Using narrative to advocate a message of staying present through turmoil
A Complete Story
In this episode of Storyforming, I use Subtxt to dissect the narrative structure of Forrest Gump, one of America's top-grossing films. By analyzing key scenes and moments using the app, we'll uncover some fascinating insights about that make the film great---and what makes a story truly engaging.
[00:00:00] Hello, everyone and welcome to another edition of Storyforming. Today, I want to go over one of my favorite films, Forrest Gump, and talk about the story structure of the film and why it's very different than what you're usually probably used to, and explaining why it feels so different.
For the longest time, I didn't think Forrest Gump even had a story structure. There's something about the way that Jenny changes at the end. It's after the fact. And so it feels like, all right, you're just doing it because now you're dying. So it doesn't really have the same kind of impact it could have had if it was prior to it. But then, you know, after decades learning a lot about the Dramatica theory and working with tons of writers and of course building Subtxt, then I came to realize that there is a structure. There's an organization how the whole story is put together. It still happens after the fact and so it's still not perfect. But there's still a lot that you can learn when you take a look at how everything's put together.
Here, we're [00:01:00] in the Premise Builder for Subtxt. And this is the typical setup that comes up, the default American Western culture story where the Main Character's conflict is in the Universe domain up here in the Future. And the Plot of the story is in the Physics Domain. So all the conflict comes out of the things that people are doing: punching, kicking and fighting. And then the Main Character feels like a fish out of water. Or there's something about their external status that needs to be changed, or something that comes into conflict for them.
In Forrest Gump it's much different.
These four put together form the genre of the story. It's the personality of the story structure and not all story structure is the same regardless of what you have been told in the past. These are balanced out so that the Plot and the Relationship Story are always across from each other. And the Main Character Throughline and the Influence Character Throughline, who is a character within the film that [00:02:00] has an alternate perspective, an alternate way of doing things that challenges the Main Character to grow. These two are pitted against each other. And then the Relationship is a more intimate, emotional feeling of how people are related together. Whereas the plot is a logistical chess board. Who gets knocked over and who wins.
The Personality of the Story
In Forrest Gump, when you ask "what's the goal of the story?" that's always what's here in the gray box. That's the Goal of the story. If I turned on the goal right here, you would see the goal is Obtaining, which is usually beating the bad guys, in Cars it's winning the race, that kind of stuff.
In Forrest Gump, it really doesn't have a Goal. In fact, if you were to ask what's the goal of Forrest Gump, you would have no idea because it's not really like he's working towards anything. He stumbles through life, and then everything kinda sorta works out, but not quite. And then a little feather comes down.
If you look here, one of the most important choices that you make when you create a story [00:03:00] structure is whether or not you're going to organize the structure of your story around Reason, which would be cause and effect. Or if you're going to organize it around Relationships, which might seem a little bit off, which is why it's hard to really understand the structure of this story, because it's not a Linear story structure. Forrest Gump is a Holistic story structure where everything is organized around Relationships.
Reason or Relationships
You'll see here, if I came back into Reason and we looked at the premise. The Premise is what the story is arguing. It's the thematic premise. The typical American story: Abandon running away, which is what this Avoidance is and then you can achieve something. The Lion King, Mad Max: Fury Road, Black Panther. Stop running away and then you can win the day.
There really isn't anything like that in Forrest Gump because its Premise is structured around [00:04:00] Relationships.
When you look at relationships, you're not looking at the goal of the story. You're looking at the Intention. When a mindset is organized around a relationship principle, there's not a Goal. There's not a problem to solve, but there's really an Intention. There's a direction as to how to manage those relationships. So you can see here, it's gotten very complicated. This would be a different way of interpreting the same story from a Holistic perspective. "Address being greedy for something by balancing your overwhelming avoidance with your pursuit."
Here you can see the two opposite poles of a character. Either running away from something or chasing after something. Those get balanced to address an issue of Self-interest and that's the Intention. The Intention is moving towards, not necessarily solving something. There's an intention of Obtaining, an intention of achieving. And you can see that when you have that intention,[00:05:00] then this would be one set of circumstances where you would need to manage running away and your pursuits. Maybe like a life work balance. And a way to address your own selfish-- or not even selfish-- but your own self interested ideals because self-interest is not always a negative thing.
