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The Story Structure of True Detective

Form does not determine structure; the same psychological process that fuels film also runs through the bloodstream of television.

Format does not determine structure. Whether screenplay, novel, or play, a complete story calls for the same basic ingredients. Television series work the same—they simply take longer to simmer.

The number one question asked of Dramatica is “Does it work for television?” 1 Many see the value of it in context of a screenplay or feature film, but wonder if the “structure” of Dramatica can be applied to a longer series.

First, there is no “structure” to Dramatica. Unlike other paradigms or interpretations of story that collect a sequence of beats or steps along a Hero’s Journey, the Dramatica theory of story applies a model of psychology to narrative. It doeesn’t see psychology in narrative. That’s an important distinction.

If the Author of a television series intends to say something with their work, if they wish to impart some greater meaning, then yes, the model of Dramatica will work for them. The HBO television series True Detective had something important to say, some point-of-view it wished to argue. This purpose lends itself perfectly to a Dramatica interpretation, allowing greater insight into how one would structure a similar series.

Establishing a Way In

Before determining the storyform of True Detective, one must first determine the Main Character.2 Audiences experience a story through the eyes of a Main Character. We empathize with them and we become intimately involved with their personal problems. In most stories—those that last less than two hours—the determination of this viewpoint is simple. True Detective took eight hours to tell, complicating this process with two very strong characterizations and an uncommon aspect of story structure.

Many would look to Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and assume that he is the Main Character. While there were moments of insight into what it must be like to have drug-induced visions, rarely did we dive into what it feels like to be him. We experienced his psychological damage from the outside, not from within.

Contrast this with the subjective point-of-view presented to us by Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson). We become closely involved with his family and the fallout he creates when he gives in to temptation. We experience his loss with him, the same way all Audiences do with a Main Character. Rust, on the other hand, influences and challenges us—making him a prime candidate for Influence Character.

Driving the Story Forward

Rust does, however, drive the story towards resolution. In both investigations, past and present, Rust pursues the killer without hesitation. This makes him the Protagonist of the story, not the Main Character.3 Many times the character through which the Audience experiences the story also takes responsibility for driving the story forward. This doesn’t always have to be the case and True Detective shines as an example of the sophistication that occurs from splitting these functions.

With the establishment of Main Character and Influence Character, attention shifts to their individual points-of-view and more importantly their final resolve. Determining hich character changes and which one remains steadfast helps solidify the storyform.

Two Different Approaches

The passionate argument between Marty and Rust revolves around the presence of an afterlife. This argument extends into disagreements over the existence of God and the relative objective value of religion in the human experience. During the revival scene of Episode 3, the two argue over the “common good” with Marty taking the side of those praying before them.

Rust responds with his version of the truth:

If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward then, brother, that person is a piece of shit. And I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible.

Rust is a nihilist. Pessimistic and skeptical of the true nature of man, the man who lost his daughter sees any concept of the afterlife as a “fairy tale”. His entire worldview revolves around this dark interpretation of human existence and he maintains that perspective throughout.

Marty, for all his infidelities and shortcomings, saw the light. In fact, he probably understood the importance of spirituality because of his infidelities. He saw the value of a higher power and its ability to keep those given to “debauchery and murder” in line. If a member of law enforcement can’t control himself, who can?

Marty spares no opportunity to argue with Rust about this need for the light and carries that perspective through the final scene. This defines him as having a Steadfast Resolve.

Steadfast. Not Static.

Having a Steadfast Resolve does not mean a character does not waver. Marty had his resolve torn down throughout the series (mostly due to his own actions), but in the end held fast. He never changed and adopted Rust’s negative view of the world. He didn’t give up his religion nor dwelled on how dark the world was, but he did give up at times. When asked what made him quit being a detective, Marty recounts:

Well, I saw something. Baby. Tweaker tried to dry the kid in a microwave. Saw that, what he’d done, thought ‘never again’.

Fantastic example of a Steadfast character wavering in their resolve. If Marty had continued to think this way, if he had continued to expect less of those around him, then yes, he would have been the character with the Changed Resolve. But he didn’t stay that way.

