For the past 25 years, a Dramatica aficionados group gathers every month to discuss and analyze a film. Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley leads the class, and the result is a comprehensive understanding of thematic conflict known as a storyform. Unlike many other narrative paradigms where the same beats arrive in every story, a Dramatica storyform shifts relative Storypoints to capture a specific story's essence or meaning.
In Subtext, my practical application of Dramatica, that meaning appears as the Premise of a story.
With a room full of Dramatica Story Experts, those monthly classes identify the one storyform (out of a possible 32767) with relative ease. When dissent arises, group discussion works out the kinks until the room reaches a collective agreement. While disagreement may persist over the final interpretation, the departing sense is one of resolution and understanding.
The analysis of Ford v. Ferrari in May 2020 broke tradition.
The reason for that departure is the Premise.
Building an Algorithmic Premise
Subtext's initial purpose was to facilitate the delivery of Genre Gist Collections for Narrative First readers. The roadmap changed a few months into development, broadening the application's use. During its first three years of production, Subtext served over a thousand different writers to create thousands and thousands of individual stories. The increased scope captured the dream of improving the quality of storytelling across the world.
Part of that on-going dream involves delivering an intuitive understanding of the Dramatica storyform. Based on years of developing stories with both professionals and amateurs, Subtext offers a programmatic version of story consulting. Many find Narrative First's story development services unwieldy in terms of cost. As the one facilitating those services, I find the same cumbersome in terms of time. Subtext allows us both to benefit in terms of time and space, with the Premise feature standing out as the ultimate manifestation of that collaboration.
A Dramatica storyform consists of 75 individual Storypoints; the Premise in Subtext is one sentence. The storyform is the Premise of a story—as both communicate a narrative's intent. One allows you to see the grand purpose behind a story; the other leaves you confused and lost. Subtext guides you towards understanding Dramatica—and helps reveal the meaning behind the involved concepts.
Breaking with Tradition
The Dramatica Users Group meeting for May 2020 found us analyzing Ford v. Ferrari. The resultant storyform identified a Low Vibrational Premise—a mixture of a focus on self and waning emotions.
The Low Vibrational story, which includes the first season of Wanderlust and the Zuckerberg biopic The Social Network, leaves the viewer with an unsettling sense of dis-ease. If these stories were people, they would be the sensitive type sitting on the verge of separation and isolation.
Ford v. Ferrari is a different kind of person.
Recognizing this disconnect between the film and our group interpretation, I reached out to those in the class familiar with my development of The Holistic Premise. I confirmed my suspicions—the chosen storyform was incorrect.
Recognizing Narrative Intent and Personality
Ford v. Ferrari is a different type of racing movie. The film separates itself from the pack of others in this Genre by altering two key Story Dynamics: the Main Character Mindset and the Objective Story Domain.
Dramatica classifies a Domain in one of four areas: fixed situations (Universe), external activities (Physics), internal thought processes (Psychology), and fixed attitudes (Mind).
In addition, Dramatica identifies four perspectives: the Objective Story Throughline, the Main Character Throughline, the Influence Character Throughline, and the Relationship Story Throughline. These perspectives correspond with the mind's ability to appreciate a point-of-view:
A complete story attaches one perspective to one Domain. When all four perspectives and all four Domains are accounted for, an Author ensures completeness of thematic exploration. Dramatica adds one rule: the Relationship Story Throughline must sit across from the Objective Story Throughline, and the Influence Character Throughline must oppose the Main Character Throughline on the diagonal axis of a quad.
The arrangement of Throughlines to Domains generates a Personality of Story many refer to as Genre. Action/Adventures position their Objective Story Throughlines in Physics and their Main Character Throughlines in Universe. Coming of Age Comedies maintain the same MC Throughline, but shift the OS Throughline into Psychology.
The Objective Story Domain signals the area of most significant conflict for all characters within a story. As with the Action/Adventure stories, a typical racing film positions this area of focus in Physics. Around the World in 80 Days, Days of Thunder, and the entire Fast and Furious franchise are several examples of racing generating conflict. Ford v. Ferrari is a much different beast than these films.
