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Thoughts on Story Structure

January 8, 2017

In the video Dramatica: Past, Present, Future, and Beyond theory co-creator Melanie Anne Phillips mentions the use of Dramatica in the analysis of real world situations.

Late last year we ran a series on Structuring Narratives in the Real World that discussed the various approaches towards using Dramatica to make sense of the senseless.

This is a challenging hurdle to get over. How can our lives be structured into stories if so much of it seems random?

Melanie addresses this in her post on Narrative in a Chaotic World:

True chaos has no predictable pattern.  Narrative is our attempt to find more stable transitory patterns in the ebb and flow – like the Red Spot on Jupiter but rather in terms of behavior – either ours or those around us.  Narrative puts a box around a part of our chaotic world and says that within this box, we can accurately predict the inner workings of things, assuming no force from outside the box disturbs or influences our captive slice of reality.

Combined with the notion that Our Minds Are Narrative-Generating Machines , one can begin to see that we quite easily self-regulate into storytelling.

When the proscribed behavioral plan suggest[ed] by each of our myriad of individual narratives come into conflict, we must rise above a series of independent solutions to create a greater narrative in which each smaller narrative becomes an element.  And then, we must arranges the interactions and contextual specifications of each of the smaller narratives, favoring one at times and another at other times or in other situations in order to co-ordicnate a larger truth to chart the overall course of our lives.

Our narratives craft the meaning we seek.

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January 7, 2017

This month I started reading The Voice of Knowledge: A Practical Guide to Inner Peace. The book espouses the wisdom of the Toltecs by contemplating the notion that our lives are simply dreams; the inner monologues--or stories--we tell ourselves alter our perception of reality.

The book dovetails nicely with the Dramatica theory of story, especially this notion of our minds as narrative-generating machines:

Realize that your mind is a narrative-generating machine. That is why narratives exist in the first place: because they mirror the processes of the mind. But the mind is also a repository of topical information – subject matter – and engages in the process of synthesizing two or more old ideas into a new one. The new ideas may or may not fit into the narrative the mind is constructing. And yet the heart is drawn more to the new ideas, just as the mind is drawn more to a balanced and complete structure.

Looking forward to finding more crossovers between the Toltecs and Chris and Melanie.

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January 6, 2017

Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story, on the personality of a story:

As we get to know people a little better, our initial impression of the “type” of person they are begins to slowly alter, making them a little more of an individual and a little less of a stereotype. To this end, as the first act progresses, you may want to hint at a few attributes or elements of your story’s personality that begin to drift from the norm.

The most interesting--yet most difficult to incorporate--aspect of Dramatica is this idea of structure determining the personality of a narrative. Far more enlightening than the prevailing idea of one journey to rule them all, identifying the flavor of narrative through the conflicts they explore opens up a wellspring of understanding for the conscientious Author.

Genre sits at the top of the Dramatica Table of Story Elements and it is here that you will find the different kinds of personality-types for different narratives.

For instance, The Sixth Sense shares a similar personality type with The Others not because of their subject matter and StoryWeaving reveals, but rather because of their focus on misunderstandings in the Overall Story and blind Fixed Attitudes on the part of their respective Main Characters.

Likewise, the narrative personality of The Bourne Identity differs from Aliens not because the former is a "Thriller" and the latter a "Sci-Fi Action" movie, but rather because Bourne struggles with Memories while Riley struggles with The Past.

The uniqueness of a narrative construct lies in its arrangement of conflict through the Four Throughlines. Our series of articles on Conflict addresses these personality types in detail.

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January 5, 2017

Having four kids who cynically break down a film's story the moment we exit the theater is a great reminder that I talk too much about Dramatica. The film in question was Illumination's Sing, and while everyone agreed that it was fun--they all universally felt that there were "too many characters" in it to be a good story.

The real problem with Sing exists in the under-developed Relationship Story Throughline and mostly absent Influence Character, not the existence of "too many" characters. In fact, it is possible to write a compelling and effective narrative where everyone works on separate--yet common--Story Goals.

Melanie Anne Phillips explains in Writing Stories with a “Collective” Goal:

For example, in the movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” all the characters are struggling with their relationships and not working toward an apparent common purpose.  There is a goal, however, and it is to find happiness in a relationship.

