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Thoughts on Story Structure

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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September 10, 2015

Locked within the Influence Character Throughline is a very unique and important concept: the Influence Character Unique Ability. Long thought to be an indicator of the Influence Character's power over the Main Character's Unique Ability, this element of structure recently received greater clarification.

The confusion rests in these two definitions of the concept (both from the Dramatica Story Expert application):

The attribute attached to the Influence Character that makes him uniquely qualified to force the Main Character to address his personal problem is described by his Unique Ability.

and

the item that makes the Influence Character uniquely able to thwart the Main Character

The latter is vague (thwart how exactly), the former is incomplete; both contradict what is generally understood to be the answer: the item that makes the Influence Character uniquely able to undermine the Main Character's Unique Ability. Listen to any Dramatica podcast analysis over the past ten years and you'll hear Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley define the Unique Ability in this way.

Well, times have changed.

During our recent group analysis of Brief Encounter, Huntley offered clarification:

I have been defining it too narrowly, and too specifically. It is broader, it is not specifically about the Main Character's Unique Ability ... It is, but it isn't, it's not as specific ... It's much broader and makes more sense. And it was what we originally had concluded. The Influence Character Unique Ability is the Influence Character's unique ability to force the Main Character to change.

By defining the Influence Character Unique Ability as something that undermines the Main Character's Unique Ability, Chris was connecting the Influence Character to the Overall Story--and that's not what that character is really about. It's something more subjective, speaking clearly of Influence Character's sphere of influence over the Main Character.

If you still find yourself confused, try to think of it this way:

  • The Main Character's Unique Ability influences the Overall Story Throughline towards its Solution
  • The Influence Character's Unique Ability influences the Main Character Throughline towards its Solution

Why? Because a Story Outcome of Success requires the Overall Story Solution and a Changed Main Character Resolve requires the Main Character Solution. The Unique Abilities are similar in how they affect different Throughlines towards a Solution, but they weren't affecting the same Throughline as we had been led to believe.

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September 10, 2015

New version of iA Writer is out. No idea why you would use this over the vastly superior Editorial or Drafts--the two apps I use to write everything. I purchased the original version of iA year's ago, but can't see a compelling reason to try it it again.

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September 9, 2015

Had a great time at the monthly Dramatica Users Group meeting last night. We took a look at David Lean's Brief Encounter and while a faulty air-conditioning unit left the room a stifling 105 degrees, the eight of us (including theory co-creator and facilitator Chris Huntley) managed to find a storyform that worked on all levels.

Brief Encounter Dramatica Analysis

Story Judgment and the Main Character's Problem-Solving Style were points of contention. The former was split 50/50 with half feeling that Laura was miserable and still full of angst at the end (Story Judgment: Bad) and the other half--my half--feeling that while Laura was despondent over the end of the affair, she was relieved to know that her husband was there waiting for her (Story Judgment: Good).

The Problem-Solving Style of Laura was also split down the middle. Some thought she showed signs of being Linear, while others saw Holistic.

Going with what we knew about the story we were able to whittle down the possible story forms from 32767 to 4--leaving only two choices left to make: Story Judgment and Problem-Solving. Instead of fighting it out in the heat, we took a look at the Influence Character's Unique Ability. This is the kind of thing that gives the Influence Character power, or influence, over the Main Character to change.

Alec, who was Laura's Influence Character in this story, had two choices left for Unique Ability--Attraction or Work. At first we thought Attraction, but after looking at what that did to the storyform we went with Work. Alec's work--what he can do, his ability to get it done early, and to be there at the right place at the right time, is the exact kind of thing that gives him influence over poor Laura.

Setting that story concept to Work forced us into a final storyform, giving Laura a Problem-Solving style of Holistic and the Story a Judgment of Good (yay!). The latter makes more sense as the film had more of a bittersweet feeling to it rather than an all-out tragedy. Previous choices had forced the Story Outcome to Failure and combining that with a Bad Judgment would have classified Brief Encounter a tragedy--along with stories like Hamlet or Se7en. That simply doesn't feel right.

Combining a Story Outcome of Failure with a Judgment of Good gives us a Personal Triumph story, which sounds more like this film. Rain Man or The Devil Wears Prada are just two examples of films that end in a personal triumph: while the logistical conflict may have failed, the personal journey of the Main Character ends in a positive place. Laura left a "bad dream" to return to her husband; perhaps a tragedy in modern times, but certainly a bit of personal triumph by 1945 standards.

If interested, you can watch the videocast of our analysis of Brief Encounter.

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September 8, 2015

Online you'll find a "Dramatica" analysis of Frozen that differs from the official Dramatica analysis and differs from my own personal Dramatica analysis. Citing subjective opinion as grounds for woefully inaccurate conclusions, this analysis only confuses those new to the theory and threatens the integrity of Dramatica. Homegrown interpretations of this complicated and refined theory serve only to diminish the hard work of the past two decades.

Every complete story consists of four major Throughlines: Main Character, Influence Character, Relationship Story and Overall Story. Every complete story takes a look at conflict from four different contexts: a Situation, an Activity, a Fixed Attitude, and a Way of Thinking. Four Throughlines, Four contexts. Assign one context to one Throughline and you have a complete story. Leave one out or double them up and you'll have a hole--in short, a broken story.

The Author of the offending analysis believes that the Overall Story of Frozen focuses on Fixed Attitudes as the source of conflict. Frozen is about the furthest you can get from an Overall Story of Fixed Attitudes. Think of films like 12 Angry Men or Searching for Bobby Fisher or a novel like To Kill a Mockingbird and you can get an idea of what a Fixed Attitude story is all about. Prejudice, bias, stoic opinion--these are the trappings of an Overall Story mired in Fixed Attitude.

Frozen doesn't even come close. You won't find a single Dramatica Story Expert who agrees with this notion, nor would I suppose an endorsement from the theory's creator, Chris Huntley. In fact, the official Dramatica analysis of Frozen (both podcast and videocast) features Chris leading a group analysis of the film. In it, you'll find that experts themselves had trouble agreeing on the specific thematics of the piece as the film is simply broken narratively.

The one thing we did agree on though was the source of conflict in the Overall Story. Like Elsa's heart, the landscape of Arendelle is frozen. Literally. Everyone is stuck in that Situation and suffers from that fixed external problem. No one is prejudice. No one is biased. Everyone suffers from the same predicament--they're stuck in that town.

Dramatica Analysis is Not Subjective

The erroneous analysis offers this as preamble:

One cannot eliminate the subjective aspect of story analyses. We all see stories differently and certain elements carry more weight for some people than others.

This is a cop out--a defensive technique designed to hinder meaningful discussion. Story analysis is not subjective--at least not the type we do at the monthly Dramatica Users Group meetings. A consensus is always required and everyone is required to defend their point-of-view. One can't just say "Well, that's how I see it" and expect to find an actual storyform.

In order for Dramatica to work, definitive examples backed up by thorough analysis of every Throughline are required. One can always argue a single context for a single Throughline. I could make a case for Frozen as commentary on a Way of Thinking or Activities, but I certainly wouldn't be able to make a case for the other Throughlines.1 It's only when you're able to argue coherent examples for each Throughline in its own context that you're able to arrive at an accurate storyform.

During the theory's infancy, it is important that examples of Dramatica analysis be vetted and agreed upon by experts in the field. If inaccurate analysis is left unchecked, the theory stands to lose much in terms of its clarity and insight. A model for comprehensive and thematically coherent storytelling is here; let's not destroy it with homespun interpretations and subjective opinion.


  1. I would also be laughed out of the room. Or at least seriously chided. ↩︎

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