that works.
The Real Difference Between the Two
Consider the Dreamworks animated film Over the Hedge. Under the definition above, this tale of animals vs. suburbia claims the name two-hander. Both Verne the turtle (Gary Shandling) and RJ the raccoon (Bruce Willis) vy for “equal screen-time”, both come off similarly important.
Unfortunately both find their resolves changed by the end of the film.
For a story to make sense and to convincingly make a case for its message, one of these “main” characters will steadfastly hold on to their resolve while the other will find their resolve changed. In Dramatica, this observable reality of story falls under the concept of the Main Character Resolve: Changed or Steadfast?1 The Resolve of the Influence Character (what two-handlers call the other “main” character) will share an inverse relationship with the Main Character’s Resolve. One is changed, one is steadfast.
If you have one character arguing position A and he or she comes into conflict with another character arguing position B, you can’t then write both characters changing their positions. Doing so undermines everything that came before, tossing out any thematic arguments made along the way. If you argue for neither A nor B, but rather some form of you are in essence undermining the foundation of story you built.2
Show character A adopting character B’s approach or character B assuming character A’s position and then inform the Audience of the results. That is how an Author uses story to make an argument. That is how the machine of story works.
Screenwriter Jim Barker explains it well In his article Demystifying the Two-Hander:
the story’s theme – what the author has to say about about the value of hope (and not just “hope” itself) – is explored by means of an argument. In other words, story is a form of persuasion, and the best means of being persuasive is to explore multiple sides of the argument. Having two characters with their own perspectives is part of the means in which the theme and argument is explored, one character ultimately forcing the other to see their differing point of view and forcing them to either remain steadfast in their approach or change.
Referencing August’s definition of a two-hander, the relationship between the two “main” characters runs deeper than simply one based on relative “importance.” The reason these two characters even find themselves faced off against each other is because they share a bond of conflict. They see this conflict from two different points-of-view, but there is enough shared material between them that they find it almost impossible not to butt heads.
This is where that clichéd line “You and I are both alike” comes from. The two principal characters recognize a commonality of conflict, but see it differently. One comes at it externally, the other internally.
The Well Considered Story
Giving credence to vague terminology leads to disappointing drafts and broken stories. The process might begin with little complication, but will eventually bog down as the Author finds their structure undermined by superficial notions of story.
The Dramatica theory of story seeks to make conversations like this a thing of the past. For years I have endeavored to communicate the strength of this perspective through carefully considered and thoughtful articles. Unfortunately the culture seems determined to ignore the measured approach, preferring tweet-sized understandings of story like “two-hander” to get them through their day. Rarely does anyone spend more than a minute and a half reading a 2000 word article that took dives deep into the reason why an element of story exists.
The purpose of this site has always been to improve the quality of storytelling to the point where filmmakers don’t spend the last few months of a production trying to salvage a badly structured story. I’ve been there before several times, and it isn’t pretty. And it can be avoided. We don’t have to blindly trust the process. But if no one is listening, does this site even exist?
Understanding the relationship between the Main and Influence Character is only one of the many ways Authors and filmmakers can improve their craft. Dramatica offers so much more. If there is a better, quicker, perhaps more culturally acceptable way of communicating this knowledge then perhaps the time has come to try something new.
The promise of a fully functioning story endures. Time to tell the world.
Developing a story. Some believe it to be a magical process best handled within a vacuum. Toss aside education and personal development and write write write. Others believe it can thrive and potentially excel when mixed with the influence of those well-versed in narrative structure.
Professional screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin host a podcast for screenwriters and things screenwriters would find interesting called Scriptnotes. August wrote many of Tim Burtons films. Mazin wrote the hugely successful Hangover movies. Both rightly claim the authority to speak story.
Unfortunately both look down on script consultants.
The Scriptnotes podcast is an enjoyable listen. Both screenwriters bring a wealth of experience and intelligence to the conversation and genuinely make you feel like you’re getting the inside scoop on what it is like to be a Hollywood screenwriter. I’m an avid listener. The show sits high atop The Essentiasl list in Overcast.
But I cringe when they start speaking narrative structure.
Letting Off Steam
In the past month two script consultants, John Cork and Danny Manus, felt the need to voice their concerns regarding the duo’s attack on their businesses. While Mazin’s venom stands out as the most prominent, August has proven to be not much of a fan either;1when Craig goes off, John often stays silent. The experience listening to their rants is one of disappointment and frustration. Here are two people you respect and admire basically trashing the one thing you think you do well: construct stories. Blog posts, like the ones Manus and Cork published, are often a great way of dealing with the cognitive dissonance and a terrific remedy to the pressure build-up.
No Rules (Here Are Some Rules)
Script consultant Danny Manus’ post ended with this thinly veiled rant against August and Mazin:
Those who spout off about how THERE ARE NO RULES – but then continue to tell you exactly what to believe and think and how to act and who to do business with – are either wildly hypocritical, or completely oblivious.
He has, of course, denied specifically calling out August and Mazin, but anyone who has listened to their podcast knows otherwise. Manus has since taken down the article (thanks to Google cache it will forever be available here), but the point he brings up is a good one: August and Mazin don’t believe there are any rules … except the ones they give.
Mazin and August are not oblivious–they simply have a different take on what rules are allowed. If it comes from someone who has worked in the industry, someone who has a couple films under their belt, someone who is well respected among his or her peers then yes, those rules count. If instead the rules come from frustrated screenwriters, narrative theorists, or unpublished writers who love discovering what makes great stories work and sharing that with others–then those rules should be ignored. Rules from Mazin, August and Brosh McKenna are OK; rules from Huntley, Phillips or Snyder are not.
The hypocrisy comes from the mandate to ignore anyone who says there are rules of telling stories, but then proceed to list rules within the very same podcast. Explaining how to handle “two-handers” stands out as a rule that they frequently call upon.2 Either stories have base elements to them or they don’t. The professional status of who discovers or presents these components should not matter. As someone fascinated with the rules as presented by the Dramatica theory of story, this preference for the professionals over the insightful ones is disarming.
Our definition of rules may be different. Mazin and August may be rallying against the page-number set, those unique group of theorists, readers, and narrative junkies who believe Act turns happen at set page amounts. If this is the case then yes, they are right, there are no rules. But if they want to discount the thought-provoking revelation that competent stories are simply analogies to a single human mind trying to solve a problem, then they are dead wrong. There are rules.3
And it’s OK to learn them.
The Privilege of an Education
Manus posits another observation:
You denounce outside education, classes, advice, feedback, podcasts or knowledge from anyone other than yourself or those you have personally endorsed and deemed as worthwhile. And you discredit other people’s information or advice not based on how true it might be, but on the basis of how it supports your party line.
Consultant John Cork challenges this attitude in his two post spectacular Craig Mazin is Lying (Part Two). Claiming Mazin’s Princeton background granted him special privilege, Cork defends access to veteran screenwriters and readers as a reasonable replacement for collegial community. Mazin defended this accusation in a recent tweet barrage:
No one in Hollywood, and I repeat - NO ONE - ever gave an ounce of shit where I went to school. And why should they?
True, no one cares about the name of the school, but they do care what you learned there, what knowledge you gained. Mazin, I think, misinterprets Cork’s point about access to knowledge as claim of nepotism.
Having gone to CalArts in the early 90s I can tell you that I absolutely have experienced special privileges in the animation industry. Many of my classmates went on to very successful careers and have been in positions to hire me and I’ve enjoyed the benefits of those classmates recognizing me. I’m very thankful that I had an opportunity to go to that school and had a chance to make so many great friends with so many talented people.4
But this wasn’t the point of Cork’s diatribe.
