Artists tend to tread the same narrative ground. They feel drawn to themes and issues that resonate with their own personal issues and use storytelling to work through those problems. Director Christopher Nolan is no different.
Appraising Nolan’s catalog of films through the eyes of Dramatica reveals a common set of elements. Memories, Understanding, Conceptualizing, and the Past all play significant parts in many of his films. In Memento, Leonard (Guy Pearce) struggles to fight against his disability with short-term memory. Inception explores the conflict involved in getting Robert (Cillian Murphy) to understand a key bit of information. And in The Prestige two magicians (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) scheme against each other in an effort to be the first to conceptualize the other’s next move. Common areas of thematic intent wrapped up in different storytelling.
It should seem obvious then where Nolan’s 2006 film Batman Begins would fall. But it wasn’t.
For years, I have searched for the correct storyform for this film. For those unfamiliar with the Dramatica theory of story, a
storyform is a collection of seventy-five story points that maintain the message of a narrative. Dramatica’s story points are not independent, but rather interdependent. They work together to provide a holistic hologram of Author’s Intent and help identify why a story unfolds the way it does.
While looking for the storyform for Batman Begins, I knew that elements of
Inequity would somehow be involved. Justice and restoring balance play a heavy hand in this film. And I felt certain that Issues of
Interdiction would come into play—once you see someone or something headed down a dark path you often want to intercede on their behalf and fix it. But I wasn’t sure where the actual Throughlines fell within the Dramatica Table of Story Elements.
Throughlines and Areas of Conflict
Dramatica was the first theory of story to identify four distinct, yet interwoven, Throughlines within a complete narrative:
Overall Story Throughline— the conflict involving everyone
Main Character Throughline—the conflict personal to the central character
Influence Character Throughline—the conflict provided by an alternative approach
Relationship Story Throughline—the conflict that exists between the Main and Influence Character
These are not separate storylines. The Main Character exists within the Overall Story. So does the Influence Character. But their subjective points-of-view rest within their individual Throughlines. This is key because these Throughlines are actually points-of-views on conflict themselves:
OS Throughlineis THEY
MC Throughlineis I
IC Throughlineis YOU
RS Throughlineis WE
In addition to seeing Throughlines as these distinct points-of-view, Dramatica identifies four areas where conflict is found:
- a fixed, external problem or Situation
- a shifting, external problem or Activity
- a fixed, internal problem or Fixed Attitude
- a shifting, internal problem or Way of Thinking
Four points-of-view. Four ways of seeing conflict. Attach each of the Throughlines to one of these areas of conflict and you have a complete story. Only one rule: the
Overall Story Throughline and
Relationship Story Throughline must be diagonally across from each other, and so must the
Main Character Throughline and the
Influence Character Throughline.
So if you have an
Overall Story Throughline in Activity, that means the
Relationship Story Throughline will be in a Way of Thinking, or Manipulation. Think of Star Wars or Casablanca. In those films, everyone is dealing with physical conflict that needs to be stopped, while intimately a relationship explores conflict born out of manipulation.
This works for the Main Character and Influence Character dynamic as well. If you put the
Main Character Throughline in Situation, that means the
Influence Character Throughline will be in Fixed Attitude. Think Inside Out or Rain Man. In those films, the central character deals intimately with problems arising from status, while they face another character stuck with a certain fixation in his or her mind.
When I first saw Batman Begins in 2006, I felt for certain the
Overall Story Throughline would fall under Situation. After all, there was a lot of discussion over Gotham and how it compared to civilizations in the past, and how it needed to be thrown into darkness in order for the light to rise again. Everyone found themselves dealing with that conflict.
But that would mean Bruce Wayne would have to fall into either an Activity or a Way of Thinking. Way of Thinking felt totally wrong: Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins is nothing like Hamlet or Salieri In Amadeus. Activity sounded better, but if Bruce suddenly stopped moonlighting as a vigilante he would still be personally conflicted. That’s not how a Throughline works.
After ten years of struggling with identifying this film, it was time to cheat.
A Hidden Clue to the Structure
In Dramatica there is a story point known as the
Main Character Approach that classifies the central character of a story into two different camps: a
Do-er or a
Be-er. Classifying the Main Character as one or the other defines whether the Main Character prefers to solve their personal problems externally or internally.
It also defines where the Throughline will fall.
If the Main Character prefers to solve problems externally, then their Throughline will be either in a Situation or an Activity. Once we identify where we think a problem is, we see a solution there as well. If we have an external problem we are dealing with, then we will first try to solve it externally—thus, Do-er.
If we have an internal problem we are dealing with, then we will first try to solve it internally either through a Fixed Attitude or Way of Thinking. This is why a Be-er prefers to solve their problems internally.
Note that this is only a preference. Clearly Main Characters can do both. What the
Main Character Growth is trying to communicate is which one the Main Character prefers to do first. Some like to change the world around him, while other prefer to change themselves first.