That still doesn't quite sound like Forrest Gump. But at least we're closer to what it is that we're working towards.
If I wanted to move this plot over here, you'll see that Subtxt went ahead and made sure everything else stayed aligned with each other so they're not completely off base. The Objective Story now is about the Future whereas the Relationship Story would be about Subconscious, like innermost desires and that kind of thing. Fear and anger. And then the Main Character's problems would be about the kind of things he does whereas the Influence Character's challenge to the Main Character is less about [00:06:00] a fixed attitude, but here it's more about a manipulation or if they've been manipulated. Or they just have a dysfunctional way of thinking.
Aligning the Four Throughlines
If you think of Forrest Gump, that works out really well. Because Lieutenant Dan, Jenae, and Bubba all are Influence Characters on Forrest. What's really great about the Dramatica theory of story is there isn't just one locked-in thing here. In fact, this is a perspective and an Influence Character perspective that challenges the Main Character. So that perspective gets handed off like a baton in a race. It starts with Jenny. Then goes to Bubba. And then I think Lieutenant Dan then back to Bubba. Jenny. And then by the end of it, I think it ends up with Jenny at the end.
All three of them have very dysfunctional ways of thinking. Lieutenant Dan has all those issues with his heritage. Jenny obviously has some history back in the way that she was raised. And Bubba has a [00:07:00] different way of thinking. It's dysfunctional, it's a positive dysfunction, but a very simple way of looking at things which nicely compliments Forrest and challenges Forrest to grow.
You could see Forrest-- yes, he has his disability-- but really it's the things that he does that create the conflict. And we're actually in his shoes, literally, when he goes running. And when he's speeding, running away from things, running towards-- anytime he has an issue with anything, he has to go running. So that's where his conflict is coming from. That's how he works through problems is through this physical activity.
That feels really great for those two.
The thing then is the relationships. Yes, there is some. I don't even know if there is love-- there's something like that. And yes, we do go through history, but that's not really what's problematic from an Objective standpoint. Instead, if we were [00:08:00] to pull this over here and flip these two, you'll see the Objective Story, the plot now, are all about people's fixed ideas. In this case it would be the Subconscious to balance out these other two.
And then the relationship ends up being something about the external world. Now that feels really good with Jenny and Forrest, for sure. Because they're either together or they're not together. And the actual physical nature of them either being together or not is the nature of their relationship and how they grow. They keep missing each other. And it starts, it begins with her offering the seat next to him. So that's positive conflict. It's growth.
A lot of people always think of conflict as something that's tearing down. But in terms of a relationship, it's about growth. It's the growth of those, not the two people, but that space in between the two people. How that grows together.
And then if you go through the entire story and look at it from an objective point of view, [00:09:00] everybody's attitudes about things, especially when it comes to the sixties, and going through that whole time period, it's their prejudice, other prejudices ,and their fixed ideals of how things should be. It's a very sixties sort of thing. That's what's being explored and what's really nice is you can see that's a really nice balance between the Objective Story and Relationship Story. Main Character and Influence Character. And that's why the story feels so complete.
And what's nice is when you have the Main Character up here and the Objective Story down here, when they're on top of each other there's enough space between the external point of view and the internal point of view, it gives a lot of air in there. The drama aspect of it feels very light because there's a lot of distance between those two. It feels like there's more room to grow. It feels a little lighter, like the feather. It's not as heavy as a drama when you have the two of them right next to each other, both dealing with the [00:10:00] external concerns. With Forrest running, he's dealing with an external concern, whereas the plot is very internally situated. Everything is about people's attitudes. There's room between the two of them to allow them to grow and to bounce off each other.
That being said, these relationships aren't about the Future. Forrest isn't trying to achieve something. Jenny and Lieutenant Dan, their conflict isn't coming from their changing natures. This doesn't feel right.
Identifying the Concerns
So what I put into Subtxt are four different families of concerns. Four different personality types that fit into this arrangement of personality.
You have the Heavy here, which is very turn of the century, Past, Understanding, Conceptualizing, and Memory. I always like to call them the Christopher Nolan set. That's definitely not Forrest Gump.
Then you have the Millennial concerns, which are Present, the Conscious, meditative, Learning, information [00:11:00] age, and the Conceiving, that is not Forrest Gump at all. Forrest Gump is what? 94? Mid nineties. Somewhere in there.
