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The True Nature of Story

Wrapping up our series on Audience Appreciations, we elevate our understanding of narrative and begin to see it as a complex web of relationships.

Many see story superficially. They take characters and events at face value, and seek to interpret meaning behind their actions and circumstances. They see sequences and questions and characters as actual people. Approaching narrative in this way diminishes the very essence of what it means to tell a story.

Approaching narrative in this way diminishes ourselves.

The Fourth Audience Appreciation

Finishing up our four-part series on Audience Appreciations of story, we now turn our attention to the Nature of a narrative. Covered briefly in last year’s article The Actual and Apparent Nature of Story the Nature of a story is defined as the primary dramatic mechanism of a story:

Which makes it sound super important. The truth is, like the Crucial Element, the Nature of a Story is one of those story points that is only important in so much as it informs the Author as to what kind of a story they are telling. You don’t need to know it to write a good story or to make sure you don’t have any story holes, but it is an interesting way to appreciate the kind of story you are telling.

Reach helped us define who our potential Audience would be by Predicting Who Will Listen to Your Story. Essence clued us in on the weight of dramatic tension by teaching us How to Tell If Your Main Character Faces Overwhelming or Surmountable Odds. Tendency offered us a look at the energy within a story by answering The Refusal of the Call: The Resistance or Flow Through a Narrative. Where does Nature fit in?

Integrating with the Dramatic Circuit

If you look at the three Audience Appreciations discussed in the proceeding weeks you will see a correlation between their structural concepts and the actual dramatic circuit that exists within a narrative:

  • Reach defines the Potential of the circuit to connect
  • Essence defines the Resistance of the circuit
  • Tendency defines the Current within the circuitry

This leaves one essential component left: the Power, or Outcome of the circuit.

Strange that one finds Essence as the Resistance of the circuitry, rather than Tendency. After all, we defined Tendency as maintaining the Resistance or Flow through a circuit. But if you think of it more as the speed or current of dramatic electrons through a story as measured by the relative resistance or flow, you will find Current a more accurate assignation. Essence, on the other hand, showcases the tension built up by the possible resistance facing the story’s characters.

Thinking of these Audience Appreciations as components of an electric current explains my own personal resistance or rather, ambivalence, towards the appreciation of Nature: it merely describes the Outcome or end result of all the work that came before. Why bother spending time on the relative aftermath of a dramatic circuit, when the bulk of writing deals with the formation and flow through the circuit?

The Main Character’s Resolve

As with the other Audience Appreciations, Story Nature consists of two story points: the Main Character Resolve and the Story Outcome. The first manages the “arc” of the central character of a narrative, while the second deals with the resolution of the story’s efforts.

The “character arc” of a Main Character consists of a combination of how that central character develops over time and the status of their world paradigm at the end of the story. As with light in the physical world, character arc can be described as both a wave (process) or a particle (state). The first part describes the process of the arc, the second keys us in on the state of the arc. Both define What Character Arc Really Means.

In Dramatica, the process of the arc finds itself within the Main Character Growth. The relative state of the arc finds a home within the Main Character Resolve.

Comparing the state of the Main Character’s world paradigm at the end of a story with how they began the narrative, an Author determines either a Changed Resolve or a Steadfast Resolve. Does the Main Character see the world differently from when they began a story? If so, then their Resolve Changed; if not, their Resolve remained Steadfast.

Luke Skywalker, Neo, Sarah Connor, Michael Corleone, William Munny, and Terry Malloy alter the way they see the world and identify as Changed characters. William Wallace, Shrek, Rocky, Captain Kirk, Marty McFly, Erin Brockovich, and Salieri remain true to their personal beliefs and identify as Steadfast characters.

The Story Outcome

While every complete story contains an emotional aspect to its ending, a logical aspect exists in parallel. Concerned more with the relative nature of satisfaction or disatisfaction, this story point informs the Audience whether the efforts to achieve the story’s Goal ended in Success or Failure. Varying degrees of either can be dialed in, but the overall weight of satisfaction will be felt on one side or the other.

Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) secured custody of his child in Kramer vs. Kramer. Josh (Tom Hanks) made it back home in big. Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) made it out of Shawshank. Gary and Lisa defeated the terrorists in Team America: World Police. Vincent (Jamie Foxx) stopped the assassin from creating further Collateral. And Marlin found Nemo. Each and every one of these stories ended in Success.

