Time to point out something I used to do all the time when I was first learning Dramatica. I would see Main Character Problem: Non-Accurate and think, Oh, that makes perfect sense. I can totally see conflict there. Mike acts outside of tolerances. Satisfied with this in-depth understanding of my story, I would confidently head into my first draft …
… only to find that I wasn’t any further than if I had started on my own. All the richness Dramatica was offering to me was completely left off the table because I forgot to serve the entire meal. What does Mike’s acting outside of toleraces involve and how is that personally causing problems for himself? And the answer has to be specific. The more specific the richer the story will be.
Each item in a Dramatica storyform consists of three parts:
Stopping with #2, like I did above, is lazy writing; it is that kind of storytelling-by-numbers that everyone worries Dramatica is all about. The real leap forward—the real magic—happens when you move beyond simply copying down what Dramatica offers and think of what that piece of the storyform is telling you. It is not enough to say Mike’s Problem is Non-Accurate. You have to image and write down what specific conflict arises from this Problem.
So instead of jotting down in my notes Mike acts outside of tolerances, I could write Mike’s counter-culture nature, a backlash against his strict conservative upbringing, comes off phony and inauthentic—effectively ostracizing him from the few friends he has, leading him to spend several painful nights alone.** A bit of a run-on sentence, but you can see how this generates a *wealth of scene ideas and vivid specific imagery of this sad sack trying his hardest to be different and ending up sad and alone on a Friday night.
Don’t be lazy and assume the implied conflict presented by Dramatica’s storyform is enough to get you going in your story. You have to take the time to illustrate that conflict and explore the meaning behind the story point. That will elevate your story to a higher plane.
Get a hold of three or four terrific original scripts. You decide which ones. Read them; analyze them if you want, or just let them wash over you. Notice their format: it’s standard in the industry, no exceptions. Then throw away or erase from memory all the books, articles, and lessons that reference or espouse three-act structures, five- and seven-act structures, “inciting events,” “character arcs,” “redemption,” Joseph Campbell’s name, plot graphs and charts, or supposed “tricks of the trade.” Forget the mumbo jumbo and just write the damn script and finish it in 120 pages or less. If you’re sufficiently talented, original, and inspired, nothing else is necessary. If you’re not, nothing else will help. If it turns out that you lack one or all of those elements, write another script. Maybe another. Give up when you can’t take it anymore. The time saved by not reading all those how-to books should be enough to carry you through the first several scripts at least, with time to spare. Sound cruel? Ask any screenwriter. TONY BILL
Geez, OK. I get it. I’ll stop trying to improve my understanding of narrative and cease building a strong foundation from which to write better and more meaningful stories.
I’ll bury my head in the sand and write worthless crap like everyone else.
October is Influence Character Month here at Narrative First because what could be more scary than an alternative perspective designed to challenge your own personal justifications and make you question why you do the things you do? After all, that is the reason for an Influence Character in a complete story—to frighten and influence the Main Character into shaking things up.
Problem is, many writers find confusion in Dramatica’s explanation of certain Influence Character Throughline story points. Are these appreciations something experienced by the Influence Character themselves, or are they something the Influence Character sees outside of themselves? Do they need to directly impact the Main Character or can they be separate events that indirectly impact the central character of a story?
We recently covered Understanding the Influence Character’s Signposts, but a little repetition never hurt anyone—especially when it comes to highly complex and sophisiticated story theory. Today, we’ll take a look at the Influence Character’s Symptom. Dramatica defines it as:
The Influence Character concentrates his attention where he thinks his problem lies. Just as in the Main Character, an inequity exists in the Influence Character between himself and his environment which is driving him. The actual nature of this inequity is described by the Influence Character Problem Element. The nature of what is required to restore balance is described by the Influence Character Solution Element. From the subjective view afforded to the Influence Character though, the inequity does not appear to be between himself and the Environment but wholly in one or the other. The Symptom Element describes the nature of how the problem appears to the Influence Character from his subjective point of view.
