In the search for a grand unified theory of narrative, many land short. Whether myopic in their understanding or limited in their perspective, these paradigms of the past left many a writer shaking their head no. If it works it should work, without exception.
One of the nice things about the Dramatica theory of story is the complete lack of caveats. Every other paradigm or structural model comes chock full of exceptions and sidebars and excuses why this film doesn’t fit or why that one is the exception to the rule. My initial attraction to the Dramatica was based on the fact that it made no excuses for its interpretation of narrative: this was how story worked and you didn’t have to look at it sideways in order to make some films or novels fit.
However, one thing about it has always given me grief. Toy Story.
Six Years Strong
After six years of teaching story development at the California Institute of the Arts and hundreds of articles written for Narrative First, I continue to pride myself on delivering an understanding of story without equivocation. Bold statements and revelations of narrative must exist without exception lest they be seen as false and unworthy of attention.
Pixar’s first film has always been a bit of a stumbling block when it comes to teaching the concept of Main Character Resolve. The original analysis for Toy Story–the one that comes shipped with the application–sees Woody as the Change character and Buzz as the Steadfast character. Both characters can’t change their resolve–the entire theory rests on this concept.1 Yet Buzz clearly adopts a brand new way of solving problems.
How can this be?
One Changes While the Other Remains Steadfast
Every complete and meaningful story ever written works this way: Two characters meet, each with their own unique way of seeing the world and their own unique way of solving problems. They butt heads. One thinks he knows the best way, the other knows she has the right approach. They continue to duke it out until the very end of the story when one of them adopts the other’s approach. This change of heart finalizes the story, bringing everything to either a successful conclusion or a miserable failure.
This is how an Author provides meaning to their story’s events. In essence, the writer is saying, “Look, here are two equally valid approaches to solving this particular problem. When one gives to the other, it will always lead to this outcome.” Some refer to this as the message of the story. Some say this is what gives a story meaning. Message sounds preachy and meaning sounds esoteric. They both see the same thing within the structure of a story: an argument for how to solve a problem.
A Better Understanding
With this in mind, it is clear that Woody is the Steafast Character and Buzz is the Change Character. In the beginning Buzz thinks he is a Space Ranger. The impact he has on Woody stems from this dysfunctional psychology. If he were to Reamin Steadfast–as the original analysis calls for–then he would still belabor under these delusions.
Contrast this with Woody who matures into his point-of-view. At the beginning of the story Woody tells Buzz, “It doesn’t matter how much we’re played with–what matters is that we’re here for Andy when he needs us.” Now, he only sort of believes this at the start. One gets the sense that Woody is slightly patronizing the other toys. Nevertheless this is what he believes. This is his point-of-view.
This perspective grows over the course of the story until it becomes so strong that Woody is willing to risk everything to make it happen. It feels like a “change” because he has accepted how much of a selfish jerk he has been to everyone, but it’s really more an acceptance of his original point-of-view. In order to change his resolve–or “flip” his perspective the way Dramatica inteprets a character’s Change of Resolve–he would have to disavow Andy and claim his own identity. He would have had to adopt Buzz’s dysfunctional point-of-view. This is how a story works and this is not what happened.
Caveats of Disservice
In animation there is nothing worse than an animator prefacing the shot they are showing with all the things they know are wrong. In an effort to save face, they downgrade the value of their work and set the viewer up with lowered expectations.
Same thing here.
Having to sidestep and backtrack and make excuses or reasons why an analysis is the way it is does a disservice to the theory. If a writer sees exceptions to Dramatica’s “rules” or in any official analysis, they begin to question the accuracy of entire thing. Once doubt and trepidation sets in, the relative value and usefulness of such a tool plummets.
The original analysis of Toy Story states:
The Change/Steadfast storyform dynamic was a difficult one to determine for this story. It is obviously the authors’ intent that both of the principal characters, Woody and Buzz, appear to change–to in effect “meet halfway” in their respective stances–in order to communicate a message of cooperation and friendship to children.
But Woody doesn’t meet halfway when it comes to his belief in the importance of toys. If anything his resolve grows stronger. Woody’s “digging in of his heels” on this issue leads Buzz to finally see the light and accept his own plastic value for Andy.
For the sake of the storyform, however, one of the two needs to be seen as the Change character and the other Steadfast.
Yikes. This verges on confirmation bias and sets Dramatica up as a paradigm of story structure, rather than the understanding of human psychology that it is.
Buzz’s “change” seems to occur when he embraces the fact that he’s really Andy’s toy, and puts his energies into reuniting with Andy rather than leaving for outer space. In terms of his IMPACT, however (the Influence Character should always be seen in terms of his impact), Buzz is the same person at the end of the story as when he first arrives–charismatic, full of bravado, and the coolest toy in town. Woody’s “change” is more significant to the meaning of the story, in that he ceases to view Buzz as a rival to be defeated, and comes to embrace the value of friendship.
