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Thoughts on Story Structure

February 4, 2017

In case you haven't noticed, Narrative First is now super blazingly-fast! We finally updated our servers to the latest and greatest and love how fast everything is now. No more need to cache anything. What you see is live and fresh!

Thanks to Arcustech, makers of fine fast servers.

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January 26, 2017

Inigo Montoya in *The Princess Bride*

Inconceivable! that an analysis of William Goldman and Rob Reiner's masterpiece The Princess Bride lingered for so long. How many of us watched the film on VHS over and over again memorizing every line? Writers familiar with Dramatica know that compulsory repeated viewings indicate a strong narrative structure. Wouldn't this suggest The Princess Bride as a strong candidate for analysis?

Writer and eventual Dramatica Story Expert Mike Lucas thought so. Mike felt he had the requisite experience needed to analyze the film and had advice for those looking to do the same:

  1. Watch it 10-15 times as a kid.
  2. Have your sisters watch it EVERY SINGLE DAY for an entire summer, until the VHS tape dies. While you are in earshot, absorbing the narrative subconsciously.
  3. Wait 20 years or so to let it really gel.
  4. Now the story is so much a part of you, you can determine its storyform with ease!

Mike might be onto something...he completed this official Dramatica analysis of The Princess Bride in one week! Typically, I afford students in the Dramatica Mentorship Program at least two months to finish the first pass of a comprehensive analysis--I couldn't believe my eyes when Mike contacted me a week later with this full analysis.

We're not just talking your basic storyform here--Mike went through and defined elaborate examples for each and every story point. A truly remarkable effort.

Comedy Wrapped Up in the Encoding

The most compelling takeaway, from a Dramatica point of view, is how many of the story points ended up woven into the narrative and how many of them were encoded in a funny or sarcastic way. It's almost as if Goldman and Reiner had a copy of Dramatica before it was released to the public.

"Inconceivable!? Funny you should say that: turns out inconceivable, or Conceiving, is the Overall Story Concern:

  • The point of Humperdink’s plot is to get the people of Florin to conceive that Guilder is their enemy.
  • The grandfather wants the boy to conceive of the romantic “kissing” parts of the story as worth reading.
  • Inigo’s plan for vengeance is to ensure Count Rugen (aka the Six-Fingered Man) gets the idea that he was wrong to kill his father.
  • Vizzini encounters conflict in the area of thinking things are “Inconceivable!”: INIGO: You keep using that word—I do not think it means what you think it means.

Even the Overall Story Problem, often hard to find one or two examples of, pops up everywhere:

In the overall story of The Princess Bride, problems occur when people evaluate their situation or circumstances. Usually it’s because their evaluations are wrong, but sometimes even accurate evaluations cause trouble.

  • The boy evaluates the book based on its title and romance moments, thinking he won’t like it. Even after he starts liking it, he still holds onto his evaluation about the “kissing” being lame, until the end.
  • The people of Florin rate Prince Humperdink too highly because of the radiant beauty and goodness of his princess bride, allowing that to colour their assessment of him.
  • Vizzini constantly analyses the man in black’s pursuit poorly. First he’s just a fisherman in eel infested waters, then he will be stopped by the Cliffs of Insanity, then he will be thrown off with the rope, then he will be stopped by his fighters, then he will not stand a chance in the duel of wits ...
  • Buttercup assesses Westley’s chances of surviving as poor, and evaluates (poorly) that he will stand a better chance if she makes a deal and surrenders.
  • The Machine is used to evaluate how much pain people can stand. Westley makes a poor evaluation that he can withstand it.
  • Westley’s accurate examination / analysis of Count Rugen’s hand gets him hit over the head.
  • Humperdink’s excellent tracking (a type of evaluation) causes trouble for Buttercup and Westley
  • Humperdink’s correct assessment that Westley cannot move appears to spell the end for the rescue attempt….

Reiner and Goldman may have had some super secret access to Dramatica, or...it could just be that great writers intuitively understand the idea of a story being an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem.

Note too how Lucas managed to find evidence of the storyform in both the inner story of the Princess Bride and in the outer story with the interaction between the Kid and the Grandfather. This is probably a no-brainer to most, yet the idea that both the Kid and Buttercup share the same Main Character Problem and that both the Grandfather and Westley share the same Influence Character Problem...well, it's pretty inconceivable!

Mike's analysis can be found on the official Dramatica analysis of The Princess Bride page.

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January 24, 2017

James Clear's recent article The Beginners Guide to Deliberate Practice started me thinking about what a practice session for Dramatica might be like. Reading about Ben Hogan's golf game and Benjamin Franklin's writing exercises made me want to find something similar for developing our writer's intuition.

