Series of Articles

Using Dramatica to Come Up with New Story Ideas

Finding inspiration in the Playground Exercises

Tired of writing the same story over and over again? With the Dramatica theory of story (and Subtxt, our practical application of the theory), you can quickly develop a unique and engaging story unlike anything you have written before. In this series, I show how to use the Narrative First Playground Exercise to access an unlimited source of great new ideas for your next story.

Generating An Abundance Of Story Ideas

If you want to write something unique and original, identify your story's deep meaning and then write similar stories as a means to brainstorm a better, fresher approach.

Too many times writers find themselves stuck without an inkling of where to go next. They write themselves into corners or run out of steam on that great idea that they thought would carry them through the end. Having an understanding of what it is you want to say and a framework for capturing that intent can go a long way towards preventing what many call writer's block.

Many see the Dramatica theory of story as a great analysis tool, something to be used to examine what worked and what didn't work. What they fail to realize is that Dramatica is also a great creativity tool. By listening to what it is you want to say with your story, Dramatica can offer insight and suggestions to round out your story and make it feel more complete.

The Playground Exercises

You know that writing tip that suggests coming up with twenty different ideas in order to get to one original one? The idea being that your first, your fifth, and even your fifteenth idea is really just a superficial rehash of something you have already seen or have already thought. Once you vomit out all the obvious choices your writer's intuition starts coming up with brand new and novel ideas that take your writing to the next level.

The Narrative First Playground Exercises were inspired by this process. The generation of several different Throughlines with slightly different storytelling grants an Author a playground from which to explore the deep thematic meaning present in their story. Even my own story.

My Story

Working my way through the Playground Exercises for my current writing project, I was amazed by the abundance of creativity I experienced in only a few hours. Averaging about 25 minutes per Playground, I managed to flesh out five completely different and potential Influence Characters for my story. That's five fully functional and thematically integrated characters all before lunchtime.

Sounds exciting, right?

Inspired by something Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley mentioned to me, I created the Playground Exercises late last Summer as a means to better understand the Main Character in the story I was working on. I was continuously running into a roadblock with this character and couldn't figure out why she seemed so small in comparison to the rest of the story.

By brainstorming ideas for characters dealing with the same thematic material as my Main Characters, I was able to concentrate on the essence of the Throughline--the meaty, thematic stuff--instead of futzing around wondering how it would fit into my story. The process was, and is, freeing and productive and often produces ideas for new and completely different stories.

There is a right way and a wrong way to do them and very often when working with clients they start out with the latter approach. This is a shared mistake brought about by the common misunderstanding that the Dramatica storyform presents storytelling material, rather than storyforming material.

The Storyform as a Source of Conflict

Many look to Dramatica and think it is a story-by-numbers approach. They think you flip a few switches and Dramatica spits out a preformed story. When they see a Main Character Concern of the Past they think, Oh, Roger is worried about the Past. or when they see a Main Character Problem of Feeling they think, Oh, Roger is the kind of person who feels a lot of mixed emotions.

This is not proper StoryEncoding. This is using the Apprecation as storytelling, rather than using it as a means to form a story.

A Main Character Concern of the Past means the Main Character experiences conflict because of the Past. Sure, he or she may be worried about the Past, but this worry doesn't set into motion a story. Instead, a Main Character who is so concerned with how great things used to be that they return to their high-school summer job at 42, start working out how to impress their teenage daughter's girlfriend, and start buying drugs from the neighbor next door to feel young again DOES set a story into motion. In fact, it sounds an awful lot like American Beauty doesn't it? Kevin Spacey's character Lester Burnham does have a Concern of the Past, but it's more than an indicator of worry, it's a generator of conflict.

Likewise, a Main Character Problem of Feeling means the Main Character experiences conflict because of Feeling. Of course this means they will "feel a lot of mixed emotions" but then again, what kind of character doesn't? Instead, a Main Character who is so overwhelmed by strange and uncomfortable emotions that they will pummel anyone who brings those emotions out DOES set a story into motion. In fact this was the problem Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) suffered in Brokeback Mountain. His inability to process his Feelings with the evidence he had of the torture and murder of a man who embraced similar emotions drove him to a life spent in denial and personal anguish.

