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Thoughts on Story Structure

September 23, 2016

Want to know how to save hundreds of hours, possibly years, in terms of development time for your television series?

This morning I looked over a client's plan for her four-season television series. The brief loglines were clear and full of dramatic potential:

  • Season One: In the Dark Ages, a discovery of the lost art of swordsmanship leads four teenagers on a journey of self-discovery and what is required to be a true knight
  • Season Two: Successfully acquiring the skills, they fight in justice and apprehend evil, securing a place for themselves at the Table. But at the cost of shutting themselves from one another.
  • Season Three: Alone and spread out, they each begin to discover a New Way—a way that would unite all within the next generation. Only the Elders stand in their way and silence them.
  • Season Four: They retreat and work to create a small circle of compatriots and like-minded folk. Day by day they do their best to inspire others to walk into the Light.

I changed the genre/subject matter to protect the innocent, but maintained the narrative movements of each individual season.

Can you pick out the Act order? She wrote this without the aid of Dramatica, but the Signposts are clear as day:

  • Season One: Gathering Information about the Lost Art
  • Season Two: Apprehending Evil and Securing a Seat
  • Season Three: Understanding a Different Way
  • Season Four: Retreating and Working

Learning. Obtaining. Understanding. Doing.

Pretty incredible, right? That someone would naturally, instinctively, craft four seasons that hit the four Types found under the Activity Domain in the Dramatica Table of Story Elements. It's almost as if there is this concept of the Storymind that each and every one instinctively gravitates towards.

Unfortunately, that Act order is not permissible in the current version of Dramatica. The application won't let you choose that order It could be that this plot progression would work under a D-based or T-based system, but the model we have now is K-based—or Knowledge based.1 And you can't progress through a narrative by starting with Learning and ending with Doing.

It simply doesn't make sense.

Unless you switch Understanding and Obtaining, but that doesn't feel good. In fact, the last half where she moved from Understanding to Doing is the best and most meaningful part. Why change that?

Order Creates Meaning

What kind of feeling did you get reading those four loglines? Did you feel like it was a robust, happy ending where everything worked out for everyone? Or did you feel like maybe things didn't turn out so well and the kids ended up doing the very best they could with what they had?

To me, it felt very bittersweet, almost tragic in the way they succeeded but then ultimately understood a different way and retreated back into themselves. I feel down when I read those four loglines, and you want to know something crazy?

So does Dramatica.

A Forced Tragedy

The red Story Points signify those points of narrative that Dramatica predicted should be there in order to fit in with the Act order I chose elsewhere. An Overall Story Throughline in Activity with Understanding in the 3rd Signpost and Doing in the 4th Signpost forces the narrative into a tragic endingFailure/Bad.

And isn't that what the story feels like?

This is an incredible example of how order carries with it meaning. Other models of story and paradigms of narrative might play with the order of events as if it is only the steps that matter—not the order in which they appear. Dramatica sees things differently.

A happy triumphant lark like Star Wars or The LEGO Movie carries with it a specific order of thematic considerations to bring about that Success/Good ending. Contrast that with the sad and depressing tragedies one finds in stories like Hamlet or Sicario. The order of thematic events will be drastically different.

Knowing that her series arc ends in tragedy before she even writes the first word is an incredibly powerful thing to know. Imagine the weeks of rewrites and panics she would have felt two years in…


  1. If you look in the upper left hand corner of every Domain you will find Knowledge seated in the same position. This is on purpose and helps signify to you the kind of bias present in the model. ↩︎

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September 22, 2016

The key to everything in Dramatica—and therefore, in all things story—is to separate out the Main Character, Influence Character, and Relationship Story Throughlines from the Overall Story Throughline.

If the relationship covered in the Relationship Story Throughline is the very same relationship the Main and Influence Characters have in the Overall Story Throughline, then you haven't created a Relationship Story Throughline If the issues your Main Character suffers also find themselves showing up in the Overall Story Throughline or the Relationship Story Throughline, then you haven't built an effective Main Character Throughline

Ben and Luke have a mentor/mentee relationship outside of their relationship as fellow Rebels in the greater war. Max Durocher (Jamie Foxx) and Vincent (Tom Cruise) in Collateral have a friendship and similar mentor/mentee relationship outside of their relationship as captor and hostage in the struggle to stop the assassin wrecking havoc in Los Angeles.

Red (Morgan Freeman) has justifications for why he prefers to think like an institutionalized man in The Shawshank Redemption but his friendship with Andy centers around the made-up word hope. Newt in Aliens (Carrie Henn Danielle Edmond) spooks everyone out with her tales of monsters hidden in the dark, yet her relationship with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) deals with the needs of mother and daughter.

The key to creating a robust story is to find the differences between the Throughlines…only to weave them back together into one seamless whole.

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September 22, 2016

My apologies to those of you who have experienced frustrations trying to access Narrative First in the past 48 hours. The site is growing in popularity more and more each day, and I had to flip some switches and turn some dials to allow for more traffic.

