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Thoughts on Story Structure

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, from original to revised, spans an eight-year period.

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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June 19, 2017

Last week, I ran the Dramatica Users Group analysis of the 2008 drama Doubt starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep. The class ran exceedingly well and provided a mountain of insight into a particular kind of storyform not often seen in American cinema.

When Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley first asked me to cover for him last month, my first thought was But there isn’t even a storyform for that movie. In my estimation, Doubt was nothing like The Shawshank Redemption or Pinocchio. Like next month’s Moonlight, the film would prove to be one of those analysis sessions where we can’t find a consistent narrative (like City Lights or Leviathan). In fact, I was so confident in my original analysis of Doubt from 2011 where I said:

A wonderfully acted film that falls two notches shy of telling a complete story.

that I even asked Chris to check in with me before the class.

Imagine my surprise when I watched the movie again last Monday and thought, Well, that was one of the easiest storyforms to figure out!

The Board from the *Doubt* Analysis

All Four Throughlines were clearly there. The Story Outcome and Story Judgment were clearly stated. Hoffman and Streep’s classic “You and I are Both Alike” scene clearly defined their Relationship Story Throughline. Even the Main Character’s Growth–an often elusive and subjective story point to discover-was clearly presented.

One of the most interesting things we discovered as a group was that the Overall Story Issue for the film was not Doubt, but rather Investigation. While not covered in the above class, we did upload an addendum video on Identifying the Overall Story Issue of Doubt that we're sure you'll find compelling.

A Lifetime of Study

Dramatica is not something you learn and put aside. The theory takes years and years to understand and even more years to master. A writer new to the theory said this about his experience Tuesday night:

very fun and humbling evening last night. I feel like this is a life long adventure. every time I think I understand it I find a new layer that breaks my brain. thanks again.

While there are methods for accelerating that process, like our Dramatica® Mentorship Program, it is a lifelong pursuit. That excites me. It means I’ll always be learning something new. It means I’ll always be growing. It means that I will always have a solid touchpoint to keep me on track as I develop the art and craft of what it means to tell a story.

The study of Dramatica improves your writing like nothing else. Personally, I’m grateful to experience that growth every day and to play a role in helping others experience the same.

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June 16, 2017

We finally found time this week to edit, render, and publish the video analyses of both the Pilot Episode of The Americans and the sci-fi film Arrival. Both classes dive into the deep thematic structure of their narratives while using the Dramatica theory of story for context. After identifying the Four Throughlines, we establish the Character and Plot Dynamics, and then visit the Dramatica Table of Story Elements to pinpoint the source of conflict in each Throughline.

The Americans Pilot Episode

This analysis is great as it takes a look at how Dramatica works within the context of a one-hour television show. In addition, Chris explains how some of the story points in this episode set up potential for future stories within the series. If you've ever been interested in what it takes to outline a television series with Dramatica, this is a great video to watch.

Arrival

This class is wonderful, if for no other reason than it shows the various thought processes that lead up to the same conclusions we made in our official analysis of Arrival. Pay special close attention to the difference between how things are revealed, and the actual structure of the narrative.

The Dramatica Users Group meets the 2nd Tuesday of every month and has for the past 22 years. Everyone is welcome to join--newbie or veteran. Please contact us directly for more information.

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June 5, 2017

From the desk of why didn't anyone tell me about this sooner?!, Melanie Anne Phillips—my favorite go-to for an easy link post posted FOUR HOURS OF BRAND-NEW DRAMATICA AUDIO! And by brand-new, I mean historical audio recorded during the first few months of development of the theory.

I have yet to listen to all of it, but imagine Chris and Melanie sitting around in a conference room with a micro-cassette recorder between them and you get the basic idea. I can't think of a better way to spend your days of June gloom whilst you wait for the next episode of the Narrative First podcast.

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June 2, 2017

The Genesis of a Story

Super genius Melanie Anne Phillips visualizes the process of creating a story out of base compounds and noble gasses:

Think of subject matter as the interstellar gas and material from which solar systems are formed.  This is the narrative space.  Just because you carve out a piece of this space – enclose a particular cloud of star stuff – does not create planets that orbit in understandable patterns.  The job of an author is to look into the nebulous nature of an area of subject matter – a particular historic event, an aspect of human nature – and to coalesce that material into a tale or a story.

Emphasis mine. This is where Dramatica comes in. Finding a great story idea is one thing, coalescing it into an actual story? Something entirely different.

A tale in a given narrative space would simply explore the subject matter and make a statement about it.  A story would transcend that and make the case for the best (or worst) of all possible ways to organize (or live through) that material.

Every complete and meaningful story is an argument . The Dramatica theory of story helps authors develop the argument of their story.

Often, to make a complete argument, we must exclude favorite subject matter pieces that would have to be ham-handedly crammed into our story and would never truly fit.  Further, we may have to include additional elements that really don’t inspire us, because if we went with only the parts we truly care about, our overall argument would be full of holes.

The first is the hardest when working with writers and producers; many find it damn near impossible to let go of their precious babies no matter how much their ugly faces ruin the family picture. The second is no less difficult, but takes considerable effort to communicate the reason why aliens deserve a seat at the Thanksgiving table.

Dramatica and Narrative First--uniting the universe one story at a time.

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May 29, 2017

When it comes to reading scripts on holiday--and by the pool--turn to Weekend Read. Nothing more annoying than constantly having to resize PDFs in a reader or having to continually scroll back to your location when you step out to check your IG Stories or take a dip in the water.

Weekend Read

With Weekend Read you simply morph your client's PDF into the app and the above annoyances slip away, making it easier to lose yourself in a great story. Bonus functions include being able to highlight dialogue by character--for those moments when you want to remind yourself Was this the guy who was hitting on that other woman earlier?

It may seem like you can get by without it--but really, you shouldn't.

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