Story Structure for Professional Writers

Get Help
menu

Story Structure for Professional Writers »

Structuring Narratives in the Real World

We turn to stories in order to find some meaning in our lives. By setting the context and unique perspectives at play, we construct a framework of narrative thematics that help teach us the best way to resolve conflict and balance out that which cannot be resolved. Understanding that stories function as a model of the problem-solving process within our own minds, it becomes easy to define and set the narratives present in our everyday lives.

August 4, 2016

Transforming Real Life into a Story

Turning the events of our lives into meaningful narrative requires an understanding of how our minds operate.

If Dramatica is a theory of story based on the psychology of the human mind, then it only follows that that very same model can be used to understand the narratives of our own lives. Real life can seem pointless at times, meaningless within the chaos of living day-to-day. Crafting a narrative gives context to the conflict, and offers meaning to our own experience.

Stephen R. Covey's quote "We see the world, not as it is, but as we are" is more reality than a truth because of the way our minds think. Externally we see Mass, Energy, Space, and Time because internally our minds consist of Knowledge, Thought, Ability, and Desire.

As Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story explains in her article Where'd All These Ideas Come From?:

The four dimensions of the outer world [Mass, Energy, Space, and Time] are reflected by the four dimensions of the inner world [Knowledge, Thought, Ability, and Desire]. In fact, each set is a reflection of the other with neither being the origin. Existence cannot be understood wholly from either a material or immaterial perspective. Perception is required to enable existence, and vice versa.

Pretty heady stuff, but important to comprehend when it comes to transforming the events of our lives into a meaningful story. We see the outer world because of our inner world. There could very well be something more than Mass, Energy, Space, and Time Out there but we will never know--we only have Knowledge, Thought, Ability, and Desire to see them.

That limitation, however, defines how we appreciate and understand and give meaning to the events in our lives. Transforming real live events into a story simply requires assigning contexts to those events and applying them to the Dramatica model.

The Search for Something More

Take, for instance, the recent dramatization of Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards and his personal journey to the 1998 Olympics in Calgary in the recent film Eddie the Eagle. Writing the original analysis of the film earlier this week, I was surprised to discover that the Hugh Jackman character in the film, Edwards' personal coach Bronson Peary, was completely made up. The filmmakers, accomplished and as experienced as they were, understood that without a proper Influence Character the film would flounder.

In order to grow, Edwards needs a competing point-of-view to challenge and influence him to dig his heels in and stand his ground. This resoluteness, or Steadfast Main Character behavior, requires the presence of another world paradigm that changes because of that steadfast attitude. Casting Jackman as the down-in-out drunken has-been who eventually proves himself to his disappointed coach fulfills that necessary role and gives meaning to those real-world events.

Meaning

Meaning is a key word in this discussion and something that doesn't come up quite often when discussing what really happened. As cynical as it may seem to say, real life has no meaning.1 I used to jokingly tell my CalArts students this every year--partly as a means of beating them down--but mainly because of the truth behind the statement and what it says about story.

A functional narrative gives meaning to made-up imaginary events. A functional real-world narrative must also give meaning--but to events that have no inherent meaning. Doing this requires settings those events into a context for a narrative.

Edwards' personal struggles with his disability growing up and his lack of a skier's physique was clearly the Main Character Throughline. The struggle to compete with other skiers more experienced and more skilled than him was clearly the Overall Story Throughline as everyone faced this conflict. For many this would be enough. Tell the story of this kid with a dream who finally saw it through.

The Difference Between a Tale and a Story

Unfortunately, taking that approach wouldn't bring any meaning to the Audience beyond the fact that he did it. You could start the story later on in his life, just before the competition, or anywhere in-between and the meaning would be the same. The only way it could possibly mean something different is if you didn't show whether or not he succeeded at the Olympics.

Writing the story of Edwards this way would have resulted in a Tale. Here at Narrative First, and to most familiar with the Dramatica theory of story, the tale is less than a story. The tale says this happened, then this happened, and then this happened. End of story (well, really...tale).

A complete story, or as Dramatica refers to it as a Grand Argument Story, says that for all situations and circumstances where this problem comes up, the solution provided is the very best way to resolve conflict. Tales work fine in that one isolated incident. Stories manufacture an argument to an Audience an inspire them to use said resolution in their own lives.

This is precisely the purpose behind Eddie the Eagle and any number of biopics that hope to inspire drive, commitment, and persistence with the events of their subjects.

The Main Character Throughline and the Overall Story Throughline represent only one-half of the argument needed in a fully functional complete story. To merely rely on these two to carry a story is like participating in a one-sided argument: it works, as long as you don't bring up any counter-arguments. To balance out those points-of-view a complete story requires an Influence Character Throughline and a Relationship Story Throughline. The former offers the Main Character a competing point-of-view regarding how to best solve the story's central problem. The latter offers a counter to the conflict in the Overall Story by showing the Audience what those problems look like in a more intimate situation between two people.

