Story Structure for Professional Writers

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Generating An Abundance Of Story Ideas

If you want to write something unique and original, identify your story's deep meaning and then write similar stories as a means to brainstorm a better, fresher approach.

Too many times writers find themselves stuck without an inkling of where to go next. They write themselves into corners or run out of steam on that great idea that they thought would carry them through the end. Having an understanding of what it is you want to say and a framework for capturing that intent can go a long way towards preventing what many call writer's block.

Many see the Dramatica theory of story as a great analysis tool, something to be used to examine what worked and what didn't work. What they fail to realize is that Dramatica is also a great creativity tool. By listening to what it is you want to say with your story, Dramatica can offer insight and suggestions to round out your story and make it feel more complete.

The Playground Exercises

You know that writing tip that suggests coming up with twenty different ideas in order to get to one original one? The idea being that your first, your fifth, and even your fifteenth idea is really just a superficial rehash of something you have already seen or have already thought. Once you vomit out all the obvious choices your writer's intuition starts coming up with brand new and novel ideas that take your writing to the next level.

The Narrative First Playground Exercises were inspired by this process. The generation of several different Throughlines with slightly different storytelling grants an Author a playground from which to explore the deep thematic meaning present in their story. Even my own story.

My Story

Working my way through the Playground Exercises for my current writing project, I was amazed by the abundance of creativity I experienced in only a few hours. Averaging about 25 minutes per Playground, I managed to flesh out five completely different and potential Influence Characters for my story. That's five fully functional and thematically integrated characters all before lunchtime.

Sounds exciting, right?

Inspired by something Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley mentioned to me, I created the Playground Exercises late last Summer as a means to better understand the Main Character in the story I was working on. I was continuously running into a roadblock with this character and couldn't figure out why she seemed so small in comparison to the rest of the story.

By brainstorming ideas for characters dealing with the same thematic material as my Main Characters, I was able to concentrate on the essence of the Throughline--the meaty, thematic stuff--instead of futzing around wondering how it would fit into my story. The process was, and is, freeing and productive and often produces ideas for new and completely different stories.

There is a right way and a wrong way to do them and very often when working with clients they start out with the latter approach. This is a shared mistake brought about by the common misunderstanding that the Dramatica storyform presents storytelling material, rather than storyforming material.

The Storyform as a Source of Conflict

Many look to Dramatica and think it is a story-by-numbers approach. They think you flip a few switches and Dramatica spits out a preformed story. When they see a Main Character Concern of the Past they think, Oh, Roger is worried about the Past. or when they see a Main Character Problem of Feeling they think, Oh, Roger is the kind of person who feels a lot of mixed emotions.

This is not proper StoryEncoding. This is using the Apprecation as storytelling, rather than using it as a means to form a story.

A Main Character Concern of the Past means the Main Character experiences conflict because of the Past. Sure, he or she may be worried about the Past, but this worry doesn't set into motion a story. Instead, a Main Character who is so concerned with how great things used to be that they return to their high-school summer job at 42, start working out how to impress their teenage daughter's girlfriend, and start buying drugs from the neighbor next door to feel young again DOES set a story into motion. In fact, it sounds an awful lot like American Beauty doesn't it? Kevin Spacey's character Lester Burnham does have a Concern of the Past, but it's more than an indicator of worry, it's a generator of conflict.

Likewise, a Main Character Problem of Feeling means the Main Character experiences conflict because of Feeling. Of course this means they will "feel a lot of mixed emotions" but then again, what kind of character doesn't? Instead, a Main Character who is so overwhelmed by strange and uncomfortable emotions that they will pummel anyone who brings those emotions out DOES set a story into motion. In fact this was the problem Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) suffered in Brokeback Mountain. His inability to process his Feelings with the evidence he had of the torture and murder of a man who embraced similar emotions drove him to a life spent in denial and personal anguish.

This is the first rule of the Playground Exercises: Do not use the Appreciation (or Gist) as storytelling, but rather as a source of conflict.

Looking for Conflict in the Right Throughline

One should always look to each of these appreciations and ask, How is this a problem? While they have fancy names like Domain and Concern and Issue, really they're just different magnifications of the same thing: conflict. The Domain is the largest, most broadest way to describe an area of conflict; the Concern is the next smallest and the Issue even smaller. The Problem is the smallest way to describe a Problem (can't go much smaller than that!).

