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Thoughts on Story Structure

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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September 7, 2015

As I finish out my work on the Main Character Throughline for the rewrite of 2015-02, I'm starting to anticipate reworking the Influence Character Throughline. Feedback on this character centers around his tendency towards "bombastic" self-important speeches, an unfortunate result which I'm sure comes from his Domain resting in Psychology. With this rewrite I'm hoping to find something more authentic for his approach:

The Influence Character represents that “devil’s advocate “ voice within ourselves – the part of ourselves that validates our position by taking the opposing point of view so that we can gain perspective by weighing both sides of an issue.  This ensures that, as much as possible, we don’t go bull-headedly along without questioning our own beliefs and conclusions.

Now that I have a better understanding of my Main Character's issues, I'm sure rewriting the Influence Character will come with greater purpose.

In our own minds, we only have one sense of self – one identity.  The same is true for narratives, including fictional stories.  The Influence Character is not another identity, but our view of who we might become if we change our minds and adopt that opposing philosophical point of view.  And so, we examine that other potential “self” to not only understand the other side of the issues, but how that might affect all other aspects or facets of ourselves.  In stories, this self-examination of our potential future selves appears as the philosophical conflict and ongoing argument over points of view, act by act.

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September 6, 2015

Called to task again for my teaching of linear and holistic thinking in regards to narrative theory, I decided to jot down some thoughts to hopefully clear up any confusion. The topic at hand is the problem-solving style of the Main Character, a concept of narrative science that the Dramatica theory of story seems essential for determining the order of Acts and the touchpoints between the different Throughlines.

When asked how I would categorize my own thinking, I answered that I have a tendency towards more linear thought. Note I said tendency. The problem-solving style of the mind rests in a sliding scale, analog in nature and not a digital switch where one is "more clear" than the other.

To figure out where you might fit in in the scale, you need to break the mind down into four different areas--memories, innermost desires, conscious considerations and impulsive responses. The only one that is hard wired from birth is the impulsive responses--you can think of them as being the operating system for your mind (Mac vs. PC) as it filters and colors your perception of the world. You can nullify the effects of that filter with drugs (as some in the transgender/transsexual community do) but you can't change it. The others can and do change overtime as they're more fluid. For the most part males are hard wired to have linear impulsive responses while females are hard wired for holistic impulsive responses, but this is not a hard and fast rule. There are exceptions as nature is not a computer program, but for me it's pretty clear--my impulsive responses are linear.

When it comes to memories, this is where childhood experiences and your parents fall into place. My mom was predominantly linear and my dad was 200% holistic, so I grew up in a pretty balanced household. My mother had more influence over me, so again linearity wins.

Innermost desires hold your experience, your fears, your joy, your love and your anger. This one is always hard for me to figure out -it always comes across as a bit of a blind spot to me. If I had to guess I would say linear wins over in this area, but only by a little.

And finally there are the conscious considerations. Everyone can consciously choose to solve problems linearly or holistically, so it just comes down to whichever one you have a preference for. For me, it's holistic problem-solving. This is where my dad's influence comes in. The strength of his management consultant business has always been his ability to help clients solve problems holistically, and as a result I've tried to incorporate his success in my own work.

Final tally for me: 3/4 linear, 1/4 holistic and an unsurprising tendency towards linear problem-solving. I wish I was more holistic and who knows, perhaps over time my innermost desires can be moved in that direction. But for now, linearity has its hold over me.

As you can see, the problem-solving style of the mind can vary drastically for each individual. You may ask then, why determine one or the other for the Main Character of a story? Because the Main Character of a story is not a real person, he or she is a construct. Part of the purpose of story is to show the appropriate or best way to solve problems. Linear problem solving works one way, holistic problem solving works another. Changing the problem-solving style of the Main Character halfway through a story screws up the Act order and breaks the integrity of the problem-solving process.

The Main Character acts as our conduit into the conflict at hand. By setting the Main Character's personal problem-solving style to one or the other, the Audience gets to experience the fallout of trying to solve a problem a certain way and determine how best to solve their own problems.

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September 5, 2015

A little motivation for this Labor Day weekend from screenwriter Mark D. Rosenthal:

I believe there is no great screenplay that hasn’t at least been optioned. I believe there is no great screenplay that doesn’t get the writer into the business. Most screenplays are mediocre or just okay. Really great writing always, always gets noticed in Hollywood ... if the writing is great, you always get into the game.

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September 4, 2015

E.T. Under the Stars

No better way to end the summer than spending the night with John Williams under the stars. Doesn't hurt to have a great story along for the ride.

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September 3, 2015

Signposts and Journeys

For anyone confused between whether to use Signposts or Journeys or both when it comes to structuring their story with Dramatica, consider the above. Signposts on the left, Journeys on the right. Two different ways of looking at the same thing.

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September 3, 2015

To train Scheherazade, the researchers had the bot read hundreds of human-authored stories on two popular subjects: bank robberies and date nights at the movies. The program doesn’t understand the stories per se, but it can recognize important events and learn their sequence. For instance, when it reads a bunch of stories referencing movie popcorn, it learns that popcorn is something people like to buy at the movies, and that they do so before the movie starts.

Imagine what might happen if they incorporated a complex schematic of thematic story elements to hold all that important popcorn buying together? They might find they have something more meaningful than cause and effect.

At the moment, the researchers are paying people to write the stories Scheherazade is learning from using simple sentence structures. But eventually, the bot might develop to the point where it can read complex human novels, and remix them into interactive stories.

This is inevitable. Hopefully their brightest will discover Dramatica. Otherwise we might be facing a lot of pointless stories in our future.

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