Whether working with comedians, actors, writers, producers, directors, and everyone else in-between one thing stands out: they all love to second-guess their storyform. They begin with a purpose in mind, but then struggle to force-fit that vision into a narrative that Audiences everywhere embrace. The problem lies in our own ability to deceive ourselves.
The Death Knell of the Student Film
I experienced the same self-doubt during my tenure at the California Institute of the Arts. During the first semester, students would kill themselves developing a solid story for their student films. We would work the story over and over again until it rang true for them and for others in the class. And they would finish the semester confident that they created something meaningful and important to them.
But then they would leave for Christmas Break.
With the excitement of continually problem-solving the structure of their story far behind them, they would return pumped up about starting a new film. Why work to complete a fully developed story when you can start over fresh and face new narrative challenges?
The exact same thing happens daily here at Narrative First.
A Form for Your Story
The Dramatica theory of story helps writers and producers tell the story they want to tell. By carefully answering key dynamic questions revolving around the central character of the narrative and the plot dynamics of the story itself, Dramatica returns a carefully balanced amalgamation of story points. Follow these points and Author's Intent becomes a reality.
Once writers submit their original material for our consultation, we spend a considerable amount of time zeroing in on the exact set of character and plot dynamics needed to accurately portray their story. In addition we help quadrangulate the various thematic issues and concerns involved in the Four Throughlines of their story. Writers enjoy the process and often sign off excited to start writing.
But then inevitably return, just like those CalArts students, with new ideas or new directions to take their story. Once writers find themselves exposed to the power of Dramatica, they begin to develop a tendency to continue to work and rework the storyform and that's because it's much easier to do that than to move forward and encode the various story points.
In addition, one tends to look the other way and ignore other aspects of the storyform that don't quite fit with their current new idea because they focus in one or two key story points that they would like to see different.
Working Together as a Whole
The current Dramatica storyform model contains over seventy-five holistically integrated story points. This integration, by definition, requires that all these points work together as a whole. A writer can't focus on one little bit of the storyform—they need to step back and see it in its entirety.
As the consultant on the project, I have the luxury of only recently coming to the story in question. Unlike the writer who knows their story forwards and backwards and forwards again, I come to the story free of prejudice. I see what is there and can comment and guide a writer to the exact storyform for the story they want to tell. What I can't do is continually bend and warp the storyform the way the Author can, because I'm not actually in their mind.
And unfortunately for the Author, neither is the Audience.
Writers convince themselves a storyform works the same way a character convinces themselves that they don't have a Problem. They subconsciously turn away from the reality of what drives them in order to focus on the apparent symptom of the problems in their story and respond by continually trying to change it. This justification process—the very opposite of actual problem-solving—forms the basis for what many refer to as writer's block.
Thankfully, writers familiar with Dramatica understand this process whereby a character fools themselves into taking one approach because they don't fully realize the true source of the conflict in their lives. By better understanding how this justification works within a story, Authors can flip the script in their own lives and return to the process of solving that problem of the unwritten story.
If you would like to learn more, or have us take a look at your story and help you develop it into a solid and workable bit of narrative please contact us or sign up for popular Dramatica Mentorship Program®. Over 30 writers, producers, and directors signed up over the past year. Add your name to the list and start seeing your story the way your Audience does--not the way it is in your head.
This week's Throughline Thursdays examines the different kinds of conflict found in Peter Weir's 1989 baseball fantasy, Field of Dreams.
Way back when, Google+ was a thing and we here at Narrative First thought it a good idea to relocate all of Dramatica's online discussion to the Dramatica Users Google+ Community. Short-lived as it was, the uptick in participation prompted many interesting conversations—one of them an in-depth analysis of Field of Dreams.
Structured like the Dramatica Users Group meetings, the analysis began with a determination of the Four Throughlines, then moved on to the Character and Plot Dynamics, and finally concluded with a deep dive into Concerns, Issues, and Problems of each individual Throughline.
Eventually the analysis will be ported over to the Discuss Dramatica forums, but until then you can read the entire Online Analysis of Field of Dreams here.
