Article

How to Classify the Atomic Elements of Story Structure

Writing narrative events with intention and meaning

Effective story structure is more than an outline of what happens. For the order to mean something beyond the superficial, it must communicate something intrinsic to both the order and relationship between individual Storybeats. Knowing the elemental nature of events grants the purposeful writer a unique ability unheard of in other explorations of narrative structure.

The previous article Writing Perfect Scene Structure with Dramatica, explores the atomic classifications present within a Dramatica storyform. Subtext's recent addition of these classifications (Modalities) keys writers into the essential nature of every Storybeat in their stories. Whether at the Scene-level present in Atomic Beats or at the larger scale of Act-level Signpost Storybeats, these Modalities grant meaning to what would otherwise be yet another template to follow mindlessly.

The current Narrative Engine in Subtext (March 2021(c)) applies three sets of classifications to every single Storybeat:

  • Material (Situation, Activity, Mentality, Stance)
  • Spatial (Potential, Resistance, Current, Power)
  • Temporal (Renewal(1), Living(2), Dying(3), Death(4))

The 4th (PASS), primarily Storytelling, exists solely within the writer's subjective opinion.

Potential, Resistance, Current, Power

  • Potential simply means a latent tendency toward some attitude or action.
  • Resistance simply means a tendency toward inertia.
  • Current simply means the flow of a process.
  • Power simply means the effect of a process.

The Shawshank Redemption - Main Character Throughline

Red sneaks in contraband for inmates while telling the review board he's a changed man. Clearly, he's not. He feigns reconciliation while continuing to play the role of a minor criminal. (Being - (Activity) - Resistance, Growth (1))

Red's mentality is one of flowing with the changes without any real direction or purpose. Change comes, but without a true transformation, it looks like he's simply taking advantage of a convenient situation. (Becoming - (Mentality) - Current, Expansion (2))

Red takes a stand with the new arrival when it comes to helping Andy. Red knows the effect institutionalized thinking has on a man and councils the boy against getting the wrong idea--an observation that is clearly a projection. (Conceiving - (Stance) - Power, Transformation (3))

Red has always had a latent tendency towards rebellion. Whether as a young man or trapped for decades in Shawshank, Red was on the run from the law--a fugitive from oppressive thinking. Breaking parole and escaping the country is just a matter of Red figuring out that place in the world he always had. (Conceptualizing - (Situation) - Potential, Transcendence (4))

Star Wars - Objective Story Throughline

The Empire illegally boards a diplomatic ship—a diplomatic ship smuggling stolen plans to aid a rebellion. Both good and bad find themselves caught within the inertia of war. (Doing - (Activity) - Resistance, Growth (1))

The princess refuses to break during her interrogations, while the Antagonist refuses to back down from his belief that she will. Their interactions reveal the latent and contradictory belief systems between those who rebel and those who enforce. In addition, the group of rescuers reveals their latent beliefs on how best to fight as the young neophyte begins to learn the old ways. (Learning - (Stance) - Potential, Expansion (2))

This flow of warring against one another makes its way into the Rebel group--their different mentalities encouraging in-fighting as they rescue the princess. Once rescued, her mentality only increases the arguing, almost leading to their capture. (Obtaining - (Mentality) - Current, Transformation (3))

The Empire's battle station moves into position to destroy the Rebel base—the effect of all the fighting between good and bad (the "star wars"). The Rebels find themselves coming out on top when the effect of all their in-fighting leads to a greater appreciation of how best to win the fight. (Understanding - (Situation) - Power, Transcendence (4))

Growth (1), Expansion (2), Transformation (3), Transcendence (4)

The definitions for the Spatial Modalities (Potential, Resistance, Current, and Power) appear in the original Dramatica theory book. While hinted at in various places, the Temporal Modalities (1234) are absent, or simply missing, from the final publication.

Using the same format as found in the Definition section of Dramatica, here are the Temporal Progressions of a Cycle:

NOTE: In the original version of this article, and elsewhere in Subtext and Narrative First, you may find these appearing as Renewal, Living, Dying, Death. And while those accurately encapsulate the progression of cycles from a Linear perspective, they tend to alienate those coming from a Holistic perspective (where Death is rarely a consideration--at least, not in the traditional sense). The Temporal Modalities are meant to tap into an understanding of cycles from the Holistic perspective, and so we put them front and center.

The original incarnations, along with others, are left as synonyms beneath each definition.

