Effective story structure begins with setting up dramatic potentials. The competent Author then resolves these inequities with meaningful outcomes. Knowing the real source of both guarantees that the story makes sense and leaves the Audience with a feeling of fulfillment.
Guessing only habituates Author and Audience to meaninglessness.
Grasping at the Meaning
Subject Matter is a moving target. Structure is not.
A recent response to my article Writing a Relationship that Counts Towards a Premise calls out my identification of Temptation as problematic within Back to the Future:
I think you’re wrong about BTTF [Back to the Future]. Temptation is an aspect of it. But i think “Self confidence” is the determining factor. You can be tempted, but ultimately your self confidence is what is either rewarded or stifled as a result.
You might agree with this assessment that Back to the Future is about self-confidence. Or, you might differ and think the film about bravery. Or love. Or maybe even regret. The list of potential values here exceeds the number of souls on the planet (assuming the individual struggles to identify only one).
But if each of us finds a different value, what is the purpose of a story? To remind us of what we already believe? To give us a focal point to project our inner conflicts?
And, if everything means everything, it follows that any attempt to ascribe structure to this value is therefore arbitrary, fluid, and ultimately pointless.
Enter the Hero’s Journey and Save the Cat!
Chaos is not order—unpredictability, the very antithesis of structure.
For there to be order, a certain commonality must exist amongst all the various perceptions—something in charge of a story’s meaning.
There must be one source to rule them all.
The Mirage of Subject Matter
A value, such as self-confidence, is a topic for discussion. An orbiting cloud of stardust on the periphery of a story’s consciousness. More Subject Matter than a source, values such as these are what a story appears to be from afar; a means by which the Audience member—unfamiliar with narrative structure and the Storymind concept—seeks to establish a relative footing on the way to the true meaning.
A story must mean something, right?
If you don’t possess the tools to accurately define that meaning, you will always turn to some value. Some measuring stick. And that value differs for each and every one of us. Which is why—if we’re looking to structure a narrative that communicates to everyone regardless of individual experience—we must dig deeper.
We must find the inequity at the heart of the story.
A Matter of Perspective
Getting to the heart of conflict requires appreciating the effect point-of-view bestows upon meaning. One woman’s trash is another man’s treasure. One man’s globe is another lunatic’s Flat-Earth.
Add to this the inescapable reality that an inequity cannot directly be described, and suddenly you see the deficiencies of a “self-confidence” perspective. It’s simply not enough to explain what is really going on with a story.
Context is meaning. If you want to write something meaningful, you’ll need to establish a baseline of perspective. Knowing this point of reference helps you see beyond the generalities of the value.
Everyone understands that things look different from alternate perspectives. Conflict in a story is no different; change the point-of-view, and you change the appearance of conflict.
The Pinheads. Fighting Biff. Even Loraine was confident in what she wanted from “Calvin Klein”. Depressed Loraine and Shit head George were both results of lack of self confidence. Biff was successful because his self confidence was present even though it was tainted by ego.
The article on the Relationship Throughline focuses on conflict within the relationships. The above example focuses on conflict from without.
By within a relationship, I refer to the perspective of We—as in, we have a problem.
The perspective outside of that relationship is They—as in, they have a problem.
What appears as one set of circumstances will shine differently from another point-of-view. What looks to be the problem for them might very well something different for us.
Let me add another level of complexity and insight that will blow your mind while improving the quality of your story construction 5000%:
By We and They, I mean the Author’s point-of-view on We and They. Where does the Author position conflict within the relationships and a We perspective? Where does he see the source of conflict for an objective frame of reference?
Characters are not real people, they don’t maintain points-of-view. Characters function as placeholders for the point-of-view of the story—the Author’s perspective. After all, a story is an attempt to communicate a premise—the Author’s premise, or meaning.
“Characters” have no say in it.
What That Looks Like From Here
What happens when we dive into the amorphous cloud of “self-confidence” that appears to describe Back to the Future? What does it look like to search out where the Authors placed the conflict in the story?
It can be confusing at first to enter the unknown; preconceptions cloud your very perception of solid ground.
So first, find a perspective.
Establish a point-of-view.
Look from without, and you see Avoidance.
The time traveler avoids having sex with the confused teenage girl. The same traveler avoids, or runs away, from the bullies. The affable parent avoids upsetting his boss. All examples of conflict within the relationships from an objective point-of-view.
Look from within the relationships of Back to the Future and you see Temptation.
A father taking the easy way out when parenting. A friend fighting the Temptation to keep the one he cares about safe. A mother confused by temptations for her son from the future.
These are subjective interpretations of conflict for the relationships in the film--the conflict from within.
Same situation. Same characters. Different context, different conflict. And yet, no.
