The Real Magic Behind Great Stories

Breaking the mold: a fresh approach to storytelling beyond archetypes

Spend a few moments perusing the articles on this site and you'll soon pick up on a pattern. Most story structure/screenwriting sites expectorate the same ol' Hero's Journey/transformational arc paradigm. This site takes a decidedly different approach.

McKee, Field and Snyder certainly have value when it comes to understanding structure. Their diagnosis of story structure has helped many a potential writer take their first steps towards writing something more meaningful (including yours truly). Where they fall short, however, is in their use as working models for all successful narratives. They simply don't scale.

These paradigms of story often emphasize the transformational arc of the central character above all else. Often this transformation takes on a spiritual undertone. The metaphysical takes presence, elevating story to a mythical pedestal that at times, can seem unreachable.

The time may have come to plant our feet firmly back on the ground.

Method to the Madness

In sharp contrast to an understanding based on magic, the articles within this site approach story structure from the perspective of problem-solving. Instead of allegories for spiritual transformation, stories here function as analogies to a single human mind solving a problem.

This more objective-based approach supports the Author's view of a story. Here, the mechanics and functions needed to effectively argue a particular point-of-view present themselves in such a way that they become useful and trusted tools. The more popular subjective-based approach, those called into play by many others, supports the Audience's view of a story. There, how a story is received becomes more important than how it is built.

Why Problem-Solving Instead of Transformation?

Compared to the lens of problem-solving, using the lens of transformation to interpret a story's events becomes more of a subjective process open to individual interpretation. There is nothing wrong with this approach, it works for some and less for others. However, it is still just an opinion, carrying with it all the mistaken assumptions that accompany one's personal bias.

As mentioned before, these more subjective interpretations of story enjoy their popularity because they perpetuate the idea that stories are somewhat unknowable, that they exhibit a quality almost otherworldly. With the utmost confidence, they often profess that this spiritual element explains our fascination with story.

The reality soon told turns out to be less spellbinding (yet no less entrancing).

When something is misunderstood, it becomes much easier to chalk it up to magic rather than to dive in and fully assess the intricate mechanics at work. Sure, sometimes stories can be magical metaphysical explorations of transformation, but sometimes a story can simply be an exploration of the proper approach towards solving a problem. As it turns out, it always is.

Story Structure Without Bias

The reason for the superiority of the problem-solving approach to appreciating a story's meaning lies within its objective look at story. There is no call for spiritual transformation, no demand that a protagonist die--either physically or metaphysically--and no need for a protagonist to come to life in some marvelous way. While one can add on this spirituality post facto, it is not a requirement for a story to feel meaningful and whole. In fact, most of the time it only adds more confusion to the conversation.

Recently I received an email from Robert Cornero of Hacking Hollywood questioning my focus on Salieri's steadfast approach to problem-solving in Amadeus:

you might say a character like Salieri has now secured his place in Hell by the end of the movie. His humanity has died, throttled due to jealousy, where at the beginning he had some shred of it. He always could have stopped and chosen a different path, but he keeps choosing to take these steps further and further down this hellish road. And that's sort of the sense I get from that film. Each scene is a fiery drumbeat, transforming honesty into lies, beauty into ugliness, and finally sanity into insanity, leaving Salieri reveling in his own personal hell, deluded. The tree has grown up crooked in every sense of the word.1

Now, there is nothing wrong with this interpretation. It comes off intriguing, definitely sexier than the rather cold psychological model of problem-solving and justification. But how does an Author use this understanding to construct a story? There are no tools, no structural elements that one can knowingly use to effect this kind of reaction. There are traces of it in the mentioning of Salieri's delusion, but how would an Author go about reaching this point meaningfully? How does one craft this descent of character?

The objective view of the problem-solving approach presents the answer.

