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7 minutes

When Stories Feel Like Other Stories

Sometimes you feel like you’ve seen this movie before. The faces may have changed. Or they may be rocketing through space instead of riding horses through Monument Valley. Still, something about the overall feeling of the experience screams familiarity.

Ever watch Finding Nemo and start hallucinating that Marlin is the Jamie Foxx character from Collateral and Nemo is Tom Cruise? No? What about Back to the Future? Ever notice how Shrek is Marty and Fiona is Doc? Still no? You can’t see how Shrek and Marty both have to fight against others’ preconceptions of them and how Doc and Fiona stop running away and start pursuing a course of resolution in the end?

Too complicated?

Let’s start with some simpler, more obvious examples of familiar storytelling. Everyone knows West Side Story as a remake of Romeo and Juliet. Warring families and star-crossed lovers permeate both narratives with each finding resolution in the unravelling of it’s lead character. Tony and Romeo both end their lives lost and in despair.

Many also understand Bridget Jones’ Diary as a modern re-telling of Pride and Prejudice The former wastes little time pretending to be anything other than a reinterpretation of the Jane Austen Classic. The evidence? Both tell a story where temptation drives the efforts of characters to better their station in life. If that weren’t enough Helen Fielding, the novelist behind Bridget Jones, named her romantic lead Darcy, even going so far as to describe him like Colin Firth (who portrayed Austen’s Darcy in the 1996 BBC version).

Adaptations and remakes naturally rest on common thematic ground. They’re telling the same story after all. But what about those stories that end up supported on the same foundation without even meaning to do so?

The Form Behind Narrative

The Dramatica storyform holds the message of a narrative. Seventy-five different, yet connected, points of story communicate the intent of an Author to the Audience. Unlike other paradigms that see narrative as different takes on the same story (usually heroic) Dramatica sees well over 32,000 separate and unique stories.

And this is only the current model. The theory of Dramatica contends that there could be 4x that number of specific storyforms beyond the current Western-biased model. They would require further research and development to identify, but theoretically they exist.

Ignoring those for the time being, Dramatica’s current ability to single out 32,000+ helps to provides us with a comprehensive and functional model of how stories work. It also grants us insight into the similarities between films, novels and plays that on the surface, seem to explore different thematic material. And occasionally—but less often than many would have you believe—Dramatica identifies narratives that have the same exact structural makeup, regardless of genre or intent.

Unforgiven and The Terminator

Turns out James Cameron’s 1984 sci-fi thriller and Clint Eastwoods 1992 Oscar Western share the same thematic endoskeleton. Both The Terminator and Unforgiven feature a plot of revenge to take lives (Overall Story Goal of Obtaining) and showcase a Main Character who learns that stepping up and preventing others from doing things actually solves problems (Main Character Growth of Start, Overall Story Solution of Avoid/Prevent, and an Overall Story Outcome of Success). William Munny and Sarah Connor would rather work their personal problems out internally (Main Character Approach of Be-er) which makes things difficult as the story itself requires external action to get things moving (Story Driver of Action and Story Tendency: Unwilling). And both probably wished they had stayed home as the end of their respective stories leaves gunfighter and waitress in a bad place (Story Judgment of Bad).

The similarities in thematic content continue. Kyle Reese and Ned Logan challenge their Main Characters to grow in similar fashion (Influence Character Throughline). Each bring up concerns of what will be—Kyle with his doomsday scenario and Ned with the financial struggles of a farmer (Influence Character Concern of *The Future) Both bring up issues of staying open to the possibilities of what could be—Kyle with his affection for Sarah and willingness to travel across space and time to be with her, and Ned with his openness towards going on the mission when he just finished saying he wasn’t like that anymore and his eagerness later to get some upstairs with one of the house ladies (Influence Character Issue of Openness). When you have a story driven by the pursuit of revenge that centers around a character who ends up completely changing how he or she solves problems, you need a character like Ned or Kyle to bring them there. No other catalyst will suffice.

Kung Fu Panda and Erin Brockovich

What possibly could the stories of an overweight Panda bear and a badly-behaved amateur lawyer have in common? More than one would have guessed. Both Kung-Fu Panda and Erin Brockovich present Main Characters defined and saddled by their outwardly appearance (Main Character Throughline of Situation). Creating problems for themselves by refusing to back down from their passion to help others, both computer-generated and real-world personalities ultimately find redemption for their actions (Main Character Problem of Help, Main Character Resolve of Steadfast, and Story a Judgment of Good). Unlike William Munny and Sarah Connor above, Erin and Po can’t wait to participate in the story’s events and jump into action as required by the story in order to get things done (Story Tendency of Willing, Main Character Approach of Do-er and Story Driver of Action).

Munny and Sarah feel like different characters than Po and Erin. The former group comes across reluctant and introverted; the latter eager and extroverted. Dramatica identifies the precise reason for this: all four stories require action for resolution, only one group feels comfortable doing so.

Defeating Tai Lung? Same as defeating PG&E. (Story Outcome of Success) Inspiring the master Shifu to prevent the monster his Dragon Warrior crusade created? Same as inspiring Ed Masry to stand up and prevent PG&E from delaying the case any further (Influence Character Resolve of Change and (Influence Character Solution of Prevent/Avoid). When you have a story where the Main Character refuses to back down from their drive to help and they end up changing the world around them for the better you’ll have a character like Shifu or Ed to personalize that modification.

Stories Like Other Stories

Out of the 300 films, novels and plays analyzed through Dramatica, a handful of doppelgängers exist:

(Thanks to Dramatica user Bob Raskoph for compiling this list)

Stories function through the same process of problem-solving. The details of the particular problem being solved and the manner in which resolution, if any, is achieved determine the Act structure of each individual story. Characteristics, costumes and scenery only alter a story at face value. The superficiality of scenery and genre does little more than flavor the deep thematic intent at the core. To witness this reality of narrative strike up a double-feature using the pairings above. Once you see past the shimmer of storyTELLING to storyFORMING you’ll never go back.

Concepts covered: Dramatica & The Storyform.

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