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Thoughts on Story Structure

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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August 30, 2016

As mentioned in last week's article Predicting Who Will Listen to Your Story, most stories feature a Linear problem-solving Main Character. Writers, like most artists, love searching for ways to be different and to stand out from the crowd. Bucking this trend of step-by-step solvers appeals to them, leading many down the path of writing a story where the central character prefers to balance out the relationships around them.

But what if you wanted to write the story of an assassin with tendency towards holism? We can only dream that Assassin's Creed takes this approach (it won't), but until then we have Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley explaining how one would writer a Holistic problem-solving assassin:

A holistic assassin might determine pressure points based on the target's relationships with others that, when pushed, may trigger rebalancing in one or more of those relationship in such a way that circumstances cause one of those relationships to go bad and lead to the target's death either by suicide or murder by another party.

So instead of finding out where the target lives, acquiring the weapon and ammunition from the black market, finding the best vantage point in a window across the street five floors up, and carefully selecting the precise time within the victim's schedule when they will be most vulnerable as a Linear assassin would…

The Holistic assassin would work friends and family around the target, becoming friends with them, developing a rapport with the target's work colleagues and those service employees who administer the building within which he lives, influencing them to dwell on the awful circumstances of their own relationships with the target, thereby producing a groundswell of anger and frustration that eventually tips the balance against the target, leading one of these people to taking the target out permanently to save everyone else…

…all without firing a shot.

Far more interesting and far more elaborate than the Linear approach—and now you know why it is often the underdog when it comes to writing a narrative. Linear is simply easier for the majority of Authors in Hollywood in power to understand and write.

But Holism is on the rise.

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August 25, 2016

To celebrate this week's final publication of the official analysis of Sideways, I thought we could take a look at the Throughlines of this Academy Award winning screenplay.

The Throughlines of *Sideways*

A failed writer living a pitiful existence in San Diego California, Main Character Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) struggles with depression from a two-year old divorce. His troublesome Fixed Attitude not only makes it impossible for him to move on emotionally, but also perturbes those he comes into contact with.

The most perturbed is his friend Jack Cole (Thomas Haden Church). A compulsive womanizer stuck in an imminent marriage, Influence Character Jack tries desparately to help Miles break free as the lech struggles with his own disparate Situation.

The wine trip before the wedding stirs up conflict with heated debates over various Manners of Thinking. Manipulating and womanizing locals and pretending like everything is OK back home brings everyone together in the Overall Story Throughline. Miles and Jack aren't the only ones suffering through this: Jack's future wife, Maya, Cammi, and even Miles' ex-wife Vicki struggle to maintain their composure through this psychological romp up the countryside.

The friendship between Jack and Miles takes up the rest of the narrative. The typical bachelor-party antics and Activities the two suffer through defines the Relationship Story Throughline. Where the Overall Story focuses on the inner psychology of people coming into conflict over different ways of thinking, the Relationship Story centers on the very real pain and physical suffering involved in cheating and cavorting through the countryside.

Including being chased out of a house by naked middle-aged man.

Be sure to check out this week's article Predicting Who Will Listen to Your Story as Sideways features prominently in it.

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August 18, 2016

Strange to experience a Meryl Streep performance where she features prominently in the center of the one-sheet, yet isn't the Main Character, nor the Influence Character. As "memorable" as her singing was, Meryl's titular role as Florence Foster Jenkins functions simply as the focal point of the conflict.

The Throughlines of *Florence Foster Jenkins*

The ruse to persuade "music lovers" and the press to embrace Forence's unique singing skills places the Overall Story Throughline squarely in the Psychology or Manipulation Domain. From here conflict doesn't express itself in fistfights, or prejudice, or impossible situations. The film instead chooses wisely to focus on the various Ways of Thinking that bring the characters of this world into close proximity and into constant conflict.

St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) serves as mastermind and Protagonist of this effort—yet his personal issues found in the Main Character Throughline find him caught in a unique and pressing Situation. As a washed-up stage actor married to a rich woman stricken with syphillus, St. Clair struggles to balance his own personal desires with the very reality of financial independence.

Directly opposed to St. Clair—and a constant source of challenge—is pianist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg). Fulfilling quite adequately the requirement for an Influence Character Throughline, Cosmé's attempts to submerge his impulse to burst out laughing directly impact St. Clair's need for security.

From the trailer and the logline one would imagine the heart of the story to center around the relationship between the husband and the wife. Alas, the marriage and the conflict within finds itself split between the Overall Story Throughline and the Main Character Throughline. The business relationship turned friendship between St. Clair and McMoon features as the heart and soul of the film. Their Activities to keep Florence in the dark as to St. Clair's adultery and the bad press surrounding her performances define the Relationship Story Throughline for this story.

Throughlines find the strangest bedfellows in comedies. What would seem appropriate and matter-of-fact given the subject matter, ends up twisted and on its ear in sevice of surprise and uproarious laughter.

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August 11, 2016

This month's Dramatica Users Group meeting featured the Billy Wilder classic, Stalag 17. While simple and straightforward in its storytelling, it is its storyform and arrangement of throughlies that is compelling and unique.

William Holden, the Sgt. Sefton character, features prominently in most of the advertising and marketing for the film. Clearly the strongest actor of the group and definitely the focus of all attention in the story, one would assume he would easily fall into the role of the Main Character. After all, it is his film, right?

The Throughlines of *Stalag 17*

The Main Character of a story is neither the one we focus our attention on, nor the one we root for. Instead, the Main Character Throughline represents our eyes and ears into the story. If we don't experience the story the way they do, they are not the Main Character.

Sefton spends a considerable time off-screen doing things we don't know about. In addition, we don't get to know him personally. We don't know his ambitions, his desires, his thoughts, or dreams. We only experience his sour Fixed Attitude from a distance…the way we would if he fulfilled the Influence Character Throughline.

The remaining men in barracks 4 supply the Main Character Throughline. As a collective group dynamic stuck in a Situation where they find themselves dancing romantically with one another, they share the same perspective on Sefton's guilt and on the inner and outer workings of Stalag 17. This truly is a unique structural dynamic. Often the Influence Character role will hand-off from one player to the next—rare is the film that tries this with the personal throughline.1

With those two Throughlines in place, the remaining two fall easily into the Dramatica structural model. The Whodunit of the Overall Story Throughline garners violent Activity and retribution; the apparently repugnant Ways of Thinking drives a wedge between fellow soldiers who should be foxhole buddies first when it comes to defining their Relationship Story Throughline.

Films from the mid-20th century often focus on the same thematic material and present typical points of reference. Stalag 17 stands out as a sharp departure from the norm and an example of what can be done to make the structure of a story unique.


  1. The Influence Character role is handed off in Dickens' A Christmas Carol and in Blazing Saddles. The only film that shares a collective Main Character perspective is South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. Good company! ↩︎

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