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On The Concept Of Problem-Solving Style

For some reason I felt compelled to check the animation gossip site CartoonBrew today and I really wished I hadn’t. An ex-student of mine referred to my class as “fucking bullshit” in an article on gender inequality in the animation industry. After all the time and effort I put into that class (and the extra hours spent staying after), I can’t tell you how disheartening it is to have my work falsely portrayed as something misogynistic and detrimental to women.

I made it very clear to Sabrina and to other students in my Story class at CalArts that what I was teaching had nothing to do with “masculine” story elements or “feminine” story elements. I did use “male” and “female” to describe the difference between the terms “linear” and “holistic”, but stated over and over again that this was a gross generalization intended to make it easier for early 20-somethings to understand a very complex theory of story.

Apparently I didn’t say it enough.

The fact that she says it was “a little hard to describe” only makes it clear to me that I didn’t do a good enough job explaining myself. Never once did I claim that linear storytelling and big external stakes were “for men”, while relationships and emotional storylines were “for women”. That’s a ludicrous assumption. And it’s disingenuous for someone to describe my class that way.

You can learn more about what Sabrina refers to as “fucking bullshit” on my site Narrative First. Of interest might be my article Female Main Characters Who Think Like Female Main Characters where I explain the difference between Main Characters who solve problems linearly and Main Characters who solve problems holistically. The title of the article is intended to be clickbait, but if you actually take the time to read it you will see that it has nothing to do with “masculine” or “feminine” story elements.

Instead, you will find that the article–and my classes at CalArts–were teaching a theoretical concept of narrative known as the Main Character’s Problem-Solving Style (Dramatica). This concept has nothing to do with gender bias, nothing to do with sexual preference, and nothing to do with masculine or feminine. It simply describes a technique of problem-solving present within the Main Character of a story.

Hopefully this clears up any confusion.

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Emotional Arguments

A novel should be an experience and convey an emotional truth rather than arguments. JOYCE CARY

How about an argument that conveys emotional truth?

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Connecting Main Characters To A Story

About a quarter done with integrating my new comprehensive take on my Main Character Throughline (first Signpost) for screenplay 2015-02. Very happy and excited with the changes. It is interesting how well the Main Character’s personal issues fit in with the larger story problem (Overall Story Throughline). I’ll be writing and thinking of her own personal issues when all of a sudden, I’ll see a connection between her stuff and what everyone else is dealing with. One will flow into the other.

In this story my Main Character Remains Steadfast in regards to her personal problems which means she will share the same kind of thematic Symptom and Response with the Overall Story. This translates into robust scenes. My Main Character will be focusing on problems she sees in the big picture, when really she is speaking of her own personal problems. Having such a familiarity with those kinds of issues, my Main Character jumps into action thinking she already knows how to solve everything.1

I’m finding a greater thematic resonance between the two Throughlines and an even greater potential for drama. With both Throughlines focused on the same dramatic Element at their core, there is a purpose for this Main Character to be in this story. The Audience gets a subjective and objective view of dealing with the same problem.


  1. Or at least, she thinks she does. This is the apparent Symptom and Response of the Throughline, not the actual Problem and Solution

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Oh man. Weekend Read’s Featured Friday has 42 by Brian Helgeland and Moneyball by Steve Zailian and Aaron Sorkin. Couldn’t decide between the two so I picked up both! Going to be a busy weekend (and here I thought I wouldn’t be interested in sports-ball scripts!).

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The desire to write grows with writing. – Erasmus

I have found this to be true. Almost impossible to start. Heartbreaking to stop.

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Earlier today I helped a writer figure out the structure of their story over on Discuss Dramatica and understand which character should fulfill what role. You’ll note that I tried my best to interpret what the Author was trying to say, not mutate their story into a specific set of hero steps or sequence beats.

This is when narrative theory shines: the tools and concepts amplify or solidify the Author’s original intent or creative vision.

Note too my advice to “open the story up.” Dramatica naturally causes this to happen by virtue of its Four Throughlines and through its concept of separating the Protagonist from Main Character. Most understandings of story tend to reduce thematic material, rather than encourage greater production.

The Author made some of the more common mistakes those new to Dramatica make: thinking of the Protagonist when determining Main Character Resolve and Main Character Growth (when it should really be all about the Main Character) and not being ultra-clear on the connection between the Story Goal and the Story Outcome. The solution to the latter problem is easy enough:

  1. Determine the inequity of the story (what went wrong during the Inciting Incident)
  2. Establish the Goal necessary to resolve that inequity, or bring it back into balance
  3. The person for that resolution is the Protagonist. The person against it, the one preventing it, is the Antagonist
  4. If the Protagonist wins the Story Outcome is a Success. If they don’t, it’s a Failure

From there it should be easy to keep your story in check. Set the Story Outcome and Story Goal in Dramatica. You can also go ahead and set the Overall Story Problem as it defines the inequity you established in Step One above. With these structural foundations in place, it should be easier to avoid any potential contradictions during your draft. **Knowing what the problems are and what is needed to solve them ** will help alleviate the problem of a pointless and meandering story.