In Ford, the racing serves as a backdrop for the dominant Psychological concerns. The relatively few race scenes offer little in terms of a traditional Protagonist beating an Antagonist to the finish line. Providing commentary on the Relationship Story Throughline (another area of conflict within the Storyform focused on a specific bond), these sequences give way for a more sophisticated understanding of history.
Nic Schouten, resident Dramatica theory aficionado, explains:
The whole Ferrari pitch by Lee Iococca was not about an activity but was about persuasion--convince the buying public that Ford was not stale and old, but zippy and stylish and manly and powerful etc. Bebe wanted the image of a FORD man to be the driver. And at the end it was all about IMAGE-making people think only of Ford, as Win, Place, & Show.
Shelby and his team fight Ferrari and Ford in the mind—not on the track. The various scheming and backroom manipulations position Shelby on one side of the argument (as Protagonist) and Ford VP Leo Beebe (as Antagonist) on the other. This arrangement places the Objective Story Domain in Psychology, not Physics. The film explores propaganda, not physical endurance, the battle between pro and con a struggle to sway the hearts and minds of everyone involved through coercion.
Against that we saw Shelby tell Ford II how to think about the first loss at LeMans, and then that KenMiles was the right driver in the run on the tarmac, Shelby needed to get Ford alone, so he could change how Ford was thinking about Daytona & LeMans. Further Ken's wife's driving in the station wagon was all about getting him to stop trying to Manipulate her with half-truths and misdirections. Earlier, Bebe was trying to Manipulate the outcome of Lee's Ferrari presentation to Ford II by 'whispering' into Ford's mind and at the table, things to stop inspiration coming from Lee and to stop any conceptualizing of a plan regarding Ferrari.
In contrast, Ford v. Ferrari's intimate relationships—the friendship between Shelby and Miles and the marriage between Ken and Mollie—focus exclusively on the problematic activities (Physics) between them. Shelby dodges a wrench early on, while both dodge punches as they wrestle each other to the ground. Mollie takes Ken on a terrifying excursion to drive home the point that their marriage is in danger.
The Mind of a Story
In addition to the broad strokes of Genre, Ford v. Ferrari runs counter to another trend of racing movies: the Mindset. Story structure is thought organized. The key to an accurate representation of these thoughts is an indication of the organizing principle. One set of minds structure through Linear cause and effect, another set structures through a Holistic balance of relationships. This story structure setting groups separate concerns of thematic exploration into sections of narrative known as Acts. The alternate paths through these Acts provided by the Linear or Holistic Mindset suggest a different purpose or Premise.
The Holistic Premise of Ford v. Ferrari, if charged with the Elements from the group analysis, reads:
Descending into a lower state of vibration builds resistance with the aftermath of your efforts and clouds your relationships with skills.
Definitely a Low Vibrational message...and not at all the essence of Ford v. Ferrari. The same story, when set to a High Vibrational frequency, appears as:
Finding common ground raises your state of emotional vibration, helping you work through answering the demands of others.
Which one feels more like Ford v. Ferrari?
For years, these combinations were seen as two opposing spectrums of a bittersweet ending: Failure/Good trending towards sweet, and Success/Bad veering towards the bitterness.
Within the context of a Holistic Premise, and in light of the Main Character Resolve of Steadfast, these two appear as examples of a High Vibrational mind (Steadfast/Failure/Good) and a Low Vibrational mind (Steadfast/Success/Bad). If you struggle to connect with the vibrational frequencies of the mind, think of a high vibe as one who keeps their emotions moving positively, whereas a low-vibing mind steers in the direction of negative emotions. If you looked at Ford v. Ferrari as a person of one of these minds, which one would you choose?
The Holistic Appreciation of an "Ending"
Outcome, Judgment, and assessments of "bittersweet" work great within a Linear context. There is a problem to solve, and one can measure the outcome and place judgment on the results. With the Holistic mindset, one must look elsewhere for meaning.