Cork calls out the access to knowledge, the means towards a higher education and one geared specifically towards writing and narrative structure. If you can find the same information, perhaps better information somewhere else (and at a much cheaper price), why wouldn’t one take advantage of it?
And why is the one offering it a deceiver?
Working to Further Better Understanding
Mazin inspires most when he says this:
Be careful, work hard, trust in your talent, be honest with yourself, and don’t let anyone convince you that you need them to succeed.
But can’t stand statements like this:
The truth is… without paid consultants, you’ll have the same damn chance you’ll have with them. But one thing is definitely for sure: you will be poorer with them.
Maybe some consultants don’t work with the intention of educating the client. I do. My site Narrative First offers hundreds of articles on story structure and analysis intended to help make better writers. My consultancy extends that thinking towards a client’s specific work. How this differs from a collegial education or an established guru workshop like McKee’s Story class is beyond me. You’re learning something, and in exchange you are paying the teacher for his time and knowledge.
Should I feel guilty that I am flying to Idaho at the end of May to teach one of my Introduction to Dramatica Workshops? Am I a charlatan if I was invited? I admit that at times I feel like a snake-oil salesman, especially after listening to one of Mazin’s impassioned pleas.5 But then I receive word that an attendee of one of my workshops last year was so inspired by my class that he rallied his own local writers group to fly me out there and that all goes away. I love teaching story and revealing all the great things Dramatica says about story.
I understand being upset at those who promise industry insider access or the secrets to making it big in Hollywood. That doesn’t seem right. I only promise to reveal the secrets of competent and effective narrative–the success is still up to the artist’s talent.
Belief in Magic
The Dramatica approach to developing a story is one of learning. A process of developing one’s understanding of narrative structure and how great stories work. Twenty years later and I’m still learning fascinating things about story I never knew existed. 6
Writers have a better chance of succeeding when they have a greater storehouse of knowledge to draw upon. How is this even something to be debated?
My feeling is that Mazin, like his podcasting co-host August, participates in a form of magical thinking when it comes to writing. That the artist triumphs by summoning a mystical spirit guide or muse to show them the path, and that every achievement stems from within. That they alone possess a special ability that can’t be taught or can’t be analyzed. That writing is a spiritual event.
Screenwriters and writers unfamiliar with or inept at Dramatica are very uncomfortable with the idea that what they know about story doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. They succeeded without greater knowledge…why shouldn’t everyone else?
Dramatica is not an attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of wannabe writers. In truth, it’s there to lift the veil on magical thinking.
Something New to Learn
Even Manus takes time out from vilifying Mazin and August to attack someone else:
You create your own terminology for words and concepts that don’t require new terminology (or perhaps your own FONT because the font others use aren’t good enough for you?).
This is almost certainly a reference to Dramatica.7 It showcases the kind of ignorance that accompanies superficial evaluations of the theory and is, in its own way, another attempt at hindering education.
Dramatica redefines concepts like Protagonist and Main Character because it has identified the need to look at a story’s problem both objectively and subjectively. The dissonance between the two creates meaning and provides the Audience with something hey can’t find in real life (the opportunity to hold big perspectives within the same context).
Huntley and Philips didn’t do this to sell software, they did it because they identified something that no one in thousands of years ever considered. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. If they came up with new words they would have met resistance, so they chose to improve Main Character and Protagonist.8
A difficult process to be sure, but one that deepens the writer’s understanding of narrative.
Cork closes out his double fisted rant with an endorsement of peers and mentors:
So, aspiring screenwriters, you can take Craig Mazin’s advice, that nothing exists, that how you make it or fail is a mystery, that there are no patterns. Or you can look at the careers of dozens and dozens of screenwriters and realize that no matter how much they may want to act like they simply arrived where they are, there is more to that story. They pushed themselves hard to write their best, and far more than one might imagine, all along a very expensive road to success, they found peers and mentors who gave them valuable and helpful feedback and advice that ultimately contributed to their ability to become professional screenwriters.
Some find those peers and mentors in college. Some find them elsewhere along the way. This brave new world offers an unparalleled opportunity to connect with the smartest and brightest and a chance to grow beyond ourselves.
The idea of the script consultant should be one of education. One where the development of understanding reigns paramount over maintaining a financial benefit.
Unlearning what you have learnt can be a difficult process, especially if you have achieved a relative amount of success. Why fix what isn’t broken? Giving up and proceeding blindly because that is where one finds comfort marks the difference between a serviceable story and an enduring one.
When I ask my students what story is many answer with something about character or plot. Some might add that it is important for stories to have a theme. Others speak of their favorite genre or about genres in particular. Regardless of what aspect they identify, most understand what goes in to making a story.
The Dramatica theory of story says that character, plot, theme and genre are not enough; that this basic understanding of story is just that: basic. And if you really want to comprehend the complexity that is successful narrative you need to dig deeper, and look wider.
The Only Thing You Need to Know
The general understanding of story sees narrative as a single thread of character, plot, theme and genre. Dramatica sees not just one, but four threads–each with its own perspective on things and each with its own character, plot, theme and genre. The competent writer weaves these four threads into one giant thread that then becomes a fully functioning story.
Conceptually this is the hardest thing for writers new to the theory to understand; it also happens to be the most important. Everything that comes after in Dramatica is merely a refinement of that central understanding. Absorb this concept and your writing will take on a new depth.
Chris Huntley recently had this to say about the theory he created:
Many of us were taught that multiple threads in a story are optional ways for us to add complexity to a story. Optional means they can be there or not at the author’s discretion. The Dramatica approach removes that option and instead turns them into a requirement necessary to create a full and complete story. That is a huge difference between ‘traditional’ story paradigms and the Dramatica paradigm.
This difference demands a new vocabulary–something many writers balk at and use as grounds for claiming the theory folly. Striving to redefine common terms like Main Character and Protagonist seems pointless and open to ridicule. Yet, Dramatica presents a viewpoint of story that never existed before–it needs to redefine the landscape of the writer’s world. The problem isn’t complex and obtuse terminology–as many decry–but rather introducing concepts for which there is no language in the common understanding of narrative.
Developing That Understanding
Not only does Dramatica present this wildly bizarre take on story–it also defines the specific areas where character, plot, theme and genre can be explored and presents limitations for each. No other paradigm defines the nature of the content and then offers an in-depth presentation of the elemental nature of that content.
Complexity arises as we enter uncharted terrain.
From the Audience’s perspective, it is virtually impossible to tell what is an essential component of story and what can be broken down further. For instance, many see character arc as a singular concept: how the character changes. Dramatica dives deeper and breaks down characters arc into its base elements: Resolve and Growth.
Depending on the perspective taken, elements of story can be seen as a state or a process. Looking at light we can see that it can be seen as a particle or a waveform–a state or a process, respectively. The same occurs with a story point like character arc.
The Resolve represents the static element of the character arc: whether the Main Character’s paradigm has changed or remained steadfast. The Growth showcases the process inherent in a character’s arc: how the character’s resolve changes over time.
The Benefits of Breaking Down Story
Understanding the base elements of a concept like character arc allows writers the opportunity to focus on the essential ingredients of their story. They can focus and work on those story points independently, develop them exclusive of outside interference and then blend them back together. It’s easier to understand a character’s arc when you can evaluate it in terms of Resolve and Growth. Other paradigms simply call for change; Dramatica defines the change and how that change develops.
