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Discovering the Story You Never Knew

A strong and resilient system for looking at narrative makes it easier to play at writing.

In the previous two articles I discussed how I used my invention of the Playground Exercises to broaden my creativity and open up new avenues towards discovering my true self. In this final article I want to show you how I take those previous exercises and fold them back in to my original story idea.

Now it just so happens that I came up with something stronger in terms of theme and character while working on the Playground Exercises. As a result, there isn’t too much left of my original idea. In fact, the whole notion of this character being a murderer who didn’t know it fell away and will likely be an area I address with the Overall Story Throughline instead. This is OK and something that would have happened naturally in the course of writing the screenplay. Discovering this lucid and lush character perspective? I’m not so sure I would have found that simply by trudging ahead.

Full Disclosure of My Work

As mentioned before I was a bit apprehensive about “showing my work”, but realized the value gain for you is more important than my own personal sense of artistic security. I have changed the name and race of this character to keep my eventual work pure. If somewhere down the road I manage to sell this thing and it becomes a movie and the story remains relatively intact, you can always say you knew this character when…

As you read the various combinations and reincarnations of my Influence Character, you will note some general observations. One, I removed all Dramatica terminology from the document. Better to move forward towards writing rather than backwards towards structure. Two, I used the work I did in the previous Playgrounds. I didn’t invent any new ideas. Why seek inspiration when the inspiration already sits before you?

Remove Dramatica Terminology

I find it easier to write the final product (the screenplay or novel) when I hide or obscure the support system trappings of the theory. When I write I want to be fully invested in the art & craft, I don’t want to be reconsidering whether or not I picked the right illustration for a Relationship Story Symptom of Projection or an Influence Character Benchmark of Impulsive Responses. I trust that the work I did was adequate and sufficient for the task ahead and like Forrest begin shedding those braces.

Use Your Work

Many clients I work with second-guess themselves at this point. Like my students at the California Insititute of the Arts who would trash their year-long film project five weeks before the deadline, these novelists and screenwriters sense a lack of inequity with their story and subconsciously assume it means they should work on something else. They will challenge the veracity of the Playground Exercises or suggest an entirely new storyform. It’s a crazy phenomenon that I have witnessed over and over again. Why does it happen?

When writers write or filmmakers make, they’re caught up in the act of creation. They run into roadblocks or deadends, figure that means they need to change the story or edit a sequence, and then address the problems and move on. They assume that fixing story problems are an actual part of the process. But when you figure out your story ahead of time1 all those inequities of story structure and story meaning are resolved. You really have nothing more to figure out, except how you’re going to tell it.

This is what happens during this final phase of the Playground Exercise.

During this phrase, a writer must focus their energy on the storytelling aspect of their craft. Make it as interesting and compelling as possible, but don’t lose all the work that has come before it. I can’t tell you how many times writers spends weeks on their playgrounds only to completely forget them in the Combined Throughline phase. It’s complete madness but I understand why—they’re used to building as they write. Here they simply get to enjoy the act of writing, and it is scary.

A Playground for Writers

The idea of the Playground Exercises to infuse new life into the story you’re working on, while simultaneously saving you tons of time. The act of engaging in these exercises frees a writer from the shackles of their original idea—an idea that more often than not, is deficient for the task at hand. By defining one’s purpose and using that as a basis for inducing all kinds of possible story events, a writer can play as if a child again—only this time with a boldness and confidence unheard of in the young.

Harley Combined Throughline

Hating People Who Whine & Remembering an Anniversary

Harley is the kind of alien who hates hearing his managers whine. They have it so good, being created in a lab rather than by biology—yet they still don’t ever seem to be happy. Harley hates it so much so that he will lock himself within his slumber cubicle so that he won’t have to hear it anymore. As a result, the workers around him fail to resolve their differences, the manufacturing line is a battleground, and Harley’s ability to concentrate is shot. But that peace of mind he experiences begins to infects the other workers around him and soon they all begin to revel in the ecstasy of shutting everyone out. A general breakdown in the system begins to occur. Of great concern to Harley is the anniversary of the passing of his father. His father never lived his life, never took a chance, and always did everything he was told to do. As a result he died comfortable—but an unhappy comfortable. Harley still remembers the look on his father’s face when he told Harley that his life was a waste. That look of emptiness scares Harley so much that he refuses to invest himself fully into his work.