You could say my hemming and hawing over how to set things up build up resistance—like a Be-er in an Action story! I Changed my perspective and flipped into Do-er territory, thus facilitating flow throughout the Internet.

Thank you for your patience.

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September 21, 2016

Psychotic Stories

Reading this reminded me of those schizophrenic stories I run into from time to time. Psychotic in the way they start telling one narrative then switch to another, only to shift to a completely different one before the film or novel ends.

Dramatica helps Authors keep their stories sane.

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September 20, 2016

I mentioned this in the podcast today, but wanted to get it down on paper for all to read: I feel like the substitute semantic values of Overwhelming and Surmountable I wrote about in How to Tell If Your Main Character Faces Overwhelming or Surmountable Odds make a huge difference in analysis. Knowing that the Main Character Throughline is somehow connected to the essence of dramatic tension makes it easier to determine whether the MC is a Do-er or Be-er.

Case in point: a recent student in our From Logline to Treatment FREE E-Course sent us a story where the Main Character faced overwhelming odds--and I mean really, really overwhelming odds. But I wasn't really sure whether the MC was a Do-er or a Be-er. The issues and personal baggage were there, I just couldn't tell if they were dealing with external or internal issues.

That's when I remembered my own article.

The Overall Story Throughline was clearly in Activities and the Story Judgment was clearly Good. With an Overwhelming feeling of dramatic tension, there was only one option left for the Main Character Growth: Stop.

Setting the MC Growth to Stop forces the Main Character Throughline into a Companion relationship with the Overall Story Throughline. In Dramatica, a Companion pair is one in which the two elements of a quad sit side-by-side in a horizontal relationship.

With the Overall Story in Activity, the Main Character Throughline must be in Situation...and only Do-ers find themselves in that Domain.

With confidence I suggested to the Author that her Main Character was a Do-er, suggested a possible Influence Character in Fixed Attitude, and sent her off to flesh out and enliven her story.

Hopefully, I've done the same for you tonight.

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September 19, 2016

Emphasis mine. The pressure to live up to the moniker leads us down an insincere path and causes us to sometimes doubt ourselves.

"Shape does not need to be imposed."--Well that's any story paradigm or structure that feels false to you.

Shape is part of what we are listening to--that's the storyform that eventually takes shape as you write from that artistic impulse. Dramatica is not imposed, writers naturally impose Dramatica.

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September 18, 2016

The"Inciting Incident" of a story is not what most people think it is. With the Inciting Incident you want to make sure you're simultaneously setting up the Overall Story Goal with that first major Plot Point. If you don't, you really haven't set anything up as much as you may have tied one Throughline to another.

The Inciting Incident of a story is usually felt as the moment when the Overall Story and Main Character Throughlines kick in--yet, the Overall Story Throughline can happen several minutes or pages before that moment.

Think Story Driver Instead of Inciting Incident

The Dramatica theory of story doesn't even bother with the Inciting Incident for two reasons:

  • One, it's completely subjective when it actually occurs
  • Two, it really does nothing to the actual narrative drive of a story

Instead, Dramatica singles out a Story Driver as the instigator and motivator of a narrative. The initial Story Driver sets up the inequity of the narrative within the Overall Story Throughline while at the same creating a Goal for the characters to focus on as a means of resolving that inequity.

For instance, the initial Story Driver for the Overall Story Throughline in Star Wars is Vader's illegal boarding of a diplomatic ship during the opening sequence. This initial action disrupts the balance of things and sets the Goal of whether or not the Rebels can figure out a way to fight an overarching Empire.

This runs counter to what most people think of as the "Inciting Incident" of Star Wars--Luke's retrieval of Leia's message from R2. This really doesn't do a thing to the Overall Story or affect the balance of things as much as it ties the Main Characters personal Throughline with the problems in the Overall Story Throughline.

Most analysts/gurus only see the Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines and are so steeped in Hero's Journey mythology/nonsense and Save the Cat! that they misread what is really going on. They think that the Inciting Incident starts a story--but it really starts nothing.

The same thing happens in How to Train Your Dragon--most think the Inciting Incident to be when Hiccup shoots down Toothless. But as with Star Wars this really doesn't disrupt the balance or create problems for everyone within the Overall Story Throughline. Instead, it ties Hiccup's personal Main Character Throughline with the Overall Story Throughline--which hasn't quite started yet.

The inequity of that film really starts when Hiccup's antics destroy the town of Berk. That action forces his father Stoick to decide to begin to train these kids to become dragon hunters. And that in fact becomes the Goal of the first Dragon's movie--Training the Next Generation of Dragon Killers.

Think Story Driver instead of Inciting Incident, and the structure of your narrative will become clear.

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September 17, 2016

Oh dear.

Someone thinks the Main Character of a story is the person who experiences the most tension:

Another way of distinguishing a movie's central figure is to determine which character is encountering the greatest amount of tension....William Wallace's tension is external. That is, things are done to him by others. But in spite of all this, he has little internal tension. Internal tension is the wondering, "What do I do now?" William Wallace has grief, sorrow, anger and frustration. But these are not the type of tension that makes movie characters most memorable and most empathetic for viewers.