This type of goal is called a “Collective Goal” since it is not about trying to achieve the same thing, but the same KIND of thing.

In Four Weddings the Collective Goal is Becoming (or Changing One's Nature). In Sing the Collective goal is Being (or Playing A Role). Interesting too that most ensemble movies find their Overall Stories in the Psychology or Manipulation Domain.

One subjective character, one "Protagonist", one Goal stories are fine and dandy; but it sure is nice every now and then to see someone attempt to work an ensemble piece in the middle of a genre dedicated to the commonplace.

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January 4, 2017

Truth be told, one of the hardest things for a predominantly linear Author to understand is the mind of a holistic character. We simply don't get this idea of emotional tendency; you either want to do something or you don't--there is no in-between.

In this example of the difference between linear and holistic problem-solving, Melanie Anne Phillips offers us on-off thinkers the emotional experience of dealing with the tides of emotions.

As with most of Melanie's writing, I return to this one often for greater clarity. For some reason, over the holiday break, I started to really get this idea of what it must be like for a holistic character to balance all the varying degrees of motivation that run through their head.

It's worked wonders for my own personal relationship as well. :)

Taking Home the Bread

In this fantastic post, Melanie takes you through the thought process of deciding whether or not to return to the lunch table to pick up some bread she forgot...

That’s good bread, but I’m full. I might take it home, but I’m not convinced it will reheat. Also, I’ve really eaten too many calories in the last few days, I’m two pounds over where I want to be and I have a hair appointment on Wednesday and a dinner date on the weekend with a new friend I want to impress, so maybe I shouldn’t eat anymore. The kids won’t want it, but I could give it to the dog, and if I get hungry myself, I’ll have it there (even though I shouldn’t eat it if I want to lose that two pounds!) So, I guess it’s better to take it than to leave it.

Sounds like a nightmare to me to have to sift through all these different considerations to arrive at a simple decision, but apparently this is the reality.

She explains:

To me there was only a tendency toward bringing the bread home, and barely enough to justify the effort. To Chris it was a binary decision: I wanted to bring it home or not.

Well yeah. Do you want it or not??

I’m thinking, “How does this change the way I feel about the situation?” Chris is thinking, “How can she solve this problem.”

This is where I started to really understand what it must be like...and therefore, how to create that same kind of understanding in the characters I write that aren't exactly like me.

I’m trying to convey about a thousand petty concerns that went into my emotional assessment that it was no longer worth going back for. Chris just hears a bunch of trumped up reasons, none of which are sufficient to change one’s plans.

And that pretty much nails 90% of all the arguments between me and significant other. One woman's problem-solving is another man's justification.

I operated according to an emotional tendency to bring the bread home that was just barely sufficient to generate even the slightest degree of motivation. Chris doesn’t naturally assume motivation has a degree, thinking that as a rule you’re either motivated or you are not.

Read through this a thousand times in year's past, and this is the first time I actually saw the words "emotional tendency".

Now, what does all this mean? When men look at problems, they see a single item that is a specific irritation and seek to correct it. When they look at inequities, they see a number of problems interrelated. Women look at single problems the same way, but sense inequities from a completely emotional standpoint, measuring them on a sliding scale of tendencies to respond in certain ways.

Unbelievably coherent understanding of the difference between our two operating systems and a key insight into applying this reality to our own stories.

Probably time to re-read Melanie's article on the difference between male and female problem-solving.

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January 3, 2017

Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story, on the elusive search for perfect story structure:

No one reads a book or goes to a movie to experience a perfect structure. They come to stories to ignite their passions. BUT – if that passionate storytelling is TOO flawed, the readers or audience pop right out of the experience and the passion is lost!

On the other hand, if you try to achieve a perfect story structure, you are going to undercut some of the subject matter and storytelling expressions that give your story life. Then, you compromise the intensity of the experience and, though your story is on solid ground, it just lays there and nobody cares.

As a giant fan of Dramatica and well-structured meaningful stories, I can personally attest to being too caught up in making things fit Dramatica--instead of using the theory's concepts to help refine the story's edges. Most of the time I see what needs to be there, instead of seeing what is there.

If 2017 is about anything, it should be about finding a greater balance between structure and heart, meaning and art.