The filmmakers behind Eddie the Eagle understood this instinctively and thus, created the story of Bronson Peary, his fall from grace, and his eventual rebirth through his interactions with Edwards. Clearly, Edwards was not going to change his point-of-view. He needed someone else who would.

The Change of Point-Of-View and What It Means

When we speak about the meaning of a narrative, we speak of who changes their point-of-view and what results from that change, both logistically and emotionally. Three story points from the Dramatica theory of story carry this basic message:

  • Main Character Resolve: clues us in on who changes their paradigm, and who remains steadfast to their belief system
  • Story Outcome: lets the Audience know if things worked out in success, or if they failed
  • Story Judgment: grants an emotional judgment of how things turned out--was it all a good thing or a bad thing?

By combining these three Story Points together, the Author of a narrative builds the basis for their Grand Argument. The Main Character Resolve tells us which point-of-view won and the Story Outcome and the Story Judgment tells us what happens when that point-of-view wins.

For example, look at Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars. He constantly tests himself at every turn, in drag races at home, with Sandpeople out in the desert, and against super-cool space pirate Han Solo. This constant testing gets him into all kinds of trouble.

Along comes space wizard Obi Wan Kenobi who basically tells Luke that everything and everyone remains unproven. You never know what can happen. This point-of-view challenges Luke's and the two go back and forth on which one is best.

Eventually Obi Wan's perspective wins and Luke changes his resolve. The result is that the Rebels find a way to fight back against the Empire (a Successful Story Outcome) and Luke and everyone else feels great about how it all worked out (a Great Story Judgment).

The original Star Wars argues that an approach of anything can happen is better, or more appropriate, than an approach of constantly testing your mettle. You will win if you think everything is unproven and you will feel great about doing so. Star Wars argues this and argues it well because of its complete narrative.

Let's look at something a little less cheery.

In Macbeth, Shakespeare's titular character--driven mad with ambition--murders anyone and everyone who even slightly resembles a threat to his sovereignty. He creates problems for himself because he is trying to avoid a dim future.

This dim future exists because a bunch of weird sisters stop by to tell him some other guys would be king, but not Macbeth. Their mother-of-all spoiler alerts point-of-view challenges Macbeth and leads the poor sap astray.

Eventually their bothersome meddling wins out and Macbeth changes his resolve, deciding to face Macduff head on rather than kill everyone else around him. Discovering that his enemy is indeed not "of woman born", Macbeth accepts the witches prophecy and his own inevitable death. Macbeth loses his head, Fleance lives, and everyone--including Macbeth--feels worse for wear.

Macbeth argues that bothersome predictions are an inappropriate approach to the ambitions of man and will lead all to ruin. You will lose if led astray and lose yourself in the process. Macbeth argues this and will continue to argue it well for hundreds of years because of its functional and complete narrative.2

Making the Real World Mean Something

In Eddie the Eagle, Edwards' staunch determination is met with Peary's bleak you're-nothing-if-you-haven't-demonstrated-yourself attitude. Eddie's determination gets him into all kinds of trouble and all kinds of physical pain, yet he still stays the course. Eventually Eddie's perspective wins and Peary changes his resolve, proving to his coach and to everyone else that he is no longer a has-been. This results in Edwards successfully competing in the Olympics and everyone involved feeling great for his courage and bravery.

It also manages to give the events of Edwards' journey meaning. The film argues that staunch determination is better and more appropriate than thinking you're nothing if you haven't proven yourself. You will succeed in doing what you always dreamed of and you will feel better for it in the end.

It's interesting and fascinating that this is the exact opposite argument presented by the original Star Wars. In that film, an unproven frame of mind can help you defeat an Empire. In Eddie the Eagle, an unproven frame of mind leads you to drunken bar fights and a shameful existence. Both stories work because the context of each argument is different. In Star Wars, the argument is made to move towards the unproven; in Eddie the argument is made to pull someone away from the unproven.

An Approach for Converting Real Life into a Functional Narrative

In the real world, literally billions upon billions of contexts exists for a trillion different problems. There is no one right answer, no one "correct" story.

As Melanie states in her article Using Dramatica for Real World Psychological Analysis:

You need a separate psycho-schematic (storyform) for each context. Our narrative in our job is not likely the same as that with our mate or in our church or when voting. But, personal narratives are fractal in nature, meaning that sometimes some of the narratives are actually elements in an ever larger narrative. This is not absolute, however, because the subject matter of our lives, en toto, is the narrative space in which the galaxies, solar systems, and satellites of our psyches operate. Sometimes they are hinged, sometimes they collide, sometimes they are warped by other near-by non-connected narratives, and sometimes they operate independently of all the rest.