Notice the lack of reference to direct or indirect impact. It simply doesn’t matter. What does matter is that this alternative perspective sees the problem subjectively as the Influence Character Symptom. Communicate that and the Audience will synthesize the meaning from it.
With this in mind, the Influence Character Symptom functions both ways: either as a problem the Influence Character experiences themselves or a problem they see in others or other things. It’s enough for the storyform that the alternate viewpoint to the Main Character’s point-of-view sees this as symptomatic of what is going on. The Main Character, challenged by this character’s take on things, will necessarily reevaluate his or her own strategy. If he thinks this is a problem, and I don’t even see it, what does that mean about me? the Main Character will ask themselves internally. You want that kind of impact on the Main Character in your own story.
Note you don’t have to make this explicit in your storytelling. The storyform already makes sure that the different Throughlines sync up. That is the whole reason for Dramatica—to keep all those thematics tied together. You can be explicit, but you don’t have to make the connections; the audience will make that connection with or without you.
Anyone in a creative field can empathize with this piece by programmer Derek Sivers on the need to relax. He found that dialing back his effort by 50% only resulted in a 4% drop off in productivity.
makes me realize that much of my effort apparently wasn’t effort at all, but just ineffective stress added on top of something to make it feel like I’m doing the best I can.
Might be something to think of if you’re nearing a deadline, or your starting to stress it about NaNoWriMo.
Craig Mazin, professional screenwriter and hater of all script consultants and screenwriting gurus, is hosting a panel on “thematic structure”. Which is hilariously ironic considering all the venom he has spewed towards anyone who teaches writing and gets paid for it:
Are you getting stuck in the middle or end of a script? Craig Mazin, writer of Identity Thief and co-host of the popular Scriptnotes podcast, introduces a new way of thinking of structure. He’ll discuss how to build your plot as a function of character and theme, why beginnings are endings and endings are beginnings, and how he answer to solving your plot is to stop thinking about plot. After this panel, you’ll never get lost in a script again!
Sounds exactly like every other story “guru”/script consultant. Craig quickly clears that up on his Twitter page:
The idea of the talk is simple: learn structure from the writer’s point of view, not the film analyst.
That actually makes me feel ten times better. I’m a writer too … So now I don’t have to feel so guilty about teaching workshops or consulting when Craig and John go off on consultants in their podcast. I wonder how many other guru/consultants are writers?
You’ve got a main character, good. You’ve got an idea. Good. SO WHAT NOW? The talk is all about creating a structure by thinking about your hero and your theme.
That sounds wonderful. Anyone into Dramatica would recognize a familiar approach to structuring a story.
I use a few popular films to demonstrate. Let me make your life easier… for no money! Well, none for me, at least.
Dang it. He one-ups me with that last bit. Just when I was feeling good about myself. Well, when I get Hangover money I’ll start doing my workshops for free. Promise.
We get mail.
Did we decide that Nightcrawler was Action driven? If so, why? I thought it was Louis’ decisions to get a job by any means necessary which drove him to tabloid journalism. Which spurred all the actions afterward and ended on him deciding to kill Rick. If it was action, what was the inciting incident?
We never really saw Louis make the decision to get a job by any means necessary. If we did, and the Author focused on it, then perhaps it could have been an indicator of a Story Driver.
Unfortunately all the major plot points, or Story Drivers, that come after are Action Drivers: something usually happens that forces the news crew to decide whether or not to air the footage.1 Bloom trespasses, alters crime scenes and withholds information–all actions as the story’s Protagonist that propel the story into each Act by forcing decisions to be made.
Actions happen, decisions are made.
The final Story Driver, or Concluding Event, is the on-screen murder of his friend.
For a story to feel complete, all the Story Drivers–or main plot points–must be of the same type: either Action or Decision. The driver part of this story point is important as stories are filled with actions followed by decisions followed by actions and so on. Looking over the gestalt of the narrative though, it will become apparent that one forces the other to occur. In this case, Actions rule the day.