Domain & Concern: So here you can see that I took the Influence Character Domain of Hating People Who Whine from Playground #3 and mixed it with the Concern of Remembering an Anniversary from Playground #5. Now I could have just as easily used both the Domain and Concern from #5, but I felt as if the Hating Whiners attitude suggested so much more to me in terms of scenes and situations. It gave me a basis for his character and a great idea of what he would bring to the story. This is what the Domain and Concern—they give you the broadest notion of what kind of conflict will appear out of that Throughline.

Being Paranoid about Someone vs. Evidence

Harley’s constant paranoia that his managers are trying to diminish his importance creates an uneasy work environment for the creatures that work with him and inspires them to quit and to possibly do less work. The paranoia—while disruptive to the city—actually inspires great things in those older workers on their way out. A sanitation worker who used to delight in the sheer act of movement begins to dance in the early mornings at the end of her shift. A line manager who was originally taught to count stars in the sky returns his attention to the heavens and the wonders before him…even during work hours. Harley brings out the best in others by being paranoid about the truth of those in charge.

Issue vs. Counterpoint: Ok, so Playground #5 I really liked. In fact, I had a hard time not simply copying and pasting over the whole thing. It just feels so fresh and unique to me. I mean, I came up with the whole thing based on Dramatica’s prompts, but I still can’t believe that I came up with the whole thing…Diving into this example of encoding you’ll see that I simply transpose the characters and environments to match the story I was telling. I didn’t invent new ideas or even write new sentences. I simply changed nouns.

Being Ignorant & Being Lost in Reverie

Harley believes the biggest problem in the city is when people—particularly aging workers—act ignorant. Ignorant of what is really going on around them and ignorant of what it is their heart truly desires. Though conditioned from the outset, they still maintain a certain sense of hope that can’t be taken away. Harley refuses to give in to the “smaller” life and spends his waking hours contemplating different states of existence. He inspires the others to become caught up in the reverie of their long lost dreams. The only way to move past what you should be is to lose yourself in the dreams of what you used to want to be.

Symptom & Response: This is an interesting one because here I took the Symptom from my favorite #5 and mixed it rather deftly with the Response from #3. I think I felt it worked better because of the reference to #3 in the Domain above. There is a certain amount of inertia that happens as you work through these exercises and the smaller more definite story points always seem to carry on a taste of the larger, broader story points above. But again, all I did was change the name.

Exploring Reality

Harley gets most charged when he witnesses workers consumed with the reality of day-to-day life. Working the line, filing compensation forms, and rising and sleeping to the beat of the city motivates him to stand up and make a scene. Why would anyone accept the reality given to them? To be a sheep and not step out of the bounds of normal existence—that is the problem with the slumbering entity. Sleeping is a scourge. His refusal to accept reality insults his managers, humiliates those who do buy into it, and forces his loved one into working extra hours to make up for lost wages spent “finding oneself.”

Problem: For this story point, arguably the most important one in a Throughline, I really tried to communicate the gestalt of all my experiences working through these exercises. I knew there was a common theme that kept popping up for me, of this character who rebelled against the notion of one reality for all, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t lose that. I think that’s why these exercises are so powerful: by repeatedly hitting certain thematic chords, the vibrations work their way through you until the standing waves of your own truth resonate back. This character perspective of not accepting the reality given to you really strikes home with me…and had absolutely nothing to do with a character who wakes up not knowing they killed someone the night before. Can you see the difference between honest expression and hackneyed plot points? That’s why these exercises are so important.

