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Thoughts on Story Structure

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↩︎

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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. ↩︎

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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July 21, 2016

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a great movie that owes much of its critical acclaim to its well-constructed narrative. An atypical approach to a typical arrangement of Throughlines, the film acts as a wonderful example of how fantastic storytelling transforms effective structure into something truly unique.

The Throughlines of *Hunt for the Wilderpeople*

Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) supplies the Main Character Throughline by being "a really bad egg." Overweight and steeped in "gangsta" culture, Ricky gives the Audience a chance to experience what it is like to be in his problematic Situation. Until Aunt Bella (Roma Te Wiata), it seems as if no one wants him--and he wants to be nowhere.

As much as Ricky doesn't want to be anywhere, cantankerous Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) doesn't want to be around anyone. Hec's Fixed Attitude creates problems everywhere he goes. From Aunt Bella's kitchen table to life on the farm working with Ricky to arguing with hunters who consider him a "pervert". Hec's `Influence Character Throughlines challenges Ricky to stand up for himself and grow as a young man.

The hunters aren't the only ones who think Hec a pervert. Social worker and self-proclaimed Terminator Paula (Rachel House) leads the manhunt for Hec and Ricky once the two disappear into the deep bush of New Zealand. Bored police officers, Swat team ninjas, and affable hunters all join in on the chase, creating an Overall Story Throughline in Activity.

But the real heart of the story rests in the Relationship Story Throughline between Ricky and Hec. Forced into a relationship neither really wants, they eventually grow to a place of true friendship and respect. Alone together they must grow beyond their own Way of Thinking and see things from the other side. Eventually they do, with Hec's proclamation that we didn't choose the skuxx life, the skuxx life chose us sealing the deal.

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July 18, 2016

Back when this site was called Story Fanatic, I started a series of video classes entitled Character Arc Snapshots. The idea was to provide a brief understanding of how a character arc works in Dramatica and how thinking of an arc this way is vastly superior to anything else out there. And do it all in less than two minutes.

With Dramatica, you can actually identify the exact Element that drives your Main Character's growth and determine what Element they "arc" to. So instead of pining on and on about inner conflicts and outer conflicts and wants and needs, you can quickly and easily focus in on what is really causing your Main Character trouble and then develop a way for them to work out of it (or into it, as the case may be).

Dramatica gives writers the ingredients to make a great story--unlike every other understanding of narrative out there that tells you how a great story tastes (Save the Cat!, Hero's Journey, The Sequence Method, Bob's 543 Story Steps, etc.).

While editing the latest class Melanie and I gave on Learn Characters in a Day last month, I discovered these old gems. I did one for Luke Skywalker, Neo, William Wallace from Braveheart, and Robert Angiers from The Prestige. Two Changed characters and two Steadfast Main Characters. My hope is to do even more in the coming months.

I uploaded them to the Narrative First Vimeo channel and will be creating a section here on the site for them later this week. Or you can check them out below:

Luke Skywalker Character Arc Snapshot

Neo Character Arc Snapshot

William Wallace Character Arc Snapshot

Robert Angiers Character Arc Snapshot

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July 14, 2016

Is it possible to have a subjective opinion about the relative value of Throughlines within a story? Possibly. Especially if you have been working with the Dramatica theory of story for any length of time.

For me, it has been 20 years. And if there is any arrangement of Throughlines that creates more boredom in me, it would be the one found in the Academy Award-winning Kramer vs. Kramer.

To be perfectly clear, the boredom stems more from the arrangement of Concerns within these Throughlines rather than the Throughlines themselves. We don't often dive down into the Concern level (the one just below the Domains we cover in Throughline Thursdays), but if we did, the combination of these Throughlines with a Concern of Obtaining in the Overall Story and the Future in the Main Character Throughline would certainly seem familiar.

The Matrix, Body Heat, El Mariachi, Rain Man, The Godfather, The Wild Bunch, Back to the Future, City Slickers, Election, Enchanted, Erin Brockovich, Kung Fu Panda, Looper, My Best Friend's Wedding, Shrek, Star Trek (2009), Surf's Up, Team America: World Police, The Limey, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre all find themselves in the same general area of the Dramatica Table of Story Elements. They all focus on the same kind of structural thematic material.

Kramer vs. Kramer is no different. For starters, we have Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) firmly set in Situation for his Main Character Throughline. Thrust into the world of a single dad the night after his confirmation of promotion, Ted works his ass off to better his lot in life and the lot of those he supports.

The Throughlines of *Kramer vs. Kramer*

Ted is caught up in a custody battle with his ex-wife Joanna over their son Billy. This Activity, which involves his neighbor Margaret (Jane Alexander), respective attorneys and judge, defines the source of conflict for everyone in the story. The title of a narrative is where you often find the definition of the Overall Story Throughline. You can't get much clearer than defining the conflict as Kramer vs. Kramer.

But two Throughlines is not enough to make a complete story. In order to round out the argument and cover all the bases logistically and emotionally, a story needs two more.

The first is the Influence Character Throughline, a role handsomely accepted by Ted's son, Billy. The ten-year old is sullen, moody, and despondent. His Fixed Attitude challenges Ted's hopes for a better future and informs the frazzled dad whether or not he is growing closer or farther away from his intended goal.

