Narrative First Narrative First Articles, Thoughts and Analysis en-us James R. Hull Copyright 2017 2017-06-25T10:39:25-07:00 <![CDATA[Sing!]]>

At first glance, Illumination’s Sing! may appear light and frothy, and perhaps lacking a solid story structure. Who is the Main Character? Why do I not care all that much about Buster Moon? And why does it feel so familiar and, as one reviewer put it, completely unoriginal?

While the film bears a striking resemblance to My Fair Lady in terms of pure thematic exploration, the real reason many cry average or “seen it” is the straightforward StoryWeaving that leaves nothing to surprise, neither spatially nor temporally. The narrative sets up potentials, doles out resistance to those potentials, plays out their conflict, then delivers the outcome. Nothing is left to interpretation or chance.

Add to this an unambiguous encoding of the key thematic elements and you simply cover story structure with a thin translucent film. The bones take precedence over shape and form. Make no doubt, the narrative works. But no one goes to the movies to watch effective story structure.

That said, a film with see-through skin makes the perfect subject matter for an analysis of effective and complete story structure.

The Ensemble Cast

The Overall Story Throughline, while on the surface about competing in a singing competition, actually finds conflict in the gentle Manipulations of the cast trying to be something they are not. Buster (Matthew McConaughey) lies about the prize money in an effort to be someone his dad could be proud of, Johnny (Taran Egerton) pretends to be into the family business, Ash (Scarlett Johansson) the teen porcupine pretends to be OK with playing pop music, Eddie (John C. Reilly) appears to be a record mogul, Meena (Tori Kelly) tries to muster up the courage to pretend to herself that she can sing, Mike the mouse (Seth McFarlane) pretends to be famous so he can get the girl, and finally Rosita the pig (Reese Witherspoon) pretends to be the dutiful housepig as she pursues her dreams. Playing a Role features prominently in this story and pinpoints the source of conflict for all the characters in the story. Their relationships with one another straining under the weight of psychological dysfunction.

Ensembles work when all the characters focus on the same thematic issues. In Sing!, the Overall Story Issue is Ability. Each and every one of these characters experiences difficulties because of their perceived abilities as performers. The shared Overall Story Problem that motivates all of the conflict in the story is Effect: namely, everyone gears their attention on how their auditions or performances will turn out. This focus on effect causes them to completely overlook key factors–like maybe they should avoid building a giant aquarium for a stage.

In order to achieve the Story Goal of living up to their own expectations and being something more than you are, the performers need to focus on the Overall Story Solution of Cause. That final performance is a benefit performance–a cause–and it showcases the positive results that occur when the characters “just start singing” and singing for themselves (make themselves happy), instead of worrying about the effects.

Again, no surprises between story structure and storytelling. Their worrying about the outcome undermines them, while focusing on the cause saves the day. Straight forward and to the point.

Much like the personal issues suffered by the Main Character, Johnny.

A Personal Point-of-View

Many see Sing! as Buster’s film. Others see it as Johnny’s film. While others see this as no one’s—and everyone’s–film. The latter find explanation as to their error in the above section on ensemble pieces.

Those who inaccurately see Buster in the pivotal role should understand the difference between the Protagonist and Main Character as Buster provides the driving force behind the efforts to resolve the Overall Story’s Problem.

Buster is the Protagonist. Johnny is the Main Character.

With Buster and the other singers, the film presents their conflict from an objective point-of-view. We stand back and observe their struggle. Johnny is the only singer we see alone, a perspective that allows us to become intimately familiar with his personal issues.

Johnny is a great singer trapped in the body of a giant gorilla. This Main Character Throughline of a Situation finds greater clarity of conflict in his Main Character Concern of How Things are Changing (or in this case, how things aren’t changing). As a Main Character with a Steadfast Resolve, Johnny’s Main Character Problem of Proven is treated more as a source of motivation, rather than an actual problem. Jonny literally wants to prove himself to his father.

This drive draws attention again to the familiar aspect of this story’s structure. An Author expands and develops storytelling out of the storyform, out of the story’s structure. To simply rely on the structure itself as storytelling—I want to prove myself–a story risks revealing its raw intention and boring the Audience.

If we were to tell you that living up to his father’s expectations broadcasts the key problem element in their Relationship Story Throughline, would you be surprised?

Neither was anyone in the Audience.

A Father and Son Relationship

Continuing the trend of strict translation from structure to screen is the father/son relationship between Johnny and his father, Big Daddy (Peter Serafinowicz). Here, even the character’s name points directly to story structure.

With a Relationship Story Throughline in Activities, the kind of conflict that erupts between father and son centers around doing things like robbing banks, and driving and practicing to drive the getaway car. In fact, Johnny even goes so far as to mutter to himself while practicing, “You’re not doing it right, Johnny! Speed up, Johnny! Do it like I showed you–” as he almost runs over his dad. To hit the Relationship Story Concern of Doing so squarely on the nose is akin to holding the Audience’s hand and guiding them like a child throughout the entire experience.

“You and I are both alike” scene? Sing! covers that base as well with a classic back-and-forth exchange. Pile on the aforementioned Relationship Story Problem of Expectation and a Relationship Story Symptom and Response of being inadequate and passing as a criminal respectively and one quickly understands the source of comments like “unoriginal”.

Sing!’s problem wasn’t that it was “unoriginal”, it’s that its storytelling didn’t stray from the structure of the story itself. Audiences instinctively know story structure–they use it everyday to solve problems and justify behavior. When an Author fails to graft an imaginative take onto those processes, the Audience feels like they have been cheated. They get the structure–they want creative storytelling on top of it to engage with and embrace.

The only inkling of originality comes with Big Daddy’s fundamental shift in his point-of-view.

Bringing the Thunder

When it comes to a great performance, musicians and artists everywhere know you have to bring it. You have to bring that excitement, you have to bring the passion to the Audience, and you have to make waves.

Or you could bring a windstorm.

As the Influence Character with a Changed Resolve, Big Daddy shares the same Problem Element as the Overall Story Throughline. In short, Big Daddy does not want his son “turning gay”–the Effect of hanging out with theater people pretty obvious to anyone who has lived a life of crime.

With Effect situated as the Influence Character Throughline Problem in Sing!, the Influence Character Throughline Solution becomes Cause–just like the Overall Story Solution. But instead of simply supporting a cause, like the blatant story structure nod in the Overall Story Throughline, Big Daddy brings the thunder by forcing police helicopters to chase him all the way down to the final performance. By causing a windstorm that disrupts the entire scene, Big Daddy not only saves Mike and the rest of the show from the Russian bears, he also inspires Meena to later bring down the house with her own thunderous earthquake.

The Consequence of Structure

Stories with a Story Goal of Being balance their narratives with a Story Consequence of Doing. If the characters fail to be, than they have to do. What happens when everyone finds out that Buster lied and they destroy his theater? He and Eddie have to do the most humiliating thing ever–wash cars with their puffy and spongy bodies.

The converse applies.

Stories that fail to do, end up having to be something they’re not. Sing! is a fun movie. The car-wash sequence is hilarious and some of the music sequences are downright toe-tapping fun. Unfortunately because the film failed to do more than simply ape story structure, it now must take on the role of an average and affable animated flick.

Nothing wrong with washing cars–it’s an honest and reliable line of work. Great stories strive to be so much more than honest and reliable–they want to thrive and infect their audience with such great fervor that they live forever. Only then can they be something more than the sum total of their parts.

Only then can they be truly great.

<![CDATA[Identifying the Overall Story Issue in Doubt]]> While editing and publishing the Dramatica Users Group Analysis of Doubt video, it occurred to me that I completely forgot to address the Overall Story Issue. Normally this wouldn't be a problem--save for the fact that the actual title of the movie--Doubt--features prominently in the corner of Dramatica's Table of Story Elements.

In the interest of time, and hopefully in an attempt to better educated writers interested in developing their understanding of Dramatica, I went ahead and recorded a quick 6-minute video explaining why the Overall Story Issue of Doubt was not Doubt, but rather Investigation.

For more video tutorials like this, please visit our Membership page for details.

<![CDATA[Our In-Depth Analysis of Doubt]]> Last week, I ran the Dramatica Users Group analysis of the 2008 drama Doubt starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep. The class ran exceedingly well and provided a mountain of insight into a particular kind of storyform not often seen in American cinema.

When Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley first asked me to cover for him last month, my first thought was But there isn’t even a storyform for that movie. In my estimation, Doubt was nothing like The Shawshank Redemption or Pinocchio. Like next month’s Moonlight, the film would prove to be one of those analysis sessions where we can’t find a consistent narrative (like City Lights or Leviathan). In fact, I was so confident in my original analysis of Doubt from 2011 where I said:

A wonderfully acted film that falls two notches shy of telling a complete story.

that I even asked Chris to check in with me before the class.

Imagine my surprise when I watched the movie again last Monday and thought, Well, that was one of the easiest storyforms to figure out!

The Board from the *Doubt* Analysis

All Four Throughlines were clearly there. The Story Outcome and Story Judgment were clearly stated. Hoffman and Streep’s classic “You and I are Both Alike” scene clearly defined their Relationship Story Throughline. Even the Main Character’s Growth–an often elusive and subjective story point to discover-was clearly presented.

One of the most interesting things we discovered as a group was that the Overall Story Issue for the film was not Doubt, but rather Investigation. While not covered in the above class, we did upload an addendum video on Identifying the Overall Story Issue of Doubt that we're sure you'll find compelling.

A Lifetime of Study

Dramatica is not something you learn and put aside. The theory takes years and years to understand and even more years to master. A writer new to the theory said this about his experience Tuesday night:

very fun and humbling evening last night. I feel like this is a life long adventure. every time I think I understand it I find a new layer that breaks my brain. thanks again.

While there are methods for accelerating that process, like our Dramatica® Mentorship Program, it is a lifelong pursuit. That excites me. It means I’ll always be learning something new. It means I’ll always be growing. It means that I will always have a solid touchpoint to keep me on track as I develop the art and craft of what it means to tell a story.

The study of Dramatica improves your writing like nothing else. Personally, I’m grateful to experience that growth every day and to play a role in helping others experience the same.

<![CDATA[A Double Shot of Dramatica Analysis]]> We finally found time this week to edit, render, and publish the video analyses of both the Pilot Episode of The Americans and the sci-fi film Arrival. Both classes dive into the deep thematic structure of their narratives while using the Dramatica theory of story for context. After identifying the Four Throughlines, we establish the Character and Plot Dynamics, and then visit the Dramatica Table of Story Elements to pinpoint the source of conflict in each Throughline.