Starting Back at the Start
Character arc is just the beginning. Dramatica has much to say about the ending of stories, plot points and the inciting incident, and even goes so far as to give the reason towards exploring a personal relationship between the two central characters in a story. With regards to each concept of story, Dramatica breaks the topic down to its essential components, granting writers unheard of access to the deep underlying meaning of their story.
As you can see, Dramatica can get very complicated very quickly. Concepts of storytelling that for the longest time were never separated now find themselves apart and naked, exposed for the benefit of writers everywhere. Main Character and Protagonist. Resolve and Growth. These refinements of story structure enrich narrative and bring depth to the superficial.
It all boils down to that first idea of the four different threads. As Chris reminds us:
The concept of the four throughlines is the single most important and difficult aspect of Dramatica because it tells us that stories are not single threads of characters, plots, themes and genre elements woven together into complex patterns that we see in finished works. The understanding [is] that there are FOUR major threads, each with a uniquely different frame of reference, that weave together characters, plots, themes, and genre elements within EACH of those threads and then further woven together into the single work experienced by the audience
Character tells us about people and personal problems. Plot tell us how to work with character. Theme discusses what is important to us and how to think about those characters. Genre tells us how we want to feel by going through this experience of this story; when we walk out, what are we supposed to be feeling?1
These four things wrap themselves around the subject matter of the story. Subject matter is the object of our attention and the focal point for character, plot, theme, and genre. But from what perspective do we look at this subject matter?
That is where Dramatica comes in: it defines those points-of-view through those four threads.
If you’re having trouble with Dramatica or you gave it a whirl years ago and you haven’t opened it since, give this basic concept a chance to seep into your work. Define the Overall Story, Main Character, Influence Character and Relationship Story of your narrative and watch as you begin to write complete stories.
Watch as your writing advances beyond your comfort zone and surprises you with greater depth.
Television is the new. With feature films becoming epic rollercoaster rides of spandex and spectacle, vibrant kiddie fare and immature thematic explorations, the television series grants fans of narrative an opportunity to become lost in meaningful complexity. The long-form story promises fulfillment; the long-form story demands a form to story.
I’m often asked what is the best way to structure a television series. Should I create one storyform for the entire series? Do I create storyforms for each episode? The answer is yes. You do both, and you do more.
The Dramatica storyform is a collection of seventy-five different storypoints that work in tandem to create a holistic image of a story’s deep underlying meaning. When a narrative shows signs of “holes” or underdeveloped characters, chances are the storyform is broken–or missing key parts. Working as an analogy to the mind’s problem-solving process, the Dramatica storyform codifies the Author’s message and gives purpose to their work.
The Best Way to Plan It Out
While many different paths exist on the road to planning out a successful series, the best seems to be to follow The X-Files model. For those unfamiliar with the series, the show’s episodes fell into two different categories: Mythology and Monster. The Mythology episodes covered the grand story of alien cover-up and government conspiracy. The Monster episodes took a break from the conspiracy to focus on the creature-of-the-week. Beyond the Sea and Clyde Bruckman’s Final Respose work well as stand-alone Monster episodes–complete stories in their own right.
To achieve this balance, you create one master Storyform for the “Mythology” of your series, and then individual Storyforms for the “Monster” episodes. Anytime you want a certain context to feel complete, you should create a storyform. If you want each season finale of your series to have the same kind of impact the finales of Game of Thrones have had, you should even go so far as to create a single storyform for each season.
On a television series I recently consulted on, I created one master Storyform for the entire Series. Then I created individual storyforms for each Season. While writing the detailed outline for the first season, I tried to incorporate and blend story points from the Series Storyform and the Season Storyform within different episodes. In addition, I tried to keep the outline open to allow for an entire Storyform within one episode. This helps to break things up and avoid the monotony of telling the same story over and over again. It also helped create a congruency of purpose in the storytelling.
In short, the thing held together.
Implementing Different Storyforms
One storyform for the entire series. One for each season. And then an occasional storyform here and there for a single episode. Depending on the nature of your series, you may need to create a storyform for every episode–particularly if you want each to feel complete and whole–but you certainly don’t have to be that detailed in your process.
It could be that you’re writing True Detective and you only want one storyform for one season. And then you move on to a completely different storyform for the next season. Perfectly fine, and apparently quite successful.
Glen C. Strathy over at How to Write a Book Now1 over-complicates this process with his Inception-like approach to storyforms within storyforms:
… let’s say you take the time to design a separate story form for Act 1 (or season one), which is about Understanding (or misunderstanding). You would make Truth, Evidence, Suspicion, and Falsehood the four signposts in the overall throughline for this act. If you turn to the Plot Sequence report for this act, it will break down Truth into four stages. Same with the others. Now you have story goals for 16 issues within this Act. Repeat for the other acts and that’s enough for 64 issues.
Story goals … but not really Story Goals in the Dramatica sense. The 64 issues here assume the role of simple subject matter rather than work with others as viable story points within a larger context. The result is confusion on the part of those trying to understand how to use Dramatica to better their storytelling. Best to keep it simple and decide the number of episodes you want to see working as a complete story; then craft a storyform to guide them.
Blending various storyforms is not exact science; you will miss out on some story points here and there. The overall sense of the series will be this notion that there is something grander going on. Audiences will latch on to your series because they’ll be able to tell that you’re not winging it. Your series will have purpose.
When a Signpost is a Season
The television series I recently consulted on made plans for three seasons. Season One took care of the first Signpost from the Series Storyform. Season Two took Signposts Two and Three and the last Season assumed responsibility for Signpost Four. It would have been nicer and cleaner if the series made arrangements for four seasons, but unfortunately I don’t get paid to make those kinds of decisions.2
Coincidentally, the Overall Story Concern for the Season One storyform matched the Overall Story Signpost One for the Series Storyform. Both were Understanding. You certainly don’t need to do this, but I think it helped keep everything that was happening within Season One relevant within the greater context of the entire Series. The process of writing the outline for that first Season felt like a natural extension of telling a grander story.
The Overall Story Concern for Season Two matches the 2nd Signpost of the Series Storyform, falling in line with the pattern set up with the first Season. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how that will pan out in the second half of Season Two. The easier fix would be to split that season into two. If the show is successful as it appears it will be, that may indeed be what happens. But again, I’m not in charge.
Maintaining the Integrity of the Storyform
The hardest part of this process is keeping everyone on track with each of the storyforms you worked out. Egos being what they are, eventually the whole process breaks down without someone in charge knowing and completely understanding the purpose of the Dramatica Storyform.
People unaware of Dramatica do not understand how someone can possibly know exactly what is supposed to happen 2/3 of the way into the story. And not just the general Dark Night of the Soul baloney, but specific character interactions and key character development points. They just don’t get it, and thus rebel and rewrite and essentially tear down all your hard work. As a consultant you can only do so much to keep people in line with the original intent and purpose behind a story. The rest is up to the process.
If you’re writing the whole thing yourself, you’re golden and the above process should work wonders for you. Another client of mine is doing this very same thing and she is rocking the final result. People familiar with her work are blown away by how well the latest draft of her series is structured and thought out. If you want to see monumental changes in your work, give your story a purpose–give it a storyform.
Or two, or three.
Any excuse to keep them streaming.
Garbage in, garbage out. For any artist, one of the most important workflows–yet, the one most easily forgotten–is the filling of the well. Flooding the mind with new ideas and new perspectives inspires a greater creative consciousness and opens our minds to a better understanding of our own unique voice.
