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Thoughts on Story Structure

March 31, 2017

Back in the vault, Part Two in our series on Main Character and Meaning from waaaayy back in 2010: Development of Character Arc. Short and sweet, the best part was adding this shot of Lester from American Beauty to the article:

Lester Burnham from *American Beauty*

Interesting to look back and see our error in thinking Woody a Changed Main Character in the first Toy Story. The original version of Dramatica shipped with a complete storyform for the movie that destroyed dreams of would-be hand-drawn animators--a storyform with something rare and unheard of in Dramatica canon: the exception.

In that storyform—and the one that ships with the current version—a caveat appears, explaining why the original analysis set Woody as the Changed character and Buzz the Steadfast character.

An exception unlike any other in Dramatica

The one thing that always impressed me about Dramatica was the complete lack of caveats and exceptions in the explanation of the theory. Every screenwriting book and story guru I visited in the early to mid-90s arrived with tons of footnotes and and exceptions and explanations why, in this film, their particular point-of-view needed adjusting.

Dramatica never needed caveats. It was, and continues to be, what it was—take it or leave it. Some stories feature Stop characters, some feature Start characters. End of line.

I updated the original article to include a reference and link to our updated, more accurate analysis of the film: The Toy Story Dilemma.

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March 29, 2017

Occasionally, we get letters:

I can't thank you enough for this site. I truly, from the bottom of my heart cannot. I've been struggling against a number of instructors recently. They kept pushing and pushing, indicating that I was failing to grasp how to create a compelling protagonist because my main character 'does not change', while the rest of the characters around her do.

Every Main Character grows, not every Main Character changes. From our article What Character Arc Really Means:

Sometimes a person can grow by maintaining their position, shoring up their resolve against whatever is thrown at them.

Dramatica refers to this as the Steadfast Main Character.

The letter continues:

I had at once the sense of: am I truly not grasping a concept which all screenwriters must master... or are they applying concepts that are not necessary to my story?

No and yes. In that order.

Really grateful to experience this kind of impact tonight.

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March 27, 2017

Every story paradigm, it would seem, comes with a collection of caveats and footnotes: a select set of sequences may only work within a certain context, while a journey works for every context as long as you're willing to forgo consistent meaning. With the Dramatica theory of story, all that nonsense goes away.

Take for instance, this notion of Plot Progression in Dramatica:

I have two questions regarding placement of Problem Types on a grid and, especially, in the Signpost-Journey sequence. In the Dramatica Users Manual, the first appearance of Problem TYPES in the ACTIVITY Class are listed (clockwise): Understanding, Doing, Learning, Obtaining. After that, in every example I’ve seen--particularly with respect to Signposts--they are listed: Learning, Understanding, Doing, Obtaining or L-U-D-O. When establishing Signposts in the Activity class, will they always progress L-U-D-O? If so, will the Signposts in the Situation Class or Attitude Class progress in the same pattern (Present-Past-Progress-Future in Situation, Conscious-Memory-Preconscious-Subconscious in Attitude)?

Some stories progress from Learning to Understanding to Doing to Obtaining--but not all stories. Some start with the Understanding and then move to Learning, before finishing with Doing and Obtaining. And even then, some stories start with the Doing and Obtaining, before moving on to the Understanding and Learning.

It all depends on the narrative.

The All Important Dynamic Choices

This pattern you recognize is not arbitrary--it contains meaning. What you perceive is the differential between the Dramatica Table of Story Elements at rest and the Table of Story Elements after the application of the story's dynamics.

The Table of Story Elements at Rest

Those eight Essential Questions that adorn the top of Dramatica.com and connected with your writer's intuition when you first heard about the theory? The answers to those questions determine how the model of the human mind winds up within a story.

Think of the Table of Story Elements like a giant, super amazing Rubik's cube with rubber bands wrapped around it. Tough to turn at first--and if you did--the cube would whip back into its normal state as soon as you let go. The answer to questions like the Main Character Resolve: Changed or Steadfast? and the Main Character's Problem-Solving Style: Linear or Holistic? Regulate which way to shift those cubes and how to rotate it in your hands.

A story begins with the Rubik's cube of story fully would up, ready to go. As the story unfolds, Act by Act, the cube begins to unravel until it returns back to its at rest state.

Independent Interdependence

The pattern mentioned above communicates only one-fourth of the Author's message to an audience. A story "cube" flows through four different complete Throughlines as it unravels.