The solution is to know what the perfect structure would be for your particular story, but to use it only as a guide to tweak your story wherever you can to make the structure stronger without ever making a change that will drain passion from your story.

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January 2, 2017

In addition to the weekly articles we write on story structure, we also publish detailed Dramatica analysis of film—both great and awful. As mentioned in last year’s blog post The Difference Between Structure and Entertainment, we break out the film’s analysis into two different categories, Structure and Entertainment, and rate these on a scale from 1 to 5—with one signifying horrendous and five marking a rating of fantastic.

Today we release The Very Best and Worst of 2016.

Films with a rating of five for both Structure and Entertainment should be considered must-sees for the consumate story lover. Those with a rating of one or zero in both should be forgotten and ignored as soon as possible.

High markings in Entertainment but low in Structure often signify an enjoyable fun ride with little intelligence behind it. High markings in Structure but low in Entertainment simply don't exist—a great Structured story is a great film.

The Amazingly Fantastic Films of 2016

Out of the 31 films we analyzed over the past year, these seven stand out as the absolute best:

Fantastic Films of 2016

No surprise that animation features twice in this roundup; with a process that involves years and years of collaboration and pushing writers and story teams to deliver the very best in narrative both Inside Out and Zootopia grab top honors in both Structure and Entertainment.

The Dark Horse surprised us, as did Beasts of No Nation. If you haven't seen these, make sure you do—you won't be disappointed.

The Fun But Broken Films of 2016

Our second category features those films that score high in Entertainment but a big goose egg in terms of Structure. Melanie is right—people don't go to to movies to witness "perfect" structure. However, if a film lacks basic narrative cohesion it quickly becomes forgettable and akin to an amusement park ride.

Fun But Broken Films of 2016

The Revenant will keep you scared of bears forever. The Big Short will make you hate banks forever. And Trolls will keep you dancing and smiling long after you have completely forgotten what the story was about.

The outlier here is Hell or High Water. Many found the film complete and effective. We personally felt dissonance between the Main and Influence Character's Resolves. You might want to check this film out and let us know what you think.

Avoid At All Costs

Interestingly enough the "Avoid At All Costs" category, which signifies a zero or one rating in both Structure and Entertainment, stands completely empty. As this was our first year devoting 100% of our time to Narrative First, you can well understand the decision to choose critically acclaimed or most-likely critically acclaimed films to analyze.

Watching a 0/0 can be a painful experience. Visit our Analysis Showcase for a listing of films to avoid at all costs since 2006.

2017

In the following year we plan on analyzing even more films and perhaps adding a season or two of some popular television series (Westworld for sure!). In addition we will report on those films analyzed at the monthly Dramatica Users Group meetings. If you have any suggestions or recommendations, please don't hesitate to drop us a line.

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January 1, 2017

Happy New Year everyone!!

Every year at Narrative First we write weekly in-depth articles covering narrative structure & analysis. Starting in March and continuing through November, these articles seek to better understand why some stories work better than others. For context we use the complex yet deeply insightful Dramatica theory of story as our baseline.

Dramatica sees every complete story as an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Character, plot, theme, and genre act as stand ins for the motivations, the methodologies, the evaluations, and purposes of this singular story mind. The closer the narrative mimics the psychological processes of the mind the better and stronger the story.

Looking back over 2016, we found ten articles that stood out as being the most informative and insightful. For a complete listing of articles dating back to 2006, please visit the Narrative First Archives.

1.The Veil Between Author and Audience

Undoubtedly the most important article of the year. Every other paradigm of story--from the Hero's Journey to Save the Cat! To the Sequence Method--looks at story from the Audience's point-of-view. Dramatica stands in sharp contrast to these approaches by looking at story from the Author's point-of-view.

The distinction is important--you don't craft a great meal by analyzing how it tastes. You craft a great meal by understanding the ingredients available to you and appreciating how they interact with each other.

2.Writers Who Write the Same Main Character

Functioning simultaneously as a great primer on Dramatica, this article shows how some Authors find themselves drawn to the same thematic structures found in the mind. If you catch yourself attracted to certain stories, chances are there is some aspect of problem-solving you personally want to work out.