Rocky lost. Gordie and Chris didn’t get credit for finding the dead body in Stand By Me. Ennis and Jack couldn’t change cultural conditioning in Brokeback Mountain. Tom Robinson was found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit in To Kill a Mockingbird. And Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) gave up his half of the inheritance. Each and every one of these stories ended in Failure.

The Difference Between a Dilemma and a Work

Combine the Main Character’s decision to change or remain steadfast with the outcome of the efforts to resolve the story’s central problem and you define what Dramatica refers to as the Nature of a story. Some stories focus on what this appreciation sees as a Dilemma, while others focus on the Work. Some stories are Actual Dilemmas while others require Actual Work. Other stories are only Apparently Dilemmas and some are only Apparently Work stories.

The problem with this Audience Appreciation, and the point that was made in last year’s article, is the idea of singling out Main Characters with a Change Resolve as the only ones facing a Dilemma.

The way Dramatica combines the Main Character Resolve with the Story Outcome to define Story Nature results in this pattern:

  • Stories with a Changed MC are considered Dilemmas
  • Stories with a Steadfast MC are considered Works
  • Stories that end in Success are Actual Dilemmas or Actual Works
  • Stories that end in Failure are only Apparently Dilemmas or Apparently Works

Yet, Steadfast characters face Dilemmas as often as Changed characters. William Wallace (Mel Gibson) in Braveheart had to decide between having his guts ripped out or screaming freeeeeddoooommmmmmm!—a true dilemma if ever there was one. Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) in Memento had to decide whether to trust John G. or shoot him in the back of the head. Christian (Ewan McGregor) in Moulin Rouge! had to decide whether or not to turn around starting singing out Your Song for all to hear. Many Steadfast stories place Main Characters in Leap-of-Faith situations where they face the same kind of dilemma as their Changed couterparts—stay the course or adapt.

So why does Dramatica confine the Dilemma to only the Changed Main Character?

Could it be that once again Chris and Melanie, the co-creators of the Dramatica theory of story, came up short when it came to defining the Nature of a story? As with the twin story points of Tendency or Essence, perhaps new or more refined terminology could more accurately describe this Audience Appreciation.

A Measure of Regret

Recently, a student of ours brought up some interesting thoughts in regards to the appreciation of Story Nature. Inspired by our recent articles, he coined the term “Story Satisfaction” to describe this combination of story points:

The MC/Audience either regrets their behavior to change or not based on the success of the goal. For example, in a Change story, the character/audience is satisfied by the efforts of the MC if and only if the outcome is success. In a way, you can combine this with personal and universal tragedies to see that whether those characters change their point of view or not, they will not be satisfied. And, in fact if they do change their POV, there is even more regret. So, it is like a way to further measure tragedy or triumph. In other words, isn’t it more tragic if the MC is change, failure, bad, than just a failure-bad? And, isn’t this because the change is regrettable?

Regret is an interesting alternative to Work or Dilemma and worth considering when combining Resolve and Outcome. I imagine Contentment the counterpoint. And Regret and Contentment can be easily interpreted as the Outcome, or Power, of a dramatic circuit.

Unfortunately, upon further examination this idea of “story satisfaction” fails to play out.

Looking at Resolve and Outcome together, if one changes and the story results in failure, do they regret not staying the course? Sure, that makes sense. But then again if one remains Steadfast and the story results in failure, do they not also regret staying the course? Christian from Moulin Rouge! certainly regrets what happened. Leonard doesn’t, but he’s crazy (and his staying the course actually resulted in Success). But I can definitely tell you that Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) from Brokeback Mountain regrets his decision to stay away from Jack.

Regret seems to be more a function of the Story Outcome: Success or Failure, rather than any particular combination of Resolve and Outcome. Stories that end in Failure are regrettable while those that end in Success bring contentment. As terminology, they function about as well as Actual and Apparent—but carry with them the unfortunate side effect of subjectivity.

Not all Failure stories are seen as regrettable. Charlie Babbit (Tom Cruise) in Rain Man certainly does not regret time spent with his brother. Detective Huxley (Guy Pearce) doesn’t regret the decisions he made in L.A. Confidential. Neither does Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) in The Devil Wears Prada.

In addition, thinking in subjective terms of regret and contentment opens one up to the possibilty of assuming that the presence of one storyform naturally argues against the alternative.