This is the problem with screenwriting paradigms like the Sequence Method. They erroneously try to identify the structure of a story from the Audience's point-of-view--something that is impossible to do and overflowing with subjective misinterpretations. Asking "dramatic questions" is the surest way to completely confuse yourself as to how a story actually works.

The Main Character

The Main Character of a story is the character who offers us a personal point-of-view into the story. We identify with them because we share their problems with them. By assuming their position we experience the story's overarching problem both from within and without.

That is what separates a story from everything else.

If a character does something off-screen that we don't see or hear about until later, we are not seeing that character from their point-of-view. This is why Red is the Main Character in Shawshank and why the men in the barracks are the Main Character of Stalag 17, not William Holden.

If we were Andy in Shawshank or Robert the Bruce in Braveheart we would not be surprised by the hole in the wall or the betrayal. We can't be surprised by our own actions.

The Influence Character

William Wallace absolutely struggles with internal tension--we only see it externalized. His struggle is to maintain his point-of-view and remain steadfast against everyone who thinks differently than him.

There once was a director at Dreamworks who was convinced Po wasn't the Main Character of Kung Fu Panda because he didn't change. Po did change--he grew into his resolve. Yes Shifu, the Dustin Hoffman character, had the biggest paradigm shift but we were always in Po's personal point-of-view.

This error in judgment led to many broken stories.

Shifu and Robert the Bruce both act as Influence Characters towards Po and William Wallace. Their points-of-view challenge their respective Main Characters and force them to grow stronger in their resolve. Their role is to supply the Influence Character Throughline.

What Do I Do Now?

You don't ask dramatic questions.

And so the tension begins. What will Robert do? Will he go against his father's wishes and fight for justice, honor and integrity? Or will he go against what he now knows to be the right thing to do, in order to secure his land, possessions and title? That is internal tension par excellence. "Do I heed the words of my own father, or do I follow the man who has inspired me to do what I now know to be right?"

Unfortunately, the accurate way to pose this question is "Do you heed the words of your own father, or do you follow what I have inspired you to do and what you know to be right." We're never once in Robert's shoes. We are always looking at him from the You perspective--what are you doing? and especially, how could you do that?

Bonus points, though, for identifying Robert's problem--Conscience. His Solution of giving into Temptation inspired by Wallace's sacrifice. 

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September 16, 2016

Novelist Alistair Dyte, a client of ours and student in the Dramatica→ Mentorship Program, recently describe the inequity of a story better than we could:

I have this idea now (don't know if its correct) that an inequity is like being between a rock and a hard place, a kind of mini dilemma, so a character has to be kinda damned if he does and damned if he doesn't, and that is what causes the conflict.

One hundred percent correct. And exactly the kind of thing you need to encode in each and every story point within Dramatica. If you don't, you're not really using Dramatica to its fullest. The Domain, Concern, Issue, and Problem of a Throughline all describe the inequity of the story—just at different levels of resolution.

Dramatica is a complex, yet sophisticated theory of story. Understanding inequity in the way that Alistair describes above is the first step towards making complex terminology approachable.

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September 15, 2016

Posted the video analysis of Kingsman: The Secret Service from our Dramatica Users Group meeting this month.

Of course, like always, Google found a way to completely change things up on me. Apparently, Hangouts On Air are a thing of the past and now we're all supposed to use YouTube Live.

Unfortunately I discovered this about five minutes before we were to go on the air. I scrambled around to find a quick fix and ended up with a not-so-perfect solution. The video quality is horrendous and you can't even see the app towards the second half of the class.

But at least you can hear. Think of it like a podcast with a slight video element to it.

Misunderstandings that Lead to Greater Understandings

Kingsman is a fun ride--and a pretty functional story to boot. I had seen it twice when it came home to stream, but only managed the first twenty minutes before Tuesday night's class. This proved to be my undoing during the analysis as I incorrectly identified the Benchmarks of the individual Throughlines as their actual Concerns.

If you're not too familiar with Dramatica, every complete story consists of four Throughlines related to one another in theme. Each provides a different perspective on the story's central problem. Add them up together and you have a vehicle for transmitting the Author's message.

Within each of these Throughlines lies a Concern--a focal point for conflict within that perspective. Alongside each Concern is a Benchmark measuring the decline or increase in the level of Concern.

Often in analysis the Benchmark is confused with the Concern as the source of problems within the Throughline. That was the source of my error in judgment.

Having only recently seen the first Signpost of Kingsman, I had an incomplete picture of the conflict. Story structure is most accurately understood by seeing beginning, middle, and end all at once. Just like you can't leave a piece out and hope to tell a complete story, you can't see a story incompletely and hope to accurately analyze it.

More on the film later, but for now it's enough to understand the difference between the Benchmark and Concern of a story.

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