The key to formulating a narrative of your own life is to set the context for the problem you are exploring and keep it consistent.3 Figure out who the Main Character is in your story (most often yourself), the Influence Character who challenges you, and decide who eventually caved and gave in to the other's point-of-view.

Then determine how things turned out. Was it an all-out success, or did that capitulation result in failure for all involved?

And finally, how did you feel about? Or the Main Character you are exploring. Were they able to overcome their own personal angst or do those issues continue to linger in their lives? How do you feel about how everything turned out?

The Future of Storytelling

The construction of real life events into a narrative is a fascinating and insightful process. In the past few years, experts versed in the Dramatica theory of story have begun to explore the possibilities of finding meaning in our own lives--exploring everything from the future of television to public policy to even personal problem-solving. The results have been eerily prescient, productive in terms of formulating strategy and effective in resolving issues present since childhood.

As Narrative First continues to grow, we look forward to offering our ability to pinpoint narrative to corporations, organizations, and even individuals. Personal problem-solving--or narrative therapy--and real world strategic narrative analysis for organizations will become cornerstones of our business. We are currently training individuals to become experts in this field and can't wait to begin offering these exciting new services to you.

Giving meaning to our life's events is an important part of our human experience. We construct stories to make sense of the problems we encounter, and offer solutions to somehow heal wounds and progress through the evolutionary ladder of generations past, present, and future. If Narrative First is a place "where story is always king", then may a better understanding of story and the narratives that drive our lives make us kings of our own sovereignty.


  1. Personally, I don't find that cynical as I understand the multitude of meanings possible through narrative. ↩︎

  2. True, there could have been more developed within the Relationship Story Throughline, but this is one of Shakespeare's shortest plays. An underdeveloped RS Throughline accounts for this. ↩︎

  3. Dramatica can help with this. Often, in the development of a story the context or point-of-view can be lost as we dive into our characters and imagine all kinds of situations and circumstances for them to experience. By setting the structure of your story into place with Dramatica, you can ensure that the context remains consistent throughout and your message loud and clear to your audience. ↩︎

img
August 11, 2016

9 Steps Towards Telling Your Story

Create a framework of narrative around the events in your life and transform the inconsequential into something truly meaningful.

Everyone has a story tell, whether you are an individual, a local group, or a business striving to define itself narrative helps put the events of our lives into context and gives meaning to the day in and day out. But putting that story into action and telling it in a way that is compelling and engaging can be quite overwhelming.

That is where Narrative First and the Dramatica theory of story come in. Whether you want to tell the story of your walkabout through Europe, your quest to climb the tallest mountain in California, your nights and weekends developing the skills of your daughter's soccer team, or your efforts to transform the culture of your business or organization you need to know and appreciate the various complexities of effective narrative. By using techniques proven time and time again to be successful towards the structuring of a great story, we can help frame your life's events into something truly captivating--and meaningful.

As mentioned several times here and elsewhere, life is meaningless until we put the events of our lives into context. Stories give meaning to our lives by putting everything in context. Fusing character, plot, theme, and genre into one cohesive "message" the mundane, chaotic, seemingly inconsequential moments of our lives become transformative.

The following is a sneak-peak at the step-by-step approach we use when helping writers craft their story, whether fiction or non-fiction. Feel free to start using it in developing your own projects, and we look forward to hearing your story soon.

The Basic Plot

The first four story points concern the story itself. What were you after and how it all turned out. Where the pressure came from and how you felt about the experience. Laying the groundwork for the narrative up front helps set the stage and starts to give form to the formless.

Step One: The Story Goal

The first and possibly the easiest step to take is to define the Goal of your story. The Story Goal helps set the context for what you will be looking at and gives a starting and ending point for the narrative. Did you want to learn everything you could about Eastern culture? Maybe you had a half-marathon you wanted to compete in. Maybe you wanted to win the half-marathon.1 Or maybe you wanted to help your business embody Old World principles of respect and honor. Regardless the type of Goal, there was some endgame you had in mind--something you set out to accomplish. Write about that Goal.

Step Two: The Story Limit

Not that you have set the context for your story, begin to take a look at the scope of your narrative. Every great story comes to an end because the characters run out of time, or run out of options. Since you are the character in this story, which one sounds most appropriate in this context? Did you set out on a walkabout through five Eastern European countries? If so, then your story came to an end because you ran out of options--one by one you worked your way through those five countries until finally you reached the last one. You likely felt as if time was running out when you hit that last country, but that is what it is like to be in a story.

