Preparing to Write a Complete Story

A step-by-step introduction to crafting a great narrative

The foundation of all great narrative lies in the clarity of intent. Identifying the initial inequity, setting the Goal and Consequence, and then preparing the Protagonist and Antagonist to resolve conflict--these are the initial steps towards developing a strong story.

Identifying The Goal And Consequence Of A Complete Story

A look towards the initial inequity sets the stage for a meaningful narrative.

Many writers new to the Dramatica theory of story, and even those with several years of experience, struggle to reconcile what they know about story with what Dramatica tells them. Accumulated interpretations of Villains, Protagonists, Heroes, and Goals clash against the theory’s very specific definitions.

In Dramatica, the Main Character is not who the Audience roots for. The Protagonist is not a good guy. And a Story Goal is not something the characters consciously consider.

And that’s because not every story falls into a cultural bias of likable Main Characters, good Protagonists, and clearly stated intentions of conflict resolution.

Balance In All Things

As with all things Dramatica, a balance exists. The Goal and Consequence of a narrative offset each together the same way the Protagonist and Antagonist do, the Main Character and Obstacle Character do, and any number of dynamic relationships within Dramatica’s narrative model of the mind.[^model]

Goal and Consequence conform through their positions within the model. If the Goal of a story ends up in the upper right quadrant of a particular Domain, the Consequence will lie in the upper right quadrant of the Domain diagonally opposite. A Goal of Learning will create a Consequence of Conceiving and Idea (How to Train Your Dragon and The Lives of Others). A Goal of Conceptualizing will create a Consequence of Understanding (A Simple Plan and American Beauty).

[^model]: You can download a copy of the Dramatica Table of Story Elements here.

This positioning ties the two Static Plot Points together, providing a natural harmony within a complete story. A logical relationship connects Goal with Consequence: if the Goal is not met, then the Consequence will arrive.

  • If we can't fight the Empire, then we will have to be the oppressed (Story Goal of Doing, Story Consequence of Being - Star Wars).
  • If we don't achieve superiority over the Matrix, then we will become batteries for computers (Story Goal of Obtaining, Story Consequence of Becoming, or Becoming - The Matrix)
  • If we don’t stop the Avengers, then more and more innocent people will die (Story Goal of Obtaining, Story Consequence of Becoming - Captain America: Civil War)
  • If we don't consider that priests may be abusing boys, then the status quo will continue (Story Goal of Conscious, Story Consequence of the Present - Doubt)
  • If we don't get together, then we will be stuck wondering what could have been (Story Goal of the Present, Story Consequence of Conscious - Moonlight)
  • If we come to the understanding that the uncle simply can't be a father right now, then the deceased father's plan for the uncle to figure into his son’s life will fail to materialize (Story Goal of Conceptualizing or Conceptualizing, Story Consequence of Understanding - Manchester by the Sea).

This last example shifts the temporal order of the causality. Instead of thinking if the Goal fails, then Consequence appears, the Manchester example reads if the Consequence persists, then the Goal fails.

Both approaches honor the logical relationship between Goal and Consequence, because the relationship between the two does not require a temporal connection. Some stories start with the Consequence already in place, or evident from the very beginning (The Matrix, Captain America: Civil War), while others save the Consequence for the very end (Doubt). The meaning of the story remains the same regardless of their revelation within the actual text of the narrative.

The Beginning of Inequity

In order to accurately define the objective Goal of a narrative, one must first identify the beginning of conflict–the moment when equity turns to inequity–within the scope of that one story.

Many writers find it difficult determining the genesis of conflict within a story. They turn to elements of backstory or character justification as a means of explaining why characters get into conflict, rather than when the narrative in question actually began.

The story of The Matrix, the first film, begins with Morpheus’ decision that Mr. Anderson is the One. This upsets the balance of things and forces both sides to take action in the efforts to bring down the Matrix.

Focusing on the Story at Hand

Many might argue that conflict began earlier, that the enslavement of mankind as virtual batteries for computers somehow motivated efforts towards resolution. Maybe–but that’s not the story told in The Matrix. As far as we know there was the potential for conflict, but no observable conflict; there was objective equity in the arrangement between humans and the machines–no observable inequity that drove a narrative from beginning to end.

Consider Star Wars: A New Hope (the first film)–and consider it as if it was 1977. Prior to Darth Vader’s illegal boarding of a diplomatic vessel, a similar equitable state existed between the Empire and its citizens. Yes, there was civil war, but nothing deserving of a complete least, until 2016 with the arrival of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

But that’s a completely different story.

The story of Star Wars: A New Hope concerns itself only with the inequity introduced by an Empire overstepping its authority. The narrative of that story tells of a group of Rebels who find a way to fight back and resolve that inequity. This effort towards a specific resolution sheds light on the Story Goal.

Purposeful Resolution

Morpheus decides Mr. Anderson is the one, creating the inequity of The Matrix. The conflict that rises from that inequity consists of problematic activities like fighting, punching, kicking, and shooting. Stopping those activities resolves the inequity and brings an end to the narrative.

Wanda Maximoff (the Scarlett Witch) uses telekinesis to throw an impending explosion into the sky, damaging a nearby building and killing many innocent people. Her actions create the inequity of Captain America: Civil War. The conflict that rises from that initial inequity consists of further bombings, punching, kicking, chasing, and web-slinging. Like The Matrix, stopping those activities–by tearing apart the Avengers–resolves the inequity of that story and brings an end to the narrative.