The Americans Pilot Episode

This analysis is great as it takes a look at how Dramatica works within the context of a one-hour television show. In addition, Chris explains how some of the story points in this episode set up potential for future stories within the series. If you've ever been interested in what it takes to outline a television series with Dramatica, this is a great video to watch.


This class is wonderful, if for no other reason than it shows the various thought processes that lead up to the same conclusions we made in our official analysis of Arrival. Pay special close attention to the difference between how things are revealed, and the actual structure of the narrative.

The Dramatica Users Group meets the 2nd Tuesday of every month and has for the past 22 years. Everyone is welcome to join--newbie or veteran. Please contact us directly for more information.

<![CDATA[Wonder Woman]]>

Within the context of a great narrative, few superhero movies deserve the title of God, let alone God-killer. Patty Jenkin's Wonder Woman surpasses each and every DC offering (and some Marvel offerings) since The Dark Knight so completely that it sets the standard for "female-driven" action/adventure.

To observe the slate of upcoming attractions attached to this blockbuster, one would think it a simple case of replacing the usual male lead with a female. Dress her up—make her bad ass—and suddenly you have a culturally "hip" female-friendly crowd pleaser.

Unfortunately, everyone instinctively sees through the ruse.

Wonder Woman, on the other hand, does far more than simply provide eye-candy in a skirt and boots. The film promotes a female approach to problem-solving, eschewing the predominantly male perspective of playing with the odds for something more definite. Something more concrete.

Running the film through the Dramatica theory of story provides a framework for a greater understanding of how they accomplished this monumental—and super important—feat.

NOTE: The following analysis provides numerous spoilers. If you haven't seen the film, we highly suggest you see it first, then return here after. Trust us…you'll love it!

The Wonder Woman

Diana, Princess of Themyscira and Daughter of Hippolyta (Gal Gadot), is more than royalty—she's a God. More specifically, she is a God-killer, a Situation her mother works hard to keep secret and one Diana only fully realizes during her final battle with Aries, the God of War (Main Character Throughline of Situation). Zeus sculpted Diana out of clay as a final gesture of love for mankind—fulfilling this Work represents her greatest personal Issue (Main Character Issue of Work).

The truly feminine characteristic Diana brings to this world, and one that those pandering to the Audience miss, is her Certainty that she is always on the right path (Main Character Problem of Certainty. This knowing, often mistaken as "female intuition", motivates Diana to leap before she thinks, cross battlefields before ascertaining the odds, and—in sharp contrast to the positive aspects of this knowing—murder Ludendorff (Danny Huston) thinking him Aries (Main Character Approach of Do-er).

This final act challenges her resolve to stay true to her calling. While following her intuition saves the village, it also leads her to kill the wrong person. For a moment, her sense of knowing seems to fail her and Aries—representing the ultimate male perspective—steps in to break her certainty down. Using Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) as an example, Aries (David Thewlis) shows Diana the potential all humans possess for horror, demotivating her and manipulating her to change her approach (Main Character Solution of Potential). In fact, Aries manipulated the war itself into existence in order to get Diana to conceive of man's ultimate fallibility (Story Consequence of Conceiving).

And if it weren't for Steve Trevor's valiant act, she probably would have joined him.

Steve Trevor. Spy.

Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) challenges Diana throughout the narrative with his fixed belief that Gods aren't real, and that real men are capable of despicable horror (Influence Character Throughline of Fixed Attitude, Influence Character Concern of Contemplations). As Influence Character, Steve's play-it-safe attitude challenges Diana to question her own beliefs. Thinking himself "less" than the average man, minimizing conflict by playing yes-man to his generals, and even reducing Diana's status of Princess to just "Diana Prince" presents a completely foreign approach to solving problems (Influence Character Problem of Reduction).

Steve isn't the only man to think this way.

The generals themselves and the politicians in the backrooms work to minimize casualties and slowly reduce the enemy's capability of making war—an approach that only serves to extend and increase the ferocity of the atrocities (Overall Story Problem of Reduction).

Of Two Worlds

Diana and Steve develop a budding romance around the struggle to conceive of the other's world (Relationship Story Concern of Conceiving). Letting a clock tell you what to do, sleeping alone because you shouldn't lie with someone you're not married to, acknowledging their need for one another, and discussing the comical sexual deficiencies of the male species provide thematic context for their relationship (Permission, Expediency, Need, and Deficiency—all Issues found within a Concern of Conceiving). Instigating that first step—whether it be on the boat, on the battlefield, or on the airfield at the end—drives them to come into conflict and eventually drives them towards the ultimate symbol of love (Relationship Story Problem of Proaction—self-sacrifice).

The Final Solution

The development of their relationship eventually leads Steve to change his approach (Influence Character Resolve Changed). He confesses his love to Diana, gives her his watch as a symbol of altering his thinking towards the feminine, boards the airplane and destroys Maru's poison gas. By literally making a big scene, he tosses aside the male preference for probability over time and shows Diana what mankind truly deserves (Influence Character Solution of Production). This heroic act motivates Diana to reaffirm her initial intention and stand-up to defeat Aries once and for all (Main Character Resolve of Steadfast).

Subtle but Powerful Clarification

In a slight structural misstep that perhaps made its way in as a result of a more male-oriented understanding, Diana confirms her steadfastness to Aries by telling him: "It's not about what you deserve, it's about what you believe." Belief, or faith, is the Male understanding of Knowing. For Diana's line to truly resonate with the rest of the narrative, it should have read: "It's not about what you deserve, it's about what you know."

That knowing—that certainty that drives her to jump in without doubt and without second-guessing—that's the true power of the feminine hero. Faith is close—and works fine—but for a film that so eloquently encodes the feminine experience of problem-solving, an alignment with that intuition would affirm what so many are taught to ignore.

Resolution and Meaning

The story begins with the theft of Dr. Maru's book, turns with the discovery of Diana's island and the killing of General Luddendorf, and ends with the final destruction of Aries (Story Driver of Action). Diana's great show of force at the end confirms her intuition and fulfills the story's central concern of teaching Diana that mankind is worth fighting for (Overall Story Solution of Production, Story Outcome of Success, and Story Goal of Learning).

To say Wonder Woman is fantastic is an understatement. To say that it takes the plight of feminine understanding to the task of standing up against the forces of doubt and reduction is to honor its truest intentions. The unexplored chasm of knowing and certainty and "female intuition" deserves more than a girly costume and a gender attribution search and replace. It deserves a greater understanding and respect for its ability to save the world.

<![CDATA[Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie]]>

Colorful and imaginative, Dreamworks Animation's Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie delights fans of the series while challenging the attention span of those unfamiliar. To leave the theater claiming "boredom" simultaneously suggests the lack of a connection with someone who loved reading the books and an intuitive understanding of story.

Underpants lacks a Main Character Throughline, lacks an Influence Character Throughline, and lacks a Relationship Story Throughline. With an Overall Story Throughline that pivots with the creation of Captain Underpants himself, even that most objective and easiest of perspectives to lock down fails to engage the Audience on a deeper emotional level.

One sequence in particular hints at the difference attention to these other three Throughlines would manifest: the vision of best friends George and Harold separated across time and space as two planets spun off from one another tugs at the heart and grants sincere emotion into an otherwise cold and slapstick experience. More sequences like this, tied together in a cohesive thematic framework better understood as Four Throughlines, could have exponentially increased the returns on this film.

And by returns, we refer to not only revenue—but also the intention of those willing to return to watch a second time. Blockbuster epic films like this year's Wonder Woman demand repeated viewings because they tell a full and complete story—because they relate a narrative encompassing all Four Throughlines. A film like Captain Underpants, while loved and enjoyed by those who grew up loving when their Dad would work the "Flip-O-Rama" for them at bedtime, will end up forgotten by those longing for a connection to something much deeper.

To understand your story is to appreciate the storyform that communicates your deepest intentions. By connecting to that message, you ensure a sincerity unfounded in most modern cinema and an honesty Audiences return to time and time again.

<![CDATA[Four Hours of Historical Dramatica Audio]]> From the desk of why didn't anyone tell me about this sooner?!, Melanie Anne Phillips—my favorite go-to for an easy link post posted FOUR HOURS OF BRAND-NEW DRAMATICA AUDIO! And by brand-new, I mean historical audio recorded during the first few months of development of the theory.

I have yet to listen to all of it, but imagine Chris and Melanie sitting around in a conference room with a micro-cassette recorder between them and you get the basic idea. I can't think of a better way to spend your days of June gloom whilst you wait for the next episode of the Narrative First podcast.

<![CDATA[Comparing Story To Outer Space]]> The Genesis of a Story

Super genius Melanie Anne Phillips visualizes the process of creating a story out of base compounds and noble gasses:

Think of subject matter as the interstellar gas and material from which solar systems are formed.  This is the narrative space.  Just because you carve out a piece of this space – enclose a particular cloud of star stuff – does not create planets that orbit in understandable patterns.  The job of an author is to look into the nebulous nature of an area of subject matter – a particular historic event, an aspect of human nature – and to coalesce that material into a tale or a story.

Emphasis mine. This is where Dramatica comes in. Finding a great story idea is one thing, coalescing it into an actual story? Something entirely different.

A tale in a given narrative space would simply explore the subject matter and make a statement about it.  A story would transcend that and make the case for the best (or worst) of all possible ways to organize (or live through) that material.

Every complete and meaningful story is an argument . The Dramatica theory of story helps authors develop the argument of their story.

Often, to make a complete argument, we must exclude favorite subject matter pieces that would have to be ham-handedly crammed into our story and would never truly fit.  Further, we may have to include additional elements that really don’t inspire us, because if we went with only the parts we truly care about, our overall argument would be full of holes.

The first is the hardest when working with writers and producers; many find it damn near impossible to let go of their precious babies no matter how much their ugly faces ruin the family picture. The second is no less difficult, but takes considerable effort to communicate the reason why aliens deserve a seat at the Thanksgiving table.

Dramatica and Narrative First--uniting the universe one story at a time.

<![CDATA[The Best Way To Read By The Pool]]> When it comes to reading scripts on holiday--and by the pool--turn to Weekend Read. Nothing more annoying than constantly having to resize PDFs in a reader or having to continually scroll back to your location when you step out to check your IG Stories or take a dip in the water.

Weekend Read

With Weekend Read you simply morph your client's PDF into the app and the above annoyances slip away, making it easier to lose yourself in a great story. Bonus functions include being able to highlight dialogue by character--for those moments when you want to remind yourself Was this the guy who was hitting on that other woman earlier?

It may seem like you can get by without it--but really, you shouldn't.