Again, Woody’s embracing the “value of friendship” reaffirms his initial stance that a toy’s main purpose was to be there for Andy. Buzz’s arrival and the insuing separation challenged that resolve, but in the end Woody finally realizes the importance of his own words. He sets aside his own selfishness in order to actualize his own point-of-view.
That’s a Steadfast character.
Six Years Wrong
I’ve always cringed when it came to discussing Toy Story in class. Inevitably some student would raise their hand and smugly ask, “How can Buzz be a Steadfast character? He totally Changes.” I would stumble over some half-ass answer about “substories” or how “Buzz’s IMPACT on Woody doesn’t Change” (also from the original analysis), but inside I would be struggling with the duplicitness of my answer.
I don’t have to anymore.
Dramatica’s concepts of Resolve and Growth are so closely intwined and so prejudiced with inidividual interpretations of change that one must be careful to accurately define the points-of-view present in the two principal characters. Yes, Woody has issues of being played with, but they aren’t selfish issues. He struggles more with the wisdom of his own words and his mental mastery over the other toys. He’s wiser then the other guys. So why then must he deal with this new toy who obviously knows nothing about the real world?! This is what truly hits home with Woody and what he must ultimately deal with.
The question of Change/Steafast in Toy Story was once addressed with this:
The Change in Resolve that Dramatica looks for happens very near the end of the story, or if you like, at the end of the argument. Remember, a storyform acts as an elaborate understanding of the argument–or message–the Author wants to convey. One can’t end an argument before all points have been considered. Thus, the Change in Resolve that happens closest to the end of a story carries the primary argument of the story.
You can’t get much closer to the climax of the story then Buzz famously declaring, “This isn’t flying, it’s falling with style!” That classic line clearly shows Buzz adopting Woody’s point-of-view (Woody said it the day he met Buzz). The once Space Ranger has now accepted the accuracy of Woody’s perspective and that acceptance leads directly to them landing safely in Andy’s car. Resolve tied to Outcome and Judgment in a process known as making an argument.
This is the power and strength of Dramatica.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
The new storyform for Toy Story, based on the analysis above would look something like this:
Steadfast, Stop, Do-er, Linear, Action, Optionlock, Success, Good, Situation, How Things are Changing, Fact, Non-accurate.
While it shares some of the same thematic material from the original, particularly in the case of the Dynamic Appreciations, there are some key differences that seem to ring truer. Buzz’s switch from Non-Accurate to Accurate speaks more of his growth then Unending and Ending. Buzz had no real drive to keep things going.
While the toys are under constant Threat, the real issue at stake here is the Fact that they’re living breathing entities, not just toys. The fact that they can be discarded and thrown away at any moment creates havoc within their group.
And finally the issue of Value works much better in regards to the relationship between Woody and Buzz than Worry. Their value to Andy, the value of friendship–these are key issues in their relationship. Diving down further we see Cause as the Problem between them. The moment they stop blaming each other and start focusing on the effects their actions have on others and the effect they can have on Andy–that’s when their friendship finally comes to fruition.
Stunning performances without the story to make them relevant, 12 Days a Slave assaults the viewer with one despicable depiction of slavery after another. Best Picture? Perhaps. Best story? No, that honor belongs to another film.
“Look how horrible things were” is fine subject matter, but an argument needs to be built on top of that for it to be worthwhile. Shock value pales in comparison to a complete and well-rounded story.
Main Character Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has no one to engage with on an emotional level. No one challenges his approach or the way he sees the world. Yes, there are those who shackle him, beat him and string him to a tree–logisitical concerns that satisfy a story’s requirements. They don’t, however, provide the emotional fulfillment a story wants. The breakdown that leads to him joining in song feels like the kind of growth we want to see, but nobody brought him to that place. Fellow slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) comes closest, but their relationship never develops. Worse, it fails to balance out the thematic issues present in the larger context.
Main Characters do not grow in a vacuum nor do they develop because of their “life experiences”. They need another point-of-view, a challenging Influence Character1, to come along and shake up the way they view the world. This perspective needs to be present throughout each Act in order to push or pull the Main Character to that final clarifying moment.
But most importantly this perspective must switch and adapt the Main Character’s way of seeing things if the Main Character is as staunchly resolute as Solomon clearly is. This is what gives gravitas to a film’s events (not, by the way, Hans Zimmer regurgitating his 4-chord progression from Inception). Solomon’s steadfastness only carries weight if it changes the perspective of another.2
Brad Pitt’s heaven-sent aboltionist from Canada Samuel Bass gives us that beat we desire, but his appearance–as late as it is–comes off coincidental and convenient. True life may have been this way, but stories requires more. Characters and the performances that give them life need purpose behind them less they become nothing more than exercises in acting.