Vader boards a diplomatic ship, creating the inequity of Star Wars. The conflict that rises from that inequity consists of problematic activities like space battles, supernatural choking, light-sword fights, and laser gun battles. Stopping those activities would not resolve the inequity of an Empire overstepping its bounds–but finding a better way to fight them would.

Joe finds out he has terminal cancer, creating the inequity of Manchester by the Sea. The conflict that rises from that inequity consists of scheming and positioning, fulfilling familial roles one is not ready for, and altering the family dynamic between an uncle and his nephew. Stopping those activities or finding a better way to fight cancer would not resolve the inequity of Manchester–but figuring out how to integrate the fatherless son into the uncle’s life would.

In each of these, the initial inequity sets the type of Story Goal needed to resolve the conflict in each narrative:

  • Morpheus decides Mr. Anderson is the One: We will continue to become batteries for computers, if we don’t tear down the Matrix (Story Consequence of Becoming, Story Goal of Obtaining - The Matrix)
  • The Scarlett Witch accidentally kills innocent humanitarian workers: More and more innocent people will die, if we don’t stop the Avengers (Story Consequence of Becoming, Story Goal of Obtaining - Captain America: Civil War)
  • Vader boards a diplomatic ship illegally: If we can't fight the Empire, then we will have to live the life of the oppressed (Story Goal of Doing, Story Consequence of Being - Star Wars).
  • Joe finds out he has terminal cancer: If we come to the understanding that the uncle simply can't be a father right now, then the deceased father's plan for the uncle to figure into his son’s life will fail to materialize (Story Consequence of Understanding, Story Goal of Conceptualizing - Manchester by the Sea)

Steps Towards Determining the Goal of a Story

Identifying the Story Goal and Consequence of narrative consists of three steps:

  1. Identify the initial inequity
  2. Determine what will resolve that inequity
  3. Set the type of Story Goal that generates that resolution

From there, identification of Protagonist, Antagonist, and the balance of other objective structural elements becomes a matter of comparing their function in narrative to that Story Goal. Protagonists pursue resolution of the Story Goal, Antagonists work to prevent resolution.

Narrative and Meaning

Good or bad matters little when observing narrative in terms of inequity and equity resolution. One force pursues, one force prevents. One represents our mind’s motivation towards initiative, the other our reticence.

All that matters is the resolution of the inequity at hand.

Narrative gives meaning to chaotic and seemingly meaningless events. Where one sets the beginning and end of a narrative determines the scope of its eventual meaning.

Consider the events in our own lives. Without framing them into structure, life is random and uneventful–pointless and meaningless. The same holds true for our stories, whether on film, on stage, or in a book. Where the inequity of the story starts and where it ends sets the breadth of meaning and understanding for the Audience.

Everything else is chatter.

Identifying The Protagonist And Antagonist Of A Complete Story

Narratives develop integrity by ignoring commonly accepted value judgments of good and bad.

To many, the determination of key players within a narrative remains simple: identify the good guy and identify the bad guy. Unfortunately, assumed notions of altruism fail to take into consideration the actual inequity of the story. Sometimes the efforts to resolve an inequity turn out to be a good thing; other times, they do not.

The key towards maintaining the integrity of a narrative from beginning to end lies in the correct identification of the fundamental inequity of a story.

Seeking Resolution of the Inequity

In the article Identifying the Goal and Consequence of a Complete Story, the moment where a story begins determines the type of Goal to resolve it:

to accurately define the objective Goal of a narrative, one must first identify the beginning of conflict–the moment when equity turns to inequity–within the scope of that one story.

This injustice calls for some resolution. In some stories–like Star Wars, Arrival, Moonlight, and Captain America: Civil War–resolution arrives. In other stories–like Hamlet, Doubt, The Devil Wears Prada, and Manchester by the Sea–the resolution of the initial inequity fails to materialize. The first group tells of triumphs, the second of tragedies.

When determining the character functions of Protagonist and Antagonist, look to the objective context provided by the Objective Story Throughline perspective. What are they trying to achieve? And when it comes to deciding they, assume no superiority of “good” over “bad.”

Good Guys and Bad Guys

Good or bad is a point-of-view, and in the Dramatica theory of story, point-of-view is accounted for in another location within the model. In fact, four points of view exist:

The Protagonist and Antagonist of a narrative operate within the Objective Story Throughline perspective of They, as in they’re fighting against one another or they’re manipulating one another. Good or bad may play into their pursuits of fighting or manipulating or any other kind of conflict through thematic judgments, but the quality of “good” or “bad” within the context of the Protagonist fails to matter when considering the function of a Protagonist.

The role of a character takes into consideration direction of movement. With the initial inequity created and the Goal to resolve that inequity determined, one character moves towards the achievement of that resolution, the other works to prevent it:

  • The Protagonist pursues resolution of the inequity
  • The Antagonist avoids or prevents resolution of the inequity

Value judgments of good or bad fail to factor into this determination.

By all accounts sane and righteous, Michael Clayton’s Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) is a “bad” guy. Yet, her actions reveal her to be the Protagonist–the one pursuing resolution of the story’s inequity.

The narrative begins when Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) suffers a manic episode in the middle of a deposition. His actions set off the inequity of the class action lawsuit for everyone in Michael Clayton. As the conglomerate’s chief counsel, Karen pursues a successful resolution of the situation–no matter what it takes.[^bad]

[^bad]: For those who don’t know, Karen participates in some pretty socially unacceptable behavior.

