Series of Articles

A Playground for Writers

Writing your story by writing another story

In this series you will learn an exciting and fun way to brainstorm new story ideas by using Dramatica’s powerful Gists feature. These Playground Exercises are the cornerstone of our Dramatica Mentorship Program. In short, they help you transform theory into story.

The Main Character Playground

A new writing exercise for writers promises to unlock their creativity.

Many writers rail against story theory. How can a construct of chains possibly compete with the intuition of the artist? Story gurus and theoreticians can pontificate all they want, but their uncertified claims lie dormant. The proof, it would seem, lies in a writing exercise designed to elicit the strengths of both the inspiration of the artist and the wisdom of the structuralist.

Blind spots exist in every writer. They motivate us to put pen to paper and thoughts into action. Unfortunately they also stick out like a sore thumb when it comes to our stories. A complete narrative demands the absence of blind spots. Failure to do so results in "story holes" the size of asteroids.

A Shining Light

The Dramatica theory of story sheds light on the blind spots within us. By providing a comprehensive objective view of our narrative, Dramatica supports us by filling in the holes. Have a great idea for a story but no idea who the Main Character is or what kind of issues he or she should have?.Dramatica has you covered. Have a great Main Character but no idea what to do with or how to develop a poignant relationship between him or her and another character? Again, Dramatica screens you from the emptiness of writers block.

Unfortunately much of what the theory provides looks something like this:

  • Domain: Situation
  • Concern: Progress
  • Issue: Threat
  • Problem: Expectation
  • Solution: Determination
  • Focus: Theory
  • Response: Hunch
  • Benchmark: Present
  • Signpost 1: Past
  • Signpost 2: Progress
  • Signpost 3: Future
  • Signpost 4: Present

An unintellegible clinical assertion of something that is supposed to be beautiful and inspired and artful.

As a writer, I might have an idea of how to write a character dealing with Threat and Expectation, but looking at Hunch and Determination I'll probably take a sidetrip to the Dramatica Dictionary and remind myself of what they mean. By the time I've wrapped my head around Dramatica's precise terminology, I will have lost all interest in writing and instead want to find out what makes Dramatica work or read articles online about the theory (this last one is not so bad if you come here). Regardless the next step taken, I've lost all drive to continue writing and my story still sits unfinished.

Thankfully there now exists a way to get your creative mojo kicking with the latest version of Dramatica. Need help figuring out the perfect Main Character for your story? Someone who fits seamlessly within all the other themes and plot po ints you have going on? Or maybe you have parts of the Main Characters Throughline down, but some of the appreciations sit there and mock your inability to illustrate them succinctly. Dramatica can help, and it all starts with an exercise I call The Main Character Playground.

Room to Stretch

The key to this exercise lies in the generation of multiple revisions of the same story. By distancing ourselves from that which we hold near and dear, we actually open up opportunities for potentially better more original storytelling. It seems contradictory to say that by creating stories we don't care about we actually find ones we really do, but it's true. Let me show you!

First thing you want to do is grab yourself the latest version of Dramatica. Now called Dramatica Story Expert, this most recent iteration comes with a feature essential for this exercise--Gists. One of the theory's co-creators Melanie Anne Phillips explains:

[Gists] are subject matter versions of the story points. For example, rather than reading as “obtaining” a goal might read as “stealing the crown jewels.” There are thousands of gists for you to use as story ideas, and you can create your own as well. Plus, you can even access them in the “Spin the model” feature which picks an arbitrary storyform structure, then populates it with randomly chosen subject matter to help you come up with story ideas!

Instead of Determination you get Working Out a Settlement for Something. Instead of Hubch you get Having a Sense of Foreboding. Melanie's last point clues is in on the approach we will use to encourage brainstorming.