With Dramatica and these Story Points, you want to step outside of yourself and your own experience and see story as this thing--this entity that you are sculpting. It can be difficult at times, especially since the fun part of writing is pretending you are the characters and living vicariously through them. The only problem with that approach is you will never be able to see the forest for the trees. You might find meaning, but you will never be able to predict how your story should work to give that meaning.

The Story Limit looks one way to the Author, but a completely different way to the characters within the story. As you are crafting a story, you need to be able to see outside of your own experience and see what objective elements set the narrative into motion. With the walkabout through Europe, it may have felt at the time as if you were running out of time, but putting that kind of time limit on a narrative would not grant the same feeling to your readers. Only a limit crafted from a number of options gives that time running out feeling.

Perhaps your story did not find itself limited by options, but rather by time. Maybe you were preparing for a marathon that took place 57 days from when you started. You probably pulled out a calendar and circled that date. Each morning you woke up, checked off a day, and set about training for the end. As that day rapidly approached, you probably felt panicked as if you were running out of things you could do--options you could take. Again, different experience depending on your point-of-view as Author or character.

Whether writing a story about options running out or time running out, take some time now to weave that Story Limit into your paragraph about the Story Goal.

Each of these Story Points builds upon the last. The Goal sets a finish line, the Limit sets the scope and adds pressure towards that Goal. In fact, all of these Story Points work together to tell the holistic "message" of your story. In essence, you sculpt your story by adding to it, rather than shaving away the bits you don't need. With each of these steps, build upon the last to create a lasting and transformative narrative.

Step Three: The Story Outcome

This one is easy. Did you win or lose?

Did you land that account or climb that mountain? Did your sales team embody those principles of success or did they tear themselves apart? Did you fail to make the quarterfinals in that screenplay contest? Or did you find out that you can never truly know all there is to know about a culture?

Whatever the Story Outcome, write a new paragraph about what happened at the end of your story. Silly and simple, yes--but essential towards communicating the eventual message of your story. You set out to achieve the Story Goal. The Story Limit brought pressure down on your efforts. And finally, once that last limit ran out you either achieved success or you failed miserably.

And not personal success or personal failure. It is likely you set out to accomplish one thing, but learned something else was far more important. That is a great story and one many want to communicate. But the "far more important" angle is found in another Story Points, not this one. What you want to do with the Story Outcome is focus on whether or not the Goal was reached. How you felt about that outcome is the subject of our next Story Point.

Step Four: The Story Judgment

In a separate paragraph at the end, write about how you felt about your entire experience. Was it worth it visiting all those countries? Did you find relief after finishing the marathon? Or did you feel worse about even participating? Did you end up even more lost and confused at your workplace?

The Story Goal--the thing you originally set out for--is a cold and logical Story Point, devoid of emotion or any real passion. The same can be said of the Story Limit and the Story Outcome. But here at the end, clueing us in on how you felt about the story gives us the Audience a reason to care. It helps us empathize with your plight and understand everything you went through.

Our minds crave emotional logic every bit as much as they chew on rational logic. A story needs both sides lest it risk having "holes" in the logic. Failing to give an Audience an emotional assessment of a narrative is akin to reading the stock section of the Wall Street Journal. Unless you tell us how you feel about how things are changing, we see only numbers.

As you can see with this last Story Point--the Story Judgment--we are starting to work our way towards the more personal side of things. We start with the rational side of things because it can often be easier, particularly if you are dealing with your own life's story. But Audiences want to know the intimate details. They want to know who you are, where you came from, and what issues you had to overcome.

Opening Up

Having established a framework for your story and a context for the events, we now turn our attention towards you. This is often the most difficult part of turning anyone's life into a story because it can be hard to sit back and take an objective look at yourself. We need to identify the personal issues in your life as they are the key to giving your story emotional resonance.

Your readers or viewers want a reason to care. They want to know something intimate about you that they can somehow relate to their own life's struggle. If you stay closed off and refuse to open up and be honest about what you went through, the story itself will feel closed and muted. No one wants to sit through a story like that.

If these events just occurred, the emotional fallout may still be so overwhelming that you're not sure where to start or know exactly where it is you were coming from. The more time you have between the end of what happened and the time when you begin the story can make all the difference in understanding your own issues.

The Characters

For a story to connect, an emotional attachment needs to be made between Author and Audience. Successful Authors do this by giving the central character of their story deep personal issues--issues that may be familiar or recognizable to an Audience. The more honest and true these issues are, the greater the connection.

Step Five: Your Own Personal Baggage

In a separate paragraph at the beginning of your story, write about your own personal baggage and those issues you brought to this narrative. What made it more difficult for you to reach the Story Goal and what prevented you from seeing the endgame? In the middle of your story, write about how you worked through that baggage, and then at the end let us know what happened to it all.

In Dramatica, this personal baggage is known as the Main Character Throughline. You are the Main Character in this story, so develop and write about your issues.