Will one position in a Class always respond to another Class, in kind, with the same position? If the MC signpost is Past (top-left position on the grid) , will the IC always respond with Memory (also top-left position on the grid)?

Not always. Each of the Throughlines--Main Character, Influence Character, Relationship Story, and Overall Story--run through their own independent plot progression. Sometimes this will present an Influence Character dealing with Memories at the same time the Main Character deals with the Past, and sometimes it won't. Though seemingly arbitrary at times, the exact progression of events in each Throughline works together to provide a holistically cohesive message to the Audience.

Every complete story functions the same way--it's the order of those functions that changes from story to story.

Thankfully you don’t need to know how to do all this by yourself--Dramatica exists to service this exact issue. You supply the answers to those questions and the application winds the model up for you. From there, you simply travel the bands down back to a state of rest.

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March 7, 2017

We just uploaded the Dramatica storyforms for Arrival and The Yellow Birds to our Storyforms section here at Narrative First--and boy oh boy, were we delightfully surprised.

The storyform we published for our initial analysis of Arrival called for an Influence Character Unique Ability of Prediction and an Influence Character Critical Flaw of Suspicion. If there were ever two more descriptive words of the Alien Heptapods influence over the actual story of Arrival, those two would be them.

The Influence Character Throughline for *Arrival*

The Influence Character Unique Ability is the one thing that makes the Influence Character able to uniquely challenge and impact the Main Character to change his or her way of approaching problems. Unbridled by time, the Aliens come from the future and are uniquely able to predict the future for Louise...Prediction, therefore, is a wonderful indicator of this ability.

The Influence Character Critical Flaw is the one thing that weakens or lessens the impact the Influence Character has over the Main Character. Clearly, their silence and enigmatic ways make the Aliens suspicious of nefarious and underhanded schemes...Suspicion, therefore, makes sense as the kind of thing that would dampen their ability to inspire Louise to change her way of thinking.

When we set out to do an analysis of a film, we often find ourselves away from our computer--at least, one with Dramatica Story Expert installed. We wrote our analysis of Arrival during a story meeting and finished it up afterwards in a nearby coffee shop. Finding out after the fact that the selections we made implied these two very important story points only confirms that the choices we made were accurate.

This is the best part about a holistic approach to story structure--error checking inherent to the system. If one part of the understanding fails, the entire thing falls apart. If, on the other hand, all the parts "sing" then you know you found the most accurate definition of the story's dynamics.

Note that the Downloadable Storyforms section of Narrative First is a Members Only feature--a service provided for those patrons of our work into story structure & story analysis. If you're interested in learning more about how you can become a member, please visit the Narrative First Membership page.

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March 5, 2017

Dramatica co-creator Melanie Anne Phillips prepends a forward to one of her many insightful articles in this post on Protagonist v Antagonist | Dramaticapedia:

Now in reading this through today, I realize that doesn’t sound much like the way most writers go about creating their characters.  In fact, the usual approach is to start with a protagonist and antagonist in mind, then populate the story with supporting characters to fill out the conflicts and the logistics of the battle over the goal.

This is, in fact, the approach I instinctively take and the one I follow when working with other writers. To me, the Protagonist and Antagonist of a story stand out as the most easily identifiable character in a story. One is for the Story Goal; the other works to prevent it.

Of course, identifying the Goal of a story is not always easy and different techniques exist to navigate this process. But Melanie explains it in a way that is both simple and complex at the same time:

In our own minds, we survey our environment and consider whether or not we could improve things by taking action to change them. The struggle between the Protagonist and Antagonist represents this inner argument: is it better to leave things the way they are or to try and rearrange them?

The Protagonist represents Initiative; the Antagonist Reticence. Follow that and your story finds purpose.

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February 28, 2017

Disney's animated television show Tangled: The Series premieres in three weeks! On March 24, 2017 you'll finally be able to see the further adventures of Rapunzel and Flynn Rider as they deal with a strange new force invading their kingdom.

While the character design looks appealing and the voice talent top-notch, the real reason why you want to tune in is because of the storyform. Who cares about rolling landscapes and engaging animation when you can focus in on all the complex thematic issues tumbling around in this show.

Story Consultant Credit for *Tangled: The Series*

And it's not only this first episode, but several years worth of episodes!

