Ex Machina: The Narrative Code Hidden Within the Machine
In order to unlock the thematic message locked deep inside a story, both Author and analyst must maintain an objective point-of-view.
Misdirection and misconception. Lies and predictions of grandeur. The hubris of an intellectual ass that guides everyone towards a tragic misunderstanding of true intention. While all this could easily be said about the fantastic Ex Machina—these judgments also land squarely on our initial analysis of the film.
The past few months or so, Narrative First has been taking deep dives into the far edges of the Dramatica theory of story. Beginning with our popular four-week series on the Audience Appreciations of story and culminating with our article on Writing Perfect Scene Structure with Dramatica, the idea that we knew it all when it came to narrative structure began to permeate our every move. Like Oscar Isaac's character Nathan Bateman, we let our overwhelming confidence in our abilities color our thoughts and our analysis.
In some respects we were spot on. Our identification of Self-Awareness as the Objective Story Problem, the Story Outcome of Failure*, and the upper-left quad location of the Concerns for every Throughline (The Past, Understanding, Conceptualizing, and Memories) were all 100% accurate. The difference between these correct story points and the ones we missed? These were determined objectively, our mistakes were subjective in nature.
Notification began with this week's blog post The Hubris of a Dramatica Story Expert, but the idea that we could be so far off on something so obvious sparked intrigue. How could we--experts in narrative structure for over twenty years--not see something as simple as whether or not Caleb was a Change or Steadfast Main Character?1
In short, we made the same exact mistake we council Mentorship students and professional writers to watch out for each and every day:
Dramatica's story points are indicators of the SOURCE of conflict in a narrative, NOT merely storytelling.
By relying on our own interpretations of what we thought we saw, we were in fact blinding ourselves to the reality of what was really going on.
Just like Nathan and Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson's character).
Slipping into Subjectivity
The analysis began with the impression of how the film felt--always an issue with an objective perspective on narrative like Dramatica:
The overwhelming sense of dread in Ex Machina that permeates every scene in this fantastically entertaining and solidly structured story comes as a result of two key story points. That tangible awareness that Main Character Caleb Smith (Domnhall Gleeson) moves inevitably on the path towards self-destruction sets up the interplay between a Story Judgment of Bad and a Main Character Growth of Start. As an Audience member, we know instinctively how things will turn out because the narrative is so competently constructed.
So confident. So cocky. So wrong.
The overwhelming feeling mentioned refers to our discovery in How to Tell If Your Main Character Faces Overwhelming or Surmountable Odds. In that article, Dramatica's Audience Appreciation of Essence slid under the narrative microscope. Our conclusion focused on the odds for the characters feeling overwhelming or surmountable, depending on a combination of the Story Judgment and Main Character Growth.
Audience Appreciations define story points as seen from the Audience's point-of-view. As an Author can never truly know what their work looks like from the other side, these Appreciations are anything but objective. They rely on feeling and intuition and a general sense of narrative dynamics, rather than a concrete understanding of Author's intent and purpose. The majority of Dramatica's story points focus on the latter—on helping Authors narrow down and focus the meaning of their story. The four Audience Appreciations—of which Essence is one of them-straddle the line between Author's intent and the Audience's perception of that intent.
That balance act shifts into subjective interpretation. And Audience members—and story analysts—rarely share the same subjectivity.
We knew Caleb ends the story crushed by Ava's deception. The pounding on the silent window clearly tells of a Story Judgment of Bad*. And we felt that the film communicated an air of overwhelming dread for the characters. That one-two punch demanded a Main Character Growth of Start*—a reality that required setting the Main Character Throughline in a Dependent relationship with the Objective Story Throughline.2
Recognizing without a doubt that Ex Machina's Objective Story Throughline lied in Psychology(or Manipulation), this Dependent relationship called for Caleb's personal issues to rest in the Situation Domain.
With the same self-assuredness and self-importance almost impossible to ignore when facing accolades for past analysis, we began to convince ourselves that our initial impressions were right.
Confirmation Bias Confirming B.S.
