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A Separation: Blueprint of a Masterpiece

Look no further than this gem from Iran for a lesson in superior storytelling.

When it comes to writing a good story, many feel the process to be a mysterious expedition into the unknown. Lacking greater insight into why some stories work better than others, these very same people take the time-tested, yet often failed approach of “We’ll know it when we see it.”

Problem is, by the time they do manage to see the light the crushing weight of the freight train marked “Deadline” overruns them and dashes any hopes of getting the story right. Wouldn’t it be great to have the foresight ahead of time to know what path to take and what important points to explore?

Diving Into One of the Greats

Recently, I had the pleasure of conducting an analysis of the Iranian masterpiece, A Separation (2011). In addition to the superb acting and deft directing, the film exudes a confident, subtle and well-balanced narrative—clues that the film contains a solid storyform.

A storyform—as defined by the Dramatica (narrative science) theory of storyidentifies the central thematic elements of a complete narrative. Listing close to seventy-five key story points, this structural imprint holds within it the meaning or “message” of a story. Analyzing a film by looking for these key story points allows writers to better understand how to apply the predictive nature of the storyform to their own work.

The First Go-Round

I originally completed my first analysis of this spectacular film last September. The storyform I settled on at that time was—for the most part—accurate, but there were a few areas where it didn’t feel quite right to me. A proper storyform sings out—like an orchestra playing together in harmonious brilliance—and this one didn’t quite ring true to me. A few sour notes that left me feeling a bit off.

So when it came time to take another crack at it in one of my Story classes at the California Institute of the Arts, I jumped at the chance to find the right tune.

While 75% of this second attempt ended up matching my initial assessment, I did make one slight adjustment. I say slight because its an easy thing to do within the software application, but theoretically, it’s actually a pretty major shift. Instead of seeing Nader’s problems as a matter of his obstinate attitude—which he clearly has—we looked at him from the perspective of his manipulations. Every problem he has, everything that defines who he is, comes as a result of his constant drive to change the way people think and how they think about him. More importantly though, this way of thinking causes problems for him. Shifting the context of his personal Throughline to something more psychological in nature—while a simple click of the mouse—in reality, opened up a whole new perspective on his personal troubles.

Drilling down into Dramatica’s structural model beneath this psychological “umbrella” we eventually struck narrative gold:

A Separation -- Main Character Problem Quad

This quad of elements sang out for a couple of reasons. The first was the word Cause—namely because that was the precise Main Character Problem I had identified in my initial analysis. Dramatica defines Cause as:

the specific circumstances that lead to an effect. The character containing the Cause characteristic is concerned with what is behind a situation or its circumstances.

Nader’s problems stem from his overwhelming desire to establish blame and from his desire to avoid taking any blame for anything. His wife leaving him, Razieh’s “accident”, why Razieh was even there in the first place: all of these exemplify a character driven and blinded by Cause.

More importantly, however, this quad stood out because the elements within sang together in a harmonious reflection of Nader. Like the entire storyform itself—albeit at a finer resolution—these elements grouped together holistically painted a picture of Nader’s flawed character I’m sure the Author intended.

A Holistic Model of Intent

In short, the storyform defines what it is the Author is trying to say with his or her work. Strong powerful films exist as strong powerful films because they have something they’re trying to say, something they’re trying to argue. More than a sequence template to follow, the storyform outlines the key points needed to make a solid argument. Solid argument, solid story, no plot holes, happy Audience.

Now some films, or stories for that matter, have no real purpose beyond simple entertainment (Fletch, Battle: Los Angeles, or 2012 to name a few) and that’s OK—Dramatica can’t really help with those kinds of films. But when it comes to films that really matter, the ones that strive to be something even greater than the sum total of their parts, concepts like the storyform help explain why the greatness.

The Magic of Dramatica

By selecting Cause as Nader’s Main Character Problem, Dramatica took the initiative and calculated the rest of the thematic material needed to tell a compelling story. Yes, thats right. The power of Dramatica, and its unique ability over any other paradigm of story, lies in its ability to take the parts of your story you know and provide with the bits you haven’t even thought of yet. By analyzing your initial intent, the program can predict what you need in the other Throughlines in order to balance out your story and make it feel complete.

All that was left now was to take a look at what Dramatica predicted the Overall Story Throughline of A Separation to be and see if that matched up with the actual film:

A Separation -- Overall Story Problem Quad

Amazing! If there was one thing clear about the Overall Story of this film—the part of the story that affects everyone—it was the broken system of justice within Iran. Proving one’s innocence within the judge’s small cramped office, waiting amongst the hoarded outside to even get in—all of these perfectly illustrated an Overall Story Problem of Process:

the mechanism through which a cause leads to an effect. A Process is a series of interactions that create results. syn. chain of interactions, manner of procedure, cause/effect relation, progression, ongoing pull or tendency

This was yet another key point I had selected in my original analysis. You may wonder then, if the Overall Story Problem and the Main Character Problem matched the first attempt, what exactly changed? Remember that “slight” shift in perspective I made earlier? By doing this, the other two items in both quads switched from Proven and Un-proven to Accurate and Non-Accurate.

In my original analysis I had felt the former pair (Proven and Un-Proven) correctly identified what a majority of the story was about. While the individual Problems of the Throughlines drive a story forward, it is the other pair within the quad that occupies most of the story’s attention. The characters in A Separation certainly spend a fair amount of time trying to prove the unproven.

But when one takes a closer look at Accurate and Non-Accurate and sees them more as Appropriate Behavior and Inappropriate Behavior (synonyms respectively) one begins to gain a greater sense of what the film was really exploring thematically. Nader calling out the hot-headed husband Hodjat for insulting him, Hodjat yelling at his Razieh for working for a single man, or Razieh calling up her religious order to determine whether or not helping an ailing old man to clean himself (who just wet himself from Alzheimer’s ) was an appropriate action for her to take—all of these describe characters balancing the demands of appropriate and inappropriate behavior. As with Nader’s quad of elements these four perfectly encircled the dramatic energy present within this great film.

In the second part of this series, we’ll explore what all of this means and how understanding the storyform can help Authors craft films as equally as powerful as this one.

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