This is the first rule of the Playground Exercises: Do not use the Appreciation (or Gist) as storytelling, but rather as a source of conflict.

Looking for Conflict in the Right Throughline

One should always look to each of these appreciations and ask, How is this a problem? While they have fancy names like Domain and Concern and Issue, really they're just different magnifications of the same thing: conflict. The Domain is the largest, most broadest way to describe an area of conflict; the Concern is the next smallest and the Issue even smaller. The Problem is the smallest way to describe a Problem (can't go much smaller than that!).

So when working through these appreciations and random Gists I simply ask myself, How is this a source of conflict for this Throughline? Each Throughline will have a slightly different question. The Main Character is very experiential and personal and typically the easiest to write. In contrast, the Influence Character is all about the impact or influence that character has on the world around them. When writing these I always made sure to write a character who created all kinds of havoc around them and for others because of who they were and what they were driven to do. This brings up the second rule.

The second rule when doing these Playground Exercises is to ignore the other Throughlines. Don't worry about them. I don't care one bit how the Influence Characters I come up with are going to impact the Main Character of my story because in the end, the storyform will make sure this character impacts the Main Character.

In my story the Main Character has a Concern of the Past and the Influence Character has a Concern of Memories. Right there, the impact is set. The Main Character in my story will naturally be impacted by this Influence Character because my Main Character is personally dealing with The Past--she can't help but be influenced by this strange thing known as "Memories".

Concentrate on getting the StoryEncoding strong for an Influence Character who impacts others through their Concern and the storyform will naturally impact the Main Character regardless of what you come up with.

Generating an Abundance of Ideas

How does this process work? This is the Influence Character Throughline section of my storyform for my latest project:

Influence Character Throughline Domain: Fixed Attitude Concern: Memories Issue: Suspicion vs. Evidence Problem: Actuality Solution: Perception Focus: Knowledge Response: Thought Benchmark: Conscious Signpost 1: Conscious Signpost 2: Memories Signpost 3: Impulsive Reponses Signpost 4: Subconscious

I have no problem sharing this with you as no one really owns a storyform. How I interpret and encode a storyform will be completely different than the way you do. That's what makes us unique and awesome.

Originally I was really excited about this storyform because it perfectly matched up with my story idea: that of a friend who wakes up a murder suspect, yet has no recollection of what they did the night before. The storyform above looked perfect for what I wanted to do: a Concern of Memories (he couldn't remember what happened), an Issue of Suspicion (everyone suspected him of killing), a Problem of Actuality (he actually killed the person!)--all of these seemed to really work great for the story I wanted to tell.

But when I went to actually write the thing the story kind of collapsed in on itself. I kept repeating myself with the Influence Character and he came off as kind of one-dimensional. What was worse was that he really didn't have any kind of effect or impact on the Main Character--she changed her resolve because I needed her to for the story, not because this other character challenged her to do so.

I resisted and resisted and put off doing my own Playground Exercises because I figured I was above all that. After all, twenty years of experience with Dramatica I should know what I'm doing, right? Turns out, I was short-changing my own writing process. By refusing to do what I had seen work wonders so many times before, I was keeping myself from writing a thematically rich and compelling story.

So I generated five different Influence Character Throughlines with the same storyform you see above by using Dramatica's Brainstorming feature. With this feature you can lock in the storyform and then randomize the Gists, or approximation of the story points, to keep the storytelling fresh and unique. I copied them over into Quip--the same app I use to work with clients--and then began brainstorming completely different Influence Characters. Different situations. Different genres. Different genders. But at the heart of them--the same thematic concerns of narrative.

Here are two of them. Note how disparate in storytelling, yet similar in thematic intent, they are. Note how every appreciation generates conflict and doesn't use the Gist as simply a storytelling prompt. There are moments when I start out using it as storytelling, but then quickly move it into a source for conflict.

Note too how I start out writing something somewhat similar to my original idea. This is how the Playground Exercise works--it lets you dump out your first thoughts and then forces you to stretch and become something more than you were before you started. You know the old adage You can't solve a problem with the same mind that created it? That is precisely what we're doing here--transforming minds to become better writers.

You should be able to see the magic that is the Playground Exercises and of the Dramatica storyform for generating new and wonderful characters. In the next article I'll present more examples and explain how I take these exercises and use them to craft a fully fleshed out and developed character for my story.

