Articles

Decoding the Structure of a Personal Tragedy

Rewriting the meaning of an ending

Intent dictates a narrative schematic consistent with purpose. Seek a story of triumph, and the order of events within will differ from those of a tragedy. Chase down something a little less black and white, and the particulars of that order become much more elusive.

Especially, if you're using a tool fine-tuned to the intricacies of narrative structure.

Subtext is a practical application of the Dramatica theory of story. Intended to be more of an experiential tool than an educational one, this service invites Authors into their story 'a deep thematic structure. The key to this experience is the Narrative Premise feature.

Everyone knows what a Premise is: Greed leads to self-destruction; Love conquers all. The Premise argues a particular outcome stemming from a motivational drive. And the story that follows merely makes that argument.

While not as apparent, a Dramatica storyform is also an argument. A Dramatica storyform and a Premise are the same. It's just that the former is scary intimidating with its seventy-five Storypoints and discouraging vocabulary.

A Premise is a simple sentence.

A Dramatica storyform is productive. It encourages exploration and consideration and years and years of study.

The Narrative Premise found in Subtext is reductive. Full stop. With a single sentence, the writer finds himself with no other option than to write.

The experience of working through the narrative structure allows the writer to leapfrog decades of navel-gazing.

Consider this recent revelation from a writer familiar with both Dramatica and Subtext:

I'm understanding Dramatica/Subtext more and more, which sometimes means I'm understanding less and less the more I get into it-but, I actually just want to write while I'm learning. I have taken a premise from the Subtext premise builder that fits in with what I think I'm trying to say, and gone with that storyform. It doesn't seem that close to the stroyform I was trying to develop with Dramatica, but I figured trying a different approach would be worth it.

This approach is the right way and describes what it's like to work with Subtext. Even if it turns out to be the "wrong" storyform, the experience of writing through it will only serve to strengthen the quality of the final product.

The only way you'll ever realize you need a different storyform is by writing to one already fully-formed and right in front of you.

As long as that original Premise is apparent with its presentation of intent.

Storyform as a Matter of Intent

Blade Runner 2049 is an excellent example of the need for clarity in a Premise. Read the discussion of that film on Discuss Dramatica, and you'll find an argument over whether the Story Judgment was Bad or Good. Some interpret Ryan Gossling's character at the end as having found peace with what's happened—others see him profoundly alone and unhappy.

The appreciation of Story Judgment, as found in Dramatica, is an emotional evaluation by the Author placed on the efforts to resolve the inequity of the story. Regardless of how Ryan Gosling's character K felt at the end of the story, was the Author arguing that it was a Good thing that he sacrificed himself to save Deckard (Harrison Ford) and reunite the father with his daughter? Or was the Author trying to say it was a Bad thing?

The answer is undeniable, Good.

While you can often turn to the balance of angst within the Main Character to determine Story Judgment, the accurate measure is the proof of the Author's central dramatic argument, or Premise. Was it a Good thing that K Changed from being motivated by a Desire to engaging in his Abilities? Yes. Was it a Good thing that this Change resulted in replicants realizing their Ability to rise and fight oppression? Yes.

Was it Good for K personally? It depends on what you mean by personal.

Opening Up a Premise

The Premise for Blade Runner: 2049, as found in Subtext at the time of this publication (November 2019), reads:

Give up longing for what you don't have and you can understand what it means to be alive.

This Premise is for a Good Story Judgment. And it sounds like the film. K gives up the longing for the family he never knew, thus appreciating what is needed to survive.

The following is the Premise for the same storyform with the Story Judgment set to Bad:

While tragic to the individual, you can understand what it means to be alive when you give up longing for what you don't have.

As you can see, there isn't a big enough considerable difference between the two. Clarity demands a different approach.

"Tragic to the individual" doesn't equate to what it means to set the Story Judgement to Bad. An author setting out to write a story like 2049 might inadvertently pick this Premise, thinking it correct. It wouldn't be until some time through the writing process when they would finally realize they were writing to a narrative structure incompatible with their original intent.

But how would they know what other Premise to turn to, if Good and Bad express no discernible differences?

Story Judgment determines Act order. It sets Unique Abilities and Critical Flaws for the Main Character and Influence Character Throughlines.

It's a big deal.

Reworking the Premise

Accuracy is everything around here. Narrative First is nothing, if not completely honest in its quest for truth in the story. If a concept falls short, it requires further development.

The Good Story Judgment works as presented because a Premise naturally gravitates towards the good. Culturally, we accept the notion that when advised for success, it typically brings those good feelings along with it.

The Bad side of things needs some work.

At first, I figured to go with the original terminology:

While ultimately a bad thing, you can understand what it takes to survive when you give up longing for what you don't have.

That would work great for Blade Runner: 2049, clueing the Author of a similar story in of its unacceptability as a Premise.

But it wouldn't work out so well for the next Christopher Nolan trying to write her version of The Dark Knight:

While ultimately a bad thing, you can protect a city by giving up merely keeping the streets clean.