It was only once Rust showed him the tape of the young girl being raped that Marty reaffirmed his stance and declared his steadfast resolve. This is what great Influence Characters do in a story: they challenge the Main Character’s Resolve and force them to grow into or out of it. Marty was ready to give up, claim Rust “insane” and live out his life alone and negative. Rust’s challenge brought Marty out of his funk and reaffirmed his belief that this was a world worth fighting for.

To some, this seems like Marty has changed, but really he hasn’t. He has grown, but he hasn’t changed his original worldview. That signficant change belongs to Rust.

Nihilist to Optimist

Every conversation in the car, every quip or negative put-down thrown to Marty, every last line of dialogue from Rust came from his belief that the existence of an afterlife has never been proven. Through the course of the series we learn that this particular negative justification came about as a way of him dealing with the death of his daughter. Backstories are where the change character develops their justifications for doing the things they do, and Rust has a very good reason why he thinks the way he does.

But that Resolve changes. Once he sees for himself what lies beyond the veil, once he sees and feels for himself his daughter and his family, beckoning him forth, does he finally change the way he sees things:

This is a completely different Rust from the one we saw in Season 3. These are not the words of a nihilist.

There was a moment, I know, when I was under in the dark…I could feel my definitions fading. And beneath that darkness there was another kind—it was deeper—warm, like a substance. I could feel man, I knew, I knew my daughter waited for me, there…I could feel the peace of my Pop, too. It was like I was part of everything that I have ever loved, and we were all, the three of us, just fading out…and then I woke up.

In fact, Rust even has to remind Marty of how things are:

You’re looking at it wrong, the sky thing…once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.

These final words cement Rust as having a Changed Resolve.

Purpose and Meaning

In every complete story, two opposing approaches to life come into conflict. Back and forth they give and they take until finally, one approach gives in to the other. One character adopts the other character’s point-of-view. True Detective adopted this process but spaced it out over the course of an entire series. Whereas some episodes of a series act as self-contained stories4, the entire first season of True Detective portrayed one single story. Beginning with Rust’s nihilistic and somewhat accurate perspective and ending with this glimmering hope of light beating dark, the Authors of True Detective crafted an argument worthy of our attention. The reason why so many love this series and were so into it, besides the excellent acting, opening titles, and stark reality of Louisianna, was this idea that there was something more to all of it then those surface-level items.

The series actually had something to say.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

With the identification of Marty as the Main Character and Rust the Influence Character, the storyform for True Detective becomes clear: Steadfast, Stop, Do-er, Linear, Action, Optionlock, Success, Good, Situation, Progress, FactUnproven.

Why Unproven? Rust’s arc from Unproven to Proven works well: it’s only once he sees for himself what lies beyond that he can finally Change his Resolve. In the Overall Story, the Fact that Reginald Ledoux’s guilt was never proven created a series of problems. Add to this the idea that Rust focuses on the lies people tell themselves (Non-Accurate) and responds by calling people out for “a propensity for obesity” a failure to “split the atom” (Accurate) and one gets the sense that this is the correct storyform.

Taking a step back, Marty and Rust argue over each other’s Fixed Attitude and the Value of a religious or spiritual life. Marty’s Activities cause him personal grief, with Rust’s Psychological “bullshit” and “ten-dollar words” influencing him. And in the Overall Story, a Situation of corrupt officials and a serial killer on the loose threatens to make matters worse (Progress).

Whether or not the Authors of True Detective consulted Dramatica to help write their masterwork, one can see the various story points that work together to help formulate an argument. To emulate the success of this HBO series, one must determine what it is they want to say (or argue), discover the appropriate storyform, and consult it when planning out the series.

Of course, it helps if they’re a talented writer as well. :)


  1. Well, the real number one question concerning Dramatica is always “Why is it SO #@$%! complicated?!”, but the television one is a close second. ↩︎

  2. A storyform combines seventy-five thematic elements together and provides the message of the story. ↩︎

  3. This would be another case where the Protagonist and Main Character reside in different players. Not every Main Character is a Protagonist ↩︎

  4. The so-called “monster” episodes of The X-Files work as self-contained stories. Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose and Beyond the Sea are two examples where a single storyform played out over one episode. ↩︎

Concepts covered: Four Throughlines, Main Character Resolve & Influence Character Resolve.

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