Influence Character Throughline StoryEncoding Example #1

Influence Character Domain & Concern

Being in a Special Group & Reminiscing about Someone: Roger, a 16-year old autistic boy, challenges the people around him with his strange behavior and demanding personality. To know Roger is to constantly be on edge, always fearful of saying the wrong thing, and always careful to make sure his every need is met—even before he asks for it. The result is an uneasy environment around Roger; people rarely take risks if they fear repercussions and Roger is full of them.

To make matters worse, Roger spends an inordinate amount of time reminiscing about Plato, his favorite stuffed animal from when he was three. Roger sorely misses Plato and often wakes the family up late at night crying for him or creeps them out when they're awake by hugging a pillow and pretending it is his long lost friend. His constant reminiscing reminds everyone how stuck Roger is and how, because he is different from everyone else, they need to be careful not to hurt his feelings. Unfortunately this has the opposite effect on the kids at school where the focus on a stuffed animal often leads to bullying and after-school fights.

Influence Character Issue

Being a Suspect in a Murder Case vs. Evidence: Strangely enough, Roger is also a suspect in a murder case. Whether a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time or simply as a matter of his condition, everyone suspects the worst of Roger and treats him like a pariah. No one will sit next to him at school, he frightens the timid girls on the bus, and dinners at home are an uneasy and unpleasant experience. The evidence is there on Roger's blood-stained hands and sheets, but no one knows if that is simply an autistic kid looking for attention or if it truly does speak of a murderous personality. The uneasy feeling he creates in others leads his family members to second-guess opportunities to leave and forces them to support him—no matter how badly they don't want to--as they fear for their own lives.

Influence Character Focus & Response

Being Philosophically Aligned against Something & Being Contemplative: Roger thinks the problem with the world today is that everyone spends too much time aligning themselves against that which they fear. It is so much easier taking the opposite position of the unknown then it is stepping out and trying something new. Roger refuses to give in to the “smaller” life and spends his waking hours contemplating different states of existence—all of which challenges those around him to improve their own way of thinking and to see the world differently. In short, he forces the people he comes into contact to deal with their own doubts and fears—something many would rather avoid doing.

Influence Character Source of Drive

Exploring Reality: Roger gets most worked up when he witnesses people consumed with the reality of day-to-day life. Paying taxes, working a job, and living the life of a city dweller causes him to lash out and publicly deride those who do. *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 non-autistic creature. His refusal to accept reality insults girls attracted to him, humiliates home economics teachers, and forces his family into working extra hours to make up for the work Roger himself has lost.

Influence Character Demotivator

Keeping Up Someone's Appearances: Roger loses himself when he becomes more concerned with keeping up appearances at the workplace or in a public restaurant. Those few rare moments when he stops being “special” and works to fit in—that's when the conflict dies around him and his friends and family can finally breathe a momentary sigh of relief.

Influence Character Benchmark

Wondering about Something: The more Roger wonders about the meaning of life, the more he reminisces about Plato and about the loss of his only true friend. Relationships are but a fabrication of our own minds, he believes. Ultimately transitive in nature and completely made up.

Influence Character Signpost 1

Concentrating on Something: We first see Roger standing in the middle of traffic contemplating a giant crack in the road. When questioned, Roger states that he sees more than anyone else ever could. It isn't just a crack because the more he thinks about it and the more he looks at it, the more glorious and beautiful it becomes. The artistry and majesty of the ripples and torn asphalt is a thing of beauty.

Influence Character Signpost 2

Being Memorialized by Something: Roger gets up in arms when the board refuses to memorialize his favorite 2nd grade teacher Mr. Donovan. Mr. Donovan was the kindest most gentlest teacher who spent every a couple minutes every morning reminding Roger how awesome he was and how much he enjoyed his company. To refuse to memorialize this man is to refuse to recognize the beauty of the universe and an attempt by the great unwashed to remain asleep.

Influence Character Signpost 3

Being Oversensitive to Something: Losing touch with reality, Roger's anxiety rages as he expresses his oversensitivity to touch and sound. The loud sounds of the city frighten him and cause him to scream and react in a way that terrifies children walking down the street. In addition, he screams terror when his family members try and hug him and show him affection.