In How to Train Your Dragon, the destruction of the Viking hometown of Berk upsets the balance of things and drives the Vikings that inhabit that island to seek resolution. Their leader, Stoick (Gerard Butler) pursues a course aimed at training the next generation of dragon killers. His son, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), does everything in his power to avoid, or prevent, the achievement of this goal. Stoick is the Protagonist of the film, Hiccup the Antagonist. Both play “good” characters in the story.

Manchester by the Sea explores conflict resolution surrounding the death of a single father. Once Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler) discovers he has ten years left to live, he sets out to find a way for his brother, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) to figure into the raising of his son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). While deceased for most of the narrative, Joe functions as Protagonist driving the successful resolution of this inequity. Lee avoids or prevents, the accomplishment of this Goal both consciously and subconsciously. In some respects, Lee’s behavior can be seen as “bad,” yet the Author positions him as a “good” guy throughout the narrative.

When looking dispassionately at the events of a story, a narrative wastes little time considering the goodness or badness of a motivational force in the context of inequity resolution.

A Method for Determining the Protagonist of a Story

This means of determining Protagonist and Antagonist within the context of the Story Goal builds upon the approach discussed in the article on identifying the Goal and Consequence:

  1. Identify the initial inequity
  2. Determine what will resolve that inequity
  3. Set the type of Story Goal that generates that resolution
  4. The Protagonist pursues that Goal
  5. The Antagonist prevents or avoids that Goal

Consider the example of Captain America: Civil War. The initial inequity of that narrative begins when the Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) uses telekinesis to protect Captain America (Chris Evans) from an explosion. She grabs the explosion and throws it into the air–accidentally killing innocent humanitarian workers in a nearby building. Everything that follows–the Sokovia Accords, helping the Winter Soldier escape the authorities, the fight at the airport, and even the fight between Captain America and Iron Man–claims this act as the initial motivating force.

Stopping the Avengers, or tearing them apart, is the Story Goal that resolves that initial inequity. Allowing innocent people to continue to die is the Story Consequence of failing to achieve that Goal.

In a moral world where everyone knows right from wrong and submits to a familiar ethereal authority figure, the idea of tearing the Avengers apart as a Story Goal seems ridiculous. But these are the good guys, why would the story work against them? In this scenario, assumed righteousness determines the objective context, not the events of the story itself.

When determining the integrity of a narrative, the story must reign supreme–not one’s understanding of right or wrong.

Captain America: Civil War goes through great extremes to present a balanced argument on both sides. No one is good, and no one is bad. Fans of the characters may choose their favorite side, but in the end–the narrative claims final word over inequity resolution.

The Bad Guy Protagonist

With the initial inequity determined, and the efforts to resolve that inequity and the consequences that ensue if those efforts fail identified, the Protagonist of Captain America: Civil War comes into focus:

Helmut Zemo. The bad guy.

Zemo (Daniel Brühl) is the character pursuing efforts to tear the Avengers apart. Also, he motivates other characters to consider reasons why the Avengers should be split apart. His effort to generate disinformation in regards to the bomber’s true identity and his endeavor to present a new context for Tony’s familial grief fulfills the objective character element of Consider.

In the Dramatica theory of story, an archetypal Protagonist consists of two motivation elements: Pursuit and Consider. Pursuit is defined as a directed effort to resolve a problem and Consider is described as weighing pros and cons. Put these two motivations into one player under the context of an inequity requiring resolution, and you have a Protagonist.

Opposing Zemo’s efforts to pursue and consider tearing the Avengers apart is the Antagonist of Captain America: Civil War:

Captain America. The good guy.

From the beginning, Captain America reconsiders and inspires others around him to reconsider efforts being made to restrict the Avengers. His struggle to prevent Bucky’s capture and prevent further loss of life amongst the police forces sent to capture Bucky exemplify the character element of Avoid from every angle. His motivation to prevent champions both sides.

Objective character elements consider neither good nor bad; they think force and direction.

In Dramatica, an archetypal Antagonist consists of two motivation elements: Avoid (or Prevent), and Reconsider. Note how these two oppose the Protagonist’s elements of Pursuit and Consider. Avoid is defined as stepping around, preventing or escaping from a problem rather than solving it.

That sounds like Captain America.9

Reconsider is defined as questioning a conclusion based on additional information. Again, Captain America. Put these two elements of Avoid and Reconsider into the same player and you have an Antagonist.

Regardless of whose side they fight on.

The Importance of Remaining Objective

Objective character elements do not see “sides”; they see inequity and the motivation to resolve or prevent resolution, of that inequity. Confusion and misattribution of purpose arrive when the Author projects their understanding of right and wrong upon the motivations of the characters, instead of relying on the actions and decisions of those characters–within the context of the narrative–to determine the altruism of the events within a story.

Proper setup of the initial inequity, along with a consistent and cohesive context to consider the motivations of the characters to resolve that inequity, guarantees a reliable and complete narrative.

Identifying The Domains And Throughlines Of A Complete Story

A balance of all four Throughline perspectives guarantees the integrity of a narrative.

Many focus on determining the wants and needs of principal players to the exclusion of anything else. They stop on the why and what of individuals, instead of moving on to the more important why and how of the narrative itself. To maintain the integrity of narrative, successful Authors bridge the gap between character and plot with thematic issues consistent within particular contexts.