So when working through these appreciations and random Gists I simply ask myself, How is this a source of conflict for this Throughline? Each Throughline will have a slightly different question. The Main Character is very experiential and personal and typically the easiest to write. In contrast, the Influence Character is all about the impact or influence that character has on the world around them. When writing these I always made sure to write a character who created all kinds of havoc around them and for others because of who they were and what they were driven to do. This brings up the second rule.

The second rule when doing these Playground Exercises is to ignore the other Throughlines. Don't worry about them. I don't care one bit how the Influence Characters I come up with are going to impact the Main Character of my story because in the end, the storyform will make sure this character impacts the Main Character.

In my story the Main Character has a Concern of the Past and the Influence Character has a Concern of Memories. Right there, the impact is set. The Main Character in my story will naturally be impacted by this Influence Character because my Main Character is personally dealing with The Past--she can't help but be influenced by this strange thing known as "Memories".

Concentrate on getting the StoryEncoding strong for an Influence Character who impacts others through their Concern and the storyform will naturally impact the Main Character regardless of what you come up with.

Generating an Abundance of Ideas

How does this process work? This is the Influence Character Throughline section of my storyform for my latest project:

Influence Character Throughline Domain: Fixed Attitude Concern: Memories Issue: Suspicion vs. Evidence Problem: Actuality Solution: Perception Symptom: Knowledge Response: Thought Benchmark: Contemplations Signpost 1: Contemplations Signpost 2: Memories Signpost 3: Impulsive Reponses Signpost 4: Innermost Desires

I have no problem sharing this with you as no one really owns a storyform. How I interpret and encode a storyform will be completely different than the way you do. That's what makes us unique and awesome.

Originally I was really excited about this storyform because it perfectly matched up with my story idea: that of a friend who wakes up a murder suspect, yet has no recollection of what they did the night before. The storyform above looked perfect for what I wanted to do: a Concern of Memories (he couldn't remember what happened), an Issue of Suspicion (everyone suspected him of killing), a Problem of Actuality (he actually killed the person!)--all of these seemed to really work great for the story I wanted to tell.

But when I went to actually write the thing the story kind of collapsed in on itself. I kept repeating myself with the Influence Character and he came off as kind of one-dimensional. What was worse was that he really didn't have any kind of effect or impact on the Main Character--she changed her resolve because I needed her to for the story, not because this other character challenged her to do so.

I resisted and resisted and put off doing my own Playground Exercises because I figured I was above all that. After all, twenty years of experience with Dramatica I should know what I'm doing, right? Turns out, I was short-changing my own writing process. By refusing to do what I had seen work wonders so many times before, I was keeping myself from writing a thematically rich and compelling story.

So I generated five different Influence Character Throughlines with the same storyform you see above by using Dramatica's Brainstorming feature. With this feature you can lock in the storyform and then randomize the Gists, or approximation of the story points, to keep the storytelling fresh and unique. I copied them over into Quip--the same app I use to work with clients--and then began brainstorming completely different Influence Characters. Different situations. Different genres. Different genders. But at the heart of them--the same thematic concerns of narrative.

Here are two of them. Note how disparate in storytelling, yet similar in thematic intent, they are. Note how every appreciation generates conflict and doesn't use the Gist as simply a storytelling prompt. There are moments when I start out using it as storytelling, but then quickly move it into a source for conflict.

Note too how I start out writing something somewhat similar to my original idea. This is how the Playground Exercise works--it lets you dump out your first thoughts and then forces you to stretch and become something more than you were before you started. You know the old adage You can't solve a problem with the same mind that created it? That is precisely what we're doing here--transforming minds to become better writers.

You should be able to see the magic that is the Playground Exercises and of the Dramatica storyform for generating new and wonderful characters. In the next article I'll present more examples and explain how I take these exercises and use them to craft a fully fleshed out and developed character for my story.

Influence Character Throughline StoryEncoding Example #1

Influence Character Domain & Concern

Being in a Special Group & Reminiscing about Someone: Roger, a 16-year old autistic boy, challenges the people around him with his strange behavior and demanding personality. To know Roger is to constantly be on edge, always fearful of saying the wrong thing, and always careful to make sure his every need is met—even before he asks for it. The result is an uneasy environment around Roger; people rarely take risks if they fear repercussions and Roger is full of them.