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Spotity designer Tobias Van Schneider teaches us all how to consume more books:

A couple years ago I always struggled to finish books, as we all do. I had this set concept in my head on how I’m supposed to read a book. One after one, from start to finish. We think we have to honor a book as a work of art and follow it’s pages in order as we learned in school.

I, too, struggle to finish books. But that’s because I do honor books as a work of art. On a site called Narrative First that probably shouldn’t come as a shock. I can see this working with non-fiction, but fiction?

Story is everything. Why break that up into separate chunks and distract yourself with other narratives, if only to impress everyone with how much you read?

I think I would rather enjoy one story at a time. Novels to me are like movies–designed to be enjoyed as a complete work of art. You don’t watch a couple scenes of a movie, then listen to the audiobook for a couple more scenes, and then jump to another movie only to return several days later.

The rest is a listicle advising you to make the books you don’t destroy your own and to make sure you carry a book with you at all times. Again, it sounds fine for non-fiction–but atrocious for fiction. My favorite is the suggestion to read a book twice:

The second time we read a book we engage with it on a deeper emotional level. We project ourselves and our feelings into the story, it’s now about us!

Perhaps you would engage more deeply if you were paying more attention the first time? Or it could be that the story itself is not structurally sound. I know my mind tends to drift when it’s apparent the Author has no idea where they’re going. If the story is structured competently (i.e., a storyform), that “deeper emotional level” would be felt the first time through.

Assuming you’re granting the story your full attention.

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While researching resources for developing the backstory of my Main Character, I found a wonderful explanation of the components of narrative in this article on Character Justifications from Melanie Anne Phillips:

The creation of Justification is the purpose of and reason for Backstory. The dismantling of Justification is the purpose and function of the Acts. The gathering of information necessary to dismantle Justification is the purpose and function of the Scenes.

When you understand the psychology behind Justification, you understand the mechanics of functional stories. Stories exist to take us through the Justification and Problem-Solving process. How does this mechanism apply to a character in your story?

when someone sees things differently than they are, they are Justifying. This can happen either because the mind draws a wrong conclusion or assumes, or because things actually change in a way that is no longer consistent with a held view.

Main Characters are blind to their own justifications. If they weren’t they would solve them and go about their day. But they don’t.

Thus, the need for story.

Stories exist to show us a greater Objective truth that is beyond our limited Subjective view. They exist to show us that if we feel something is a certain way, even based on extensive experience, it is possible that it really is not that way at all.

I love this explanation of story. Every great narrative–whether a novel, play or film–does this juxtaposition of the Objective vs. the Subjective. I’m trying to do this is my own story … Fingers crossed it all plays out.

For the Pivotal Character, it will be shown that the way she believed things to be really IS the way they are in spite of evidence to the contrary.

Funny. You can tell this is an earlier article in the development of Dramatica. The “Pivotal Character” is now known as the Steadfast Character. I think Pivotal comes from Lajos Egri and his book, The Art of Dramatic Writing

I’m not sure if the rest of the description still holds up, though it is interesting to think that the struggle a Steadfast character faces rests in a lack of information of the present, rather than a misconception based in the past (where you would find justification showing up). It holds true with my current story and with other Steadfast characters that come to mind (Jake in Chinatown, Angiers in The Prestige and Forrest Gump). So it may be something to consider in the future.

For the Primary Character, it will be shown that things are really different than believed and the only solution is to alter one’s beliefs.

Primary Character == Changed Character.

to create a feeling of “completion” in an audience, if the Main Character is Pivotal, she MUST succeed by remaining Steadfast, and a Primary Main Character MUST change.

Not sure what I think about this. “Feeling of completion” sounds more like Story Judgment. The rest of the article tends to show its immaturity in the development of the theory. Will return to it later.

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Wake up early and figure out your Main Character’s Throughline with clarity and confidence of purpose. It’s a great way to write.

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Reworked the Main Character Throughline for 2015-02. Managed to get her out of her own head and more focused on the Activities troubling her (As it should be with a Main Character in Physics/Activities). Difficult at first reworking scenes that I thought were working, but now they’re charged with greater purpose. A prop that used to be in the scene just because, now is in there to bring out my Main Character’s personal issue.

Still running into a snag during the 3rd Signpost (second half of the traditional 2nd Act), but I think I might have figured it out on the ride home.

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