Holding It All Together

Hinted at before, Narrative First acted as Story Consultant for the series. In the article Outlining a Television Series With Dramatica , we described the process of using this fascinating and insightful theory of story to outline the events of a series:

you create one master Storyform for the "Mythology" of your series, and then individual Storyforms for the "Monster" episodes. Anytime you want a certain context to feel complete, you should create a storyform. If you want each season finale of your series to have the same kind of impact the finales of Game of Thrones have had, you should even go so far as to create a single storyform for each season.

Tune in to this week's podcast for a more detailed explanation as to how the storyform played a role in developing this show.

What is a storyform again?

The Dramatica storyform is a collection of seventy-five different storypoints that work in tandem to create a holistic image of a story's deep underlying meaning. When a narrative shows signs of "holes" or underdeveloped characters, chances are the storyform is broken--or missing key parts. Working as an analogy to the mind's problem-solving process, the Dramatica storyform codifies the Author's message and gives purpose to their work.

A Place to Begin

The best part about this process is that it still allows the individual writers to breathe to life their own unique take on the story. The storyform is rigid yet flexible enough to allow the artist to branch off and follow his or her own muse. Anytime they get too far off track, the storyform gently reminds and corrals the narrative back into place.

Make sure you mark the show down on your calendar. Rest assured, if you do forget, we will definitely be reminding you the closer we get to the date.

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February 27, 2017

At least, not a storyform.

As detailed in our Dramatica analysis of Moonlight , the film lacks the necessary components to make a convincing argument. However, as the events of last night would seem to affirm, "Truth" reveals itself in many different ways.

Creating our own prison

To say there is "no story"--on this site, and in story meetings and lunch with fellow writers--means there is a sense that something is missing; some greater truth.

The Dramatica theory of story is the first understanding of narrative to delineate and make concrete this greater truth. For hundreds and hundreds and thousands of years, writers have used elements of character, plot, theme, and genre as analogies towards a single human mind trying to resolve a problem. Many didn't realize they were doing it; they simply wrote what they thought was a great story--one that made sense and felt right.

That greater truth or message they hoped to communicate found itself material in the storyform. Balancing out thematic issues and plot concerns with elements of character that in service of a singular purpose, the storyform makes telepathy between writer and reader a reality. The stronger the storyform, the greater the capability of effectively transmitting that message.

Other truths exist.

As Moonlight so eloquently shows, the lack of a complete narrative invites greater acceptance and more opportunities for Audience empathy. With several Throughlines missing or incomplete, the viewer fills in the blanks and takes ownership of the story.

Consider Thelma and Louise. We learn nothing of what happened to Louise in Texas; only that it is enough to motivate her to engage in dangerous and violent action. Without that knowledge each and every audience member supplies his or her own experience and by doing so, becomes a part of the narrative.

Moonlight won not only because it was a fantastic and moving work of art, but also because it invited the audience to bring their own individual understanding to the table. We fill in the blanks and see our own truth worked out across the screen.

Every mind craves meaning. If we can somehow reaffirm our own experience, our personal truths become universal. We celebrate the work as Best Picture, but really it is the Best Picture of ourselves.

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February 11, 2017

Dramatica tends to confuse writers new to the theory's concepts. While many connect to it in ways they never did with other paradigms, certain story points require further explanation. Witness this email from a writer who recently discovered this wonderfully complex theory of narrative:

Hi, Jim. I'm all new to Dramatica and writing stuff and I have a very basic question about Main Characters. If the MC perspective is to be the audience experience of the story, how to tell facts that the MC doesn't have seen ? How to show these facts to the audience? Sorry if it is a too stupid question, but as I said I am a newbie to writing and to Dramatica.

When it comes to Dramatica there is no such thing as a stupid question, especially in the beginning. The question you ask is a common one, but easily explained. In a complete story there are four perspectives:

You need all four to accurately depict the conflict in a story, otherwise your Audience will think you're putting one over on them. It's like focusing on only one side of the story, and not giving the other side a chance to voice their concerns.

So in answer to your question you absolutely have to show the Audience information the Main Character isn't personally privy to so that they can see for themselves the difference between what the Main Character sees and what everyone else sees in the Overall Story. You don't simply lock yourself away within the Main Character; if you do, you end up making it impossible to accurately depict that Overall--or objective--perspective on things. Moonlight gets away with this, but that's because it's Moonlight. Not many stories can claim that much artistry.

