The Fugitive: When A Situation Isn’t A Situation

Returning to original terminology clears up misrepresentations of conflict found in narrative.

One of the most difficult things for someone new to the Dramatica theory of story is understanding the difference between problems found in the Universe Domain and conflict present in the Physics Domain. Part of this has to do with the switch in terminology designed to make things easier (yet, more confusing), and the other part has to do with how difficult it is for writers to split up the different ways they perceive conflict.

When most writers write, they waste little time thinking about the latter—which makes it easier to misunderstand and confound the former.

The Jungle and an Experiential Point of View

If you're like most writers, you don't consider what kind of conflict you write when you begin a story. You find something interesting and compelling to your heart—perhaps an untenable situation for your characters—and then have at it. You keep writing and writing until you exhaust everything about that situation, and then you create another more desperate situation for them to encounter.

All along you focus on what the characters see and how difficult it is for them to work their way through this situation. You look at your story from the point-of-view of experience.

When you bite into a hot dog, you don't want to know what went into making it. All you care about is that delightful snap the moment you break the skin and the delicious and satiating flavors of the meat snack as it passes over your palette. All that matters is the experience of how it tastes.

You don't want to know how to make a hot dog.

Most writers feel the same about telling a story. After subjecting his screenplay for Reservoir Dogs to many in the Sundance Film Festival Workshop, writer/director Quentin Tarantino vowed never again to solicit thematic interpretations of his work, leaving the bulk of that work to more qualified minds. Discovering that the relationship between Mr. Pink and Mr. Orange too closely resembled the relationship between a father and son hit too close to home and Tarantino wanted never to hear of such revelations again.

He didn't want to know how to make a hot dog.

The Dramatica theory of story looks at narrative from the perspective of process—the factory floor of storytelling. Not as stomach-turning, but just as revealing, this insight into the composition and construction of a complete narrative confuses many used to only experiencing a great read because of its focus on the ingredients of a story.

Foundational ingredient number one is the idea of separating out the kind of conflict seen within the Main Character point-of-view from the Objective Story perspective perspective.

When a Universe is Not a Universe

A complete story evaluates the four kinds of conflict our minds perceive from four critical perspectives. Skip an area or combine two aspects into one and the narrative will feel lopsided and insufficient. The argument will feel one-sided and confused.

The four kinds of conflict:

The four key perspectives:

  • the Main Character perspective (I)
  • the Obstacle Character perspective (You)
  • the Relationship Story perspective (We)
  • the Objective Story perspective (They)

Each perspective, or Throughline, perceives a single area of conflict as the source of inequity in the story. Once complete, the narrative presents a totality of experience our real lives fail to afford. The Reader, or Viewer, soak in the conflict of the story both from within, and without.

Writers new to Dramatica take to this insight with confidence and verve and begin casting their story into the various Throughlines. They take one look at the word Universe, make the connection congruent with their experience of writing one problematic situation after the next, and assign the Objective Story Throughline to the Universe Domain.

And from there, the entire experience of working with Dramatica and this new way of thinking falls apart.

Terminology Made Easy

Towards the end of the 20th century, marketing imperatives drove the creators of Dramatica to establish an “easy” and more approachable lexicon for the program. Believing terminologies like Conceptualizing, Being, and Universe culprits for the theory's low adoption rate, they traded accuracy for ease of use and set the conversation of actual narrative structure back several years.

The original terminology was re-identified as these four key areas of conflict:

  • Universe became a Situation
  • Physics became Activities
  • Mind became Fixed Attitudes
  • Psychology became a Manner of Thinking

The thinking was that Manner of Thinking was a more digestable approximation of Psychology. Activities are less scary than the memories of a failed Physics AP test. Fixed Attitudes replace the esoteric Mind Domain, and a Situation lends itself to more problematic scenarios than Universe.

Or does it?

The First Stumbling Block for Most Writers

The original Dramatica Story Expert application packed close to 60 example storyforms (Subtxt offers 500+ unique and individual Storyforms! 🚀). Designed to ease the writer into an understanding of the theory based on popular and critically-acclaimed films, television shows, novels, and plays, the example files provide context for the conflict. Chief among them is the 1993 film The Fugitive starring Harrison Ford as a man hellbent on finding the man responsible for murdering his wife.

Kimball (Ford) struggles to apprehend the killer while Deputy US Marshall Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) and his compatriots seek to stop and secure the fugitive before he kills again. Naturally, this reality calls for the Objective Story Throughline to fall under the Activity Domain.

But it doesn't.

One look at the example file and the writer begins the tumble down the dark rabbit hole that is a comprehensive understanding of narrative structure.

The Objective Story Throughline of The Fugitive rests under the Domain of Universe.

I Don't Get It

As they fall, many writers struggle to rectify the example file and official Dramatica analysis with their appreciation of dramatic structure. These writers naturally cast Kimball's Main Character Throughline in Universe and the Objective Story Throughline in Physics:

The MC is in a tough situation, but everyone else is concerned with finding him. What situation are the Marshals in? What situation is the real killer in?

Here, we begin to see the implications of making Dramatica's precise terminology easier to understand.