The only one that's left are the Energetic Concerns, which is great because that's how Forrest feels, especially him running. These Concerns are all balanced and give a certain energy that's less about the dominating controlling aspects that are here with Obtaining and Becoming. This is more about just actually doing things. So for Forrest, it's really easy. Anytime I have issues, I was running and he goes running. So that's where all of his conflict comes from.
Jenny, and particularly Lieutenant Dan, are all about the roles that they're supposed to play. Lieutenant Dan is really caught up in who he supposed to be. And that Being aspect of it is what influences and challenges Forrest. And I think even Bubba too, being a shrimp boat captain and that's like really important to him. Whereas Forrest is like I'll just mow my lawn. Everything's fine.
When you look at the [00:12:00] Relationship Story Throughline, relationships could be handed off to different relationships. So there is the friendship between Bubba and Forrest. There's the adoration of each other for Jenny and Forrest, and then definitely the friendship between Lieutenant Dan and Forrest, I would think is the strongest one.
This one is great because he was supposed to die on the battlefield and Forrest actually saved him. That's their relationship's problem. When it comes to the external state of things, like I was supposed to die, now we're locked in this relationship where you have to take care of me. This is not great, like, where are we going? How are we going to progress out of this?
And then, like I mentioned, with the 1960s, the Objective Story in Preconscious here is a very fancy word for saying, anxiety, impulsive responses, people numbing themselves out. All the hippie, drug age, all that stuff. All the conflict that comes into all those historical moments that they go through are all an examination of people reacting, fight or flight. [00:13:00] That kind of stuff. This fits perfectly here.
We come down in here and we got the Relationships here, and you'll notice that it did change. When it was Linear, it was abandoning and maintaining something. If you abandon an old way of doing things, that's how you're going to solve the problem. If you maintain a perspective, then that's how you're gonna solve the problem by other people changing. With the Relationship oriented story, you have an aspect of balancing. So you're not really getting rid of something you're balancing and managing the two different approaches. Or you're just growing through it.
Holistic relationship oriented mindset loves growth. That's the most important thing in the world. So it's either balancing or it's growth and actually it's a balance between balancing growth. But in this case you have Forrest, who is growing. He's not really balancing things. He's got the right path. Mom always said life was like a box of chocolates, like he's got his point of view. [00:14:00]
And really it's Lieutenant Dan and Jenny who are the ones who manage to find some balance by virtue of their interaction with Forrest.
When you're growing, you're on the right path and you just need to grow into it. And there are some touchy, feely ways of understanding what it means to grow. Again, if you look at the difference between a Linear story here, where you have stories of Triumph and Virtuous stories that are really Bleak. And stories that are Tragedies. When you look at it from a relationship oriented standpoint, it's not about solving a goal and about triumphs or tragedy. It's really about what Direction are you going in service of your Intention?
Re-contextualizing the Triumph and the Virtuous you get terms like Transcend. Is Forrest maintaining or growing through a particular issue in order to transcend? Or is there some aspect of [00:15:00] him growing and there's just this overall feeling of Presence of being in harmony with what was going on. Is there some sort of Stagnation? Holistic loves to grow. If they're not growing... to a Linear, it's fine. Hey, can we just do the same day, every day? To a Holistic there has to be growth otherwise things are stagnant. And then of course the worst possible thing for a Holistic minded person is to Disconnect.
For Forrest Gump, it's close to maybe being a Transcendence. But I think if you listen to the cues of the music, particularly with the feather falling at the end. That beautiful Alan Sylvestri music. There is an element of this just being Present and that he has gone through this whole experience and is in harmony. So being in harmony with whatever sort of thing that is the aspect of this story keeps you present while allowing you to address your issues. Whatever it is that inside world is dealing [00:16:00] with, then that allows you to address your issues with whatever the outside world is.
And the last one would be, does the Main Character Flow with the plot, or Resist it? When you compare the Main Character and the Objective Story, there is a balancing agent there between where you can make a comparison of whether or not the Main Character is in a place where they can address the issues of the plot or the major plot turns. And whether or not they are putting up some sort of resistance to what's going on or just flowing with it. Clearly Forrest is the latter there.