Step One - Nail Down Your Storyform

Hard to generate multiple version of the same story if you haven't yet figured out what story you want to tell. The current version of Dramatica offers over 32,000 unique individual stories, or storyforms.1 Countless resources exist elsewhere to help you find the unique structure for your story (including my own Dramatica Mentoring service), but if you really have no idea what kind of story you want to tell or want to follow along, head on over to the "Project > Pick Random Storyform" and Dramatica will randomly generate a storyform for you.

Step Two - Generate Random Storyforms with Gists

Now for the fun part. If you're not there already, open up "Project > Spin-the-Model". Whether you have decided to create a random storyform or are going to use one of your own, make sure you select "Keep Existing Storyforming Choices" before proceeding. We want to make sure we're working with the same thematics. This isn't the real world where everyone throws in their opinions regardless of thematic consistency!

Next make sure "Assign Random Gists" is checked and select "Replace Existing Gists" below that. Pick a number between 1 and 20, then click the "Spin" button that many times. Eventually you'll land on a version of your story with your original thematic choices intact but the actual storytelling random and unique. For example, using the storyform choices outlined above, a random selection of generated storyforms with Gists could be:

  • Domain: Being a Winner
  • Concern: Having a Particular Group's Condition Grow Progressively Worse
  • Issue: Being Threatening to Someone vs. Security
  • Problem: Having High Expectations
  • Solution: Forming Conclusions Based on Circumstantial Evidence
  • Focus: Writing a Thesis about Someone
  • Response: Suspecting Someone is Not True
  • Benchmark: Being at Hand for Something
  • Signpost 1: Studying Early Historic Cultures
  • Signpost 2: Improving One's Situation
  • Signpost 3: Having a Future
  • Signpost 4: Coping with the Current State of Affairs

A little more writer-friendly wouldn't you say?

You'll notice that I skipped the Unique Ability and the Critical Flaw. These two story points tie the Main Character Throughline to the Objective Story. Without the context of the Objective Story (i.e., we don't know what it is) we can't properly illustrate these appreciations and thus, will leave them out of this exercise. If you ended up using this exercise to further develop your Objective Story (or if you had done the Objective Story first) then you could come back and flesh them out for your Main Character. For now, we will concentrate on the Main Character Throughline exclusively.

Step Three - Get an Overall Feeling

First thing to do is to scan over the terms and get an overall feeling for who this Main Character is. What kind of a character would have problems with "being a winner" and would struggle against people having "high expectations" of him or her? How about a 16-year old gymnast fresh from her gold-medal performance at the International Olympics? That sounds good for someone who might have issues with "being threatening to someone" and might ponder "having a future".

Now, we lucked out with this one. Sometimes Dramatica will spit back a collection of Gists that in no way shape or form should be in the same story. That's a good thing! We want spontaneity, we want contrasting story points, and above all we want originality. Dramatica's unique story engine will make sure that all these Gists, regardless of subject matter, will thematically function together. So don't worry if your Playgrounds speak of "Having Alzheimer's Disease", "Having a Song Stuck in Your Head" and "Stealing Fire from the Gods"...Dramatica will make sure they operate as a whole.

The key here is to create a character who is nothing like the Main Character you might have in mind for your story. The further away from what you know the better. The more fun you have with it the better. Change the genre, change the gender, the age, the occupation...change it all! Move away from your story in order to get closer to it.

Step Four - Start Illustrating

Now that we have a general idea of who this character is and we have obliterated any preconceptions we had of them, we can start writing about him or her.

For this step, I sort of use the technique described in Armando Saldana Mora's book "Dramatica for Screenwriters" and included in the latest version of Dramatica--Instant Dramatica. I say sort of because I slightly modify it for this exercise and for the Main Character Throughline.2 For the Main Character Playground I write two or three lines for each of the following (and in this order):

  • Domain and Concern
  • Issue and Counterpoint
  • Problem
  • Focus and Response
  • Solution
  • Benchmark
  • Signpost 1
  • Signpost 2
  • Signpost 3
  • Signpost 4

If this were the Relationship Throughline I might delay the Solution illustration to the end, especially since I have no indication within the storyform whether or not the Relationship will be resolved. Presumably we know this for the Main Character: if their Resolve is Change then the Solution will come into play. If Steadfast, then their Solution might fluctuate in and out of the story, but ultimately will not displace the Problem.

