Everyone has a story tell, whether you are an individual, a local group, or a business striving to define itself narrative helps put the events of our lives into context and gives meaning to the day in and day out. But putting that story into action and telling it in a way that is compelling and engaging can be quite overwhelming.
That is where Narrative First and the Dramatica theory of story come in. Whether you want to tell the story of your walkabout through Europe, your quest to climb the tallest mountain in California, your nights and weekends developing the skills of your daughter’s soccer team, or your efforts to transform the culture of your business or organization you need to know and appreciate the various complexities of effective narrative. By using techniques proven time and time again to be successful towards the structuring of a great story, we can help frame your life’s events into something truly captivating—and meaningful.
As mentioned several times here and elsewhere, life is meaningless until we put the events of our lives into context. Stories give meaning to our lives by putting everything in context. Fusing character, plot, theme, and genre into one cohesive “message” the mundane, chaotic, seemingly inconsequential moments of our lives become transformative.
The following is a sneak-peak at the step-by-step approach we use when helping writers craft their story, whether fiction or non-fiction. Feel free to start using it in developing your own projects, and we look forward to hearing your story soon.
The Basic Plot
The first four story points concern the story itself. What were you after and how it all turned out. Where the pressure came from and how you felt about the experience. Laying the groundwork for the narrative up front helps set the stage and starts to give form to the formless.
Step One: The Story Goal
The first and possibly the easiest step to take is to define the Goal of your story. The
Story Goal helps set the context for what you will be looking at and gives a starting and ending point for the narrative. Did you want to learn everything you could about Eastern culture? Maybe you had a half-marathon you wanted to compete in. Maybe you wanted to win the half-marathon.1 Or maybe you wanted to help your business embody Old World principles of respect and honor. Regardless the type of Goal, there was some endgame you had in mind—something you set out to accomplish. Write about that Goal.
Step Two: The Story Limit
Not that you have set the context for your story, begin to take a look at the scope of your narrative. Every great story comes to an end because the characters run out of time, or run out of options. Since you are the character in this story, which one sounds most appropriate in this context? Did you set out on a walkabout through five Eastern European countries? If so, then your story came to an end because you ran out of options—one by one you worked your way through those five countries until finally you reached the last one. You likely felt as if time was running out when you hit that last country, but that is what it is like to be in a story.
With Dramatica and these Story Points, you want to step outside of yourself and your own experience and see story as this thing—this entity that you are sculpting. It can be difficult at times, especially since the fun part of writing is pretending you are the characters and living vicariously through them. The only problem with that approach is you will never be able to see the forest for the trees. You might find meaning, but you will never be able to predict how your story should work to give that meaning.
Story Limit looks one way to the Author, but a completely different way to the characters within the story. As you are crafting a story, you need to be able to see outside of your own experience and see what objective elements set the narrative into motion. With the walkabout through Europe, it may have felt at the time as if you were running out of time, but putting that kind of time limit on a narrative would not grant the same feeling to your readers. Only a limit crafted from a number of options gives that time running out feeling.
Perhaps your story did not find itself limited by options, but rather by time. Maybe you were preparing for a marathon that took place 57 days from when you started. You probably pulled out a calendar and circled that date. Each morning you woke up, checked off a day, and set about training for the end. As that day rapidly approached, you probably felt panicked as if you were running out of things you could do—options you could take. Again, different experience depending on your point-of-view as Author or character.
Whether writing a story about options running out or time running out, take some time now to weave that Story Limit into your paragraph about the Story Goal.
Each of these Story Points builds upon the last. The Goal sets a finish line, the Limit sets the scope and adds pressure towards that Goal. In fact, all of these Story Points work together to tell the holistic “message” of your story. In essence, you sculpt your story by adding to it, rather than shaving away the bits you don’t need. With each of these steps, build upon the last to create a lasting and transformative narrative.
Step Three: The Story Outcome
This one is easy. Did you win or lose?
Did you land that account or climb that mountain? Did your sales team embody those principles of success or did they tear themselves apart? Did you fail to make the quarterfinals in that screenplay contest? Or did you find out that you can never truly know all there is to know about a culture?
Story Outcome, write a new paragraph about what happened at the end of your story. Silly and simple, yes—but essential towards communicating the eventual message of your story. You set out to achieve the Story Goal. The Story Limit brought pressure down on your efforts. And finally, once that last limit ran out you either achieved success or you failed miserably.
And not personal success or personal failure. It is likely you set out to accomplish one thing, but learned something else was far more important. That is a great story and one many want to communicate. But the “far more important” angle is found in another Story Points, not this one. What you want to do with the Story Outcome is focus on whether or not the Goal was reached. How you felt about that outcome is the subject of our next Story Point.