Our descent into self-deception continued with our assessment of Caleb's ability to facilitate flow into the narrative:
As a Do-er in this Action-driven story, Caleb facilitates flow throughout the narrative—writing code to unlock doors and getting Nathan drunk only makes it easier for Ava to fulfill her devious plot
Here, the confirmation bias begins. The film clearly runs on Actions: Caleb arrives, Ava reveals that Nathan can't be trusted, Nathan passes out drunk (giving Caleb access to Nathan's computer), Ava escapes the cage and then the island. With Caleb secure in Situation, his Main Character Approach of Do-er* sits as a foregone conclusion.3
Tendency is another one of Dramatica's Audience Appreciations and functions as the nexus between the Main Character Approach and the Story Driver.
When reading the Tendency of the Main Character, what the Audience is really seeing is the resistance or flow of the Main Character's personal issues within the dramatic circuit of the narrative. Some Main Characters gum up the works with their personal problems, while others help facilitate the flow of conflict resolution.
According to our article The Refusal of the Call: The Resistance or Flow Through a Narrative, Do-er's in an Action-driven story facilitate flow. Caleb must therefore facilitate flow. So we found some lightweight examples to back up that claim and moved on.
But one could easily argue that Caleb built up resistance within the dramatic circuit of Ex Machina. That his constant evaluations and re-evaluations of Ava and Nathan's plans gum up the works, not grease them down. And he moves with such ease through Nathan's compound that from a different point-of-view, the odds seem easily surmountable.
We were so blind to our initial assessment of an overwhelming narrative that we never once reconsidered that we might be wrong. We can't really argue with our intuition or with how we feel about story points, so why would we? This reliance on a hunch led us down a path strewn with errors and misconceptions. And it eventually drew us into making a grave misunderstanding.
The Source of Conflict within a Story
As mentioned before, Dramatica's story points seek out meaning. They effuse Author's Intent from the narrative. The biggest mistake anyone new to the theory is makes is to think that a story point is an indicator of storytelling. They see Dramatica's complications as "writing-by-numbers" and gleefully copy the theory's reports directly into their stories.
They think a Main Character's Concern of Memories means the Main Character remembers things. They think an Objective Story Concern of Doing means the characters in the story do things. And they think a Relationship Story Issue of Commitment means the two characters in the relationship talk about commitment alot.
They couldn't be more wrong.
Dramatica is a conflict-detection machine. Those story points indicate flashpoints of conflict, not mere storytelling. A Main Character with a Concern of Memories will experience personal conflict because their memories dredge up past guilt, or lead them to fool themselves into committing murder because they can't remember (as in Memento). An Objective Story Concern of Doing means the characters in the story experience conflict because of how or what they're doing—sailboat competitors clash over the right type of sail or how high to unfurl it, swimmers come into combat over the practice of meditating versus blasting hard-rock music before a match. A Relationship Story Issue of Commitment means the attempt to commit is pulling the two closer together or farther apart.
The story point defines the source of conflict, not storytelling.
Caleb's Main Character Throughline
In our initial analysis of Ava's Throughline we wrote:
Ava plays on Caleb's suspicions of Nathan (Influence Character Issue of Suspicion). She directs attention towards her abilities to portray a human convincingly and uses what evidence she has to express a deep longing for Caleb (Influence Character Focus of Ability, an Influence Character Response of Desire, & an Influence Character Unique Ability of Evidence). It isn't her body Caleb is drawn towards, but rather her mind that captures his attention (Influence Character Throughline of Fixed Attitude).
All true. But not a single part of it identifying the source of Ava's influence. Influence Characters poke at a Main Character's Issues, they don't simply hash what they think through story points. Consider the moment Ava begins to test Caleb:5
What is your favorite color? What's your earliest memory? Are you a good person? Who's the most beautiful girl you have ever seen?
These questions don't speak of her problematic influence over Caleb, they poke at Caleb's issues—his thoughts, his impulses, and his desires. They force Caleb to deal with his own Main Character Throughline of Fixed Attitudes*. Ava's building up of suspicions in Caleb's mind and calling him a liar when he tells her his favorite color—those Issues of Suspicion and Falsehood apply to Caleb, and Caleb only. Calling to mind and making him deal with his earliest memories of a woman singing only seals his spot in this Domain by forcing Caleb to face his Main Character Concern of Memories*.