In addition to considering the Main Character Resolve, it's also a good idea to factor in the Story Judgment. The Resolve will let us know whether the Problem or Solution wins out, the Judgment will clue us in to how the Main Character feels about it. For our purposes we have a Main Character Resolve of Change and a Story Judgment of Good.

Back to our gymnast and my first take on this Main Character Playground:

Being a Winner and Having a Particular Group's Condition Grow Progressively Worse: 16 yr. old Malina struggles with her win at the 2002 Olymipcs. Everyone looks up to her as a champion, even her fellow teammates who, week by week, perform less effectively. Malina's status as America's "Golden Idol" makes it harder and harder for her to fit in with the team and other girls her own age.

Being Threatening to Someone vs. Security: Malina feels like a monster. Whether it's on the mat or down at the mall, girls feel threatened by her and gang up on her any chance they can get. It's an even bigger issue because, as an only child, she always liked the security she felt being part of something bigger than herself. Now her own success threatens that.

Having High Expectations: Malina's problems stem from her having such high expectations for herself, not only as a gymnast, but as a friend, as a daughter, and as a student. The pressure is unrelenting.

Writing a Thesis about Someone and Suspecting Someone is Not True: This pressure carries over into school where she struggles with writing a thesis paper about another young prodigy, Mozart. Supporting conclusions about his notoriety become so difficult that she suspects her teachers are wrong about him. And if they're wrong about Mozart, she suspects her teachers and even her coaches are not telling her the truth about her future potential.

Forming Conclusions Based on Circumstantial Evidence: Eventually Malina has a change of heart and decides that her teachers, the coaches, the girls on her team and the girls her age are all forming their conclusions about her based on circumstantial evidence. Just because she won a Gold Medal doesn't mean she's a winner at everything. With a great weight lifted, Malina walks the halls of her high school happy and comfortable in her own skin.

Being at Hand for Something: The more Malina has to be at the beck and call of her teammates to support them the more concerned she becomes with how badly they're doing.

Studying Early Historic Cultures: Malina's story begins in history class when a discussion of the Worl'ds Greats inevitably leads students to guessing whether or not she will join the history books.

Improving One's Situation: Malina combats the jealousy by honestly trying to help her teammates improve their performance and their ranking among other teams.

Having a Future: Malina discovers she has a future far beyond simply performing at Olympics--she has the skills and temperance of a great coach.

Coping with the Current State of Affairs: Malina copes with being part of a team of mediocre players--a team she is proud to be a part of.

Ramping Up the Creativity

As you can see this is an amazing leap from that initial Dramatica report. Instead of a few stunted lines about Progress and Expectation and Theory, we now have a fully realized character--a Main Character we can easily fit into our story.

Note how the progression of Signposts simply works. They fees like the development of a character who shifts their world-paradigm and by doing so, resolves her personal issues. Dramatica determined the order of signposts heeded to elicit that kind of ending. The Gists help us move away from Dramatica. Try writing a downer ending using that order of Signposts and you'll he hard pressed to do it. It won't feel natural. That's the power of Dramatica's story engine.

We haven't finished yet. Next week, we will cover the steps required to finish off the exercise and develop our creativity beyond where we ever thought possible before.

  1. A Dramatica storyform combines seventy-five thematic elements together and provides the message of the story. Different stories can have the same storyform, but have different storytelling (e.g., West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet) (Storyform
  2. Other Throughlines have their own unique changes which I'll describe in next week's article.

Finding Your Main Character

The very best way to get to know the most important character of your story is to write something else.