Lastly, we have the Relationship Story Throughline that exists between father and son. Truly, the heart of Kramer vs. Kramer exists in those scenes between the two of them. The subtle and not-so-subtle Manipulations of son against father ("Don't you eat that ice cream!") and father against son ("I told you take a shower") define their interactions and set the foundation for the heart of the narrative.

Four Throughlines. Each present and each fully developed. Hoffman and Streep excel in their performances, but it is the soundness of the narrative that justifies the critical acclaim. Sure, the arrangement might be typical of films of that century and reflective of the time period in which it was set, but it still holds together as an example of the Story Mind at work.

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July 13, 2016

At the monthly Dramatica Users Group meeting last night, we watched the Academy Award winning Kramer vs. Kramer, starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep. To say that I loved the film is an understatement. I miss acting. To say I was underwhelmed by the storyform we discovered is also an understatement.

There is an area of narrative within the Dramatica Table of Story Elements that bores the heck out of me. Predominantly seen in films from the mid-20th century, this storyform features an Overall Story Concern or Goal of Obtaining, and a Main Character Concern of the Future.

Snoozerific.

The Board for our Analysis of *Kramer vs. Kramer*

This genre of storytelling has been done so many times that I can't help but groan and complain when it ends up in there. For some reason it feels so pedestrian to me and unsophisticated. Narrative can explore so many more interesting things than Considering and Reconsidering, or Logic and Feeling. Ugh. Even typing that out bores me to tears.

That's why--if you listen to the podcast analysis or watch our online analysis of Kramer vs. Kramer--you hear me try and argue for a different storyform. I loved the film and wanted it to be anywhere else but there in the chart. At that point confirmation bias takes over and I lose all sight of what is really going on. Eventually I saw the light, but you can hear me fight it every step of the way.

This is always been a problem for me. Ever since Dramatica opened up my mind to the subtleties and sophistication in narrative, I try and gear stories towards that sophistication. But this is the end of the 1970s; Kramer vs. Kramer is a product of that time period. The film maintains an innocence and no pain-lotta gain personality that permeates film during that century. And what's more--it really shouldn't matter.

A story is a story no matter where you find it in the Dramatica chart--and I need to realize that once and for all. I can't let my own prejudices or subjective interpretations get in the way of an accurate analysis. Dramatica is objective after all--no time for lame opinions. I can't remember the last film with an Overall Story Problem of Consider so if nothing else, Kramer offers up a great example of what a story with that problem would feel like.

Ted (Dustin Hoffman) is an inconsiderate man and grows to a point where he can reconsider his effect on other people and on the child he really never thought about before. That is a valid storyform and an important facet of problem-solving to cover.

Other notable notes from last night analysis:

Joanna is not a good candidate for the Influence Character as the relationship between her and Ted exists in the Overall Story. That relationship about being Ex's is the whole Kramer vs. Kramer part. You want the Relationship Story Throughline and the Relationship it focuses on to be something separate from the OS.

Part of the reason why it seems to take so long in the beginning is because the 2nd Story Driver--the one that comes between the 1st and 2nd Signpost--is only lightly painted. The Decision not to hang out with the boss after the party implies a decision to put Billy before work. Nothing much is made of it. Compound that with a slide from Signpost 1 to Signpost 2 (Doing to Obtaining) and it feels like a very long first Act.

When it comes to the Main Character Growth, you look to what it took to get to the point where a character could change their resolve--not how their resolve changes. With Kramer vs. Kramer it can seem like Ted had to step-up and Start taking care of his son, but that doesn't speak to his problem. Ted's problem was that he was his own worst enemy and he needed to stop focusing on how he was the one always "bringing home the bacon". His life was going great, and then world came and dumped on him and now he had to pick up the pieces. That's the part he eventually lets go. It makes more sense to think of him as a character with a chip on his shoulder, rather than a hole in his heart which is what a Stop character feels like.

The most important revelation last night is something that I'm going to develop into my article for this week. In the analysis Chris mentions that until Ted can let that Concern of the Future go, he will still be stuck with his personal issues. Might not seem like much right now, but I can't stress how important Chris's line of thinking is towards understanding story through Dramatica. Be on the lookout for that article this week.

And then finally, the last notable-notable, was discussion surround the Changed/Steadfast nature of the Relationship Story Throughline--something that is rarely discussed anywhere within Dramatica. And something else I will write an article about in the near future.

In short, if the Relationship is a positive Steadfast one--one that is growing--then you will see the bulk of the conflict within the Symptom and Response of that Throughline. In Kramer vs. Kramer we see that within their arguments over Logic and Feeling ("Why? Because I said so. Why? Because I said so. Why?" followed by an outburst of emotion).

Contrast this with a Changed Dynamic relationship where the Relationship Story Throughline is the one thing that would resolve the drive in their relationship--if they were trying to make things more difficult for one another. This isn't what is happening between Ted and Billy in Kramer vs. Kramer.

If you are interested in listening or watching last night's analysis, please visit the Dramatica analysis of Kramer vs. Kramer.

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