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Thoughts on Story Structure

July 7, 2016

The little known but exquisite Nightcrawler provides an excellent example for this week's Throughline Thursday. As an Academy Award nominee for Best Original Screenplay, this neo-noir by writer/director Dan Gilroy excels at balancing the perspectives needed to tell a complete and engagaing story.

Main Character Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) lives alone in a simple one-bedroom apartment with only two plants to keep him company. The bleak economic landscape gives purpose to Lou's struggle and defines his rise from the bottom to the top. The pursuit of the American Dream is Lou's dream--to make something more of himself and to improve his Situation.

The cutthroat world of tabloid journalism provides the backdrop for Lou's rise up the video broadcast ladder. The backstabbing and backroom manipulations of delivering the nightly news brings everyone in Nightcrawler into conflict over their different Ways of Thinking. Lou, Nina (Rene Russo), Joe (Bill Paxton), Ann (Linda Cusack), Frank (Kevin Rahm), and Jackie (Kathleen York) all scheme and coerce their way to the top.

The Throughlines of *Nightcrawler*

Great stories work this way: they take the same force for resolution--here, the rise to the top--and show it from different points-of-view. With Lou we see that rise personally; what it would feel like to personally be in that Situation. And then with everyone else we see that same struggle to rise from an outside-in point-of-view, from an objective perspective. From that point-of-view the struggle to rise looks like psychological Manipulations.

The problems I have and the problems They have. By presenting both, an Audience gets to experience what it is like to be within the problem, and without.

But two perspectives are not enough. The human mind recognizes two more points-of-view. The problems You have. And the problems We have. In story, these two perspectives are handled by the Influence Character and Relationship Story Throughlines.

Great stories continue that look at a force for resolution in all Throughlines. Nightcrawler is no exception.

With Lou's assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed) we see what it is like to grow from someone who could care less about being ambitious to someone who blackmails the one who lifted him up. Rick's Fixed Attitude--the thing that sparks Lou's curiosity with him in the first place--is his lack of personal drive towards anything more than basic survival. Lou sees a lot of himself in Rick, and takes him under his wing to help guide the misguided soul.

And their Relationship is where the story completes its look at the struggle to rise to the top. A mentor and his protégé--engaged in the Activity of teaching and learning the tricks of trade. Lou's mentorship excels all expectations, ending with Rick making one final ambitious move.

The Four Throughlines of a story are more than a simple gimmick or observable quality of story--they define and approximate the reason for writing a story in the first place.

July 7, 2016

Big news this week in the world of story. Data analysts at the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont in Burlington have unearthed the six basic emotional arcs of storytelling:

Their method is straightforward. The idea behind sentiment analysis is that words have a positive or negative emotional impact. So words can be a measure of the emotional valence of the text and how it changes from moment to moment. So measuring the shape of the story arc is simply a question of assessing the emotional polarity of a story at each instant and how it changes.

The science behind this study is interesting, but I'm not sure how exactly useful it is for Authors. How does one translate the emotional polarity of the words they write? This appears to be something that can only be performed after the fact.

In other words, this is research aimed at studying the meaning of a story. Authors need research aimed at helping them predict what elements of story they need to communicate that meaning.

A steady, ongoing rise in emotional valence, as in a rags-to-riches story such as Alice’s Adventures Underground by Lewis Carroll. A steady ongoing fall in emotional valence, as in a tragedy such as Romeo and Juliet. A fall then a rise, such as the man-in-a-hole story, discussed by Vonnegut. A rise then a fall, such as the Greek myth of Icarus. Rise-fall-rise, such as Cinderella. Fall-rise-fall, such as Oedipus.

Both the ongoing rise in emotional valence and the steady ongoing fall in emotional valence sound like stories with a bump-bump-bump plot progression. In Dramatica this bump in emotion happens when the Throughline traverses horizontally or vertically from Act to Act.