Discovering a character true to your voice is one thing. Making sure that character fits with everything else you want to say is quite another. Thankfully, writers of the 21st century now have a tool to make that process easy and productive.

In the last article The Main Character Playground we discussed a technique for generating new characters from the same set of thematics. Relying on Dramatica's storyform to keep it focused and the Random Gists feature to inspire a new course, we brainstormed a character both familiar and fresh. Step Four continues as we return to try a different take on our original storyform.

Random Gist #2

  • Domain: Being the Last Vampire - Concern: Having Someone's Condition Grow Progressively Worse
  • Issue: Receiving Death Threats from Something vs. Security
  • Problem: Having Low Expectations of a Particular Group
  • Solution: Determining a Resolution for a Particular Group
  • Focus: Lacking a Plausible Theory about Something
  • Response: Having an Intuition about Someone
  • Benchmark: Going On with Something's Everyday Business
  • Signpost 1: Relating a Particular Group's Origins - Signpost 2: Being Focused on Something's Immediate Concerns
  • Signpost 3: Slowing Something - Signpost 4: Being Promised to a Particular Group

What kind of a character would struggle with "Being the Last Vampire" and face "Having Low Expectations of a Particular Group" as their problem? Perhaps an aged Count who has little to no hope for the werewolves taking over his nightly reign of terror. It's a decent start...

Being the Last Vampire and Having Someone's Condition Grow Progressively Worse: Count Vladimir the Vampire refuses to leave his coffin most nights anymore. Having contracted a severe case of acne at age 433, Vlad prefers to stay indoors where his powers of seduction don't have to compete with his rampant ugliness. As the nodules increase and his condition grows progressively worse, one thing becomes perfectly clear: Vlad will be the last vampire.

Again, Dramatica spurs a new creative direction! I had no idea why Vlad was going to be the last vampire, but now I have a reason and the explanation is inherently part of the story's thematics. Wonderful!

Receiving Death Threats from Something vs. Security: To make matters worse, Vlad has started receiving death threats from the Order of Horror--a non-profit organization responsible for maintaining the integrity of nightly terrors. Vlad is a Vampire and thus--ugly or not--must continue to recruit new talent. The Order is not one to be trifled with, especially when they offer such a fantastic pension plan.

Having Low Expectations of a Group: Vlad's disdain of the modern American female and their excessive superficiality drives him into hiding. With such low expectations of his prime demographic, why bother showing up?

Lacking a Plausible Theory About Something and Having an Intuition About Someone: Vlad's friends try to comfort him, but not a single one has a plausible theory about the constant rejection Vlad receives that makes more sense than his foul appearance. His friends challenge him to try anyways, but he refuses. It's hard to give it your all when your intuition tells you otherwise.

Going On With Something's Everyday Business: The more Vlad continues to go on with the everyday business of Castle Bludskull (the upkeep, the finances, etc.) and finds that he has a place where he belongs, the less he cares about his growing acne condition.

Determining a Resolution for a Particular Group: In the end, Vlad has a change of heart. Instead of excessively worrying about his looks, Vlad determines a resolution for all monsters: that they all be welcome in his new Order housed at Castle Bludskull--the Order of the Grey Pimple.

Relating a Particular Group's Origin: The story begins when Vlad fails to impress his latest victim with his family's illustrious history of vampiring (Usually a sure thing). She can't help but stare at the unsightly boil on his cheek.

Being Focused on Something's Immediate Concerns: Vlad quickly loses sight of his personal problems once he receives notice of an imminent foreclosure on Castle Bludskull. He pours all his energy into saving his family's castle.

Slowing Something: Business grinds to a halt as Vlad fails to bring in more customers and his reputation as a friend to the monsters slowly fades away.

Being Promised to a Particular Group: Dedicating himself to the future well-being of all monsters, Vlad sheds his well-worn vampire skin and promises to be a Concierge to the horrific.