And then lastly, what we need to figure out are the character arcs. Because Forrest is growing and it's Jenny and Lieutenant Dan who are balancing things out, we have this thing here, where you have the solid aspect of the Main Character, where they're just growing from one element to the same exact element, but perhaps more of it or less of it. And then the Influence Character [00:17:00] perspective is going to be the one that finds balance between these two. That's why you see this color change.
A lot of these might be unfamiliar to those of you who aren't familiar with the Dramatica theory of story or just new to Subtxt, but each of these will create a different story structure based on where you're going to put the emphasis in the story.
If you look at Hunch as the direction in which Forrest is going, every single thing he does is based on an intuitive feeling about something. Here we have a bunch of different versions of what that would be like. Hunch is the actual element. And then you could have thousands, hundreds of thousands of illustrations here of what Hunch actually looks like in the story. So it could be "Being in harmony with having an intuition about someone keeps you present." Really, that's what he does throughout the entire story. He's always present by staying in touch with his hunch, with his intuition, [00:18:00] and that allows him to address his issues with confidence. Everybody in the story either has too much confidence or they don't have enough confidence they don't believe in themselves. If you look at the optimistic aspect of the 1960s of how all that was there, but then got lost. This already is the Premise of Forrest Gump.
Okay, full disclosure. I was seeing if I could make this work, but likely people are going to be able to notice this. There is a bit of a flipped element here. It really should be Hunch. Cause like I said, everything about Forrest Gump is about going with his intuition. And when you stay with your intuition and you stay present with your hunches and how you're feeling about something then you can actually address all these issues having to do with confidence. Unfortunately these are backwards. This should not be Trust to Test. It should actually be a little something like this.
So that Forrest, where he's coming from is always about [00:19:00] Unproven. You don't know what's going on in his head. You're not really sure what he's going to do. Everything that he does, it's almost like did he really do that? All the CG stuff of him being in all the footage, it's like this unproven sort of thing. No, that didn't really happen. And just the fact that he's this suspect character. Just the idea that there's like a suspicious nature about him, like, who is this guy? What is he all about? And the fact that he focuses on his intuition and that this is what is actually driving him. Then what happens is in order for that part of the narrative to work, then these two have to be balanced out.
Both Lieutenant Dan and Jenny have this issue of being challenged and being put to the Test. Jenny by all the stuff that she's grown up with. And she's always seems to be testing who she should be with and going out on the edge of the ledge. And Lieutenant Dan, of course, show us who you are, stand up to the challenge of your family. And at the end, they get to this place where they're actually able to trust in something [00:20:00] outside of themselves. So Lieutenant Dan gets married. Jenny finally puts her trust into Forrest.
Again, it comes a little bit late in the narrative, but it's nevertheless, there.
Let's say this was the kind of story that you wanted to tell then all you do is you just click Build This Story and Subtxt goes out, takes about five to seven minutes for it to create the entire story, all the Acts, all the scenes, everything that happens within each scene, step-by-step. And gives you a complete structure. That would look a little something like this.
Building the Story
Let's bring up Forrest Gump here. This was the Premise that I constructed when I put together this Storyform for Subtxt. Being in harmony with being intuitive about something allows your issues with being sure of someone to keep you present, there probably should be a better version of this. But again, it's that aspect of the subjective or inner method that's going on is all about Hunch. That's where the focus is on it. Mom always [00:21:00] told me life is like a box of chocolates. All that kind of stuff that he's going with just based on this intuitive feel for life. He doesn't really think about it too much. That's where he's coming from.
Whereas Jenny and Lieutenant Dan, if Forrest is here, and he's driven by his hunches or at least that's his part of the plot. Then the other side of it would be where Lieutenant Dan and Jenny are coming from, and they both have theories on how best to live your life. Dan has that whole story about his family and what things are supposed to happen. Jenny has this thing, Forrest, you just don't know the way the world works. It actually works like this and it works like that. And then he's nah, you just go with your hunches. That's how it happens.
That's how they balance and how they work together in the plot. So you have the plot here. They're not separated. They're not their own separate sort of thing that's going on. They're actually integral and they both have different versions of what the plot looks like to them. This is what it looks like to Forrest. This is what it looks like to Lieutenant [00:22:00] Dan and Jenny. And then this is where their Relationship is, and that creates a complete Storyform.