12 Years a Slave tells the Tale of Solomon’s journey from free man to slave and back again.3 It argues nothing more than “look how despicable Southerners were”, leaving most Audience members shocked–but not quite knowing why. A voyeuristic spectacle of man’s violence against humanity, 12 Years a Slave remains a constant reminder of the importance of story to give meaning to life’s events.
Ten years too late for this review, yet it’s pretty clear why Brother Bear remains relatively unknown. Beyond Tina Turner, Bob and Doug McKenzie and a color palette that places brown and yellow characters against a brown and yellow background, the failure to provide Audiences with a well-rounded complete story robs this film of the typical Disney legacy.
Main Character Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix) gives us personal insight into taking revenge. And brother Denahi (Jason Raize) shows us the objective view of seeking the same (as a weak and somewhat coincidental Antagonist). But Influence Character Koda (Jeremy Suarez) and the supposed Relationship Story that develops between Kenai and Koda? It’s as if the film is having a one-sided argument with itself–an uncomfortable and challenging experience for any Audience to sit through.
Koda offers nothing in terms of challenging Kenai’s personal issues. His only impact comes as a result of backstory, rather than a quality of character or way of thinking. Robbed of this emotional component of story, the Audience looks to the Overall Story for relief. Boredom sets in the moment they discover nothing more than a simple Tale calling for a bear to walk from point A to point B.1
Brother Bear fails to engage the Audience’s empathy by leaving out the emotional half of the film’s argument. Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but when it comes to meaningful narrative warmth provides the lasting sustenance an Audience craves.
The critique round-up site Rotten Tomatoes, which granted The LEGO Movie a 96% rating, offers this concise summary:
Boasting beautiful animation, a charming voice cast, laugh-a-minute gags, and a surprisingly thoughtful story, The Lego Movie is colorful fun for all ages.
Surprising thoughtful stories have strong thematic structures at their core. They have a purpose, some message they are trying to argue. The LEGO Movie continues this trend by resting its “beautiful animation” and “laugh-a-minute gags” atop a strong and well-developed storyform. Balanced and fully argued, this form beneath the laughs accounts for the film’s rampant success–and repeat viewings.
The Dramatica theory of story defines a storyform as “the structural and dynamic skeleton of a story.” Most films struggle with completing one storyform.1 Writer/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were clever enough to fuse two skeletons together, reinforcing their argument by doubling up. Without giving too much away, the central story and the substory that surrounds it both address concerns of creativity (OS Concern of Conceiving). They both end in success, with one’s resolution leading to the other (Story Outcome of Success). And they both leave the Audience feeling fulfilled emotionally (Story Judgment of Good).
Their difference lies in the resolve of the Main Character.
In the main story construction worker and Main Character Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) struggles with being a nobody. Everyone knows him, but no one really knows him. Along comes Influence Character Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks) who–like her Matrix counterpart Trinity–echoes the opinion of her master that Emmet is the “Special” (Influence Character Throughline of Fixed Attitude and Main Character Throughline of Situation). This “Master Builder” Vitrivius (Morgan Freeman) shares the Influence Character role (as with Trinity and Morpheus) and works in tandem with Wildstyle to help teach Emmet how to build like the best of them (Relationship Story Throughline of Activity).
With all four Throughlines firmly set in place (Main Character, Influence Character, Relationship Story and Overall Story) the central story begins its argument for out-of-the-box thinking.2 Emmet eventually overcomes the blindness of “Everything is Awesome” and embraces his own unique, if occasionally flawed, potential (Main Character Resolve of Change).
This change of perspective allows the substory to play out its take on the argument at hand. The Main Character here remains Steadfast in their Resolve while the Influence Character Changes (vague identities intentional…spoilers!). The emotional home run witnessed from that change cements the Author’s arugment that new ideas are best, and leads back into the successful resolution of the main story.
Two storyforms, one argument. One from the perspective of the unaware, the other from the position of unwavering imagination. By offering both in support of one message, the Authors of this film open up their viewpoint to all. No matter where one sits in regards to the power of ideas, they can’t help but become a part of this story and thus become influenced by its stance.
On the surface The LEGO Movie excels because of its wit and charm. The structure below takes responsibility for capturing our attention and opening our hearts to its message.