Vlad's story turned out to be quite different than I had originally thought. Gone were all references to werewolves and disdain for their lackluster takeover. Instead, Vlad's story became one of accepting one's hidden talents found when forced into a new job.

Hidden Intent

Interestingly enough, this story shares much more with the story of 16-year old Malina than simply the storyform's thematics. Whether mere coincidence or a sign of something deeper within, this idea of finding the silver lining when trapped in an unbearable situation keeps resurfacing. Perhaps it appeals to something deep within me...perhaps it is something I truly want to write about.

Beyond bring a fertile playground for creative brainstorming, these exercises evoke the true writer within. By placing aside thematic intent and concentrated purpose, the Main Character Playground allows a smooth extraction of that interior voice. Patterns of spirit rise to the surface, making it easier to identify a Main Character that truly represents who we are.

Things to Consider

Having found great success with this exercise, I've learned some important things:

Trust the Gists

Occasionally you'll run into the same random Gists for different storyforms. Don't change them! Keeping them the same will force you into working even harder to come up with something unique.

Trust the Gists Again

Other times you'll run across a ridiculous Gist that doesn't fit your current illustration at all. "In a Declining Market" for a story about space aliens and the Alps? Don't change it! "Stealing Fire from the Gods" in a romantic story about two people who never meet? Figure it out. Take the challenge as an opportunity to stretch your dramatic wings.

Illustrate Problems, not Gists

A common mistake dwells in the act of simply copying down the Gist and using it as subject matter. "Being Depressed by Something" becomes "Adelaide gets depressed by sad classical music." "Spur of the Moment" becomes "Chad joins Violet on a trip to the Ozarks." Ok. But why are these problems? Everything in Dramatica revolves around the inequity. Domains, Concerns, Issues and Problems describe the same thing, only seen from a different perspective. Always make sure to illustrate the conflict the Gist creates and you'll have a richer story.

Don't Stop Playing

Sometimes your illustrations will fail. You'll feel it as you go into them as your confidence level will drop to zero and you'll think to yourself, I'm wasting my time with this nonsense. You're not. Keep forging forward and finish the exercise. Know that in failing and flailing, you're growing.

Don't Force Your Story

Thrusting your original story idea onto these playgrounds will only scare away the children of your imagination. Approaching the process with baggage stunts the creative process and returns you right back to where you started. Don't do it. Forget your story (and your ego) and force your mind to go somewhere it's never been before.

Repeat as Needed

Now that you've done the exercise twice, do it again. And again. And continue to do it until you can't do it anymore. Then do two more.

I've always found it takes about seven different trips to the Playground before I'm happy with the results. For some strange reason, the fifth iteration always strikes me as being particularly strong, but only if I continue on and do two more. If I stop at five, or at least know I'm going to stop, that fifth becomes an exercise in "getting it over with" quickly and sloppIly.

Experiment with what works best for you , but do push beyond your limit. The event horizon of your creativity holds the keys to your a brand new universe of writing.

Originality Found

As discussed in the previous article:

By distancing ourselves from that which we hold near and dear, we actually open up opportunities for potentially better storytelling.

It's one thing to have a paradigm of story structure that can be applied to any story, a pattern that many can easily emulate. It's quite another to provide tools that unleash untapped potential and illuminate subconscious desires. When writing a Main Character, there can be no more important task than getting to the heart of who we are and what we want to say and experience. The Playground Exercise, along with Dramatica's Gist feature, rewards Authors with a chance to see within themselves.

Many voice concerns over Dramatica's apparent write-by-numbers approach to storytelling and the restricted nature of some of its vocabulary. Those who never examined the theory beyond a cursory glance would do well to try a visit to the Playground. An immeasurable difference in their words to come awaits.

Discovering the Story You Never Knew

A strong and resilient system for looking at narrative makes it easier to play at writing.