If I go back up to the top, these are the same choices that we had made in the Premise Builder. It's organized by Relationships. The point of the premise is to Grow. There's an effortless Flow between the Main Character and Plot. And of course the Direction is to stay Present.
These are the four perspectives, childhood love into friendship, Jenny and Lieutenant Dan. And then the Objective Story is essentially just a journey through the American 20th century, I'm going to change this to something to do with optimism, because I think that's a really nice thing as far as the 1960s go.
When you make all these choices then you have the Four Act structure for the Four Throughlines, and this tells you exactly what's supposed to happen in the First Act, Second Act, Third Act, and then finally in the Fourth Act to get to a place where there's some sort of ending there.
And then, like I said, what Subtxt does is it actually goes in and then breaks down each of those Acts. So this would be Forrest's [00:23:00] First Act, the act of Understanding as he goes through scenes that have to deal with his Attitude, his Approach. Probably a lack of Self-interest and then his Morality.
And then we go down to the very bottom and the actual Dramatica Storyform. And you'll see, here are the dynamics that we had picked up here at the top. And then of course these are the story points, these are the Act order Signposts or Act Concerns where Forrest goes from an Understanding of how the world goes. Learns a bunch of stuff. Then he goes out on that big, long run. I think that's when he just goes out and he runs and then he ends up in Utah. And doesn't even know where to stop. And then he comes back home. That's his storyline.
His whole issue, the stuff that he's going through and what he brings into the narrative is Wisdom. That's all his mom's Wisdom sort of stuff. And it's that he's stupid, but he's really not stupid. He has his own wise way of understanding the world.
And that comes into conflict with Jenny and Lieutenant Dan who have, oh, no, this is how it is [00:24:00] Forrest. Let us tell you, we know. We know what it is, you just, you don't understand, these are the things we have to Be.
And they manage their Expectations. Dan has tons of expectations that puts up resistance and his Determination of what he is going to choose for himself that just creates a lot of conflict and trouble. Driven again by Desires.
So Jenny, all her issues that she creates on Forrest, Hey, you need to change your way of doing things are her desires. But really what undermines her is her low feelings of Self-worth. So you've got that nice balance. So Jenny has got really low self-worth and Lieutenant Dan's got too much self-worth. And that creates a lot of impact and influence on Forrest over here. Who his whole Unique Ability is he can just go through these Experiences and it's no problem whatsoever. But then there's this element of the Fantasy element, which again, I think is the CG aspect of it, which I think is why it's so clever how that plays [00:25:00] into the actual story itself.
Their Relationship over here. They keep Ending. She goes away. Again, it's like whether or not they're close together, they're apart. They're close, they're apart. There's a level of Security. From the author's point of view, it's this fact that they feel safe with each other and that's how their relationship grows. So it's not always such a negative thing. Particularly between Jenny and Forrest, there's this issue of safeness that helps them grow. And the fact that even though it ends she says her goodbye on the bus, there's still this effortless flow that it's just going to keep going. It's going to keep going on until the next thing. That's how they grow through their relationship to get to a place at the end where they're actually finally able to come together. When she's done they finally come and they almost have that family.
One last thing I want to point out here are the Static Plot Points, which exist throughout the entire plot of the story. And again, it's not a plot heavy story. You don't have goals, you have an Intention [00:26:00] and the nice balance to it is this idea of Progress.
If you think of it in terms of the fact that people had good intentions, but they were very impulsive and perhaps not thought through. And that created a lot of conflict. A lot of people died from it. A lot of unfortunate events happened. But the overwhelming aspect of it was this idea that there's just progress that goes through it. So they had good intentions, but they were overwhelmed by just the progress of life. The evolution of time. Just going through the experience of living.
And that's the real message of Forrest Gump. If you were to look at it and then bring together all these different elements. The message about dealing with the overwhelming nature of just progressing through life is just to stay in harmony with your own intuition. And that allows you to deal with issues of whether or not you won't have enough confidence, the people around you have too much confidence or not enough confidence, and allows you to stay present [00:27:00] so that you can move effortlessly through life. Just like that feather. As it comes down at the end of the movie.
So that's Storyforming Forrest Gump. Again, as always, if you have any questions about any of this, how to apply it to your own stories, feel free to contact me. And I'll see you next time.