While we don't have an analysis of Alices Adventures Underground, we do have one for Romeo and Juliet. Sure enough, the plot progression for Romeo's Throughline--albeit, the most emotionally charged Throughline--is a bump-bump-bump plot progression.

Where Dramatica diverges from research like this, and proves to be an invaluable tool for Authors, is in the practical application of this rise in emotional valence. If you wanted to write Romeo and Juliet, you would know that Romeo would have to work through his emotional baggage by moving from Impulsive Responses to Memories to Innermost Desires to Contemplations.

Fall then a rise and rise then a fall sounds like a slide-bump-slide story. Again we don't have research on Icarus, but a film like Amadeus fits that nicely. A slide occurs when the Throughline traverses diagonally and Salieri does that in the first half of that story and again during the second half.

Rise-fall-rise and fall-rise-fall sound like the traditional three-act bump-slide-bump plot progression.

It is always fascinating to me how all this research is done into the science of narrative, yet no one mentions the Dramatica theory of story. Seems like everyone could save themselves a ton of time if they took a closer look at the theory.

July 5, 2016

If you go to see Finding Dory over the summer, make sure you arrive early enough to see Piper. While the main event lacks a bit when it comes to developing an Influence Character and a strong Relationship Story, Piper manages to hit all four in under six minutes.

When I was teaching story at CalArts, my students would appreciate my lectures but would have trouble applying the concepts in them to short-form material. "This works great for writing features, but we're making two-three minute films. How does this even apply?" Well, I now have a perfect example.

Piper tells the story of a hungry sandpiper who overcomes her fear of the ocean. Before too long a hermit crab comes into her life and shows her a different approach to solving her problems. Armed with this new solution, the piper ends her hunger and the hunger of those in her flock—all while feeling great about her new-found confidence.

In less than six minutes, director Alan Barillaro manged to include an Overall Story Throughline, a Main Character Throughline, a Influence Character Throughline, a Relationship Story Throughline, Main Character Resolve, Main Character Approach, Main Character Problem-Solving Style, Story Driver, Story Limit, Story Outcome, and Story Judgment. A remarkable and commendable feat.

You can see the quad of episodic story elements at play within the narrative. Faced with the question above, I would tell students to grab a quad of four elements from the Dramatica Table of Story Elements and write a story using them as guideposts for the narrative. Like a Calvin and Hobbes comic, you have four moments—the Potential, the Resistance, the Conflict, and the Outcome.

With Piper you have the quad of elements found under the Issue of Strategy—which, if you think about it, works perfect for a story about coming up with a strategy for getting food.

The Potential for conflict begins with the piper's Inaction. She wants to wait on the shore and let mama bring her food.

The Resistance to that Potential happens when the mama bird forces the baby piper out into the open. The baby piper's Reaction to the crashing waves finds her panicking and running for her life, only to end up where she started—freezing and still hungry.

The Conflict comes as she ventures out in the open and meets a teeny-tiny little hermit crab. Observing these little guys and how they survive the onslaught, the piper learns to bury herself in the sand as a means of Protection. The waves rush over her, and with a gentle tap, the piper opens her eyes to see her world in a brand new light.

The Outcome finds the little piper rushing to and fro, bouncing between the adults as she turns up one food source after the other. Having Changed her resolve, the piper confidently and happily engages in Proaction to satisfy both her hunger and the hunger of others.

Six minutes. That is all it takes to communicate the barebones of a storyform with success. Makes you wonder why those who have 20 times that amount of time stumble about as if they have no idea what they're doing.

If you're struggling with the mechanism of your story—whether it be 120 minutes or 2—take a look at Pixar's Piper. The sophistication in both the message and the presentation is a sight to behold.

July 3, 2016

This is why I love Melanie:

There is great resistance in the academic community to the idea that a theory can accurately explain what is going on in story structure. People--usually the people in charge--don't want there to be an explanation for what stories are. They believe such a thing would rob the writing process of its mystery--turn it from magic to science. And they are right! Structure IS science--but the act of writing creatively will always require magic.