In the previous two articles I discussed how I used my invention of the Playground Exercises to broaden my creativity and open up new avenues towards discovering my true self. In this final article I want to show you how I take those previous exercises and fold them back in to my original story idea.

Now it just so happens that I came up with something stronger in terms of theme and character while working on the Playground Exercises. As a result, there isn't too much left of my original idea. In fact, the whole notion of this character being a murderer who didn't know it fell away and will likely be an area I address with the Objective Story Throughline instead. This is OK and something that would have happened naturally in the course of writing the screenplay. Discovering this lucid and lush character perspective? I'm not so sure I would have found that simply by trudging ahead.

Full Disclosure of My Work

As mentioned before I was a bit apprehensive about "showing my work", but realized the value gain for you is more important than my own personal sense of artistic security. I have changed the name and race of this character to keep my eventual work pure. If somewhere down the road I manage to sell this thing and it becomes a movie and the story remains relatively intact, you can always say you knew this character when...

As you read the various combinations and reincarnations of my Influence Character, you will note some general observations. One, I removed all Dramatica terminology from the document. Better to move forward towards writing rather than backwards towards structure. Two, I used the work I did in the previous Playgrounds. I didn't invent any new ideas. Why seek inspiration when the inspiration already sits before you?

Remove Dramatica Terminology

I find it easier to write the final product (the screenplay or novel) when I hide or obscure the support system trappings of the theory. When I write I want to be fully invested in the art & craft, I don't want to be reconsidering whether or not I picked the right illustration for a Relationship Story Focus of Projection or an Influence Character Benchmark of Impulsive Responses. I trust that the work I did was adequate and sufficient for the task ahead and like Forrest begin shedding those braces.

Use Your Work

Many clients I work with second-guess themselves at this point. Like my students at the California Insititute of the Arts who would trash their year-long film project five weeks before the deadline, these novelists and screenwriters sense a lack of inequity with their story and subconsciously assume it means they should work on something else. They will challenge the veracity of the Playground Exercises or suggest an entirely new storyform. It's a crazy phenomenon that I have witnessed over and over again. Why does it happen?

When writers write or filmmakers make, they're caught up in the act of creation. They run into roadblocks or deadends, figure that means they need to change the story or edit a sequence, and then address the problems and move on. They assume that fixing story problems are an actual part of the process. But when you figure out your story ahead of time1 all those inequities of story structure and story meaning are resolved. You really have nothing more to figure out, except how you're going to tell it.

This is what happens during this final phase of the Playground Exercise.

During this phrase, a writer must focus their energy on the storytelling aspect of their craft. Make it as interesting and compelling as possible, but don't lose all the work that has come before it. I can't tell you how many times writers spends weeks on their playgrounds only to completely forget them in the Combined Throughline phase. It's complete madness but I understand why--they're used to building as they write. Here they simply get to enjoy the act of writing, and it is scary.

A Playground for Writers

The idea of the Playground Exercises to infuse new life into the story you're working on, while simultaneously saving you tons of time. The act of engaging in these exercises frees a writer from the shackles of their original idea--an idea that more often than not, is deficient for the task at hand. By defining one's purpose and using that as a basis for inducing all kinds of possible story events, a writer can play as if a child again--only this time with a boldness and confidence unheard of in the young.

Harley Combined Throughline

Hating People Who Whine & Remembering an Anniversary

Harley is the kind of alien who hates hearing his managers whine. They have it so good, being created in a lab rather than by biology—yet they still don't ever seem to be happy. Harley hates it so much so that he will lock himself within his slumber cubicle so that he won't have to hear it anymore. As a result, the workers around him fail to resolve their differences, the manufacturing line is a battleground, and Harley's ability to concentrate is shot. But that peace of mind he experiences begins to infects the other workers around him and soon they all begin to revel in the ecstasy of shutting everyone out. A general breakdown in the system begins to occur. Of great concern to Harley is the anniversary of the passing of his father. His father never lived his life, never took a chance, and always did everything he was told to do. As a result he died comfortable--but an unhappy comfortable. Harley still remembers the look on his father's face when he told Harley that his life was a waste. That look of emptiness scares Harley so much that he refuses to invest himself fully into his work.

