Writers intuitively know the ending of their story. What they often fail to appreciate is where it all starts. The major plot points of a narrative find commonality in causality, in the space between one Act of narrative consideration and the next. Understanding them allows writers the convenience of not only knowing what is coming next but also why it is happening next.
Everyone loves Star Wars. I love Star Wars. I probably watched it close to 300 times when I was a kid, and will likely view it 300 times more before my end. Those of us with that amount of familiarity with the know everything there is to know about Luke Skywalker and the Force—but do we know the story of Star Wars?
Story Structure 101: the Inciting Incident is that event which locks in a story, the thing that makes the subsequent events inevitable and necessary. Unfortunately, popular understandings of story structure fail to move beyond this idea of the Inciting Incident merely “starting a story.”
The Dramatica theory of story, an approach based on a model of human psychology, defines the start of a narrative as beginning with a Story Driver. Explicitly setting the cause and effect relationship between Actions and Decisions, the Story Driver locks in the kind of plot events needed to move a narrative from one Act to the next.
First discussed in the article Plot Points and the Inciting Incident, the Story Driver works by upsetting the balance of things:
Every problem has its own genesis, a moment at which the balance is tipped and the previous sense of oneness is lost. With separation comes the awareness of an inequity, and a desire to return back to a state of parity. Every problem has a solution, and a story explores that process of trying to attain resolution.
Referring back to Star Wars, many assign Luke’s discovery of Princess Leia’s message to the Inciting Incident. Others see the original stealing of the plans or even the construction of the Death Star itself as upsetting the balance and forcing the narrative into existence.
All are wrong.
The narrative of Star Wars starts when the Empire illegally boards a diplomatic ship. This event upsets the balance held previous, setting Protagonist and Antagonist forces, and energizes efforts towards resolution.
Another popular misconception attributes the stealing of the plans in Star Wars to be an indicator of the first Story Driver. While the actual event finds illustration in the opening crawl, stealing is a problem of
Doing. Star Wars explores conflict in the context of the latter, not the former.
The Overall Story Throughline, or any Throughline for that matter, is not an account of real life—it’s not about what happens on-screen or on the page. Instead, the Four Throughlines found in a Dramatica storyform are the substance of what happens in a story. The seventy-five or so Storypoints define the realm of the Author’s argument with elements of the narrative that are genuinely out of place, shining a light on inequities that seek resolution.
Most importantly—they all work together.
The stealing of the plans would be the first Story Driver of Star Wars if the story focused on problems of Obtaining. Unfortunately, there isn’t a narrative element within that context that describes the source of conflict as well as Test. And Test is found under Doing.
Test: a trial to determine something’s validity, an audit, an inspection, a challenge or scrutinization
Boarding the ship illegally during the first sequence serves as an indicator of the first Story Driver because it tells of an imbalance of Test. Further explanation finds additional Storypoints tied to this initial event:
Physics: bombarding shield arrays, immobilizing a ship, and blasting your way aboard are all inequities in the physical domain shown on-screen1
Doing: an Empire doing things that infringe on people’s liberties and rights
Skill: the Empire is way better at beating up the Rebels than the Rebels are at fighting back. The Stormtroopers had to crawl through a small little opening to fight against a force in a far superior position (defending) and they still beat them
Test: let’s see what we can get away with here by forcing our way onboard this “diplomatic” ship
All four levels of the Overall Story Throughline find evidence in that event of boarding the ship. Stealing the plans may fall under Physics and perhaps under Doing, but Skill and Test? A harder position to argue and maintain.
When analyzing a story—whether years after completion or in the midst of a rewrite—one must stay within the confines of the narrative. As evidenced in a recent conversation on the Discuss Dramatica forum, speculation steers the process away from insight and towards the cliff of endless conjecture:
If anything, wouldn’t it [the boarding of the ship] seem to be an exercise in restraint? Instead of blowing it into little pieces?
Identifying Story Drivers is a matter of what is, not what might have been. When we guess at the possibilities, we avoid dealing with the reality of what is present.
The analysis process also focuses on the scope of the narrative defined by the edges of the work, not elements leading up to the story.
Wouldn’t the initial Story Driver be the construction of the Death Star?
Without more significant context, one could quickly point to any event at the beginning of the story. In fact, one could likely go further and further back in time until the Big Bang and the genesis of the universe to find a reason for Star Wars. But in the end, what happened isn’t the basis of a story’s narrative argument—the narrative argument is the basis of the story.
I don’t see how boarding a ship in and of it self could be the story driver. I do see how it can be if it is related to the fact that this ship has the plans on it. But, the empire “crossing the line” isn’t explicitly in the narrative
Sure, it is:
Lord Vader, I should have known. Only you could be so bold. The Imperial Senate will not sit for this, when they hear you’ve attacked a diplomatic…
An Empire abusing and overstepping its authority kicks the narrative of Star Wars into action—letting us know what we can expect regarding cause and effect within the rest of the story.
The problem many experiences when considering the illegal boarding as a Story Driver is that it doesn’t feel like the direction of the story changed. Before and after the boarding, the Empire continues to be in a state of a chase and the Rebellion in a state of running away.
Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley offers his observation on the matter:
If one considers a driver as changing the direction of the story, then I think the first driver in Star Wars is Luke’s discovery of the hidden message. Before that it is run away – run away – run away – run away, and only after Luke, who is essential to resolving the core inequity, connects to the effort to get the data to the rebellion does it move to run toward – run toward – run toward. Technically, it’s Luke removing the restraining bolt on R2D2 that is the action driver, because that’s the point when R2D2 even begins running toward.