<![CDATA[A New Understanding Of Dramatica]]> Experiencing difficulty connecting with Dramatica and its concepts because it seems to favor logic over passion? Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of the theory, takes us on a trip to visit The Holistic Side of Narrative Structure--the hidden, passionate side of story construction:

Linear thinking says – logic and passion are nothing alike because logic requires evidence and proof and passion does not. But from a holistic way of thinking, logic and passion are quite alike because each arrives at conclusions, and it requires both to direct and then implement logic – they are team members of the greater process.

The first part makes complete sense to me--the second requires a bit more contemplation. Passion arriving at a conclusion? How does that work?

You and I

One of the most indelible moments I remember learning Dramatica featured this montage of storytelling:

From Dodgeball to In the Heat of the Night, the same lines of dialogue continue to show up--venturing on cliché. But as Melanie explains, their proliferation serves a purpose:

You can see how often that conversation comes up in stories. And yet we never see it as cliché, because it is the core and essence of that duality problem...Simply put, life experience shows us that under some conditions, it is better to see things as separate and other times as part of the same group. This is how we determine friend from foe, mine from yours, and even defining ourselves sometimes as individuals and sometimes as part of a family.

These concepts appear over and over again both in the elements of story structure and in the subject matter we explore in stories because choosing one view over the other is never absolute and must be determined by experience for a given context, yet is always changing, drifting, and what was best seen linearly this week (or in our childhood) may be better seen holistically (as an adult) at this time (though it might change again next week).

Conflict is context. No one solution exists. What works in one context fails in another. With story, we distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate approaches.

​And then Melanie continues by defining the difference between Linear and Holistic thinking:

Linearity looks to the long-wave truths, calls them predicable, labels them as a law, sets up rules to impose the law, and defines any instance where it doesn’t work as an exception.

Holism looks to the short wave truths, calls them “evolving,” labels them as trends, breaks down barriers to encourage evolution, and defines any instance where change does not occur as an obstacle.

Both are true, neither is right.

That explanation of Holism needs to be revisited--especially for us predominantly Linear thinkers. ​

One Side Separates, The Other Blends

Bringing everything back full circle to that "You and I" montage, Melanie redefines the basis for everything in Dramatica:

Simply, it isn’t that one side divides and the other multiplies or even one side is exclusive and the other inclusive or even one side defines the differences and the other defines the similarities. No, the way to grok the equation is, one side separates and the other blends.

And with that, Melanie shifts the overwhelming complexity of Dramatica into a simple matter of context.

... point for the here and now is to open a door to an additional realm within the Dramatica theory that leads to a more sweeping and more practical appreciation of the model as it initially appears and as you have currently applied it.

<![CDATA[Storytelling Is The Number One Skill]]> Over on Medium, Jon Westerberg tells us Storytelling is the Number One Skill You Want to Improve:

I think that storytelling is the greatest technology that humans have ever created. Storytelling is the basis for almost everything in our society, and the way we interact, build, communicate, live and dream all derives from it.

Couldn't agree more.

And we would go further to say that Dramatica is the greatest combination of both technology and theoretical story structure humans have ever created.

In the last week we helped two companies align storytelling with their core values. The first--a company that sees close to a billion dollars in revenue annually--was pleased to hear that our concept for their big budget animated feature synchronized perfectly with their company-wide marketing campaign. Instead of simply helping them tell a story, we helped them craft a structure that propagated one of their core values.

A complete story is an argument. When one of the principal characters resolves their own issues by completely changing their world paradigm, the Author makes the argument that changing this position resolves even bigger issues in the world around them. Instead of marketing an idea through imagery, a story markets values by showing the results of taking that new position.

With the other project, we managed to weave the company's mission into both the pilot episode and entire series of a proposed animated television series. By developing two similar, yet vastly complex arguments, into one work, the production company can move forward with the confidence that the end result will be more than simple diversionary entertainment.

Storytelling should be the number one skill you want to improve--understanding the psychological structures behind effective storytelling accelerates and deepens that skill set far beyond simply making it "relatable." Making it truly relatable requires aligning structure with the psychological processes that dictate problem-solving within our own minds.

Dramatica--and specifically Narrative First--provide the tools and know-how to make that alignment an easy and fun process.

<![CDATA[Generating Dramatic Tension Within Each Act of Your Story: Part Five]]>

For years, Authors relied on instinct alone to source effective tension within their stories. Some found success while many others eventually gave up and turned towards other pursuits. The drive to tell a story is a sacred one and exclusive to no one. An approach now exists to help those stumbling in the dark find their way.

Our series on Plotting Your Story with Dramatica—a series this article completes— offers Authors an opportunity to accurately determine the exact source of tension within their story. With this approach, Authors lay aside guessing for a knowing that integrates with their deepest intentions. The Dramatica storyform codifies Author's intent; diving in and looking at the framework from within clues us in on what it feels like subjectively to experience that intent.

In short, this process shifts us forward in linear time so that we may know our story as the Audience experiences—before we even put the final touches on that first sentence.

The Four Act Structure

Previous articles in this series examine traditional Three-Act structures and the more prevalent, and popular, Two-Act structures. In this, we observe the rare—and almost episodic—Four-Act structure.

Complete narratives move through four different regions, or Signposts, of conflict. The nature of those Signposts determine whether the story feels like a Two, Three, or Four-Act structure. Some stories explore our differences before our similarities, while others begin with the similarities and then venture into the differences. These up-and-down (or down-and-up) narratives—like Aliens or The Matrix or The Incredibles—feel like Two-Act Structures.

Other stories start with one, move into the other, and then return back to the first. Arrival, Being John Malkovich, and The Descendants share this approach. These there-and-back-again journeys feel like Three-Act Structures.

The Four Act Structure alternates between our differences and similarities as it seeks out a potential solution for the characters. The constant bouncing back-and-forth feels episodic because of the lack of an observable trend in thematic exploration. The Great Gatsby, The Godfather, and To Kill A Mockingbird all quadrangulate resolution as they move towards their inevitable conclusion.

A Preference for the Objective Point-of-View

Note the emphasis on the novel in the examples above. Narrative functions the same regardless of form; novels, screenplays, and plays all share the same structural and dynamic framework. Some forms, however, lend themselves to a certain kind of structure. The fall-and-rise of the Two Act structure works great for the cinema because of the emphasis on sight and sound. The increased real estate of the novel naturally gravitates towards the Four Act structure; the alternating currents feel at home within a work that enjoys the luxury of time.

The Approach

In order to determine what the structure of a story feels like to its characters, an Author simply looks to the Static Plot Points:

Two-Act Structure

Three-Act Structure

  • the Story Prerequisites generate tension for the First Act
  • the Story Requirements generate tension for the Second Act
  • the Story Consequence generates tension for the Third Act

A pattern of beginning with the Prerequisites and moving to the Requirements emerges. What then of the Four-Act Structure? Does one simply tag on the Story Goal or some other Static Plot Point to that fourth and final Act? Or do we somehow shift the entire pattern forward and find some other point of reference for that first narrative movement?

A New Understanding

Remember our article Dramatica: A Fractal Model of Story Structure? In it, we examine the cascading nature of dramatic units moving from Act all the way down to the individual Beats of a Scene. In fact, the separation from one level to the next exists as an illusion manufactured by the observer: a narrative circuit is a narrative circuit is a narrative circuit. The same relationship exists for tension within a Four-Act Structure.

In a recent blog post Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story, explains the core conceit of narrative:

One side [of the model] separates and the other blends. That blending part is what you don’t see in the Dramatica model directly, but it’s affect is omnipresent…These concepts appear over and over again both in the elements of story structure and in the subject matter we explore in stories because choosing one view over the other is never absolute and must be determined by experience for a given context, yet is always changing, drifting, and what was best seen linearly this week (or in our childhood) may be better seen holistically (as an adult) at this time (though it might change again next week).

In order to effectively determine the best solution for a particular problem we need access to both the point-of-view that emphasizes the differences and the point-of-view that encourages a blending of similarities. Instead of simply seeing dramatic tension as a linear progression from one Static Plot Point to the next, a more comprehensive approach sees tension in the relationship and juxtaposition of Static Plot Points throughout the narrative and at each and every touchpoint.

Fractal Sources of Tension

Want to identify the source of tension within a Four-Act structure? Alternate between the Story Prerequisites and the Story Requirements for each Act. Want to generate ever-increasing tides of tension for a Sequence or even a Scene? Encapsulate both Prerequisite and Requirement within that dramatic unit and show it as simply a microcosm of the grander scale of things.

Pride and Prejudice does this at both the Act and Scene level. Jane Austen's time-tested narrative examines conflict bred from a deplorable Situation: the Bennet daughters must marry, and marry well. This much-needed Future exists as a blended and shared common Goal because of the discrete and separated reality of their current situation. This Requirement of the Present naturally looks to Contemplations as its Prerequisite: the Bennet father only considering those suitors worthy of an inheritance.

Already one senses the holistic relationship between Story Prerequisite, Story Requirement, and Story Goal. No longer do we search out one before acquiring the next before reaching the final destination. Now we see story points in relation to one another encouraging "evolution" and demanding change—just as Melanie said they would in her post. The story points themselves examine the fractured discrete nature of things, yet the dynamism at work within the model looks to the blended nature of the narrative itself.

Looking to the individual Acts themselves, one begins to see this relationship reflected again and again. The novel begins with an exploration of the Bennet family's current situation and tension within the daughters building up around their father's ultimate decision—the Story Prerequisite of Contemplations within the context of the Overall Story in the Present.

Elizabeth's assumed decision to wed Mr. Bingley moves the narrative into a consideration of how things are changing for the Bennet family. The presumed betrothal encourages suitors like Mr. Collins to present themselves as the better alternative for the situation at hand—the Story Requirement of the Present within the context of the Overall Story in Progress, or How Things are Changing.

This pattern of narrative relationships continues throughout the second half with the Story Prerequisites of Contemplations establishing tension in the Third Act and the Story Requirements returning to generate tension within the Fourth Act. Diving into each Act further, one finds this relationship between conscious contemplation and current situation continued throughout each and every Sequence and Scene. Even the individual Beats of these scenes carry the thematic DNA code of the narrative—constantly and consistently repeating, echoing the Author's original intent.

The Balance of Tension

Throughout this series, our examples emphasize the Overall Story Throughline to the exclusion of the other three Throughlines. In truth, the actual feel of a narrative finds rhythm within the Main Character, Influence Character, Relationship Story and Overall Story perspectives.

Some narratives find a consistency in three of the four Throughlines: Witness finds the Main Character, Influence Character, and Overall Story Throughlines searching for resolution throughout Three-Act structures. The Relationship Story Throughline bucks this trend with a Two-Act structure. The balance of all four trends towards Three Acts—an explanation why it often serves as the penultimate Three Act structure.

