Wrangling the Scope of an Entire Narrative

Understanding the scope of a story leads to a strengthening of that narrative's central argument.

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 known as the Story Limit. 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 Limit in greater detail.

To me, the Story Limit is 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 380+ storyforms currently in the Narrative First Atomizer, only nineteen limit their narratives by setting a Timelock. That’s 5%.

Narratives with a Story Limit of Timelock

The reason for this has more to do with Audience Reception than anything else,[1] 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.

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,[2] then allowing for the different considerations of time and space is needed. Thus, the Spacelock or Timelock.

A narrative isn’t potentially limited by Options; it’s potentially limited by Space. Characters think in terms of options, not space--illuminating the source of all confusion: the Dramatica storyform is not concerned with how the characters think, it’s interested in how the Author thinks. It’s interested in how the mental model of the mind is thinking. By changing Spacelock to Optionlock, Dramatica shifts the Author’s thinking towards a subjective understanding of the limit, 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 a Spacelock and a Timelock 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 story’s opportunities coming to a close.

The litmus test in determining the Story Limit is this: Would changing the supposed limit change the MEANING of the story? If not, then the limit is not functioning as a Story Limit. If it does, then the limit could be an instance of the Story Limit.

In regards to the Story Limit of Beauty and the Beast, changing the actual date of the Beast’s 21st birthday would not appreciably change the meaning of the story. And appreciation is what the storyform is all about.[3]

As an Audience member, we possess no clue as to how long the film lasts. We don’t know if it takes three days, three weeks, or three years. 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.

The Story Limit of Beauty and the Beast

The rose signifies the approaching deadline, but it does so through a comparison of space, not time. A Timelock is a definite amount of time. By the end of a story with a Timelock, you know exactly how much time it took because Time was an essential part of that story’s meaning.

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).

One week.

While the film refers explicitly to the ticking off of days with its sporadic use of title cards, time defines that looming deadline, not space. 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.

Caleb says goodbye for seven days in Ex Machina

In Ex Machina, time is of the essence. In Beauty and the Beast, it is the dwindling number of options for transforming the beast from monster to man that sets the pace and arrival of the climax.

Space is of the essence.

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 limited by time, or a story limited by options?

At first glance, it may seem like time. After all, the narrative sounds like Ex Machina in that there are 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 meaning 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 climax of that story. 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 the amount of time or lack of time you have to get there.

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.

Bruce and Mos make their way across Sixteen Blocks

While the narrative continually refers to the amount of space Bruce needs to travel and how close he gets (even the title defines space: sixteen blocks!), changing that limit--making it twenty-three blocks or four blocks--wouldn’t 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?

Change the time of that court hearing and suddenly the meaning of the story--the approaching climax shifts appreciably. The Story Limit is tied directly to the climax of a narrative. Set the grand jury hearing to 11 a.m. or 2 p.m. or even 6, and suddenly Bruce has more time for funny lines and taking out bad guys. Set the clock to 9:30 am and suddenly he has no time for quips--that’s an appreciable change, especially in a Bruce Willis action thriller!

The limit from the character’s point-of-view

How does altering the limit of a story change the meaning of a story? After all, there is a subjective component to a mind trying to solve a problem. Understanding how the meaning changes for the characters when the Author changes the limit 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 Timelock, the second an Optionlock. 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 limit sets the scope of what it means to resolve that story’s problem.

Confusing space for time

Even narrative experts fall prey to subjective misinterpretation.

My first draft of this article mistakingly identified a secondary Story Limit of Pixar’s Coco to be a Timelock. Wrapped up in this exploration of the difference between stories limited by time and those framed by space, I deferred to the subjective experience of watching that film and the feeling that "time" was running out.[4]

A sunset is NOT a Timelock.

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 fixed amount of Space within which to make the journey from the dead to the living.

An essential component of this Spacelock lies in Miguel’s downward spiral from boy to bones. If he doesn’t make it back to the land of the living by sunrise, he’s never making it back.

Miguel's impending doom in Coco

One might mistaken this limit for Time--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, where the sun’s position marks the Limit, not when.

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 reference to spatial awareness, the second temporal. This difference in awareness calls for different approaches to resolution--different stories.

What are waiting for? The sun to reach a specific place or the sun to reach a specific time? In High Noon, it’s 12pm (like Sixteen Blocks and even 3:10 to Yuma, it’s in the title!). In Coco, it’s dawn.

With dawn, we look to the sun’s place in the sky. With 12pm we look to 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 Limit 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, Authors think in terms of space (or at least, they should). The Story Limit, whether Spacelock or Timelock, sets the scope of the efforts to resolve a problem.

Without a definite or consistent Story Limit, the Audience fails to empathize with the approaching climax. They need a baseline--an objective baseline--from which to evaluate the actions and decisions taken to resolve the story’s conflict.

Set the scope--or Story Limit--of a narrative in stone and keep to it. Refer to it at least once per Act, and allow the Audience to become an integral part of 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.

  1. Timelocks eliminate half your Audience. ↩︎

  2. A given of the Dramatica theory of story. ↩︎

  3. This is why Dramatica uses the terminology of the appreciations of story structure--you’re appreciating that particular element of narrative structure. ↩︎

  4. Thanks to Gregolas for pointing that out. ↩︎