The simplification of run away and run toward is compelling in matters of the Story Driver; it sets precisely this idea of the Driver changing the direction of the narrative.
But it also means that everything that came before—from disabling the Blockade Runner to choking out Generals to blasting escape pods into oblivion—all of it was Backstory.
The direction of the narrative did change during that first sequence. Before the boarding, Leia—as objective Protagonist until Luke arrives—led efforts to run away to Alderaan with the plans. The boarding of the ship forced her to alter that course, and instead, pursue a different one: loading Artoo up with the plans and sending the droid down to Tatooine in search of Obi-Wan.
This sequence not only illustrates an Action forcing a problematic Decision but also crafts it in light of Test: putting the fate of the Rebellion in the hands of an Astro-Droid is quite a lot to ask of such a little guy—a grand Test, if you will. And something that further drives the imbalance in the narrative.
The problem with only looking at the direction of the narrative is that one could easily overlook those more subtle instances of direction change that connect more readily with the storyform. The storyform is paramount in a Dramatica analysis as we’re defining what is being said in a holistic sense, not looking to individual events that don’t connect to something more substantial and grander.
If a complete story exists as a model of a single human mind trying to solve a problem, then part of that exploration process requires an understanding of the relationship between cause and effect.
Again, this isn’t an analysis of the story written but rather an understanding of what is being said— to define the story itself more accurately.
The Story Driver isn’t merely something that happens; it is an Action forcing a Decision or a Decision forcing an Action. Yes, one finds evidence of actions followed by decisions followed by actions followed by more decisions; the story Driver sets the causality between these two events explicitly.
Actions force decisions or Decision force Actions.
The classic example lies in the difference between Jaws and The Godfather. In the first, a shark attacks a swimmer (an Action) forcing the mayor to decide to close the beach. A clear cause and effect relationship. In the second, Don Corleone decides not to get into the drug trade (a Decision) forcing the opposition to take action against him. Another clear case of cause and effect. Without that decision, no assassination attempt; without that action, no decision to protect the tourists.
What does that mean regarding Star Wars?
Luke discovering Leia’s secret message locked within Artoo? What decision does that force? Ben not deciding to help? That doesn’t follow.
The stealing of the plans? What decision does that force? The Empire’s decision to board the ship? Well, one—it’s not a decision, it’s an action. We don’t see the deliberation; we’re not on edge over the potential for some great decision the way we are in a film like 12 Angry Men or The Social Network or The Prestige.
No, it is only the boarding of the ship that forces a decision to be made. Two decisions, in fact. Leia’s deliberation over whether or not to hide the plans within Artoo (something we see). And the Emperor’s eventual decision to dissolve the Senate to prevent any further backlash from their actions. Both decisions find evidence within the narrative and occur as a direct result of that initial illegal action.
If you look at the storyform for Star Wars as a whole—within the context of Doing, the illegal boarding is only the first of several Story Drivers that indicate an escalation of an Empire testing its agency and authority.
First Story Driver: Illegally boarding a diplomatic ship. Hey, you can’t do that! I’m going to tell on you. No you’re not, because I’m going to dissolve the Senate. Ah crap, now what are we going to do?
Second Story Driver: Killing Luke’s Aunt and Uncle You know what? Illegally boarding a ship without papers wasn’t enough. Let’s see if we can get away with barbecuing some of the local inhabitants. Hey, that’s not nice! Now I’m going to join up and show you guys that you can’t keep pushing the little guy around. Oh yeah? Well, how about this—
Third Story Driver: Blowing up an entire planet Oh man, that’s really messed up. I guess I’ll quit. The old guy never got to me, and now no one’s around to help me.
Functionally speaking, Leia is the Protagonist of the Overall Story Throughline until the midpoint of the story. She illustrates Initiative both through an element of Pursuit and Consider, objectively speaking. At the midpoint, Luke takes over, and Leia falls back to her role as the Reason archetypal character.
Fourth Story Driver: Hiding a homing beacon onboard the smuggler’s ship **Hey, you know what’s bolder than blowing up a planet? Let’s listen to this crazy psycho in a motorcycle helmet and let the Princess and her friends escape? Then we can track them back to their base…*
The fifth and final Story Driver is the Action of blowing up the Death Star.
In every one of these Story Drivers, the narrative Element of Test within a greater context of Doing plays out against the causality of Actions forcing specific decisions.
Lesser writers find it necessary for the characters in their story to state in no uncertain terms the “wants” and “needs” of their cast. Lacking the proper narrative to make this Goal evident, they feel a compulsion to state the obvious—to say in dialogue their motivations arising from the conflict.
Leia, Luke, and the rest of the cast don’t say, ”Hey, let’s rebel against the Empire because they keep testing us over and over again.” No, they naturally seek rebellion as a means of resolving the conflict instigated by the initial Story Driver.
Why go through all the trouble of thinking through a narrative to this extent? Finding yourself backed up into a corner or against the wall of an imposing deadline is always the result of a non-functioning narrative. “Writer’s block” is a case of the writer not knowing what is they are saying with their story.
Understanding how Story Drivers set the stage for a narrative and determine the kind of conflict and plot events to help writers and producers and directors avoid this inevitable fate of not knowing what they are doing. It may seem like much ado about nothing, but there are meaning and purpose behind all of it.
It is essential that one focus on the narrative revealed within the confines of the work, not an understanding projected upon or interpreted through other means. ↩︎