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The Crucial Element to Telling a Great Story

The most important part of any story exists at the intersection of the objective and subjective points-of-view within the narrative.

Audiences gravitate towards great stories because they can experience something unattainable in their own lives. They can feel the story’s problem personally, while at the same time reason the problem from a distance. With this in mind, the most important part of any great story lies at the nexus point between this subjective and objective points-of-view.

We can’t simultaneously be within and without ourselves; stories can. Through the Main Character Throughline we get to experience this inequity personally and from within; through the Overall Story Throughline we get to observe this inequity objectively and from without. By presenting a view from both sides, a great narrative grants us the opportunity to better appreciate the problems we face in our lives.

In Dramatica, the point at which the Overall Story Throughline intersects with the Main Character Throughline is called the Crucial Element. The exact location of this element of story structure shifts based on other narrative dynamics, namely the Main Character Resolve, the Main Character Growth, and the Story Outcome. Understanding how these story points integrate to define the Crucial Element helps a writer elevate the impact of their stories.

In this series on Writing for Nanowrimo, we focused on the creative potential found in Dramatica’s brainstorming tools. With this final article, we launch would-be Authors and long-time wordsmiths beyond simple idea generation and into the stratosphere of making their stories connect and engage on a deeply meaningful level with their Audience. In fact, we already engaged this key story element by hiding it within one of our stories in this series. Read on to find the location of this special Narrative First Easter Egg.

Why So Crucial?

In the past, we downplayed the “cruciality” of this element.

Sounds pretty important, right? Turns out the Crucial Element isn’t as crucial to the formation of a story as you would think. It simply marks the element that exists at the intersection of the Overall Story Throughline and Main Character Throughline. Crucial to the storyform, but not crucial to implementation of that storyform. In other words, don’t freak out if you don’t get it.

And it doesn’t help when Chris Huntley, one of the co-creators of the Dramatica theory of story, adds this to the conversation:

When all is said and done, the crucial elements are only ONE of MANY pieces of the storyform. Leaving them out of your story won’t ruin the experience for your audience, but adding them does tend to make the story stronger.

After several years of helping clients nail down their narrative structure and seeing the Crucial Element in action in their work and our own, we now believe this concept to be of the utmost importance.

Change Character and the Crucial Element

The Crucial Element for a Main Character with a Changed Resolve sits differently across the subjective and objective Throughlines than a Main Character with a Steadfast Resolve. For the most part, the former is easier to understand and integrate.

  • A Main Character Resolve of Changed & a Story Outcome of Success finds the Main Character’s Crucial Element in the same place as the Main Character Problem
  • A Main Character Resolve of Changed & a Story Outcome of Failure finds the Main Character’s Crucial Element in the same place as the Main Character Solution

The Influence Character’s Crucial Element lies in a dynamic pair relationship with the Main Character’s Crucial Element. In other words, in a Changed/Success story the IC Crucial Element would be the same element as the Main Character Solution.

This is easy to see in films like Star Wars or The Matrix or even Monsters, Inc. where the Main Character’s personal problem reflects the problem in the larger Overall Story. Luke’s problem with challenging himself at every turn, Neo’s problem with doubting himself at every turn, and Sully’s problem with an instinct to cause children to scream at the top of their lungs showcase problems that once resolved—make it possible for the Overall Story to end in Success.

When it comes to a Changed Main Character and a story that ends in Failure—like Ed Exley in L.A. Confidential or Andy Sachs in The Devil Wears Prada—the Crucial Element plays out in a similar fashion with one slight adjustment. The article The Crucial Element of Screenwriting in Action covers this second scenario in detail.

Steadfast Character and the Crucial Element

With the Steadfast Main Character, the Main Character Throughline and Overall Story Throughline find overlap in a somewhat strange and different location:

  • A Main Character Resolve of Steadfast & a Main Character Growth of Stop finds the Main Character Crucial Element in the same place as the Main Character Symptom
  • A Main Character Resolve of Steadfast & a Main Character Growth of Start finds the Main Character Crucial Element in the same place as the Main Character Response

As with the Changed Main Character, the Influence Character’s Crucial Element in a Steadfast story lies in a dynamic pair relationship with the Main Character’s Crucial Element.1

While the Changed Main Character looks to the Story Outcome, the Steadfast Character looks to the Main Character Growth. Why? Simply put, in a Changed Main Character story the Main Character Throughline and Overall Story Throughline share the same Problem and Solution elements. In a Steadfast Main Character story the Main Character Throughline and Overall Story Throughline share the same Symptom and Response.

The Crucial Element identifies the location of overlap between the subjective and objective views of a story. When a story abuses or mistakes this connection, the narrative falls flat and seems to lack appropriate drive. When in alignment the narrative thrums like a well-tuned engine. Two recent movies exemplify the latter.

And, of course, our Western Occult story from last week’s article Finding Your Own Unique Voice When Writing for Nanowrimo applied the Crucial Element correctly.

Surprise!

Crucial Elements not Character Traits

Moana tells the story of a Steadfast Main Character who holds out for other to Stop doubting her. The quad of problematic characer elements in the Overall Story Throughline finds the Overall Story Problem in Uncontrolled, the Overall Story Symptom in Avoidance, the Overall Story Response in Pursuit, and the Overall Story Solution in Control.

The Overall Story Throughline of *Moana*

Referring to the above for application of the Crucial Element in a Steadfast Main Character story, we find that Moana’s MC Crucial Element lies in Avoidance and Maui’s IC Crucial Element lies in Pursuit.