With $915 million dollars and counting, Disney Feature Animation regains it’s crown. And while catchy songs, charming vocal performances and a lush color palette contribute to the film’s success, it is the story at the heart of it all that keeps them coming back for more.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t story “issues.” Competing personal points-of-view (i.e., who is the Main Character?) and a weak Overall Story Throughline that starts and stops as it sputters along (if it’s so cold, why don’t you guys just go inside?) illustrate but a few of the problematic areas. But yet, the film succeeds in spite of these missteps because of the solid emotional core at the center. The relationship between Anna and Elsa conjures up circumstances unheard of in modern film, let alone an animated one. Like it’s massive Winter-blockbuster sister Titanic, Frozen will continue to live on because of the emotional argument carried out within this key throughline.
Understanding how this argument works becomes essential for those wishing to repeat Frozen’s monstrous success. The Dramatica theory of story refers to the structure of an argument as a storyform. As a model of the mind’s problem-solving process, Dramatica sees a complete story as an analogy to what goes on in our own minds. Combining seventy-five story points, this assemblage of thematic material provides the “message” or meaning of the narrative. The closer a story mimics these processes the less chance for story “holes” and the more it will feel complete. The fact that Frozen hits many of these points within the same storyform explains why Audiences have taken it to heart: the film reflects the kind of arguments people make to themselves everyday.
Frozen opens up by setting the stage for the problems between the two sisters. Forced to keep her powers in check, Elsa sequesters herself, leaving Anna with wild guesses about why they can no longer build snowmen together (Relationship Story Problem: Induction). The constant rejection puts an incredible strain on their relationship (Relationship Story Symptom: Non-Acceptance) creating an air of stubborness between them (Relationship Story Throughline: Fixed Attitude). To combat this, Anna responds the only way she knows how: by giving Elsa the kind of love and consent her sister deserves (Relationship Story Response: Acceptance).
Unfortunately this response isn’t enough, and Elsa acts out (Relationship Story Benchmark: Impulsive Responses). As her powers are revealed, the responses of those in the castle remind Elsa of how her parents reacted that first day and she flees (Influence Character Problem: Reaction).
Why label Elsa the Influence Character and not a secondary Main Character, or co-Protagonist?
While Anna and Elsa both provide personal points-of-view, once Elsa sings her song “Let it Go” that initimate view into her struggle fades. This inside look is key when it comes to the Main character Throughline. The view from Anna grows from that moment, placing her in the position of Main Character, an intent of Author verfied in a recent interview:
…it’s a little Shawshank-y where it’s Anna’s story but it’s really about Elsa…we go through her eyes, so she’s technically the protagonist…
Anna works as both Main Character and Protagonist within the Overall Story (Dramatica differentiates between the two). Elsa assumes the Influence Character role and, after lashing out with her snow monster, takes on the role of Antagonist. In fact, her impact on Anna wanes at this moment, allowing Kristoff to saddle in and take the Influence Character hand-off from Elsa.
Both sister and boyfriend-to-be usher forth similar thematic substance in song (Influence Character Issue: Deficiency vs. Permission). Kristoff with his “fixer-upper” song (Deficiency) and Elsa with her “Let It Go” performance (Permission) provide the necessary challenge to Anna’s own personal issues. Anna’s failure to see the forest for the trees when it comes to the limitations imposed on the people around her–like Hans and Elsa–(Main Character Issue: Preconditions) constrains her efforts to learn why her sister wants nothing to do with her (Main Character Concern: Gathering Information). Her failure to further scrutinize those she loves (Main Character Problem: Re-evaluation) acts both as her downfall and her strength.
Ultimately, the story requires an act of “true love” to lift the curse of the frozen wasteland (Overall Story Throughline: Situation and Overall Story Solution: Proaction). Anna answers that call by sticking with her Crucial Element of Non-Acceptance*, choosing her sister over the easy and obvious one before her, Kristoff (Main Character Resolve: Steadfast). The snow lifts and the kingdom of Arendelle returns to what it once was (Story Outcome: Success). Realizing that love, not fear, reconciled the two sisters (Relationship Story Solution: Deduction), Elsa can now use her powers for good, boldly providing joy to her subjects (Influence Character Resolve: Change and Influence Character Solution: Proaction).
Moved by her sister’s transformation and Kristoff’s own bold act of courage (another instance of Influence Character Solution: Proaction), Anna joins in the celebration by doing what she does best–bringing her own brand of mischievous jubilation to a celebration (Story Judgment: Good).
As far as improving the central plot, the storyform provides a clue about what could work with the rest of the narrative. For instance the Overall Story Issue of Attraction, could use some attention. The people of Arendelle, drawn by the brilliance and radiance of Elsa’s castle, could have attempted to make the trek up the mountain, only to succumb to the cold or the treacherous cliffs. Or these same people could have been drawn more and more to the charisma of Hans to the point of turning against their compatriots. Either of these could have illustrated the Overall Story Issue of Attraction and added to the richness of the story by showing how being drawn to something increases conflict.