At the start of this year’s publishing cycle1 we encouraged you to always be writing. Then we gave you an idea of how to write screenplays anywhere and anytime using the Fountain markup language. And last week we offered up powerful insight on how to combine the Dramatica theory of story with simple text files to maintain the integrity of your story.
This week we close the circle by opening up your senses the greater stimulation. We do this by reading more.
Learning how to be a good reader is what makes you a writer. – Zadie Smith
Most of these suggestions will be familiar to you; everyone has heard of iBooks and the Kindle. But not everyone is familiar with Marvin or Weekend Read. To write and write and write without taking the time to absorb and subsume leaves the artist parched and ineffective. The following suggestions should quench your thirst and increase the quality of your writing.
Developing the Habit
Understanding the need to develop our minds is easy; finding the time to do it is not. In-between creative writing, family, Twitter feeds, commuting, RSS Feeds, more writing, day jobs, lunch, more writing and more jobs, meetings and dentist appointments, meditation practice and podcasts, commuting home and family dinners, life leaves little time for reading. Even making room for one hour seems a luxury.
In the first article in this series I suggested an app called Persistence2 to track the amount of hours you spend doing what you care about the most. My goal in that article was to read two hours a day. Throughout the entire month of March I managed eight.
Eight measly hours. No wonder my writing seems stilted and sluggish these past couple weeks.
I know of a friend who reads first thing in the morning. He gets up, grabs a cup of coffee and then reads a book for an hour or so before he starts a day. I can’t do that. I get up and I do twenty minutes of Morning Pages.3 Then, depending on the day, I’ll write for an hour or so before I head off to the gym before I come home and get ready to go to work. There simply isn’t time to read during the morning for me.
Nights? I’ve since restricted myself to no writing after the sun goes down,4 but I’m often too tired from a day spent writing and driving and working and driving to keep my eyes open for more than twenty minutes.
Twenty minutes is not enough to make a difference.
This leaves the weekend. Plenty more hours available here and perhaps the answer, upon reflection, is to try to make up for time lost during the week here. Still, it would be nice to find time to read every day. If, as writers we are supposed to be writing every day, we should also be reading every day.
As with writing tools, modern technology supplies us with great reading tools. Many prefer analog books; they love the smell, the feel, the sheer weight of carrying their favorite Author around wherever they go.
I’m not like that. I’d much rather have access to the entirety of GRRM’s Game of Thrones series than have it delivered in a 10-pound leather knapsack. Always with us all the time, the stress of finding time to read dissipates with these easy-to-carry easy-to-dive-into applications.
iBooks is great if you care about how your book looks. While a shiny retina display may be more difficult to read at the pool or on the beach than an eInk Kindle, iBook devices look beautiful. The typography choices, the gloss of the screen and the simulated page turning that happens when you drag a finger from right to left makes the experience of reading digital pleasurable.
Even reading comics in iBooks is enjoyable. Earlier this year I downloaded and started to read Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series in preparation for an adaptation I was supposed to do for one of his novels. 5 On a full sized iPad, the glossy screen accentuated the colors and helped pop the gorgeous artwork to life. The only irritation was a more than occasional errant page turn, an area where Kindle’s bezel buttons excel. That said, the ability to quickly download the next volume in the series well made up for any annoyances.
The ultimate reading companion. Every year I buy the latest Kindle, every year I go in with the idea that it will somehow increase my reading time. The Kindle Voyage has finally done that.
Wih a gorgeous Paperwhite display and densely packed dots per inch, the Kindle Voyage most closely resembles the analog experience. I did receive one with a small pinhole light defect at the very bottom of the screen, but this only seems to show itself when the brightness is set high and is therefore easily forgotten.
Neat things about the Kindle: for one, the aforementioned taptic bezel buttons. Adjustable to taste, the feedback you receive from squeezing the casing bridges the gap between digital and analog, making you feel like you’re reading a book
Another great feature: the Flash Cards that store every word you look up in the dictionary. While reading the greatest novel of the 21st century so far, All the Light We Cannot See, I frequently ran into words I wasn’t sure about or wanted to understand better. My Kindle stored these words while I read. After I finished mourning the fact that I’ll never write anything as good as Doerr’s masterpiece, I went back and quizzedmyself on what I didn’t know the first time around. A perfect solution for increasing one’s vocabulary.6
Instant access to everything I’ve read or everything I’ve ever wanted to read? Another great feature. Word Hints–where the Kindle inserts short definitions of difficult words between lines of text? Not so great. This seems to be a feature more geared to kids. My vocabulary may be lacking, but it is not juvenile. It would be great if future versions concentrated on more refined adult settings.
Deplorable feautre? The typography. With only fully-justified to choose from and a scant amount of typesets to choose from, the Kindle fails to delight the senses. Great typography makes a huge difference and does a lot to improve the communication of story to reader. Hopefully this will be fixed in the future.
Marvin is the worst named app in the history of apps, but the best free eBook reader on the market. With a “high fidelity interface” and mountains of typesets to choose from, Marvin personalizes the digital reading experience like no other. You don’t have access to any of your iTunes titles or any of your Kindle titles, but when it comes to reading the classics, Marvin excels.
Break t down this way: you want modern grab the Kindle. You want classic, go Marvin.
When it comes to PDF screenplays you could dump them all in a Dropbox folder and use that app’s built-in PDF reader. Or, you could download Weekend Read and read screenplays in style.
Say goodbye to squint, pinch and zoom.
Indeed. Built by the same people who brought us Fountain and Higgland, Weekend Read grabs the text of your PDFs and makes them pretty for your iPhone (and now iPad).
Whether you enjoy reading your screenplays in Iowan or the more modern Avenir Next, Weekend Read has you covered. If you’re a purist like me, you’ll set it to Courier Prime. Let character and dialogue set the style. You can even switch to Dark Mode if you need to catch up on the latest spec script without waking your partner at night.7
Weekend Read also offers you the choice of setting different swatches for character dialogue. Let’s say you want to identify all the scenes with Bob in them or you’re curious if Mary overwhelms Stacy when it comes to sheer volume of speaking parts. With Weekend Read you can assign blocks of color to those sections of dialogue and very quickly identify problem areas. If you’re reading your own work, you can even scroll quickly through the play and find out if one of your characters is a little wordy. It’s a fun feature that is more productive in use than it is in concept.
Weekend Read’s interpreter occasionally balks with some screenplays, particularly those that work against convention. When moments like this occur, 8 Weekend Read offers the typical PDF reader. Funny thing is, if you have to resort to the fallback, you’re more likely to abandon the screenplay all together; the unfortunate fallout for the digitally spoiled.
Replenishing Your Soul
Staying fit requires regular trips to the gym and eating right. Functioning well at work requires an ergonomic chair and plenty of rest. Writers need none of these. What they do need is a constant wealth of words and situations and character and thematic explorations from which to draw from. They need to be plugged in to what came before and they need to be aware of where they fit into the continuum of narrative. In short, they need to be read.
Read everything. If you haven’t read everything, you’ll never be able to write anything. – Lev Grossman
When it comes to writing a story nowadays, remembering where you left off is a challenge. Whether it’s the latest in tech or whatever it is you’re devouring on that tech, getting back to the business of putting one word in front of the other can be difficult. If only there was some way to easily remind yourself of the point of every scene …
“Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.” – Alain de Botton
The shortcut to beating that fear? A Dramatica storyform.
