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Thoughts on Story Structure

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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September 2, 2015

From guru Lindsay Doran, a reminder to make sure your Relationship Story Throughline is strong and clear:

“What shocked us,” said Dan Lin, a producer of the Sherlock Holmes films whose team recently watched a Doran presentation, “were Lindsay’s points about what audiences care about most — relationships and the positive resolution of those relationships. We had previously thought what was most important was the lead character winning at the end of the movie.”

The Dramatica theory of story doesn't consider a narrative complete or functional unless it has this subjective Relationship Throughline to act as a counter-balance to the Overall Story Throughline. Although you wouldn't know it to look at it, the theory does cover the Relationship Throughline quite extensively. As Dramatica Story Expert Mark Haslett explains in an ancient AOL chat class:

There can be success in the Subjective Story as there is in the Obj. Story. People just don’t think in those terms often ... There are actually appreciations in the software which we offer to describe the dynamics of the Objective Story which also exist for the subjective story, yet are not available to choose from. This is really due to our developing understanding of the theory and in the future they will be available also ... If the relationship between the Main and Obstacle character turns out “positively” or in a way they would agree was successful that would be something like the SS appreciation for Outcome.1

Hopefully someday we will get some controls to dial in the Relationship Throughline dynamics. It's only been 18 years since Mark wrote that, so I'm sure it won't be that much longer now.

I always think of the Relationship Throughline as if it is growing towards something positive, or dissolving away to something negative. Relationships are about analog dynamics, not digital switches (like the Overall Story), so you always want to think of the direction things are headed. A good analogy is to think of this part of a story as driven by knobs, not toggles. If the two central characters resolve positively then the Relationship Throughline Solution comes into play. If they don't, the Relationship Story Problem will persist between them.

The King's Speech - Together

Back to Duran:

Audiences don’t care about an accomplishment unless it’s shared with someone else. What makes an audience happy is not the moment of victory but the moment afterwards when the winners shares that victory with someone they love.

A little gooey and a bit too prescriptive (not everyone likes a happy ending), but again--points for the Relationship Throughline.


  1. By Obstacle Character Mark means Influence Character and by Subjective Story he means Relationship Throughline story. These were old terms--befitting of an AOL Chat Class from 1997. ↩︎

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September 1, 2015

The quick version of the story is Brad Bird almost directed Episode 7 but because he was busy with Tomorrowland he suggested that LucasFilm and Disney have a filmmaker he trusted prep the film for him, that filmmaker being Colin Trevorrow.

Guess I'm the only one who didn't know this. I wonder why Trevorrow reminded Bird of himself.

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September 1, 2015

Blasted through the first half of the 2nd Signpost rewrite for my Main Character! Some thematic appreciations are easier to write than others ... Or it could just be that it took me forever to get things set up in the first Act. Either way, feeling good about the draft changes. The story is just opening up in a way I didn't expect.

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September 1, 2015

A study shows that writing fiction can help keep you sane:

There isn’t a job on earth that doesn’t have its frustrating moments. And even if you’re completely satisfied with your professional life you’re only just in the majority. Statistically speaking, only a little over 50 percent of us are actually satisfied with our jobs. Can fiction writing help you deal with the difficult parts of your job?

In the past I've definitely found that to be the case. I once wrote an entire screenplay in six weeks because I was so frustrated.

What I really like about this article is the idea that you don't have to take writing so seriously:

for anybody looking to benefit from writing fiction there is no obligation to take it seriously at all. It can be something completely separate from your professional existence, something which you need never show to anybody else. It can be something done without judgement or criticism, purely for your own mental benefit.

So much of what I write is geared towards the end product. Something to be sold. I can only imagine the freedom that comes without giving attention to constant criticism.

Write something down. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t even have to make sense. The creativity of taking yourself out of the world as it is and dropping yourself into another one can have mental benefits, and it’s up to you to experience them.

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August 31, 2015

For some reason I felt compelled to check the animation gossip site CartoonBrew today and I really wished I hadn't. An ex-student of mine referred to my class as "fucking bullshit" in an article on gender inequality in the animation industry. After all the time and effort I put into that class (and the extra hours spent staying after), I can't tell you how disheartening it is to have my work falsely portrayed as something misogynistic and detrimental to women.

I made it very clear to Sabrina and to other students in my Story class at CalArts that what I was teaching had nothing to do with "masculine" story elements or "feminine" story elements. I did use "male" and "female" to describe the difference between the terms "linear" and "holistic", but stated over and over again that this was a gross generalization intended to make it easier for early 20-somethings to understand a very complex theory of story.

Apparently I didn't say it enough.

The fact that she says it was "a little hard to describe" only makes it clear to me that I didn't do a good enough job explaining myself. Never once did I claim that linear storytelling and big external stakes were "for men", while relationships and emotional storylines were "for women". That's a ludicrous assumption. And it's disingenuous for someone to describe my class that way.

You can learn more about what Sabrina refers to as "fucking bullshit" on my site Narrative First. Of interest might be my article Female Main Characters Who Think Like Female Main Characters where I explain the difference between Main Characters who solve problems linearly and Main Characters who solve problems holistically. The title of the article is intended to be clickbait, but if you actually take the time to read it you will see that it has nothing to do with "masculine" or "feminine" story elements.

Instead, you will find that the article--and my classes at CalArts--were teaching a theoretical concept of narrative known as the Main Character's Problem-Solving Style (Dramatica). This concept has nothing to do with gender bias, nothing to do with sexual preference, and nothing to do with masculine or feminine. It simply describes a technique of problem-solving present within the Main Character of a story.

Hopefully this clears up any confusion.

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August 30, 2015

About a quarter done with integrating my new comprehensive take on my Main Character Throughline (first Signpost) for screenplay 2015-02. Very happy and excited with the changes. It is interesting how well the Main Character's personal issues fit in with the larger story problem (Overall Story Throughline). I'll be writing and thinking of her own personal issues when all of a sudden, I'll see a connection between her stuff and what everyone else is dealing with. One will flow into the other.

In this story my Main Character Remains Steadfast in regards to her personal problems which means she will share the same kind of thematic Symptom and Response with the Overall Story. This translates into robust scenes. My Main Character will be focusing on problems she sees in the big picture, when really she is speaking of her own personal problems. Having such a familiarity with those kinds of issues, my Main Character jumps into action thinking she already knows how to solve everything.1

I'm finding a greater thematic resonance between the two Throughlines and an even greater potential for drama. With both Throughlines focused on the same dramatic Element at their core, there is a purpose for this Main Character to be in this story. The Audience gets a subjective and objective view of dealing with the same problem.


  1. Or at least, she thinks she does. This is the apparent Symptom and Response of the Throughline, not the actual Problem and Solution↩︎

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