Previous articles in this series on Preparing to Write a Complete Story covered the creation of inequity, and its resolution within the Story Goal. They also explored the Story Consequence as a counter-balance to that Goal and dove into the concept of Protagonist and Antagonist as motivating force, rather than an indicator of right or wrong.

This article seeks to expand those understandings of the major story points by moving away from the static concerns of plot and plot resolution. Effective thematic exploration looks to the juxtaposition of strongly argued equally-balanced points-of-view. Creating a Storymind for the Audience to inhabit, instead of preaching or telling them how things are–as in The Passion of the Christ, Sicko, or Okja–increases the acceptance level of the story, while providing the Audience with a greater understanding of how to solve problems.

Whether creating or analyzing, the process of building the foundation for a story remains the same: Identify the sources of conflict that generate problems for the characters. Once you know where the conflict lies, you can begin to appreciate how potential resolution plays out.

Four Areas of Conflict

Problems fall into four broad areas, or Domains, of conflict:

  • Universes describe a fixed external state where reputation, status, looks, or position generate conflict
  • Physics represent external processes where fighting, investigating, teaching, and stealing create conflict
  • Minds define a fixed internal state where prejudice, anxiety, jealousy, and memories generate conflict
  • Manners of Thinking describe internal processes where figuring out, inventing, pretending, and maturing create conflict

As these four areas represent the totality of conflict, a functioning, and complete narrative will find a way to address each one of them.

A riot on the streets is a problem. The marching, shouting, conscripting, and disruptive protests appear to be problematic Physics. A different Author, however, might choose to focus on the power play between social classes and see the riot as a problematic Universe. Another might focus on the prejudice or panic surrounding heightened Minds. And still another might look to the pretending, coercing, and subversive manipulation by the movement’s leaders to generate problematic Manners of Thinking.

No one answer is correct, no choice better than the other. But a decision must be made, for if the Author decides to bounce from one area to the next, thematic concerns and plot elements shift as well. While the attitudes and approaches of the characters might work well as issues within problematic Physics, they matter little in Manners of Thinking. Likewise, rationalizations and obligations mean a great deal when looking at problematic Manners of Thinking, yet possess no obvious connection with Physics.

Directionless narratives fail to keep thematic issues and plot concerns within the same family. They bounce the Audience around needlessly, promising one story and delivering another.

If those four areas represent the totality of conflict, then how does a story account for all of them, regardless of the Author’s initial focus?

The Reason for Throughlines

To maintain integrity within the thematic exploration of a narrative, a consistent perspective–or context–must preside over the area of conflict. Functioning narratives find a way to address all four areas, not by shifting context and looking at them one at a time, but rather by looking at each through a consistent framework known as a Throughline.

In the Dramatica theory of story, the Throughline of a narrative is a perspective, not a character, nor a plot line. Many other understandings of narrative refer to “A” storylines or “B” storylines as if the overall plot of a story somehow holds prominence over any others. In Dramatica, it is the relationship between the Throughlines that is important, not the subject matter explored in each one.

The Four Throughlines of a Complete Story

The Four Throughline perspectives required by an entire narrative correspond with the four points-of-view our minds employ:

  • The Objective Story Throughline looks at conflict from a dispassionate They perspective, as in Their fighting involves two sides fighting and punching and kicking each other.
  • The Main Character Throughline looks at conflict from an intimate first-person I point-of-view, as in I am guilty and responsible for all the fighting because I inadvertently started it.
  • The Obstacle Character Throughline looks at the problematic conflict generated from a first-person You perspective, as in You never shut up!
  • The Relationship Story Throughline looks at the kind of conflict that drives a relationship forward (or backward) from an intimate We perspective, as in We used to be such great friends.

Four areas of conflict. Four perspectives providing context. A complete narrative addresses all four areas by attaching a different consistent meaning for each one. Maintaining that contextual awareness of an area of conflict guarantees thematic integrity. Issues and concerns, while dynamic in their development, remain locked and identifiable within a consistent context.

The examples above source from Captain America: Civil War. Superheroes fighting each other in the Objective Story Throughline, Tony Stark/Iron Man as the man responsible for Ultron in the Main Character Throughline, Steve Rodgers/Captain America and his undying support for what’s right in the Obstacle Character Throughline, and the dysfunctional friendship between Steve and Tony in the Relationship Story Throughline. With all four possible perspectives accounted for and all four areas of conflict covered, narrative functions as one complete argument.

Make an Argument for All Four

When it comes to identifying the source of conflict within a single Throughline, one can always make an argument for any one Domain, or area of conflict. The trick is making an argument for all four Throughlines at once.

Luke Skywalker, in the original Star Wars, could be seen as having a problematic attitude (I wanted to go into town to pick up some power converters!), a set of problematic activities (Sand people? Let’s go have a look...), or a problematic manner of thinking (Look around, they could use a good pilot like you.). But the only Domain that works, while considering the Domains of the other three Throughlines, is a problematic Universe: (Luke is the son a great fighter pilot, stuck working as a moisture farmer on the edge of the galaxy.).

Thankfully, balancing the four Domains does not require one to go through this process for each Throughline. Identify the source of conflict in two of them and the other two fall into place.