Influence Character Signpost 4

Being a Heartbreaker: Roger comes to the conclusion that small-minded people are the problem and he rejects his girlfriend of several months. He shows no signs of sadness, no signs of remorse, just a complete loss of feeling for anyone around him. To be attached to someone is to remain shackled in the world of the normal. That is why he will never ever forget about Plato—Plato was more than what he was...and that's precisely how Roger wants to live his life.

Influence Character Throughline StoryEncoding Example #2

Influence Character Domain & Concern

Hero Worshipping & Being Memorialized by Someone: Tay Nguyen is the world's biggest Hunger Games fanboy. At 63 years of age he creeps out the teenage girls at comic book conventions, angers his wife who wants to go on cruises around the world, and empties out his bank account and the money saved up for his children so that he can buy more and more merchandise and cosplay outfits. Up until now, Tay has not amounted to much of anything. 43 years as a sanitation worker really hasn't left much of a mark on the world. He wants to be memorialized by becoming so famous the Author has to write a part for him in the next book. This obsession to be remembered causes him to make a fool of himself and his grandchildren at a mall appearance, frightens the Author when she catches him spying outside her window late at night, and creates riots amongst other fans as they feel Tay is ruining their beloved series. Tay is a royal pain-in the-ass.

Influence Character Issue

Being Someone's Suspect vs. Evidence: To make matters worse, the Author starts to suspect that Tay might be her muse. Stuck with writer's block these past months, she begins to think Tay might be the answer to all her problems...which ends up delaying the book even longer (she wants to spend more time with Tay to get to know him), angers fans to the point of vandalizing the Author's house (since they don't want Tay to have anything to do with it), and sets the publishing world into chaos as many more Author's begin to suspect that their writing is missing something when they realize they don't have their own personal Tay.

Influence Character Focus & Response

Being Ignorant of Something & Acting Without Thought: Tay sees the world's problems as revolving around their ignorance of the themes behind Hunger Games and of the strength and courage of its central character. The world can be so ignorant sometimes and can so easily discount something that could truly help them. Tay's response is to act with little consideration given to what he is doing, and to simply go with the flow. As that is what Katniss would do.

Influence Character Source of Drive

Finding the Objective Reality of Something: Tay swings into action anytime someone tries to find objective reality in the Hunger Games and in particular its fandom. Anytime a news reporter tries to deconstruct the fiction and true motivation behind its deepest fans, Tay leaps into battle and starts tearing down the foundation of most everyone's reality. Stories are life, Tay believes; they help us understand our lives better and give us real solutions to our problems. Nobody can make sense of real life—it doesn't have the same purpose a story does. This breakdown of reality, of course, encourages the Author and other Authors to spend more time diving into their own self-consciousness (through drugs and other means) rather than actually get down to the business of writing.

Influence Character Demotivator

Misperceiving a Particular Group: When reporters and locals begin misperceiving Hunger Games fans as sad and pathetic and lonely people, Tay begins taking time proving to everyone else what great people they are. This sounds more like justification and all it does is make these people, including the Author behind the Hunger Games and other Authors discount Tay and the other fans as lunatics.

Influence Character Benchmark

Considering Something: The more people start to consider that their lives are mere fiction, the less Tay cares about being's already happening.

Influence Character Signpost 1

Being Preoccupied with Something: When we first meet Tay is preoccupied with his latest cosplay for the convention this weekend. His wife tries to speak to him, his grandchildren come to visit, nobody—and I mean nobody—can seem to get through to him. Tay is in his own little world and he ruins the plans the family had for that week and challenges his wife's patience as he sits there and compares his outfit to images on the Internet.

Influence Character Signpost 2

Being Memorialized by Something: Tay is set to receive the official Hunger Games Greatest Fan award from the Author of the Hunger Games. As he begins to give his acceptance speech, boos and jeers start to rise up from the audience. He sends the crowd into turmoil when he mentions that the Author herself has promised to create a character based on him for the next book.

Influence Character Signpost 3

Being Spontaneous: The Author, spurred on by Tay's influence, begins spouting out inane nonsense at her next interview on Good Morning America. The Author is simply riffing on the cuff (something Tay convinced him of), but she angers and upsets the people outside, embarrasses the interviewer on GMA, and basically ruins the ending of the next book by just letting it out.

