Relationship Story Throughline
While the heart of a story often feels good and sometimes brings tears to your eyes, the purpose it plays within the context of a narrative proves to be something much more meaningful. This emotional center, portrayed by the intimate bond between two characters, serves as a subjective balance to the more objectified concerns and issues of the central plot. Capturing the essence of this relationship rounds out a narrative and gives the Audience a sense of fulfillment that works with the satisfaction of a complete story.
This series of articles on The Relationship Story: The Missing Piece of Narrative explores a revolutionary new way to appreciate the Dramatica theory of story. As covered in previous chapters, the theory’s first two decades cast the Relationship Story Throughline as the meeting place between the Main Character and the Influence Character. Once even referred to as the Main vs. Impact Character Throughline, this reductive understanding shackled Authors to a limited perspective of the emotional center of their stories.
Now, we know better.
We see clearer.
The Relationship Story Throughline is a perspective, every bit as mobile as the Influence Character or Overall Story Throughlines. It passes from one relationship to the next, cluing Authors into the level of freedom they possess when it comes to maintaining the integrity of their narratives.
As long as those Relationships explore the same thematic material.
This most recent development in the understanding of the Dramatica theory of story began as it always does: with a conversation about a film.
John Dusenberry, a student of mine when I taught at the California Institute of the Arts, now does a ton of work behind the scenes to help develop our app, Subtext. If you’ve read the Storybeat Breakdown of Back to the Future or enjoyed the detailed analysis of The X-Files episode Milagro, you know his work.
John loves Back to the Future—so much so that he couldn’t line up his love of the film with the official storyform. Why was Beating the space-time continuum seen as the Goal of the story? And why was the father/son relationship between George and Marty elevated in importance, when clearly the “heart” of the story was the friendship between Doc and Marty?
Their very friendship hangs in the balance over whether [or] not doc will give [in] and want to know about the future, right?
Of course, knowing what I assumed to be correct at the time—that the Relationship Story Throughline was always between the Main Character and Influence Character—I gently led him to a better appreciation of the film…
…in a chat conversation that lasted almost an entire week.
John wouldn’t let up, and thankfully so, because honestly—this series of articles and this more significant appreciation of relationships would not be here if it weren’t for his persistence.
This was the moment it all became clear to me:
Hmmmmmm.. Is it possible that the RS doesn’t just apply to one person in every story, but can be seen as split up between several people that the main character has a “relationship “with?
Something about that sounded right, almost as if it contained traces of our understanding of Influence Character hand-offs, but I wasn’t entirely sure…
Isn’t the relationship with Marty and Lorraine also about temptation?
And that’s when it all locked into place.
Moving from a place of temptation (having the hots for him) to the conscience place of, as she says, “this is all wrong”
With temptation and conscience, John refers to the Relationship Story Problem of Temptation and the Relationship Story Solution of Conscience—key thematic Storypoints needed to balance out Back to the Future’s premise. Previous analyses only saw these Elements in light of the father/son relationship, but it makes even more sense here—if not a bit creepy in nature—as it applies quite accurately to the mother/son relationship.
And as it turns out—it works just as well for Doc and Marty’s friendship.
If a complete story is truly an analogy towards a single human mind trying to resolve an inequity, then it would only make sense that that mind would want to sample that inequity from all sides. As we discovered in an earlier article Separating the Relationship from the Individuals in a Relationship, the Four Throughlines in a story represent the four different perspectives available to our mind.
We can never be sure if inequity is what it seems, so we need these perspectives to help us triangulate (quadrangulate) our perception with reality.
I. You. We. They.
The Relationship Story (We) balances out the Overall Story plot (They) in the same way that the Influence Character (You) balances out the Main Character’s concerns and issues (I).
Stories find motivation in a single inequity—an imbalance that is impossible to describe directly. That’s why we create a story to explain it.
By definition, inequity is the imbalance between things, not the things themselves, and the only way to honestly describe that space is to approximate it by sampling this disparity from all sides.
In Back to the Future, that inequity appears as an Element of Pursuit from the Overall Story perspective. The terrorists seek revenge on Doc. Marty chases getting his parents back together. Biff pursues Lorraine.