Dramatica Story Expert John Dusenberry offers his perspective:
So much of what was talked about in the User Group was looking at the movie as if there were the goal of building the car to win the race at the heart of it. But if this is holistic, which I'm certain it is... there is no goal. There's only the intention, right? And what's the intention? Shelby and everyone else learning how to find that balance between the intent of what they're doing within all the tolerances/intolerances they have laid on them
A Holistic story, as evidenced in the Premise examples above, focuses on Intention and direction, not goal and consequence.
I can't be the one to drive cuz of my heart, we have to learn how to make Ford relevant again, it has to be this pilot, the car has to meet these designs, you can't change out parts, I have to keep my legacy intact and keep this relationship with Ford alive, but also keep this relationship with Ken alive... play both sides and keep the intention alive.
That juggling act in service of an intention is the Holistic Mindset.
All throughout the user group, there was this talk of the goal, the goal... it's not ABOUT the goal, though. The film wasn't about JUST winning that race or buiding the car or any of that... it was about finding that balance between things.
This deference to balance is what separates Ford v. Ferrari from other racing movies. And it is this understanding of Intention through Premise that warrants another look at the Storyform.
I also feel like they got the bittersweet thing backward. Yes, Shelby said he regrets telling him to slow down, but Ken reassures him that he did the right thing--that he never promised him the win, he promised him the race. And then they embrace and walk down the roadway without angst inside. Nothing was unresolved... Shelby shows up to Ken's family at the end to bring full closure by giving the wrench to his family and talking to his son.
While a functioning story exemplifies Mindset through the Main Character, it is the story itself that possesses this specific way of thinking through structure. Ford v. Ferrari is a High Vibrational film, not a Low Vibrational one.
Getting It Right
The storyform that captures the meaning and intent behind Ford v. Ferrari changes the following fundamental Dynamics from the group analysis:
- Main Character Mindset (problem-solving style) to Holistic, instead of Linear
- Story Outcome to Failure, not Success
- Story Judgment to Good, not Bad
- Objective Story Domain in Psychology, not Physics
- Relationship Story Domain in Physics, not Psychology
Switching the Objective and Relationship Domains encourages the Main Character and Influence Character Domains to exchange places. Ford is a Start story (Main Character Growth of Start). As a Steadfast Main Character, Shelby holds out in anticipation, not determination. A Start Dynamic demands a vertical relationship between the primary objective and subjective perspectives (Objective Story and Main Character, respectively).
The Four Throughlines of Ford v. Ferrari
This arrangement places Shelby's concerns within the Domain of Universe (his heart condition and position as leader), and Ken's influence in the Mind Domain (his bad-ass attitude).
John Dusenberry explains:
I thought [Shelby] was in Situation, not Mind. Chris said something about he's the veteran winner of the race, but his heart condition prevents him from being in the driver's seat. He wants nothing more than to be there but he can't because of his health. That's why Ken and not him is the one who is doing it. Ken isn't stuck in that situation. Ken can be the one to drive.
By Situation, John refers to the Domain of Universe. This area of conflict focuses on external fixed sources of inequity. Little evidence of Shelby's problems exists outside of his role as main convincer (Protagonist) in the Objective Story Throughline. What remains is a man passed his prime—an intimate look at what it means not to do it all yourself.
Ken challenges this position through his fixed attitudes, an Influence Character Domain of Mind.
Ken is hotheaded, but it's not his hotheadedness that had the biggest influence on Shelby. It's everything he knows and can do with cars and driving that influences Shelby... aiming for perfection, which keeps Shelby steadfast.
John's last point sheds light on the group analysis's final deviation from the truth: the relative Concerns of the Throughlines.
A Focus of Intention
The Four Throughlines of a story sync up across the level of Concern, or plot. This alignment appears at the Type level across all four Domains as all four shared Concerns rest in the same physical location of the quad.
The group analysis saw winning the race as the Goal, and the Concerns in the upper-right quadrant of Doing, Being, Progress, and Preconscious. This new comprehensive understanding considers the Intention of thinking differently at the Ford Motor Company, with the Concerns in the lower-right quadrant of Conceiving, Learning, Present, and Conscious.
