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5 minutes
February 10, 2016

The Heart Of Every Great Story

It always breaks down to a choice between two approaches to solving conflict.

James Gunn, the writer/director of Guardians of the Galaxy, subconsciously promotes the Dramatica theory of story over on Twitter:

The heart of every good story is about two people, with one person trying to figure out which one he or she is.

In Dramatica, the heart of every good story is known as the Relationship Story Throughline—a relationship between two people. And arguably the most important story point of a narrative is the Main Character Resolve—which essentially asks what did the Main Character figure out about themselves? Did they figure out they should completely Change how they approach problems or should they hold true to themselves and Remain Steadfast?

It didn’t take long before the skeptics came out to challenge James:

Skeptic: “every generic story you mean.” James: “No. Every good story. Name one supposedly non-generic story that isn’t that.”

And he is right. Every great story—from Hamlet to Short Term 12—centers around a conflict between two people.

Skeptic: “I don’t know. It certainly applies to stories with internal conflicts, but a lot of good stories are mainly external.” James: “Such as? Almost never.”

Agreed. Stories without internal conflict are simply tales—not stories. James is talking about great stories.

Someone tries to suggest A Clockwork Orange. Another actually tries The Godfather and Taxi Driver:

James: No way. Alex is torn about himself the entire time. Godfather is one hundred percent about Michael Corleone as a good man or a gangster. In Taxi Driver Bickle also torn.

Comprehensive storyforms and analysis exist for A Clockwork Orange, The Godfather, and Taxi Driver. Great films always have complete storyforms at the base of their storytelling. That is why they are great.

Even Ghostbusters has a storyform:

James: “Totally not true [in reference to someone suggesting Ghostbusters isn’t this way]. The Ghostbusters find themselves through the journey.”

James even accurately defends Avatar and Titanic:

“Both are about characters finding themselves.”

This idea that somehow there can only be external conflict in a story is erroneous and misguided. Stories reflect the way we solve problems—by definition they require both external and internal conflict.

Two Identities

Interestingly enough, the conversation shifts as others argue:

Skeptic: “Lol a ‘good’ story only requires an arc for one character. Doesn’t need a second person, doesn’t need to be about self-identity. He should watch the film All is Lost

to which James replies:

Please read what I said again. The two people are always within one person.

Now that is interesting. Interesting because I didn’t get that the first time I read his initial tweet. It is obvious in hindsight, but at the time I too thought James meant two people.

And interesting because, if he is truly only speaking of the Main Character, then there still needs to be some outside perspective—or influence that challenges the Main Character to reconsider their approach. People don’t change on their own. Once bridled by their own justifications, they will continue as they always have until someone comes along to challenge them.

That relationship between the two contrasting approaches is always there, whether it is between two people as it is in Hamlet with Hamlet and the Ghost, or if it is within the mind of one character as it is in Castaway with Tom Hanks and Wilson.

The Steadfast Quotient

Someone even tries to suggest that Braveheart and Die Hard lack that internal struggle James speaks of:

James: All 100% as much internal as external conflicts. Not even a question. Skeptic: They had no conflicts with their personal motivations. Their antagonists were others, not themselves. James: That’s not true. And none of the writers of those stories would agree with you.

This is so great. Mr. Skeptic identifies two films as lacking internal conflict, two films with Steadfast Main Characters. To anyone unfamiliar with the concept of the Main Character Resolve, it would appear on the surface that Wallace and McLane lack inner conflict with their personal motivations. Even though both remain steadfast, they still have to grow and strengthen their resolve as they hold out for the greater conflict around them to end. When faced with odds like that, both characters have to consider whether or not it’s worth the fight, and if it is—bear down, dig their heels in, and fight even harder.

The Curse of the Sequel

James finally brings this tweet storm to an end with his rebuttal to a comment about sequels:

Fan: What about sequels, or is the the point that there is always something for characters to learn about themselves? James: One of the reasons so many sequels are worse is that the characters stop changing and learning about themselves.

You heard it from a professional with a proven track record of success: the heart of every good story is about two people, with one person trying to figure out who he or she is. It has been my experience that that heart is always between two people who come into conflict over differing approaches to solving problems. Regardless if you’re thinking that, or simply the Main Character’s internal struggle between these two approaches, the end result is the same: an emotionally satisfying narrative that shows one half losing out to the other.

Never trust a Hero.

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