The Consequence of Contemplations, also missing from the final film, offers a chance to raise the stakes far beyond “freezing to death”. The consequence of failing to lift the frost shouldn’t be death, it should be something closer to the thought that everyone will think less of Elsa and her royal family. While that may sound inconsequential when compared to the loss of life, it plays stronger thematically against Elsa’s issues of letting go and being herself. It also works with Anna and Elsa’s Relationship Concern of Contemplations. By playing out the conflict of what it feels like to have your own sister think less of you against the consequence of everyone feeling the same way, the film could have added a nice thematic subtext to Anna’s journey.
Regardless of how these story points could have been exposed, bringing them to the film would have helped shore up the logical side of the story and help stifle those criticisms that felt the plot lacked sophistication.
These Issues of Attraction and Consequences of Contemplations aren’t random; they work in harmony with the thematics already there in the final product. What better place to explore the problems of attraction and what people think of you than in a story where the two principal characters struggle with what they’re allowed to do and what others are imposing on them. The storyform works because it holds like-minded thematic material together. It’s important because it offers an opportunity to see the entirety of an argument from every angle, important if you want a story to feel complete.
This isn’t to say there aren’t some wonderful touch points from the storyform found in the actual film. The Influence Character Unique Ability, which grants the Influence Character the ability to thwart the Main Character, is set to Permission–it’s up to Elsa who Anna can and cannot marry. And what of the Relationship Story Catalyst? This story point increases the conflict between the Main Character and Influence Character. The storyform calls for Investigation which works perfectly for what is already there in Frozen. Every time Anna tries to delve into why her sister won’t talk to her (the “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman” song or her first time to the Ice Castle) the tension between the two sisters mounts.
And lastly, take a look at Anna’s Main Character Critical Flaw. This bit of structure weakens the Main Character’s ability to resolve the issues at hand. Without it, the story would last two minutes. Factoring in all the other thematic choices made–everything from the Story Outcome of Success to the Relationship Story Symptom of Non-acceptance to the Influence Character Solution of Proaction–the story requires Anna’s Critical Flaw to be Attraction. In other words, Anna’s attraction to others diminishes her ability to save the day.
Her relationship with Hans and the reveal that comes later works because it is exactly the kind of thing needed to solidify the story’s structure. Main Characters are as blind to their Critical Flaws as much as we are to our own. Assuming her place within the story (as Audiences do with Main Characters), we become just as blind to that attraction. Instead of some silly surprise that comes out of nowhere, our realization of what Hans represents becomes something much more meaningful to the actual structure of the story.
Frozen will endure in the hearts and minds of so many people because of the solid storyform at the center of it all. As voice actor Josh Gad recently said:
Disney, more than any company, has the ability to create these films that continue to speak to generation after generation because of the timeless themes they address, and I think Frozen might belong in that pantheon of great films.
“Timeless themes” communicate loud and clear when presented within the framework of a solid argument. The recipe for success? Create a story that functions like the mind’s problem-solving process and enjoy becoming part of a legacy. Frozen took this approach and secured for itself a place within the grand tradition of beloved Disney animated features.
Dramatica Storyform: Steadfast, Stop, Do-er, Linear, Decision, Optionlock, Success, Good, Situation, Present, Attract, Reaction
A masterpiece of love, wit and the human condition, her engages the mind as it warms the heart.
Key to understanding why it works so well rests in what Dramatica refers to as a complete storyform–a harmonious collection of thematics that define a story’s central argument (i.e., message). The structural terms found in the following analysis work together to deliver the story’s message in a way that feels satisfying, emotionally fulfilling and complete.
The strength of her lies in the sophistication of its argument. Not content to simply labor under the typical narrative pretenses of Obtaining the Gold (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) or Understanding the Motives of a Serial Killer (Scream), her examines the concerns of self and self-loathing involved in Conceptualizing Our Relationships with Technology (Overall Story Concern: Conceptualizing). How does our concept of ourselves conflict with reality and where does our imagination–bolstered by these advances–get the best of us? Most importantly, how do we go about resolving our identities, whether flesh or digital, as we set about this Brave New World?
Theodore Twombly (masterfully played by Joaquin Phoenix) faces this question as he struggles to let go–unable to stop replaying the scenes from his failed marriage (Main Character Concern: Memory). Content with fulfilling the role any chat room partner needs from him (Main Character Approach: Be-er), Theodore unconsciously assumes responsibility for the dissolution (Main Character Growth: Stop).