Here's a clue: the Story Judgment from Step Four answers the question about what happened to your personal baggage. Remember how every Story Point relates to one another? If you felt relief at the end of your story then you can probably trace that back to you overcoming your issues. If instead you felt lost and confused, you probably still had more to work through.

There is a chance these two steps may find themselves in conflict. If so, you will want to adjust your narrative to bring them into alignment. Perhaps the discord or dissonance can be examined in another story. To keep the structure of the narrative intact, you want to make sure that the deep personal issues you explore and your emotional assessment at the end of the piece cover the same ground. To deviate would only bring confusion to your Audience.

Step Six: Your Unique Point-of-View

Those issues likely instilled within you a unique point-of-view that either helped see you through your struggle to reach the Goal, or what is more often the case--held you back. Be honest about your experience and start to examine those paradigms that came into play during this story. This step requires deep introspection and truth for it to be successful.

In the paragraph where you first explored your personal baggage, begin to write about that unique point-of-view. Did it lead you to even greater danger in Iraq and Tel Aviv? Did it give you the strength to take that extra step up the mountain? Or did it make it almost impossible for you to communicate to your team members the importance of building relationships? Regardless, integrate that unique perspective into your narrative.

We all hold personal perspectives that determine how we approach the setbacks in our lives and how we intend to resolve them. Whether or not we maintain this point-of-view is contained in the Main Character Resolve--a Story Point that defines adherence to this paradigm till the bitter end, or a deviation to another's point-of-view. That other is a matter for the next Story Point, so for now concentrate only on establishing your unique perspective.

We think we are on the right path, but that is because we don't know any better. Our baggage is our baggage, our thoughts a byproduct of that baggage. But we are not our thoughts. And we are capable of changing those perspectives if the right catalyst comes along.

Step Seven: Another's Unique Point-of-View

Think back to your experience within this story. Growth does not happen in a vacuum. You likely encountered several challenges along the way, both personal and interpersonal. Was there someone who motivated you emotionally to take this journey? It may be difficult to identify at first, but think.

Who was the greatest personal influence on you during this time? Who challenged you deal with that personal baggage? You want to make sure whoever it is, that their unique perspective ties in directly with you overcoming or succumbing to that baggage.

It may have been a father figure, or your actual father. It could have been your mother, your coach, or even a teacher. It could have been your neighbor or it could have been your dog. There may have been someone on your sales team who--while similar to you in many respects--was different enough to rub you the wrong way.

You want that rub.

Key to integrating this character into your story is contrasting your unique perspective with theirs. What was it about them that challenged you to see the world a different way? Were you even conscious that that was going on at the time?

Perhaps you went on this journey because you didn't see the world the way your father did. Perhaps his unique perspective haunted you every step of the way--even if he wasn't there. Or maybe your wife never thought you would ever climb that mountain--maybe family was more important to her. Or maybe your boss sees the world from more of a transactional point-of-view. The sale makes the relationship.

Whatever the source of contrasting point-of-view, write it into your story. This is the Influence Character Throughline. Watch as it conflicts with your own, and see how it helps to develop and nudge the way you see things. Those competing perspectives eventually come to a head once the Story Limit falls away and the Goal is there, ready for the taking.

Step Eight: Who Won?

In Step Five you identified your personal baggage. In Step Six you explored your unique point-of-view that grew from that personal baggage and made it difficult at times for you to continue your journey. And in Step Seven you identified that alternative way of seeing things that challenged your world paradigm and forced you to face your own personal issues. Now, you want to let us know--

--which one of you adopted the other's point-of-view?

That is how you transform life events into a story.

When looking at the Main Character and Influence Character of your story, one of them will Change their paradigm to match the other's point-of-view, and one of them will hold strong and remain Steadfast in their convictions. This is an important rule of narrative and one you cannot break.

You may think that both of you adopted the other's point-of-view or saw things the same way in the end. And while that is beautiful, that really isn't the way things turned out. There likely was another third perspective at play, one that eschewed collaboration for competition, that was the true unique alternative perspective to your own. If this is the case, you will want to revisit Step Seven and adjust.

You want to figure out who came over to the other's side and how that adoption or transformation of perspective resulted in the Story Outcome. Yep, we're going all the way back to Step Three. Integrate this change in point-of-view with that outcome and show how the final agreed upon approach manifested that ending.

Did your father finally see things your way? Or did you finally realize that the old man had it right? Did you give up climbing the mountain because you agreed with your wife regarding family first? Or did she strap on those boots and beat you to the top? How about that sales team and your boss? Did everyone return to a transaction sales-oriented mindset and the business closed within days? Or did you manage to transform everyone in the office--including your boss--to think more in terms of relationships and did you have your first blockbuster quarter?