From Writing--Science or Magic?. Clearly both. Does anyone not get that by now?

July 2, 2016

My first series of articles covered the concept of the Meaningful Ending. The video montages that went with the articles were the cornerstone of these series and of my weekend workshops and course at the California Institute of the Arts. I'm happy to say that I finally found the time to reupload these videos and embed them within their respective articles.

One of the great things about Dramatica is that it doesn't dictate what your story should mean, but rather gives you the ingredients to determine the meaning you want to give.1

Two of the ingredients are the Story Outcome and the Story Judgment. The first can be either Success or Failure and signifies the results of the efforts to achieve the central Story Goal. This is the logistical part of what a story means. This is where you find satisfaction.

The second ingredient can be either Good or Bad and passes judgment on the emotional assessment of the effort to reach that Goal. Typically you find this within the Main Character's emotional state as we are supposed to be them for the story. If the Main Character ends the story down and out and still filled with angst, well then the efforts to go after that Goal were really a Bad thing. If instead the Main Character resolves their issues and feels better about things, then there attempts to participate in resolving that Goal were a Good thing.

Combine these four together and you create a matrix of Meaningful Endings:

  • Success and Good == Triumph
  • Failure and Good == Personal Triumph
  • Success and Bad == Personal Tragedy
  • Failure and Bad == Tragedy

The series on Meaningful Endings covered all four of these:

Funny thing is, I changed the second of the Personal Triumph videos to include Stand By Me instead of Donnie Darko. While accurate, Donnie is so strange and incomprehensible for people new to the film to understand, that switching seemed like the best thing to do. Only problem is now I've got to update the article.

  1. The Hero's Journey always feels like it dictates what your story should mean: characters and events are treated like symbols of a common transformational journey, rather than the ingredients one would use to construct their own take on the world. ↩︎

July 1, 2016

Eleven years ago I sat in Steven Spielberg's private theater and watched his version of War of the Worlds. The event was the result of a contest I won while working as an animator at Dreamworks. Having grown up on E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark I entered the theater with wide eyes, full of hope and happiness. I grabbed a small bag of popcorn from the convenience bar and plopped myself down front row and center.

Two hours later my hopes were smashed, my enthusiasm dashed. How on Earth could the master of cinema end a story with a Deus Ex Machina? I mean, he had done it nine years earlier with Saving Private Ryan, why hadn't he learned his lesson?

And that's when I got the idea to start this site.

In the two years that preceeded that night I ran a successful and popular character animation blog called Seward Street1. But after two long years of writing about arcs and squash and stretch and Milt Kahl, the animation blogging phenomenon had run its course and I needed something new.

Enter the New

In 1996 I stumbled across a theory of story that so was succint and complete in its understanding that it made everything else look ridiculous and childish in comparison. I had been to a Robert McKee Story Seminar. I read Campbell's Hero's Journey and pretty much everything else written about the art of storytelling. When bookstores used to be a thing, I would love to visit the Creative Writing section and hope to find some new understanding, some new insight into the world of story.

The Dramatica theory of story was what I had always been searching for.

I went to one of Screenplay Systems free Dramatica Users Group meetings for the film Breaking Away and I have been every month ever since--twenty years in all.

I have no idea why Dramatica isn't popular or more readily understood. Or why someone like Steven Spielberg wouldn't know someone who knows Dramatica who could tell him how broken the Relationship Story Throughline was in that story and why you can't just end a story because.

So I took it upon myself to be that someone.

Putting Myself Out There

I was terrified to hit publish on the Typepad blog post I had written for War of the Worlds. At the time I found it extremely controversial and thought for sure I would be destroying any chances in the future of ever working in the industry. Turns out, people in the indsutry appreciate and actually encourage dissension and opposition.