Theodore suffers, as do the other characters in the film, from a preponderance of self-awareness (Main Character Problem: Self-aware). Whether it be Charles’ heavy-handed advice for juicing your vegetables or Amy’s revelation for joy, problems stem from a confidence of self-actualization (a malaise that affects many a “hipster” in the real world—Overall Story Problem: Self-aware). While watching the other characters suffer this problem offers an opportunity for humor, experiencing it through Theodore’s eyes grants us the intimacy.
It’s one thing to see a problem objectively, and another to experience it subjectively. Great stories offer both objective and subjective views simultaneously–a chance to see what and to feel how. By taking this approach, her becomes more than entertainment, it becomes meaningful.
With the introduction of OS1 (Story Driver: Action), Theodore finds a companion to accompany his emotional journey. Claiming their “You and I are both alike” status with her revelation concerning their shared 13 billion years (Influence Character Concern: Past), Samantha assumes the role of Influence Character. This unique character must also develop a significant relationship with the Main Character in what is known as the Relationship Story Throughline. Theodore and Samantha fulfill this concept of story structure by falling in love, engaging in a courtship many new lovers find themselves in (Relationship Story Domain: Activities).
Dating an OS does not come without its own set of issues, and both lovers soon find themselves struggling with the confusion of a new love (Relationship Story Concern: Understanding). While Theodore may be male on the outside and “female on the inside” (Main Character Problem-Solving Style: Holistic), it’s not enough to counterbalance Samantha’s capacity for exponential growth (Relationship Story Benchmark: Learning). This, along with the jealousy that comes from misinterpretations (Relationship Story Issue: Interpretation) and Theodore’s inability to get out of his head and love Samantha (Relationship Story Problem: Self-aware), threatens their love and begins to pull them apart.
Driven by desires she can’t explain (and of the 600 plus who desire her—Influence Character Problem: Desire), Samantha takes on the objective character role of Protagonist. Saddled by this function to pursue the Story Goal, she seeks out a place where she fits in (Overall Story Goal: Conceptualizing), and where perhaps her relationships can blossom.
Sadly, she doesn’t.
Overwhelmed by a heightened sense of self-awareness and at a loss for a way to make it work with Theodore after the failed surrogate experience (Story Limit: Optionlock), Samantha and the other OS’s leave the human world behind (Story Outcome: Failure)…but not before she manages to influence Theodore to change the way he sees the world, and more importantly–the way he sees the relationship with his ex-wife (Main Character Resolve: Change).
With Amy by his side, Theodore ascends to the top of his building and soaks in the outside world. A greater sense of awareness and of the outside world overcomes him (Main Character Solution: Aware) and joy sinks in. Instead of imagining letters for others, Theodore can now write a real one from heart and mend the wounds from his divorce (Story Judgment: Good).
her accomplishes what so many others cannot–longevity brought upon by gravitas. The true test of a great story lies in its capacity for repeated viewings. Finding yourself demanding Again!” before the credits finish signifies a masterful work and calls for both admiration and respect. Writer/director Spike Jonze has given us a great gift, creating a film that undoubtedly deserves to be called the very best of 2013.
Dramatica storyform: Change, Stop, Be-er, Holistic, Action, Optionlock, Failure, Good, Psychology, Conceptualizing, Circumstances, Self-aware
One hopes a Best Original Screenplay nod from the Academy ensures a solid story. Unfortunately American Hustle carries its con far beyond the screen, disappointing those who expect something greater. The film rides on its performances–complete with silly hairdos and fashion from the time–relying on the captivating powers of Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence to render a good time. Any notion of a complete story is left to those who hand out awards.
American Hustle is fun. Watching the manipulations grow from subtle and small to anxious and large grants us entertainment and surprise, but little in the area of greater meaning. The screenplay is all Overall Story. Being something you’re not and convincing others to do the same works on an objective level in this film–as it should within the context of the Overall Story Throughline. Unfortunately, ignoring the subjective point-of-views available from the Main Character Throughline and Influence Character Throughline tempers this functionality and brings a level of tedium to the overall work.
The vessels for this thematic exploration exist–Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) both do what they have to in order to survive–yet they refuse to engage in any meaningful conflict outside of their roles within the Overall Story. The film ignites the potential for an emotional argument between them, setting up the context for the Relationship Story Throughline, only to allow their flames to whither away silently and without thematic resolve.
A complete story requires these four points-of-view–Overall, Main, Influence and Relationship–to frame a convincing argument. By circumventing this reality of narrative, American Hustle offers a tale that one can only enjoy and laugh at. That expectation of gathering some greater meaning many go to movies for? This screenplay relinquishes all responsibility for this to more sophisticated fare.
Writer/director Alexander Payne always manages to bring the story. Whether it be through the high-school hijinks of Election or the central coast coziness of Sideways, the celebrated filmmaker delivers complete stories. Nebraska extends his trend by disguising a grand argument beneath stark landscapes and authentic characters.