Others find a mixture of Two, Three, and Four Act structures—the exact nature of each Throughline determined by the various Character and Plot Dynamics chosen by the Author.

In our work with writers, producers, and directors we found an emphasis on the Overall Story Throughline to be the most effective approach. This commonality rests in the fact that most of our clients operate within the film or television industry. By setting the basic structure of the narrative to the most prominent Throughline in that medium, we help Authors meet their Audience's expectations. Were we to consult with more novelists or playwrights, we would expect a shift in focus towards the more subjective Main Character or Relationship Story Throughlines.

The Dramatica theory of story presents Authors an opportunity to see their stories from an unusual and often unattainable perspective. By granting an objective view of key story points and dynamics, creators can step outside of themselves and see their work the way everyone else does. Having identified the key Static Plot Points from that perspective, the Author can then confidently dive into the lives of their characters and know exactly where to find narrative tension.

Writing a story used to be a game of guessing and endless speculation—a process of needless tension often ending in tragedy and missed opportunities. With Dramatica, Authors shine a light on their heart's hidden desires and greatest intentions.

<![CDATA[Problem-Solving and the Order of Acts Within a Story]]> Malcom Solves Problems by Working the Balance of Things

Over the weekend, we removed the plastic wrap off FIVE of our premiere articles within our Vault:

The first three cover the Dramatica concept of the Main Character's Problem-Solving Style. For those new to the theory, the MC Problem-Solving Style (originally the Main Character's Mental Sex) sets the base-operating system for the story engine of a narrative. Linear problem-solvers seek solutions to problems by looking to cause and effect. Holistic problem-solvers seek solution to problems by looking to the relationships between things and shifting the balance to draw out change.

This difference requires Authors to make a choice as to how their Main Character functions as it explicitly sets the order of thematic material considered in each and every Act.

Why Act Order is More Important Than Time Spent explains why this order is infinitely more helpful (and useful) than the actual time spent within each Act. Think you need to "turn" the First Act after 25 pages in a screenplay and the Second after 75 or so? Think again: the actual substance of those Acts supersedes any of these considerations.

Finally, Thinking of Your Audience First takes an initial look at Dramatica's Audience Appreciations. We provide this article within the context of history. The more recent series of articles The Audience Appreciations of Story dive into these illusive concepts with far greater confidence and accuracy.

<![CDATA[In Regards To The Inciting Incident]]> Joe and Lee work things out

The "Inciting Incident" is a nebulous term and therefore insufficient in matters of story structure and analysis. Some see it as the event that starts the story while others see it as the "Call to Adventure". Even Hero's Journey advocates find it less than useful:

The Inciting Incident is a confusing term and, in general, not very helpful. Within the context of the Hero's Journey, it could represent a few points of action…Perhaps the Inciting Incident is useful in [infantile] three, four or five act structures, but amidst the complex Hero's Journey, it is less useful.

Ignoring the ridiculous comparison between the Hero's Journey and other "infantile" understandings of narrative structure, one witnesses a lack of agreement over the function an Inciting Incident actually performs.

The Call to Adventure

From a Dramatica point-of-view, the Call to Adventure is simply the moment where the Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines meet for the first time. R2D2's delivery of Ben's message in Star Wars weaves in Luke's constant need to find ways to test himself against the larger world's concern of finding someone skilled enough to help fight the evil Empire. The revelation that brother Joe listed Lee (Casey Affleck) as guardian to son Patrick in Manchester by the Sea pits the empty black hole of wanting anything within Lee against the bigger picture concern of a dying man's wishes.

This functions as a sufficient definition of Inciting Incident--if it weren't for the fact that these stories don't start with those moments.

The First Story Driver

Instead of relying on amorphous "Inciting" moments, the Dramatica theory of story looks to the initial creation of the central inequity within the Overall Story Throughline. Dramatica refers to this initial event--whether it be an Action or a Decision--as the first Story Driver. This moment marks the dividing line between the world at peace and the world embroiled in conflict--the world that needs a story to make meaning of the efforts to resolve that conflict.

Death Vader's illegal boarding of Princess Leia's ship is the initial Story Driver of Star Wars. Sure, the Rebels and Empire were at odds before the story began, but it was an equitable conflict--like the Cold War between the US and Russia. His blatant display of hubris upsets that tender balance and motivates everyone to search out a way to fight back.

Joe's diagnosis—shown out of temporal sequence within the movie—is the initial Story Driver of Manchester by the Sea. Lee's personal problems start sometime later, yet it is this dire set of circumstances that forces Joe, his wife, his attorney, and his friends to begin the process of making key decisions in the planning of Patrick's future.

Diagnosing the Start of a Story

As you can see, knowing the identity of the Inciting Incident does little for an Author. While masquerading as the beginning of a story, this mixed-up charlatan confuses issues and mixes perspective in its attempt make things easier. Authors need to understand the difference between conflict as seen from the Main Character point-of-view and conflict as seen from the objective Overall Story point-of-view. A term like Inciting Incident blends the two, leading to all kinds of subjective misinterpretations of conflict.

The Main Character Throughline naturally collides with the Overall Story Throughline at some point within a narrative. Knowing when it does, or the nature of it, matters little to the actual meaning of a story.


BFG--or Big Friendly Giant--invokes awe with stunning animation and boredom with lackluster storytelling. This fractured fairytale manages to craft together a narrative devoid of an Overall Story Throughline--a feat unheard of in most, if not all, Western cinema. The only other work that comes close is the original Twilight novel; the movie adaptation thankfully added this key perspective knowing that the only way to keep the Audience in their seats was to provide an objective reason for them being there.

Complete narratives consist of Four Throughlines--each granting a different point-of-view on conflict. The Overall Story Throughline offers the third-person dispassionate They perspective. This is where the Author communicates why they're in conflict, what they hope to accomplish, and the shared thematic issues they all face. Without this view, a story leaves an Audience guessing as to the whole purpose for the work in the first place. We all instinctively know what it's like not to hold an objective view of ourselves--we experience that unknowing of greater reason day in and day out.1 Why suffer through that pointlessness in a movie?

We see from within or without, we cannot do both--except in a story. If we see from within we know my problems, your problems, and our problems; but can't see their problems when we ourselves are a part of it. Conversely, we know their problems, your problems, and our problems, but can't simultaneously jump into their shoes to experience I.

The Four Perspectives

We love stories, and return to then over and over again, because they grant us the experience of seeing it all all at once.

E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, the other movie by Melissa Matheson and Steven Spielberg, expertly crafted an Overall Story Throughline in with an additional Main Character, Influence Character, and Relationship Story Throughlines. Eliot's fear of abandonment complimented E.T.'s very real abandonment, and together the two developed a relationship capable of letting go--a key factor in resolving the bigger Overall Story picture of phoning, and eventually going, home.

BFG introduces a potential Main Character, and a potential Influence Character, and potentially could develop a Relationship Story--unfortunately the absence of a thematic thread holding them all together keeps the film from telling a great story. That boredom you sense twenty minutes in and the fidgeting you try to corral in your own children exists as a result of this missing Throughline.

In short, BFG functions as a great demo reel for stunning character animation. You will want to look elsewhere for a great story.

  1. Unless, of course, we craft what we think things look like from a 3rd person perspective. But even then, we subjectively approximate that view. ↩︎

<![CDATA[Main Character And Perspective]]> Recently, I received an email questioning our narrative analysis of Arrival. The writer took issue with my assignment of Be-er to Louise's Main Character Approach, thinking the story featured more instances of her solving problems externally, rather than internally. In fact, this writer listed over 40 different examples to back up his claim.

Unfortunately, each and every one of them described Louise's function as Protagonist in the Overall Story, not the Main Character Throughline.

Main Characters, Protagonists and Perspective

When a single player represents both the Overall Story function of the Protagonist and the first-person perspective of the Main Character, it can be difficult determining what portion of the storyform a certain event holds.

Seeing the Main Character Throughline as a perspective, not a storyline, makes the process easier.

The easiest way to find the part of the story that applies to the Main Character Throughline, and therefore a clue to the Main Character Approach story point, is to look to that personal baggage that the Main Character would take with them into any story—not just this one. Find something unique to the Main Character and the Main Character only, and you'll find this personal baggage.

If you look at Louise and the totality of Arrival, you’ll see that the biggest personal issue for her is the loss of her daughter. She is the only player, the only point-of-view really, that suffers through that loss—and it is those memories of her daughter, those painful memories, that connect us the Audience to the narrative. The Author specifically places within her point-of-view in order to experience a unique understanding of time.

A completed story intertwines the various elements and perspectives into one “piece”, so it can be difficult at times to parse out the different contexts for the Four Throughlines. If you can look to those elements of story that are unique to the Main Character and unique regardless of external “plot” or Overall Story, then you will find the path to the Main Character Throughline.

A Greater Perspective

Realizing that not every Main Character is a Protagonist broadens a writer's mind towards a more comprehensive understanding of narrative; seeing the Main Character as a perspective, not a character, opens up even greater channels and opportunities for storytelling.

Arrival is challenging to analyze because Louise is both Main Character and Protagonist. She not only suffers through the loss of her daughter but also drives the plot forward from Act to Act. Separating her function as the one pursuing and considering a successful resolution for all from her emotional point-of-view ensures an accurate assesment of its central narrative dynamics.

<![CDATA[Men Calculate Narrative Differently From Women]]>

In the end, there are two alien species living on the planet, each in possession of the secret the other seeks, but that they do not know they have and could not communicate if they did.

Melanie takes time out to blow us all away with a greater understanding of the difference between the way the two sexes think in order to better appreciate how Dramatica predicts elements of narrative:

Not to be cryptic, but perhaps the answer you seek cannot be found from the wisest man because the answer is just beyond what men can see. It is also just beyond what women can see, but then it is a different answer. What men seek is the special knowledge that women possess and women seek the special knowledge that men possess.

Personally, I wholeheartedly agree with her dislike of the terminology switch from Mental Sex (Male or Female) to Problem-Solving Style (Linear or Holistic), and hope it switches back in succeeding versions.

<![CDATA[The Source of a Main Character's Problem]]> Back from the Vault, part three in our four part series on Main Character and Meaning: How Main Characters Approach Problems. Beyond showcasing my turning of the phrase "Main Characters have a myriad of approaches", the article introduces the concept that where the Main Character prefers to solve problems indicates the kind of conflict he or she experiences in the story.

If they prefer to solve problems externally as a Do-er, their personal problems will center on problematic situations or activities. If they prefer to solve problems internally as a Be-er, their personal problems will revolve around manners of thinking and fixed attitudes.

<![CDATA[Establishing A Difference Between Plot And Exposition]]> Melanie posits an excellent distinction between the internal order of events within a narrative, and the external revelation of those events:

Plot, then, is really that internal progression of events, while the reader/audience order is more precisely referred to as Exposition.

