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Thoughts on Story Structure

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.

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.

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.

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! ↩︎

August 10, 2016

Last night was the Dramatica Users Group meeting for Stalag 17, the Billy Wilder film from 1953. Relating the story of American POWs dealing with a traitor in their midst, the film manages to tell an effective and complete narrative as evidenced by the solid storyform we found.

The *Stalag 17* Analysis Board

The most interesting aspect of the analysis1 was the collective "group" Main Character Throughline. At first, some considered Sgt. J.J. Sefton (William Holden) the Main Character. He is, after all, the only one we truly seem to care about.

But the Main Character Throughline in Dramatica is not about who we side with or who is right or wrong. The Main Character Throughline in Dramatica is all about a personal point-of-view that we the Audience share. What the Main Character sees and experiences, we experience. One need only look to The Shawshank Redemption to understand this difference between the Protagonist and Main Character.

Most think of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) as the Main Character since we see him first and root for his escape. But really, we are never truly Andy-- for the most of the film he is up to something we don't find out about until much later. Instead, we look to Red (Morgan Freeman) and look through Red's eyes. In fact many of the POV shots in that film are from Red's perspective.

The same happens in Stalag 17. While there is that moment at the end where we witness Price's conversation with Sgt. Schulz (Peter Graves and Sig Ruman), many more moments exist where we hear about what Sefton is up to and only learn the truth after the fact. Take for instance the scene where Sefton is off with the female Russian POWs. If Sefton was in fact the Main Character we would have been there with him, experiencing Cossack hospitality along with him.

It is clear then that the men in barracks 4, led primarily by the always angry Duke (Neville Brand), represents our way into the story. The narration by Cookie (Gil Stratton)--while not always the sign of a Main Character--only serves to add more weight to this argument.

From there it was a simple matter of nailing down the Throughlines and the deep thematics issues and problems at the heart of each. Standout features were Sefton's Influence Character Problem of Inaction--his cool, aloof, you-can't-ruffle-my-feathers attitude is the exact thing that challenges the group to reconsider who they think is behind it all. And the Relationship Story Throughline Problem of Evaluation and eventual Solution of Reevaluation perfectly encapsulates the relationship between Sefton and the other men. They think him guilty in the beginning and then reevaluate his status as potential war hero in the end. This last notion also services nicely as an example of the Main Character Solution of Potentiality.

Finally, when Dramatica predicts an Influence Character Unique Ability and Influence Character Critical Flaw that so closely matches the original film that you could have sworn the program actually wrote the screenplay, you can't help but think this is the right storyform.2 The Influence Character's Unique Ability is the unique quality of that character to influence the Main Character to change his or her point-of-view. The storyform we landed on predicted Appraisal for his Unique Ability, and this matches up with what you will find in the film. Sefton always has something to say about someone that sets him apart from everyone else. When everyone else is fawning over the arrival of Lt. Dunbar (Don Taylor), Sefton is the first to call him out on his silver spoon pedigree.

But it is the Influence Character Critical Flaw that Dramatica calls out that really steals the show. The theory predicted Repulsion to be the quality of character that lessens Sefton's ability to influence the men to change their mind about him. And that pretty much describes Sefton through and through. He is a repulsive person--someone who constantly pushes people away and refuses to get close to any of them. As soon as we saw that element in play, we knew we had the right storyform.

Deciphering the storyform for a particular work and seeing all the pieces fall into place is a fun and gratifying experience. It is like being able to read the codex of our interactions with one another--almost like Neo and his ability to see the the Matrix. A greater understanding of story always follows and an even greater appreciation for the wonder of the mechanism of narrative our minds thrive on.

The Dramatica Users Group meeting meets on the second Tuesday of every month. We try to vary the genres every time--next month is Kingsman: The Secret Service, last month was Kramer vs. Kramer, and in a couple of months we will be taking a look at Ex Machina. Everyone is invited--veteran or newbie--and we hope to see you soon.r

  1. Besides the fact that Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley couldn't make it at the last second. Thank you, Dramatica Story Expert Sandy Stone for moderating! ↩︎

  2. Along with the usual notion that the Dramatica theory of story is pure magic↩︎

August 5, 2016

This is exciting!

Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story, opened up her Master Storyteller Method for writers everywhere today. This is the same "layered" method I mentioned in blog posts and newsletters earlier this Summer. As Melanie explains:

Often structure is brought into the picture too soon, clamping your passion into an iron maiden that pierces it more deeply with every turn of a structural screw until it bleeds out entirely. In contrast, writing with purposeless abandon creates a jellyfish of a story: an amorphous blob of subject matter with no spine, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Sounds like someone has been enjoying a little Macbeth!1

I have witnessed great advances with my own clients who prefer a more organic approach to writing by using a method similar to this one. By waiting until the last second to start applying structure, the "pantser" can feel free to let their imagination run wild.

Melanie offers a free service that you can work through step-by-step online, or—if you want to take it up another notch—you can actually enlist her to help you personally with the development of your story. You can read more about your various options here.

This is a really fun and exciting time to be involved with Dramatica and the development of new techniques and tools to improve the quality of storytelling. Check out what Melanie has to offer and start writing the story you've always dreamed of telling.

  1. One of my favorite soliloquies from Shakespeare. ↩︎

August 4, 2016

Long have I dreamt of figuring out the storyform for one of Shakespeare's plays. I believe the time has come.

Think of Macbeth as an early, brutal version of Dicken's A Christmas Carol. The same elements apply: a stubborn man, supernatural forces with an eye on things to come, and a dysfunctional relationship between the two worlds. Only this game of manipulation leads the central character down a dark path of vicious and ruthless murder. Tiny Tim would have little time to utter "God Bless is one and all" before Macbeths thugs would run him through with sword and dagger.

The Throughlines of *Macbeth*

Macbeth's madness, grim determination, and ruthless ambition defines the problematic Fixed Attitude of his personal Main Character Throughline. As Protagonist in the Overall Story Throughline he initiates and instigates violence; premeditated murder the problematic `Activity' suffered by everyone. But as Main Character, Macbeth hesitates and contemplates and loses his mind as he begins to see visions of his victims--a physical representation of the guilt locked deep inside him.

The witches foretell the future, their unique Situation as beings with an otherworldly knowledge creating problems for poor confused Macbeth. Their Influence Character Throughline challenges Macbeth to grow--but to grow darkly. Their perspective, undeniable in its accuracy, leads the tyrant astray from the path of the good and righteous.

The Relationship Story Throughline between mortal and spirit explores the conflict inherent within the context of Manipulation. Is their bond inevitable and destined, designed to transform itself into an unholy alliance? Or does the relationship simply exist to tear down and destroy itself? Was it doomed--like Macbeth--from the very start?

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's shortest plays--a little over half the length of Hamlet, so the answers to the above questions will forever remain unanswered and a point of contention for scholars today and tomorrow. And tomorrow.

Regardless the pieces are there--an instinct and reality commonplace for the Bard. Complete stories last an eternity, through culture and generation, as timeless as the problems and solutions they explore. Our stories may trend towards triumph, but there will always be a place to speak the horrors of unbridled ambition.

August 2, 2016

Over on Discuss Dramatica, someone asked about the Tendency of a Main Character:

I'm having a bit of difficulty finding a way to illustrate my MC's "Unwilling" tendency in my story. My MC has made an amazing scientific discovery that he wants to share with the world, but meets with a lot of interference and many complications along the way. Since he WANTS to overcome these obstacles in order to accomplish his goal, I can't see how to make him Unwilling at the same time. Ultimately he fails (chooses not) to share the discovery with the world because he realizes the world isn't ready... but this Tendency question still perplexes me.

The problem here is a common one encountered when using Dramatica. The theory and its story points reveal an obejctive perspective on the story's structural and dynamic elements. Dramatica always gives us the Author's perspective of a narrative. Writers used to constantly imagining what it must feel like to be their character often confuse this point and thus, sever any meaningful connection between the story point in question and the story itself.

I responded with one way an Unwilling Main Character might behave:

I have no idea of the context of your Overall Story, but let's say a key plot point was a group of investors making a decision which project to back, with your MC's project being one of them.