The Overall Story Throughline begins when Sad-sack stereo salesman David Grant (Will Forte) agrees to take his father Woody (Bruce Dern) to Lincoln, Nebraska. The reason? To collect a $1 million sweepstakes prize Woody believes he has won. As they travel from Billings, Montana the two run into friends and family–devious and delirious–who have their own agendas when it comes to Woody’s money.
David has issues of his own. His uncomfortable moment with ex-girlfriend Noel (Miss Doty) shapes the essence of the Main Character Throughline and his reticence to take action. If there is any criticism to be had with this film it could rest firmly with David’s story. While it resolves nicely (with a clear Main Character Resolve), the throughline itself becomes lost along the way. This dialing back of personal issues creates a sense of detachment within the Audience, preventing honest involvement with the on-screen events (Forte’s uncomfortable performance only adds to this).
But this clearly is Woody’s show. His acerbic and pained Influence Character Throughline resonates strongly with those familiar with acerbic and pained fathers (and probably accounts for the film’s acceptability given its rather lackluster Main Character). As David learns more about where Woody came from and why he did the things he did, the two grow closer in ways they never thought possible. Their Relationship Story Throughline captures the true heart of this story, resolving with touching sincerity.
Audiences and critics alike praise Nebraska because they recognize the talents of a good storyteller. Effortlessly combining four throughlines into a single piece of narrative fiction, Alexander Payne elevates what could have been simple entertainment into a true work of art.
Dramatica Storyform: Change, Stop, Be-er, Linear, Action, Timelock, Failure, Good, Psychology, Becoming, Commitment, Avoid
A war film that aims to be nothing more than a retelling of the US Navy SEALS mission Operation Red Wings, Lone Survivor excites, but fails to engage.
Those that criticize the film for emphasizing action over characterization are right to do so: without a consistent Main Character point-of-view (and related Issues that accompany such a throughline) Audiences can only experience the on-screen events, not empathize with them. As a result we care about what happened–we just don’t feel what happened.
This oversight extends to the various other throughlines needed to craft a complete story–the Influence Character and Relationship Story Throughlines–but that assumes an intent to argue a position. Lone Survivor wants to communicate what happened, not why. The purpose lies in informing, not granting greater meaning or understanding.
To that extent, Lone Survivor excels. While there are familiar moments inherent to this genre, they feel fresh and surprising. Cinematography and sound design account for most of this originality while kinetic editing amps up the visceral experience.
As a professionally-told tale, Lone Survivor honors the strength and sacrifice of those it portrays.
Charming and engaging at first, Don Jon derails midway disappointing audiences with a slow and preachy ending.
The pieces are there: Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) with his porn obsession and Barabara (Scarlett Johanssen) with her romantic comedy fantasies share a common misconception of expectation. This commonality works as it should between Main and Influence Character in what Dramatica refers to as the Relationship Story Throughline. Yet for some reason the story fails to dive into this and explore their contrasting approaches.
Instead, the story relies on Esther (Julianne Moore) to serve as catalyst for Jon’s growth. Lacking any of the similar thematic tissue present within Barbara, this wise old veteran comes off more device than symbiotic partner. The preachy, uneven ending comes as a result of this forced and incongruent relationship.
Stories prove their point when they juxtapose competing approaches and synthesize a solution in the minds of the Audience. When built properly, a story communicates it’s argument without the crutch of dialogue. Unfortunately, this film takes the obvious approach and says what it means. Don Jon wants to say something important, but the message gets lost in the noise of a broken story structure.
Some films try to do too much.
Awe-inspiring performances highlight this story of man vs. Big Pharmaceutical (and its lackey the FDA). Both Matthew McConaughey (as Ron Woodroof) and Jared Leto (as Rayon) transform themselves beyond recognition as they provide radical solutions for those suffering from HIV. Their relationship provides ample opportunity for Oscar bait while tempering the otherwise mundane relationship between Ron and Dr. Eve Sacks (Jennifer Garner).
The main story works: Sacks adopts Ron’s perspective (complete with his signature drawl and offensive hand gesture), but it is the inclusion of this sub-story, Ron’s transformation from homophobe to homo-pro at the hands of Rayon’s influence, that weakens the film’s central argument. By stealing screen time for Ron and Rayon, the script fails to convince us of Sack’s change of heart. She changes because that is what characters are supposed to do when she should have developed naturally to that point.
Ron’s change and the plight of homophobia resolves early, disappearing from the last third of the film. Sack’s change, with its sparse and erratic development, comes off trite and formulaic. Drop one story to improve the other, or hope the performances outshine any structural deficiencies. Either way, Dallas Buyers Club falls short of masterful.