3.Writing a Perfectly Structured Scene with Dramatica

What began as a simple blog post covering the smallest unit of dramatic structure evolved into our most ambitious article of the year. Refining a series of blog posts on Scene Structure, this article built upon ideas and concepts alluded to by Melanie Anne Phillips in many of her own posts on the Storymind concept.

Most of Dramatica deals with the broadest strokes of narrative: namely, Acts and Sequences. The creators of the theory purposefully avoided smaller units of dramatic structure in an effort to avoid creating a "story-by-numbers" situation. As this article seeks to show, a greater understanding of the minutiae of storytelling leads to an increase in creative possibilities, not a reduction.

4.The Problem with Reverse Engineering Dramatica

As powerful as Dramatica is, it can quickly turn into a colossal time sink. Dramatica's complex concepts grant writers the perfect excuse not to write. If you're given to bouts of writer's block, Dramatica offers the Hoover Dam.

Certain aspects of the theory remain hidden. Dramatica's "secret sauce"--the algorithms that determine Act order--remain locked away deep within the program. Many find themselves drawn to the prospect of revealing this secret--typically the same kind of person given to bouts of writer's block.

It is only once the writer lets go of the skepticism driving this treasure hunt that they finally begin to see the monumental gains possible with Dramatica.

5.How to End Writer's Block Forever

Speaking of writer's block, here is a great article on how to use Dramatica's brainstorming features to make sure you're never left without a story to tell.

6.How to Tell if Your Main Character Faces Overwhelming or Surmountable Odds

Perhaps our most popular article on redefining and "extending" Dramatica beyond its original theory book, this article provides a rare insight into story points seen from an Audience's point-of-view.

7.Predicting Who Will Listen to Your Story

Our most controversial article of this year provides verifiable proof that the way you structure your story determines the gender makeup of your Audience. Often derided as sexist or misogynistic, Dramatica's concept of the Main Character's Problem-Solving Style explains why men feel drawn to certain stories and women to others. Read with an open mind and understand: there isn't an ounce of sexism or gender politics in Dramatica--only a fascinating insight into the different operating systems found between us.

8.Using Dramatica to Assess Narratives in the Real World

Dramatica isn't just for fiction. Based as it is on the mind's problem-solving process, it only makes sense that the theory can be applied to narratives in the real world as well. Once you understand the fractal nature of story and how we self-group into character types in our families, communities, cities, states, and nations you begin to see how Dramatica can help us solve the problems we face in our everyday lives.

The Dramatica theory of story is a powerful insight into the proper structuring of effective narratives. Whether through fiction or in the real world, an appreciation of the mind's problem-solving process can help us better understand the kind of solutions needed to achieve our greatest goals.

We appreciate you taking the time to read more about what we offer, and we look forward to expanding our potential to help you in the New Year.

See you then!

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November 21, 2016

Dramatica story expert Mike Wollaeger on what a Dramatica storyform is:

The Storyform is what the author knows, not what the characters in the story know. So if they are trying to avoid intimacy, but you as an author are telling a story about finding intimacy, your goal is probably along those lines.

The original poster wondered what the Story Goal would be if the characters are trying to avoid what they secretly want. This is always the hardest thing for writers new to Dramatica to understand. The Story's Goal, the Story's Concern, the Story's Issue--these are the story's Goal, Concern, and Issue as seen by the Author.

The storyform represents what the Author is trying to communicate to the Audience.

Dramatica sets itself apart from all other paradigms of story by taking an objective look at a narrative. Hero's Journey, Save the Cat!, the Sequence Method, Bob's Twenty Five Ways to Write a Novel--these are all subjective Audience-based interpretations of the dynamics found within a narrative.

The problem with subjective interpretations of story is that they are, by definition, subjective--and open to all sorts of inaccuracies and biases. An objective view of narrative avoids opinion and preconception by telling it like it is--it might be harder to swallow and understand, but it is always accurate.

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November 15, 2016

Researching the Dramatica theory of story and its reception as of late led me to an old post from last year entitled Dramatica and What it Means for Story. In it, I quote a science fiction forum with strange ideas about copyright law and accepted methods of participation.

Time to revisit that post as a writer who briefly stopped by the Discuss Dramatica forum in March of this year, also took time out to leave disinformation and confusion on the sci-fi forum.