A Measure of What is There, Not What Isn’t

The reasoning involved in this idea of “story satisfaction”—that a change in approach that leads to failure makes the alternative argument that remaining steadfast would have led to success—is false reasoning. Sometimes remaining true would lead to success, but not all the time. An argument made against something does not simultaneously argue for the alternative.

If Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre had remained driven by rational thought instead of giving into his emotions would he have still ended up dead and without the Gold? Quite possibly. Likewise with Hamlet—if he had continued to pine on and on about whether to be or not to be would the memory of his father live on? There you might have an argument, but one could just as easily argue that Claudius would have run him through after the ninth-thousandth time the kid gave in to his “pale cast of thought.”

The storyform argues its collection of thematic story points from a unique set of circumstances—it does not argue against or for another storyform. Just like the absence of a Timelock does not necessarily guarantee the presence of an Optionlock, the notion that a Changed paradigm leads to Tragedy does not guarantee that remaining Steadfast would have resulted in a Triumph.

On the flip side, isn’t a Steadfast-success-good, more triumphant than a change-success-good because of the amount of work it takes to achieve that purity of goodness? Thinking of the philosophers in the middle ages attributing all those great steadfast qualities to God. So, that he [or she] is wholly good.

Here we run into the problem with making subjective assumptions about objective story points.

The Dramatica Way to Look at Story

In a recent blog post on evaluating the popular “Sequence Method” against the Dramatica theory of story, this idea of objectivity and subjectivity arose:

Dramatica, on the other hand, takes an objective look at story. Looking at narrative from the Author’s point-of-view, it asks What is it you want to say with your story? Note the difference in mindset here—instead of dealing with experience, Dramatica deals with process. It deals with the ingredients of story.

What you want to say with your story has nothing to do with How do you want the audience to interpret what it is you want to say? Authors can predict what their story will say, but they can never know the true meaning of their work. They can never understand the true Outcome of their endeavors.

In other words—Writers can never fully understand the Nature of their story.

The result, or Power, of their dramatic circuit is an unknown—an intersection between the Author’s attempt to predict and the Audience’s attempt to ascribe meaning.

The True Nature of a Dramatic Circuit

Turns out Chris and Melanie were spot on in their definition of this Audience Appreciation. The Dramatica theory of story defines Story Nature as:

When the Main Character remains steadfast, he spends the entire story doing work to try and solve the problem…When the Main Character changes, he has come to believe that he is the real cause of the problem. This is called a Dilemma Story because the Main Character spends the story wrestling with an internal dilemma.

By Dilemma Chris and Melanie were referring to the structure of the entire story—the Power of the entire circuit—NOT simply the culimination moment:

A story can be appreciated as a structure in which the beginning, middle, and end can all be seen at the same time.

Another key aspect of the Dramatica theory of story that many forget1 is the idea that both space and time coexist within the storyform. Work and Dilemma refer to the dramatic circuit as a whole, not simply the ending. This idea I had that the Nature simply referred to the endpoint of the circuit was an error in judgment based on inaccurate linear thinking.

Chris and Melanie were defining the Holistic nature of the story by identifying the Power of the narrative throughout the entire circuit—beginning, middle, and end. Power is seen throughout a circuit as the relationships between the components, not simply something spit out at the end of a line.

With this in mind, it becomes clear the difference between Dilemma and Work, Apparent and Actual—this story point defines the Nature of the storymind itself.

An Actual Dilemma

With an Actual Dilemma story we see Main Characters who Changed their Resolves and found Success in the Overall Story:

Actual Dilemmas

Ted Kramer started thinking of someone other than himself in Kramer vs. Kramer and found his son waiting for him at the other end. Chris Kyle chooses family over the military in American Sniper and finds he can help even more soldiers through his work rehabilitating disabled veterans. With Inside Out, Joy starts to give the other emotions a chance to run things in Riley’s head and finds it easier to integrate into a new situation.

Overall these stories showcase Main Characters who believed themselves part of the problem, and found success by changing their approach.

An Apparent Dilemma

Contrast that with these stories where a Change in Resolve ended in Failure:

Apparent Dilemmas

Lester started seeing things for what they really were—and ended up dead because of it in American Beauty. Jules decided to start being supportive instead of speaking out against her best friend’s wedding and lost the chance at marrying her best friend in My Best Friend’s Wedding. And Dr. Arroway’s switch to seeing the infinite possibilities in the Universe rather than what most likely exists out there kept everyone from finding out whether they are truly alone or not.