Influence Character Signpost 4

Fearing a Particular Number: Tay refuses to enter the offices of the editor for the Author's next book because he doesn't trust the street address: they are the same exact numbers used to signify the evil overlords in the original Hunger Games episode. He ends up missing out on being included in the next book because he is so consumed by the fiction of it all that he steps away and returns home.

Finding Your True Self Through Writing

Continuing last week's article on generating story ideas, we take a look at how to get up close and personal with your deepest intentions.

Going with your first impression is usually a recipe for disaster when it comes to writing. Far too many times, the first thing we come up with is simply a rehash of something we have already seen or read. Pushing ourselves to move beyond our comfort zone opens up worlds of story we never even knew we had inside.

Following up on last week's article Generating an Abundance of Story Ideas, we take a look at the remaining three Playground Exercises. To recap, I was struggling to come up with concrete imaginative encodings for my Influence Character's Story Points. Instead of using Dramatica's insights to make my story bigger, I was simply parroting the different appreciations and making my story smaller in the process. I eventually decided to take my own advice and began working through a series of Playground Exercises that I created to help clients break through their usual creative ruts.

The effect was staggering and I felt it would be good to share my experience with writers and producers wondering how to use Dramatica to increase their level of creativity.

New Discoveries

Note how different these three are from the previous two and how far away I started to get from my original story idea. This is a very good thing. Instead of writing a story that was already in my head and--let's be honest--not particularly original, I started to head down a path that reflected more of my subconscious thoughts & desires rather than the subconscious of someone else.

By locking in the thematic meaning of the story with the storyform, I was able to stretch my imagination with the confidence that I wasn't wasting my time. I wasn't heading down another blind alleys I wasn't wasting my precious few hours a day writing chasing the wrong dog.

With Marissa I found a character who found peace shutting out the world around her. With the Bonaporte family I found the pain induced by trying to keep the memory of a family member alive. With Harold I found gold.

Getting Personal

Now Harold is about as far away from my original Stephen King-inspired story idea that I could get: a character who was so deathly afraid of factory-style work because of it hid the reality of one's true calling. That should feel authentic to you, more authentic than the guy who couldn't remember if he killed someone, and it should--because it is something very honest and true to my heart.

I had no idea deep down inside that this is what I felt. I mean, I knew it on a superficial level, but I didn't know my true feelings on the subject. By working through these Playground Exercises I was able to unearth something extremely personal to me--something honest and real. Something that I could really dive into and communicate from deep within my own consciousness and experience.

I almost left this last one out. It's a bit too revelatory and I was concerned about what my colleagues in the animation industry might think of my true feelings. But I guarantee many of them feel the same--as do many of you. We've all had jobs or careers that didn't sit right, didn't feel authentic. And by getting to that honesty my story will now end up connecting more deeply with those who read or see it.

People go to stories for truth, for shared experiences. By not concerning myself with thematic intention or this character's relation to the rest of the story, I ended up forming someone who reflected my deepest of intentions. What writer wouldn't want that?

Next week I'll cover the process of folding these five very different characters into one. You can pretty much be guaranteed that Harold will fit predominantly into that mix.

Influence Character Throughline StoryEncoding #3

Influence Character Domain & Concern

Hating People Who Whine & Being Forgotten by a Particular Group: Marissa Lamont is the kind of mother who hates when her children whine. So much so, that she will lock herself in her room, put noise-cancelling headphones on, and turn up the Anthrax until she can't hear it anymore. As a result, her children never learn to get along, the house is a battleground, and her hearing is shot. But there is something else...peace. That peace of mind she feels infects the other women in the neighborhood and they too begin to revel in the ecstasy of shutting everyone out. Husbands neglected, children undisciplined, and a general sense of breakdown of communications between people begins to occur. Marissa, and the women in her circle, want to be forgotten by those who demand so much from them. It causes those around her to feel deprived, uncared for, and ignored. But it also has the side effect of developing self-reliance in those she left behind. On the surface Lamont's influence is a disruptive element, but like most disruptive elements eventually turns to a beneficial and uplifting experience.

