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8 minutes

The Mechanism of Story at Work

A process for delivering meaning. Story exists as a carrier wave for an Author’s intent. Many want to say much, but much gets lost in the many ways of sending that message. Writers who comprehend the machine can convey their purpose with greater accuracy.

Everyone knows to divide a story into Acts. Ever since Aristotle first put into words “Beginning, Middle and End”, writers across the globe have grouped the events of their stories into large movements. Why not? It feels right and generally leads to a complete, well-rounded story.

But why do they feel that way? What purpose do these movements have?

An earlier article, The Reason for Acts, answered this question:

This is why Acts exist within a story. They signify the change in dramatic focus the characters take in order to solve the problems within a story. The reason there are only four acts in every complete story is because for every problem we can experience in our lives, there are four major contexts, or dramatic approaches, we can take in order to go about effective problem-solving.

The article gives examples of large movements within popular films and makes an argument why four movements cover conflict better than three. Investigating a set of mysterious deaths, and chasing down and capturing the men responsible mean nothing without an attempt to understand the motive for murder. A mysterious island playing captor to air-disaster victims, its dark and troubled history mixed with an almost certain doom of things to come falls short if it fails to also cover the deteriorating conditions of the fragile community the survivors have managed to construct. In each of these examples, the drive to solve propels the reader or Audience memeber from one movement to the next. Acts exist because the Audience has no idea where the solution of a story rests.

The Stick in the Aquarium

Chris Huntley, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story, often refers to the analogy of a stick thrust into an aquarium when discussing the hidden nature of a story’s problem. When you look at a stick from different angles, submerged in the water, you can’t tell whether it is straight or bent. Is it a straight stick that looks bent because of the water, or is it a crooked stick that looks straight for the same reason? When looking from a single perspective—as you do when only looking at it from the viewpoint of a single Act—you really can’t tell. When you see things from a limited point-of-view, you don’t notice the distortion. You have to look at the stick from all the different angles (all the different Acts) before you can safely answer that it is most likely straight or most likely bent.1

More than an opportunity for increasing complications, Acts work to round out and complete the argument being made by helping us hone in on the actual problem.

The Spiral Locator

Imagine a coiled spiral. Somwhere on this spiral lies the inequity at the heart of a story. As we encounter this spiral at the beginning we have no clue as to where the problem sits. It could be at the top of the coil, at the bottom, or somewhere lost in the middle. We have no idea. We just know something is wrong.

We traverse the coil—moving up, moving down—looking for that bump, looking for that pea under the mattress until finally we hit upon it. Now we may still have more coil to investigate. Just because we think we’ve found it in one area doesn’t necessarily mean the problem won’t rest in another. So we continue our trek until we have fully examined every inch of that story spiral. Only then can we confidently say—the problem most likely rests here.

Of course, then we need to check the spiral from alternative angles (the other Throughlines of a story) to cross-reference and remain honest with ourselves, but regardless, the mechanism is the same. View the conflict of a story from different contexts in order to determine the best possible area for resolution.

Plot as Context

The storyform for her shows how the unique pairing between Theodore and Samantha generates a Concern of Understanding between them. The previous article The Relationship Behind Every Great Story discusses how the Concern of the Relationship Story Throughline can also be seen as a Goal for their relationship. In order for Theodore and Twombly’s relationship to work out, they need a better understanding of each other.

Diving deeper, the storyform for her lists the Act order for the relationship as Doing, Obtaining, Gathering Information and Understanding. This means the relationship between man and machine will be explored in terms of Doing in the First Act, Obtaining and Gathering Information in the Second, and Understanding in the Third. Take note of that last Act. The story takes the time to examine Understanding between them, even though that has been a Concern all along. As a Static Plot Point Appreciation, the Concern of a Throughline exists in every Act. It’s there all the time. If Understanding was a Concern or potential Goal, why did they wait until the very last moment to explore it as a potential area for resolution?

Remember the spiraled coil. Just because something is a Concern doesn’t mean you know up front that that is what needs to be achieved or reached. The Author knows, but the Audience does not. This is the difference between the objective view of a story held by the writer and the subjective view held by those experiencing the story.

Self-centered behavior drives the wedge between Theodore and Samantha. Self-awareness seen in terms of Doing is different than self-awareness seen in terms of Obtaining or in terms of Gathering Information or in terms of Understanding. By virtue of plot, the Audience looks at the same thing in each Act—only through a different context, a different lens. By viewing through these different lenses, the Audience gains a better understanding of where the problem truly is and ultimately how best to solve it. It might look like a problem in one context, but something entirely different in the next. The nature of the Act structure is one of realization: by the end of the story, the Audience knows as the Author does.

Identifying Meaning

When we look at the objective view of story provided by the Dramatica Table of Story Elements, we see time. When viewed from the subjective view of the Audience, a story seems boundless and open to anything. The Author may have encoded the meaning, but as an Audience member we’re along for the ride. Temporal elements, like Signposts and Acts, have to be explored piecemeal in order to suss out that meaning. Plot acts as a filter. This mechanism of Acts acts as a lens granting greater resolution.

Dramatica Table of Story Elements

Looking at the base of the table we see 64 potential problems. In reality, these 64 are really the same four elements repeated. They only appear different because of the lens, or filter, from above. When we look at these elements from a single perspective, as we do with the example of the stick in the aquarium or through a single Signpost (Act), we can’t tell its true nature. We know it’s crooked. We sense the pea. We just can’t be sure what it is because we don’t know the level of distortion.

We need those multiple perspectives. We need those multiple contexts and subsequent Acts in order to better triangulate (really quadrangulate) the source of trouble.

In her, Theodore and Samantha fail to reach that greater Understanding of one another. Having traversed those Acts and witnessed the same failure in the larger story, we know a greater awareness of our surroundings to be the answer to their interpersonal problems. We sense that relief that comes when Theodore walks up and outside and soaks in the world around him. We may have failed in our relationship, but we now know.

And we owe that greater understanding of what the films means to the mechanism behind it all.


  1. Of course, you’ll never truly know for certain if the stick is straight or crooked until you remove it from the water, and that is the nature of a problem in a story. It’s not really something you can define in a sentence or two. It is something that exists between things, an inequity that can only be approximated by the vantage points provided by the different Throughlines. ↩︎

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