Same source of conflict—just from a different perspective.
Each perspective points to the same inequity, the inequity that can’t be addressed directly.
The very same way it happens in our mind, every single millisecond of every single day.
A Model of Ourselves
My examples of conflict found in the original linked article see the conflict in the story from one perspective. The rebuttal examples above find different conflict from another point-of-view. Both exist within the same context--the context of the story. Neither is more truthful than the other, only more accurate given a particular perspective.
A story attempts to the model the same psychological processes that go on within our own minds. Inequities are not real. Conflict is not real. The two only exist as the result of our attempt to make meaning of our perceptions.
Something we struggle to achieve, considering our limited point-of-view.
By presenting both subjective and objective points-of-view at the same time and within the same context (the context of a story), the Author grants meaning—something positively unattainable in real life.
Which is why it’s so important the Author gets it right.
The Right Solution for the Job
Getting the perspective right matters when it comes to developing a story. If you don’t know what conflict looks like from a certain point of view, you’re not going to understand how to accurately resolve it.
Having a general sense of self-confidence as problematic—without appreciating context—sets one up for an eventual encounter with writer’s block. Or worse—an incomplete story that many find trite or shallow.
On a recent episode of the Writers Room, my weekly masterclass in Dramatica theory, we discussed the spec script Don’t Go In The Water. This screenplay sold for more than $500K in 2019–a remarkable feat considering the malnourished story. “Surviving alcoholism” replaces the Ort cloud of self-confidence here, in another failed attempt to capture meaning without access to the right tools.
You know you’re in trouble when the Author feels he has to flat out tell you: “You can’t defeat the monster, you can only survive it.” To be repeatedly beaten overhead with theme is to be marginalized and lectured to as if a child. With a fully realized screenplay, one skirts the need for trite axiom proclamations from father.
A Way Out of the Dark
Don’t Go In the Water will undoubtedly get better. It can’t help be improved, especially when the film everyone compares it too—Jaws—carries the same exact message. Structurally and thematically, the two are identical.
Both films present the same argument:
Give up running away, and you can tame your demons.
In fact, that’s likely why it sold regardless of its under-developed story. Producers recognized enough of Jaws in Water that they forgave the spec script’s complete lack of development in its relationships. Or it’s absent, and much needed Influence Character Throughline perspective.
Like Jaws—and like Back to the Future (and like The Lion King, Finding Nemo, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Collateral)—the Author of Water cast Avoidance as problematic from an objective point-of-view. Avoiding being in torn by two by the monster that is alcoholism functions as a problem for everyone.
The Author of Water continues the replication by driving the wedge of Temptation between brother and sister. Always being there for your alcoholic brother, and taking advantage of that generosity from the other side, instantiates the heart of the inter-personal conflict in Don’t Go In the Water.
Yet, without the proper development of this Relationship Throughline throughout the script, Water conflates the resolution of a sibling relationship with the objective solution of defeating the monster. Is it a sense of Conscience that overcomes evil? Or was it the Pursuit of the beast out into the open?
We don’t know for sure, which is why the Author felt the need to reinforce the latter—with dialogue.
Collateral resolves the same inner and outer conflicts without conflation, and with great panache. Foxx and Cruise grow closer emotionally as friends, as they grow further apart objectively as assassin and driver. Same thing in Jaws with Brody and Quint. And Finding Nemo with Marlin and Dory.
Seeing only “survival” as the grey-matter source of conflict, Don’t Go In the Water fails to grant us a meaningful experience. Speaking your premise directly to the Audience is tantamount to Samuel Goldwyn’s classic recommendation of writing your Audience a telegram.
Or better yet—just send them a text.
A Better Sense of Purpose
Narrative structure is more than an exploration of value. More than a general sense of what is being said. The structure of a story is something that resonates for all Audience members, regardless of background or experience.
Did Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale explicitly set out to write about Avoidance and Temptation when they wrote Back to the Future? Probably not. And neither did Benchley or Beattie when they wrote Jaws and Collateral, respectively.
But they did end up there.
Taking the easy way out, of Temptation, is the natural counterpoint to a problem of Avoidance. See conflict as Avoidance objectively, and you naturally write Temptation for relationship conflict.
Authors naturally gravitate towards perfect story structure because they instinctively know ideal story structure. That’s how their mind works.
Knowing the specifics of narrative conflict, and the relationship of perspective with meaning, helps the Author avoid countless rewrites and disappointing drafts.
Telling us the theme directly, in dialogue, is the easy way out.
Giving in to that Temptation disrupts the relationship between Author and Audience, leading us to distrust you, and your story.
Work on both the inner and outer relationships, and you guarantee a Triumph.