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Thoughts on Story Structure

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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September 14, 2015

Screenplays are not works of art. They are invitations to others to collaborate on a work of art. PAUL SCHRADER

Always amazing to me how protective and egoist screenwriters can be when met with a story consultant. We're all writers, collaborating on art. Probably no surprise then, that I believe in The Idea of the Script Consultant.

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September 13, 2015

K.M. Weiland covers splitting the objective role of the Protagonist from the subjective point-of-view of the Main Character. She gets some things right and some things wrong, with the former outweighing the latter. The best most amazing part of her post is the giant cover photo of the Dramatica theory book, complete with generous attribution to Chris and Melanie. Never thought I would see the day when someone besides me would actually give credit to the people who started it all.

He [the Main Character] must be personally impacted by the protagonist and the main conflict.

This assumes that the Protagonist is also the Influence Character which isn't always the case.1 It is in Mad Max: Fury Road, The Lives of Others and The Shawshank Redemption, but it isn't in Casablanca nor Searching for Bobby Fisher.

I feel bad pointing this out as she fixes this mistake later in the comments, but for those who don't read comments, I submit the above.

Depending on your choice of main character/narrator, you have the potential to create interesting layers of juxtaposition and irony within your story. How different might Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird have been without the filter of Scout’s child eyes viewing her protagonist father’s actions?

Harper Lee uses a very clever technique to examine prejudice: objectively by looking at Atticus and the trial, and subjectively by looking from within Scout and her personal prejudice against Boo. Damn clever.

Stories with multiple POVs will allow you to show your protagonist both inside and out, but some protagonists may be better served only from the more objective outside perspective of a main character

There's more to this that is even more fascinating: the Main Character and Protagonist take two different views of the same inequity. Examine the example of To Kill a Mockingbird above: it's more than simply a matter of "better service", it's essential to our understanding of how to solve problems. We get to see the most appropriate way to deal with prejudice both from within and from without ourselves. That is something you can't do in real life.


  1. K.M. refers to the Impact Character which is old terminology for what is now called the Influence Character. There is no perfect name for this essential part of story, but Influence is the less prescriptive. ↩︎

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September 13, 2015

Found the post where Melanie discusses her disagreement with the term Impact Character and why she prefers Influence Character. Thought it would be appropriate, especially after seeing the old terminology used in a recent post elsewhere.

It was the following post that prompted me to ask Chris if we could change it, I think he and Melanie were already in the process of doing it. It rang more true to me, and I hope others will start using it in their conversations.

I don’t use the term Impact Character at all, because this character does not necessarily have any physical impact on anything. In fact, even the old term “Obstacle Character” also seemed to me to give a wrong impression. Chris changed it from Obstacle to Impact to improve it, but in my writings on Dramatica I use the term “Influence Character” because that (to me) more clearly indicates its role as the most influential character over the Main Character in regard to his or her central, personal drive or issue.

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September 12, 2015

I think I might be on the track with this draft of my Main Character for screenplay 2015-02. You can tell how personal it is by the sheer volume of postings and changes to this site here; no better way to avoid diving into deep personal issues than to manufacture an entire site about writing.

The closer I get to the end, the slower I go. Experimenting with banner images, redesigning the home page, writing this post--clear signs to me that I may have finally hit the mark on this one.

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September 11, 2015

As powerful as Dramatica is, it does come with some frustratingly complicated terminology--especially when you reach the very bottom of the theory chart. Terms like Production and Induction and Potentiality seem less like Dramatica terms of narrative and more like increasingly convoluted ways of saying the same thing.

Only they're not.

The 256 elements at the Character level delineate very specifically a unique quality of character. Split into sections labeled Motivations, Methodologies, Evaluations and Purposes, these elements form the foundation of characters within a narrative.

Dramatica Methodolgoies

There is a reason the Dramatica theory book focuses only on Motivations--they're the easiest to understand. Faith, Disbelief, Pursuit and Avoid are easy to comprehend and apply to story because we encounter them on a daily basis. Our culture loves them. It's when we diverge from that well worn Western path into conflicts of Methodologies and Purpose that we begin to lose clarity. Once the domain of European and independent cinema, the Methodology area claims increased interest in recent years. The Social Network, Mad Men, Nightcrawler and even Disney's Frozen all focus conflict in this area. Understanding the subtle differences between these elements becomes a priority for Authors working today.

Sets and Seeds

Most of these terms work towards increasing or decreasing a particular set of items. When decreasing, the one employing the technique starts with a set of items. When increasing, a gem or seed of inspiration is required.

With Production you take that seed of inspiration and see what you can come up with. You can totally disregard that original seed in the final product if you want to; all that matters is the inspiration that led to the burst of creativity.

With Induction, you have to maintain that seed of inspiration, as it becomes a part of what you are inducing. You're hypothesizing what could be, from what you see--but you have to include what you see.

With Reduction you look to the things that are shared by your sample set and you reduce them down. You focus on the commonalities.

And finally with Deduction you need to look at what all of them have in common.

Elementary Elements

Of course, many think of Sherlock Holmes when they see Deduction, but he wasn't really using that technique--he was using Induction. Holmes would take various bits of evidence and induce or hypothesize what they mean, coming up with all kinds of different scenarios. Then he would reduce those down to their common shared elements. Induction followed by Reduction.

And now you have some clarity to blow away your friends at the next cocktail party when it comes to the true problem-solving technique of one of the world's most famous detectives.

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