The Latest in Story Structure & Story Analysis
When is a story about a singing competition not a story about competitively singing? When it’s really a story about being in a singing competition.
Ensemble stories, like Sing!, tend to focus on the dysfunctional relationships between various characters rather than any goal they may share. The conflict arises from their various Manners of Thinking and their attempts—whether conscious or subconscious—to manipulate the people around them. The Overall Story Throughline of Sing! takes this approach in laying out its plot.
Buster the koala, Meena the elephant, Johnny the gorilla, Eddie the sheep, Ash the porcupine, Mike the mouse, and Rosita the pig all create conflict by trying to appear to be something they are not. Manipulating their friends and family members or being manipulated by friends and family members defines the kind of conflict found in this story.
Johnny the gorilla (Taran Egerton) stands out as the one singer we get to know on a more personal level. His relationship with his father is the only relationship that exists outside of the Overall Story Throughline perspective—a key indicator for the Relationship Story Throughline and a great clue as to who the Author intended to assume the position of Main Character.
Johnny is a great singer trapped inside the body of a behemoth gorilla. This unique Situation makes it almost impossible for him to follow his dreams. His Main Character Throughline allows us to experience what it must be like personally to want to do something your body wasn’t theoretically designed to do.
Opposing Johnny is Big Daddy (Peter Serafinowicz). Representing the Influence Character Throughline perspective, Big Daddy’s Fixed Attitude challenges and impacts Johnny, forcing the boy to reconsider his career goals.
Their relationship as father and son centers around the Activities of robbing banks, practicing and driving getaway cars, and ultimately bringing the house down together. Their Relationship Story Throughline provides the heart of the story to Sing! and offers a nice counter-balance to the gentle manipulations found in the Overall Story Throughline.
They want to be something they’re not. I am stuck in an untenable situation. You are fixated on what I can and cannot do. And We can’t seem to work together. Overall Story, Main Character, Influence Character, and Relationship Story perspectives sharing different contexts on the same central inequity.
Sing! may resonate with too much familiarity for most, but the foundation on which it rests its narrative is sound and reliable.
More Story Structure & Story Analysis
In addition to wrapping up the events of last month, we showcase two interviews—one with a writer new to Dramatica and the other, with a writer who discovered Dramatica.
Dramatica will save your life. Whether within the story room or out there in the real world, Dramatica’s unique understanding into what makes narrative—and therefore us—work allows you to weather any storm. In the story room, where you’re constantly barraged by one story note after the next, Dramatica’s storyform helps ensure that you don’t lose sight of your original intent. In the real world, the idea that there is no real solution—only different contexts—ensures that one day we might enjoy a little bit of world peace.
We then finish off our series on Generating Dramatic Tension by taking a look at narratives with a Four-Act structure and discuss how looking at story structure holistically might just be the thing you need to do in order to complete your beloved novel or screenplay.
The Dramatica Mentorship Program - our premiere service designed to give you the tools and techniques for applying Dramatica’s powerful concepts to your stories.
Show Notes & Links
- Episode 37: Discovering Dramatica and the Genesis of Narrative First: Part One part one of our introductory podcast on all things Dramatica and Narrative First
- Episode 38: Discovering Dramatica and the Genesis of Narrative First: Part Two part two of our introductory podcast on all things Dramatica and Narrative First
- Main Character and Perspective thinking of the Main Character more as a point-of-view rather than an actual character
- Stalag 17 a Dramatica Users Group analysis of a film that turns out to have a collective Main Character
- Understanding Steadfastness and Change in a Character an explanation as to the shift in perspective identified within the Main Character’s Resolve
- B.F.G. our analysis of this painful, yet beautiful film
- E.T. The Extra Terrestrial Users Group Analysis our Dramatica group analysis of this beautiful tear-jerker story
- In Regards to the Inciting Incident why this popular term of story structure fails to adequately express the flashpoint of narrative
- “You and I Are Both Alike” Video montage a collection of key moments in narrative that specifically focus on the differential between seeing things as separate or discrete, and seeing things as blended
- Generating Dramatic Tension Within Each Act of Your Story: Part Five our final article on using Dramatica’s objective storypoints to define subjective tension felt within your characters
Narrative First theme by Alex Hull. Hear more on his Soundcloud, Operation Solace
While editing and publishing the Dramatica Users Group Analysis of Doubt video, it occurred to me that I completely forgot to address the Overall Story Issue. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem—save for the fact that the actual title of the movie—Doubt—features prominently in the corner of Dramatica’s Table of Story Elements.
In the interest of time, and hopefully in an attempt to better educated writers interested in developing their understanding of Dramatica, I went ahead and recorded a quick 6-minute video explaining why the Overall Story Issue of Doubt was not Doubt, but rather Investigation.
For more video tutorials like this, please visit our Membership page for details.
