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Thoughts on Story Structure

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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September 14, 2016

At the Dramatica Users Group meeting last night for Kingsman, Chris Huntley spoke about the relationship between the Main and Influence Character. Not so much about the [Relationship Story Throughline](/concepts/relationship-story- throughline), but rather the reason for the Influence Character in the first place.

To the Main Character, the Influence Character represents the path not taken. We tend to define the IC only in terms of their alternative approach towards solving problems or the one who influences and impacts everyone around them. Thinking of the IC as an example of what would have happened if the MC had built up different justifications prior to the story beginning opens the pathway to greater understanding.

In Braveheart, Robert the Bruce (Angus MacFaden) represents the path William Wallace would have taken had he not decided to take up arms against England.

In The Sixth Sense, Cole Seer (Haley Joel Osmet) represents the path Malcom Crowe (Bruce Willis) would have taken had he not decided to blind himself to what really happened that night in his bedroom.

In Kingsman: The Secret Service, Harry Hart (Colin Firth) represents the path Eggsy (Taron Egerton) would have taken had he not given up a future in the military to take care of his mum.

In Back to the Future, George McFly (Crispin Glover) represents the path Marty (Michael J. Fox) would have taken had he not decided to stand up against Principal Strickland (James Tolkan).

Defining the connection between Main and Influence Character in this way guarantees cohesion between the two Throughlines. It gives purpose to their presence within the narrative.

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September 13, 2016

Recently, I started watching Paul Gulino speak on the Sequence Method--a popular screenwriting paradigm that is the foundation for many collegiate screenwriting programs. A client of ours finds himself surrounded with many steeped in this methodology and he was interested what Dramatica might have to say about it. Now that I'm posting here everyday, I thought it might be interesting to jot down my findings.

This is a very difficult program for me to watch.

Like with most everything that is not Dramatica, the Sequence Method as presented in the video is a paradigm of story seen from the point-of-view of the Audience. And this is a very difficult perspective to take for someone who has immersed themselves in Dramatica for over two decades. Audiences vary, the story does not. Why would you want to base the foundation of a story on the opinion or opinions of various Audiences?

This is paramount to everything it teaches, as evidenced by Gulino himself:

The sequence method focuses on how the audience will experience the story and what the writer can do to make that story better.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this. Except for one thing: anything seen from the Audience's point-of-view is naturally subjective and therefore always open to interpretation. While the techniques of Storytelling and StoryReception outlined from this perspective are compelling, they don't deal with the actual construction of a story.

You can't start to cook a four course-meal by first asking I wonder how this will taste to everyone? I wonder how they will receive it? You can ask that question during the process of cooking, or somewhere near the end, but asking it at the beginning will leave you paralyzed and unable to proceed.

No wonder so many writers think story is hard. The overwhelming majority of information out there doesn't actually help when it comes to creating a story.

Dramatica, on the other hand, takes an objective look at story. Looking at narrative from the Author's point-of-view, it asks What is it you want to say with your story? Note the difference in mindset here--instead of dealing with experience, Dramatica deals with process. It deals with the ingredients of story.

I'll continue to watch this video and offer up whatever insight I can. It will be interesting to see if there is something that can be developed in terms of sequences as Dramatica in its current incarnation focuses solely on the Signposts (what most people think of as Acts).

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September 13, 2016

In case you were wondering where it went, the Narrative First RoadMap service is on hold. While I thought it was the perfect solution for writers, in practice the results were uneven. Basically split 50/50 when it came to success or not-so-success. Some people really understood what it was they were getting and were able to write immediately; others looked at the 32-beat sequence I worked out for them including deep Main Character and relationship thematics and we're completely lost.

If I was to point out a similar characteristic among those who got it, it would be the professional writers who had a working knowledge of Dramatica.1

Acknowledging that reality made it obvious where we should be putting all our attention: the Dramatica Mentorship Program. If our mission is to help writers write better stories, then this is program is the answer to that call.

If you were considering doing the Narrative First RoadMap program, I would strongly suggest you take a look at the Dramatica Mentorship Program. It's probably exactly what you're looking for.


  1. Although there was one professional writer who knew nothing about Dramatica and was still blown away by the outline we gave him. ↩︎

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September 12, 2016

Inspired by a podcast interview with Seth Godin by Time Ferris, I'm going to start posting to this blog daily again. My original intent for creating this Thoughts on Story Strucure section called for regularly scheduled check-ins, but the demands of building a start-up story consultancy prevented me from keeping up that obligation. My hope is to build up enough momentum writing these posts that it eventually becomes second nature to me.

And I can't think of any other way to start this off with an excellent thought by writer Mike Lucas over on Discuss Dramatica:

The fact that a complete story is a model of a mind solving a problem is awesome for understanding the theory, but for writing a story I think you're best to focus on the Story Points (a.k.a. appreciations) which are the things that you can actually recognize and use as a writer. It's kind of like a race car driver -- you don't teach someone how to race cars by going through all the physics involved. They're much better off using their instincts to feel what's right and wrong, and develop those further through experience. However, an engineer might say to a driver "with this car, when you hear X sound from the engine, that's a sign that Y needs adjusting, so get to the pit stop ASAP". That's kind of like a Dramatica story point where the theory can communicate something useful to the writer -- "when the source of your main character's personal problems has to do with Helping, his solution will be in the realm of Hindering". This is how the storyform can be so useful in helping the 99.9% of us writers who have blind spots when it comes to narrative.