The timing on this post couldn't be better. In an effort to better serve the writers and producers we work with, we've been fast at work developing a tool that can easily bridge the gap between these two views...

...all the way down to the Scene level view.

For an author, it is important to separate the two. Otherwise it is too easy to overlook a missing step in the logical progression of the story because the steps were put out of order in Exposition.

The response to this new way of working with Dramatica has been overwhelmingly positive and we can't wait to share it with you.

Using this system, you will ensure that everything that happens in your story is not only interestingly revealed, but also makes an unbroken chain of sense.

Without a doubt, this corresponds with our own internal data. Help the writer develop his or her plot so that it makes sense, then guide them to expose that plot through an emotionally meaningful experience.

<![CDATA[Being Rushed Or Being Pressured In A Story]]> Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story, offers a new way to look at the Story Limit:

In a time lock story, you are rushed. In an option lock story you are pressured (because the undesired situation remains an irritant until you finally find a solution).

With only 10 days to go before his wedding, Jack Cole (Thomas Haden Church) feels rushed to hook up in Sideways. With only so many people to turn to, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) feels pressured to honor his brother's wishes in Manchester by the Sea.

Everyone loves subjective perspectives on Dramatica's cold and objective storypoints. The popularity of our series of articles Plotting Your Story with Dramatica speaks to this wave of interest.

Melanie's latest take on the Story Limit adds to this recent trend in making Dramatica more palatable to the everyday writer. More importantly, her latest post offers new understandings of a fascinating and groundbreaking theory of narrative.

<![CDATA[The Storyform Works As A Whole]]> Whether working with comedians, actors, writers, producers, directors, and everyone else in-between one thing stands out: they all love to second-guess their storyform. They begin with a purpose in mind, but then struggle to force-fit that vision into a narrative that Audiences everywhere embrace. The problem lies in our own ability to deceive ourselves.

The Death Knell of the Student Film

I experienced the same self-doubt during my tenure at the California Institute of the Arts. During the first semester, students would kill themselves developing a solid story for their student films. We would work the story over and over again until it rang true for them and for others in the class. And they would finish the semester confident that they created something meaningful and important to them.

But then they would leave for Christmas Break.

With the excitement of continually problem-solving the structure of their story far behind them, they would return pumped up about starting a new film. Why work to complete a fully developed story when you can start over fresh and face new narrative challenges?

The exact same thing happens daily here at Narrative First.

A Form for Your Story

The Dramatica theory of story helps writers and producers tell the story they want to tell. By carefully answering key dynamic questions revolving around the central character of the narrative and the plot dynamics of the story itself, Dramatica returns a carefully balanced amalgamation of story points. Follow these points and Author's Intent becomes a reality.

Once writers submit their original material for our consultation, we spend a considerable amount of time zeroing in on the exact set of character and plot dynamics needed to accurately portray their story. In addition we help quadrangulate the various thematic issues and concerns involved in the Four Throughlines of their story. Writers enjoy the process and often sign off excited to start writing.

But then inevitably return, just like those CalArts students, with new ideas or new directions to take their story. Once writers find themselves exposed to the power of Dramatica, they begin to develop a tendency to continue to work and rework the storyform and that's because it's much easier to do that than to move forward and encode the various story points.

In addition, one tends to look the other way and ignore other aspects of the storyform that don't quite fit with their current new idea because they focus in one or two key story points that they would like to see different.

Working Together as a Whole

The current Dramatica storyform model contains over seventy-five holistically integrated story points. This integration, by definition, requires that all these points work together as a whole. A writer can't focus on one little bit of the storyform—they need to step back and see it in its entirety.

As the consultant on the project, I have the luxury of only recently coming to the story in question. Unlike the writer who knows their story forwards and backwards and forwards again, I come to the story free of prejudice. I see what is there and can comment and guide a writer to the exact storyform for the story they want to tell. What I can't do is continually bend and warp the storyform the way the Author can, because I'm not actually in their mind.

And unfortunately for the Author, neither is the Audience.

Writers convince themselves a storyform works the same way a character convinces themselves that they don't have a Problem. They subconsciously turn away from the reality of what drives them in order to focus on the apparent symptom of the problems in their story and respond by continually trying to change it. This justification process—the very opposite of actual problem-solving—forms the basis for what many refer to as writer's block.

Thankfully, writers familiar with Dramatica understand this process whereby a character fools themselves into taking one approach because they don't fully realize the true source of the conflict in their lives. By better understanding how this justification works within a story, Authors can flip the script in their own lives and return to the process of solving that problem of the unwritten story.

If you would like to learn more, or have us take a look at your story and help you develop it into a solid and workable bit of narrative please contact us or sign up for popular Dramatica Mentorship Program®. Over 30 writers, producers, and directors signed up over the past year. Add your name to the list and start seeing your story the way your Audience does--not the way it is in your head.

<![CDATA[Generating Dramatic Tension Within Each Act of Your Story: Part Four]]>

Crafting effective tension from the point-of-view of your characters requires a deeper understanding of your narrative's unique thematic structure. Some stories begin with internal sources of tension then move to the external, while others start in the external and shift back to the internal. Developing pressure is not a guessing game--if you know where to look.

Our article Generating Dramatic Tension Within Each Act of Your Story: Part Three examines what subjective tension feels like for characters trapped in a Three-Act structure. By looking to three of Dramatica's Static Plot Points--the Story Requirements, the Story Prerequisites, and the Story Consequences--an Author pinpoints the source of strain within a narrative.

The Three Static Plot Points

As with a Two-Act structure, the Three-Act narrative looks to the Story Prerequisites for the tension of the first major movement and the Story Requirements for the second movement. The third and final Act perceives pressure within the differential between the Story Consequence and the Story Goal, with an emphasis on the former.

More Three Act Structures

While Two Act structures dominate most of Western narrative, the Three Act structure finishes a close second. Peter Weir's Witness often takes center stage when exploring this brand of story, but many other examples exist. Two in particular--Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential and Alexander Payne's Election--provide an excellent illustration of tension found in similarly structured narratives.

Witness generates tension for the Audience in the form of a deplorable Situation. Keeping the community from reacting impulsively and regressing into violence deepens that tension. Both L.A. Confidential and Election find urgency in a more familiar location: the motivation to achieve. Here, stress increases under the weight of what needs to be done and the posturing needed to engage those efforts.

The Dynamic Forces of Intention

An interesting observation occurs when comparing these two stories. While sharing a Story Goal of Obtaining, both films differ in regards to their respective Story Outcomes. L.A. Confidential's efforts to stop police corruption Fail when the LAPD covers up Dudley Smith's crimes. Tracy Flick's rise to the top in both academia and politics Succeeds in Election. With Success in one and Failure in the other, one assumes a difference in structure. Dynamic story points--like Story Outcome--determine the specific nature of the Static Plot Points.

Yet, the storyform for both films share a striking resemblance:

The reason for the similarity?

Election's Main Character Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) solves problems Holistically, while L.A. Confidential's Main Character Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) solves problems Linearly. A holistic problem-solver looks to balance as its primary directive while a linear problem-solver looks to cause and effect. Two completely different worlds of thought with similar touch points along the way--if contradiction exists with the final Outcome.

Confidential looks to Doing and Being to guarantee its Personal Triumph the same way Election looks to Doing and Being to guarantee its Personal Tragedy.1 The dynamic choice of Story Outcome may differ, but so too does the choice of Main Character Problem-Solving Style. One balances out the other. In the end, Dramatica assures the integrity of the artist's thematic statement by setting these key story points to align with the message.

Finding Tension within Corruption

Finding the Major Dramatic Question of the Story begins the process of analysis:

L.A. Confidential

Central Dramatic Tension: Will Bud and Exley stop corruption within the Los Angeles Police Department?

  • Bloody Christmas (Initial Story Driver)
  • Act One Dramatic Tension: Will Exley and Bud be able to get along as partners?
  • The Nite Owl Murders (Act Turn)
  • Act Two Dramatic Tension: Will Exley and Bud track down the officers behind the Night Owl Murders?
  • Dudley shoots Vincennes (Act Turn)
  • Act Three Dramatic Tension: Will Exley and Bud be killed?

Life and Death and Three Acts

When looking to introduce tension into a narrative, one presumes characters facing certain death to be a common occurrence. However, examine a film like Star Wars and notice the lack of focus on Luke dying. Instead, the narrative focuses on whether the Rebels will be able to complete their mission--not on the negative potential for dying.

Same with Eastwood's Unforgiven. That film explores life or death stakes at the end, but the concern is not over Munny dying--the concern is coming to terms with your true nature.

Contrast these two examples against L.A. Confidential where the concern is absolutely focused on who will live and who will die. With Ed and Bud completely surrounded by corrupt cops, the tension within the narrative grows over the subjective concern of Will we make it through the night? Will we die right here and right now?

These life and death stakes found in a Story Consequence of Becoming only exist in Three Act Structures. Consider Unforgiven and The Matrix--both narratives that share a Story Consequence of Becoming, yet share a Two Act Structure. That Third Act, the one that maintains tension through the Consequence, fails to appear in these stories. Generating tension with the prospect of Munny or Neo dying is a nonstarter.

Combine a Three Act structure with a Story Consequence of Becoming--or Changing One's Nature (death is a change in nature)--and it appears as if structure dictates content. That final Act must feature life or death consequences.

Or, at the very least, the transformation towards our primal natures.

You Can Have It All

In the student vs. teacher dark comedy Election, Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) rings her ladder of success around Jim McAllister's neck:


Central Dramatic Question: Will Tracy achieve success?

  • Tracy sleeps with Jim's best friend Dave, resulting in his firing (Initual Story Driver)
  • Act One Dramatic Tension: Will Tracy and Jim be able to maintain their roles as student and teacher, respectively?
  • (Act Turn) Paul signs up as a candidate for President thanks to Jims gentle urgings
  • Act Two Dramatic Tension: Will Tracy and Jim be able to do to the other person what has been done to them?
  • Tracy destroys the campaign posters (Act Turn)
  • Act Three Dramatic Tension: Will Jim and Tracy be able to maintain their essential natures and not devolve into ruthless neanderthals?

Sadly for Jim, the answer to the last question is no, evidenced by the final scene comparing him to a caveman. For Tracy, the answer is yes as she avoids any Consequences on her way to the top.

The Main Character and the Protagonist

In a Personal Tragedy, the Protagonists efforts end in Success while the Main Character fails to resolve their personal issues. Election clearly splits the function of Protagonist from the perspective of the Main Character in order to tell its story.