Reading my analysis of War of the Worlds today I can tell how much I was holding back and how calculated I was in my wording. There was NO way I would have copped to being wrong or corrected myself the way I did with my analysis of Zootopia this week.

If there is one thing I have learned in the past ten years it is that it is better to be accurate than it is to be wrong. I was wrong about the original storyform for The Sixth Sense (he was a Be-er not a Do-er, duh!), wrong about the Main Character Resolve for the Polish film Ida (alright, she's Steadfast!), and wrong about the Throughlines for Zootopia.

But I wasn't wrong about War of the Worlds.

And I'm still not.

The Evolution of a Psychology of Story

In the beginning this site was called daily dramatica. Finding it close to impossible to write everyday I began searching for a new name, and landed upon Story Fanatic. For seven years I ran under that moniker until--after being let go from Dreamworks during one of their great purges of the 2010s--I came up with what I consider to be the perfect brand for what it is I do here: Narrative First.

I switched from Expression Engine to Statamic so I could write blog posts in plain text files on my iPhone. And I began laying the foundation for what would eventually become a successful story consultancy. In 2013, thanks to the not-so-gentle encouragement of my girlfriend, I took on my first client (thanks, Dave!) and the rest is history.

Now my clients run the gamut from amateur novelists to professional well-respected and popular novelists, studnets to executive producers to acclaimed directors, show-runners for high-profile television shows, professional commedians on the rise, and screenwriters for major studios. Each and every one of them found something of value in my articles and analyses and blog posts. Each and every one of them simply wants to know story better.

In May of 2016 I left my 23-year career as an animator/storyboard artist/director behind and committed myself 100% to this business. The difference is palpable and its almost as if everyone was waiting for me to finally take myself seriously. Well I am serious about what I do and serious about helping writers, producers, and directors better understand the psychology behind a successful and effective narrative.

In other words, I am here to help you write a great story.

To Those Who Enjoy My Particular Take on Story

In a way, everything I have been doing has been leading up to this point. The hundreds of articles in the archives, the weekend workshops, the books, the analyses, the Mentorship Program, the RoadMaps, and the Dramatica Guru Consulting. They all began when I took a chance putting my opinion about War of the Worlds out there.

But they really only made a difference when they were shared by you and embraced by you. To everyone who has ever written a kind word about an article I have written, I thank you. To everyone who has taken the time to correct my grammar and ask me what business I have writing about writing when I clearly can't write, I thank you.

But I really want to thank those of you who took a chance on me and gave me the opportunity to help you out in the crafting of your own personal stories. It gives me no greater thrill then to see that look in someone's eyes when they finally get a certain aspect of story and they find a way to incorporate it into their own writing. Watching and encouraging someone's sense of story to grow is most certainly my life's purpose...and I thank you for making that a reality.

Things will be much different here in ten more years I suspect. Technology will change, systems to communicate Dramatica will change. But always at the center of it will be the relationship between the mentor and the student. I know that relationship will always be at the heart of our own narratives together.

Thanks again for everything.

  1. A domain since stolen by someone else and held hostage for $3G. ↩︎

June 30, 2016

Zootopia is a unique and daring take on what is usually a typical and consistent alignment of Throughlines. Most animated films place the Main Character Throughline in Situation, the Influence Character Throughline in Fixed Attitude, the Overall Story Throughline in Activity, and the Relationship Story Throughline in Manipulation, or Way of Thinking.

Zootopia did not.

In fact, this is such a consistent alignment in almost every Disney, Dreamworks, and Pixar film that during the recording of this week's Narrative First Podcast I had trouble deciphering where the Main Character Throughline landed for Zootopia. I had expected Situation as was the custom and seemed appropriate for the first bunny rabbit to be a cop. But she clearly dealt with her own subconscious racist attitudes towards the end of film which would have her in Fixed Attitude.

Turns out she was somewhere in-between.

Thanks to listener Mark Vander Vinne of Vander Vinne Studios, I finally saw why the film worked for so many people and what I was missing. Mark suggested the alignment you will find below, one that in retrospect seems so blatantly obvious.

