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Thoughts on Story Structure

September 16, 2017

Ryan Holiday explains why I write best when I run:

As a runner, the real race is getting up and running every single day. Life is the marathon. The same is true in writing. A lot of people sit down to write a book. Many don’t make it past that point. Plenty get something finished, but are intimidated by the maze that is publishing, promoting, selling. And of the relative few that make it through there, only some have the stamina to start the next one. To make it a career.

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September 12, 2017

Nothing can be more pleasing to fans of great storytelling than opening up a movie everyone tells you to watch only to find the Rotten Tomatoes score at 99%. After several years of never being let down by this online rating system, you can trust RT to tell you the truth about the quality of a film.

Hilarious, then, when you consider that Hollywood is blaming Rotten Tomatoes for a horrible summer.

Between the first weekend in May and Labor Day, a sequel-stuffed period that typically accounts for 40 percent of annual ticket sales, box office revenue in North America totaled $3.8 billion, a 15 percent decline from the same span last year. To find a slower summer, you would have to go back 20 years. Business has been so bad that America’s three biggest theater chains have lost roughly $4 billion in market value since May.

As the Boston Globe reports (but won’t let me go any further because of a pay wall) The movie box office this summer was so bad because the movies were [so bad].

The Emoji Movie received a score of 8 because it deserved a rating of 8.

Breaking Structure and an Indication of a Great Story

As I explain in my analysis of Get Out (and podcast), writer/director Jordan Peele decided to change the final sequences of the film to mollify a potential reactive Audience. This choice, while ultimately successful, ran counter to the entire argument set up throughout the rest of the movie.

The concept of the Storymind reigns supreme: the analogy of a complete story working as a model of a single human trying to solve a problem is understood and accepted by every single person in the Audience–whether they know it or not.

The Audience for Get Out expected a Failure ending because the model of the mind setup in the previous 90 minutes set a course for Failure.

This kind of thing has been going on for centuries–it’s just now we have a lexicon and a computer model to help explain it (and Narrative First to help solve both!).

And when you think about it–the concept of Rotten Tomatoes has existed as long, if not longer. The groupmind collectively understands the composition and story points of a satisfying and emotionally fulfilling narrative.

Compare the “Amazingly Fantastic Stories” of my Narrative First Analysis Showcase against Fun, But Broken and Avoid at All Costs. I guarantee those in the first hover above 90% while the latter two land below the median, if not at the bottom.

The problem isn’t Rotten Tomatoes–it’s a system that hangs too small a value on a valid and complete narrative structure. It’s a system that relies on instinct and subjective approaches to story out of deference to a lazy mindset.

We have an objective model of the Storymind and story structure. Dramatica® is the way to fight back against Rotten Tomatoes and films like Peele’s Get Out stand out as a prime example of this new reality.

What will the site look like when every film and television show lands a 99% or 100% rating?

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September 6, 2017

This week, I finish my series of articles on preparing your story for the Narrative First approach to Dramatica with the article Identifying the Storyform of a Complete Story. If you ever were confused or overwhelmed with where to begin, this series of articles–now entitled Preparing to Write a Complete Story–gives you a great place to start.

(Hint: I help you go through this process one-on-one in my Dramatica® Mentorship Program)

I’m particularly excited about this last article about the Storyform. So many writers new to Dramatica and Narrative First mistake the storyform for what their characters experience, rather than what their story is about.

The storyform defines the edges of the indescribable conflict at the center of a narrative.

What the heck does that even mean?!

Conflict isn’t a thing–it’s the imbalance between things. Only, you can’t describe an imbalance–you kind of have to experience it.

It’s like a rose. If I asked you to describe for me how a rose smelled, you probably wouldn’t be able to answer. That’s because the smell of a rose is something you have to experience, not something you can teach or know.

Same thing with conflict.

Your story provides an experience of that conflict for your Audience. Those Four Throughlines that surround the conflict and approximate it for them? That’s giving your Audience a chance to experience the inequity from different points-of-views.

In some respects, the experience of your story is something the Audience could never find in their own lives.

And that makes telling a story something extraordinary.

The storyform of your story sets the stage for that experiential process. It’s not what your characters are going through or what situations they find themselves up against–the storyform explains the experience of conflict you want your Audience to entertain.

The moment you stop thinking of your story as this thing about real people and real situations is the moment your storytelling rises to another level.

Other Updates This Week

Orson Welles makes an appearance on the blog with his explanation of the storyform.

The LEGO Batman Movie makes fun of the classic “You and I” conversation between Main Character and Influence Character (video clip included!)

(I also dropped in a clip of Batman’s 2nd Signpost of the Future that I discussed in last week’s newsletter)

This week’s podcast: Episode 46: The Final Word on Captain America: Civil War closes out the discussion on that shielded goody-two-shoes while diving into an in-depth exploration of the storyform.

And the new Learn section on the site provides an easy point of entry for writers new to Dramatica and Narrative First. Stop by to learn a new concept of story, or simply search for something that has been on your mind.