These Main Characters believed themselves part of the problem, and by changing ended up bringing failure to the efforts to resolve the story’s central problem.

An Actual Work

Switching to the Steadfast Main Characters, we first focus on stories that actually required Work to Succeed:

Actual Works

Jason Bourne focus on staying hyper aware of everything around him helped him take down Treadstone in The Bourne Identity. Anna Khitrova’s determination to stay the course helps her secure Tatiana’s baby while successfully fighting back against the Russian mafia in Eastern Promises. Ralph’s steadfast belief that a signal fire was the only way off the island helped the boys stay alive until rescued in Lord of the Flies.

These Main Characters spend the bulk of their narratives doing work to try and solve the problem and find success at the end of it all.

An Apparent Work

And finally we look at those Steadfast Main Characters whose attempts to work the problem only brought about Failure:

Apparent Works

Nader’s steadfast belief that he was never to blame for anything forced the dissolution of his marriage in A Separation. Luke’s refusal to stop fighting the good fight ends his life and the hopes of his brothers-in-chains in Cool Hand Luke. Butch’s steadfast confidence in his his plans to get of anything finds himself and Sundance charging out in a blaze of glory in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Unlike the previous set of Steadfast Main Characters, these characters attempts to do work to try and solve their problems were only apparently the appropriate thing to do at the time.

Apparently No One Wants to be Told What NOT to Do

Out of the 320+ stories analyzed over the past two decades with Dramatica, over 126 of them are Actual Dilemmas. That is almost half of every film, play, and novel throughout various generations and cultural trends. This signals a preference for communicating the best way to approach a problem over the cautionary tale.

The Nature of the stories analyzed fall into the following categories:

  • Actual Dilemmas - 126 stories
  • Actual Works - 89 stories
  • Apparent Dilemmas - 66 stories
  • Apparent Works - 27 stories

Apparently, not many want to be told or teach that sticking to your guns results in failure. The difference between an actual problem and an apparent problem is staggering: 215 to 93. Whether cultural bias or biological imperative, the message is clear. The overwhelming majority of narratives trend towards a focus on solving actual problems, not apparent problems.

The Power of a Dramatic Circuit

Look at any quad of elements within the Dramatica Table of Story Elements and you will always find one that doesn’t quite fit in. Past, Present, and Future sit alongside Progress. Memories, Innermost Desires, and Contemplations share space with Impulsive Responses.

And now Reach, Essence, and Tendency have Nature.

When evaluating the power of an electric circuit one doesn’t simply look to the end, one must look at the operation of the entire thing all at once. When you get caught up in the individual characters of a story and their personal predicaments, you lose sight of the overall meaning and intent of the narrative. You lose sight of what it was you were trying to say.

The original intent of this series on Audience Appreciations was to pierce the veil between Author and Audience. To somehow find a new approach to using Dramatica to write our stories from the Audience’s point-of-view. By diving into this weird and somehow off-beat take on Dramatica’s story points we actually found something far more exciting—a greater understanding of the holistic nature of narrative.

A Relationship Between Story Elements

Effective story structure looks at story in its entirety. It does not look at a narrative as a linear progression of events asking “dramatic questions” and building up tension from one sequence to the next. Rather, it considers the entirety of character, plot, theme, and genre as one complete force of nature.

You have to think of the story as an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve the problem. It isn’t about the individual characters facing a dilemma, or the individual characters going to work, but rather the characters representing facets of our minds facing a dilemma or work.

This is why it helps to think of a story as this tiny little mind you can hold in your hand. The nature of story is to speak of the power of this storymind to process problems. You’re looking at the story as a holistic system of processes, you’re looking at all the parts working together, relating to one another.

A Look into the Looking Glass

What is the nature of a story? Is it simply a dramatic telling of events that are meant to inspire and capture and audiences attention? Or could it be that the nature of the story is something somehow more complex and beautiful—an analogy to one of the most intricate and infinitely powerful systems found in our Universe.

Perhaps the true nature of story is to simply reflect ourselves.


  1. Even story consultants who have studied the theory for twenty years. ↩︎

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