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Don't Use Other Movies as Reference

Some people can’t resist telling you about their favorite movie. Whether their favorite sci-fi flick seen in adolescence or one of AFI’s top 100, film buffs love to share scenes. Problems set in the moment they bring up said love affair in a story meeting. Does the beloved scene or group of scenes actually apply to the story point being discussed? Or is it simply an unfortunate instance of fancy taking control?

Regardless of what you may have heard online or read in books multiple stories exist. There is no one Hero’s Journey to rule them all. They might share a commonality of presentation but the substance—the real true meaning—behind every single book, novel or play claims a unique identifying code. Like the building blocks of DNA that—while small in number—combine to create thousands upon thousands of different people, the structural aspects of story combine to create a novel experience.

Occasionally a story might share the same code. West Side Story is simply Romeo & Juliet. Avatar is Pocahontas. Collateral is Finding Nemo.1 But for the most part, the stories we share differ enough as to be detrimental, rather than helpful.

Bringing them up as examples for breaking a story only compounds the problems.

Work This Story, Not That One

Writers often refer to other movies in order to support their potential fix for a certain story problem. It’s like in Usual Suspects when you started to see that night from Verbal’s point-of-view… Or Remember that scene in Goodfellas when Karen flushed the drugs down the toilet? It’s like that. If it worked for them, why wouldn’t it work for us?

Because we might be telling a different story.

Problems occur when the example called to task bears no resemblance with the structural issues present in the narrative being worked on. Sure, you can reference that “killer Steadicam shot” in Goodfellas or “that gun battle on the streets of L.A. in Heat without harm, but only because those are instances of storytelling, not storyforming. Storytelling operates independently of the thematic issues within a story. It’s the icing on the cake, the seasoning added later and parceled out at the Author’s behest. Writers can ape presentation with little to no effect upon the meaning; they can’t mimic substance without risking a confounding of purpose.

The storyform of a work of narrative carries the meaning of a story. It is the message and the purpose beneath the various levels of character, plot, theme and genre. It makes possible the transmission of bias. The story form is Author’s intent. If the film referenced endeavors to delivers a message dissimilar to the one at hand, then the reference can only manage to disrupt and garble the final communication.

Different Stories That Seem the Same

One sees this line of thinking often when confronted with the dual miscues of the Hero’s Journey and the Save the Cat! franchise. Refusing to dive any further beyond the surface, these digestible accounts of story conflate purpose with cultural trend. Do many cultures across the globe celebrate and pass on a similar legend? Yes. Do most films follow a predictable path as they lay out their individual sequences? Certainly. Does correlation confirm causation? Absolutely not.

Many consider Star Wars and The Matrix the same story. They see Luke Skywalker and Mr. Anderson as cut from the same cloth. While The Difference Between Neo and Luke Skywalker illuminates in greater detail why, understand that the elements of story that drive and motivate Luke and Neo rest in different dramatic camps.

Luke is motivated to test what he can and cannot do and it gets him into trouble. Neo is driven to disbelieve himself and it gets him into trouble as well. Luke needs to trust, Neo needs to believe. Two separate thematic messages. Similar? Very. But the solutions and moments required to satisfy one cannot be transposed to the other. Trust cannot fix disbelief. Faith cannot heal a testing nature.

Calling to mind Luke when writing Neo would only generate inappropriate solutions. Bringing up Back to the Future—a story all about finding and acquiring—when writing a story about misunderstandings only provides more rabbit holes to fall into. This is how broken stories remain broken stories.

Write Your Story

Instead of recalling scenes similar to those on which you’re working, reference your own imagination and set scenes and characters to the meaning you are trying to provide. Understand the conflict your story rides upon and illustrate those scenes. If your character keeps screwing up because he doesn’t believe in himself, don’t start writing scenes where he tests his mettle like Luke Skywalker simply because you saw the movie 110 times when you were a kid. You’re not writing Star Wars, you’re writing your story.

This is where Dramatica proves to be crucial during the creativity process: by maintaining the integrity of the narrative developed in other scenes, Dramatica focuses creativity in the right direction. Write the story at hand, not the story you love from your childhood. Do this and your story sessions will prove efficient, effective and most importantly—fruitful.


  1. Believe it or not, the Jamie Foxx/Tom Cruise thriller Collateral tells the same story as Pixar’s Finding Nemo. ↩︎

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