Bruce Wayne is the latter.
At first, this may seem counterintuitive. Certainly Bruce spends the bulk of the film doing things. When we first meet him he takes on seven prisoners by himself, for “practice”. He engages in ninja school and spends pretty much the entire second half of the film fighting his way to victory.
But when you look at the personal moments with Wayne, those moments that are intimate to his character and his character only—you can begin to see a preference for a different kind of approach.
Personal Issues Unique to the Main Character
When looking to identify the Main Character Throughline of a story, it is important to look for those things that are unique to the Main Character and no one else. The stuff of this Throughline is the kind of stuff the Main Character would take with them into any story—not just the one in front of us. Look for their emotional baggage, those issues they are trying to overcome.
Wayne’s greatest personal issue that is unique to him surrounds the murder of his parents and this idea that his fears were somehow responsible for their death. This isn’t a Situation. Or an Activity. Or even a Way of Thinking. This is a Fixed Attitude.
And it shouldn’t be surprising because Christopher Nolan likes Main Characters who struggle with what they think—Main Characters who struggle with their Fixed Attitudes. Leonard in Momento. Robert Angiers (Hugh Jackman) in The Prestige. Obsession with a thought drives the characters in many of Nolan’s stories—including Batman Begins.
When Throughlines Fall into Place
Identifying Bruce Wayne as a
Be-er dealing with a Fixed Attitude ends up forcing his Influence Character into
Situation. The question is, who is Bruce Wayne’s Influence Character? What relationships represents the heart of the story?
His relationship with Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) seems to be the likely candidate. But remember, the Influence Character is a point-of-view not a character. Rachel doesn’t really challenge Bruce on his approach to things. And when she does, she is really just standing in for another character. So who stirs up all kinds of trouble because of a point-of-view they have in regards to a certain
Ra’s al Ghul.
That perspective that Gotham should perish and go the way of Rome or Constantinople isn’t the source of conflict everyone experiences. Rather, it is the point of view of the League of Shadows as expressed through Ra’s al Ghul/Ducard (Liam Neeson).
This idea that Bruce should embrace his fears—“you fear your own power, you fear your anger, the drive to do great and terrible things”—comes from Ducard. And it is exactly what Bruce needs to hear in order to grow through his own Fixed Attitude. Ducard connects with Bruce because it is a similar, yet slightly different perspective. Similar in that it is fixed, different in that it is external whereas Bruce’s perspective is internal.
This is why they can have their “You and I” moment after training. They are both alike in that they are both seeing conflict from a fixed point-of-view, but they are different in that one is external and the other internal. This dissonance fuels their interactions. That argument over the will to act is the text of
Relationship Story Throughline.
Finding the Storyform for a Story
The quad of four elements below represents Ra’s al Ghul’s point-of-view as seen through the eyes of Dramatica. Ra’s is driven by people’s fears, angers, and their refusal to accept the drive deep within them to do terrible things. And this drive within himself causes him to see a lack of justice or peace as the problem in the world. And in response, he upsets the balance of things: “When a forest grows too wild, a purging fire is inevitable and natural.”
From there, Dramatica begins to work its magic and predicts story elements not selected. For Ra’s Issue of Interdiction to work, Bruce himself must be facing an Issue of Suspicion. The suspicion that he had something to do with the murder of his family, and the suspicion that he is somewhat like his father—who also failed to act.
For Ra’s Concern of the Past to work (which is forced by our selection of the Issue of Interdiction) then Bruce’s Concern must have something to do with Memories. Anytime he steps out of his role as billionaire vigilante and confronts his own demons, they always have something to do with suppressed Memories.
The magic of Dramatica is simply balance. If an Influence Character looks to the Past, then a Main Character must look to their Memories. If an Influence Character looks to Intercede, then a Main Character must look to their own Suspicions. Whether Christopher Nolan or screenwriter David S. Goyer looked to Dramatica for help or not, that natural balance within the story is there.
Perhaps they found it as a result of writing stories with similar thematic intent. Maybe the first came out a little rough, but as they continued to explore this area and refine their understandings of it, their intuition kicked in and assured a proper balance between the Throughlines. Dramatica is built on the psychology of the mind, not on observable repeated patterns within film. It only makes sense then that a theory based on the psychology of the human mind would be able to predict the intuition of a writer trying to construct a well-balanced story.
Something More Than Backstory
The confusion involved in locating the storyform for Batman Begins can be attributed to the use of time-shifting in the StoryWeaving phase. What looks like backstory is really an essential part of Bruce Wayne’s growth as a Main Character. In next week’s article we will continue to dive into the storyform for Batman Begins and explain how the mechanism of its narrative works.Concepts covered: Four Throughlines, Main Character Approach & Influence Character Throughline.