He offers some clues:

Mindless activity is the enemy of deliberate practice. The danger of practicing the same thing again and again is that progress becomes assumed. Too often, we assume we are getting better simply because we are gaining experience. In reality, we are merely reinforcing our current habits—not improving them.

But still, how do you practice something you only turn to once in awhile or at the beginning of a project?

Then it occurred to me--I already did create a program of deliberate practice:

The second effective feedback system is coaching. One consistent finding across disciplines is that coaches are often essential for sustaining deliberate practice. In many cases, it is nearly impossible to both perform a task and measure your progress at the same time. Good coaches can track your progress, find small ways to improve, and hold you accountable to delivering your best effort each day.

With the Dramatica Mentorship Program, I coach writers in the deliberate practice of writing and rewriting story encoding for various story points. The centerpiece of this program are the Playground Exercises--tasks that force a writer past mindless writing and using Dramatica as storytelling into an area where they begin to see story points as sources of conflict. By holding each and every writer accountable to truly using Dramatica to its ultimate potential, we develop an instinct for maximizing scene potential.

Writers Who Avoid Conflict

Believe it or not, some writers steer clear of conflict in their pursuit of their craft. Justin Wills, one of our writers under the program, had this to say recently about the practice of the Playgrounds:

this is helpful. one of the issues I am starting to see in my writing is holding back and avoiding conflict, which stifles my creativity and limits my writing. It's like I'm trying to get the right answer and in doing so i keep everything small and on the surface. I can see how these exercises can help me break that "safe" pattern

So many writers think they're writing conflict when really they're only skimming the surface.

I wonder if it stems from people's basic desire in their own lives to avoid it.

A salient and thought-provoking point. Writing is often thought to be a form of self-therapy. Avoiding the identification and acceptance of conflict in one's own work often signals the same behavior in one's personal life.

I feel like if I can get past this it will open my writing way up

Definitely. After coaching writers for two years with these exercises I can tell you that every last student emerges free and clear of superficial and mindless writing.

A Chance to Develop Your Skills

The Dramatica Mentorship Program currently runs $650/month. Starting in February the price will increase to $750/month (and $425/month for the Basic plan). As our clientele grows so too do our operating costs. Those already in the program and previous students can expect their rates to stay the same.

Many writers new to Dramatica think they understand how it works. They see a Main Character Concern of The Future and think Yeah, my character is concerned about the way things will be. They see an Influence Character Problem of Ending and think Yes, that Character wants things to stop. Those same writers don't understand that these story points must be sources of conflict; concerns of the Future often lead characters to neglect present day responsibilities, problems of Ending often show up in terminating valuable projects long before they have had a chance to germinate.

A Dramatica "coach", or Mentor, can keep you on track and help you develop your own writer's intuition far beyond your limiting blind spots. They can make you aware of conflict-deficient scenes and offer tools and techniques designed to bring the very best out of you. In short, the Dramatica Mentorship Program provides a haven of deliberate practice for writers who wish to be deliberate with their craft.

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January 23, 2017

Super exciting news...Narrative First is now available on Apple News! If you have an iOS device and always wondered what the heck you could possibly use that News app for--well now you know.

*Narrative First* on Apple News

We divided up the channel into four different sections:

  • Main is your everything feed. The place to catch up when you've been gone awhile.
  • Articles contain all the weekly long form posts covering everything from Dramatica theory to brainstorming techniques.
  • Thoughts round up all the short daily blog posts (like this one).
  • Analysis completes the quad by offering up reviews rated by both structural narrative and entertainment.

We use News as an easy-on-the-eyes alternative RSS reader.1 The typography is gentle and the transitions between articles makes it feel like you're reading a newspaper out of Harry Potter.

To read the Narrative First channel and add it to your favorites, open this link on your iOS device.

A *Narrative First* article in Apple News


  1. And Fiery Feeds for those times when we want to do some power reading. ↩︎

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January 21, 2017

In Long Beach today for an Abraham Hicks Vortex of Attraction workshop I heard something that sounded quite familiar.

For those who don't know,1 Esther Hicks is an inspirational writer along the lines of a Wayne Dyer and a proponent of the Law of Attraction. Tapping into "infinite intelligence" she offers advice and recommendations for people seeking to attract more of what they want in their life and repelling that which they don't.

Regardless of whether or not you buy into where her intelligence comes from, listening to her lecture is an inspiring experience--particularly for writers and artists. I was invited as a plus one, but was pleasantly surprised at the amount of useful information she gave for those looking to build momentum in their lives...