That differential contains the key to greater understanding of the problems in our lives. It is the reason why we love stories so much. In our own lives we can't simultaneously be within ourselves and without ourselves; but stories can. And that's why we keep going back to them over and over again.

So absolutely, show all the things your Main Character doesn't know about. And then show some things only the Main Character knows. Your Audience will love you for it...especially if both sides are connected thematically through a strong storyform.

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February 10, 2017

Now that "alternate facts" are a thing, conversation surrounding narratives and the implications of their construction has begun to rise. Just this week Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of Dramatica and a brilliant narratologist, posted her thoughts on Trump's nomination for Education secretary. And now Mike Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University Vancouver, posts his thoughts on our need for narrative.

That moment when the facts slot into a narrative eventually comes for everyone. It has to; we’re human and what we want is meaning.

For years I have written about why we love stories and how the Dramatica storyform stands alone as the best appreciation of that meaning. The Magic of the Storyform and The Mechanism of Story at Work focus on this idea of a story as an analogy to the human mind trying to solve a problem.

With so many looking to story and how it affects every corner of our lives, it's only a matter of time before Dramatica becomes a household name.

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February 8, 2017

Mike and Eleven from *Stranger Things*

I recently finished watching the great Netflix television series Stranger Things last night. I absolutely loved every frame of this show; a sentiment reinforced by my desire to start over with Episode One and binge-watch the entire thing all over again. As with the novel All the Light We Cannot See and the foreign film The Lives of Others, Stranger Things connects with a sophistication that places it in the hallowed Hall of the Heroes.1

What isn't timeless are the countless 80s references and scenes inspired by 80s movies. The bond between Stranger Things and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial exists as most prominent: pre-teen kids shelter someone—or something—wanted by a mysterious government agency. Funny than, that I should complete the series on the heels of our deep Dramatica thematic analysis of E.T. last week.

The Drive to Pursue, the Drive to Avoid

E.T ends in success because the kids help the little alien escape our planet. Stranger Things ends in success because the kids stand up and pursue the monsters behind the Upside Down (both super-dimensionally and dimensionally).

In Dramatica we see the Overall Story Problem of E.T.the inflection point of conflict that motivates each and every scene--as being Pursuit. Keys and the Government pursue E.T. and E.T. pursues a path towards phoning home. Without this drive to pursue there would be no conflict in the movie.

The dynamic opposite to Pursuit is Avoidance. When one identifies the Problem of a Throughline, one simultaneously calls out the Solution of that Throughline. The conflict in E.T finds motivation in Pursuit, yet discovers resolution in Avoidance (running away from or escaping).

The flow from Problem to Solution in the Overall Story Throughline for the first season of Stranger Things moves in the opposite direction. The Government tries to prevent anyone from finding out about 11 or the tear in the space-time continuum while the boys do everything they can to keep anyone from finding out about 11. Without this drive on both sides to prevent and avoid there would be no conflict in the series.

In the next to last episode of the series, the boys find themselves pedalling for safety as members of an unidentified Government Agency chase after them. The scene bears a striking resemblance to the climactic scene in E.T., one so strong that a prediction as to the eventual outcome of that scene seems inevitable: 11 will lift the boys and their bikes into the air.

But she doesn't.

The reason she does the exact opposite thing E.T. did lies in this difference between Overall Story Problems. Mike and the others need Pursuit to resove their conflict—they need someone to stand up and fight against these "bad men." Elliott and his friends need Avoidance—they need someone to lift them up in the air to the accompaniment of one of John William's greatest scores of all time.

Confidence in the Conflict

I love Stranger Things. And I love E.T. The thing with the former is that it brings back all of my love for film and why I dedicated my whole life to great stories. Because they matter. In fact, I recently tweeted about the show:

I love Stranger Things so much. It makes me want to read Stephen King novels, ride a bike, and play D&D.

The key to writing a great, compelling story that outlasts you and everyone else who works with you is finding the conflict that really lies at the heart of your narrative. Like the difference between Luke and Neo, stark differences exist between the Overall Stories of supposedly similar stories. Superficially Stranger Things seems like an updated homage to E.T., but deep down underneath it all the truth reads stranger than fiction.

You just need to start thinking like the flea, instead of the acrobat.


  1. Yes, that's a Dungeons & Dragons reference. ↩︎

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