Writing a story this way infuses your narrative with meaning. No longer is it simply a rehashing of events, but rather a sophisticated means of communicating something deep and important. As mentioned in our article Transforming Real Life into a Story:

A functional narrative gives meaning to made-up imaginary events. A functional real-world narrative must also give meaning--but to events that have no inherent meaning.

By arguing that a certain approach leads to a certain outcome, you prove to your Audience that the events of your life had purpose. They had a reason for being.

Step Nine: The Relationship

Finally--and this is simply a teaser--write about the relationship that exists between you and that person or group of people that held an alternative perspective to your own. If it was your father, write about the relationship between father and son. If it was your wife, write about your marriage and whether the events of the story brought you closer together or drove you further apart. If it was your boss, don't think of the relationship between boss and employee--you already have that covered with the basic plot and the rest of the story. Instead, think of the actual relationship between you two. Were you once friends and now you're not? Was she always a mentor to you? Think of that personal heartfelt Relationship Story Throughline between two people and carry that into your story.

The key to doing that effectively and confidently require further study and a greater understanding of the dynamics at play between relationships and basic plot. These nine steps are the only beginning--baby steps towards realizing a functional narrative. If you are interested in continuing to develop your story feel free to contact us at any time. Our team of dedicated story experts will walk you through the process of turning chaos into meaning.

Pointless Narrative

In The Big Short Christian Bale and Steve Carell struggle to deal with the fallout from the 2007 housing market scandal. While intriguing and revealing, the film lacks the presence of personal baggage and point-of-view, an alternative perspective to challenge that perspective, and a heartfelt relationship between the two. It lacks meaning.

Now, it may have been that the purpose of the film was not to derive some meaning or greater understanding of the events of that time, but simply to relate to us exactly what happened. That is, of course, fine--but memory is fleeting when it comes to information and the Internet will always be there for us to fact check against.

True narrative--that deep, personal connection between Author and Audience--builds a context for a greater understanding of what happened. It reveals the source of our lives' problems and offers concrete solutions to resolve them. It elevates our existence beyond simply living.

Take the time to make a story out of the events in your life and your experience will be timeless. Your Audience will grow and develop a better understanding of their own experience. And they will thank you.

Share your mind with theirs--by telling them a story.


  1. And yes, there is a difference between having a goal of competing in a marathon and having a goal of winning a marathon. For more, read our series of articles on The Story Goal↩︎

img
August 18, 2016

Using Dramatica To Assess Narratives In The Real World

By understanding the structural and dynamic appreciations of narrative, the storytellers of today can be masters of their own destinies.

A deep understanding of the underlying structure of narrative makes it possible for individuals and organizations to predict where their stories are leading them. If the outcome turns out to be undesirable, key leverage points exist that--if engaged--turn the tide of narrative and align the flow to a different path. The only question to be asked is--what story do you want to tell?

The writers and directors behind this year's Academy Award winning film Spotlight used narrative structure to bring meaning to the chaotic and despicable events surrounding the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. While effective in its application, the unfortunate reality of the situation is that they only told the story after the fact. Imagine the lives protected and suffering avoided if they were somehow able to predict the narrative of the Catholic Church during the scandal. Instead of looking back, we could look forward and alter the course of human events.

Concluding our series on Structuring Narratives in the Real World, we now turn our attention towards using narrative to predict and set strategy for individuals, businesses, and corporations. If story is--as the Dramatica theory of story suggests--a model of a single human trying to solve a problem, then treating larger organizations as a single group character makes it possible to see patterns and trends within the day-to-day operations.

The narratives in our life are fractal--that is, what works for us as individuals works for larger groups of "us" when considered as an individual. In this context, a woman's group or a city or a nation could be considered an individual with a point-of-view in a story. To move up and down in scope, the narrative analyst requires a story tool that scales.

Thankfully, Dramatica provides that functionality.

A Tool that Scales

As Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story, explains in her article Dramatica Theory Application on World Problems:

This kind of scalability is described by a Dramatica concept referred to as the Story Mind. In fiction, characters are not only individuals but come to interact in stories as if they are aspects of a larger, overall mind set belonging to the structure of the story itself. So, for example, one character may emerge in group actions and discussions as the voice of reason while another becomes defined as the heart of the group and is driven primarily by passion. Stories reflect the way people react and behave in the real world, and so we find that when individuals band together as a larger unit, they fall into roles so that the unit itself takes on an identity with its own personality and its own psychology, almost as if it were an individual itself, in essence, a Story Mind.

In the William Holden WWII prison camp film Stalag 17, the men of Barracks 4 act as the collective Main Character for the story. We see and experience the story through their eyes, we maintain their unique perspective on Sgt. Sefton's apparent culpability in the Nazi plot. This same technique applies to identifying and assessing narratives in the real world.