With 75 different story points symbolizing a holistic understanding of your story, a Dramatica storyform accelerates development time, giving writers a clear-cut schematic of how their story will unfold. Replacing your fear of doing badly with a fear of formula? Dramatica can pinpoint close to 33,000 unique storyforms. And if that weren’t enough to allay your fears, Collateral and Finding Nemo have the same storyform–could they be any different?1
The telling of the story, the unique personal take on each story point–that’s where the art comes in. That is where you will find the artist in this process. Organizing those thoughts in a way that conveys a clear and succint message–that is where Dramatica comes in. And now Fountain.
Writing whenever you want and on any device you want becomes transformative when you combine it with a meaningful blueprint. Dramatica serves as the cornerstone for any writing done on the go.
The Dramatica Approach to Acts
The first big thing we’re going to do when it comes to outlining your story is to block out the big movements of your story, what most people call Acts. Now, before you skip ahead and simply put down “Act 1”, “Act 2”, “Act 3” we’re going to use the power of Dramatica to help tell us if we have a three Act story. Some stories take three Acts to tell, some take four, some simply take two.
The clue to your story’s Act structure can be found in the Plot Progression for your Overall Story Throughline. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of Plot Progression or don’t have a storyform yet, feel free to pick your favorite film from the Dramatica analysis page and follow along.
Every Throughline in Dramatica consists of four Concerns that cover the types of conflict in each Throughline. For example, if your Overall Story is about Problematic Activities then your Throughline will explore Understanding, Doing, Obtaining and Learning. If it is about a Problematic Situation then you’ll find yourself covering the Past, Present, Future and How Things are Changing.
Every story will have its own unique way of exploring these Concerns but it will never repeat any of them. You do four and then the story is over. All bases covered. If you look at the Dramatica Table of Story Elements you’ll see these Concerns laid out in a Quad. Moving from one corner to another feels different depending on the direction taken.
If the move is diagonal then the dramatic shift will feel like a Slide. If it crosses horizontally or vertically then it will feel like a Bump. Bumps create a feeling of a definite Act change, while a Slide feels more like the second half of a larger Act. Sorry Aristotle, competent narratives are more than simply a beginning, middle, and an end.
With four different types of dramatic concerns to work through, throughlines fall into three broad categories: Bump-Slide-Bump, Slide-Bump-Slide and Bump-Bump-Bump-Bump. Multiply this by four separate throughlines that may or may not follow the same order, and the diversity of storytelling becomes clear. This is not a reductive process.2
For this article, we’ll focus on the Overall Story Throughline. It tends to be the one most people think of when they think of a story. Personally I’ve found it the best way to create a foundation for any story I write.
Outlining Your Unique Act Order
Looking at the Signpost Order of your Overall Story Throughline (found in Reports > Advanced Reports > Story Engine Settings) what path does Dramatica say you should take through your story? If you have a Bump-Slide-Bump then you have a typical Three-Act structure. Using the first level of Fountain’s outlining tools (the # delimeter), go ahead and put those down.
So if you have this:
- Signpost 1: Learning
- Signpost 2: Doing
- Signpost 3: Obtaining
- Signpost 4: Understanding
then you’ll do this:
Rian Johnson’s Looper employs this approach: the first movement focuses on everyone learning about the Rainmaker and his efforts to end the loopers’ contracts (Learning). Old Joe’s arrival and subsequent overpowering of Young Joe bumps the narrative into the second movement which consists of Old Joe searching for the Rainmaker as a child and Young Joe following the clues given to him by Old Joe’s map. This movement slides into the second half of the traditional Second Act where Old Joe begins killing the potential Rainmakers and Jesse arrives at the farm to kill both Joes (Doing to Obtaining). Old Joe’s capture bumps the story into the last movement wherein Old Joe finally understands Cid’s abilities and Young Joe understands what he has to do to save the future (Understanding).
If, on the other hand, you have something like this:
- Signpost 1: Understanding
- Signpost 2: Learning
- Signpost 3: Doing
- Signpost 4: Obtaining
then you’ll organize your document like this:
because you have what is known as a Slide-Bump-Slide story, or Two-Act story. These stories feel like they consist of two major movements. Some refer to them as “rise and fall” narratives.
James Cameron’s Aliens takes this approach: the first movement consists of understanding what happened to the Lost Colony and slides into learning what really happened (“They’re coming outta the goddman walls!”). The second movement consists of fighting back against the alien threat and slides into destroying their queen and the colony itself (“I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit.”). Understanding to Learning and then Doing to Obtaining.
Lastly, if you have this:
then get ready, because you have a Bump-Bump-Bump-Bump story and you will want to organize your story like this:
- # Act 1
- # Act 2
- # Act 3
- # Act 4
These narratives feel more episodic in nature. Francis Ford Coppola’s classic The Godfather takes this approach: the first act deals with the growing realization that drugs are the future of the business and that Michael must be brought in to deal with Sollozo (Understanding). This Bumps into the second movement with the murder of Sollozzo and Captain McClusky. The Second Act focuses on the families fighting over who will gain power and territory. Sonny’s fight to regain power leads to his eventual death (Obtaining) which Bumps the story into the Third Act. Here, Michael learns all he can from his father. Others learn of the Coleone’s plans to move to Vegas. This movement Bumps into the last act with the death of Don Corleone. Having learned all he can to prepare for Tessio’s inevitable betrayal, Michael does what a Godfather must do. He takes vows while his hitmen make key shifts in power. And finally, the other dons pledge their allegiance to Michael.
Sequences and Beyond
From here, you will want to drop in the specific Signposts from every Throughline. The Overall Story will be the easiest–there will be one sequence for every Act. Use the ’##’ Section delimiter to denote the next level down and attach any notes concerning it with the ’=’ Synopsis delimiter.
If you were writing Aliens, your document would look something like this:
OS Signpost 1: Understanding
= Everyone tries to figure out what happens to the Lost Colony. Ripley tries to get everyone to understand that this is a bad idea.
OS Signpost 2: Learning
= The Marines learn what really happened to the Colony and what they’re up against. They try to get information back to Earth.
[[ The drop ship crashes, destroying any chance of leaving for safety. ]]
OS Signpost 3: Doing
= The Marines fight the Aliens. The Marines retreat. And retreat some more.
OS Signpost 4: Obtaining
= Ripley finally finds her balls and faces the Queen. They nuke the colony and Ripley ejects the bitch into space.
You’ll note I added the Bump between the Two Acts–the destruction of the drop ship with Fountain’s ’[[ ]]’ Notes delimeter. Dramatica calls a major plot point like this the Story Driver, and it’s generally a good idea to keep track of these things to keep your story grounded with your original intention. If you have a story point you want to keep track of, put it in there as a Note. Fountain will leave it out when it comes time to print the final document.
A Roadmap to Follow
Now all you have to do is write the damn thing. You’ll want to put the Main Character Throughline in there as well as the Influence Character and Relationship Story Throughlines. You’ll also want to drop in all those other story points that aren’t Signposts. Sometimes you’ll find that you want to double up on some of the Signposts within one Act; nothing wrong with that. As long as you don’t address a Signpost in a different Act, your story will maintain its narrative integrity.
The tendency when taking this approach is to use each Signpost as a Sequence. This is fine, but you’ll find that occasionally your muse will call for more than one Throughline’s Signpost to be in the same Sequence. Always listen to that voice in your head when it comes to weaving these Signposts together. Don’t listen to that voice when it comes to the dramatic content and the order in which it appears. This is where Dramatica excels and where our context-shifting minds tend to screw things up.