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September 1, 2017

Reading Ryan Holiday’s book Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts, I came across an enlightening quote from Orson Welles.

He said a movie

“must be better to see the second or third time than it is the first time. There must be more in it to see at once than any one person can grasp. It must be so ‘meaty,’ so full of implications, that everyone will get something out of it.”

You know what he means.

That “meaty” compulsion that comes when there is “more in it to see at once than any one person can grasp” is the result of a comprehensive storyform.

Writing complete stories gives the viewer or reader something unattainable in real life: meaning. It is impossible for us to be both within our own subjective experience and without to view the course of events from an objective point-of-view.

A complete storyform grants us that taste of the impossible.

Impossible to grasp at once; possible and full of possibilities on repeated viewing–a whole narrative improves with another reading or another screening.

Want to guarantee that your Audience will get something out of your work?

Give them the gift of a complete storyform.

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August 29, 2017

Struggling with trying to comprehend the Dramatica theory of story and wish there was a film you could just watch that explained it all?

Then check out The LEGO Batman Movie.

Seriously.

I know–you would think something like The Godfather or Manchester by the Sea would be the better, but I’m telling you–this movie is not only funny but also funny in how it makes fun of story structure!

Check out this take on the classic “You and I” moment:

Great, right?!

When I was watching the film a second time (always good when it comes to doing an analysis–looking at you Doubt, Moonlight, and Captain America: Civil War), there was a moment where I said to myself:

This HAS to be a Main Character Signpost of the Future...if it isn’t, maybe I can tweak my analysis to reflect it or something because Batman is so clearly dealing with issue of the future now, it’s almost like the writers and directors were using Dramatica...

This moment happens right after the Joker turns himself into the proper authorities. A bewildered Batman stares off into space, not knowing what to do next–and that’s when someone hits him with a concern for the Future. Let me show you:

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more obvious example of a 2nd Signpost in the Future.

So imagine how excited I was when I uploaded the entire storyform to my site and found this:

Storyform Settings for the Main Character Throughline of *The LEGO Batman Movie*

Dramatica predicted a Main Character Signpost of the Future. I didn’t put that in at all. In fact, if you look at the analysis on the site and scroll down to the bottom, you’ll find an image that looks like this:

The Story Engine Settings for *The LEGO Batman Movie*

The only choices I made were the ones in BLUE – the Dramatica Story Expert application automatically picked the ones in RED based on its internal story engine.

That’s the kind of magic that astounds me every day.

And this kind of thing happens throughout the entire film.

Personally, I don’t have an issue with the film being too predictable. Like Sing!, this latest from LEGO stays relatively close to the base storyform.

But as far as I’m concerned, that was part of the humor–a send-up of both Batman and story structure. Why else would you have four completely different You and I scenes from four different Influence Characters?

And that’s why I think it’s a great film for you to watch if you’re just getting into Dramatica and want to understand how the different parts–like a Main Character Signpost of the Future–work.

Print out the storyform available on the site (a feature available for Narrative First Members), and follow along as the movie plays. You’ll start to pick up on so many different things: the Joker’s missed Expectations, Alfred’s historical recounting of Batman’s lack of Progress in the first Main Character Signpost, and so much more.

And, of course, if you want to learn more you can always sign up for my Dramatica® Mentorship Program and become your own Dramatica Story Expert.

Totally up to you.

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July 26, 2017

I updated my official analysis of Moonlight, taking care to explain where my original inaccuracies fell and what specific piece of narrative structure the filmmakers purposefully left out.

While I find the process of correcting my conclusions fascinating, not to mention imperative considering the nature of my work and this site, some find the lack of certainty telling of something else:

ur the master and you're re-assessing moonlight, etc. if last week moonlight was a non successful grand argument and this week it is, that doesn't make me think mastering dramatica will help me get shit done.

Definitely not what I had in mind.

Developing an Understanding

The published corrections on both the Moonlight and Doubt analyses reflect my personal growth in understanding. The Doubt analysis in particular, spans an eight-year period from original to revised.

I find it enthralling to discover something new about a work. Discerning that Doubt captures problems incurred by certainty and works them into a subtle power play between the two principal characters deepens my appreciation for the film. Detecting the missing piece of Moonlight and tying it directly to a specific Signpost within one storyform confirms my writer’s intuition, while simultaneously teaching me how to accomplish the same in my own work.

The best part about the Dramatica theory of story is that it never changes–you do. The theory remains objective and holds that objectivity while you–the Main Character of your life–change your point-of-view around it. Understanding the theory acts as a benchmark for your own personal development as a writer and narrative artist. The deeper your understanding grows, the clearer Dramatica’s concepts of narrative become—making you a more effective and efficient writer.

And that’s how I get shit done.

The Original Analysis

For the sake of posterity, and for anyone interested in comparing my original conclusions with the final analysis, I present my first pass at Moonlight:

Haunting soundtrack. Engaging cinematography. Riveting and honest performances.

But no story.

Sure, Chiron (Alex Hubert, Ashton Sanders, & Trevante Rhodes) grows to accept who he is...but did the film make a convincing argument as to how best to approach that problem?

