With Opening Day hitting Major League Baseball this week, what better time than now to work our way through the Four Throughlines of Field of Dreams. Written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson, this 1989 fantasy baseball pic struck a chord with many as evidenced by its three Academy Award nominations: Best Original Score1, Best Picture, and most importantly—Best Adapted Screenplay.
Designing A Complete Story
As a reminder, a complete and fulfilling narrative consists of Four Throughlines:
- the Overall Story Throughline
- the Main Character Throughline
- the Influence Character Throughline
- the Relationship Story Throughline
Why only four? Think of it this way: if conflict is the stuff of narrative, then looking at conflict from every possible angle ensures a completeness of that narrative. With no stone left unturned, Audiences respond with gratefulness towards the respect and thoughtfulness of the Author (think Oscar). When you’re trying to argue a particular approach for solving problems, you want to make sure you leave all your cards on the table.
- the Overall Story covers what conflict They deal with
- the Main Character covers what conflict I deal with
- the Influence Character covers what conflict You deal with
- the Relationship Story covers what conflict We deal with
Analyzing conflict from all four perspectives lets the Audience know that you’re not trying to pull one over on them.
If You Build It…
A graduate of Berkeley who ends up buying a farm in Iowa, Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) finds trouble settling into his new life. Figuring out a way to not have his personal circumstances get the best of him defines the Main Character Throughline experience we share with him. Visualizing any alternative that keeps him from becoming his dad characterizes the Psychological conflict Ray undergoes. Acting crazy, pulling a gun on Terrence, and coming up with the idea to plow through his cornfield in an attempt to guess at what “If you build it, he will come” means primes us with examples of conflict bred from how one thinks.
Speaking of plowing up a cornfield: no baseball field, no inequity—no conflict in Field of Dreams. This unique Situation Ray creates as Protagonist incites ghosts to appear and strangers from all over to be drawn mysteriously to his home in Iowa. With everyone facing concerns of how to heal a past wound they can’t seem to escape, future concerns of their own precarious financial situations, and present concerns over what to do with a ghost in your backyard, the Overall Story Throughline thoroughly explores this problematic situation for everyone.
Having struggled long enough as the author that inspired a generation, Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones) lives in solitary, rebuking anyone who seeks greater understanding and wisdom. From slamming his door to eventually taking that walk into the cornfield, Mann’s Activities challenge Ray to deal with the emotional fallout from his troubled relationship with his father. As the character providing the Influence Character Throughline needed to impact Ray, Mann reveals that very often one’s activities can go long misunderstood.
Finally, the Relationship Story Throughline—the relationship between Ray and Terrence—surround the memories of the 60s and their two different Fixed Atittudes towards the meaning of that time. As a proxy for the relationship between Ray and his father that can’t exist until the end, the relationship between a child of the 60s and the voice of the 60s examines the wedge that exists between us when both refuse to budge on what they think.
A Personal Case of Psychological Dysfunction
This is the first Throughline Thursdays featuring a Main Character who experiences conflict through Psychological Dysfunction. Most Main Characters deal with personal Situations or bad Attitudes. Occasionally you run into characters who create problems for themselves through their Activities. But a problematic Psychology? Extremely rare.
In fact, stories with Main Character Throughlines in Psychology account for little over 10% of all storyforms found on the official Dramatica site. Compare that to the 35% of Main Characters in Situation and 25% of Main Characters in Fixed Attitudes and one begins to understand the unique and interesting Genre of narrative found in Field of Dreams.
The Storyforms of Summer
Field of Dreams covers all the bases. From the external conflict that arises from the ghosts of the past to the internal conflict between two souls refusing to budge on where they stand, this story moves us to tears with its argument for greater universal understanding. Remain steadfast as you Go the distance, and you will be able to both Ease his pain—and ease your own.
RIP, James Horner. This soundtrack, along with many others of yours, played in the background as I developed the foundation for my writing career. ↩︎