Seeking Accuracy Over Ease of Appreciation

This week there was conversation surrounding the character of Will in Good Will Hunting and his apparent passivity. My response, Why Gross Generalizations in Screenwriting Don't Work, explains the error in this attribution. In short, the lack of analyzing the film through the lens of problem-solving only served to offer a lightweight confused analysis of the story's structure. One mistake that stood out was the belief that Matt Damon's character was somehow "passive."

However, every once in awhile, a movie is based around a character without a goal. In these cases, the character is known as “passive.” They’re passive because they’re not “actively” trying to obtain a goal.

The only way one can see Will as passive is by misunderstanding his role as Antagonist in the film. Will Hunting, Antagonist? Blasphemy! many would say. But as with Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon, Good Will Hunting serves up a Main Character motivated to both avoid the story's goal and to force others to reconsider their own motivations. These are the primary elements of an Antagonist as Antagonists work against the successful resolution of the story's goal.

They are anything but passive.

Subjectively, from the Audience's point-of-view, Will certainly doesn't fit the emotional "feeling" of an Antagonist. But when viewed from the perspective of the Author, of the one constructing the story, Will's motivations are clear. Knowing him as an Antagonist allows the Author to understand how Will would react in each and every scene. The objective view of story offers clarity.

The somewhat confused analysis in the linked article depicts the problems involved with subjective interpretation. Main Characters are always Protagonists (not so!). Main Characters always need to have goals. Inactive characters are boring. These are all opinions on story structure, not story structure itself.

A Model for Everyone

Every human has a mind. Every mind functions under the same bio-mechanical process. While there are those who suffer from a lack of function, the underlying "structure" of the mind is the same for every human now or ever in existence. The process of coming to solutions works the same for everyone.

However, not every human is spiritual. Not every mind has come to the same solution in regards to the power of metaphysical transformation. Some have, but not all.

One approach stresses objectivity, the other subjective mysticism. One encompasses every human that has ever lived. The other...not so much.

Why write if you have no intention of reaching the widest possible audience? Why alienate those you wish to influence? The way towards universal meaning lies in an objective approach to story structure. Sure, there will be moments in writing where an Author will have to read their work and assess how its reception. But in the moment of creation, in the actual act of doing, it would seem favourable to have actual functional tools based in objective commonality.

A Tool for Universal Meaning

Identifying the problems and solutions within a story is a process that can only have one final answer. Whether the final product accurately explores the mind's inherent road map towards working through these problems becomes the responsibility of each individual Author. If done properly, the end result will be an argument that cannot be legitimately confronted without intense subjective opinion.

This is why the Dramatica theory of story is superior and why this site focuses on that theory and the paradigm of problem-solving when interpreting the meaning of a story. Beyond its truly "magical" ability to predict what happens next within a story, the theory specifically defines the problems of a story from an objective perspective. No altruism. No spiritual transformation. No mythical journey. No subjectivity.

There may be errors of interpretation in applying the theory to works already written, but having a neutral framework from which to appreciate story always offers a convenient and confident fall back point from which to reset, regardless of personal bias.

In short, Dramatica becomes a touchstone for accuracy.

An Explanation for the Magical

Most importantly though, the theory supplies an answer for the draw stories have upon us. In complete stories there isn't one problem to solve, but several depending on the context taken (see Writing Complete Stories). Complete stories look at problems from within, from the perspective of the Main Character, and from without, from the perspective of larger story (typically called the 'A' storyline).

The true fascination with stories then comes from the fact that they give us a chance to hold both views simultaneously. In real life, we can't truly be objective about our own personal problems. We can't be both in and out. This is why others can easily see errors in our work and why they can effortlessly point out our own failed paradigms that we weren't even aware of.

But complete stories can. They supply that experience, a unique sensation that can often feel mystical.

So while stories may feel magical to an Audience, to an Author it becomes more important how the trick is performed. Seeing stories as analogies to the mind's problem-solving process grants a writer their first look behind the curtain.

  1. Update: Chalk Hacking Hollywood up as another screenwriting consultant/analysis site lost to the ages. You can still find the archive for it here 

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