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Finding Your True Self Through Writing

Continuing last week's article on generating story ideas, we take a look at how to get up close and personal with your deepest intentions.

Going with your first impression is usually a recipe for disaster when it comes to writing. Far too many times, the first thing we come up with is simply a rehash of something we have already seen or read. Pushing ourselves to move beyond our comfort zone opens up worlds of story we never even knew we had inside.

Following up on last week's article Generating an Abundance of Story Ideas, we take a look at the remaining three Playground Exercises. To recap, I was struggling to come up with concrete imaginative encodings for my Influence Character's Story Points. Instead of using Dramatica's insights to make my story bigger, I was simply parroting the different appreciations and making my story smaller in the process. I eventually decided to take my own advice and began working through a series of Playground Exercises that I created to help clients break through their usual creative ruts.

The effect was staggering and I felt it would be good to share my experience with writers and producers wondering how to use Dramatica to increase their level of creativity.

New Discoveries

Note how different these three are from the previous two and how far away I started to get from my original story idea. This is a very good thing. Instead of writing a story that was already in my head and--let's be honest--not particularly original, I started to head down a path that reflected more of my subconscious thoughts & desires rather than the subconscious of someone else.

By locking in the thematic meaning of the story with the storyform, I was able to stretch my imagination with the confidence that I wasn't wasting my time. I wasn't heading down another blind alleys I wasn't wasting my precious few hours a day writing chasing the wrong dog.

With Marissa I found a character who found peace shutting out the world around her. With the Bonaporte family I found the pain induced by trying to keep the memory of a family member alive. With Harold I found gold.

Getting Personal

Now Harold is about as far away from my original Stephen King-inspired story idea that I could get: a character who was so deathly afraid of factory-style work because of it hid the reality of one's true calling. That should feel authentic to you, more authentic than the guy who couldn't remember if he killed someone, and it should--because it is something very honest and true to my heart.

I had no idea deep down inside that this is what I felt. I mean, I knew it on a superficial level, but I didn't know my true feelings on the subject. By working through these Playground Exercises I was able to unearth something extremely personal to me--something honest and real. Something that I could really dive into and communicate from deep within my own consciousness and experience.

I almost left this last one out. It's a bit too revelatory and I was concerned about what my colleagues in the animation industry might think of my true feelings. But I guarantee many of them feel the same--as do many of you. We've all had jobs or careers that didn't sit right, didn't feel authentic. And by getting to that honesty my story will now end up connecting more deeply with those who read or see it.

People go to stories for truth, for shared experiences. By not concerning myself with thematic intention or this character's relation to the rest of the story, I ended up forming someone who reflected my deepest of intentions. What writer wouldn't want that?

Next week I'll cover the process of folding these five very different characters into one. You can pretty much be guaranteed that Harold will fit predominantly into that mix.

Influence Character Throughline StoryEncoding #3

Influence Character Domain & Concern

Hating People Who Whine & Being Forgotten by a Particular Group: Marissa Lamont is the kind of mother who hates when her children whine. So much so, that she will lock herself in her room, put noise-cancelling headphones on, and turn up the Anthrax until she can't hear it anymore. As a result, her children never learn to get along, the house is a battleground, and her hearing is shot. But there is something else...peace. That peace of mind she feels infects the other women in the neighborhood and they too begin to revel in the ecstasy of shutting everyone out. Husbands neglected, children undisciplined, and a general sense of breakdown of communications between people begins to occur. Marissa, and the women in her circle, want to be forgotten by those who demand so much from them. It causes those around her to feel deprived, uncared for, and ignored. But it also has the side effect of developing self-reliance in those she left behind. On the surface Lamont's influence is a disruptive element, but like most disruptive elements eventually turns to a beneficial and uplifting experience.

Influence Character Issue

Being a Source of Suspicion vs. Evidence: Marissa's antics are a source of suspicion amongst her fellow neighbors: what does she do behind those closed doors and what is she hiding from? That suspicion infects the neighborhood with gossip and distraction and a general lack of purpose as everyone finds themselves more interested in what Marissa is doing rather than what they should be doing (like paying bills, feeding the kids, and getting enough sleep for the next day).