Having a Slanted View on City Life

Unfortunately, Harley’s best friend has her own viewpoint of things in the city and it does diminish his motivation from time to time. As committed as he is to the truth, he does love her and hates to see her so nervous and anxious. Her slanted view of life and doing what others expect of you tempers Harley’s drive and pulls him back occasionally from making huge gains.

Solution: Direct copy and paste from Playground #5. Only the name was changed.

Reasoning

The more his love or the other creatures attempt to reason with Harley, the more concerned he becomes that they will never be able to forget him. That he will always be needed, and that he will never be able to live out his own personal dreams.

Benchmark: Here I took the Benchmark from #3. Any of them from any of the playgrounds would have worked, but because the Benchmark is so intimately tied to the Concern I figured it would be easier to use the Benchmark of that piece.

Plot Progression (or Signposts): For the plot progression I basically used the entirety of Playground #5. Compared to the others, it provided a flow of character energy that I simply didn’t want to lose. If you’ll notice, I changed some of the Gists to better reflect what was going on in my story. If you understand Gists and the original Dramatica terminology they represent, this really isn’t that difficult to do. And it doesn’t change the meaning or intent of the Throughline or that particular story point. Regardless of Gist, the same story point exists underneath. So it isn’t so important that I write about Harley fearing water as it is that I write about Harley fearing. That’s the Subconsious, or Innermost Desires, story point I need to communicate here. The water part of it is the “gist” of the story point.

Starting a Think Tank

Harley begins to disrupt the universe the moment he requests a gathering of workers and begins to develop a think tank for improvements in the workplace. Harley begins brainstorming with the other workers how they could make something more of themselves. This think tank upsets the managers in their sector, drives down productivity, and frightens the high-level authorities. But it inspires the workers.

Thinking Back to When They First Arrived

Harley pushes it farther when he gets those workers to begin to think back to when they were first brought to the city and they were first realizing their potential—when they all believed they had no limitations. When the future seemed boundless. This thinking back inspires some of the workers—essential to the company’s success-to quit to go follow their dreams. Henry is brought in and fired for his disruptive behavior.

Being Numb to Instructions

The workers in Harley’s original think tank act numb to further threats from their area managers and from the high-level authorities. When brought in to be counseled on rules and expectations, they fail to respond—almost as if they’re offline. Their collective intelligence is already in the clouds because of Harley and no amount of threat is ever going to change that.

Fearing a Rebellion

Fearing the rising tide of employee dissention created by Harley’s persistent influence, the high-authority decides to move its entire sealing operation off-shore. The entire worker line is terminated, but not a single worker seems to fear the consequences. Instead they seem to operate as if caught up in the rapture of being set free. They experience pure bliss as they shut out the world around them and indulge in their own personal happiness. Or fear sets in as they worry about taking care of their own basic needs. That’s when Harley teaches them the importance of being motivated. When you were hungry and well looked after you were but a machine, a cog to to help fulfill their dreams. But now that you’re hungry and alone, now you have the chance to fulfill your own dreams.

A Character I Never Dreamed Of

All in all, I love how this Throughline just feels right for the story I wanted to tell, but didn’t know I wanted to tell. It’s a huge departure from the idea of a “friend who wakes up a murder suspect, yet has no recollection of what they did they night before.” Instead of the basic wants and needs, I now have a fully realized and thematically rich character.

But what is even more exciting is how this character interacts with the Main Character of my story. My original idea was one-dimensional, simple, and truthfully, not very effective. With this new version of my Influence Character I now have the basis for emotional and compelling interactions between the two principal characters of my story. Instead of simply forgetting where he was the night before, I have an attitude of remembering a painful experience in the past that creates conflict for everyone around him. In fact, on every level here Harley challenges and impacts my Main Character in a way I never could have even imagined.

In short, my work with the Playground Exercises enriches and enlivens my own writing experience. My hope is that by sharing this process I’ll be able to do the same for other writers and producers struggling with telling their own stories. The ends are there in each one of us, it’s the means that make them so.


  1. …why we refer to ourselves as Narrative First↩︎

Concepts covered: The Storyform.

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