Growth (1) -- [Dynamic Term] -- One way to measure the relationship of the items in a quad is to classify them as progressions of a cycle, or Growth, Expansion, Transformation, and Transcendence (or 1234). In this manner, we can see how dramatic components progress and evolve over the course of a story. While more objective in nature, the sequence 1234 suggests an order, emphasizing 1 as "first" and 4 as "last"--this is not the meaning of these classifications. When looking at a quad of items as cyclical progressions, there is no beginning and no end--thus, the application of more subjective terminology: Growth, Expansion, Transformation, and Transcendence. Growth here is meant to refer to the directional aspect of a cycle, not a specific attachment to what it means to be “renewed” or "re-born." Growth simply means the recognition of a directional aspect within a cycle. Often interpreted as a "renewal" or "birth," it is not necessarily the start of something new. In fact, until a Transcendence (4) is seen in contrast with Growth, it ceases to be anything other than simply Expansion. So in a quad, assigning one of the items as Growth does not mean it is simply first. Instead, it depends on Transcendence to detatch from simply Transformation (resulting in breaking the cycle) to give Growth any appreciable meaning. This is a useful tool for Authors since it allows for the subtle relationship of unused, inferred, manifested, or anticipated dramatic interactions that shape the fabric of a story in ways that call to mind growth.

syn: renewal, re-birth, Spring, sister

Expansion (2) -- [Dynamic Term] -- One way to measure the relationship of the items in a quad is to classify them as progressions of a cycle, or Growth, Expansion, Transformation, and Transcendence (or 1234). In this manner, we can see how dramatic components progress and evolve over the course of a story. While more objective in nature, the sequence 1234 suggests an order, emphasizing 1 as "first" and 4 as "last"--this is not the meaning of these classifications. When looking at a quad of items as cyclical progressions, there is no beginning and no end--thus, the application of more subjective terminology: Growth, Expansion, Transformation, and Transcendence. Expansion here is meant to refer to the exploration of options within a growth cycle. Expansion simply means the embodiment of the cycle, and a reaching out. Without exploration, ennui sets in, and the experience of growth becomes meaningless. It is only once seen in contrast to Transformation that Expansion begins to take on some appreciable meaning as the options for purpose. This is a useful tool for Authors since it allows for the subtle relationship of unused, inferred, manifested, or anticipated dramatic interactions that shape the fabric of a story in ways that call to mind growth.

syn: living, Summer, wife

Transformation (3) -- [Dynamic Term] -- One way to measure the relationship of the items in a quad is to classify them as progressions of a cycle, or Growth, Expansion, Transformation, and Transcendence (or 1234). In this manner, we can see how dramatic components progress and evolve over the course of a story. While more objective in nature, the sequence 1234 suggests an order, emphasizing 1 as "first" and 4 as "last"--this is not the meaning of these classifications. When looking at a quad of items as cyclical progressions, there is no beginning and no end--thus, the application of more subjective terminology: Growth, Expansion, Transformation, and Transcendence. Transformation here is meant to refer to the transition of a cycle into something more purposeful. Transformation simply means the recognition of a cycle and an allowance and or/willingness towards purpose. Without purpose, growth becomes directionless. It is only once seen in contrast to Exploration that Transformation begins to take on some appreciable meaning as the purpose for all the options. This is a useful tool for Authors since it allows for the subtle relationship of unused, inferred, manifested, or anticipated dramatic interactions that shape the fabric of a story in ways that call to mind growth.

syn: dying, Fall, mother

Transcendence (4) -- [Dynamic Term] -- One way to measure the relationship of the items in a quad is to classify them as progressions of a cycle, or Growth, Expansion, Transformation, and Transcendence (or 1234). In this manner, we can see how dramatic components progress and evolve over the course of a story. While more objective in nature, the sequence 1234 suggests an order, emphasizing 1 as "first" and 4 as "last"--this is not the meaning of these classifications. When looking at a quad of items as cyclical progressions, there is no beginning and no end--thus, the application of more subjective terminology: Growth, Expansion, Transformation, and Transcendence. Transcendence here is meant to refer to the elevation of a cycle, not something "out-of-body". Transcendence simply means the recognition of a giving in tandem to a surrender to growth. Though a Transcendence suggetss some sort of ending, it is not necessarily the end of something that once was. In fact, until Growth is seen in contrast with Transcendence, it ceases to be anything other than something different. So in a quad, assigning one of the items as Transcendence does not mean it is simply last. Instead, it depends on Growth to cease from simply Exploring (resulting in breaking the cycle) to give Transcendence any appreciable meaning. This is a useful tool for Authors since it allows for the subtle relationship of unused, inferred, manifested, or anticipated dramatic interactions that shape the fabric of a story in ways that call to mind growth.

syn: death, Winter, grandmother, transferrence, surrender, sacrifice, grace

Short Definitions

  • Growth (1) simply means the recognition of a directional aspect within a cycle.
  • Expansion (2) simply means the embodiment of the cycle, and a reaching out.
  • Transformation (3) simply means the recognition of a cycle and an allowance and or/willingness towards purpose.
  • Transcendence (4) simply means the recognition of a giving in tandem to a surrender to growth.