A Grand Argument Story combines elements of Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre into four distinct Throughlines: The Overall Story Throughline, the Main Character Throughline, the Influence Character Throughline, and the Relationship Story Throughline.

Moonlight is all Main Character Throughline and little to no Overall Story Throughline. The end result is a great subjective experience, or what is commonly referred to as a slice-of-life story. Without the objectivity one receives from the Overall Story Throughline, the story fails to make its case for why things turned out the way they did. In the same way that our lack of objectivity in our own lives fails to grant us meaning, our inability to see what happens outside of Chiron's point-of-view locks us into his perspective.

We feel for him. But we don't learn from him.

Contrast this with The Matrix where you clearly see how a little bit of faith can save the day. Or Whiplash where a little determination can overcome any doubt over how you have yet to prove yourself.

Moonlight is a Tale, not a story. While captivating and engaging, the film failed to make a convincing argument as to whether Chiron's choices were a good thing or a bad thing, and whether or not they led to success or failure. As a consequence, we can only take the events as they are and not see them as part of a greater, more meaningful experience.

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July 11, 2017

Over the weekend, I restored two articles into the Vault section of Narrative First: Why You Shouldn't Care How the Dramatica Theory of Story Works and The Most Important Event in a Story.

The first represents one of my initial attempts to communicate those new to the theory the importance of not losing sight of why you discovered Dramatica in the first place: to write a better story. Unravelling math equations that tie Character and Plot to Theme and Genre is a fantastic way to avoid finishing that story. Discovering the Plot Sequence Report and using T-K-A-D to Write a Perfectly Structured Scene With Dramatica helps the artful procrastinator distract themselves from the real struggle of writing.1

The second helps Authors define where their story begins. The rather nebulous concept of "Inciting Incident" tends to claim this spot when in reality the genesis of a narrative begins with the creation of an inequity. Star Wars doesn't start when Luke gets the message, it starts when Darth illegally boards a diplomatic ship. Finding Nemo didn't start when Nemo lost his mom, it began when the kid left the safety of the reef.

Star Wars is about star wars—those start when an Empire oversteps its authority. Finding Nemo is about finding Nemo—that journey starts when the kid disappears.

Finding clarity in regards to the beginning of a narrative crystalizes who is the Protagonist and who is the Antagonist and sets in stone the Overall Story Goal for everyone in the story.


  1. Obviously I'm quite guilty of this approach. So guilty, I created an entire business around these avoidance techniques! ↩︎

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June 27, 2017

Wonder Woman Ready for Battle

We just posted the latest in our Storyforming Screencasts–a series of videos offering insights and techniques into quickly identifying the storyform of a great narrative. This time we focus on Wonder Woman. In 20 minutes we explain how we were able to single out the one storyform out of a possible 32767 that formed the basis for our analysis of the film.

To access this video and many more in the coming weeks and months, be sure to sign up for a Narrative First Membership. If you have any suggestions for future episodes, please contact us.

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June 26, 2017

Over the weekend we cleaned up our previously totally wrong analysis of John Patrick Shanley's Doubt and aligned it to the 500x times more accurate official Dramatica analysis of Doubt. Our new analysis of Doubt takes into consideration all we learned over the past two weeks.

In addition, we added the film to our Storyforms section--an exclusive area where Narrative First members can quickly access complete stories and download their individual DR5 files for use with the Dramatica Story Expert application. For more details on how you can access our complete collection, please visit the Narrative First Membership page.

Called upon by Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley to take over the monthly Dramatica Users Group meeting, I was sure—based on that original analysis—that we wouldn't find anything. Eight years of greater understanding later and living and breathing narrative theory as a full-time career now, the storyform for the film couldn't be more clear.

My previous thoughts on teaching the class explain more and you can find the entire 2 1/2 hour video analysis of Doubt here.

For the sake of posterity, we leave behind our original analysis:

A wonderfully acted film that falls two notches shy of telling a complete story. While “Doubt” is clearly the topic of discussion, it is only within the final scene that we truly discover what the film is really about. This revelation is also the film’s downfall, for stories to truly work they need to explore different themes within each throughline (four to be exact). With only doubt and certainty bandied about, the story feels light and the argument one-sided. Sister James (Amy Adams) wavers between Main Character and Sidekick, disappearing conveniently when necessary for the story to proceed. Ultimately, her character only exists to serve as a bouncing board for Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). In the context of story structure, she only serves to confuse the story’s message. A compelling film that could have been so much more.

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June 20, 2017

While editing and publishing the Dramatica Users Group Analysis of Doubt video, it occurred to me that I completely forgot to address the Overall Story Issue. Normally this wouldn't be a problem--save for the fact that the actual title of the movie--Doubt--features prominently in the corner of Dramatica's Table of Story Elements.

In the interest of time, and hopefully in an attempt to better educated writers interested in developing their understanding of Dramatica, I went ahead and recorded a quick 6-minute video explaining why the Overall Story Issue of Doubt was not Doubt, but rather Investigation.

For more video tutorials like this, please visit our Membership page for details.

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