In these distracted times, remembering what your story is about and why characters do the things they do becomes the ultimate struggle. Sure, it’s convenient to be able to write while driving down to teach a workshop or while your girlfriend checks her Instagram,3 but falling back into that headspace at a moment’s notice–that’s the real trick.
Folding your Dramatica storyform into your screenplay document makes it easier to drop into your story. You can start at the end or start at the beginning, you can even start dead center if you want because you’ll have the confidence that what you are writing will add up to something deeply meaningful. Outlining your screenplay with Dramatica and Fountain means setting yourself up with days and days of productive and fun writing.
To many, modern day screenwriting involves a set of Benjamin Franklins and a proprietary file format. Restrained by their own nescience, these writers miss out on a truly rapturous experience waiting for them with a tool they already own. By returning to a simpler time, writers return to the essence of their art.
Last week’s article encouraged writers to always be writing. With today’s technology and inter-connected devices, the storyteller can practice their craft anytime and anywhere. The only obstacle is finding a common file format that will work anytime and anywhere.
The Simple Text File
The key to his life of constant writing lies in the use of simply formatted text files that can be opened and edited on any device at any time. Besides granting the writer the option of choosing which editor they love the most1, working this way insures a text that will stand the test of time. Text files will always be with us. They will never render themselves useless the moment bloated screenwriting software goes the way of print publications and cassette tapes.
Write a page a day. It will add up. - Herman Wouk
In addition, working with text files allow you the option of versioning your screenplay. Those familiar with Git or Subversion will recognize the benefits and power of writing this way. Instead of having to constantly resave your screenplay under a new name (e.g. nightcrawler-001, nightcrawler-002, nightcrawler-003, and so on), versioned text files save the delta of each update. That is, they only save the changes to the original text file, not the text file itself. This allows the writer the convenience of quickly reverting to a previous version of their text based on date or content changed.2
Lastly, working in text makes it easy to quickly line up and identify changes between different versions of a script. Working in collaboration with another screenwriter but tired of fighting over who writes in red and who writes in blue, and whether or not the lines in gold take precedence over the bold face text written in 24 pt. Arial? Then you’ll appreciate writing in a simple text file.
Using a file comparison app like Kaleidoscope, you can easily see the changes your co-writer made and choose whether to merge them into your version or discard them with a haughty no thank-you. Again, the focus stays on the text, not on formatting or manipulating the text. The emphasis stays on story, not presentation.
What is Fountain?
Having been a fan and heavy utilizer of the markup language Markdown3, I jumped at the introduction of Fountain. Established by geek screenwriter John August and fellow Cal-Arts alum Stu Maschwitz, Fountain extends Markdown to include special affordances for the screenplay format:
Fountain supports everything a screenwriter is likely to need in the early, creative phases of writing. Not included are production features such as MOREs, CONTINUEDs, revision marks, locked pages, or colored pages.
When you want to write a line of action, you write a line of action. When you want to write a line of dialogue you put the character’s name in ALL CAPS and their stirring speech on the next line. When you want to start a new scene, put Int. Or Ext. in ALL CAPS and you’re good to go. The entire process is seamless and intuitive.
Love for the Structuralist
Encouraging screenplays to be about something instead of simply something, Fountain also offers methods of structuring Acts, Sequences and Scenes. Using the ‘#’ delimiter to denote a heirarchal order, writers can easily organize the major and minor movements of their story.
Managing a screenplay this way opens up several opportunities for navigating the text. Slugline, an application written specifically for Fountain (which we’ll get to in a moment) offers a sidebar view of the outline. The latest version of Editorial will grant text-folding powers, allowing writers the ability to collapse those sequences and scenes they want to work on later for later. Future applications may open up new powerful possibilities, furthering the case for working in a future-proof format.
Dedicated Fountain Editors
Speaking of Editorial, the newest version will offer native support for Fountain! You can select what font to use when writing .fountain files (Courier Prime naturally!) and view your formatted screenplay with a built-in Fountain Preview tab. A dream come true.
Of course if you want to, you can always write your screenplay inside of an application built for Fountain. August offers Highland while Maschwitz supports Slugline. Both do a remarkable job of staying out of the way when it comes to handling your text files. Highland caters to the purist, keeping text text and only lightly coloring specific notes or comments. Slugline walks the line between text and screenplay by formatting your text file as you write to give the appearance of a completed screenplay.
Personally, I find Highland to be the better of the two. I find myself less concerned with the perception of my screenplay and more concerned with how my story actually reads. When I work in Slugline, I find myself writing and re-writing, killing widows and chunks of action longer than three lines, all in an effort to satisfy the imaginary reader who lives by the rules of modern screenwriting. When I write in Highland (or Editorial on an iOS device), I lose myself in the story and the writing process. The words take precedent over the format.
When it comes time to make the screenplay look pretty, Slugline takes over as champ. The What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get approach speeds up the process of improving the script’s readability. With Highland you constantly have to switch back and forth from straight text to formatted play, a disorienting process that almost always calls for endless scrolling to find your place in the edit.
The solution? Get both. Together their price is a fifth of the industry standard. Lightweight and easy on the eyes, both Highland and Slugline brings writers closer to their words.
Assembling the Scenes
John August’s company Quote-Unquote Apps also offers Assembler, an application designed to merge multiple text files into one. Two problems this app solves: one, no more endless scrolling searching through text. By breaking up a screenplay into separate text files for each scene or sequence, the writer can swiftly zero in on the part of their story that needs attention. Two, if you thought versioning for an entire screenplay was cool, imagine individual versioning for each scene. The cost-to-entry for rewriting a scene drops to nothing, opening up a world of experimentation and creativity.
Delivering the Goods
As soon as you type FADE OUT, both Highland and Slugline offer push-button solutions to convert your textual masterpiece into a beautifully professional PDF safe for sending off to your agent. You can even convert to FDX (Final Draft) if you still deal with the Dark side.
About Final Draft and Fountain4: if someone you work with demands that hideous program, it is possible to take their FDX monstrosity and dump it into Highland or Slugline for conversion.5 You can compare their version against yours (again, using Kaleidoscope), make any changes and then dump out an FDX version for them to read on their Gateway Pentium III PC6. It calls for additional steps, but the inconvenience is worth it if you truly care about storytelling as an art.
The only thing more tormenting than writing is not writing. — Cynthia Ozick
Writing with Fountain is a joy. I can write in my office, the gym, on a walk or in the bathroom. I can write on a Mac, on an iPhone an iPad and even a Linux based text editor if that’s what my day job provides. I can work on the same text file no matter my location, no matter the device. I simply write down the words and leave the rest to chance.
Fountain connects writers with their art.
No doubt about it, the Gilroy brothers can write. Tony gave us Michael Clayton, and now brother Dan hands over Nightcrawler. Brilliantly simple and purposeful in its execution, and every bit as well constructed as the former, Nightcrawler earns its Academy Award nomination.
The Dramatica theory of story makes a distinction between Main Characters who Adopt their Influence Character’s position on things and those who Maintain their original paradigm (known as the Main Character Resolve: Change or Steadfast). If there ever was a poster boy for those characters who maintain their original position, it would be Lou (sorry, Louis) Bloom (a masterful Jake Gyllenhaal). Driven to draw conclusions based on what he has read and learned (Main Character Drive: Deduction), Lou pursues success with a certainty (Main Character Crucial Element: Certainty) and an optimism (Main Character Growth: Start) that never wavers, never wanes.