Step Four: The Story Judgment
In a separate paragraph at the end, write about how you felt about your entire experience. Was it worth it visiting all those countries? Did you find relief after finishing the marathon? Or did you feel worse about even participating? Did you end up even more lost and confused at your workplace?
The Story Goal—the thing you originally set out for—is a cold and logical Story Point, devoid of emotion or any real passion. The same can be said of the Story Limit and the Story Outcome. But here at the end, clueing us in on how you felt about the story gives us the Audience a reason to care. It helps us empathize with your plight and understand everything you went through.
Our minds crave emotional logic every bit as much as they chew on rational logic. A story needs both sides lest it risk having “holes” in the logic. Failing to give an Audience an emotional assessment of a narrative is akin to reading the stock section of the Wall Street Journal. Unless you tell us how you feel about how things are changing, we see only numbers.
As you can see with this last Story Point—the
Story Judgment—we are starting to work our way towards the more personal side of things. We start with the rational side of things because it can often be easier, particularly if you are dealing with your own life’s story. But Audiences want to know the intimate details. They want to know who you are, where you came from, and what issues you had to overcome.
Having established a framework for your story and a context for the events, we now turn our attention towards you. This is often the most difficult part of turning anyone’s life into a story because it can be hard to sit back and take an objective look at yourself. We need to identify the personal issues in your life as they are the key to giving your story emotional resonance.
Your readers or viewers want a reason to care. They want to know something intimate about you that they can somehow relate to their own life’s struggle. If you stay closed off and refuse to open up and be honest about what you went through, the story itself will feel closed and muted. No one wants to sit through a story like that.
If these events just occurred, the emotional fallout may still be so overwhelming that you’re not sure where to start or know exactly where it is you were coming from. The more time you have between the end of what happened and the time when you begin the story can make all the difference in understanding your own issues.
For a story to connect, an emotional attachment needs to be made between Author and Audience. Successful Authors do this by giving the central character of their story deep personal issues—issues that may be familiar or recognizable to an Audience. The more honest and true these issues are, the greater the connection.
Step Five: Your Own Personal Baggage
In a separate paragraph at the beginning of your story, write about your own personal baggage and those issues you brought to this narrative. What made it more difficult for you to reach the Story Goal and what prevented you from seeing the endgame? In the middle of your story, write about how you worked through that baggage, and then at the end let us know what happened to it all.
In Dramatica, this personal baggage is known as the
Main Character Throughline. You are the Main Character in this story, so develop and write about your issues.
Here’s a clue: the Story Judgment from Step Four answers the question about what happened to your personal baggage. Remember how every Story Point relates to one another? If you felt relief at the end of your story then you can probably trace that back to you overcoming your issues. If instead you felt lost and confused, you probably still had more to work through.
There is a chance these two steps may find themselves in conflict. If so, you will want to adjust your narrative to bring them into alignment. Perhaps the discord or dissonance can be examined in another story. To keep the structure of the narrative intact, you want to make sure that the deep personal issues you explore and your emotional assessment at the end of the piece cover the same ground. To deviate would only bring confusion to your Audience.
Step Six: Your Unique Point-of-View
Those issues likely instilled within you a unique point-of-view that either helped see you through your struggle to reach the Goal, or what is more often the case—held you back. Be honest about your experience and start to examine those paradigms that came into play during this story. This step requires deep introspection and truth for it to be successful.
In the paragraph where you first explored your personal baggage, begin to write about that unique point-of-view. Did it lead you to even greater danger in Iraq and Tel Aviv? Did it give you the strength to take that extra step up the mountain? Or did it make it almost impossible for you to communicate to your team members the importance of building relationships? Regardless, integrate that unique perspective into your narrative.
We all hold personal perspectives that determine how we approach the setbacks in our lives and how we intend to resolve them. Whether or not we maintain this point-of-view is contained in the
Main Character Resolve—a Story Point that defines adherence to this paradigm till the bitter end, or a deviation to another’s point-of-view. That other is a matter for the next Story Point, so for now concentrate only on establishing your unique perspective.
We think we are on the right path, but that is because we don’t know any better. Our baggage is our baggage, our thoughts a byproduct of that baggage. But we are not our thoughts. And we are capable of changing those perspectives if the right catalyst comes along.
Step Seven: Another’s Unique Point-of-View
Think back to your experience within this story. Growth does not happen in a vacuum. You likely encountered several challenges along the way, both personal and interpersonal. Was there someone who motivated you emotionally to take this journey? It may be difficult to identify at first, but think.
Who was the greatest personal influence on you during this time? Who challenged you deal with that personal baggage? You want to make sure whoever it is, that their unique perspective ties in directly with you overcoming or succumbing to that baggage.