Situation describes a narrow slice of Universe and, as evidenced above, obstructs the flow of greater understanding. One would never ask "What Situation are the Marshals in?" or "What Situation is the real killer in?" However, an appreciation of Universe as the area of conflict (which brings into question the Concerns of Past, Present, Progress, and Future) precludes the tendency to see all conflict as just an untenable "situation".

The term Universe removes the writer from a position of subjectivity by forcing them to consider the meaning behind that Domain.

Returning Balance

It's not about what situation the Marshals are in, or what situation the killer is in. The entire film is about a man unjustly accused of his wife's murder. The Universe is unbalanced because of this injustice.

This inequity is the same Objective Story Throughline conflict found in The Shawshank Redemption--that of the Presumed Guilty Narrative Personality. Every character in that film experiences conflict because of some imbalance in the Universe—some inequity that refuses to budge. Breaking free of the bonds of that fixed imbalance resolves the conflict of that story.

Andy trades the injustice of Shawshank for a lifetime of freedom. And Kimball returns balance to the Universe with the identification and apprehension of his wife’s actual murderer.

Justice returns the Universe to a place of rest, and balance.

The Universe and Resolution

To see the real nature of conflict within the Objective Story perspective, one looks to the area upset by the initial Story Driver. Whether Action or Decision, if the result upsets the natural order of the Universe, then the Domain of the efforts to resolve that conflict will reside in Universe. the case of The Fugitive the entire movie is about the efforts to capture the main character and his efforts to escape. In The Shawshank Redemption, the entire story is about the nature of being incarcerated–how people deal with it, how sometimes they can’t deal with it.

The resolution of the Objective Story Throughline brings an end to the inequity motivating conflict within a story. In the case of The Fugitive, apprehension of Dr. Kimball or his eventual permanent escape would fail to return equity. The unjust label of wife-murderer would continue to persist.

Reducing conflict within the Universe Domain to a Universe leaves too much to personal and familiar understandings of characters in “problematic situations.” From the character’s perspective, yes it appears as a problematic Universe, but this is not a concern of Dramatica.

As far as a Dramatica storyform is concerned, it's not what the story is about or what the characters sense, but rather how the problem in a story manifests itself.

and a reestablishment of equity.

An Advanced Interpretation of a Storyform

While based on the original incarnation of the Dramatica theory of story, Subtxt sometimes deviates from the "official" Storyforms provided with the original application. The Storyforms found in Subtxt for Reservoir Dogs, Unforgiven, Casablanca, and Rear Window offer more sophisticated understandings of the narrative dynamics present within each story.

The Fugitive is yet another example where deeper thinking was required for greater accuracy. In the original Help was seen as the source of all conflict in the story. In Subtxt, the source of conflict shifts to Probability. Some struggle to see why the shift makes more sense:

When you watch the first half or two-thirds of the movie, the presence of "help" in the subtext is astonishing. Every scene is about how help problematically leads to the next thing. Then there is the "scene dressing" that goes along with that, like... he poses as "the help" (a janitor) in order to sneak into the laboratory and get access to their computers. So it just seems like "help" is causing many many more problems than Reduction/Production.

The writer here refers to the Pivotal Elements of Reduction and Production found in the Subtxt Storyform. As The Fugitive is a Steadfast narrative, where the Main Character maintains his approach towards resolving inequity, the pivot points between Character and Plot (Pivotal Elements) center around the Focus and Direction of both the Main Character and Objective Story Throughlines.

Comparing the two then requires looking at the original Storyform's pivotal elements of Control and Free, rather than Help and Hinder. This was one of the primary reasons for re-visiting this Storyform when adding it to Subtxt.

One could potentially make an argument for Kimball representing Control in the Objective Story, but would find it close to impossible to provide illustrations for Gerard acting as Free (or worse, the original terminology of Uncontrolled).

Reduction and Production, however, find strong illustration in the classic scene at the top of the aqueduct.

"I didn’t kill my wife!" is a plea for Reduction (Don’t pigeonhole me).

"I don’t care!" is a confession of Production (I’m not making this any more complicated than it is).

The Obstacle Character Throughline

Looking at the subtext storyform, I just can't see much of the IC's throughline working. He's not motivated by "probability" and demotivated by "possibility". There's nothing remotely "grey" about him. He's black and white.

By Probability as a Problem within the Obstacle Character Throughline, the story illustrates Gerard's motivation to "play the odds"--to go with the most probably choice. All the clues point to Kimball, why else would he be on the run? Gerard's shaking of his head while sarcastically saying "Your fugitive is Dr. Richard Kimball" is the action of someone who has seen this so many times before that he doesn't think twice about who did it--because Kimball is most likely the right one.

Gerard is motivated by that Probability.

As the Changed Subjective character in the story (to balance out Kimball's Steadfast Main Character), Gerard shifts into the Possibility that he might be wrong about the good Doctor. More importantly, Gerard doesn't want anyone thinking there's the remote chance or possibility that he's a nice person. "I thought you didn't care", followed by "Don't tell anyone" is someone who recognizes that they were wrong, but doesn't want anyone to learn about it because of the possibility that others might not follow him, or allow him to stay in charge or lead the next manhunt.

Originally published 09-16-2017