With Tracy as the primary driver for resolution in the plot, it makes more sense to place her at the center of dramatic tension. Jim feels tension, but the source of that tension comes from her relentless pursuit for success.

Psychological Conflict in Three Acts

L.A. Confidential and Election shine as examples of tension built up while engaging in problematic activities. Characters move from the internal--Being, or playing roles--to the external--Doing--on their way to greater physical accomplishment. Characters that find resolution in changing the way they think move in a different direction.


  • Story Prerequisite: Obtaining
  • Story Requirement: Becoming
  • Story Consequence: Doing

Central Dramatic Question: Will Jack be a good man in time for his wedding?

  • Act One Dramatic Tension: *Will Jack get enough "tail" before his wedding day?
  • Miles and Jack run into Stephanie (Act One Turn)
  • Act Two Dramatic Tension: Will Jack burn the womanizing out of his system in time for his nuptials?
  • Jack shows up naked without his wallet or rings (Act Two Turn)
  • Act Three Dramatic Tension: Will Jack stop sleeping with other women?

Unfortunately for Jack's wife, the answer is no. Unlike many of the examples in this series on Plotting Your Story With Dramatica, Sideways ends in Failure. The tension bred by the Consequence wins out. By Doing what he has always done, Jack fails to reach the Story Goal of Being a Good Man and suffers the Consequences.

Note the difference in plot points: In seeking physical resolution, L.A. Confidential moves from internal to external. In seeking mental resolution, Sideways moves from external to internal. Different problems, different paths to resolution. The Static Plot Points of Dramatica guarantee consistency of thematic intent while maintaining the integrity of narrative structure.

Knowing How to Say What to Say

Our first article on Generating Dramatic Tension, broaches this alignment between subjective tension and artistic intent:

Dramatic tension is not random and it is not happenstance. It flows naturally from the combination of story points carefully laid out to deliver a message of purpose—or Author’s Intent—to an Audience.

The Dramatica theory of story makes aimless speculation a thing of the past. By flipping switches and dialing in thematic strength, an Author primes the story engine with his or her own artistic purpose. The storyform that arrives upon completion of this process supplies the writer with ample insight into the unique set of story points needed to complete and accurately broadcast their message.

With Dramatica the Author simply dreams, then writes--knowing their efforts sync harmoniously with their original intent.

  1. Jim McAllister doesn't fare quite as well as Tracy. ↩︎

<![CDATA[Online Group Analysis of Field of Dreams]]> This week's Throughline Thursdays examines the different kinds of conflict found in Peter Weir's 1989 baseball fantasy, Field of Dreams.

Moonlight Graham

Way back when, Google+ was a thing and we here at Narrative First thought it a good idea to relocate all of Dramatica's online discussion to the Dramatica Users Google+ Community. Short-lived as it was, the uptick in participation prompted many interesting conversations—one of them an in-depth analysis of Field of Dreams.

Structured like the Dramatica Users Group meetings, the analysis began with a determination of the Four Throughlines, then moved on to the Character and Plot Dynamics, and finally concluded with a deep dive into Concerns, Issues, and Problems of each individual Throughline.

Eventually the analysis will be ported over to the Discuss Dramatica forums, but until then you can read the entire Online Analysis of Field of Dreams here.

<![CDATA[An Argument For Purpose And Meaning]]> This week we add a montage of Successful Arguments to our post from the vault, A Story Is an Argument. In the short 2-minute clip, key scenes from complete and effective stories showcase their narrative's respective true purpose.

Every great story seeks to provide some greater meaning, some essential argument as to the best approach for solving the problems we face in our lives. The Dramatica storyform codifies that argument by pinpointing the key strategic touchpoints that exist between Author and Audience; the holistic holograph of intention shuttling along the carrier wave of those 75 story points.

*The Shawshank Redemption*--an argument for hope

The Shawshank Redemption argues for hope. Fight Club argues for anarchy and mutual self-destruction. Pinocchio argues for following one's conscience. And The Sixth Sense argues for greater personal vision.

The purpose of story lies in a portion of our minds that craves something more than Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre—the portion that craves a reason behind Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre.

<![CDATA[Generating Dramatic Tension Within Each Act Of Your Story: Part Three]]>

When drafting the tension for a powerful narrative look to the stick, not the carrot. The reward is delicious, alluring, and attractive. Alone, it only generates positive motivation in those who desire. The stick, on the other hand, increase strain as it draws one away from peaceful resolution.

Last week's article in our series on Plotting Your Story with Dramatica covered developing tension within Two Act Structures. Whether a rise and fall or fall and rise, the two key Static Plot Points of Requirements and Prerequisites helped us single out the inflection points of motivation for the characters in a story.

All narratives are not created equal. Depending on the specific choices an Author makes in regards to dynamic forces acting upon the Main Character and the Overall Story and the makeup of the thematic material itself, stories sometimes split up into Three, or Four Act structures.

Every Party Has a Pooper

Aristotle ruined everyone with his notion that stories have a beginning, middle, and end. In our article Identifying the Number of Acts in Your Story, we established a more modern understanding of narrative by looking to to the shifting contexts within different Throughlines:

When shifting into a type of conflict that feels the same, the sense in the Audience is that this is a continuation of exploration. The delineator between the two is hard to find. Act turns feel like major turning points because they represent a shift into a decidedly different dimension of conflict.

In this article, we seek to build upon what we learned and apply it to what many consider the penultimate model for narrative: the Three Act structure.

A Three-Act Structure Approach

When it comes to identifying tension within a Two-Act Structure, the approach is clear:

Two Acts, two Static Plot Points; one for each.

But when it comes to singling out tension in a Three-Act structure, the approach becomes less clear.

Why the Story Consequences and not the Story Goal?

Tension in the Differential

The Goal of a story represents the focal point, or point of intention, for all the characters in the Overall Story Throughline. The Goal functions as a positive motivator.

The Consequence of a story functions as a negative motivator. If the Goal motivates initiative, the Consequence inspires reticence. The differential between the two motivates the entire narrative. This is why many say you can't write a Goal without a Consequence. You can't move towards something if you don't know what you're moving away from.

When it comes to generating tension in that final Act, a strategy of looking to the Story Consequence guarantees an abundance of narrative strain.

From a subjective view, the voice of initiative towards resolution drowns out any potential reticence. To simply add on to more of that motivation would only reaffirm the character's purpose. If instead, the Author heaps instances of negative motivation onto the characters in the preceding moments before realizing the source of their positive motivation, tension rises.

Besides, you remember what happens when multiply a positive against a negative, right?

A Positive Times a Positive Equals a Positive

I know. The whole point of becoming a writer was to escape any semblance of mathematics. But consider the positive motivation vs. the negative motivation. If you, as an Author, continue to pile on the positives, the energy needed to stimulate tension diminishes. No differential, no sense of what exists in-between, no inequity, or imbalance.

Same with piling on the negatives. Eventually the Audience will grow tired of yet another force drawing the characters back into regression. Positive times a positive equals a positive. Negative times a negative equals a positive.

And when it comes to tension, you're not looking for positives.

Match a negative up against a positive and suddenly you have even more negatives. You have what amounts to tension in the hearts and minds of the characters and therefore, the Audience.

The Perfect Three-Act Structure

We begin with the perfect example of Three Act Structure from the 1980s, Peter Weir's Amish-thriller Witness. We say "perfect" because this is the film many point to as THE example of how narrative works.

You know a paradigm of story lacks relevance if it continually refers to the same story from three decades ago as the one and only "perfect" example. We ourselves at Narrative First are guilty of this as well when it comes to Star Wars, but a) everyone has seen it and b) it's like the training wheels of story--Star Wars is, by no means, a "perfect" example.

We continue to update our catalogue of analysis and our showcase of Throughlines in an effort to communicate the idea that the model of story we prefer isn't tied to a particular kind of story. Dramatica binds itself to the psychological processes of the mind; the narratives that branch out from it appear in the reimagining of artists from every decade. Limiting ourselves to the 80s stifles better appreciation and locks us in to a singular myopic methodology.

Of Protagonists and Main Characters

As a reminder, these Static Plot Points apply to all the characters in a story. Many familiar with Witness might find it strange that we identify tension in characters other than John Book (Harrison Ford). As the primary driver in the efforts to resolve the problems in the story, Book functions as the Protagonist. As our eyes and ears into the emotional concerns of the story, Rachel (Kelly McGillis) functions as the Main Character of Witness.

The Dramatica theory of story distinguishes the motivation to pursue a successful resolution from the personal perspective of what many consider the point-of-view character. In Dramatica, the former is the Protagonist, the latter is the Main Character. Most Western-culture or Americanized stories (Hollywood) place both functions within the same player. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, Star Wars), Louise Banks (Amy Adams, Arrival), Moana (Auli'i Cravalho, Moana), and Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge) seek to end the major conflict in the story while simultaneously offering us intimate insight into their own personal struggles.

Characters like Furiosa (Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road), Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal, Brokeback Mountain), Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon, Election), and Westley (Cary Elwes, The Princess Bride) seek to end the major conflict in the story, yet don't offer us intimate insight into their own personal problems. In these films, the function of Protagonist and the role of Main Character fall into two different players.1

Static Static Plot Points

Referring to the official Dramatica analysis of Witness, we find these three Static Plot Points:

In sharp contrast to the examples found in our previous articles, these story points harbor an element of stillness to them. How do you write a Requirement of How Things are Changing? And how do Impulsive Responses lead up to that kind of progress? In films like Star Wars and The Sixth Sense2, Conceiving Ideas and Gathering Information effuse a multitude of scene opportunities. But How Things are Changing and Impulsive Responses?

A Goal for Every Story

Dramatica determines the prefect balance of story points based on the narrative's dynamic and structural choices. In Witness, the Goal isn't to fight the Empire or understand a troubled kid; the Goal is to achieve a future state untarnished by this horrible and senseless act of violence. This anti-progressive community shelters a boy tainted by the modern world. Removing the boy or moving the entire community somewhere else is not an option: the Amish find themselves stuck in a hopeless Situation.

Situations do not look to Conceiving Ideas or Gathering Information to resolve their particular kind of conflict. Problematic Activities--like those found in Star Wars and The Sixth Sense--do. Instead, Situations look to the Past, to the Present, How Things are Changing, and the Future. A problematic Situation needs a different situation to resolve its imbalance.

In Witness, a better Future functions as the Story Goal. Book fights to protect this and ensure it for both Samuel, Rachel, and the rest of the Amish community. Keeping the community from progressing (or regressing from the community's point-of-view) defines the type of Requirements needed to achieve this Goal. Controlling one's impulse towards violence specifies one way to meet these Requirements.

Generating Tension Between Two Worlds

Understanding the unique Story Goal of Witness and the particular Static Plot Points needed to achieve that Goal, we now reckon tension from the point-of-view of the characters.