Influence Character Symptom & Response

Being Philosophically Aligned with Something & Being Lost in Reverie about a Particular Group: Marissa believes the problem with most mothers these days is their philosophical alignment with suburban mores. Everyone is too caught up in aligning themselves with this idea of who they should be, rather than who they could be. Her response, and the response she has for so many of the women, is to become lost in reverie about long lost dreams, about that group of women they had planned to be as they were growing up. 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...

Influence Character Source of Drive

Seeing if Someone Truly Exists: Marissa Lamont is driven to see if this perfect suburban mother exists. She seeks her out in Internet chat rooms, in the grocery store, and even at school functions. Whenever she finds a woman she figure is the perfect woman, she approaches and begins breaking her down, asking insinuating questions and getting to the root of what that woman is really all about. Is she wearing that workout outfit because she is going to the gym as the perfect woman, or because she thinks she is supposed to be wearing a workout outfit to fit in. That drive to find what really exists cuts through the facade of suburban life and exposes these women for who they really are: hurt and put upon.

Influence Character Demotivator

Camouflaging a Particular Group: Even Marissa from time to time feels she has to hide and camouflage herself from her husband and her children, and when she does put on airs she manages to demotivate the other women around her and lessen her impact on the neighborhood.

Influence Character Benchmark

Reasoning: The more her children and husband try to reason with her, the more she grows concerned with the fact that they will never forget about her. That she will always be needed, and that she will never be able to live her dreams out. Communicating this to the other women allows them to see that simple reason will make it impossible for any of them to be forgotten.

Influence Character Signpost 1

Being Contemplative: When we first meet Marissa, she is at the head of the dinner table, children screaming, husband on his smart phone, expletives and food flying, a meal uneaten in front of her. Her daughter asks her a question and she seems distractive. “Just thinking, dear,” she tells her and returns back to her contemplation of the mashed potatoes in front of her. The contemplation confuses and intrigues her neighbor from down the street who stopped by for a drink. Marissa seems at such peace. “What is your secret?” She asks.

Influence Character Signpost 2

Having a Photographic Memory: Marissa inspires all the mothers around her when she begins to recite—from photographic memory—the exact imagery of each and every one of her children and even when her and her husband began first dating. The images play on the big screen TV, but Marissa has seen them all. Contrary to what the other husbands say about Marissa's strange behavior she hasn't forgotten or neglected her family—she remembers each and every detail about them. This inspires the women to return home and do the same.

Influence Character Signpost 3

Gagging at the Thought of Eating Oysters: The families arrive for a community cookout, a meal prepared by the husbands and by the children. The fathers present oysters to the women and Marissa begins gagging. Uncontrollably. It shocks and dismays everyone around them, but soon the other mothers turn away in disgust. It simply isn't good enough for them. Marissa shows them how to stand up for what you want, and to have that confidence that you deserve more.

Influence Character Signpost 4

Experiencing Rapture: The women of the neighborhood experience pure bliss as they shut out the world around them and indulge in their own personal happiness. Seventh heaven (the name of this story) kicks in as the women find peace refusing to compromise on their principals. Marissa reaches over, turns the knob on the Volume up to 10, and leans back in her chair and thinks to herself, “This is the life.”

Influence Character Throughline StoryEncoding #4

Influence Character Domain & Concern

Clashing Attitudes about Someone & Losing Something's Memories: Lilly Bonaparte grew up in a household centered around the patriarch of the family, Edward G. Bonaparte V. Treated like royalty his whole life, Edward had problem keeping his family in line and on track with his wishes and plans. Everyone that is...except Lily. At 13 she couldn't stand the old man and did whatever she could to disrupt their perfect little family. She would refuse to pray before dinner, refuse to do chores, refuse to come home before curfew, refuse to not date anyone older than her, and refuse to contribute in any meaningful way to the family. Suffice it to say, Lilly Bonaparte's attitudes towards her father angered him, brought anxiety to her mother, and threw the rest of her five siblings into constant brawls over who would take up her slack. At the heart of Lilly's concerns were the loss of the memory of Edward's mother, Valerie. Valerie was in the last stages of Parkinson's disease and was on the brink of losing all touch with reality—a travesty as far as far Lilly was concerned. And the idea that her father never visited Valerie or made any attempts to collect her memoirs or family's history devastated Lilly and drove her to label her father a miserable son who would only beget more miserable children and grandchildren. Effectively cursing the entire family lineage, Lilly brought turmoil and angst to the Bonaparte household with her efforts to keep Valerie and her more lenient ways of parenting alive.