This week we add a montage of Successful Arguments to our post from the vault, A Story Is an Argument. In the short 2-minute clip, key scenes from complete and effective stories showcase their narrative's respective true purpose.
Every great story seeks to provide some greater meaning, some essential argument as to the best approach for solving the problems we face in our lives. The Dramatica storyform codifies that argument by pinpointing the key strategic touchpoints that exist between Author and Audience; the holistic holograph of intention shuttling along the carrier wave of those 75 story points.
The Shawshank Redemption argues for hope. Fight Club argues for anarchy and mutual self-destruction. Pinocchio argues for following one's conscience. And The Sixth Sense argues for greater personal vision.
The purpose of story lies in a portion of our minds that craves something more than Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre—the portion that craves a reason behind Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre.
Back in the vault, Part Two in our series on Main Character and Meaning from waaaayy back in 2010: Development of Character Arc. Short and sweet, the best part was adding this shot of Lester from American Beauty to the article:
Interesting to look back and see our error in thinking Woody a Changed Main Character in the first Toy Story. The original version of Dramatica shipped with a complete storyform for the movie that destroyed dreams of would-be hand-drawn animators--a storyform with something rare and unheard of in Dramatica canon: the exception.
In that storyform—and the one that ships with the current version—a caveat appears, explaining why the original analysis set Woody as the Changed character and Buzz the Steadfast character.
The one thing that always impressed me about Dramatica was the complete lack of caveats and exceptions in the explanation of the theory. Every screenwriting book and story guru I visited in the early to mid-90s arrived with tons of footnotes and and exceptions and explanations why, in this film, their particular point-of-view needed adjusting.
Dramatica never needed caveats. It was, and continues to be, what it was—take it or leave it. Some stories feature Stop characters, some feature Start characters. End of line.
I updated the original article to include a reference and link to our updated, more accurate analysis of the film: The Toy Story Dilemma.
Occasionally, we get letters:
I can't thank you enough for this site. I truly, from the bottom of my heart cannot. I've been struggling against a number of instructors recently. They kept pushing and pushing, indicating that I was failing to grasp how to create a compelling protagonist because my main character 'does not change', while the rest of the characters around her do.
Every Main Character grows, not every Main Character changes. From our article What Character Arc Really Means:
Sometimes a person can grow by maintaining their position, shoring up their resolve against whatever is thrown at them.
Dramatica refers to this as the Steadfast Main Character.
The letter continues:
I had at once the sense of: am I truly not grasping a concept which all screenwriters must master... or are they applying concepts that are not necessary to my story?
No and yes. In that order.
Really grateful to experience this kind of impact tonight.
Every story paradigm, it would seem, comes with a collection of caveats and footnotes: a select set of sequences may only work within a certain context, while a journey works for every context as long as you're willing to forgo consistent meaning. With the Dramatica theory of story, all that nonsense goes away.
Take for instance, this notion of Plot Progression in Dramatica:
I have two questions regarding placement of Problem Types on a grid and, especially, in the Signpost-Journey sequence. In the Dramatica Users Manual, the first appearance of Problem TYPES in the ACTIVITY Class are listed (clockwise): Understanding, Doing, Learning, Obtaining. After that, in every example I’ve seen--particularly with respect to Signposts--they are listed: Learning, Understanding, Doing, Obtaining or L-U-D-O. When establishing Signposts in the Activity class, will they always progress L-U-D-O? If so, will the Signposts in the Situation Class or Attitude Class progress in the same pattern (Present-Past-Progress-Future in Situation, Conscious-Memory-Preconscious-Subconscious in Attitude)?
Some stories progress from Learning to Understanding to Doing to Obtaining--but not all stories. Some start with the Understanding and then move to Learning, before finishing with Doing and Obtaining. And even then, some stories start with the Doing and Obtaining, before moving on to the Understanding and Learning.
It all depends on the narrative.
The All Important Dynamic Choices
This pattern you recognize is not arbitrary--it contains meaning. What you perceive is the differential between the Dramatica Table of Story Elements at rest and the Table of Story Elements after the application of the story's dynamics.
