Understanding the Continuum of a Narrative
The meaning of time and space and their impact on the order of events
Faced with a confusing or undefined narrative, writers sometimes defer to the easy-get of the ticking time clock. When things slow down, or a story plods from one scene to the next, why not induce a little tension with a looming deadline? Unfortunately, the nature of that deadline can lead many a writer astray in the construction of their stories.
The writers on the Discuss Dramatica board recently delved into the story appreciation now known as the Story Continuum.1 Originally defined as the Story Limit with the initial release of Dramatica, the Story Continuum is best understood as the relationship between space and time throughout the flow of a narrative.
While most of the discussion regressed into intellectual considerations of the difference between time and space (and whether or not time existed at all!), the notion that some struggle with this concept sparked a desire to explore the Story Continuum in greater detail.
When it was termed the Story Limit, the answer as to whether or not it was an Optionlock or a Spacelock was a foregone conclusion. Unless a ticking time clock appears on-screen or the characters continuously fret over a deadline, the Limit is almost always an Optionlock. Out of the 460+ storyforms currently in Subtext, only nineteen limit their narratives by setting a Timelock. That’s less than 5%.
The reason for this has more to do with Audience Reception than anything else,2 but practically speaking 9.5 times out of 10 the narrative in question defines its scope regarding space, rather than time.
The original term for Optionlock was Spacelock. Fearing confusion among those repulsed by science-fiction, the Dramatica theorists switched out Space for Options--and in doing so, introduced the familiar kind of misunderstandings that occur with the simplifying of all of Dramatica.
They also managed to obfuscate the true impact of this Dynamic on the flow of a narrative. In 2020, I set out to redefine the Story Limit as what is now known as the Story Continuum, Spacetime or Timespace--an accurate understanding of the relationship between these two aspects of the mind.
The difference between time and space
The Dramatica theory of story is a mental model of the mind, specifically the mind’s problem-solving process. Part of this process involves understanding whether the problem exists within a context of time or space. The methods by which we resolve issues adjust to these concerns.
Same with a story.
If stories are indeed an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem,3 then allowing for the mind's requirement of time and space is needed. With the Story Continuum, a re-arrangement of potentials connects with a shift in temporal sequence and a change of temporal sequencing connects with a re-arrangement of dramatic potentials.
Spacetime, or Timespace.
A narrative isn't "limited" by Space or Time; it relates Space to Time and Time to Space across the continuum of the story. Characters think in terms of options, Authors--the creators of the Storymind--think in terms of space and time.
A Dramatica storyform is not concerned with how characters think, it's interested in how the Author thinks. The Storyform shines a light on how the mental model of the mind thinks and processes inequity. By generalizing the concept with ideas of Optionlocks and Timelocks, Dramatica shifts the Author's thinking towards a subjective understanding of time and space, rather than an objective understanding.
And the Dramatica storyform is all about objectivity.
The rose petals of Beauty and the Beast
An easy example of the difference between Spacetime and Timespace lies within Disney’s animated film Beauty and the Beast:
There's a rose with a limited number of petals. It's also tied to the Beasts 21st birthday. Technically you can look at the rose and see how many petals there are, but I'll be darned if I could tell you that number. I also have no idea how long it is until his birthday. So is it an Optionlock or Timelock. It seems that it doesn't matter. It can be one or the other, both, or neither. By falling in love with the Beast as the last petal falls, Belle is essentially cutting the wire as the clock reaches zero. She takes the final option just as she runs out of time.
It’s not about her final option; it’s about the relationship between opportunities and sequencing.
The litmus test in determining the Story Continuum is this: Does the story re-arrange spatial concerns of dramatic potential that shift the temporal sequence? Or does a focus on temporality re-arrange potentials? More importantly, which one applies to the MEANING of the story. Is Beauty and the Beast examining Spacetime or Timespace? What would that shift in flow do to the essence of the narrative?