Influence Character Issue

Being a Source of Suspicion vs. Evidence: Marissa's antics are a source of suspicion amongst her fellow neighbors: what does she do behind those closed doors and what is she hiding from? That suspicion infects the neighborhood with gossip and distraction and a general lack of purpose as everyone finds themselves more interested in what Marissa is doing rather than what they should be doing (like paying bills, feeding the kids, and getting enough sleep for the next day).

Influence Character Focus & Response

Being Philosophically Aligned with Something & Being Lost in Reverie about a Particular Group: Marissa believes the problem with most mothers these days is their philosophical alignment with suburban mores. Everyone is too caught up in aligning themselves with this idea of who they should be, rather than who they could be. Her response, and the response she has for so many of the women, is to become lost in reverie about long lost dreams, about that group of women they had planned to be as they were growing up. 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...

Influence Character Source of Drive

Seeing if Someone Truly Exists: Marissa Lamont is driven to see if this perfect suburban mother exists. She seeks her out in Internet chat rooms, in the grocery store, and even at school functions. Whenever she finds a woman she figure is the perfect woman, she approaches and begins breaking her down, asking insinuating questions and getting to the root of what that woman is really all about. Is she wearing that workout outfit because she is going to the gym as the perfect woman, or because she thinks she is supposed to be wearing a workout outfit to fit in. That drive to find what really exists cuts through the facade of suburban life and exposes these women for who they really are: hurt and put upon.

Influence Character Demotivator

Camouflaging a Particular Group: Even Marissa from time to time feels she has to hide and camouflage herself from her husband and her children, and when she does put on airs she manages to demotivate the other women around her and lessen her impact on the neighborhood.

Influence Character Benchmark

Reasoning: The more her children and husband try to reason with her, the more she grows concerned with the fact that they will never forget about her. That she will always be needed, and that she will never be able to live her dreams out. Communicating this to the other women allows them to see that simple reason will make it impossible for any of them to be forgotten.

Influence Character Signpost 1

Being Contemplative: When we first meet Marissa, she is at the head of the dinner table, children screaming, husband on his smart phone, expletives and food flying, a meal uneaten in front of her. Her daughter asks her a question and she seems distractive. “Just thinking, dear,” she tells her and returns back to her contemplation of the mashed potatoes in front of her. The contemplation confuses and intrigues her neighbor from down the street who stopped by for a drink. Marissa seems at such peace. “What is your secret?” She asks.

Influence Character Signpost 2

Having a Photographic Memory: Marissa inspires all the mothers around her when she begins to recite—from photographic memory—the exact imagery of each and every one of her children and even when her and her husband began first dating. The images play on the big screen TV, but Marissa has seen them all. Contrary to what the other husbands say about Marissa's strange behavior she hasn't forgotten or neglected her family—she remembers each and every detail about them. This inspires the women to return home and do the same.

Influence Character Signpost 3

Gagging at the Thought of Eating Oysters: The families arrive for a community cookout, a meal prepared by the husbands and by the children. The fathers present oysters to the women and Marissa begins gagging. Uncontrollably. It shocks and dismays everyone around them, but soon the other mothers turn away in disgust. It simply isn't good enough for them. Marissa shows them how to stand up for what you want, and to have that confidence that you deserve more.

Influence Character Signpost 4

Experiencing Rapture: The women of the neighborhood experience pure bliss as they shut out the world around them and indulge in their own personal happiness. Seventh heaven (the name of this story) kicks in as the women find peace refusing to compromise on their principals. Marissa reaches over, turns the knob on the Volume up to 10, and leans back in her chair and thinks to herself, “This is the life.”