Domain & Concern: So here you can see that I took the Influence Character Domain of Hating People Who Whine from Playground #3 and mixed it with the Concern of Remembering an Anniversary from Playground #5. Now I could have just as easily used both the Domain and Concern from #5, but I felt as if the Hating Whiners attitude suggested so much more to me in terms of scenes and situations. It gave me a basis for his character and a great idea of what he would bring to the story. This is what the Domain and Concern--they give you the broadest notion of what kind of conflict will appear out of that Throughline.

Being Paranoid about Someone vs. Evidence

Harley's constant paranoia that his managers are trying to diminish his importance creates an uneasy work environment for the creatures that work with him and inspires them to quit and to possibly do less work. The paranoia—while disruptive to the city--actually inspires great things in those older workers on their way out. A sanitation worker who used to delight in the sheer act of movement begins to dance in the early mornings at the end of her shift. A line manager who was originally taught to count stars in the sky returns his attention to the heavens and the wonders before him...even during work hours. Harley brings out the best in others by being paranoid about the truth of those in charge.

Issue vs. Counterpoint: Ok, so Playground #5 I really liked. In fact, I had a hard time not simply copying and pasting over the whole thing. It just feels so fresh and unique to me. I mean, I came up with the whole thing based on Dramatica's prompts, but I still can't believe that I came up with the whole thing...Diving into this example of encoding you'll see that I simply transpose the characters and environments to match the story I was telling. I didn't invent new ideas or even write new sentences. I simply changed nouns.

Being Ignorant & Being Lost in Reverie

Harley believes the biggest problem in the city is when people—particularly aging workers--act ignorant. Ignorant of what is really going on around them and ignorant of what it is their heart truly desires. Though conditioned from the outset, they still maintain a certain sense of hope that can't be taken away. Harley refuses to give in to the "smaller" life and spends his waking hours contemplating different states of existence. He inspires the others to become caught up in the reverie of their long lost dreams. The only way to move past what you should be is to lose yourself in the dreams of what you used to want to be.

Focus & Response: This is an interesting one because here I took the Focus from my favorite #5 and mixed it rather deftly with the Response from #3. I think I felt it worked better because of the reference to #3 in the Domain above. There is a certain amount of inertia that happens as you work through these exercises and the smaller more definite story points always seem to carry on a taste of the larger, broader story points above. But again, all I did was change the name.

Exploring Reality

Harley gets most charged when he witnesses workers consumed with the reality of day-to-day life. Working the line, filing compensation forms, and rising and sleeping to the beat of the city motivates him to stand up and make a scene. Why would anyone accept the reality given to them? To be a sheep and not step out of the bounds of normal existence--that is the problem with the slumbering entity. Sleeping is a scourge. His refusal to accept reality insults his managers, humiliates those who do buy into it, and forces his loved one into working extra hours to make up for lost wages spent "finding oneself."

Problem: For this story point, arguably the most important one in a Throughline, I really tried to communicate the gestalt of all my experiences working through these exercises. I knew there was a common theme that kept popping up for me, of this character who rebelled against the notion of one reality for all, and I wanted to make sure I didn't lose that. I think that's why these exercises are so powerful: by repeatedly hitting certain thematic chords, the vibrations work their way through you until the standing waves of your own truth resonate back. This character perspective of not accepting the reality given to you really strikes home with me...and had absolutely nothing to do with a character who wakes up not knowing they killed someone the night before. Can you see the difference between honest expression and hackneyed plot points? That's why these exercises are so important.

