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September 2, 2010

Accurate Story Structure Ain’t Easy

Storytelling cannot be broken down into fifteen basic sequences. Nor can it be learned and practiced over the course of a weekend seminar. Instead it should be seen as a lifetime pursuit that begins with the recognition that there is more to it than the simple journey of a Hero.

When it comes to popular story structure paradigms, particularly in the case of the Hero's Journey or Save the Cat!, the idea is put forth that stories are all basically the same. They all have "Meeting the Mentor" moments, they always "Cross the Threshold" into "Special Worlds," and they eventually reach an "All is Lost" moment that leads to the Hero experiencing a "Dark Night of the Soul" which, of course, progresses naturally to their eventual transformation or "metamorphosis."

Those who find such reductive thinking depressing, fear not, for all story structure is not created equal.

Have It Your Way

The order of events has meaning: a slap followed by a scream carries an entirely different meaning than a scream followed by a slap. When it comes to the chicken and the egg, one sequence signifies reproduction, the other maturation. So too is it with the sequences that exist within a complete story.

The aforementioned paradigms all have one major weakness: it doesn't matter when their plot events happen, it only matters that they do. Mentor Meetings can happen early in the First Act or long after the Hero Crosses Their Threshold. The Theme can be Stated after the Fun and Games sequence or soon after the Opening Image. When doesn't matter. Proponents of these interpretations of story feel this is a strength of their particular paradigm and that it speaks highly of their universality.

The reality is that such flexibility belies how ultimately meaningless these sequences of plot truly are.

Story Structure Should Make Sense

If you can shift the order of plot events without any effect on their significance within a story, well then those plot events become inconsequential. Everything within a story contributes to its ultimate meaning. Plot events and their sequence within a story's plot are no exception.

What becomes more helpful then is to find a particular way of looking at story that embraces the importance of plot sequence, yet is general enough as to not overly influence the imagination of the writer. As Frank Conroy used to cover in his classes at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, the three most important things in a story are meaning, sense and clarity. Structure should help clarify the character's efforts to solve the problems within a story, thus making it easier for an Audience to make sense of the events that unfold. If it also helps illuminate the order in which those efforts should proceed, then naturally, meaning will follow.

As with the previous article on The Reason for Acts, the following examples from film focus on the efforts by every character to resolve problems created by physical activity: Doing, Obtaining, Learning and Understanding. Note that, while the order in which these Acts unfold may differ from film to film, they are NOT in any way shape or form, random. The plot sequence has everything to with the story's ultimate message as determined by other choices made by their respective Authors.

Proper story structure, if accurate, knows nothing of caveats.

Casablanca and The Lives of Others

Both Casablanca and The Lives of Others share the same Act order structure in much the same way that Unforgiven and Star Wars did. While all four films have similar second halves, these latest two switch things around during their respective first halves, placing the struggle to Learn before the struggle to Understand.

The major problem in Casablanca surrounds the letters of transit and whether or not Viktor Laszlo will succeed in his attempts to acquire them. It begins with Ugarte's decision to entrust those letters with Rick, and ends with Renault's decision to round up "the usual suspects."

The major problem in The Lives of Others revolves around a powerful East German state official and his attempts to find incriminating evidence on an innocent playwright. It begins with this official's decision to begin spying on the writer, and ends with the Chief of Police's decision to shut down the operation.

The First Act of Casablanca finds the inhabitants of the city Learning about the letters of transit and of Laszlo's intention to make them his own. In addition, the Germans make it known that they will not tolerate this happening by using Ugarte's arrest as a show of force. The First Act of The Lives of Others finds the East German secret police beginning their operation against the playwright, installing microphones in every corner of his apartment and threatening his neighbors with harsh retaliation if the writer should Learn of the surveillance.

The Second Act of Casablanca finds the happy group of resistance fighters Understanding just how difficult it is going to be to secure the letters, especially considering Rick's previous relationship with Ilsa. The Second Act of The Lives of Others is similar in that the parties involved, both good and "bad" begin to Understand just what kind of effect East German policies have on their artists, and to what extent those who love them will go to to keep them happy.

The Third Act of Casablanca finds France butting heads with Germany over that classic singing contest scene (Doing). The Third Act of The Lives of Others enters similar territory as the playwright has now become inspired to write something meaningful and poignant about his dear friend's unfortunate parting.

And lastly, the Fourth Act of Casablanca has Rick helping Viktor and Ilsa escape, both by selling his club and by shooting Major Strasser--all instances of (Obtaining). Similarly, The Lives of Others ends with Hauptman Wiesler throwing everything he has worked for away in order to help the playwright escape incarceration. Unfortunately, it is too late for the playwright's girlfriend who becomes yet another unfortunate casualty of East Germany's social policy.

Both films are examples of another set of similarly structured stories that explore different thematic issues and different character dynamics. Yet both feel full, both feel complete, both share the same meaningful plots. The latter almost feels informed by the former in regards to its progression of plot development. Perhaps it isn't an accident then, that the surveillance mission of the playwright in The Lives of Others was labeled "Operation Laszlo."

So then, do all stories that explore these types of physical problems always end with some sort of Obtaining? Doesn't it make sense that someone should always win or lose in the end?

The Matrix

The major problem of The Matrix surrounds a group of renegade humans struggling to find the One who can bring down their computerized slave masters. It begins with Morpheus' choice of Mr. Thomas Andersen as the Chosen One and ends with Neo's decision that he is, in fact, the One they have been looking for.