Remember that in a Steadfast story, the Symptom and Response elements of the Main Character and Overall Story Throughline are one and the same. For reference, here is Moana’s quad of problematic elements in her own personal Throughline.

The Main Character Throughline of *Moana*

At first glance it may seem as if these elements are reversed. If anything, Maui is the character who Avoids or runs away from trouble and Moana is the one who Pursues a course of action straight to Te Kā. Why then does Dramatica call for these roles to be switched?

Hacksaw Ridge is another story focused on a Steadfast Main Character that manages to hold out for those around him to Stop telling him how to live his life. The quad of problematic character elements in this WWII drama find the Overall Story Problem in Pursuit, the Overall Story Symptom in Control, the Overall Story Response in Uncontrolled, and the Overall Story Solution in Avoidance.

The Overall Story Throughline of *Hacksaw Ridge*

Again, we find that it appears Dramatica incorrectly reverses the Crucial Elements for these characters. Private Doss is the one advocating for freedom, or Uncontrolled behavior. Pvt. Smitty, Sgt. Howell, and Captain Glover clearly exemplify traits of Control in their efforts to dictate what Doss can and cannot do in their Army.

And that’s when you need to realize that the character elements found in the Overall Story Throughline represent facets of the Storymind as a whole—NOT individual character traits to be doled out as if at the start of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

The Storymind Concept

Dramatica sees story as an analogy to a single human mind trying to solving a problem. Protagonist, Antagonist, Skeptic, Guardian, Sidekick—these characters stand in for aspects of the mind at work. The Protagonist represents our motivation for initiative, the Antagonist our motivation for reticence.

When building characters by dragging and dropping avatars in the Build Character window, the Author assigns facets of the mind at work to these individual players. Thinking individual traits describe these characters is inaccurate; rather these characters represent individual traits of a single mind in the process of solving a problem. Understand this simple, but powerful concept, and Dramatica’s “reversal” of objective character elements in Moana and Hacksaw Ridge becomes clear.

Prodding the Storymind Where it Counts

As a Steadfast Main Character, Moana identifies the element in the environment that must be shifted in order for the Overall Story Solution to take place. She points out the Avoidance in others, rather than signifying any Avoidance emanating from herself. Likewise with Pvt. Doss in Hacksaw Ridge—Desmond identifies this problem of Control and shifts it out of the environment and into everyone else’s concept of themselves.

In a story with a Steadfast Main Character, the most significant paradigm shift occurs within the Influence Character—and this shift initiates with the Main Character’s constant prodding of the Main Character’s Crucial Element. Maui would never have reached a point of maintaining control over his massive ego if Moana had not constantly hit upon the Demigod’s predilection for running away. In fact, this narrative aspect could have been made more meaningful had the Authors emphasized and made a bigger deal out of Maui running away from the Coconut Pygmies and the Coconut Crab.

The collective Influence Characters of Smitty, Howell, and Glover would never have reached that point where they actually delay and put off an attack (another way of saying Avoid) had it not been for Desmond’s constant example and living proof over how much Control we truly have over our lives. Instead of writing a “reserved and controlled” character one might assume Dramatica calls for by giving Desmond this Crucial Element, the Authors of Hacksaw Ridge naturally saw to it that Des offered this aspect of the Storymind up for consideration to the Audience.

Weaving in the Crucial Element

In last week’s article on our Western Occult story, I secretly wove the Crucial Element into the world views of the Main Character and Influence Character:

To him [Jack, our Influence Character], it doesn’t make sense to get on your knees and pray for something you don’t even need. Be grateful and keep yourself from praying for an impossibility…Abby [our Main Character] sits on the other side of the argument. Why should they be happy with what they have when it feels so bad to have so little?

Our story features a Steadfast Main Character as well, however Abby’s Main Character Growth differs from Moana and Pvt. Doss in that she is holding out for something to Start. The Main Character’s Crucial Element will therefore be the same as the Overall Story Response. With a Steadfast/Start story the emphasis is on the hole to be filled in order to clear the way for the Overall Story Solution to come into play, so a focus on the Response makes sense. That Response, or hole to be filled, in our story is Feeling.

Do you see how I worked in her prodding of Feelings? How about Jack’s counter of what “makes sense”? That’s another way of encoding his Crucial Element of Logic.

Abby isn’t an emotional character given to bouts of intense depression or manic excitement as one would expect if these were simply character traits. Rather, she singles out the lack of feelings or deficient feelings that Jack and the others need to find within themselves. That shift, while clearing the way for the possibility of the townspeople to finally acquire some control over their lives, simply isn’t enough to overcome their addiction to being loose and fancy free. Remember, our story ends in Failure. Abby’s prodding works as intended in terms of freeing up Jack’s emotional growth, yet it isn’t enough to overcome the story’s larger problem.

Making Your Work Crucially Important

Audiences want to be inspired; they want to learn something new about their world that they can then take with them on their own journey. Understanding where the objective and subjective points-of-view of your story crossover can go a long way towards ensuring that your efforts at the keypad or at the notepad will not go unnoticed.

The Crucial Element of a story is crucial because it pinpoints an impossibility of life only possible within a narrative. An Author communicates this meaningful reality by accurately assigning the correct element to the two major subjective characters of a story—the Main Character and the Influence Character.

In the end, we write to be personally understood. We all have a unique and wonderful way of seeing the world and we hope to wish that someone somewhere hears our heart’s voice. Embrace the concept of the Storymind by giving your Audience a clear and accurate mind to inhabit and Audiences everywhere will ultimately embrace you.


  1. It will be the same element as the Main Character Response in a Stop story, and the Main Character Symptom in a Start story. ↩︎

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