Influence Character Throughline StoryEncoding #4

Influence Character Domain & Concern

Clashing Attitudes about Someone & Losing Something's Memories: Lilly Bonaparte grew up in a household centered around the patriarch of the family, Edward G. Bonaparte V. Treated like royalty his whole life, Edward had problem keeping his family in line and on track with his wishes and plans. Everyone that is...except Lily. At 13 she couldn't stand the old man and did whatever she could to disrupt their perfect little family. She would refuse to pray before dinner, refuse to do chores, refuse to come home before curfew, refuse to not date anyone older than her, and refuse to contribute in any meaningful way to the family. Suffice it to say, Lilly Bonaparte's attitudes towards her father angered him, brought anxiety to her mother, and threw the rest of her five siblings into constant brawls over who would take up her slack. At the heart of Lilly's concerns were the loss of the memory of Edward's mother, Valerie. Valerie was in the last stages of Parkinson's disease and was on the brink of losing all touch with reality—a travesty as far as far Lilly was concerned. And the idea that her father never visited Valerie or made any attempts to collect her memoirs or family's history devastated Lilly and drove her to label her father a miserable son who would only beget more miserable children and grandchildren. Effectively cursing the entire family lineage, Lilly brought turmoil and angst to the Bonaparte household with her efforts to keep Valerie and her more lenient ways of parenting alive.

Influence Character Issue

Being Suspicious of Someone vs. Evidence: Lilly's suspicion that father was doing all of this as a means of guaranteeing a larger inheritance only drove her to sneak into the old man's study and rifle through his things, hack into his computer, and reveal family secrets kept secret for a long time (like who was brother Austin's real mother). This suspicious attitude brought dissention and grief to the Bonaparte household and upset the tender balance Edward had worked his whole life to maintain.

Influence Character Focus & Response

Being Known by a Particular Group & Brainstorming Something: Lilly believes the problem to be that the Bonaparte's are known as a perfect family, something to aspire to, and to look up to by the other families. This is, of course, a problem as their family is completely built on lies and the ego of one man. In response, Lilly works hard to brainstorm different means of bringing her father down—an approach that unnerves the other children, incites some of the others to rebel and talk back to their father, and begins a wave of rumors throughout their tightly knit neighborhood of friends.

Influence Character Source of Drive

Exploring Reality: Lilly's drive to explore the reality behind the Bonaparte family and Edward's real life growing up brings turmoil to the Bonaparte household. Let sleeping dogs lie is not something Lilly believes in and as a result the tender bond between Edward and Valerie is forever shattered, reducing the family inheritance, and bringing shame and embarrassment to the Bonaparte family in the eyes of the other neighbors. It, however, also has the positive effect of inspiring her siblings to stand up on their own and claim their own individuality within the family—a disruptive effect in the eyes of the patriarch, but a positive move from those oppressed by his ways.

Influence Character Demotivator

Seeing Someone from a Particular Perspective: When her siblings begin seeing their father in a different light, Lilly tends to back off, her mission accomplished.

Influence Character Benchmark

Considering Something: The more her siblings consider that their father is not the great man he makes himself out to be, the less concerned Lilly is with losing her grandmother's experiences...the other kids will see to it that no one forgets.

Influence Character Signpost 1

Being Conscious of Something: Lilly starts the story by making everyone in her family conscious of her father's affair seven years ago. Out of nowhere. No one was even talking about it, Lilly just interjected between Roger and Mary's stimulating conversation about the difference between stalactites and stalagmites. “You all know dear old father had an affair with Miss Torio seven years ago, don't you?” That one comment set off a wave of disappointment and chaos.

Influence Character Signpost 2

Thinking Back about a Particular Group: Lilly takes her three oldest brothers out on a hike and strikes up a conversation about how the Bonapartes used to be back in the day. She wonders if they can think back and remember how it was before Valerie became old and decrepit and if they recall a time when the family was more about joy and expression than it was about following rules and decorum. The boys do recall. One, Andrew the oldest, gets really upset and refuses to talk about it anymore. He heads home angered. The other two recall and promise Lilly to tell the others when they get back.

Influence Character Signpost 3

Reacting Spontaneously to Someone: Edward loses his cool in front of everyone when out to dinner. Lilly demands that an extra chair be set for Valerie, even though she can't make it, and that sends Edward over the edge. In front of his wife, his family, and the rest of the neighborhood in attendance at Dolario's, Edward flips out and starts cursing the very existence of Lilly. She simply sits back and smiles. “At least, “ she says. “My real father shows up.”

Influence Character Signpost 4

Being Infatuated with a Particular Group: The local reporter, a man in the booth next to the Bonapartes at Dolario's, becomes infatuated with the family and sets out to write the family's memoir—exposing Edward for the sniveling son he is and the abuse some children engage in towards aging and disabled parents. The reporters expose is met with unrivaled acclaim and soon the Bonaparte name becomes synonymous with parental abuse, particularly in the case of Parkinson's. The Bonaparte name is forever memorialized as something you would never want to associate your own family with.