You can imagine your MC, who is a go-getter Type A personality, building bigger and better demonstrations of what it is his project can do and how it's better than any of the others. The more he senses reticence on their part, he turns to flashier and more grandiose demonstrations, until he flat out blows everyone away...

...but they still decide to go with someone else. Why?

Because this is the world of angel investing where you're better off schmoozing and manipulating and generally showing what a great personality you are that people want to be with, rather than having an actual viable product. They want charisma, not results.

In this case, your MC was Unwilling to be what he needed to be in order to effect a positive decision. Perhaps someone counseled him earlier on it, and he disregarded their suggestion as silly and a waste of time.

That would be one way to do it.

Dramatica is an objective look at the elements of a story, not what it looks like from the character's point-of-view.

July 28, 2016

This week we take a look at James Napier Robertson's The Dark Horse—a wonderful independent film out of New Zealand that excels in the narrative space.

The Throughlines of *The Dark Horse*

Main Character Genesis (Cliff Curtis) battles his own mind, while simultaneously fending off the harsh and critical opinions of others. Conflict bred from Fixed Attitudes drives him to talk to himself when agitated and walk peacefully through heavy rain in order to numb his overwhelmed senses.

As Protagonist, Genesis wants to help the underprivileged kids in his community find something positive to do with their lives. While some appreciate Genesis and the other facilitators attempt to engage the children in positive Activities, there are some within the Overall Story Throughline who prefer their young not to be entranced by fanciful dreams.

One of these staunch detractors is Ariki (Wayne Hapi), brother to Genesis and father to Mana. Father and son both hand off the Influence Character Throughline as they challenge Gen's positive mental attitude. Ariki and Mana feel themselves stuck in gang culture without a future to look forward to. Their depressed Situation defines them, and Ariki's declining physical condition forces Mana's rapid indoctrination.

Family serves as the focal point for the Relationship Story Throughline. The relationship between Genesis and Ariki as brothers and the relatinoship between Genesis and Mana as uncle and nephew strain as each try to convince the other of their particular Manner of Thinking. Ariki has played father to Genesis for long enough and the time has come for Genesis to take his place—if he can muster up the right amount of courage.

The Dark Horse is one of those films that reminds you why you became so enamored with cinema in the first place. The power to hear stories told with rich visuals and sophisticated captivating performances is an honor and a privilege for those of us who find these rare gems. There is a reason The Dark Horse ranks so high among critics and audiences alike—a solid, meaningful storyform tells a story of hope and kindness amidst difficult and depressed times.

See The Dark Horse. And make sure you tell three others to do the same.

July 25, 2016

Late last week we installed a couple of new features to expand our level of service and improve our quality of content. In the coming weeks we will be adding even more features--including Membership pages and exclusive content. If you are interested in becoming a Member please visit the Narrative First Membership page.

Storyforming Series

This is the most exciting feature we added. Kept under fifteen minutes or so, these video tutorials will help walk you through an approach to Dramatica unlike anything you have probably seen before. Watch and learn as we show you how we use this powerful theory of story to unravel what makes great stories great and how to best apply it to your own work.

Check out the Storyforming Series

Character Arc Snapshots

A feature we started several years back and one we plan on contributing more to in the coming months, the Character Arc Snapshots explore the Main Character Resolve and Main Character Growth of a character. In less than two minutes you will understand precisely what makes this character's development tick, and what sets it apart from all the others.

Check out the Character Arc Snapshots

Concepts of Story Structure

Lastly, we finally finished collating and categorizing all the posts, articles, and analyses here on the site. Under the taxonomy Concepts you will find a list of Story Points within Dramatica that you can quickly find more information on. In addition, we added a random Story Point to the front page to remind you from time-to-time of something you might want to learn more about.

You likely noticed the addition of "code" styling to several of the posts here on Narrative First. Story Points such as the Story Judgment and Justification, now appear as Story Judgment and Justification. This should help you quickly scan content for the info you need. Eventually, these coded Story Points will have additional functionality.

Check out the Narrative First Concepts


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