Having a Slanted View on City Life

Unfortunately, Harley's best friend has her own viewpoint of things in the city and it does diminish his motivation from time to time. As committed as he is to the truth, he does love her and hates to see her so nervous and anxious. Her slanted view of life and doing what others expect of you tempers Harley's drive and pulls him back occasionally from making huge gains.

Solution: Direct copy and paste from Playground #5. Only the name was changed.


The more his love or the other creatures attempt to reason with Harley, the more concerned he becomes that they will never be able to forget him. That he will always be needed, and that he will never be able to live out his own personal dreams.

Benchmark: Here I took the Benchmark from #3. Any of them from any of the playgrounds would have worked, but because the Benchmark is so intimately tied to the Concern I figured it would be easier to use the Benchmark of that piece.

Plot Progression (or Signposts): For the plot progression I basically used the entirety of Playground #5. Compared to the others, it provided a flow of character energy that I simply didn't want to lose. If you'll notice, I changed some of the Gists to better reflect what was going on in my story. If you understand Gists and the original Dramatica terminology they represent, this really isn't that difficult to do. And it doesn't change the meaning or intent of the Throughline or that particular story point. Regardless of Gist, the same story point exists underneath. So it isn't so important that I write about Harley fearing water as it is that I write about Harley fearing. That's the Subconsious, or Subconscious, story point I need to communicate here. The water part of it is the "gist" of the story point.

Starting a Think Tank

Harley begins to disrupt the universe the moment he requests a gathering of workers and begins to develop a think tank for improvements in the workplace. Harley begins brainstorming with the other workers how they could make something more of themselves. This think tank upsets the managers in their sector, drives down productivity, and frightens the high-level authorities. But it inspires the workers.

Thinking Back to When They First Arrived

Harley pushes it farther when he gets those workers to begin to think back to when they were first brought to the city and they were first realizing their potential—when they all believed they had no limitations. When the future seemed boundless. This thinking back inspires some of the workers—essential to the company's success-to quit to go follow their dreams. Henry is brought in and fired for his disruptive behavior.

Being Numb to Instructions

The workers in Harley's original think tank act numb to further threats from their area managers and from the high-level authorities. When brought in to be counseled on rules and expectations, they fail to respond—almost as if they're offline. Their collective intelligence is already in the clouds because of Harley and no amount of threat is ever going to change that.

Fearing a Rebellion

Fearing the rising tide of employee dissention created by Harley's persistent influence, the high-authority decides to move its entire sealing operation off-shore. The entire worker line is terminated, but not a single worker seems to fear the consequences. Instead they seem to operate as if caught up in the rapture of being set free. They experience pure bliss as they shut out the world around them and indulge in their own personal happiness. Or fear sets in as they worry about taking care of their own basic needs. That's when Harley teaches them the importance of being motivated. When you were hungry and well looked after you were but a machine, a cog to to help fulfill their dreams. But now that you're hungry and alone, now you have the chance to fulfill your own dreams.

A Character I Never Dreamed Of

All in all, I love how this Throughline just feels right for the story I wanted to tell, but didn't know I wanted to tell. It's a huge departure from the idea of a "friend who wakes up a murder suspect, yet has no recollection of what they did they night before." Instead of the basic wants and needs, I now have a fully realized and thematically rich character.

But what is even more exciting is how this character interacts with the Main Character of my story. My original idea was one-dimensional, simple, and truthfully, not very effective. With this new version of my Influence Character I now have the basis for emotional and compelling interactions between the two principal characters of my story. Instead of simply forgetting where he was the night before, I have an attitude of remembering a painful experience in the past that creates conflict for everyone around him. In fact, on every level here Harley challenges and impacts my Main Character in a way I never could have even imagined.

In short, my work with the Playground Exercises enriches and enlivens my own writing experience. My hope is that by sharing this process I'll be able to do the same for other writers and producers struggling with telling their own stories. The ends are there in each one of us, it's the means that make them so.

  1. ...why we refer to ourselves as Narrative First.