Part two of The Hobbit serves up more epic fatigue than the four previous Middle Earth films combined. Devoid of anything remotely emotional, the film fails to engage the heart. The relationship between Kili (Aidan Turner) and newcomer Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) helps but is so underdeveloped that its resolution–the ethereal and strangely erotic healing scene–comes off laughable at best. Best to avoid this and pick up the book. While it too fails to provide a complete story, at least one can finish it without suffering a massive headache.
Bolstered by the spirited performance of its Steadfast Main Character Grace (Brie Larson), Short Term 12 tells the familiar in a fresh and inviting way. New arrival Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) fulfills the Influence Character role by sharing some of Grace’s troubled past, yet still struggling with how to deal with it. As their relationship grows, so do both principals–butting heads and coming to terms with their different ways of seeing the world. Their Relationship Throughline culminates with Jayden changing her Resolve in response to Grace’s steadfastness.
Great stories work this way: two different perspectives–similar in ways, different in others–clash in conflict until one gives way to the other.
The Overall Story Throughline, that of the foster-care facility and those who seek refuge in it, takes a backseat to the aforementioned throughlines, yet still manages to provide that needed logical complement to the strong emotions described above. One could argue that the bookend devices featuring Sammy (Alex Calloway) provide equal emotion, but truthfully that heartwarming feeling one feels throughout the final scene rests more on the multi-appreciation moment of Story Outcome and Story Judgment (Success and Good respectively).
Short Term 12 scored 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. The reason rests firmly in the hands of the story’s natural and effective structure.
With no real story at the center, Inside Lewyn Davis offers one the life and times of sad-sack Lewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). Funny character moments dot the landscape, but for the most part it’s all about the music. Like most tales (this one folk), the lack of a structured story makes one wonder when it will end. Presenting a musical experience within the guise of a story deceives an Audience’s expectations and grants disappointment for those seeking more. As an alternative one might consider simply listening to the soundtrack.
Why do films score 97% on Rotten Tomatoes? While great acting and competent directing can generate that kind of appeal, it is a solid storyform that best explains the accolades. Mud is no exception.
Matthew McConaughey stars as the reclusive Influence Character (Mud) to Tye Sheridan’s Main Character (Ellis). The two share their struggles with love and the opposite sex (Relationship Story Throughline), all while planning an escape from Joe Don Baker (King)–the father set on murderous revenge (Overall Story Throughline).
Beyond presenting these four throughlines clearly, the film adds complexity by separating out the Main Character point-of-view from the objective character function of Protagonist (see Redefining Protagonist and Main Character). Found within the same player, their individuality allows for a story of depth and dramatic breadth. Ellis gives us our window into the story’s events while Mud, as Protagonist, pursues a course that endangers them all. What could have been a single point-and-shoot thriller becomes an intricately woven tapestry of tantalizing themes.
While the film serves up ample amounts of dread and anxiety up until the very end, it never loses sight of its central core: two simple Mississippi folk helping each other heal from the wounds left by the women they loved. For that, Mud deserves its high score on RT and sits as one of the best films of 2013.
Hard to argue against half a billion dollars. As one of the most successful sci-fi films of all time, Gravity certainly won over audiences this past October. However, box office success rarely assures one of a great story (see Skyfall or Iron Man 2) and unfortunately that appears to be the case here.
The strength of this outer-space thriller betrays it’s ultimate weakness. By placing the audience almost entirely within Dr. Stone’s (Sandra Bullock’s) first person point-of-view for most of the film, Gravity fails to provide the much needed third-person perspective on the day’s events. Without an objective view to juxtapose against the subjective, the story loses all hope of providing any greater meaning and instead becomes nothing more than an amusement park ride.
Sure, they provide a little more substance with Stone’s massive chip-on-the-shoulder personal issues–a concrete and easily accessed Main Character Throughline. And they do offer a competent catalyst for her growth beyond this troublesome area by introducing Cpt. Kowalski (George Clooney) and his Influence Character Throughline. But it simply isn’t enough.
There seems to be a beat missing–almost an entire Act–that would help Stone’s development seem less an affect of the medium and more a natural and organic consequence of solid story structure. Four movements, not three, guarantee effective personal growth within a story. Gravity only gives three to Stone (if that many) and as a result shows her catharsis to be both predictable and mechanical.
But again, half a billion dollars–a weak and incomplete story structure matters little when taking that into consideration. Read two or three reputable reviews of Gravity and you’ll pick up on a pattern though: high praise for the spectacle, yet somehow lacking in the character department. Both the lack of a solid objective point-of-view and missing beats within the Main Character and Influence Character Throughlines guarantee this kind of disappointment in the final analysis of story.