Saddled with a bleak economic landscape that tells him what he can and cannot do (Main Character Issue: Work), Lou works his way up the video broadcast ladder (Main Character Problem-Solving Style: Linear) , challenging the status quo of what is permissible on network television (Overall Story Issue: Permission). Bloom steals, trespasses, alters crime scenes, and withholds information on his journey to win friends and influence people (Story Driver: Action, Overall Story Throughline: Manipulation). No one looks at Lou and sees what he is capable of (Main Character Symptom: Potentiality). Those who do–the security guard near the train tracks and rival video vulture Loder (Bill Paxton)–meet a most unexpected and violent end (Main Character Approach: Do-er).
Bloom doesn’t hire an assistant–he hires a protegé (Relationship Story Concern: Learning). Rick Carey (Riz Ahmed), a homeless kid fixated on making only enough money to get through the night (Relationship Story Throughline: Fixed Attitude), takes Bloom’s first offer without counter and without hesitation (Influence Character Problem: Acceptance, Influence Character Critical Flaw: Expediency). The conflict at the heart of their relationship? Bloom’s unspoken confidence in Rick’s tendency to be a sap (Relationship Story Problem: Probability). After hours and hours of counseling from Bloom concerning his lack of drive (Relationship Story Symptom: Potentiality), Rick finally stands up to his boss and in the moment of crisis, refuses to accept Bloom’s low-ball wage (Influence Character Solution: Non-Acceptance). Complete stories demand Influence Characters to Adopt the Main Character’s Paradigm when the Main Character Maintains theirs. Rick blackmails Lou the same way Lou blackmailed Romina (Rene Russo), securing Nightcrawler’s position in the pantheon of successful narratives.
Unfortunately for Rick, taking such an approach signals the possibility of more trouble–giving Bloom cause to end their relationship (Relationship Story Solution: Possibility).
Lou’s measure of success? A newsroom full of professional anchors and crew catching on to the importance of Lou Bloom himself (Overall Story Goal: Conceiving an Idea, Story Outcome: Success). Follow that up with an army of interns eagerly anticipating his every word and Lou confindently heads out into the night knowing he has finally made something of himself (Main Character Throughline: Situation, Story Judgment: Good).
Dramatica Storyform: Steadfast, Start, Do-er, Linear, Action, Optionlock, Success, Good, Psychology (Manipulation), Conceiving, Permission, Acceptance
Lucid in its bleak portrayal of souls dealing with the aftermath of German occupation, the Holocaust and Stalinism, Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida commands attention (Overall Story Concern: The Past). While the performances and stunning cinematography account for much of the critical praise, it is the soundness of the narrative that keeps us engaged.
On the eve of taking her vows, Main Character Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is told she must visit her aunt, Influence Character Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza). Wanda sets Anna on a personal journey of self-discovery once she informs the novice nun that her real name is Ida Lebenstein and that her parents were Jewish (Main Character Concern: Conceptualizing). Determined to find the bodies of Ida’s parents, the two strike up a most-unlikely relationship: the devout and the profane on a barren road trip through Poland (Overall Story Goal: The Past, Relationship Story Throughline: Fixed Attitude, Overall Story Problem: Knowledge).
Drinking. Smoking. Sexual affairs. Wanda is a woman struggling with all sorts of sensual passion (Influence Character Issue: Senses, Influence Character Symptom: Desire). Afraid that Ida will end up forever celibate, Wanda encourages Ida to engage in sin (Influence Character Response: Ability), picking up handsome hitchhiker Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik) to seal the deal (Relationship Story Problem: Inertia, Relationship Story Solution: Change). Ida resists by internalizing her own personal struggle–a resistance that Wanda eventually breaks down (Main Character Approach: Be-er, Main Character Growth: Start).
It is upon meeting Feliks Skiba that we begin to see the connections between these lost souls and the chaos of atrocities they still can’t overcome (Overall Story Throughline: Situation, Overall Story Symptom: Chaos). Whether forced into serving judicial terror on enemies of the state or forced into murdering a mother and a father and a young boy who can’t pass for a Christian, the characters of Ida’s Poland suffer at the hands of an un-Godly fate (Overall Story Issue: Fate).
Adopting Ida’s paradigm of identifying with family and familial relationships, Wanda finds herself forced to deal with the weight and guilt of the loss of her child (Influence Character Solution: Thought, Influence Character Resolve: Change). The memories prove to be too much and she hurls herself out of her bedroom window (Story Consequences: Memories). All is not lost as Ida reencounters Lis at Wanda’s funeral. Taking a moment to adopt Wanda’s paradigm, Ida slips into Wanda’s high heels and dances the night away (Main Character Solution: Perception). The change is temporary, fleeting, as Ida returns to the convent and her original paradigm (Main Character Resolve: Steadfast), confident of who she is and where she fits into the world (Story Judgment: Good).
This dynamic, where one of the principal characters adopts the other’s paradigm and one maintains their original paradigm, is the cornerstone of a complete functioning narrative. While there are many reasons why Ida excels, the [accurate application of this story point] to the narrative serves as the foundation for its success.
Dramatica Storyform: Steadfast, Start, Be-er, Holistic, Action, Optionlock, Success, Good, Situation, The Past, Fate, Knowledge
Download Storyform (PDF)
: http://narrativefirst.com/articles/series/character-and-change “A series of articles entitled ‘Character and Change’
No excuse. No reason for not following your dreams. No justification for leaving your story stagnant even for a single day. With today’s tools and technology, writers can fulfill their life’s passion irregardless of location or motivation.
Wearing down seven number-two pencils is a good day’s work – Ernest Hemingway
We don’t use number-two pencils anymore. We use iOS 8s and Galaxy S6s. We use iPad Airs and Kindle Fires. We use Dropbox and iCloud and Google Drive and we carry these with us wherever we go. The tools change, but the process stays the same: write each and every day. No excuse for a missed day.
The one ironclad rule is that I have to try. I have to walk into my writing room and pick up my pen every weekday morning – Anne Tyler
What if you didn’t have to wait until you reached your writing room? What if you don’t even have a writing room? What if all you have is your imagination and a small device that everyone carries around with them, every single day?
Turn to your smartphone.
Over the past six months I have increased my writing output ten fold. What used to be something reserved for the privacy of my den and my MacBook Air is now available to me twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Always on, always writing.
Waiting for food? Time to work on that action sequence. Waiting for your child’s school play to start? Time to rework that dialogue. Taking care of business in the bathroom, but tired of wasting your life away with Alto’s Adventure? Switch those two scenes around and cut that useless character.
No matter where you are, your story is there with you. Waiting for you to engage with it.
You just need to know what apps to use.
(This article works a “living” document, which means I will revisit this article from time to time and update it with the latest in tools for writers)
The iPhone 6 Plus
Giant phones are for writing giant stories. This isn’t to say that you can’t write the Great American Novel on an iPhone 6 or 5–just that your imagination will appreciate the extra room.
When the two different sizes came out last Fall, I spent some time hopping from one device to the next at my local Apple store, trying to figure out which one worked the best for writing. After twenty minutes, the distinction was clear–the greater screen size and improved resolution made it easier to dive into the moment and lose yourself in the story. That’s all we want, isn’t it?
Regardless of how silly it may look in your hand (though that has faded with time) or how insanely large it sits within your pants pocket, the iPhone 6 Plus pampers a writer’s imagination.