Central Dramatic Question: "Will things return to the way they were?"

  • Act One Dramatic Tension: "Will the community keep to itself?"
  • Book attacked in the parking lot. (Act Turn)
  • Act Two Dramatic Tension: "Will Book be able to remain hidden and therefore protect Samuel?"
  • Book blows his cover and the corrupt officers arrive. (Act Turn)
  • Act Three Dramatic Tension: "Will Book be able to protect the witness now that he is found?"

The final Act finds tension within the Story Consequence of Innermost Desires. Here we look to a fear of violence (the negative of desire) and a lack of common human decency as the primary indicator of this dire consequence and a focal point for tension. Trying to generate concern from the Story Goal in this Act would only reinforce their purpose, not amplify the differential. Looking to the positive to generate a negative rarely works in narrative. Clash the negative (the Consequence) against the positive (the Goal) and the Author creates the strain needed to keep the Audience invested.

Reaching Our Final Destination

Of course, Witness is not the only "perfect" Three Act Structure. Films like L.A. Confidential, Election, and Y Tu Mama Tambien all feature one larger thematic movement surrounded by two smaller movements. In our next installment of Plotting Your Story with Dramatica, we dive into these near-perfect Three Act Structures and test our usage of Requirements, Prerequisites, and Consequence to generate tension within the Audience.

  1. How's that for current and up-to-date examples? ↩︎

  2. Sorry...couldn't resist using Star Wars as an example directly after our soapbox on analysis. ↩︎

<![CDATA[Why Woody is a Steadfast Main Character]]> Back in the vault, Part Two in our series on Main Character and Meaning from waaaayy back in 2010: Development of Character Arc. Short and sweet, the best part was adding this shot of Lester from American Beauty to the article:

Lester Burnham from *American Beauty*

Interesting to look back and see our error in thinking Woody a Changed Main Character in the first Toy Story. The original version of Dramatica shipped with a complete storyform for the movie that destroyed dreams of would-be hand-drawn animators--a storyform with something rare and unheard of in Dramatica canon: the exception.

In that storyform—and the one that ships with the current version—a caveat appears, explaining why the original analysis set Woody as the Changed character and Buzz the Steadfast character.

An exception unlike any other in Dramatica

The one thing that always impressed me about Dramatica was the complete lack of caveats and exceptions in the explanation of the theory. Every screenwriting book and story guru I visited in the early to mid-90s arrived with tons of footnotes and and exceptions and explanations why, in this film, their particular point-of-view needed adjusting.

Dramatica never needed caveats. It was, and continues to be, what it was—take it or leave it. Some stories feature Stop characters, some feature Start characters. End of line.

I updated the original article to include a reference and link to our updated, more accurate analysis of the film: The Toy Story Dilemma.

<![CDATA[Positive Impact]]> Occasionally, we get letters:

I can't thank you enough for this site. I truly, from the bottom of my heart cannot. I've been struggling against a number of instructors recently. They kept pushing and pushing, indicating that I was failing to grasp how to create a compelling protagonist because my main character 'does not change', while the rest of the characters around her do.

Every Main Character grows, not every Main Character changes. From our article What Character Arc Really Means:

Sometimes a person can grow by maintaining their position, shoring up their resolve against whatever is thrown at them.

Dramatica refers to this as the Steadfast Main Character.

The letter continues:

I had at once the sense of: am I truly not grasping a concept which all screenwriters must master... or are they applying concepts that are not necessary to my story?

No and yes. In that order.

Really grateful to experience this kind of impact tonight.

<![CDATA[The Reason For Certain Progressions Of Plot]]> Every story paradigm, it would seem, comes with a collection of caveats and footnotes: a select set of sequences may only work within a certain context, while a journey works for every context as long as you're willing to forgo consistent meaning. With the Dramatica theory of story, all that nonsense goes away.

Take for instance, this notion of Plot Progression in Dramatica:

I have two questions regarding placement of Problem Types on a grid and, especially, in the Signpost-Journey sequence. In the Dramatica Users Manual, the first appearance of Problem TYPES in the ACTIVITY Class are listed (clockwise): Understanding, Doing, Learning, Obtaining. After that, in every example I’ve seen--particularly with respect to Signposts--they are listed: Learning, Understanding, Doing, Obtaining or L-U-D-O. When establishing Signposts in the Activity class, will they always progress L-U-D-O? If so, will the Signposts in the Situation Class or Attitude Class progress in the same pattern (Present-Past-Progress-Future in Situation, Conscious-Memory-Preconscious-Subconscious in Attitude)?

Some stories progress from Learning to Understanding to Doing to Obtaining--but not all stories. Some start with the Understanding and then move to Learning, before finishing with Doing and Obtaining. And even then, some stories start with the Doing and Obtaining, before moving on to the Understanding and Learning.

It all depends on the narrative.

The All Important Dynamic Choices

This pattern you recognize is not arbitrary--it contains meaning. What you perceive is the differential between the Dramatica Table of Story Elements at rest and the Table of Story Elements after the application of the story's dynamics.

The Table of Story Elements at Rest

Those eight Essential Questions that adorn the top of and connected with your writer's intuition when you first heard about the theory? The answers to those questions determine how the model of the human mind winds up within a story.

Think of the Table of Story Elements like a giant, super amazing Rubik's cube with rubber bands wrapped around it. Tough to turn at first--and if you did--the cube would whip back into its normal state as soon as you let go. The answer to questions like the Main Character Resolve: Changed or Steadfast? and the Main Character's Problem-Solving Style: Linear or Holistic? Regulate which way to shift those cubes and how to rotate it in your hands.

A story begins with the Rubik's cube of story fully would up, ready to go. As the story unfolds, Act by Act, the cube begins to unravel until it returns back to its at rest state.

Independent Interdependence

The pattern mentioned above communicates only one-fourth of the Author's message to an audience. A story "cube" flows through four different complete Throughlines as it unravels.

Will one position in a Class always respond to another Class, in kind, with the same position? If the MC signpost is Past (top-left position on the grid) , will the IC always respond with Memory (also top-left position on the grid)?

Not always. Each of the Throughlines--Main Character, Influence Character, Relationship Story, and Overall Story--run through their own independent plot progression. Sometimes this will present an Influence Character dealing with Memories at the same time the Main Character deals with the Past, and sometimes it won't. Though seemingly arbitrary at times, the exact progression of events in each Throughline works together to provide a holistically cohesive message to the Audience.

Every complete story functions the same way--it's the order of those functions that changes from story to story.

Thankfully you don’t need to know how to do all this by yourself--Dramatica exists to service this exact issue. You supply the answers to those questions and the application winds the model up for you. From there, you simply travel the bands down back to a state of rest.

<![CDATA[Generating Dramatic Tension Within Each Act Of Your Story: Part Two]]>

The Goal of a story demands a specific progression of events from beginning to end. Drafting tension onto these events involves less guesswork and more precision if the Author hopes to completely enthrall the Audience. Great tension demands greater intention.

Our previous article Generating Dramatic Tension Within Each Act of Your Story: Part One introduced the idea of looking to the Static Plot Points in Dramatica for answers. By understanding the fractal nature of the theory, we explored the concept of dialing in the appropriate resolution of the storyform for the task at hand. While Requirements and Prerequisites work within the story at a global scale, they also function as indicators of the growth of tension from Act to Act.

Using Static Plot Points to Generate Tension

The first major movement of a story looks to the Story Prerequisite, the second the Story Requirements. When seen within the greater context of the larger Story Goal, these two Static Plot Points create a natural progression from beginning to end. Trapped within the structure of the narrative, the characters (and therefore, the Audience) look out and sense tension based on these points of structure.

Identifying Two Act Structures

The article Identifying the Number of Acts in Your Story made the case for properly assessing the number of Acts in a story:

Act turns feel like major turning points because they represent a shift into a decidedly different dimension of conflict.

Depending on the narrative, these dimensions of conflict break down into two, three, or four Acts. Once you isolate these major shifts, generating tension becomes a simple matter of refactoring the appropriate Static Plot Point into these Acts.

This technique of using Requirement and Prerequisite to answer questions of dramatic tension works great for Two Act structures: two Acts, two questions, two Static Plot Points. Films like The Sixth Sense, Star Wars, The Matrix, Unforgiven, and The Dark Knight fit this schematic perfectly as they operate under the dramatic tide of rise and fall, or fall and rise.

Star Wars:

Central Dramatic Question: "Will the Rebels find a way to fight back against the Empire?"

  • Act One Dramatic Tension: Will Luke conceive of the idea that the Rebellion needs him, and will the Empire get others to conceive of the ultimate power of their Death Star?"
  • Ben dies at the Midpoint.
  • Act Two Dramatic Tension: "Will Luke and the Rebellion learn the weakness of the Death Star and be able to exploit it before the Empire learns of the location of their hidden base?"

Like the example of The Sixth Sense in the previous article, the Story Prerequisite of Star Wars is Conceiving and the Story Requirement Learning. The Conceiving leads to Learning which eventually makes it possible to accomplish the Goal of Doing: namely, to stand up and fight against the Empire.

In The Sixth Sense, Conceiving led to Learning which eventually allowed the Goal of Understanding to occur. This duality is key to Dramatica: no story is the same, but every story is made up of the same parts. The message and Author's Intent dictate the focal points of the narrative, the storyform holds it all in focus.

The Goal of Understanding in The Sixth Sense and the positioning of Malcom as a character who prefers internalizing problems before taking action calls for Prerequisites of Conceiving and Requirements of Learning.

Luke prefers taking external action before internalizing which positions him against the Story Goal of Doing in Star Wars in such a way that again, the story requires Learning to get there and Conceiving to precede the Learning.

A character like Luke in a story like The Sixth Sense might require a different set of Requirements and Prerequisites; likewise for a character similar to Malcom in a story like Star Wars. Discovering which type of static plot point works with what Story Goal necessitates a complex web of relations between the story's Main Character Dynamics (like Approach and Problem-Solving Style) and Plot Dynamics (like Story Outcome and Story Judgment).

Tension for All

Note that in the example of Star Wars, the question of dramatic tension includes both Luke the Protagonist and the Empire--an Antagonist. Most look to the central character of a piece to the exclusion of others in order to determine tension. As the Audience's representative within a story, the Main Character rightly appropriates this attention as he or she offers the most subjective experience.

Static Plot Points, however, apply to all characters within a story. The Overall Story Throughline--the context where one finds the Story Goal, the Requirements, and the Prerequisites--takes an objective look at all the players within a narrative, the Main Character included. From this vantage point, both Protagonist and Antagonist, Skeptic and Sidekick, and everyone in-between faces these plot points on the way towards the resolution of the Goal.