The Progression of Cycles

If you see the peak of the waveform above as a Transformation, then the bottom is a Expansion. If you instead see it as a Transcendence, then the bottom is a Growth. Regardless of where you join the wave, you interpret the cycle as you see fit. Narratives, as analogies of our psychologies, do the same.

The Matrix - Main Character Throughline

Neo as Mr. Anderson is dead. Locked within a dead-end job living a dead-end existence, Neo has gone as far as possible on his current path. Having reached the bottom of this current cycle, he is presented with the immediate opportunity to finalize that death with the acceptance of the Red Pill. His latent tendency toward skepticism is the only thing keeping him from setting off in a new direction. (Present - (Situation) - Potential, Transcendence (4))

Neo expands his awareness by evolving into a life of exploration and discovery, and revelation through training and observation. While resistance exists in his opposition towards the unbelievable, Neo nevertheless embarks on his journey of personal growth. (Progress - (Activity) - Resistance, Expansion (2))

Neo finds his mentality shifting with the revelation from the Oracle that he is not the one destined to save them all. This acceptance of the dying of Morpheus' dream sets Neo off in a different direction with the recognition that his future lies down a different path. (Future - (Mentality) - Current, Transformation (3))

Neo finds a rebirth and renewal in his personal stand against Agent Smith and the other operators within the Matrix. The power he gains from his journey allows him to shed his skeptical trappings of the past as he fully embraces his new direction of growth. (Past - (Stance) - Power, Growth (1))

The Sixth Sense - Main Character & Influence Character

With The Sixth Sense, writers can understand much from comparing the progression of the Main Character Throughline (Malcolm Crowe) with that of Influence Character Cole Sear.

Cole's cycle matches that of Neo in the example above:

  • Present - (Situation) - Potential, Transcendence (4)
  • Progress - (Activity) - Resistance, Expansion (2)
  • Future - (Mentality) - Current, Transformation (3)
  • Past - (Stance) - Power, Growth (1)

While Malcom's progression takes on the traditional default view of a cycle:

  • Memory - (Situation) - Potential, Growth (1)
  • Preconscious - (Activity) - Resistance, Expansion (2)
  • Subconscious - (Mentality) - Current, Transformation (3)
  • Conscious - (Stance) - Power, Transcendence (4)

While their journeys of Transformation and Expansion are familiar, the transposition of Transcendence and Growth strikes a meaningful chord within the narrative. Malcolm's Potential for Growth matches Cole's Potential for Transcendence; one cycle on the ascendant with the other in the process of surrender.

Cole potential for transcendence matches his acceptance of the death around him. Malcolm's potential for Growth lies in his refusal to recognize his death.

The narrative completes with Cole on the ascendant--a Growth of power in his relations with the dead. On the other hand, Malcolm finds power in consideration of his passing, or Trancendence--a letting go of what was for the cycle to come.

Exploration of Modalities

Apparent in both of these explorations of the Modalities of Story Structure (classifications of Storybeats) is a tendency towards significant Transformation in the 3rd Signpost (the last half of the traditional 2nd Act). As mentioned in the note above, Linear-minded people often see this part of the cycle as "dying." This classification's position within the timeline explains why why these same people refer to this moment in the cycle as "The Dark Night of the Soul" or the "Ordeal." Their notions of dying are consistent with a Linear appreciation of a narrative cycle. Every single narrative with a Linear Mindset finds Transformation (3) in this position--the fact that many of those who coined these initial phrases came from a Linear perspective only reinforces our findings.

On the other hand, holistic narratives play with the "start" and "end" of a cycle such that they often begin with the death and end with the rebirth--a gentle reminder that the end is not necessarily a completion.

Cycles persist without completion.

Still, the Linear mind can't help but see the Transcendence (4) of a cycle as a literal Death. This reality is why many narratives with this Mindset resort to physical manifestations of actual death (i.e., higher body count in the 3rd Act). The only way a Linear-biased mind can come to terms with the cyclical nature of things is to kill off the old in service of the new.