Altering the actual date of the Beast's 21st birthday would not appreciably alter potentials within the story. And appreciation is what a Dramatica Storyform is all about.4
The story of Disney's Beauty and the Beast flows through a Continuum of Spacetime. The exploration of potentials (quite literally, rooms within the Beast's mansion) alters the sequencing of events. Looking to what room goes first does not alter the potential for other rooms. The Authors never indicate the Beast’s starting age, nor do they continuously refer to any sort of time throughout every Act.
But they do regularly refer back to the wilting rose--a focus on space that shows which petal is first, and which is second.
If the film were set to Timespace, the rapidly approaching birthday would re-arrange the dramatic potential of each rose petal falling.
The rose signifies the approaching deadline, but it does so through a re-arrangement of spatial concerns, not temporal. Timespace looks to the sequence of events to grants meaning. By the end of a Timespace story, you know how much time it took. We don't know that in Beauty and the Beast.
Consider a film like Ex Machina. Caleb Smith (Domnhall Gleason) arrives for a week of fun and intellectual curiosity with tech-magnate Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac).
By exploring the sequence of days leading up to the end (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday...), the film modifies the potential for answers lying hidden within the remaining rooms. In sharp contrast to a wilting flower with no particular attachment to a definite unit of time, those days count down the time until the helicopter returns to take Caleb back to civilization.
In Ex Machina, time is of the essence. In Beauty and the Beast, it is space that directs the flow of the narrative. The dwindling number of options for transforming the beast from monster to man sets the sequence of events.
Space is of the essence in that narrative.
The apparent blending of time and space
What about a film like Pixar’s Cars? Lightning McQueen has one week to travel across the United States to participate in a race in California. Is that a Story Continuum of Timespace, or Spacetime?
At first glance, it may seem like time. After all, the narrative sounds like Ex Machina in that there is a specific date set, and a set amount of time within which to reach the racetrack.
But if you were to extend the date of the race, move it back a couple of days or move it forward a couple of days would that appreciably change the dramatic potentials of the story?
Regardless of when the actual race occurs, it is the crossing of the finish line--the dwindling number of competitors who could get closest to that finish line that determines the flow of one event to the next. The number of people you have to use and walk over on your way to victory--that’s what the story is all about, not how the amount of time or lack of time alters your perception of possibilities.
The same situation occurs with Richard Donner’s Sixteen Blocks. Det. Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) needs to transfer Edward "Eddie" Bunker (Mos Def) to court to testify in a police corruption case. The grand jury is set to convene at 10am--two hours for Bruce to make that trek. If he doesn’t succeed, a bunch of crooked cops gets off scot-free.
Sixteen Blocks is all about time.
The narrative continually refers to the amount of space Bruce needs to travel because time spent and temporal sequencing alters the potential for him drawing closer. While the title of the film literally defines space (Sixteen Blocks), altering the potential for greater space would not impact the meaning of the narrative. Making it twenty-three or four blocks would not change the meaning of the story. The question is Can you get there within two hours?, not Can you get across four or sixteen or twenty-three blocks?
Sixteen Blocks is a Timespace story.
Change the time of that court hearing and suddenly the meaning of the story--the potential for safety around the corner, shifts appreciably. Set the grand jury hearing to 11am or 2pm, give the man more time, and suddenly the story opens up the potential for Bruce to spout funny lines and take out bad guys. Set the clock to 9:30am, and the potential for quips drops drastically--an appreciable change in a film like Sixteen Blocks, especially one starring Bruce Willis.
How the Continuum feels to the characters
The Story Continuum is an Appreciation for the Author, not the characters. That said, the characters experience Spacetime or Timespace from within the Continuum; they experience it as a part of flow. Understanding how the meaning changes for the characters when the Author changes the Continuum is as simple as understanding the difference between these two contexts:
- How far can you get in a certain amount of time?
- How much time will it take to get that far?
The first is a subjective experience of Timespace, the second a subjective experience of Spacetime. The first sets in stone a deadline and asks you to consider how much space you can traverse. The second sets in stone a distance, and asks you to focus on how long it will take. The Continuum defines the relationship between Space and Time, an essential component of the mind's problem-solving process.