It may have been a father figure, or your actual father. It could have been your mother, your coach, or even a teacher. It could have been your neighbor or it could have been your dog. There may have been someone on your sales team who—while similar to you in many respects—was different enough to rub you the wrong way.
You want that rub.
Key to integrating this character into your story is contrasting your unique perspective with theirs. What was it about them that challenged you to see the world a different way? Were you even conscious that that was going on at the time?
Perhaps you went on this journey because you didn’t see the world the way your father did. Perhaps his unique perspective haunted you every step of the way—even if he wasn’t there. Or maybe your wife never thought you would ever climb that mountain—maybe family was more important to her. Or maybe your boss sees the world from more of a transactional point-of-view. The sale makes the relationship.
Whatever the source of contrasting point-of-view, write it into your story. This is the
Influence Character Throughline. Watch as it conflicts with your own, and see how it helps to develop and nudge the way you see things. Those competing perspectives eventually come to a head once the Story Limit falls away and the Goal is there, ready for the taking.
Step Eight: Who Won?
In Step Five you identified your personal baggage. In Step Six you explored your unique point-of-view that grew from that personal baggage and made it difficult at times for you to continue your journey. And in Step Seven you identified that alternative way of seeing things that challenged your world paradigm and forced you to face your own personal issues. Now, you want to let us know—
—which one of you adopted the other’s point-of-view?
That is how you transform life events into a story.
When looking at the Main Character and Influence Character of your story, one of them will Change their paradigm to match the other’s point-of-view, and one of them will hold strong and remain Steadfast in their convictions. This is an important rule of narrative and one you cannot break.
You may think that both of you adopted the other’s point-of-view or saw things the same way in the end. And while that is beautiful, that really isn’t the way things turned out. There likely was another third perspective at play, one that eschewed collaboration for competition, that was the true unique alternative perspective to your own. If this is the case, you will want to revisit Step Seven and adjust.
You want to figure out who came over to the other’s side and how that adoption or transformation of perspective resulted in the Story Outcome. Yep, we’re going all the way back to Step Three. Integrate this change in point-of-view with that outcome and show how the final agreed upon approach manifested that ending.
Did your father finally see things your way? Or did you finally realize that the old man had it right? Did you give up climbing the mountain because you agreed with your wife regarding family first? Or did she strap on those boots and beat you to the top? How about that sales team and your boss? Did everyone return to a transaction sales-oriented mindset and the business closed within days? Or did you manage to transform everyone in the office—including your boss—to think more in terms of relationships and did you have your first blockbuster quarter?
Writing a story this way infuses your narrative with meaning. No longer is it simply a rehashing of events, but rather a sophisticated means of communicating something deep and important. As mentioned in our article Transforming Real Life into a Story:
A functional narrative gives meaning to made-up imaginary events. A functional real-world narrative must also give meaning—but to events that have no inherent meaning.
By arguing that a certain approach leads to a certain outcome, you prove to your Audience that the events of your life had purpose. They had a reason for being.
Step Nine: The Relationship
Finally—and this is simply a teaser—write about the relationship that exists between you and that person or group of people that held an alternative perspective to your own. If it was your father, write about the relationship between father and son. If it was your wife, write about your marriage and whether the events of the story brought you closer together or drove you further apart. If it was your boss, don’t think of the relationship between boss and employee—you already have that covered with the basic plot and the rest of the story. Instead, think of the actual relationship between you two. Were you once friends and now you’re not? Was she always a mentor to you? Think of that personal heartfelt
Relationship Story Throughline between two people and carry that into your story.
The key to doing that effectively and confidently require further study and a greater understanding of the dynamics at play between relationships and basic plot. These nine steps are the only beginning—baby steps towards realizing a functional narrative. If you are interested in continuing to develop your story feel free to contact us at any time. Our team of dedicated story experts will walk you through the process of turning chaos into meaning.
In The Big Short Christian Bale and Steve Carell struggle to deal with the fallout from the 2007 housing market scandal. While intriguing and revealing, the film lacks the presence of personal baggage and point-of-view, an alternative perspective to challenge that perspective, and a heartfelt relationship between the two. It lacks meaning.
Now, it may have been that the purpose of the film was not to derive some meaning or greater understanding of the events of that time, but simply to relate to us exactly what happened. That is, of course, fine—but memory is fleeting when it comes to information and the Internet will always be there for us to fact check against.
True narrative—that deep, personal connection between Author and Audience—builds a context for a greater understanding of what happened. It reveals the source of our lives’ problems and offers concrete solutions to resolve them. It elevates our existence beyond simply living.
Take the time to make a story out of the events in your life and your experience will be timeless. Your Audience will grow and develop a better understanding of their own experience. And they will thank you.
Share your mind with theirs—by telling them a story.