They may face various interpretations of the Prerequisites and Requirements, but they will always remain of the same Type. Luke and the Empire must first conceive or make others conceive before they can learn. And they must do both before they find themselves ready to fight one another.

More Two Act Structures

While every story calls into play these Static Plot Points, not every story faces Requirements of Learning and Prerequisites of Conceiving. Some stories, like Unforgiven and The Dark Knight require greater understanding or transformation on their journey towards resolving their issues.

In The Sixth Sense characters conflict over the shared Goal of Understanding What Is Wrong with Cole? In Star Wars the Goal of Fighting Each Other (engaging in war amongst the stars) brings everyone into conflict. In Unforgiven, revenge takes center stage.


Central Dramatic Question: "Will Munny take revenge on those who would do wrong?"

  • Act One Dramatic Tension: "Will Munny be able to imagine himself as a killer again?"
  • Daggett (Gene Hackman) boots Munny out of town.
  • Act Two Dramatic Tension: "Will Munny be able to bury his demons from the past?"

William Munny (Clint Eastwood) must struggle with imagining himself as a killer before he can muster up enough courage to put his previous victims to rest. Only then can he exact revenge for both the prostitutes and his friend.

The Dark Knight:

Central Dramatic Question: "Will Batman fight the Joker without becoming the Villain?"

  • Act One Dramatic Question: "Will Batman be able to stop the Joker from manipulating Gotham into chaos?"
  • Dent (Aaron Eckhart) announces he is the Batman.
  • Act Two Dramatic Question: "Will Batman be able to save everyone and stop Joker's reign of terror?"

Batman must first work against Joker's attempt at manipulating Gotham's population into turning against one another, before he can actually save them. He must contend with the vigilantes and the mob before saving his girlfriend and the people on the boat. And he has to do these things in this specific order because it adds up to this concept of him doing villainous things. If he didn't, or if he skipped a step, the progression to bad guy would feel unnatural and deficient. Dramatica guarantees thematic coherence with the order of events in a story.

Three Acts and Beyond

These examples fit nicely into a Prerequisite/Requirement approach as they feature two major dramatic movements. What happens with a story like Witness or L.A. Confidential that function on a three-Act structure? In our next article, we look to additional Static Plot Points to help support the effort to tell the most thematically rich and compelling story.

<![CDATA[Generating Dramatic Tension Within Each Act Of Your Story: Part One]]>

When developing Scenes, Sequences, and Acts many writers focus on their ability to supply enough effective tension in their stories. Placing themselves within the heads of their characters, they look out and ask What is my greatest concern? While seemingly effective, their greatest concern should be trying to answer of question of development from a purely subjective view.

Screenwriting Within the University System

The methods taught on this site and those based on a Dramatica approach to narrative bump up against what one finds at a university. Firmly planted within the story, tenured professors and adjunct teachers rally against this alien visitor from another dimension. While teaching story at the California Institute of the Arts, I often heard of other teachers downplaying or outright challenging the Dramatica theory of story.

Why is it then that so many artists and writers find resonance with Dramatica's concepts?

I've been struggling against a number of instructors recently...They kept pushing and pushing, indicating that I was failing to grasp how to create a compelling protagonist because my 'main character does not change'...Then I read your articles about the Changed vs. Steadfast protagonist...and it all makes so much more sense now why I couldn't see a problem with what I was doing.

Students find kinship because Dramatica singles out the blind spot in the university approach: subjectivity. So focused on what a character feels and sees and wants and needs, these approaches to story fail to see what the story wants and needs. Subjectivity, by definition, fails to see the entire picture--the picture an Author needs to write a complete story.

But you need both.

Objectivity lacks passion and stories require feeling and fierceness if they hope to connect with an Audience. Dramatica and the more popular subjective approaches to structuring a story like the Hero's Journey or Save the Cat! work in tandem--not in opposition. The former informs the objective view while the latter conveys the subjective. Learning to work both methods simultaneously guarantees greater competency.

The Sequence Method

The Sequence Method, a particularly subjective approach made popular by Paul Gulino and used extensively at major universities, relies on Dramatic Questions to help set the tone of each major movement on a narrative. While many simply focus on the "Major Dramatic Question" of the entire story, the Sequence Method encourages writers to ask questions for each individual Act and eventually each Sequence and Scene. By doing so, writers secure tension within their Audience.

Finding the Subjective within the Objective

Our article Finding the Major Dramatic Question of Your Story showcases a process for converting Dramatica's rather "abstract" and objective view of a story's structure into the subjective view of story. By looking at the Story Goal from the point-of-view of the characters, an Author can easily identify what many refer to as the "Central" Dramatic Question.

This process works great for generating an overall sense of where the characters find their focus, but when it comes to the Acts leading up to the culmination or individual scenes themselves the end result proves less than beneficial. Does one constantly refer to this same question in each and every scene? And if so, how can you possibly sustain interest?

Thankfully, Dramatica provides an effective solution.

The Easy Plot Points

Everyone gets the Story Goal--whether the end result of a want or external purpose, the concept of characters striving for some resolution resonates clearly. So too, the Story Consequence. For those concerned with finding the "stakes" of a particular narrative, the Story Consequence offers a concrete focal point for failure in the Overall Story.

It should come as no surprise to those in Hollywood that Dramatica sees the failure to stop or defeat a "bad guy" as an instance of dire transformation. Fail to achieve victory and face the Consequence of Changing the World--more often than not, for the worse.1 This is why every studio executive wants the world to be "at stake" for their tent pole features--it's the low-hanging Consequence for stories with Goals of Obtaining.

The steps needed to arrive at that Goal within the story prove more illusive.

The Steps Towards Resolution

When I first set out to learn Dramatica--and I mean really learn Dramatica--I created all kinds of charts and graphs to give my mind a better visual representation of the complex story points offered by the theory. While the original Dramatica theory book proved perceptive and inspiring, some of the terminology required greater insight. As an animator, director, and storyboard artist I find greater understanding and comprehension comes with a well positioned and articulated graphic.

Dramatica offers six Static Plot Points in addition to the foundational Story Goal and Story Consequence:

Saddled with a linear mindset and confused by these compelling--yet hard to grasp--concepts, I sat down with pen and paper:2

Visualizing the Additional Story Points

The blog post Visualizing the Additional Story Points explains further:

The Goal sits on top as it represents the focal point of everything. Beneath it are the Requirements as they are the steps towards reaching the Goal. The Prerequisites and the Preconditions sit directly beneath the Requirement as they are essential for those Requirements to be met.

For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the first two: the Story Requirements and the Story Prerequisites.

Getting Into the Minds of Your Characters

In Dramatica: A Fractal Model of Story Structure we show how the relationship between structural elements at the largest resolution cascade down into the smallest resolution. Sequences function as mini-Acts within Acts, Scenes operate as miniature Acts within the mini-Acts of Sequences within the larger more obvious Acts. With the hologram of meaningful relationships contained within the Dramatica storyform, writers can dial in the appropriate resolution for the task at hand.

Understanding the relationship between the Story Goal, Story Requirements, and Story Prerequisities with the aide of visuals similar to the one above, Authors can assume the position of their characters and look out to find touch points for tension. Quite simply:

1. Use the Story Requirements to generate the Dramatic Question of your second Act.

2. Use the Story Prerequisites to create the Dramatic Question of your first Act.

These two rules offer a simple, yet powerful approach towards using the Static Plot Points provided by Dramatica. We finally understand what the structure of a story looks like from the point-of-view of the characters. Discovered in collaboration with Brian Davis, a remarkable story theorist within our own Dramatica® Mentorship Program, this technique enriches our narratives by helping bridge the gap between the objective and subjective views.

We know the Story Requirements lead up to the Story Goal and we know that the Story Prerequisites lead up to the Requirements. So why not assign the Requirements to the second major movement and the Prerequisites to the first? The fractal relationship inherent in the model guarantees that this approach will work.

Our First Foray into this Approach

Pretend, for a moment, that you're M. Night Shyamalan and you're writing this cool idea for a story called The Sixth Sense. You know that the Story Goal in that film will be Understanding What Is Wrong With Cole (Haley Joel Osment). Strange things will happen in and around the poor kid and no one will quite understand what is really going on. Therapist and Protagonist Malcom Crowe (Bruce Willis) will be the primary character asking that question and the Audience's proxy for experiencing the events of our story.

Great. You know where the tension will be and you've got a killer ending for our story.

But you really don't know what to do in the middle.

So you select Understanding as the Story Goal in Dramatica and plug in your ending and whittle the narrative down to one single storyform. In return for your time and careful consideration, Dramatica offers you back these thematically consistent story points:

With your newfound appreciation of how to incorporate these plot points into your story, you begin with the Prerequisite. While driven by the bigger question of understanding this disturbed kid, the Audience initially experiences tension in the story by wondering Will Malcom get the idea that there is something more going on here than the usual diagnosis?

Perfect. This subjective interpretation of Conceiving generates for you a multitude of ideas for scenes in the first half of the film. Everything from their therapy sessions together to instances of strange unexplained occurrences at home contributes to this Prerequisite of Conceiving--All by positioning yourself within the characters and looking out at the story structure, or storyform, of your story.

Cole reveals his secret halfway through and suddenly the tension shifts. Suddenly, the Audience finds itself wondering Will Malcom learn why Cole has this ability and help the kid communicate the truth before it is too late? And now you have ideas for the scenes with the tape recorder, the visit to the funeral, and the accident at the side of the road.

And it is only once Malcom finally learns the true extent of Cole's ability that he is able to finally really understand why the sullen kid entered his life.

Intentional Tension

Dramatic tension is not random and it is not happenstance. It flows naturally from the combination of story points carefully laid out to deliver a message of purpose--or Author's Intent--to an Audience. Decipher your story's unique storyform and you find the basis for accurately depicting tension in your own story.

This approach carries down into the various Sequences and even into individual Scenes. The relationship between items at the top levels of story stay consistent all the way down to the very smallest. It wouldn't be surprising to find that connection within individual lines of dialogue.

Wherever you find the order of events being called into question look to the linear relationship that grows from Story Consequence to Story Prerequisite to Story Requirement to Story Goal. In truth, these items relate holistically--but we tell our stories sequentially. This follows that and that follows this and tension found between this and that stems from the relationship between the two.

In Part Two of this article, we will explore further this idea of generating dramatic tension within individual Acts and offer suggestions for stories with varying degrees of thematic material.

  1. If you set Dramatica's story engine to Obtaining for the Story Goal, the application automatically selects Changing One's Nature as the Story Consequence. ↩︎

  2. The Internet was in its infancy and affordable tablets with pen input were still two decades away. ↩︎