The Relationship Between the Throughlines

The current model of the theory emphasizes Dynamic Pairs of conflict over anything else—meaning Throughlines, Problems, and Solutions, and more connected story points—sit across from each other in a diagonal relationship. When it comes to aligning Domains with Throughline perspectives, this dynamic creates two key relationships:

  • The Objective Story and Relationship Story Throughlines sit diagonally across from each other
  • The Main Character and Obstacle Character Throughlines sit diagonally across from each other

Placing Luke Skywalker in the Universe Domain forces Ben Kenobi in the Mind Domain automatically–an arrangement that feels right. Luke is stuck in a far off land; Ben is stuck with some pretty far off ideas. The two balance each other by bringing into the narrative two competing, yet somewhat similar, areas of conflict.

The same relationship between Main Character and Obstacle Character Throughlines exists in How to Train Your Dragon. Hiccup is a Viking stuck in the body of a wimpy 98 lb. Weakling, his father Stoick is a Viking stuck fighting for old and weak ideas. Both alike in their relative weakness of position, both different in how that weakness plays out through conflict.

Balancing the Sources of Conflict

As you can see, selecting the Domain of conflict for the Main Character Throughline selects the Domain for the Obstacle Character Throughline automatically. Making one more selection–typically for the Objective Story Throughline as it is usually the easiest to identify–forces the other two into positions necessarily to balance out the narrative.

Both Star Wars and How to Train Your Dragon find conflict in the Objective Story Throughline through problematic Physics. The fighting of Dragons, the trials of training new Viking Dragon-killers, the struggle against the Empire, the trials of testing out new weapons on entire planets–all of these focus on conflict in the external realm.

Maintaining that diagonal relationship with the Objective Story Throughline places the Relationship Story Throughlines of these two stories in the Domain of Manners of Thinking. Father and son hash it out over an incredible shift in power while mentor and mentee hash it out over living in the moment and being one with the Force–both finding conflict within the inner realm.

Choose the source of conflict for the Main Character and Objective Story Throughlines, and the narrative model will determine the natural counter-balance found in the Obstacle Character and Relationship Story Throughlines.

Of Friends and Superheroes

In Captain America: Civil War colleagues and friends face off against one another in spectacular battles. The Objective Story Throughline covers the colleagues portion of that statement, the Relationship Story Throughline the friends part. By placing the area of conflict for the Objective Story Throughline in problematic Physics–which sounds right for a story about superheroes physically one-upping each other on the battlefield–the area of conflict for the Relationship Story Throughline falls into Manners of Thinking.

The friendship between Steve and Tony (Captain America and Iron Man, respectively) splinters from the inside. The internal dysfunction between them mimics the external dysfunction between the opposite sides found in the Objective Story Throughline. The attempts to manipulate one another to think differently find a relation in the attempts to physically force everyone to work differently.

A similarly balanced relationship exists between the Main Character and Obstacle Character Throughlines. Tony is the man responsible for creating the robot that killed so many lives. Captain America is the man responsible for standing up for what is right during tumultuous times. Both stuck with labels they can’t escape; one finding inequity in the external, the other through the internal manifestation of that label.

Writing a Complete Story

Gaining a comprehensive understanding of the various Throughlines, one begins to derive a sense of what it feels like to write a whole story. Contrarily, one can skip over one or two of the Throughlines, or shift context to different points-of-view, and start to appreciate what it feels like when a story lacks clarity. Balancing all four Throughline perspectives at once guarantees that feeling of completeness.

Identifying The Obstacle Character Of A Complete Story

The Obstacle Character is not a character, it is a perspective.

New ways of thinking conflict with the tried and true. Thought breaks up knowledge and rearranges the fallout into a new understanding. In turn, this newly formed bit of experience creates potential within the mind for even greater thoughts. And the cycle continues.

Main Character.

Obstacle Character.

These are not characters in conflict, but rather, perspectives of conflict.

Writers arrive at the Dramatica theory of story expecting more of the same. Having read McKee’s Story, Snyder’s Save the Cat! they imagine something light and fun. Having read countless blogs on writing and screenwriting they imagine Dramatica: A Theory of Story to be a technical confirmation of what they already know. And why not? Since college, they’ve been told that every story is the same and that the only thing they need to read is Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces.

This lie–and the many others told in support of this claim–leads many astray. Writers force fit Dramatica’s concepts into their understandings, breaking many of the theory’s revolutionary findings.

One of those is the idea of the Obstacle Character.

The Purpose of the Obstacle Character Throughline

The Obstacle Character is not the Main Character by any other name. Like the misconception that Protagonist means Good Guy and Antagonist means Bad Guy, the idea that the “Character” portion of Main Character refers to a fully realized three-dimensional person undermines the purpose of this important point-of-view.

Same with the “Character” portion in Obstacle Character.

When it comes to identifying the Obstacle Character of a particular narrative the emphasis is on the point-of-view of this Throughline, not the character. The You perspective–as in ”You have a strange way of seeing things, old man” or ”You put yourself in this position, not me” or ”You know, you’re a real pain in the butt” is the point-of-view held by the Obstacle Character Throughline as seen from the Main Character Perspective of I.

That connection is super important.

Without this regard between what I am going through and the impact or influence on those issues by what You are doing, the entire analogy of the Storymind breaks down.

The Storymind Concept

The Storymind concept of Dramatica states that every complete story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Things like Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre–these are things we have made up over the years to help communicate what is going on in our mind. The various Throughlines found in a Dramatica storyform take the perspective of that mind, not of any one character.

