Main Character Throughline and Influence Character Throughline
Anyone can tell a story. This event happens, then that happens, and then finally that happens. Listing events in chronological order is indeed one way to tell a story—an even better idea is to find a meaningful relationship between those events.
The Dramatica® storyform lists seventy-five individual story points that holistically work together to argue a single approach for solving a problem. One finds over 300 individual storyforms on the central Dramatica site and well over 200 here on Narrative First. Vetted and confirmed by a group of Dramatica Story Experts, these storyforms represent the most accurate way of defining their individual narrative structures.
At least, this was the standard understanding until I taught Story Development at the California Institute of the Arts. In my second year, a group of students successfully challenged the storyform for M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense.
In our first analysis of the film—completed in 1999 as a part of the Dramatica Users Group series-we saw
Universe as the context for Malcolm’s problems and
Mind the source of impact emanating from Cole’s perspective. Malcolm is dead but doesn’t know it, and Cole’s disturbed nature challenges Malcolm to wake up.
The second analysis—first brought to light by my students more than ten years later—challenged this initial understanding by flopping the Main Character and Influence Character Throughline perspectives. Instead of seeing Malcolm’s problems as a matter of externalized consequences (he’s dead), the students interpreted his issues within the context of a fixed internal mindset (Malcolm doesn’t know he expired). They saw Cole’s influence as coming from a place of Universe and an external state he cannot escape (I see dead people).
Sensing the greater clarity in this new storyform, I presented it to Chris Huntley, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story, and he agreed that it was a better representation of the film’s narrative dynamics. The correct analysis of The Sixth Sense on the central Dramatica site reflects this better understanding.
The Litmus Test for Domains confirms our decision. If Malcolm suddenly escaped limbo, would that resolve his issues? The answer is no. If Malcolm fled the mindset that he is still alive, would that address his concerns? The answer is yes.
This answer places Malcolm’s Main Character Throughline firmly in Mind.
As evidenced by the disparity in Sixth Sense storyforms over time, one can always make an argument for a single story point to the exclusion of others. One could argue
Psychology as the Domain of Malcolm’s personal issues just as quickly and convincingly as the arguments made above for Mind and Universe. It’s when you look to the implied story points that all the other choices begin to pale in comparison.
Malcolm’s perspective in Mind implies Cole’s influence emanates from Universe. Main Character and Influence Character perspectives always sit diagonally across from each other; this ensures the highest amount of conflict and a shared similarity between the kinds of issues they face.
The argument for Malcolm in Mind and Cole in Universe holds up against scrutiny: Cole can’t help but be in the presence of dead people, he can’t escape the situation (Universe). And this problematic perspective eventually draws Malcolm’s to his Changed Resolve.
If the area of conflict from Malcolm’s perspective is in Universe, that implies Cole’s influence emanates from Mind. This arrangement fails to hold up: Cole’s mindset and the mindset around him does not directly challenge Malcolm to move to a Changed Resolve.
We can make a convincing argument for Malcolm in Mind and Malcolm in Universe; the relevancy of one over the other reveals itself when we look at the implied story points based on our choice of Domain.
When it comes to crafting a narrative with the Dramatica theory of story, one must always look to the source of conflict in each Throughline. Cole is sad and lonely because he sees dead people—he doesn’t see dead people because he is sad and lonely.
One ascertains this source of conflict while knowing the entirety of the narrative, from beginning to end. The Dramatica storyform captures time and space into a single meaningful document. The story points and appreciations found in the storyform don’t represent a what if?, they tell of What Is.
The revelation that Cole sees dead people arrives halfway through the story yet exists throughout the entire narrative. The reveal reframes everything before in greater context and motivates Malcolm to grow out of his justifications.
Storyforms exist at varying levels of accuracy for a particular narrative—but only one rings true.
Consider the choice of conflict within Malcolm’s Throughline and the implied source of conflict in the alternate Influence Character Throughline:
This arrangement suggests that Cole’s attitude of being sad and lonely influences Malcolm to escape limbo.
Contrast that storyform with this one:
This arrangement suggests that Cole’s reality of being stuck around dead people influences Malcolm to realize the lies he tells himself about being alive.
The latter sounds more like The Sixth Sense.
Also, the second alignment of Throughlines offers a reason for Cole and Malcolm to be within the same narrative. They’re both stuck—one internally, one externally—yet the way they proceed couldn’t be more different. Cole’s Chaotic life challenges and impacts Malcolm’s Perception of reality.
We see the world from a subjective point-of-view. This reality blinds us to the real state of things—and creates the need for narratives to understand better the means by which we solve problems.
With the Dramatica theory of story, that subjective blindness falls away. Offering a comprehensive look at all perspectives within a single context, Dramatica fills those blind spots—or story holes—with implied story points. Choosing to see a conflict in one area naturally develops conflict in another.
The key to everything in Dramatica is this: One story point does not identify a story—it’s the nature of the implied story points that determine the accuracy of the structure. The relationship between the perspectives and the story points within frame those implications and create the storyform.
It’s on us to appreciate the totality of the message.