The Throughlines of *Zootopia*

The conflict in Hopps' personal Throughline doesn't stem solely from her fixed Situation--everyone is dealing with a problematic situation in some sort of fashion or another. Instead, it is her Activities, her attempts at Doing something that no other rabbit has done before that is the source of her difficulties and something that is unique to her, and her alone. That is the definition of a Main Character Throughline.

This puts Nick the Fox in Manipulation and focuses his Concern on Playing a Role; in other words, playing the hand that he has been dealt. *"Everyone comes to Zootopia, thinking they could be anything they want. But you can't. You can only be what you are. Sly fox. Dumb bunny." This Way of Thinking is just the kind of thing that challenges Hopps and her attempts at making a difference in the world. Nick has achieved some level of success with this particularly bleak viewpoint of the world...perhaps she should too.

At this, the "personality" level of the dramatic structure, Zootopia shares a similar narrative drive to last week's Throughline Thursday, Beasts of No Nation. A Main Character struggling with Activities who is challenged to grow because of the subtle and not-so-subtle Manipulations of an Influence Character.

But the similarities end there, for rather than explore the external fixed state of affairs that Beasts of No Nation does, Zootopia examines the deep-seeded Fixed Attitude, or racism, inherent within the instincts of an animal. These Impulsive Responses--the impulse to pull a child close on a bus, or carry "Fox-spray" wherever you go--are the sources of conflict in the Overall Story Throughline.

This is why the film feels so fresh and so new. Toy Story 2, Kung Fu Panda, Cars, and How To Train Your Dragon all share the same similar thematic structure of Main Character in Situation and Overall Story in Activity. Even The Incredibles, Inside Out, and Monsters, Inc. play it reasonably safe by putting the Overall Story in Manipulation. None of them dare to put the Overall Story in Fixed Attitude.

The arrangement of Throughlines determine the personality or Genre of the narrative being explored. These Patterns of Conflict have the largest impact on how a story will feel to an audience. That is why so many people find Zootopia fresh and exciting.

Placing the Overall Story in Fixed Attitude naturally encourages the Relationship Story Throughline into Situation which again feels perfect for the story we were presented. A fox and a rabbit forced into working with one another. Both have reasons for distrusting the other because of who they are externally, who they are on the outside. Overcoming that distrust rests at the heart of their relationship.

While Zootopia still has an issue with its broken Story Limit, the Throughlines come across strong and purposeful. A bold choice to explore an Overall Story in Fixed Attitude, particularly within the context of an animated film built for a Western audience. It is something you would only expect to find in an Eastern animated film, like When Marnie Was There. Hopefully this is a sign of greater and more imaginative storytelling to come.

June 28, 2016

Over the weekend I uploaded the latest version of the classic "You and I" video Chris Huntley put together. If you have never seen it before then you have to check it out. Actually, even if you haven't seen it--you've seen it.

You know that line of dialogue you always hear, "You and I are just the same?" Well there's actually a structural reason why that shows up so often. It's almost always a conversation between the Main Character and Influence Character and almost always has one denying the other's observation.

I say almost always because sometimes authors use that line of dialogue thinking they're using it correctly when in reality they're using it on the wrong character. Take for instance the first How To Train Your Dragon. There is a moment where Hiccup tells Astrid that the reason he didn't kill Toothless was because he looked into his eyes and saw himself. That is a classic You and I kind of thing to say.

But he is saying it to the wrong character.

It should have been a conversation with his dad Stoick--his real Influence Character. The film is still awesome1, but gets a little confused when it comes to getting its message across.

You can find the montage of clichés in last week's article The Forces of Influences Felt Between the Two Principal Characters of a Story and the original classic Two Sides of the Same Coin.