Terminology

First this:

The theory is overly complex, its terminology baroque, its rigidity of form a flaw and not a feature, and overblown claims notwithstanding it does NOT offer a complete theoretical approach to solving development of all storyform. Not even close.

A pretty broad sweeping statement with little to back it up. Accusations of "baroque terminology" often indicate a mind not willing to take the time to dig deeper into Dramatica's unique story terminology and perspective on narrative. Dramatica's Definitions Are Not Your Own and Understanding Dramatica's Complex Terminology Made Easier are two places where open-minded individuals begin.

Structure & Entertainment

The writer continues:

One of the indicators that this MUST be so can be found at Jim Hull's web site. He sells his skills as a Dramataica expert, particularly in screenplay form. I expect he's actually good at that. But if one digs into his published film analyses, there are several 'scratch your head' moments in the division between his "Story Score" and "Entertainment Score".

I am, actually, really good at it. I'm also really good at helping build television series, novels, and plays. Story is story regardless of medium, but I realize some feel screenplays are more "structured" than other forms of storytelling.

However, the attempt to misguide people with lies about how I present my analyses is inexcusable. I don't divide up my critiques into a "Story Score" and "Entertainment Score". How the Hell woud anyone give a rating in regards to story? People have a hard enough time differentiating between a story and a tale, why would I rate on a differential in semantics?

Instead, the analyses on Narrative First offer two ratings: Entertainment and Structure. I do this because I recognize that there are some films that offer amazing experiences, yet don't come close to providing a meaningful narrative to go along with it. I love Terence Malick's The Tree of Life and I really enjoyed the recent animated film Trolls—but both are functionally broken in terms of narrative.

By narrative I refer, of course, to what Dramatica calls a Grand Argument Story. Four Throughlines—Main Character, Influence Character, Relationship Story, and Overall Story—all in service of providing an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. The closer a film approaches an accurate representation of a functional storyform the higher the Structure rating.

As it turns out—and this should be no surprise to anyone who has spent any time actually investigating Dramatica—the closer a film approaches an accurate storyform, the better and more critically acclaimed the film. Check out our showcase of Narrative First analyses:

Showcase of Great Narrative

her. Whiplash. Zootopia. These are all films universally lauded for their artistry and great storytelling. They also happen to all score 5/5 for Structure and a 4/5 or 5/5 for Entertainment here on Narrative First. A complete storyform, or high Structure rating, guarantees critical acclaim and universal praise. The converse is not true: a high Entertainment rating guarantees nothing except popularity—a quality that is both temporary and fleeting.

The writer on the forum refers to our analysis of Guardians of the Galaxy, taking umbrage at our "story" score of 1/5 (again, this is a rating of its narrative structure) yet failing to mention our 5/5 rating for Entertainment. Guardians is a really fun movie—hilarious, well-acted, and exciting. Unfortunately the lack of a proper story structure makes it something that is easily forgotten. Who here remembers what happened in Guardians of the Galaxy? I recall some gem and funny moments with the big muscle-bound guy. Now who here remembers what happend in To Kill a Mockingbird or Whiplash?

Exactly.

It's not 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it's not a terrible movie either. In fact, audiences loved it. And the fact that Jim Hull rated it so poorly in Story terms should say something about Dramatica Theory. Because if the theory can't predict which stories will emotionally impact audiences, it's not a useful theory for crafting story. By definition. Right?

Structure and Entertainment. Please think about and understand the difference. I believe and recognize that Guardians entertained audiences…I'm not quite sure it emotionally impacted them on the level of her or Zootopia or Inside Out.

The Dangers of Multiple Personality Disorder in Story

The writer moves on with more disinformation and misunderstanding:

So what attracted me to spend the time digging through Dramatica theory? At its core is one insight that authors should consider seriously. That story characters and events symbolically represents divergent and competing psychological states within the author. Much like multiple personality disorder. That the process of reading evokes the same in the audience. And from this insight one can learn something useful about successful craftsmanship.

Ugh. Not even close. Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre represent different aspects of a singular mind trying to solve a problem. One mind, one personality.1 Multiple personalities suggests multiple storyforms and is a huge problem when collaborating with several different Authors with several different ideas of what a story should be about. A Dramatica storyform keeps everyone on track with the purpose and original intent of a narrative.


  1. In fact, Dramatica sees Genre as the personality of the mind. ↩︎

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