Influence Character Issue

Being Suspicious of Someone vs. Evidence: Lilly's suspicion that father was doing all of this as a means of guaranteeing a larger inheritance only drove her to sneak into the old man's study and rifle through his things, hack into his computer, and reveal family secrets kept secret for a long time (like who was brother Austin's real mother). This suspicious attitude brought dissention and grief to the Bonaparte household and upset the tender balance Edward had worked his whole life to maintain.

Influence Character Symptom & Response

Being Known by a Particular Group & Brainstorming Something: Lilly believes the problem to be that the Bonaparte's are known as a perfect family, something to aspire to, and to look up to by the other families. This is, of course, a problem as their family is completely built on lies and the ego of one man. In response, Lilly works hard to brainstorm different means of bringing her father down—an approach that unnerves the other children, incites some of the others to rebel and talk back to their father, and begins a wave of rumors throughout their tightly knit neighborhood of friends.

Influence Character Source of Drive

Exploring Reality: Lilly's drive to explore the reality behind the Bonaparte family and Edward's real life growing up brings turmoil to the Bonaparte household. Let sleeping dogs lie is not something Lilly believes in and as a result the tender bond between Edward and Valerie is forever shattered, reducing the family inheritance, and bringing shame and embarrassment to the Bonaparte family in the eyes of the other neighbors. It, however, also has the positive effect of inspiring her siblings to stand up on their own and claim their own individuality within the family—a disruptive effect in the eyes of the patriarch, but a positive move from those oppressed by his ways.

Influence Character Demotivator

Seeing Someone from a Particular Perspective: When her siblings begin seeing their father in a different light, Lilly tends to back off, her mission accomplished.

Influence Character Benchmark

Considering Something: The more her siblings consider that their father is not the great man he makes himself out to be, the less concerned Lilly is with losing her grandmother's experiences...the other kids will see to it that no one forgets.

Influence Character Signpost 1

Being Conscious of Something: Lilly starts the story by making everyone in her family conscious of her father's affair seven years ago. Out of nowhere. No one was even talking about it, Lilly just interjected between Roger and Mary's stimulating conversation about the difference between stalactites and stalagmites. “You all know dear old father had an affair with Miss Torio seven years ago, don't you?” That one comment set off a wave of disappointment and chaos.

Influence Character Signpost 2

Thinking Back about a Particular Group: Lilly takes her three oldest brothers out on a hike and strikes up a conversation about how the Bonapartes used to be back in the day. She wonders if they can think back and remember how it was before Valerie became old and decrepit and if they recall a time when the family was more about joy and expression than it was about following rules and decorum. The boys do recall. One, Andrew the oldest, gets really upset and refuses to talk about it anymore. He heads home angered. The other two recall and promise Lilly to tell the others when they get back.

Influence Character Signpost 3

Reacting Spontaneously to Someone: Edward loses his cool in front of everyone when out to dinner. Lilly demands that an extra chair be set for Valerie, even though she can't make it, and that sends Edward over the edge. In front of his wife, his family, and the rest of the neighborhood in attendance at Dolario's, Edward flips out and starts cursing the very existence of Lilly. She simply sits back and smiles. “At least, “ she says. “My real father shows up.”

Influence Character Signpost 4

Being Infatuated with a Particular Group: The local reporter, a man in the booth next to the Bonapartes at Dolario's, becomes infatuated with the family and sets out to write the family's memoir—exposing Edward for the sniveling son he is and the abuse some children engage in towards aging and disabled parents. The reporters expose is met with unrivaled acclaim and soon the Bonaparte name becomes synonymous with parental abuse, particularly in the case of Parkinson's. The Bonaparte name is forever memorialized as something you would never want to associate your own family with.