After all, Space and Time only exist within the mind.
Confusing space for time
Even narrative experts fall prey to subjective misinterpretation.
My first draft of this article mistakingly identified a Story Limit Timelock in Pixar's Coco. Saddled with the static and limiting nature of a "lock," I mistook space for time, defaulting to the subjective experience of feeling "space" was running out.5
A sunset is NOT an example of Timespace.
Aspiring young guitarist Miguel (Anthony Gonzales) crosses over into the land of the dead to discover a long-forgotten relative Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal). Finding a way to return his photograph to the family altar sets the focus of the narrative, and the reality of the situation defines the scope: a re-arrangement of dramatic potentials shifting the sequence of events explored on the journey from the dead to the living or, Spacetime.
An essential component of this Spacetime narrative lies in Miguel’s downward spiral from boy to bones. This degenerative exploration is one of spatiality, not of temporal sequencing. The places Miguel visits alters the order in which they are explored. If Miguel doesn’t make it back to the land of the living by sunrise, he’s never making it back.
One might mistaken this climactic event as evidence of Timespace--after all, we measure time by the sun’s location in the sky, don’t we?
The key word here is position. Like the rose petals in Beauty and the Beast, the sun's position is a sequential event. It's a matter of where, not when. And that makes all the difference in the story.
The sunset thing ticks me off the most, because "the amount of degrees in the sky the sun has to pass through" is time. Like, literally, that's what time is. If the passage of a minute and hour hand around a clock is acceptable, then surely the passage of the sun through the sky is, too...Meet me when the sun is at is highest peak" and "Meet me at high noon" are the same thing!
The first is a deference to spatial awareness or Spacetime, the second temporal (Timespace). This difference in awareness calls for different approaches to resolution--and a specific Story Dynamic to separate these different experiences.
As an Audience member, what are waiting for? The sun to reach a specific place or the sun to reach a specific time? In High Noon, the order of events leading up to 12pm defines and re-arranges dramatic potential (like Sixteen Blocks and even 3:10 to Yuma, it’s in the title!). In Coco, it’s dawn.
With dawn, we write a story of the sun’s location in the sky. With 12pm, we write a story about the passage of time.
Defining the edges of meaning
A complete narrative seeks to argue a valid approach towards solving problems. A storyform--of which the Story Continuum is an integral part--defines the intent and purpose of that argument. The Storyform is an objective account of the story’s message, not a subjective account from the character’s point-of-view.
As Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley explains:
KEEP IN MIND: All Dramatica story points are from the objective Author's point of view, one in which everything has already played out, and all is known. That means the question of the Story Limit: Timelock or Optionlock? asks to identify what IS (objectively), not what seems to be from a subjective point of view.
Characters think in terms of options and deadlines, Authors think in terms of space and time (or at least, they should). The Story Continuum, whether Spacetime or Timespace, sets the scope of the efforts to resolve a problem.
The resolution of the Story Continuum plays a small part in defining the meaning of a story. In fact, the Premise feature found in Subtext completely ignores it by default. Where it does come into play is in the sequencing of thematic events within the flow of a narrative. While almost imperceptible, this baseline of temporality offers the Author an opportunity to explore a key factor in our problem-solving process.
Set the flow--or Story Continuum--of a narrative in stone and keep to it. Incorporate it into the matrix of every Act and every Scene. Allow the Audience to become an integral part of that experience and the message you seek to convey. The result is a greater appreciation of why you wrote the story in the first place.
The result is a greater understanding of you.
- This article, originally published in 2018, has been updated to reflect a new understanding of the Dynamics that encompass a narrative.↩
- Timespaces eliminates half your Audience.↩
- A given of the Dramatica theory of story.↩
- This is why Dramatica uses the terminology of the Appreciations of story structure--you’re appreciating that particular element of narrative structure.↩
- Thanks to Gregolas for pointing that out.↩