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Thoughts on Story Structure

September 22, 2015

Paul Jarvis shares his views on landing that big break--something every aspiring screenwriter dreams of:

That’s how creative life works. No secret tricks you just don’t know yet. No hacks that save you so much time that clocks run in reverse in your presence. It sounds about as sexy as golf pants because it’s just lots of work.

Many think Dramatica is a cheat, a way to quickly hack together a formula-driven Hollywood screenplay. Dramatica may help you figure out what to write, but you still actually have to sit down and write the whole thing.

Your Big Break

We just need to do the work that’s in us to do. We just need to keep making what we’re making. To not wait for someone else to tell us it’s ok, or good enough, or launchable, or valid. Yes, it could fail or only be a moderate success, but that’s outside of our control any way.

Sound advice for anyone working in a creative field, particularly writing. No use waiting around for that validation you have no control over.

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September 21, 2015

Been far too long since I've worked on 2015-02--at least a week. Work responsibilities and preparation for last weekend's Dramatica Guided Tour Workshop drained me of all my writing time and energy.

As I recall I was finishing up the Main Character's Third Signpost and was about to wrap it all up with the Fourth. Looking forward to switching gears and doing a pass on the Influence Character Throughline next, if only I can muster up the proper motivation ...

... So difficult getting yourself back in that mindset after being away from it for so long.

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September 20, 2015

Amazing revelation today during the Dramatica Guided Tour Workshop: for the longest time, I've been explaining the Overall Story of The Shawshank Redemption as the story of an innocent man unjustly imprisoned. My reasoning was based on the idea that without Andy stuck in prison, there would be no conflict for everyone.

The Structure of The Shawshank Redemption

As we discussed the film in class it began to dawn on me that the Overall Story doesn't end with Andy's escape, as it should if his incarceration is the source of trouble for everyone. The story ends when the warden kills himself.

A Situation Overall Story calls for a problematic situation; something is stuck and it needs to be unstuck. Remove the warden (and ostensibly the Captain of the Guards) and you remove the conflict. That describes the External Situation everyone in the story is dealing with. Shawshank isn't about Andy's unjust imprisonment, it's about a prison system run by a sadistic warden.

I'll have to change that image in the upper left to feature the warden.

I can't tell you how fortunate I am to be able to teach these classes. My understanding of story and narrative grows with each and every workshop. When it comes to Dramatica I care more about being accurate then I do about being right and this workshop today gave me another opportunity to grow.

Now if only there was some way to edit my YouTube analysis of The Shawshank Redemption to correct my mistake.

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September 20, 2015

A writer’s duty is to register what it is like for him or her to be in the world. ZADIE SMITH

And hearing that somehow lightens the pressure of showing up every day. Say what you say and feel. That's enough.

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September 19, 2015

Finished the first day of The Dramatica Guided Tour Workshop. Smaller class size made it easier to facilitate more one-on-one interactions. Still amazing to me how it always works out to exactly seven hours in length.

Dramatica Table of Story Elements

Today's topics included the fundamentals of Dramatica and inequities, the four Major Throughlines found in every complete story, and an overview of the four Main Character Dynamics (Resolve, Growth, Approach, and Problem-Solving Style) and the four Plot Dynamics (Driver, Limit, Outcome, and Judgment). Using a single film as a common point of reference for these topics (in this case Nightcrawler) works wonderfully and I'm glad I made that change earlier this year.

Looking forward to getting into more of the Dramatica nitty-gritty tomorrow with a focus on the deep thematics in each Throughline.

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September 18, 2015

A common question for those new to Dramatica is how exactly the Influence Character's Signposts work with the Main Character. Their limited understanding usually falls into one of two camps:

A) The Influence Character deals with their Signpost which somehow influences the Main Character OR

B) The Influence Character somehow influences the Main Character to deal with the Influence Character's Signpost.

The confusion arises because of some apparently contradicting definitions within the Dramatica theory book. These complications befuddle would-be writers so greatly that some take to sending identical form letters to separate Dramatica Story Experts--all in an effort to expose the hypocrisy. One response is all that is needed:

The answer you're going to get is "No." Dramatica doesn't have to settle on either one because they're not mutually exclusive -- both a) and b) apply. They're both correct because they both serve the same purpose by providing influence towards the Main Character's throughline.

Now that is an Expert opinion. (Full disclosure: I was the expert).

Responding to a question posing Memory as an example Influence Character Signpost Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley backs my answer up:

Both A and B are correct. It is the presence of Memory that influences the Main Character's in his dealings with his personal issues. Whether it is an attribute of the Impact Character, or attributed to the Impact Character is irrelevant. The reality of one explanation does not cancel out the other.

Even if you do not connect the dots between the MC throughline and the IC throughline, the audience will.

This is something that takes awhile to understand. The Storyform is a construct, a carrier wave meant to relay information to the Audience. It doesn't matter which approach you use as long as the Audience understands the kind of influence impacting the Main Character. Do that and the Audience will be able to synthesize the Throughline and be able to make sense of what you are trying to tell them.

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September 17, 2015

The Apartment

This is what great storytelling looks like. (from The Apartment).

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September 17, 2015

I don't show who a character is, I show what a character wants. They have to want it bad. If they can NEED it that's even better. AARON SORKIN

How can you argue with the man behind the insanely-great looking movie Steve Jobs?

Steve Jobs

Well, you don't have to ... but you can elaborate on this popular notion of wants vs. needs:

The reason why want vs. need fails for creative writers is because it is an interpretation of meaning after the fact. Much like the dueling concepts of learning Heroes and teaching Heroes, these interpretations of a story’s events spring forth as the credits roll. The concept functions after the first draft or two as it makes the final message concrete, but is that helpful when staring at a blank page?

In my article The Mechanics of Want vs. Need I discuss where the difference between these two lies in story structure and how to differentiate between the two before you even get started.

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September 16, 2015

There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be. DORIS LESSING

Something so comforting about this. No studio executive notes. No collaboration. Pure story from the mind of one individual.

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September 16, 2015

From the Chris Huntley if I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times archive:

Actions happen. Decisions are made.

The Story Driver can be a tough nut to crack on some stories. Is someone getting elected an Action or is it a Decision? Is a woman getting an abortion an Action or a Decision? In these cases the difference seems so minimal as to make the narrative concept meaningless.

It isn't. In fact, how you set up the cause and effect relationship between Action and Decision determines the entire meaning of a story, including--but not limited too--the order of thematic topics explored.

Examining the Order of Events

David Lean's Brief Encounter ends with Alec leaving for South Africa. This is the final Story Driver as it wraps everything up. So was his leaving an Action or a Decision?

Actions happen. Decisions are made.

Alec didn't decide to leave; he left. His leaving indicates an Action Story Driver.

You can also look to what happens after the Story Driver. Story Drivers force the opposite: actions force decisions and decisions force actions. The order communicates cause and effect to the Audience.

A pregnant teenager getting an abortion on her own forces her parents into deciding what to do with their daughter and forces her boyfriend into choosing whether or not to stay with her. The Action forces a Decision (or group of Decisions, or Deliberations).

A woman who must make the tough decision to get an abortion forces her newly engaged fiancé into doing whatever it takes to cover up for her. The Decision made forces Actions to be taken.

Two very different stories about the same plot point. The difference in feeling has everything to do with the cause and effect dictated by the Story Driver.

Actions happen. Decisions are made.

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