Last week, I ran the Dramatica Users Group analysis of the 2008 drama Doubt starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep. The class ran exceedingly well and provided a mountain of insight into a particular kind of storyform not often seen in American cinema.
When Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley first asked me to cover for him last month, my first thought was But there isn’t even a storyform for that movie. In my estimation, Doubt was nothing like The Shawshank Redemption or Pinocchio. Like next month’s Moonlight, the film would prove to be one of those analysis sessions where we can’t find a consistent narrative (like City Lights or Leviathan). In fact, I was so confident in my original analysis of Doubt from 2011 where I said:
A wonderfully acted film that falls two notches shy of telling a complete story.
that I even asked Chris to check in with me before the class.
Imagine my surprise when I watched the movie again last Monday and thought, Well, that was one of the easiest storyforms to figure out!
All Four Throughlines were clearly there. The Story Outcome and Story Judgment were clearly stated. Hoffman and Streep’s classic “You and I are Both Alike” scene clearly defined their Relationship Story Throughline. Even the Main Character’s Growth–an often elusive and subjective story point to discover-was clearly presented.
One of the most interesting things we discovered as a group was that the Overall Story Issue for the film was not Doubt, but rather Investigation. While not covered in the above class, we did upload an addendum video on Identifying the Overall Story Issue of Doubt that we’re sure you’ll find compelling.
A Lifetime of Study
Dramatica is not something you learn and put aside. The theory takes years and years to understand and even more years to master. A writer new to the theory said this about his experience Tuesday night:
very fun and humbling evening last night. I feel like this is a life long adventure. every time I think I understand it I find a new layer that breaks my brain. thanks again.
While there are methods for accelerating that process, like our Dramatica® Mentorship Program, it is a lifelong pursuit. That excites me. It means I’ll always be learning something new. It means I’ll always be growing. It means that I will always have a solid touchpoint to keep me on track as I develop the art and craft of what it means to tell a story.
The study of Dramatica improves your writing like nothing else. Personally, I’m grateful to experience that growth every day and to play a role in helping others experience the same.
We finally found time this week to edit, render, and publish the video analyses of both the Pilot Episode of The Americans and the sci-fi film Arrival. Both classes dive into the deep thematic structure of their narratives while using the Dramatica theory of story for context. After identifying the Four Throughlines, we establish the Character and Plot Dynamics, and then visit the Dramatica Table of Story Elements to pinpoint the source of conflict in each Throughline.
The Americans Pilot Episode
This analysis is great as it takes a look at how Dramatica works within the context of a one-hour television show. In addition, Chris explains how some of the story points in this episode set up potential for future stories within the series. If you’ve ever been interested in what it takes to outline a television series with Dramatica, this is a great video to watch.
This class is wonderful, if for no other reason than it shows the various thought processes that lead up to the same conclusions we made in our official analysis of Arrival. Pay special close attention to the difference between how things are revealed, and the actual structure of the narrative.
To tell a complete story one must consider all points-of-view. To leave one out risks writing a one-sided argument that many discount as imbalanced or unfair. When dealing with an important hot-button topic like pedophilia within the Catholic Church, taking a comprehensive look from all sides avoids any claims of attacking for the sake of anti-church propaganda. With a balanced and fair look, the narrative simply functions as an argument against the inappropriateness of the methods use to address this problem.
Conflict from All Sides
The Dramatica theory of story provides an easy way of organizing and addressing the various points-of-view used in exploring this problem. By taking the universal perspectives of I, You, We, and They and applying them to the four different ways our minds consider problems: Situations, Activities, Fixed Attitudes, and Manners of Thinking Authors ensure a totality of exploration.
As story developed over the centuries, the four perspectives found their way into narrative by means of various Throughlines. The Main Character Throughline of a story assumed the I perspective. The character who presented an alternate way of doing things to the Main Character took the You perspective. In Dramatica, this perspective is the Influence Character Throughline.
The relationship that develops between the two of them represents the We perspective and is known as the Relationship Story Throughline. Finally, the Overall Story Throughline–which accounts for everyone in the story, including the Main and Influence Characters, covers the perspective of They.
Assigning areas of conflict to these points-of-view establishes the Domain of those Throughline.
Genre and Domains
Different Genres trend towards a different arrangement of these Domains. Superhero movies and Sci-Fi action/adventure films prefer looking at problematic Actvities for the Overall Story perspective while reserving the unique problematic Situation for the Main Character. Romances and romantic comedies often trade Activities for problematic Manners of Thinking in the Overall Story, yet maintain that Situation for the Main Character.
Dramas however–particularly those played out on stage–prefer a completely different arrangement of Throughlines. Here, it is the exploration of problematic Fixed Attitudes that grabs the spotlight for the Overall Story point-of-view. The ability of characters to relate their wants and needs directly to the Audience encourages a level of insight difficult to achieve in film.