This relationship is important when it comes to constructing a narrative because you want to tie those perspectives into that original inequity encountered by the Storymind.

A Challenge to Grow

The perspective of the Obstacle Character Throughline exists in a narrative to challenge the Main Character’s justifications–not as a means for the Obstacle Character to work through any of his or her issues.

The focus is always on the Main Character.

”You have a strange way of doing things, old man” is just the kind of problematic Mind that Luke needs from Ben Kenobi in Star Wars. Without it, the kid would still be a whiny farm boy at the edge of the galaxy staring out at two impossible suns.

”You put yourself in this position, not me” describes the no-win Universe Rick needs to be influenced by in Casablanca. Without seeing Ilsa in this position and seeing how she sacrificed herself for love, Rick would never have come up with a plan to help them escape the Nazis. He would never have put himself in his no-win situation.

”You’re a pain in the butt” is just the kind of obstinance a man in Tony Stark’s position needs to see in Captain America: Civil War. Witnessing your stubbornness reflected back from not one, but two different people–Steve Rodgers and Peter Parker–is a sure fire way to spark rapid personal growth within the Futurist.

These Obstacle Characters are not characters–they’re points-of-view meant to challenge a personal point-of-view. The I perspective is important in gauging the location of the You perspective, as is the You perspective in determining where I sits within a complete narrative.

And the Main Character point-of-view is not reliant on who changes the most or which perspective develops to the greatest degree. Personal growth can shift to a different point-of-view, or it can entrench itself within the current perspective.

When Both Seem to Influence

Consider Braveheart and its two principal characters at odds over the future of their country. Which statement describes the Obstacle Character perspective: ”You can’t worm your way into the hearts of these men” or ”You can’t literally kill everyone who disagrees with you”? Are we witnessing Robert the Bruce’s attempt to influence William Wallace? Or does the film portray William Wallace’s impact on Robert the Bruce? The relationship appears balanced between the two.

Now consider Braveheart not as an account of Scotland’s history, but rather as an account of a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Whose perspective do we maintain during the crucial moment of resolve–the moment where the internal and external perspectives of the mind collide?

Whose mind do we possess?

Do we inhabit Robert the Bruce and all his considerations over the dysfunctional relationship and manipulations with his father? Are we positioned to experience his torment and to feel the struggle to rectify his justifications against all that is going on around him? Or are we with William Wallace and his considerations over whether or not his violent actions are worth the cost both personally and to those around him?

If we looked to who experiences the greatest shift in perspective to determine whose story, or Storymind, Braveheart belongs to, Robert the Bruce would win. As hard as he tries to fight it, Robert comes around to William’s point-of-view.

But if we looked to whose perspective is challenged to reconsider during the culminating moment where the subjective concerns of Main and Obstacle Character conflate with the objective concerns of the Objective Story Throughline the answer is easy.

The Storymind’s Decision

Resolution–the kind of personal resolution inherent to the Main Character perspective–plays out on-screen and on the page. It happens in the moment, providing a personal account of that determination of the Storymind to either Remain Steadfast in one’s justifications or to Change and adopt the justifications of another.

William Wallace’s disembowelment is not something that happens off-screen. It’s not something we hear You did; it’s something I experience personally. William’s resolution to stay steadfast within his justifications and to scream out with every last ounce of his fiber “Freedom” is not something we hear about–it’s something we see and witness and experience firsthand.

Robert the Bruce’s resolve, on the other hand, happens off-screen.

Yes, we see him take that final step and ask for everyone around him to join him. The actual shift in perspective it took to suit up, grab that sword, and lead that army to the edge of the battlefield–that resolve took place out of sight and from a You perspective.

This resolution moment is key to the entire meaning communicated within the storyform–which is why it happens front and center.

What Did You Do?

In Casablanca, Ilsa surprises us by arriving on-screen with a gun in hand, pointed at Rick. As we sit within Rick’s perspective, we look out and ask ”What are YOU doing?” Iowa’s resolve to Remain Steadfast in her Universe with Victor Laszlo happens without us knowing, and without us experiencing the struggle that goes into making that decision.

Same with Steve Rodgers in Captain America: Civil War.

Steve’s decision to keep the truth behind the murder of Tony’s parents a secret because he wanted to protect that personal decision to determine right from wrong is something that happens off-screen.

We don’t get to experience what it is like to learn what our best friend did, to wonder whether or not we should tell someone, or what kind of impact it would have on others. It’s communicated to us as if You did this. ”Did you know?” That’s a Main Character perspective of the Storymind looking out at an Obstacle Character Perspective of You.

The decision to break free of constraints to protect you from yourself and avenge? That momentary struggle between should I or shouldn’t I? We see Tony go through that decision-making process and experience that resolution moment from his perspective.

Tony’s decision to Change and adopt the Obstacle Character’s point-of-view that the decision to choose right from wrong should remain within the individual resolves the original inequity of the story by breaking up the Avengers. This moment is where subjective meets objective and where the entire meaning of the story presents itself to the Audience.

A Look Within the Mind

Dramatica theory functions with this idea that what we have been led to believe about a story is wrong.

A complete narrative is not an interesting and compelling account of something that happened–a full story is a cohesive analogy of a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre—these are not parts of a story—they’re parts of the human mind. The series of articles on Preparing to Write a Complete Story requires an understanding of this reality.