In contrast to Star Wars and Unforgiven which left the majority of the fighting and achieving for the second half, The Matrix starts out with the renegade humans fighting and sparring with the Agents in a race to reach Mr. Andersen first. The First Act concerns itself with the hunt itself (Doing) and turns when the cubicle jockey decides to come in off the ledge. In this Second Act, the renegades have lost their Chosen One (Obtaining) and must now work even harder to free him from his virtual constraints. They succeed and Neo is freed from his digital bonds.

Now here it may seem like the Second Act should really be Learning. After all, Morpheus spends a great deal of time teaching Neo about the Matrix and what happened all those years ago. But this information is really directed towards Neo and as such, is more a part of his personal journey. When examining the problems in the story at large and the contexts with which to examine them, it becomes necessary to look at those events that affect everyone in the story, not just one person. Again, we are concentrating our attention on the larger picture.

Thus, when looking at the conflict between computers and humans, it is clear that much of this struggle to gather information comes during the second half of The Matrix. Beginning with Cypher's decision to betray his fellow humans, this Third Act finds both parties coming into conflict over the mainframe access codes locked within the head of Morpheus (Learning). The Fourth Act wraps things up as both humans and computers come to realize Neo's true potential for changing the Matrix (Understanding).

The Sixth Sense

Before diving into this last example, it should be noted once again the difference between the personal storyline of the Main Character and the problems experienced by everyone in the story. Without giving away too much (for those who have yet to see it), Malcom's personal issues are the thing that most audiences remember from the film. The following discussion, as was the case with the previous films, centers around the problems facing every character in the story.

The major problem in The Sixth Sense revolves around a deeply disturbed young boy and his claims that he can "see dead people." The problems begin with another as-equally-disturbed young man's shooting of an innocent doctor and end with the reveals (both in the little girl's home and in the car with his mom) that this little boy really can talk to the deceased.

The Sixth Sense is a much quieter film than the previous ones, the cast is smaller and the scenes less magnificent. Yet, the same four contexts are explored, in a very different order.

In the First Act, the therapist (Malcom) meets his new patient and tries his best to Learn as much about him as he can, even if that means chasing him halfway across town. Things turn when the boy reveals his tendency towards violent thoughts. The Second Act finds the therapist engaging the young boy in several different exercises, the results of which terrify the boy's mother (Doing). The Third Act finds the boy's mother challenging him to deny stealing her mother's broach (Obtaining). And finally in the Fourth Act, both therapist and boy travel to a funeral where they help a grieving father truly Understand the extent of his wife's sickness.

In both The Sixth Sense and The Matrix, the focus in the last Act is on everyone in the story coming to a greater Understanding of what is really going on. Sure, Morpehus and Co. "win" and Cole ends up triumphant at the school play, but both these events aren't so much about achieving something as they are about a greater revelation of character. Again, the structural and dynamic choices made elsewhere within the story call for this to be the final Act. It simply makes sense that these films should end this way, and trying to flip the Act order around would only break their individual stories.

The Path Forward

The journey towards better storytelling comes with the recognition that Acts and the issues the characters face within them are a by-product of a story examining the different ways to solve its major problems. For each kind of problem, there are four contexts from which one can try to solve it, four different points of attack the human mind takes when it goes about solving an actual problem.

Note that both The Incredibles and Hamlet (covered in the previous article on Plot Points and the Inciting Incident) have been left out of this article. This is no accident. The reason The Incredibles feels so much more sophisticated than your typical superhero fare is because it is not exploring the typical problems caused by Understanding, Doing, Learning and Obtaining. The problems within this Brad Bird spectacular are much more cerebral and more focused on the fallout that occurs when characters try to pretend to be something they are not. While the results of such thinking do require fighting as a response, the true source of everyone's problems lie in a completely different area and would require an entirely new article to explain. Same with Hamlet.

For now, it is enough to simply understand the reason why there are four Acts in every complete story. Each act corresponds to a context the human mind explores in trying to solve a problem. Once those four acts have been travelled through, once all four contexts have been examined, the story is complete. Leave one out and the story will falter, add another one and it will feel like another story is going on.

There is no limit to the kind of story one can tell when true structure is understood. There are no set scenes, no familiar emotional beats a "Hero" must meet in order for a story to work. All that is required is an appreciation of the process that exists within a story, and a sincere desire to see to it that the mechanism works the way it was intended.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

The idea that every complete story is an analogy to the human mind trying to solve a problem is a concept that sits at the heart of the Dramatica theory of story. This concept, known as the Story Mind, is the basis for everything the theory attempts to explain. Not every film or work of fiction follows this model. But then again, not every film or work of fiction is worth remembering. Timelessness often requires that a story be based upon the mind's own problem-solving process.

Campbell et. al. were, in effect, trying to describe this process without first recognizing this correlation between the human mind and a story. They were right in pointing out that story structure exists; it has to if there is some purpose to the story being told. It was their individual interpretations, however, that were inaccurate because of their failure to see the reason why Acts exist and how the order in which they appear determines the meaning of a story.

Exactly how these Acts progress requires the actual Dramatica software itself. Based upon the structural and dynamic choices an Author makes, the software will relay back the order in which each individual Act must occur.

How it does this is Dramatica's "secret sauce" and the reason why the software was developed in the first place. You can certainly do much without the program, but this one essential piece--the order in which Acts should appear--can certainly be made easier if you have access to the program. Pre-1994 writers had to rely on their instincts and countless drafts to get it right. 21st century writers can still do the same and, if their own egos are so wrapped up in their own accomplishments, then perhaps they should.

However, those who find themselves driven to create great stories for the sake of great stories rather than as altars of self-dom would find childlike amazement in the magic available to them today. Dramatica can be frighteningly prescient in the way it can predict your own "writer's" instinct and insure that the story you create is both timeless and complete.

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