To make matters worse, Roger spends an inordinate amount of time reminiscing about Plato, his favorite stuffed animal from when he was three. Roger sorely misses Plato and often wakes the family up late at night crying for him or creeps them out when they're awake by hugging a pillow and pretending it is his long lost friend. His constant reminiscing reminds everyone how stuck Roger is and how, because he is different from everyone else, they need to be careful not to hurt his feelings. Unfortunately this has the opposite effect on the kids at school where the focus on a stuffed animal often leads to bullying and after-school fights.

Influence Character Issue

Being a Suspect in a Murder Case vs. Evidence: Strangely enough, Roger is also a suspect in a murder case. Whether a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time or simply as a matter of his condition, everyone suspects the worst of Roger and treats him like a pariah. No one will sit next to him at school, he frightens the timid girls on the bus, and dinners at home are an uneasy and unpleasant experience. The evidence is there on Roger's blood-stained hands and sheets, but no one knows if that is simply an autistic kid looking for attention or if it truly does speak of a murderous personality. The uneasy feeling he creates in others leads his family members to second-guess opportunities to leave and forces them to support him—no matter how badly they don't want to--as they fear for their own lives.

Influence Character Symptom & Response

Being Philosophically Aligned against Something & Being Contemplative: Roger thinks the problem with the world today is that everyone spends too much time aligning themselves against that which they fear. It is so much easier taking the opposite position of the unknown then it is stepping out and trying something new. Roger refuses to give in to the “smaller” life and spends his waking hours contemplating different states of existence—all of which challenges those around him to improve their own way of thinking and to see the world differently. In short, he forces the people he comes into contact to deal with their own doubts and fears—something many would rather avoid doing.

Influence Character Source of Drive

Exploring Reality: Roger gets most worked up when he witnesses people consumed with the reality of day-to-day life. Paying taxes, working a job, and living the life of a city dweller causes him to lash out and publicly deride those who do. *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 non-autistic creature. His refusal to accept reality insults girls attracted to him, humiliates home economics teachers, and forces his family into working extra hours to make up for the work Roger himself has lost.

Influence Character Demotivator

Keeping Up Someone's Appearances: Roger loses himself when he becomes more concerned with keeping up appearances at the workplace or in a public restaurant. Those few rare moments when he stops being “special” and works to fit in—that's when the conflict dies around him and his friends and family can finally breathe a momentary sigh of relief.

Influence Character Benchmark

Wondering about Something: The more Roger wonders about the meaning of life, the more he reminisces about Plato and about the loss of his only true friend. Relationships are but a fabrication of our own minds, he believes. Ultimately transitive in nature and completely made up.

Influence Character Signpost 1

Concentrating on Something: We first see Roger standing in the middle of traffic contemplating a giant crack in the road. When questioned, Roger states that he sees more than anyone else ever could. It isn't just a crack because the more he thinks about it and the more he looks at it, the more glorious and beautiful it becomes. The artistry and majesty of the ripples and torn asphalt is a thing of beauty.

Influence Character Signpost 2

Being Memorialized by Something: Roger gets up in arms when the board refuses to memorialize his favorite 2nd grade teacher Mr. Donovan. Mr. Donovan was the kindest most gentlest teacher who spent every a couple minutes every morning reminding Roger how awesome he was and how much he enjoyed his company. To refuse to memorialize this man is to refuse to recognize the beauty of the universe and an attempt by the great unwashed to remain asleep.

Influence Character Signpost 3

Being Oversensitive to Something: Losing touch with reality, Roger's anxiety rages as he expresses his oversensitivity to touch and sound. The loud sounds of the city frighten him and cause him to scream and react in a way that terrifies children walking down the street. In addition, he screams terror when his family members try and hug him and show him affection.

Influence Character Signpost 4

Being a Heartbreaker: Roger comes to the conclusion that small-minded people are the problem and he rejects his girlfriend of several months. He shows no signs of sadness, no signs of remorse, just a complete loss of feeling for anyone around him. To be attached to someone is to remain shackled in the world of the normal. That is why he will never ever forget about Plato—Plato was more than what he was...and that's precisely how Roger wants to live his life.