Melanie continues to explain:

Similarly, if several groups become bound as when a number of factions join as members of a larger movement, the movement begins to take on an identity and the factions fall into roles representing aspects of our own problem solving processes. Like nested dolls, Dramatica can move up and down the scale of magnitude from the individual to the national or even international level and its ability to analyze and predict based on its underlying model is equally effective. This phenomenon is referred to the Fractal Storyform. In actual practice, many groups of interest are ill-defined, have blurry edges and indistinct leadership. Still, the core motivations of the target group can be determined, and from this the edges of the group can be refined sufficiently to create a storyform of the appropriate magnitude to the task at hand.

Real world "groups of interest" may be difficult to distinguish, but identifying their collective group motivations helps unite them into a single perspective. Establishing these players is the first step when working through the subject matter of your story.

Sources of Conflict and Areas of Influence

After identifying the key players in the story, the analyst--along with the client or anyone else involved in the narrative process--begins to zero in and list out related areas of conflict to explore. Story is a process of resolving or justifying an inequity, removing or balancing an imbalance. Differentiating possible sources of inequity solidifies the story being told.

Lastly, the potential areas of influence need discernment. Leverage points and alternate points-of-view should be evaluated as to their impact on the key players and their involvement in the creation and/or continuation of conflict.

With the key players, areas of conflict and areas of influence properly identified, the only remaining step is to determine the primary question.

A Question to be Answered

We look to stories for answers. Placing our individual issues in context and offering potential means of resolution, stories address our internal yearning for meaning. This is why so many see narrative now as the means to move forward. Familiar with its potential to answer questions for the individual, we look to see similar results for larger collective problems.

What would motivate a fluctuation in the commodities market? How can consumers be encouraged to embrace a new product? Why is this country refusing to show up to the negotiation table?

Defining the question sets the purpose of the story in motion. We experience a million different narratives day-in and day-out; asking the right questions towards refining our focus helps clear away the chaos and noise from the other stories in our lives.

As Melanie explains in Using Dramatica for Real World Psychological Analysis:

Dramatica is a model of our complex web of motivations and the tensions that pull upon them. From this motivation map you can project likely behavior. But it must be done in regard to specific problems, situations or contexts. If you have multiple context, you need to prepare a separate storyform for each.

Conflict and Frustration in the Real World

All of this would be theoretical and speculative--if it hadn't already been put into action and used to effectively answer a burning and pressing question for a volatile industry.

Undoubtedly, the switch from Pay TV to a la carte OTT "over the top" methods for consuming digital television has been devastating.1 In the second quarter of 2016, ESPN lost 1.5 million subscribers. This is huge for Disney, which owns ESPN:

Subscription fees to ESPN's networks account for more than half of Disney's total revenue from its cable networks division.

During my last orientation at Disney Feature Animation in 2013, I remember the surprise we felt in the room when it was revealed that it wasn't the parks that generated the most income for Disney--it was ESPN.

That reality seems to be on the decline, along with ESPN's fan base. The drop in numbers represents more than simply a trend towards saving money, it signifies a loss in trust. The frustration felt by ESPN/Disney and the unresolved nature of this isue was something narrative analysts familiar with the Dramatica theory of story predicted...two years ago.

An Example of Narrative in the Real World

In November of 2013, a team familiar with the Dramatica theory of story, met with subject matter experts at Sparks Grove, a global management consulting firm, to discuss the use of narrative theory in analyzing and developing strategies for businesses. This Thoughtform team discussed several different scenarios, with the future of Pay TV and OTT rising to the top.

After a tabletop meeting and narrative analysis, the Thoughtform team returned with a paper detailing the process and their findings. As Sparks Grove explains on their blog post Anticipating Futures Through Narrative:

Companies that find themselves in disruptive, unpredictable environments can use story modeling to anticipate potential futures and market changes. By drawing on our innate ability to understand narrative, story modeling is a faster, more agile, and more intuitive alternative to traditional future visioning.

The findings of the paper are fascinating--if for no other reason than how accurate their predictions were.

For instance, ESPN's steadfastness in its theory that it could remain the leader in delivering sports content led directly to its unresolved internal issues. For those familiar with Dramatica, the analysts discovered that ESPN's Main Character Resolve of Steadfast in its Main Character Problem of Theory that it could dominate all outlets would lead directly to a Story Judgment of Bad.

The Thoughtform team predicted how this narrative would play out two years ago, and the events of this year proved them correct.

That is incredible.

