Understanding the Purpose of Narrative Structure

Structure is order, and order is meaning.

Most believe narrative structure to be an affectation of a story. Acts exist because a story naturally falls into that kind of arrangement. This presumption that stories "have structure" misses out on the real purpose of structure: communicating an Author's Intent effectively to an Audience.

The previous article Skyfall: Finding the Synthesis in Dramatica established a possible correlation between Dramatica's comprehensive understanding of narrative and the accursed Hegelian Dialectic. What Hegel & Friends saw as synthesis is evidence of inequity resolution.

It's fascinating that you chose Skyfall for your example here because there's a completely different (non-Dramatica) interpretation of that story in which the central theme is about old ways vs. new ways.

Within the context of the Dramatica theory of story, Theme is more than a juxtaposition of incompatible truisms. Yes, the discussion starts there. However, Dramatica's version of this essential narrative concept moves further, providing greater detail and vastly more accuracy for writers wanting to improve their work.

With Dramatica, Theme is meaning. And primary to the establishment of this meaning is the Premise or narrative argument.

As you point out, both Bond and M represent the old ways, which is why both are failing to contend with the new reality. One of the best illustrations of the anti-thesis in the story isn't simply the villain Silva, but Q who says to Bond "I would hazard I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of earl grey than you can in a year in the field."...the underlying thematic conflict from this (again, non-Dramatica) interpretation isn't between Bond and M.

That's because that "non-Dramatica" interpretation is spinning its wheels over a surface-level understanding of the conflict. The iceberg goes much further down. The old way vs. new way "argument" is another case of conflating Subject Matter for meaning—mistaking topic for Theme.

Obedience, Duty, Honor, Love, and Keeping Up with the Times (old way vs. new way) is Subject Matter or storytelling. It's the Topic of the story. What you want to say about Obedience, Duty, Honor, and Love are Theme.

The Totality of Theme

While we find the emphasis on Theme at the Variation level, the entire Dramatica model is Theme. The Domains, Concerns, Issues, and Problems of a Storyform all work together to create the thematic argument (Premise) of the story.

The thing is, what you call "subject matter" (which in almost every case is what I would call theme) is the thing I care about as a writer. When we hit the point where the underlying source of conflict is "accurate vs. deviation" we're at a level of abstraction that never shows up in the creative process for me. I'm not saying it doesn't matter, only that it exists whether I want to seek it out or not: you can't write two people in conflict with each other without there being some underlying source of conflict. Saying "they're not fighting about the old ways of being a spy vs. the new ways, it's really about deviation vs. accurate" is not a thought that would ever help me create the story.

As you point out, this underlying conflict exists whether you focus on it or not, and you certainly can't write conflict without some underlying source. The keyword here is underlying. The theme is not what the characters discuss, but rather, what motivates the quality of that discussion.

Great stories existed before the introduction of the Dramatica theory of story in 1994 (Lee, Shakespeare, etc.). Dramatica merely helps explain an essential part of why they're so great—a part that you won't find in any other discussions of narrative structure.

That part is what drives the engine of your story—the part that exists in your work, whether you seek it out or not.

Some writers get on the carousel of writing & rewriting at the writing stage. Others get on during the rewriting phase. Regardless of when you jump on, you're going to come to a point where you'll need to determine what is the underlying conflict. You might start at the very beginning of your creative process, or somewhere in the middle.

This jumping-on moment is the point at which issues of "Accurate and Deviation" start to matter. You can't determine narrative structure at the Subject Matter level of concern of "old vs. new." You need to know the specific inflection points of imbalance—like Accurate and Deviation—before you can begin building a story around them.

The alternative is fumbling around blindfolded--relying on talent and wit alone to see you through to the end.

Structure and Subject Matter

You can't reach structure through Subject Matter—you can only reach the structure, which is another way of saying order, through meaning.

Order is meaning—a slap followed by a scream carries a different meaning than a scream followed by a slap. The same Subject Matter (a slap and a scream) means something different depending upon the order in which they appear.

Meaning is only found within a context. If I hold my arm straight out and ask, Is my hand higher or lower than my feet? your answer would be "Higher."

Unless, of course, I switched the context from an Earth-centric perspective to a point-of-view centered on the Sun. Now—you might not even be able to determine high or low—because, from that perspective, we're spinning like a corkscrew through the galaxy.

Structure is order. And order is meaning. And meaning is context, and context is based on perspective or established points-of-view.

And now you know the purpose of Dramatica's Four Throughlines. The reason why there is an Objective Story perspective. And a Main Character Throughline. And an Obstacle Character and Relationship Story point-of-view.

Now you know the real purpose of narrative structure.

The Basis of a Story

The four perspectives found in Dramatica establish a context for understanding the meaning underlying the Subject Matter.

  • Subject Matter != Structure
  • Structure = Order
  • Order = Meaning
  • Meaning = Context
  • Context = Perspective
  • Perspective = Throughlines

Therefore, Structure equals Throughlines.

Proper narrative structure is not synthesis—it's perspective.

One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist. Is that an overall objective perspective? Then it's part of the Objective Story Throughline perspective. Is it something more subjective, perhaps descriptive of the dynamic within a relationship? Then it belongs within the context of the Relationship Story Throughline perspective.

When it comes to meaning, context is everything--theme is pointless without a point-of-view. Old vs. new is meaningless until put into a specific context. Setting perspective by attaching Throughlines to Domains creates the context for your story.

By allowing the Audience to appreciate your context, you permit them to invest wholeheartedly into your Premise. Your readers will understand that you're trying to say something meaningful and vital to them—and they will listen with open hearts and open minds.

Structure is not a result of story.

Story is a result of structure.

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