Influence Character Throughline StoryEncoding Example #2

Influence Character Domain & Concern

Hero Worshipping & Being Memorialized by Someone: Tay Nguyen is the world's biggest Hunger Games fanboy. At 63 years of age he creeps out the teenage girls at comic book conventions, angers his wife who wants to go on cruises around the world, and empties out his bank account and the money saved up for his children so that he can buy more and more merchandise and cosplay outfits. Up until now, Tay has not amounted to much of anything. 43 years as a sanitation worker really hasn't left much of a mark on the world. He wants to be memorialized by becoming so famous the Author has to write a part for him in the next book. This obsession to be remembered causes him to make a fool of himself and his grandchildren at a mall appearance, frightens the Author when she catches him spying outside her window late at night, and creates riots amongst other fans as they feel Tay is ruining their beloved series. Tay is a royal pain-in the-ass.

Influence Character Issue

Being Someone's Suspect vs. Evidence: To make matters worse, the Author starts to suspect that Tay might be her muse. Stuck with writer's block these past months, she begins to think Tay might be the answer to all her problems...which ends up delaying the book even longer (she wants to spend more time with Tay to get to know him), angers fans to the point of vandalizing the Author's house (since they don't want Tay to have anything to do with it), and sets the publishing world into chaos as many more Author's begin to suspect that their writing is missing something when they realize they don't have their own personal Tay.

Influence Character Symptom & Response

Being Ignorant of Something & Acting Without Thought: Tay sees the world's problems as revolving around their ignorance of the themes behind Hunger Games and of the strength and courage of its central character. The world can be so ignorant sometimes and can so easily discount something that could truly help them. Tay's response is to act with little consideration given to what he is doing, and to simply go with the flow. As that is what Katniss would do.

Influence Character Source of Drive

Finding the Objective Reality of Something: Tay swings into action anytime someone tries to find objective reality in the Hunger Games and in particular its fandom. Anytime a news reporter tries to deconstruct the fiction and true motivation behind its deepest fans, Tay leaps into battle and starts tearing down the foundation of most everyone's reality. Stories are life, Tay believes; they help us understand our lives better and give us real solutions to our problems. Nobody can make sense of real life—it doesn't have the same purpose a story does. This breakdown of reality, of course, encourages the Author and other Authors to spend more time diving into their own self-consciousness (through drugs and other means) rather than actually get down to the business of writing.

Influence Character Demotivator

Misperceiving a Particular Group: When reporters and locals begin misperceiving Hunger Games fans as sad and pathetic and lonely people, Tay begins taking time proving to everyone else what great people they are. This sounds more like justification and all it does is make these people, including the Author behind the Hunger Games and other Authors discount Tay and the other fans as lunatics.

Influence Character Benchmark

Considering Something: The more people start to consider that their lives are mere fiction, the less Tay cares about being memorialized...it's already happening.

Influence Character Signpost 1

Being Preoccupied with Something: When we first meet Tay is preoccupied with his latest cosplay for the convention this weekend. His wife tries to speak to him, his grandchildren come to visit, nobody—and I mean nobody—can seem to get through to him. Tay is in his own little world and he ruins the plans the family had for that week and challenges his wife's patience as he sits there and compares his outfit to images on the Internet.

Influence Character Signpost 2

Being Memorialized by Something: Tay is set to receive the official Hunger Games Greatest Fan award from the Author of the Hunger Games. As he begins to give his acceptance speech, boos and jeers start to rise up from the audience. He sends the crowd into turmoil when he mentions that the Author herself has promised to create a character based on him for the next book.

Influence Character Signpost 3

Being Spontaneous: The Author, spurred on by Tay's influence, begins spouting out inane nonsense at her next interview on Good Morning America. The Author is simply riffing on the cuff (something Tay convinced him of), but she angers and upsets the people outside, embarrasses the interviewer on GMA, and basically ruins the ending of the next book by just letting it out.

Influence Character Signpost 4

Fearing a Particular Number: Tay refuses to enter the offices of the editor for the Author's next book because he doesn't trust the street address: they are the same exact numbers used to signify the evil overlords in the original Hunger Games episode. He ends up missing out on being included in the next book because he is so consumed by the fiction of it all that he steps away and returns home.

Concepts covered: The Storyform, The Playground Exercises, Influence Character Throughline & Brainstorming.

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