  1. Particularly that scene where the kids make fun of Hiccup after he destroys the town and when Hiccup takes off on Toothless for the first time. That's some great animation there! (A bit biased...I was an animator in my previous life↩︎

June 23, 2016

Throughline Tuesdays have been a popular addition to the site here, but it didn't take long before one of our mentor clients pointed out to me that I was missing out on a great alliteration opportunity--Throughline Thursdays! So I'm moving the feature to later on in the week. This clears up some time for the podcast and for our new weekly feature next week--EleMondays!

That's right--in addition to taking a look at the Throughlines of a particular story, I'll take time out each week to look at the Problem/Solution/Symptom/Response quad at the bottom of a Throughline. This group of four Elements is an essential part of every Throughline as it motivates everything that works above it (Issue, Concern and Domain). If some of this seems confusing, don't worry--I'll try to clear it up more next week when EleMondays starts.

For now, onto this week's Throughline Thursday...

Beasts of No Nation is a tremendous film that didn't receive the kind of recognition it deserved. If you saw the first season of True Detective and loved the directing style, you will absolutely love Beasts (same guy).

The Throughlines of *Beasts of No Nation*

At first, one would think to find Main Character Agu (Abraham Attah) in Situation. After all, he is orphaned at a young age and forced to engage in a brutal and ruthless African civil war. But he is not the only one.

This is the key to identifying the Main Character Throughline: Find the problem and conflict unique to the Main Character that no one else deals with, or at least no one we see deals with. Through Agu's eyes we get to see and feel what it is like to engage in all these awful and morally comppromising Activities. The scene on the bridge is a disturbing, yet important, key to the development of his Throughline. As an Audience member we are Agu, engaging in violent behavior.

Contrast this with everyone else in the story and you will see that the Overall Story Throughline is one dealing with a Situation: the state of a nation locked in civil war, turning to children to accomplish their goals. Here, the film doesn't look to the activities of these children as the source of conflict as much as it does look to their indentured servitude as soldiers. No one gets out. And no one can leave.

One too would be tempted to see the relationship between Commandant (Idris Elba) and Agu as one of Manipulation or a Manner of Thinking. But Commandant manipulates everyone. If there ever was a shining example of an Influence Character Throughline of Psychology or Way of Thinking it would be the Commandant. The power he exerts over these children to kill for him and to do unspeakable things for him influences and challenges Agu to examine his own despicable activities.

This leaves the Relationship Story Throughline in Fixed Attitude. Certainly, with the loss of his father, Agu looks to the Commandant for a fatherly relationship. This worship and unquestioning loyalty lies at the heart of their relationship and fuels the love and eventual distrust and hate that builds between them. The final scene where Commandant looks to Agu to affirm their relationship and the roles they play in each other's lives speaks to this problem of what they think creating conflict.

When it comes to identifying the Throughlines of a story, a tender balance must be struck between each of the four perspectives. While it could be possible to see Agu in a Situation, trying to force the Commandant into a Fixed Attitude Domain seems an unlikely and troublesome fit. He is not one for Memories nor quiet Contemplation as a character in that Domain would.

For every complete narrative, there will always be one arrangement of all four that simply feels better. Developing this intuition is key for a writer wanting to explore all aspects of conflict through narrative.

June 22, 2016

By far, the most popular post on this site is an article I wrote six years ago called Plot Points and the Inciting Incident. And by popular I mean 5x-8x more views then the 2nd most beloved article.

When I first published it back in 2010--when this site was called Story Fanatic--I had included a bunch of stills that better illustrated the difference between the what most poeple refer to as the Inciting Incident and the First Act Turn. Well I finally found time today to add those images back in.

If you haven't read it, I would highly suggest you do as it does a great job of explaining why Syd Field's concept of the Inciting Incident is deficient when discussing how a narrative works. Truthfully, any discussion of Inciting Incident lacks saliency as it is a completely subjective appreciation. A more accurate, refined take would be to think of the Story Drivers and how either Actions or Decisions propel a narrative from beginning and throughout each Act.


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