Dramatica's objective nature makes it possible for writers to see their own blind spots. Sometimes, writers new to theory find themselves caught up in the theoretical underpinnings and stunted by the amount of understanding involved. You can't really blame them—Dramatica is like no other theory of story on Earth.

Balancing the use of the theory with a constant practice of writing is the Goal of every thoughtful writer.

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September 7, 2016

Watched one of the greatest films of the last decade again last night—A Separation. Remarkable how much tension the simple act of getting a divorce can generate when placed in the hands of an unbelievably talented writer/director and cast.

The viewing also gave me the opportunity to test out the modifications to the Audience Appreciations I wrote about in last week's article, How to Tell if Your Main Character Faces Overwhelming or Surmountable Odds and our most recent podcast, Does Your Main Character Build Resistance or Facilitate Flow?

Looking at Nader's personal issues, he certainly faciliates a ton of flow. Manipulative to a fault and hell-bent on proving himself right to the detriment of everything else—including his own daughter—Nader makes it easier for the narrative to shift from one Act into the next. A Be-er in a Decision driven story tends to do that.

The Nature of the story almost threw me off at first. My instincts said the task was more than surmountable for Nader, but I hesitated when I recalled that the story was an all-out Tragedy. But that only lasted until I re-remembered again that this is one of those rare Stop/Bad stories.

Start/Good narratives only sound more surmountable than Stop/Bad. In practice, they function the same way in providing an Audience with the feeling that the task at hand is manageable for the characters.

In A Separation, Nader's personal issues of having to be right all the time facilitates the flow of the narrative, making the conflict a surmountable and manageable task for him. Read our Deep Analysis of A Separation for a more detailed look at the structure of this fantastic film.

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August 30, 2016

Last week's article Predicting Who Will Listen to Your Story created quite a ruckus over the weekend. While most of the feedback was positive and encouraging, the topic of the Main Character's Problem-Solving Style stirred up the hornet's nest of haters it usually does.

Take for instance this kind letter:

This email is such tired, sexist bullshit. Seriously. You can sell your product, but confining responses to cinema based on male/female binary suppositions is really tired. Cinema is an artistic medium, and so is screenwriting. This article is stifling, very binary. It's something for you to work though, as real art rises far past these seeming boundaries. It's tired!

Ah yes. The suggestion that there is a difference between the way Linear problem-solvers think and Holistic problem-solvers think is complete "tired sexist bullshit"—

—except to anyone with a working brain.

I responded:

Did you even take the time to actually read through the article, or did you just see male/female and your “sexist” warning flags went haywire? There’s not a single sexist remark in my entire article. Linear and holistic are processes of thinking and they GENERALLY trend towards gender—that doesn’t mean you can’t have a female character who thinks linearly or a male character who thinks holistically. In fact, those are usually the most interesting stories. I don’t for one second think of story as black and white, either/or. But there is undeniable proof now that the popularity and frequency of a particular narrative is based on the problem-solving process of the Main Character. You can either understand this reality or ignore it all together. It was hearsay to suggest that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe at one time. The same exact thing is happening here.

This reminds me of the time last year when one of my former students from CalArts tried to throw me under the bus for teaching "fucking bullshit" (apparently this is the go-to word for simple-minded folk). This latest rant, like the one last year from that student, shares the same lack of depth in thinking and cognitive skills.

You can't blame them really—what they really have a problem with is the use of the words Male and Female to help describe the differences between Linear and Holistic thinkers. Forget for a second the mountain of evidence and years of experience that show otherwise—they've been taught at a very young age that any suggestion that there might be a difference between the sexes is an instant excuse to start burning books.

They don't bother looking into the concept further. They ignore the idea that Mental Sex—which is what the Problem-Solving Style was originally called when Dramatica was first released—is only 1/4 of the psychological makeup of the mind.1 And, unable to look up from their phones during class, they disregard the admonition that men and women can both consciously think linearly or holistically.

But the best is when they project their own subsconscious sexism onto this discussion. The ranter sent another email:

"Just don’t try to make them sit through High Noon, 3:10 to Yuma, or Armageddon.1 They will likely despise you until you find a way to balance out their annoyance with you" Who is "them"?

Holistic problem-solvers you dunderhead.

The troll saw "them" and projected "women" onto the conversation because of his own personal issues and uncomfortablility with the topic.

My Mental Sex is Linear, but the other 3/4 of my psychological makeup is Holistic. How else do you think I am able to write these articles and consider story from so many different angles? You think only women can dislike Armageddon or High Noon?

Those films are boh-ring.

Holistic thinkers can't stand those movies because they seem simple-minded. Deadlines are a non-starter for us a majority of the time, beacuse time is fluid and not set in stone.

We use Male and Female to describe the differences between Linear and Holistic problem-solving because that has been the trend for centuries. In order for the species to survive, two bell curves needed to be in place—the Male linear thinkers on one side and the Female holistic thinkers on the other.

But times change, and with it the needs of the species for propogation. The two curves are slowly moving towards the center—with those able to balance out both methods of problem-solving succeeding and out-fertilizing those on either side of the spectrum.

We can only hope and pray that those driven to add "bullshit" to the conversation will fail to carry on their mindless genes into the next generation.


  1. The term Mental Sex is a far more accurate term than Problem-Solving Style, according to the one of the theory's co-creators Melanie Anne Phillips. The switching of nomenclature was purely a marketing decision—to appeal to those who don't have the time to think things through. ↩︎

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