Instead of witnessing a Main Character ending a story saddled by internal personal angst--like William Munny (Clint Eastwood) in Unforgiven or Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) in Memento or Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in Chinatown, we are witness to a collective Main Character stricken with internal unresolved issues within the group. Instead of riding off a rain-soaked assassin or remembering to forget who you killed or confused as Hell as to how the tycoon managed to make off with his granddaughter, ESPN and its parent company Disney are at odds internally as to how to proceed.

Which is precisely how it should be because of the narrative being told.

Diving Further into the Analysis

The primary question asked was "How can Pay TV Providers (cable companies) survive OTT?" Again, the narrative analysis provided by the Thoughtform team answers this question clearly...and their predicted solutions revealed in recent press.

In an article entitled Traditional Pay TV Operators Surviving OTT Onslaught from the International Broadcasting Convention, the Thoughtform solution of showing consumers how "OTT content is inadequate and insufficient" is resulting in success:

The survey said that pay TV operators need to evolve their business plans to stay ahead of the competition. In particular, in the view of respondents, operators with the ability to combine TV with a larger multi-play offering will be better placed to win consumer loyalty and deliver a compelling offering that can compete with OTT entrants. “To keep viewers hooked on their content, pay TV providers will need to further invest in delivering a contextually rich viewing experience. Leveraging the power of the internet, they can provide viewers with an experience that is more relevant, enhancing content through a wealth of contextual services such as data enrichment; personalisation; and advanced social and viewer engagement capabilities on every screen, including TV sets, smartphones, and tablets,” she noted.

ESPN may be experiencing internal strife as a result of its steadfastness, but the Protagonist in the Overall Story--the Pay TV Providers--is experiencing success because they are working the Overall Story Solution of Non-Accurate.2

In fact, the more Steadfast ESPN remains, the more readily consumers--as the group Influence Character--will continue to be forced by this narrative into adopting even more "illegal or questionable behavior, like sharing passwords, piracy, or other unofficial outside sources." ESPN's steadfastness is driving consumers into Changing their paradigm towards more illegal means (Influence Character Resolve Changed, Influence Character Solution of Non-Accurate).

ESPN is effectively its own worst enemy and--as predicted once again by the Thoughtform team--must find a way to Stop this approach if they are ever to grow to a point where they can meaningfully Change their paradigm (Main Character Growth of Stop).

The central problem for everyone lies in consumers thinking OTT is completely acceptable (an Overall Story Problem of Accurate). By delivering "contextually rich viewing experiences" that supersede OTT offerings, Pay TV providers were able to end this narrative with a Story Outcome of Success. Whether or not they were privy to this narrative analysis two years ago or not matters little--the result is the same.

Analysis of the Data

Defining the story is one thing; analyzing the data for possible success strategies is another and phase two of this deep narrative process. By adjusting key story points within the narrative, the analyst can determine alternate scenarios. With this in mind, the purpose of a deep narrative analysis is clear: Show where the present narrative is headed and offer alternative futures by suggesting key leverage points.

The "Pay TV vs OTT" story originally predicted a scenario where the Cable TV providers would end up being winners and ESPN would end up beset by internal strife. This is a Success/Bad story within the framework of a Dramatica storyform. Alternate futures include:

  • a Triumphant ending (Success/Good) where Pay TV is able to develop the skills necessary to compete and ESPN finds its place between the cable companies and the consumers by focusing on threats to its bottom line and its ability to form strong opinions.
  • a Tragic ending (Failure/Bad) where Pay TV fails to understand OTT's market impact and ESPN remains stranded between the two
  • a Personal Triumph ending (Failure/Good) where Pay TV fails to understand the impact of OTT, yet ESPN finds a sweet spot in between by focusing on their own abilities to deliver unique and compelling content

These alternate realities could be made a reality simply by adjusting key story points here along the way to help nudge the narrative in a new direction. For each of these possible scenarios, the Thoughtform details the key leverage points in their final analysis.

A Means of Controlling the Story

Narrative is malleable. Our lives are not written in stone, our destinies not set in the complicate fabric of the universe. Once a command of the structure and dynamics of a narrative is achieved, the storyteller dictates the story.

We become victims of the process when we don't look to the eventual outcome of our efforts. The more people understand story and truly appreciate how it works, the more effectively they can tell their own stories. That is our purpose here at Narrative First--to help you tell a better story. While we may be too late to help the victims of the Catholic Church scandal, we hope that by offering up our own unique understanding of narrative we can help the storytellers of tomorrow find their voice today.


  1. Over-the-top content is the delivery of digital media over the Internet without the involvement of a cable provider. In other words--Amazon, Netlfix, Hulu and any other app-related content delivery system. ↩︎

  2. Dramatica makes a distinction between the Protagonist (prime mover) of a story and the Main Character. It is important to be able to tell these kinds of stories as they exist in the narratives around us. ↩︎

img

Rid yourself of writer's block. Forever.

Learn More © 2006-2017 Narrative First