Story Intention of Conceiving
Ford v. Ferrari
This new understanding of Ford places the Story Goal in Conceiving: inventing a new image of the Ford motorcar. Shelby, as Protagonist, neither sings nor states this Goal, yet it functions as the subtextual focal point of his efforts. Consider that a Story Goal is a misnomer when dealing with a Holistic mindset story. With the Holistic mind, the Objective Story Issue takes center stage as the narrative's focal point.
Objective Story Issue of Need
Ford v. Ferrari
In Ford v. Ferrari, an Objective Story Issue of Need overtakes the center of attention. Beebe's demands of Shelby, Ford's need to emerge from under the shadow of his father—these examples showcase a narrative Method of Need, which directs the Objective side of the Premise.
Finding common ground raises your state of emotional vibration, helping you work through answering the demands of others.
The Premise is both objective and subjective. Working through the demands of others is the Objective part of the Premise. Finding common ground is an illustration of Induction, the Subjective portion of the Premise (the Objective Premise Method and Subjective Premise Element, respectively). Induction is a Method of thinking that encourages inference and hypotheticals. From racing and facing Ford 1-on-1, Shelby's behavior to managing BeeBe and the rest of his team is a prime example of Induction at work within the context of a story.
Additional Storypoints to Further the Cause
To further this argument of a High Vibrational story over a Low Vibration, consider that a complete narrative balances a Story Intention of Conceiving with a Story Overwhelm of Learning. The mind of Ford v Ferrari exhibits signs of overwhelm when faced with the act of Learning or gathering information.
Nic adds an overwhelming amount of examples:
I also like Learning/Dissemination or Gathering of Information/Experience as the Consequences [Overwhelm]. And in this failure story it plays from the beginning of the story and keeps growing stronger. The Germans coming to see or learn if Ken Miles is as temperamental as they had heard at just the time that Ken is throwing wrenches around. The way that Lee' teaches'/disseminates the information to Ford II that Ferrari is broke, presenting it with degenerate pictures etc. The way Lee want no pictures to preclude the dissemination of the information about Ford trying to buy Ferrari so that there would be no Italian competition and the way that Ferrari (or other close to him) teach Fiat about what Ford is doing. going behind Iococca's back while he is still trying to negotiate the purchase. There's the come to Tahoe to learn what deal I've got going with Ford and learn what Ford is doing about winning LeMans and how KenMiles and Bebe learn about each other and gather experience of one another. There is controversy over the way that Ken says that there is draft still with the car, and Ford engineers say "Our computers would have caught that" but there goes Ken with the tape and streamers which prove Ken is right (gathering experience also). The way Shelby teaches Ford II about what a REAL race car means such that Ford II is blubbering and maybe even soiled himself. And the Learning of the Rules of LeMans, both as to parts, and as to tie-breakers.
When Learning intervenes, overwhelm settles into place.
Nic goes on to give evidence of Habituation in the story. The Holistic Appreciation of Habituation, seen as Requirements in a Linear story, describes the direction the mind takes to fulfill Intention.
I like how the Requirement of Becoming fails and so the Goal of Conceiving of a Way for Ken Miles to be the driver of the winning car at LeMans, of Team Shelby being the winning team failed--becuase Ken Mile could not become a Ford Man--he could go as far as being a team player, but he could never be cut from the same Ford plastic sheets. This is so even though many of the Prereq's of Obtaining are achieved--Ford money, Ford changing cars, Ford agreeing to Daytona, Winning Daytona, etc are met.
Ford v. Ferrari exhibits signs of a High Vibrational story from top to bottom. By finding common ground with those who seek to impose their agenda, Shelby and his team show how to answer others' demands while maintaining a high state of emotions.
An Understanding that Transcends
The Premise feature in Subtext is an essential tool for writers looking to apply the Dramatica theory of story to their writing. By granting an emotional—and intuitable—understanding of narrative structure, the Premise connects the artist with the meaning underlying abstract thematic concepts. The proof of Subtext's value lies in the disparity between the grouped analysis of Ford v. Ferrari and the informed second critique. One fumbles to approximate and fill in the blanks, the other looks to the meaning and finds the pieces that add to a collective.
Dramatica is an insanely accurate understanding of the stories we tell; Subtext returns sanity to working and writing with the theory.