Influence Character Throughline StoryEncoding #5

Influence Character Domain & Concern

Fearing Work & Remembering an Anniversary: Harold Fauntleroy is deathly afraid of work. Why commit yourself to a task you would never do if they didn't pay you? That is not what life is about, that's voluntary slavery! Unfortunately for Harold's wife and two sons his fear keeps them homeless, hungry, and hopeless. His wife must take on an extra job and her sons are left to fend for themselves while their parents are away. Of great concern to Harold is the anniversary of his father's passing away, which is coming up in a few weeks. His father never lived his life, never took a chance, and always did everything the way he was told to. As a result he died content...but an unhappy content. Harold remembers the look on his father's face when he told Harold his life was a waste and that look of emptiness scares Harold so much that he refuses to commit to anything lasting longer than a week or two. The Fauntleroys struggle as winter approaches and the thought of sleeping in their car becomes more and more a reality.

Influence Character Issue

Being Paranoid about Someone vs. Evidence: Harold's constant paranoia that his employer is trying to diminish his soul creates an uneasy work environment for those who work with him and inspires others to quit or possibly do less work so that they too can concentrate on their own art. The paranoia—while disruptive to those in charge—actually inspires great things in others. A woman who hadn't picked up a paint brush in 35 years begins painting her cubicle walls. A man who always wrote short stories begins taking afternoons off at the office to work on his masterpiece. Harold Fauntleroy brings out the best in others by being paranoid about the truth of those in charge.

Influence Character Symptom & Response

Being Ignorant & Considering Someone: Harold believes the biggest problem in the world is when people are ignorant. Ignorant of what is really going on around them and ignorant of what it is their heart truly desires. Harold sits down with each and every person and tells them that he considers them special. That he thinks about them. That he sees a unique individual capable of doing a great many things. The only thing they need to do is to get other people to start considering them. That's when they know they are on the right track.

Influence Character Source of Drive

Finding the Objective Reality of Someone: What excites Harold is finding the objective reality of the people he meets. Everyone he meets is hiding behind a mask, a false sense of themselves. Unearthing that truth, that reality that is there deep within each person unnerves those who have never stepped out of their comfort zone, and excites those who have dreamt of being so much more. Harold is all about reality. It may drive his wife crazy and his kids to become more fearful about what is happening with their family, but Harold is doing good work. He's bringing light to the world.

Influence Character Demotivator

Having a Slanted View on Something: Unfortunately, Harold's wife has her viewpoint on things and it does diminish his effectiveness from time to time. As committed as he is to truth, he does love his wife and hates to see her so nervous and anxious. Her slanted view on life and doing what others expect of you tempers Harold's drive and pulls him back occasionally from making huge gains.

Influence Character Benchmark

Considering Something: The more people consider doing something they have never done before, the less concerned Harold is with the anniversary of his father's death. It means there was a purpose behind it.

Influence Character Signpost 1

Starting a Think Tank: Harold begins to disrupt the universe the moment he requests a meeting room at work and begins to develop a think tank for creative endeavors. Inspired by Google's 5th day of personal projects, Harold starts brainstorming with the other employees how they too could make something more of themselves. This think tank upsets the employers, drives down productivity, and frightens stock holders. But it inspires the workers.

Influence Character Signpost 2

Thinking Back about Something: Harold pushes it farther when he gets those workers to begin to think back to when they were children and when they had dreams and 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. Harold is brought in and fired for his disruptive behavior.

Influence Character Signpost 3

Being Numb to Something: Harold's former employees act numb to threats from their employer. When brought in to a meeting to set rules and expectations and threats of firing, they act as if numb to the entire thing. Their heads are already in the clouds because of Harold and no amount of threat is ever going to change that.

Influence Character Signpost 4

Fearing Water: Fearing the rising tide of employee dissention created by Harold's persistent influence, the company decides to move its entire operation off-shore. Everyone is fired, but not a single person fears the consequences. They get in touch with Harold and he begins a new company—one that offers a chance for everyone to fulfill their true potential. In time, they all fulfill their greatest desires.

Concepts covered: Influence Character Throughline.

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