In transitioning Doubt from stage to screen, the Author maintains the arrangement of Throughlines from the original. While somewhat distancing in terms of expectations for a modern film-going Audience, this conformity ensures that the argument found in the original Pulitzer Prize-winning text carries through into the new form.
Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) begins with a sermon encouraging doubt amongst his parishioners. As the spiritual head of his church, Flynn finds himself in a unique position to manipulate and assuage Manners of Thinking within his congregation. Nowhere is this impact felt more than within the point-of-view of Sister Alloysius (Meryl Streep)–fulfilling the narrative’s requirement for an Influence Character Throughline.
Alloysius interprets the sermon as an admonition of guilt and begins to cast aspersions against the content of Flynn’s character. Her prejudice clashes against what everyone else thinks of him, focusing the Overall Story Throughline on problematic Fixed Attitudes.
This conflict extends out into their relationship as priest and nun. Fathers enjoy rowdy steak dinners with wine and friends; nuns eat simple meals with milk and silence. The Relationship Story Throughline focuses on the conflict emanating from the hierarchy of the church and extends to something as simple as the Situations of who sits in whose chair.
This leaves only the problems of Activity. Sadly for Sister Alloysius these activities involve learning that one’s faith in God may potentially be misplaced. As the most intimate of perspectives, this Main Character Throughline brings us personally into the argument and wrenches our emotions when we experience the same turmoil of doubt in our own hearts.
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin would probably be the first one to tell you to disregard structure and write from the heart. Like the great David Milch, Sorkin creates masterpieces while flying by the seat-of-his-pants. To wunderkind like this, structure is a crutch and a cage–something to laugh at and deride; something not worthy of further study.
Yet, in both cases, their greatest achievements shine as stunning examples of carefully crafted and well-structured stories. Forget Steve Jobs for a moment, and focus on Sorkin’s 2009 Facebook piece, The Social Network. By pitting two college buddies into deep personal conflict and setting that relationship against the backdrop of creating the world’s largest and most profitable online social network, Sorkin manages to provide Audiences everywhere a deeper meaning to what it means to stay connected.
Both the Overall Story Throughline and the Main Character Throughline focus on the problems of over-production. In the former we see it played out with the development of the social platform Facebook and in the latter we see it within Zuckerberg’s own predeliction for creating something more out of nothing. This drive to create mountains-out-of-molehills comes off as an obstinate and bad Fixed Attitude through Mark and and as psychological Manipulation and back-stabbing through everyone else involved (including Mark Z.).
Eduardo Sevarin challenges Mark’s asshole attitude with the ramifications of being well-off. Does Sevarin entertain a better reputation because of his money, or because of who he is? Sorkin’s juxtaposition of Sevarin’s Situation against Mark’s attitude works perfectly for the Influence Character Throughline perspective.
Their friendship plays out with the various Activities, both known and unknown, taken within their Relationship Story Throughline. When friends, they build the Facebook together, when enemies they work tear each other apart–both by shutting off access to resources and in Mark’s case, shutting out Sevarin legally from any future position within his company.
Great stories can’t help but structure themselves around four distinct perspectives. In our own lives we often can’t tell who is right or who is wrong. A narrative, particularly one involving real world events, attempts to set the appropriateness or inappropriateness of actions taken within coherent and consistent contexts.
Whether Sorkin meant to or not, The Social Network enjoys the status of “a great film” because of its complete and well-positioned structure.
Experience writing with us.
What happened to the Narrative First podcast? We’ve actually been writing on several different projects. One a big budget animated feature, the other a super low-budget indie animated film, and the last an epic adult animated cult series. Details on all to be provided in the months to come, but for now—we’re freakin’ busy!
When we’re heads down and plugged in and focused we tend to obsess over one song. It’s not unusual for us to listen to the same song over and over again on repeat simply because we’re too into what we’re writing to bother changing to the next track. Once we find our groove, we lay into it and listen to it incessantly for hours at a time.
At CalArts it was Van Halen, when we started it was Girl Talk (inspired by CGP Gray and Myke Hurley’s Cortext podcast), and this year—at least this last week—it’s something completely brand new.
So sit back, strap in, and experience the thrill of what it sounds like to write with us.
Show Notes & Links
From the desk of why didn’t anyone tell me about this sooner?!, Melanie Anne Phillips—my favorite go-to for an easy link post posted FOUR HOURS OF BRAND-NEW DRAMATICA AUDIO! And by brand-new, I mean historical audio recorded during the first few months of development of the theory.
I have yet to listen to all of it, but imagine Chris and Melanie sitting around in a conference room with a micro-cassette recorder between them and you get the basic idea. I can’t think of a better way to spend your days of June gloom whilst you wait for the next episode of the Narrative First podcast.