No one sees Wayne's sacrifice at the end of that film as a bad thing. Maybe for him, but not for everyone else. Which means we're right back to using the individual as a weather vane for emotional state.

Personal Triumph doesn't work anymore. And neither does Personal Tragedy.

We need something else.

The new Personal Tragedy

How do you codify emotional state and make it universal for all? When left with only Good or Bad concerning the Main Character, I can see someone thinking 2049 to be a Personal Tragedy. After all, he dies alone.

But if you seek out the Author's original intention, you find nothing less than a Triumph:

EXT. LAB BUILDING. DAWN.

K's hand slips into his pocket. Takes out...

THE WOODEN HORSE. He holds it out to Deckard.

Deckard sees it. Takes it. Can't believe it still exists. Something made for a child he never met all those years ago.

K

All the best memories... are hers...

Deckard stares at him from a place beyond gratitude.

Gratitude is an emotional state commonly associated with something good. Hard to imagine this gift exchange as something "Bad" from the Author's point of view.

And when it comes to narrative structure, the Author's point of view is all that matters.

If K's graciousness doesn't communicate this original intent strongly enough, consider how the scene starts:

EXT. SKIES ABOVE LOS ANGELES. DAWN.

The grand CITYSCAPE. Under a blanket of snow. Clean as a fresh start.

A fresh start is something Good.

K is letting go of that Desire that drove him for so long. That release is like a blanket of fresh snow.

DECKARD

Why? What am I to you?

K looks at Deckard. Wanting him to be so many things.

K

Go meet her.

Deckard's eyes fill of thanks beyond words. He turns away. Crosses the snowy field. To the building. TO ANA.

ON K. Watching him go. He lets his hand drop from his wound. A DROP of BLOOD touches the snow.

K'S POV: Deckard grows smaller in the distance.

Someone could easily interpret this as being "tragic to the individual." Yet, this death wants to be seen as a Good thing:

ON K. Fallen in the snow.

A pool of blood spreads and stains the white snow around him, as we...

MOVE CLOSE ON K'S FACE. His eyes catch something near him only he sees. A warm FALSE VOICE comes, calming:

JOI (V.O.)

Would you read to me.

Just as she said when we first met her. K smiles at this ghost of memory. Of course. A thready whisper of his baseline. Their old favorite.

K (V.O.)

"And blood-black nothingness began to... spin... a system of cells interlinked...

INT. HALLWAY. LAB BUILDING.

Deckard walks toward the door. Halts before entering.

K (V.O.)

...Within... cells interlinked within cells interlinked... within one stem...

EXT. SKIES ABOVE LOS ANGELES. DAWN.

The fog recedes, a brief glimpse of true sky before the wool sweater clouds return.

K (V.O.)

...And dreadfully distinct... against the dark...

EXT. SNOWY FIELD. DAWN.

ON K. Slipping. Barely audible.

K

...A tall white fountain played...

And dies.

If we had cut the scene on "blood-black nothingness," then maybe, it could be seen as a Bad result.

But we didn't.

We ended with the light overshadowing the darkness.

A State of Severity and Regret

The Dramatica theory of story sees a complete story as an analogy to a single human mind trying to resolve an inequity. A story is a mind and this value judgment of Good or Bad determines the emotional state of that mind. And not just at the end of a story—this mind-structure is aware of every moment all at once. It's a snapshot of the mind's mood.

Severity and regret are two emotional states firmly planted on the Bad side of the spectrum. Regret, while more colorful in expression, invites all kinds of subjective interpretation. If you look at something like Memento, it would be a stretch to associate Leonard's self-deception in Memento with anything resembling regret. Same with Dolores in Season One of Westworld.

Severity, on the other hand, maintains an air of objectivity towards that depressed mental state. It also pulls us away from the problems inherent in focusing on the individual.

The old version of Memento's Premise, focusing on the individual:

While tragic to the individual, you can devise a way to alleviate personal guilt by focusing on being aware of everything around you

The new one, focusing on the emotional state of the Storymind:

While severe, you can devise a way to alleviate personal guilt by focusing on being aware of everything around you.

Perfect!

You can feel the Bad, while simultaneously removing it from the individual.

And it works for The Dark Knight:

While severe, you can protect a city by giving up merely keeping the streets clean.

But most importantly, this new version of Premise clears up any lingering issues surrounding Blade Runner: 2049.

With a Story Judgment of Bad:

While severe, you can understand what it means to be alive when you give up longing for what you don't have.

We lose the blanket of fresh snow and gratitude.

With a Story Judgment of Good, we invite them back in:

You can understand what it means to be alive when you give up longing for what you don't have.

Emotional release and argument—all wrapped up in one declarative sentence.

Rolling Out and Leveling Up

This new version of understanding stories with a Story Outcome of Success and a Story Judgment of Bad will be rolling out in the next version of Subtext. If you were writing a story with this particular set of Story Dynamics, you would find the change reflected in your Narrative's Premise.

Nothing else has changed. Your storytelling persists. Your narrative structure remains intact. The only difference is a better understanding of the message you are sending out to your Audience.

And when the Authors who write stories for us know their stories better—we all win.