...especially the advice she gave to an amateur writer asking for suggestions on how to write her book on raising children. The writer knew she wanted to communicate all that she had learned through her experiences with her children but wasn't sure where to start.

Esther recommended she structure each chapter of her book in four stages:

  1. Write about your situation
  2. Write about your response
  3. Write about the action you took
  4. Meditation

Sound familiar?

Now it wasn't clear whether or not the fourth step was a personal meditation on the words written or a fourth and final section elaborating on a suggested meditation for the reader, but the pattern is clear:

Esther described the four base elements of every Dramatica quad.

  1. Situation
  2. Fixed Attitude
  3. Activity
  4. Psychology

The fourth--as with every fourth element in a Dramatica quad--doesn't quite fit in, yet seemingly is the perfect missing piece. In Dramatica, Psychology differs from Fixed Attitude in that it looks at HOW we think rather than WHAT we think. In other words, precisely what meditation seeks to modify.

For those requiring a visual representation, here is the top (and theoretically, extreme bottom) level of the Dramatica Table of Story Elements:

The Dramatica Narrative Quad

Traces of dramatic or narrative structure in real life interest me. Finding evidence here compels me to think more into the event. Esther is someone deeply in tune with her own intuition--and her own intuition listed out the four elements of a narrative quad.

You could feel the level of understanding rise when she mentioned that fourth and final piece--as if completing the quad completed the understanding within each and every one of the storyminds gathered there.


  1. I just learned about her in the past couple of months. ↩︎

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January 19, 2017

The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art

Earlier this month, George Lucas & Co. announced that his vision of a museum dedicated to story would break ground this year in Los Angeles.

That's right...story!

As someone who lives and works thirty minutes from the proposed location, I am beyond excited. A cultural center revolving around the importance of storytelling?? Successfully starting a full-time business around my life's greatest passion was one thing, but having access to every facet of that same passion in one place? My head reels from the possibilities.

Imagine a corner of this center devoted to our favorite theory of story based on human psychology!

The museum, ten years in the making, sounds absolutely incredible:

There will be two screening rooms. Our sense is there will be a cinematheque, so films will be shown every day and that will be a part of the function of the building. There will be artists in residence, a library for research — obviously a great resource for college students, PhD students, high school students. And there will be educational facilities and classrooms that will be used in the furtherance of whatever we might be teaching at that time. Maybe we do a series on digital art, maybe a series on comic art. There’s all sorts of ways this could play out.

Perhaps Narrative First and yours truly will give a lecture there someday...

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January 17, 2017

The only thing that matters more to us more than a great story is publishing an accurate analysis of a great story. Here at Narrative First we would rather be told we were wrong than continue to provide a false and potentially misguided account of the narrative structure behind a work.

Our analysis of Guardians of the Galaxy always remained troublesome.

Gamora's Throughline peters out and dies leaving little explanation why Quill actually changed his point-of-view...To further weaken the film's structure, the Relationship Throughline between Quill and Gamora occupies but one scene over the span of 122 minutes--hardly the stuff of a well-developed thoroughly realized narrative.

The film was a huge and massive success and to suggest that perhaps there was something broken or deficient about the structure proved difficult to back up. We took umbrage with the apparent lack of a consistent and impactful Influence Character Throughline and felt the lack of a true Relationship Story Throughline--but that didn't seem to bother the rest of the world. Our dual ratings of Structure and Entertainment furthered the confusion for those who felt the film functioned appropriately on all levels.

Enter novelist Sebastien de Castell, writer of the popular Traitor's Blade series and his counter-argument for why Guardians of the Galaxy proved so successful:

The main structural criticism you cite with the film is the weak IC and RS throughlines because the only relationship that seems to be going on between Peter and another character is with Gamora—a sort of unfulfilled romance that is, at best, weak sauce. I agree completely. However when I ask myself what relationship in at the heart of the story, it’s the relationship of the team - not something between two individuals. Each of three characters—Gamora, Drax, and Rocket—represent the IC and are trying to force Peter to stop trying to make them into a team.

Despite how Peter starts the story—pretending to be a lone wolf out for himself, he’s actually desperate to have a family again because he’s never gotten over the death of his mother. That’s why the moment he connects with the other characters (in the prison complex), he immediately tries to get them to work as a team—first to save Gamora, then to escape the prison itself.