Those eight Essential Questions that adorn the top of Dramatica.com and connected with your writer's intuition when you first heard about the theory? The answers to those questions determine how the model of the human mind winds up within a story.
Think of the Table of Story Elements like a giant, super amazing Rubik's cube with rubber bands wrapped around it. Tough to turn at first--and if you did--the cube would whip back into its normal state as soon as you let go. The answer to questions like the Main Character Resolve: Changed or Steadfast? and the Main Character's Problem-Solving Style: Linear or Holistic? Regulate which way to shift those cubes and how to rotate it in your hands.
A story begins with the Rubik's cube of story fully would up, ready to go. As the story unfolds, Act by Act, the cube begins to unravel until it returns back to its at rest state.
The pattern mentioned above communicates only one-fourth of the Author's message to an audience. A story "cube" flows through four different complete Throughlines as it unravels.
Will one position in a Class always respond to another Class, in kind, with the same position? If the MC signpost is Past (top-left position on the grid) , will the IC always respond with Memory (also top-left position on the grid)?
Not always. Each of the Throughlines--Main Character, Influence Character, Relationship Story, and Overall Story--run through their own independent plot progression. Sometimes this will present an Influence Character dealing with Memories at the same time the Main Character deals with the Past, and sometimes it won't. Though seemingly arbitrary at times, the exact progression of events in each Throughline works together to provide a holistically cohesive message to the Audience.
Every complete story functions the same way--it's the order of those functions that changes from story to story.
Thankfully you don’t need to know how to do all this by yourself--Dramatica exists to service this exact issue. You supply the answers to those questions and the application winds the model up for you. From there, you simply travel the bands down back to a state of rest.
We just uploaded the Dramatica storyforms for Arrival and The Yellow Birds to our Storyforms section here at Narrative First--and boy oh boy, were we delightfully surprised.
The storyform we published for our initial analysis of Arrival called for an Influence Character Unique Ability of Prediction and an Influence Character Critical Flaw of Suspicion. If there were ever two more descriptive words of the Alien Heptapods influence over the actual story of Arrival, those two would be them.
The Influence Character Unique Ability is the one thing that makes the Influence Character able to uniquely challenge and impact the Main Character to change his or her way of approaching problems. Unbridled by time, the Aliens come from the future and are uniquely able to predict the future for Louise...Prediction, therefore, is a wonderful indicator of this ability.
The Influence Character Critical Flaw is the one thing that weakens or lessens the impact the Influence Character has over the Main Character. Clearly, their silence and enigmatic ways make the Aliens suspicious of nefarious and underhanded schemes...Suspicion, therefore, makes sense as the kind of thing that would dampen their ability to inspire Louise to change her way of thinking.
When we set out to do an analysis of a film, we often find ourselves away from our computer--at least, one with Dramatica Story Expert installed. We wrote our analysis of Arrival during a story meeting and finished it up afterwards in a nearby coffee shop. Finding out after the fact that the selections we made implied these two very important story points only confirms that the choices we made were accurate.
This is the best part about a holistic approach to story structure--error checking inherent to the system. If one part of the understanding fails, the entire thing falls apart. If, on the other hand, all the parts "sing" then you know you found the most accurate definition of the story's dynamics.
Note that the Downloadable Storyforms section of Narrative First is a Members Only feature--a service provided for those patrons of our work into story structure & story analysis. If you're interested in learning more about how you can become a member, please visit the Narrative First Membership page.
Dramatica co-creator Melanie Anne Phillips prepends a forward to one of her many insightful articles in this post on Protagonist v Antagonist | Dramaticapedia:
Now in reading this through today, I realize that doesn’t sound much like the way most writers go about creating their characters. In fact, the usual approach is to start with a protagonist and antagonist in mind, then populate the story with supporting characters to fill out the conflicts and the logistics of the battle over the goal.
This is, in fact, the approach I instinctively take and the one I follow when working with other writers. To me, the Protagonist and Antagonist of a story stand out as the most easily identifiable character in a story. One is for the Story Goal; the other works to prevent it.