When determining the storyform of a narrative, it’s important to remember this core concept. The storyform is a snapshot of the human mind at work. When you see a Dramatica storyform broken down into Main Character and Obstacle Character and Relationship Story, don’t interpret these things as actual characters or relationships. See them as parts of the human mind, each with its unique purpose in depicting the process of problem-solving and justification.

Only then can you determine the one true storyform for the story you want to tell.

Identifying The Storyform Of A Complete Story

Figure out what it is you want to say and the rest is easy.

Many writers write without any clue as to the relevance of their last scene. Self-doubt and panic sets in the moment they start to question if what they wrote fits in with the rest of their story. A Dramatica storyform erases this skepticism by guaranteeing a purpose-driven approach to scene writing.

Six days a week for nine months? Most view this kind of employment situation untenable. For those us working on completing How To Train Your Dragon in time for its release in 2010, it was an incredible honor and lasting experience. Why?

A singular vision propelled the narrative.

Creating Vision

The purpose of this series on Preparing to Write a Complete Story is to help writers strategize an approach for figuring out the basic structure of your story. When you know where the conflict starts, and what is needed to resolve it, it's easy to determine which scenes are necessary and which scenes you can save for another day.

The articles on Identifying the Goal and Consequence of a Complete Story and Identifying the Protagonist and Antagonist of a Complete Story help you determine the forces at work within the conflict of your narrative. Identifying the Domains and Throughlines of a Complete Story and Identifying the Obstacle Character of a Complete Story aid in positioning the various perspectives on that conflict within your narrative.

Before you fire up the Subtxt application and begin making selections, you need to consider what it is you want to say with your story. What message do you want to convey? The answer to this question ties those six steps above into a single hologram of meaning.

This final article in the series gives shape to that hologram through a concept of Dramatica known as the storyform.

The Storyform

Many think of story structure as something you apply to a series of events or a group of characters. They ascribe mythical journeys to these individuals and a set of predetermined cultural beats to log the progression to a higher self.

Not with Dramatica.

As confirmed in the previous articles on Identifying the Obstacle Character:

A complete narrative is not an investing and compelling account of something that happened–a complete narrative is a cohesive analogy of a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre–these are not parts of a story–they’re parts of the human mind.

Learning the important scenes becomes a process of determining that mind.

The storyform is a snapshot of the human mind at work.

If you want to write something meaningful, it’s time to stop fooling yourself. Stop thinking of your characters as real people with real feelings and start seeing them as elements of a single identity. That’s the way to a cohesive narrative.

The Great Debate Over Captain America: Civil War

The impetus for this series rests in the huge debate over the Main Character perspective within Captain America: Civil War. As evidenced by the amount of discussion in the Discuss Dramatica forums on the topic, confusion abounds in regards to this purpose of Dramatica’s storyform.

The storyform is not there to tell you more about your characters or what they’re thinking or what they’re going through–the storyform is there to tell you what your story is about. Problem, Solution, Resolve, and Outcome? These, and the seventy other story points found in a storyform make an argument for how one should approach life:

  • Stop testing and start trusting and you can make the world a better place (The LEGO Batman Movie)
  • Stop testing and start trusting and you can fight a rebellion against an empire (Star Wars)
  • Embrace the good and the bad as if it all balances out in the end and understand the meaning of life (Arrival)
  • Embrace the good and the bad as if it all balances out in the end and figure out how to live life in a new city (Inside Out)

The LEGO Batman Movie and Star Wars share similar storyforms. Aside from choices that skew Genre (the former is Dysfunctional Family Comedy, the latter SciFi Action/Adventure), the message of both films is the same: Success comes when you Stop Testing. A Main Character who Changes their Main Character Resolve by Stopping a Main Character Problem of Testing results in a Story Outcome of Success.

Arrival and Inside Out share a similar relationship. Again, discounting Genre selections (one a Sci-Fi Thriller, the other a Dysfunctional Road Trip Comedy), the message communicated by both storyforms is the same: Success comes when you Start seeing Equity (balance). A Main Character who Changes their Main Character Resolve by Starting a Main Character Solution of Equity results in a Story Outcome of Success.

In all four examples, the storyform communicates a message to the Audience. It’s not about Joy or Sadness, or Louise or Heptapod aliens, or Luke Skywalker or Batman–its about the intent behind the creation of the narrative itself.

What is the Author trying to say?

I Don’t Know What I Want to Say

If you don’t know what you want to say, Dramatica can help you with that. You can make selections within the application based on what you have written and wait for Dramatica to respond with choices to round out and complete your argument. Dramatica is the only story structure “paradigm” that can help you do this.

Write what you feel deep inside. Turn to Dramatica to help you uncover what is you’re trying to say.

The storyform defines the edges of an inequity so one can adequately communicate it to someone else.

The Conflict That Cannot Be Spoken

Many writers new to Dramatica grow frustrated over this idea of inequity. Where is it in the model? and How can I figure out the inequity of my story?

Well, you can’t. Because an inequity is not a real thing.

The mind senses an inequity, or imbalance between things, and begins imputing all sorts of problems and solutions to that imbalance. But these problems and these solutions–they’re made up in the mind.

The inequity isn’t a problem.

The mind’s justification process–that’s a problem.

The inequity of a story sits at the center of all four throughlines. It’s not something you can describe or define–if you could, you would call up your friend and tell them. But you can’t, and that’s why you write a story.