The first application to attach to your Writer’s Toolbelt is more a motivation tool than an actual writing tool. Hours simply and elegantly tracks the amount of time you spend completing a task. While there are programs like RescueTime that automate this process on your laptop, I find that having a timing tool available to you wherever you are, and more importantly one that needs you to engage with it, makes it more likely that you will develop a better understanding of your habits.
I am constantly shocked at how little I write during the day. I want six hours. I usually end up short of three. Recording my time writing makes me want to write more–a game for me to play and win, every time.
Writer’s block? If you’re stuck, it means you don’t yet know what you’re trying to say. – Susan Orlean
And if you don’t know yet what you want to say, Dramatica can help you focus your narrative. Though complex and confusing at first, this revolutionary theory of story makes it possible for writers to quickly and efficiently understand the heart of their story. Less a prescribed set of sequences or cultural collection of mythological hooey, Dramatica helps writers craft complete arguments.
Want to focus on the inner psychological turmoil a maniacal teacher imparts upon his music students? Then you’ll want to balance that with a relationship focused in the external world of slapping and tossing cymbals at heads. (Whiplash). Prefer instead to focus the conflict on the fistfights and accidents that come with putting on the performance of a lifetime? Then balance that out with an internal struggle between one character fighting the psychological manipulations of another (Birdman).
Dramatica is the only application listed here that you cannot run on a smartphone. You can, and should, have the central site dramatica.com running in your favorite browser. And you should have the Dramatica Table of Story Elements available at a moment’s notice (I keep mine as a Favorite in my Dropbox). The time to use this application is at the beginning of your story creation and during each and every rewrite. You don’t need Dramatica running on your smartphone, nor should you–writing is a process of writing, not analyzing.
Dramatica helps you round out your story and fill any holes. In short, it cures writer’s block. And if we’re going to be writing everyday we need to eliminate any potential obstructions.
Now that we have an idea of what we want to say, we need to come up with how we’re going to say it. Some writers look at a blank page and see an ocean of possibilities; other writers look at the same page and see a giant wall. If you’re the former you’ll probably want to skip this section (though eventually you’ll have to come back to it during the rewrite process). If you’re the latter (like me), then you’ll want to read on to see the latest and greatest way to plan out your story.
I wisely started with a map – J. R. R. Tolkien
This is a new application for me. Before, I was a giant fan of Write Brother’s program Outliner 4D (formerly StoryView). I used StoryView to structure out my epic World War I drama and found it helped me keep all the characters and sequences consistent and focused. The only problem? Outliner 4D only exists for the PC and that ship sailed for me a long time ago.
It wasn’t until recently that I discovered I needed to find a replacement. My story now weaves a tapestry of complexity unfit for a simple text file (More on this later when we talk about Writing with Fountain). Instead of one Influence Character, I incorporate two. Instead of one Relationship Throughline, I work two. Same Main Character and same storyform, but managing the hand-offs between the two Influence Characters proved challenging.
My search for the perfect replacement led me to OmniGroup’s OmniOutliner. As beautiful and as functional as any outliner can be, OmniOutliner’s greatest asset is its ability to track story points in various columns. Similar to the kind of ability found in Outliner 4D, OmniOutliner lets you create separate columns for different throughlines and then track those developments throughout your narrative.
I found this immensely helpful in crafting my most recent story. One column held the Overall Story Points, another the Main Character Throughline, the other the shared Influence Character and lastly I created a column for the Relationship Throughline. I also tracked the Overall Characters, making sure that I accounted for every one of them in each of the four Acts.
How did this help? In three to four days I had a solid outline from which to begin writing. Two weeks later, I am two-thirds of the way finished. Pretty astonishing.
Like Dramatica, this part of the process excels on the desktop. At the time of this publication, the iOS version of the app is not yet available, but will be shortly. Until then, I simply Export to a PDF and keep that file in my Dropbox folder for my story.
The next two apps maintain the bulk of your writing. The first works as a depository for inspirational notes and ideas that come just before drifting off to bed, the second holds your actual story.
Think of Drafts as your virtual note card system. Keep one thought per note, and don’t worry about using too much memory or filling up too many notes–Drafts take up little space. When you find yourself with more than a couple of minutes of writing time, open up Drafts and go through your last couple of notes. Use these notes as inspiration and motivation to get you going, to get you writing again. If you’re like me, it can sometimes take awhile to get that motor running and fall into the groove of writing. Using Drafts as your starter mover helps speed up that process.
When finished, and after you incorporated these notes into your actual story, you might want to consider Archiving them to get them out of the way. You can also setup elaborate actions to archive them away in a master text file notebook that sits in your Dropbox account. That’s what I do.
When I’m finished with a note, I have an action that appends the note to a master TXT file, adding the date and time. This way I can always look back and see where each note came from and if I addressed each one.
I’ve tried Byword and Ulysses and iA Writer and Google Docs and Pages and 1Writer and nothing comes close to offering the power and elegance of Editorial. More than a text editor, Editorial offers powerful Workflows that extend your experience of writing beyond simply getting those words down.
I write everything in Markdown. Even my screenplays (though as I’ve mentioned, I use an extension of Markdown called Fountain). Editorial does Markdown formatting. It even does text-folding (a great new feature that allows you to quickly collapse sequences and/or sections for easier readability and accessibility). But Workflows elevate Editorial to the top.
The nature of my writing here on Narrative First calls for me to make extensive links to the central Dramatica site. Instead of opening Safari and finding my links there, Editorial allows me to highlight my search criteria and then click a Workflow that will search the Dramatica site with that input. Returning to Editorial I can simply add it as a Markdown Inline or Reference link and then return to writing.
When it comes to writing screenplays, Editorial excels. The new Arrange Paragraphs feature lets me easily shift Sequences around while the ability to cast the entire document in Courier Prime makes the experience seem more real. The Dark Theme encourages darker passages.
In addition there are a couple of Fountain Workflows for Editorial. I use Fountain Note to quickly convert a block of text into a note in my screenplay and I use Fountain Preview to get a quick look at what the final screenplay will look like. Both help to make the screenplay writing process on an iPhone concrete (at least until Highland or Slugline get their act together!).
Editorial is a powerhouse when it comes to writing and a cherished friend when it comes to writing stories.
When it comes to the Quantified Self, the iPhone excels in offering a multitude of different ways to track yourself. While the excellent Reporter App can help quantify your time on several different tasks throughout the day, Persistence helps keep your mine focused on your goals.
I have two goals right now: Write Three Hours a Day and Read Two Hours a Day. They may not seem ambitious at first, but like a new weight-lifting regiment its important with Goals to start out small, and to start out with a number you’re likely to hit. As you continue to meet those numbers, you can always increase the limit and push yourself harder.
Every couple days I copy over my hours from Hours into Persistence and see how I am doing. Seeing my work reflected this way encourages me to be gentle and accepting of what I have done, and motivates me to find more time to do what I love most: engage with stories.
Writing for Life
Writing is a wholetime job: No professional writer can afford only to write when he feels like it. – Somerset Maugham
And this is why we should always be writing.
In three month’s time I have written two and a half screenplays. Three and a half if you count the one I wrote with my writing partner. I attribute much of this increase in production to the tools I use. Ubiquitious, fluid, and always on hand, the apps listed above encourage creativity by keeping the process simple and fun. No longer do I have to cordon off sections of time on my calendar or barricade myself in my den. I write when I write.
The smartphone offers writers a dream come true: a location to hold all of our stories–both the ones we read and the ones we write–and allows us to pick them up at a moment’s notice and dive in. It offers us the opportunity to do what we love most.
The less you write, the better it must be. – Jules Renard
Why not write more?