Of course, identifying the Goal of a story is not always easy and different techniques exist to navigate this process. But Melanie explains it in a way that is both simple and complex at the same time:
In our own minds, we survey our environment and consider whether or not we could improve things by taking action to change them. The struggle between the Protagonist and Antagonist represents this inner argument: is it better to leave things the way they are or to try and rearrange them?
The Protagonist represents Initiative; the Antagonist Reticence. Follow that and your story finds purpose.
Disney's animated television show Tangled: The Series premieres in three weeks! On March 24, 2017 you'll finally be able to see the further adventures of Rapunzel and Flynn Rider as they deal with a strange new force invading their kingdom.
While the character design looks appealing and the voice talent top-notch, the real reason why you want to tune in is because of the storyform. Who cares about rolling landscapes and engaging animation when you can focus in on all the complex thematic issues tumbling around in this show.
And it's not only this first episode, but several years worth of episodes!
Holding It All Together
Hinted at before, Narrative First acted as Story Consultant for the series. In the article Outlining a Television Series With Dramatica , we described the process of using this fascinating and insightful theory of story to outline the events of a series:
you create one master Storyform for the "Mythology" of your series, and then individual Storyforms for the "Monster" episodes. Anytime you want a certain context to feel complete, you should create a storyform. If you want each season finale of your series to have the same kind of impact the finales of Game of Thrones have had, you should even go so far as to create a single storyform for each season.
Tune in to this week's podcast for a more detailed explanation as to how the storyform played a role in developing this show.
What is a storyform again?
The Dramatica storyform is a collection of seventy-five different storypoints that work in tandem to create a holistic image of a story's deep underlying meaning. When a narrative shows signs of "holes" or underdeveloped characters, chances are the storyform is broken--or missing key parts. Working as an analogy to the mind's problem-solving process, the Dramatica storyform codifies the Author's message and gives purpose to their work.
A Place to Begin
The best part about this process is that it still allows the individual writers to breathe to life their own unique take on the story. The storyform is rigid yet flexible enough to allow the artist to branch off and follow his or her own muse. Anytime they get too far off track, the storyform gently reminds and corrals the narrative back into place.
Make sure you mark the show down on your calendar. Rest assured, if you do forget, we will definitely be reminding you the closer we get to the date.
At least, not a storyform.
As detailed in our Dramatica analysis of Moonlight , the film lacks the necessary components to make a convincing argument. However, as the events of last night would seem to affirm, "Truth" reveals itself in many different ways.
To say there is "no story"--on this site, and in story meetings and lunch with fellow writers--means there is a sense that something is missing; some greater truth.
The Dramatica theory of story is the first understanding of narrative to delineate and make concrete this greater truth. For hundreds and hundreds and thousands of years, writers have used elements of character, plot, theme, and genre as analogies towards a single human mind trying to resolve a problem. Many didn't realize they were doing it; they simply wrote what they thought was a great story--one that made sense and felt right.
That greater truth or message they hoped to communicate found itself material in the storyform. Balancing out thematic issues and plot concerns with elements of character that in service of a singular purpose, the storyform makes telepathy between writer and reader a reality. The stronger the storyform, the greater the capability of effectively transmitting that message.
Other truths exist.
As Moonlight so eloquently shows, the lack of a complete narrative invites greater acceptance and more opportunities for Audience empathy. With several Throughlines missing or incomplete, the viewer fills in the blanks and takes ownership of the story.
Consider Thelma and Louise. We learn nothing of what happened to Louise in Texas; only that it is enough to motivate her to engage in dangerous and violent action. Without that knowledge each and every audience member supplies his or her own experience and by doing so, becomes a part of the narrative.
Moonlight won not only because it was a fantastic and moving work of art, but also because it invited the audience to bring their own individual understanding to the table. We fill in the blanks and see our own truth worked out across the screen.
Every mind craves meaning. If we can somehow reaffirm our own experience, our personal truths become universal. We celebrate the work as Best Picture, but really it is the Best Picture of ourselves.