Throughout the movie, Gamora (“You’re too self-centered to care about others, Peter”), Rocket (“Everyone’s out for themselves”), and Drax (“I don’t care about anything except avenging my dead family”) handoff the role of IC as they push back against Peter’s steadfast desire to believe they can be a team together and do something good for the galaxy. Sometimes they do it with statements, sometimes with actions (Rocket and Drax getting into a drunken fight.)

The one person who starts to have faith in Peter’s position is Groot. When Groot sacrifices himself to save the others as the ship is crashing, he’s presaging the climactic moment during which all four throughlines converge: Peter grabs the gem out of the air, knowing it means death for him, but Gamora, Drax and Rocket complete the IC throughline when they change to Peter’s way of thinking. All three take Peter’s hand—that’s the act that signals both their acceptance of his approach and the coming together of the team.

By doing so, they complete the RS, because there’s no question anymore that this is a team. Finally, in that same instant, the OS is completed (stone is destroyed, preventing Ronan from destroying Xandar) and Peter’s MC story completes because he’s finally got his new family (we even see him thinking back to his mom before she died.)

So my argument is that if we accept the ‘team’ itself as the IC, the whole structure actually does fit perfectly into the Dramatica storyform model and explains why the film isn’t just fun fluff but actually feels genuinely satisfying to the audience.

Besides finding an opportunity to use "presaging" in a sentence, Sebastien nails the thematic undertones of the film.

It will take another viewing of the film to nail down the exact storyform, but right off the bat it would seem that Peter's Avoidance is really a function of his Main Character Symptom rather than an actual Problem. This would signify an Overall Story Problem and Influence Character Problem(or collective Influence Character Problems) of Oppose and a corresponding Solution of Support--both story points that support Sebastien's wonderful explanation above.

Attitude would take over as the Overall Story Issue which sounds five-thousand times better, especially in a comedy action/adventure like Guardians.

As always, if you read something here you don't quite agree with or see differently please feel free to contact us. The right storyform is infinitely more important than our storyform...

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January 13, 2017

Need to figure out how to create an effective and compelling backstory? Read Melanie's explanation on Justification:

We all share the same basic psychology but how it gets “wound up” by experience determines how we see the world. Eventually we reach a point where we’ve had enough experience to arrive at a conclusion that things are always “that way” and to stop considering the issue. And that is how everything from “winning drive” to “prejudice” is formed – not by ill intents or a dull mind but by the fact that no two life experiences are the same.

The "wound up" determines the "wound" of your Main Character. Their justifications protect while simultaneously defending them against further emotional injury. Until, that is, something or someone shows up to shake things up:

Stories begin at that moment – when the Main Character’s long-held subconscious belief system, world view, philosophy, or template for behavior comes into conflict with the world around him or her. And the story’s structure is all about how an Influence Character repeatedly brings this conflict to the surface in one context after another until there is so much evidence that the Main Character’s view is incorrect, that he or she must make a choice in a leap of faith: Do I stick with my long-held beliefs, even though they don’t seem to be solving the problem, or do I switch to a new point of view that seems to explain things, yet has never been tried?

Stay around to the end of Melanie's article on What Drives a Main Character to see why psychotherapy differs from narrative and why characters are never "real" people.

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January 13, 2017

You can now download the Story Engine Settings reports for the 2016 Story Embroidery class.

For those unfamiliar, every December the Dramatica Users Group gets together to create a complete story completely from scratch. Chris Huntley, co-creator of the theory, spins a random storyform from the 32,768 possible and then, in round-robin style, everyone around the table takes a story point and illustrates it.

The only rule is that one must honor the ideas and concepts submitted by the others in the group.

The result is an often-hilarious, surprisingly coherent, fully functional narrative—all in the course of a couple hours.

If you would like to follow along, open up these two separate Story Engine Settings reports:

And watch the video below. Enjoy!

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January 10, 2017

I love this analogy from Melanie concerning the difference between a Main Character who changes their Resolve (think Marlin in Finding Nemo or Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) in Captain Fantastic ) and a Main Character who has their Resolve changed over time (think Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) in Blue Jasmine or Elliot in E.T.):

Sometimes, in geology, this force gradually raises or lowers land in two adjacent plates. Other times it builds up pressure until things snap all at once in an earthquake. So too in story psychology, people are sometimes slowly changed by the gradual application of pressure as the main character’s justifications gradually unwind through experience. Other times the pressure applied structure just builds up until the character snaps in Leap Of Faith – that single “moment of truth” at the climax in which a character must decide either to change his ways (or outlook) or stick by his guns believing his current approach is stronger than the pressure bought to bear against him, believing he just has to outlast the forces against him to ultimately triumph.

Follow the link to The Tectonic Plates of Story Structure for a great visual as well.

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