To answer your last question regarding the Inciting Incident–or what Dramatica would call the first Story Driver–Bloom happening upon the accident in the 405 near Wilshire starts the whole chain of events. Yet another Action. Without that drive-by, there would be no story.
Looking for an iOS version of Dramatica?
So am I.
There is so much you could do with a touch version of this program that would make it easier for writers to understand how Dramatica works and why they can’t make certain choices. Imagine trying to drag the MC Domain of a Do-er down into Fixed Attitude or Manipulation only to have it snap back into place in Situation or Activity … Or dragging and dropping characters into the Build Characters window … Or being able to rotate around the model in 3D … Ugh, if only there was an extra me I would do it in a second!
Earlier this year I wrote about my mobile screenwriting process with Dramatica and my iPhone. I’m still following it to this day with great success. And until they perfect cloning technology it looks like I’ll be using it for awhile.
Mike Wollaeger, Dramatica Story Expert and all-around nice guy, had some excellent advice for writers new to Dramatica:
The first time I used Dramatica to storyform a screenplay I was writing, I misunderstood about 90% of everything I was doing. Repetition and throwing yourself headfirst into testing out your understanding (and dealing with the subsequent fallout) is about the best way to move forward.
This is the same experience I had. I didn’t understand how a story could be about anything else but Obtaining. Of course every story is about achieving something, what else could it be? Subsequently, I’ve discovered the difference between the energy to resolve a goal and the actual type of Goal, but absolutely, you have to go into Dramatica knowing you’re not going to get it the first couple of years.
It’s been almost 20 years for me and I’m just now understanding the Relationship Throughline. Your mileage may vary.
If I could do it again, I would do the impossible, which is focus on fewer things in the theory until I had them down cold. I would be sure to be able to cleave apart the MC and the Protagonist. Even if, especially if, they are played by the same person. I would aim to distinguish Do-ers from Be-ers. I would try to break stories down into their Four Throughlines. I would learn how to identify Story Goals, so I could determine Success & Failure.
This is a fantastic list and really should be the only things newbies see when they first dive into Dramatica. Learn these and then move on to the more complicated stuff.
The tricky part here is that it’s hard to know if you’ve done it right if this is all you focus on. If you try to carry a story all the way to the bottom, then the model starts to fight back if you’ve got something wrong. At the high levels, there is no feedback yet.
Perfect advice. Not sure why I didn’t see this before but you can be sure I will take this approach with new writers in the future.
He left the best advice for last:
Also, bear in mind that Dramatica will help your story, but it will not help you write. So keep writing, daily, while you learn Dramatica.
He [David Fincher], along with Mike De Luca and Brad Pitt and Morgan and Kevin Spacey, fought-fought-fought to save that ending, and they are the reason that that ending was maintained and is the ending that’s in the movie. Without them, no one was going to listen to me, the lowly screenwriter — that’s just the way it goes.
Because who would know better whether or not an ending works well thematically with everything that came before it then the guy who has spent the past couple of years going over it with a fine tooth comb.
The ending of Se7en had to be what it was because everything prior led up to that moment. Pity’s character was a hot head and it was Morgan’s character who constantly kept him in check. It was only once Morgan finally had his moment of impulsiveness (the slapping of John Doe) that Pitt’s character was finally allowed off his chain. Those moments meant something. As despicable as Doe’s actions were, they weren’t a threat as long as more level-headed men were around.
Once that departed, so did any sense of humanity.
Se7en should always remains shining example of why it is important to have a purposeful complete narrative first. And why it is important to fight every step of the way for that story.
Phenomenal storytelling under the stars at the annual Dreamworks Animation TV Movie Under the Stars event. This year’s film was The Iron Giant (non-director’s cut), a great reminder that complete storytelling endures.