That inequity also looks like Pursuit from George’s Influence Character point-of-view. His inability and refusal to pursue Lorraine creates an enormous amount of conflict for those around him.
It’s when we start to look at the remaining points-of-view, the Main Character and Relationship Story, that we begin to get a better idea of what the inequity in Back to the Future is all about.
From Marty’s Main Character perspective, that inequity at the heart of the story looks like an Element of Hinder. The principal tells him he’ll never make it anywhere, no one wants to hear his band, and everyone and everything else basically stands in his way and hinders him from living the life he wants to lead. This Element packs a ton of motivation into Marty’s Throughline.
The Relationship Story Throughline brings it all full circle (square) with an entirely different look at conflict. An inequity that looks like Pursuit from the You and They perspectives, and Hinder from the I perspective, must be balanced out by appearing as Temptation from the We perspective. No other Element would compliment and finish off the narrative in a way that feels balanced and whole as much as Temptation.
And it just so happens that Back to the Future finds not one, but three different relationships to illustrate this essential Element.
A brief look at the storyform for Back to the Future reveals these key Storypoints for the Relationship Story Throughline:
While these Storypoints possess unique names like Concern and Issue, know that in the final result they’re all problems—just seen at different resolutions. The Problem is the most discrete and most delicate resolution, the Throughline is the broadest and most general. Understanding Dramatica’s Complex Terminology Made Easier makes this easier to understand.
For a relationship to count towards the balance of the narrative in Back to the Future it must exhibit one, or several, of these Storypoints throughout the story.
All three relationships feature all four Storypoints.
For the Kinship relationship between Marty and his father George, the one that moves from technically related to family, the Psychological dysfunction can be found in the opening scenes where Marty contends with George’s affable fatherhood. The incompatible natures of both force their relationship into several different transformations (Becoming), from friendship to mentorship to paternal. The Issue of Commitment plays out with their refusal to give up on one another. And the Problem of Temptation balances George’s always taking the easy way out when it comes to being a father with Marty’s preference to rush in and fix things.
The Friendship relationship between Doc and Marty explores the same thematic material but in its own unique and fun way. At the outset, their friendship is one of playful dysfunction, both in the present day and when they meet back up in the past. Transforming from partners to friends and avoiding the devastating transformational effects their friendship could have on the space-time continuum illustrates their relationship’s concern with Becoming. Being friends with someone who clearly needs to be committed takes an equal amount of dedication and tenacity, thereby fulfilling the Storypoint of Commitment. And that Temptation to take the easy way out, to tell a friend the truth regardless of consequences threatens not only their relationship but also their very existence.
And then finally, the reason Disney initially passed on Back to the Future: the relationship between mother and son. Dysfunctional to the core and contentious in its attempts to become something it should not satisfy Psychology, Becoming, and Temptation all in one fell swoop.
But what about Commitment?
You could conceivably find a way to justify the Issue of Commitment as showing up in the mother/son relationship, or you could realize—it doesn’t matter.
The tapestry of the hologram that is the storyform interlaces meaning in the minds of the Audience, not specific Storypoints. The storyform isn’t crucial to the viewer, instead, what it represents is paramount. If a story clearly covers key Storypoints in other relationships, as it does here with Back to the Future, then the integrity of meaning will remain intact.
One could conceivably choose a single Storypoint from the Relationship Story Throughline to show in four different relationships and still honor the fabric of intention. The gestalt of the relationships between these Storypoints is all that matters. That’s why you can easily hand them off from one to the other.
So, it’s OK that the relationship between mother and son in Back to the Future dials back Commitment—the other two relationships pick up the slack, Creating in the minds of an Audience a seamless whole.
Appreciating the real intention of narrative requires one to separate themselves from notions of characters as real people and of plot-lines, or Throughlines, serving these characters. Instead, these characters and plots work under the employ of the story’s meaning—of its ultimate premise.
Creating a relationship that matters requires an understanding of the kind of conflict needed to balance out a story’s thematic exploration. By touching upon key Elements, the Author signifies that this relationship matters—pay attention because it counts towards what I’m saying with my work.
Ignore this connective tissue, and you risk writing something insignificant—a throughline or relationship that might touch upon other areas of the narrative, but not the heartfelt emotional core at the center of it all.