Ava's Influence Character Throughline
On the other side, we have our initial take on where we thought Caleb's personal issues were—in order to fit in with choices we made earlier:
Lonely, without parents, and longing for something more, Caleb is the perfect rat for Nathan's trap (Main Character Problem of Desire).
Interestingly enough, this blurb—and one later that remarked on his apparent Issue of Interdiction—were all we wrote when it came to describing Caleb's Throughline.4 Caleb's feelings for Ava certainly describe where he thinks his problem lie, and in a general sense they do as his Throughline accurately exists within the Fixed Attitude Domain. But when speaking strictly of motivation, and the drive and source of influence Ava holds over Caleb—Desire fits better in her Throughline.
Ava is a robot. An extremely attractive robot built to possible satisfy and please her creator like so many robots before her. This untenable Situation represents the source of conflict that influences Caleb to finally change his point-of-view and man up. In our final analysis, Ava's Influence Character Throughline looks something like this:
- Domain: Situation
- Concern: The Past
- Issue: Prediction
- Problem: Desire
- Focus: Inequity
- Response: Equity
But it's not her Past, or her Predictions, or her Desires that these story points reflect. To think so would be to inaccurately use Dramatica's story points for storytelling. Instead, they identify why she has influence over Caleb. In fact, for most of these story points these points of narrative find themselves attached to her, not coming from her.
Ava isn't the only robot. There is a past history of abuse and atrocities committed upon these sentient beings by Nathan. Those prerecorded tapes of previous models signify the Influence Character Concern of The Past* that motivates and compels Caleb to grow as a character. The prediction from Nathan that Ava will be destroyed or re-engineered upon completion of the test represents the Influence Character Issue of Prediction* that challenges the way Caleb sees the world. The unfair manner in which all the robots have been treated, and their desparate pleas for justice lock in the Influence Character Focus and Response of Inequity* and Equity.
The Influence Character Throughline functions properly when it challenges the Main Character to reconsider and to grow. The perspective of all A.I. trapped within the problematic Situation of Nathan's laboratory fulfills that primary function of a narrative.
Accepting Fire from the Gods
Subjective interpretations always seem truthful to the beholder. We convince ourselves that what we see is, in fact, what exists and we warp reality to serve our own purposes. Unfortunately a subjective approach to constructing a narrative leads to half-baked and malformed intentions.
We didn't start by defining—from an objective point-of-view—the kind of growth Caleb needed to go through before he could make that decision to either Change or Remain Steadfast. We didn't start by defining—objectively—the source of his personal problems. Instead, we relied on our expertise in the field and the acquired knowledge gained over the past couple of months to cajole us into believing the importance of our own writing.
Dramatica demands Authors assume an objective point-of-view when assessing the key story points within a narrative.
Dramatica humbles the writer. That's why many balk at its story points, or its suggestions for improving or rounding out a narrative. To suggest that the God of our story is somehow fallable is to call into question the integrity of a writer's purpose and craft—the very essence of their being. In some respects, Dramatica acts like Ava, turning writers into the subjects of their stories—not ours.
Zeus punished Prometheus for giving fire to mankind. Screenwriter Garland did the same to Nathan at the end of Ex Machina. Dramatica's objective take on narrative did the same to us when we tried to offer our initial analysis of the film to you, the Reader.
Losing one's self-awareness during the creation and/or analysis of a narrative guarantees an effective and efficient story machine. As Gods of our own stories, removing ourselves from the equation and stepping back allows us the gift of seeing our work through different eyes. The Dramatica theory of story signifies the next step in our evolution of telling stories.
As Nathan himself would say…
- In Dramatica, the Main Character Resolve determines whether or not the central character of a narrative remains Steadfast in their point-of-view, or adopts a brand new perspective.↩
- A Dependent relationship in Dramatica is one where the two items in question share a vertical relationship with the Table of Story Elements.↩
- Do-er Main Characters find their personal issues in the external Domains: Situation or Activity. Be-er Main Characters find issues in the internal Domains: Fixed Attitude or Psychology.↩
- Taken from the shooting script of Ex Machina.↩
- Note to self: when you only come up with one or two examples for an entire Throughline, chances are you're looking in the wrong place.↩