An inequity exists between things and as such, can only be approximated by looking at it from the several different viewpoints offered by the various Throughlines. Main Character, Obstacle Character, Objective Story, and Relationship Story–these are points-of-view on that fundamental inequity.

Note that they’re all looking at the same thing. That shared focus is an important concept to understand when making the final decision for the thematic story points within your narrative. Everything needs to point to the same thing if they’re going to add up to the message you’re trying to prove.

If you don’t have that purpose in mind, you’re going to end up all over the place–as evidenced by that discussion surrounding the Main Character in Captain America: Civil War.

Tying Personal Issues to The Story at Large

Reading through that post, some see Tony Stark (Iron Man) as the Main Character, others see Steve Rodgers (Captain America). The ones who see Tony assuming the position of the Main Character sense the challenging influence brought on by the perspectives of Steve and Peter Parker, and witness the resolution moment where Iron Man chooses for himself what is right and wrong and “eyeballs” a shot at the Winter Soldier.

Those who try to position Steve as the Main Character flounder when it comes to defining a consistent, challenging perspective from an Obstacle Character. They may insert concerns from the comic book series or their appreciations of the characters, but those understandings exist outside of the work in question. They bring in material inconsequential and, in some respects, contradictory to the singular storymind presented within the film.

No challenge exists for Steve. No moments of consideration. No defining resolution moment that ties his conflict with the external conflict of the Objective Story Throughline. The defining moment of his perspective–the decision to decide whether it was right or wrong to keep Bucky’s past a secret–was made off-screen and out-of-sight.

As presented in the film, this secret was something You did, not something I did.

Tony’s free rampage is the kind of thing Zemo hoped for when he set out to split the Avengers. By tying Tony’s personal resolution in with the results of the Objective Story, the Authors prove their message:

When you stop trying to control yourself and start letting go, you split the ties that bind a team together.

Positioning Tony’s perspective within the Main Character Throughline outlines a cohesive storyform that argues the above without equivocation.

The Narrative First Approach to Dramatica

Over the years, I have developed a method for preparing writers and their stories for Dramatica. Before arriving at the one single storyform out of the 32,768 possible storyforms available within the current model, I like to develop a holistic sense of what the Author is trying to say with their story...

...because it’s nice when you can get the narrative first.

My process before opening Dramatica is simple:

  1. Identify the Initial Inequity (Story Driver)
  2. Determine what will resolve that initial inequity (Story Goal)
  3. Determine what happens without resolution (Story Consequence)
  4. Identify the forces of initiative towards that Goal (Protagonist)
  5. Identify the forces of reticence away from that Goal (Antagonist)
  6. Identify the personal point-of-view and its challenger (Main Character Throughline and Obstacle Character Throughline)

All of this can be done without the Dramatica Story Expert application and within a short amount of time. This series of articles walks you through that process. The key is staying objective and knowing what it is you want to say.

And if you don’t know, say half of it and let Narrative First and Dramatica help you with the other half.

The Disaster of Not Knowing

Imagine the disaster inherent within the animation studio system and without the aid of Narrative First and Dramatica. Not only do you have a situation where everyone vies for the validity of incongruent ideas, but you also have a situation where everyone competes for ideas based on these characters being real people and having real feelings. You don’t have everyone focused on a single mind, and you don’t have everyone focused on a single purpose.

The reason the first How To Train Your Dragon feature ranks superior to the second regarding storytelling is the simple fact that the studio system that bucks against a singular vision didn’t have enough time to intervene. After several misspent years in development, the original directors of the film were taken off, and Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders were brought in to save the day.

In three months, Dean and Chris tossed out the original book, cast Toothless as a giant and appealing character,[^tooth] and reworked the entire film into something everyone loves.

[^tooth]: You can find the original design for Toothless in the movie. Look for the tiny little green dragons that cuddle up next to him. Those were the original models for Toothless. Thank you, Dean and Chris!

The second film? Not so much. And it’s a shame–Dean’s original pitch for the next movie in the series generated high emotional impact–because it was based on a robust and complete storyform. Unfortunately, with the second, the luxury of time worked against the production. With much riding on the series, studio executive and managers stepped in, reworked the story, and excised what used to work for the first film.

The original How To Train Your Dragon represented a singular vision–not from one person, but from two people sharing a common purpose. With Dean and Chris tuned into the same storymind, we worked those six day weeks with passion and with gratefulness–because we knew we were working towards something meaningful.

You can experience that same kind of passion by determining the storyform of your own story.

The Purpose of a Complete Story

Everything they told you about story in the past is wrong. McKee was wrong. Snyder was wrong. Syd Field was wrong. And so was Campbell and anyone who bought into the whole idea of the Hero’s Journey.[^hero]

[^hero]: I was one of those people...until I started to see all kinds of inconsistencies and caveats.

Even Aristotle had it wrong.

A story is not something built with structure. A story exists because of structure.

Stories exist because of who we are.

A complete story is a functioning model of the human mind at work. Characters aren’t real people; they’re representations of the forces of motivation within the mind. Plot isn’t something that happens to characters or because of characters–plot is how the mind goes about solving the current problem. And Theme? Theme isn’t what you want to say with your story, theme models the evaluation processes going on within the mind.

The storyform–that’s what you want to say with your story.

The Narrative First method for identifying and dealing with the central inequity of your narrative is your first step towards nailing down that purpose and intent behind your story.

Your next is to write the damn thing.