Influence Character Throughline StoryEncoding #5

Influence Character Domain & Concern

Fearing Work & Remembering an Anniversary: Harold Fauntleroy is deathly afraid of work. Why commit yourself to a task you would never do if they didn't pay you? That is not what life is about, that's voluntary slavery! Unfortunately for Harold's wife and two sons his fear keeps them homeless, hungry, and hopeless. His wife must take on an extra job and her sons are left to fend for themselves while their parents are away. Of great concern to Harold is the anniversary of his father's passing away, which is coming up in a few weeks. His father never lived his life, never took a chance, and always did everything the way he was told to. As a result he died content...but an unhappy content. Harold remembers the look on his father's face when he told Harold his life was a waste and that look of emptiness scares Harold so much that he refuses to commit to anything lasting longer than a week or two. The Fauntleroys struggle as winter approaches and the thought of sleeping in their car becomes more and more a reality.

Influence Character Issue

Being Paranoid about Someone vs. Evidence: Harold's constant paranoia that his employer is trying to diminish his soul creates an uneasy work environment for those who work with him and inspires others to quit or possibly do less work so that they too can concentrate on their own art. The paranoia—while disruptive to those in charge—actually inspires great things in others. A woman who hadn't picked up a paint brush in 35 years begins painting her cubicle walls. A man who always wrote short stories begins taking afternoons off at the office to work on his masterpiece. Harold Fauntleroy brings out the best in others by being paranoid about the truth of those in charge.

Influence Character Focus & Response

Being Ignorant & Considering Someone: Harold believes the biggest problem in the world is when people are ignorant. Ignorant of what is really going on around them and ignorant of what it is their heart truly desires. Harold sits down with each and every person and tells them that he considers them special. That he thinks about them. That he sees a unique individual capable of doing a great many things. The only thing they need to do is to get other people to start considering them. That's when they know they are on the right track.

Influence Character Source of Drive

Finding the Objective Reality of Someone: What excites Harold is finding the objective reality of the people he meets. Everyone he meets is hiding behind a mask, a false sense of themselves. Unearthing that truth, that reality that is there deep within each person unnerves those who have never stepped out of their comfort zone, and excites those who have dreamt of being so much more. Harold is all about reality. It may drive his wife crazy and his kids to become more fearful about what is happening with their family, but Harold is doing good work. He's bringing light to the world.

Influence Character Demotivator

Having a Slanted View on Something: Unfortunately, Harold's wife has her viewpoint on things and it does diminish his effectiveness from time to time. As committed as he is to truth, he does love his wife and hates to see her so nervous and anxious. Her slanted view on life and doing what others expect of you tempers Harold's drive and pulls him back occasionally from making huge gains.

Influence Character Benchmark

Considering Something: The more people consider doing something they have never done before, the less concerned Harold is with the anniversary of his father's death. It means there was a purpose behind it.

Influence Character Signpost 1

Starting a Think Tank: Harold begins to disrupt the universe the moment he requests a meeting room at work and begins to develop a think tank for creative endeavors. Inspired by Google's 5th day of personal projects, Harold starts brainstorming with the other employees how they too could make something more of themselves. This think tank upsets the employers, drives down productivity, and frightens stock holders. But it inspires the workers.

Influence Character Signpost 2

Thinking Back about Something: Harold pushes it farther when he gets those workers to begin to think back to when they were children and when they had dreams and 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. Harold is brought in and fired for his disruptive behavior.

Influence Character Signpost 3

Being Numb to Something: Harold's former employees act numb to threats from their employer. When brought in to a meeting to set rules and expectations and threats of firing, they act as if numb to the entire thing. Their heads are already in the clouds because of Harold and no amount of threat is ever going to change that.

Influence Character Signpost 4

Fearing Water: Fearing the rising tide of employee dissention created by Harold's persistent influence, the company decides to move its entire operation off-shore. Everyone is fired, but not a single person fears the consequences. They get in touch with Harold and he begins a new company—one that offers a chance for everyone to fulfill their true potential. In time, they all fulfill their greatest desires.

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.