Building a Service for Generating Great Stories

The joy of being able to continually improve the quality of storytelling in the world.

Last Friday was an unbelievably productive and fun day for Narrative First. After heading to my favorite coffee shop first thing in the morning, I proceeded to blaze through some new code concerning the deleting of player perspectives within Subtext.

Players hold context for the individual Throughlines within a complete narrative. While a story might have distinct players for each Throughline, sometimes you'll have a player who represents both the Main Character perspective and plays a significant role in the Overall Story.

With Subtext, this is a simple matter of dragging and dropping the character into the appropriate Throughline.

When you go to remove that role though, you need to take all those Storybeats that used to be associated with that player and reassign them to another player that exists in that same Throughline. That's where things get tricky.

No sense grabbing some random player when the writer has already made it clear who stands for what.

I had this method pretty much worked out until I realized that deleting a player was even more complicated. Not only did I have to find a new player to take over all those Storybeats, but I also had to go across each and every Throughline, since the player could maintain at least 3 out of the 4 perspectives!

Needless to say, coding this proved to be an excellent challenge for Friday morning. And I managed to get it all working before lunch.

Double Trouble

The next wave involved uncovering a hidden and somewhat perplexing bug. In the Dramatica model of the Storymind, one quad of Elements exists at two different levels. The Elements of Knowledge, Thought, Ability, and Desire exist at both the Variation, or Thematic, level and the Element, or Character level. When users would access a Storybeat made up of one of these four Elements, the suggested Storytelling would be blank. The Subtext engine was trying to locate Storytelling examples from the Element level when it really needed to grab them from the Variation.

Once I discovered this nasty little guy (with a bit of help from Dramatica aficionado John Dusenberry!), I added some checks for levels before grabbing Storytelling. A quick rebuild and all was right with the world again.

A Call for Greater Detail

After lunch, I sat down to tackle a highly requested feature from testers—more detail.

Our intention with Subtext is to provide a service that allows writers from all skill levels to leverage the power of the Dramatica theory of story to write great and compelling stories.

Anyone who has worked with Dramatica knows how complicated it is, and how long it can take to truly master. I've been working with the theory for over twenty years, and I'm still discovering new things about it!

We want to shortcut that learning process and help writers get to doing what they do best—write—not theorize.

Turns out, there are still those writers who want access to the precise terminology—as both a means to improve their own understanding of story and a way to quickly develop their narratives.

One writer in particular—Sebastien de Castell, a popular novelist—is using Subtext to help write his ninth book. While he enjoyed using the new version, he expressed a desire for access to the actual Storyform lying underneath all the beats.

What Sebastien asks, Sebastien gets.

I quickly began scaffolding the necessary parts to make this happen when I suddenly ran out of time--another client was ready for me to tackle his project.

Another Amazing Experience

Last week marked the first week of real-world experience with v.2 of Subtext. It's one thing to conceptualize a groundbreaking writing tool like this, and quite another to see it in action.

I can say groundbreaking with confidence, because of my experience consulting for several years with novelists, screenwriters, playwrights, and executive producers. I can tell you that working with this latest version of Subtext is nothing short of magic.

Imagine having no idea what to do with the second half of the second Act of your story, and then an hour later having a detailed and almost prescient outline of events that perfectly falls into place between what you've already written--and what you're planning for the ending.

This is exactly what happened today with my afternoon client.

And to make it even more challenging--technical difficulties prevented us from using video and voice to communicate. It was Subtext and chat, and nothing else.

And yet, the magic was still there.

Making Story Theory Easy

Subtext takes the essential parts of the narrative--those associated with the Dramatica storyform--and then offers up randomized Storybeats that communicate that structure. And these aren't merely a template of 16 beats that happen in every story--these are detailed story specific Storybeats tied explicitly to the meaning, or message, of the story.

Tragedies dictate a certain order of beats completely different than Triumphs. Amadeus is tragic because of the order in which the main Storybeats happen; Star Wars is a Triumph because of the way its Storybeats unfold.

Usually, this understanding and appreciation of story takes years to develop—not anymore.

We had no idea what we were going to do for our hour...until Subtext showed us the way.

At first, we worked with the Overall Story Throughline—the one most consider the “A” plot-line—and after a bit of back and forth, found a way to interpret some of the suggested Storytelling with ideas of our own.

With Subtext, you’re not stuck with a narrow-minded template or complex terminology. Storybeats are written in good old plain American English. And if you don’t like them, you can just scroll through a list of suggested beats that fulfill the same spot in the narrative structure.

Turning your story in a brand new and inspiring direction is only a click away.

Working with Subtext, that Act started to come to life. Piece by piece, we laid down the tracks for a compelling and meaningful plot line—and it worked perfectly with the Storybeats in the previous Act. By the time we hit that last Beat of the Act, the major turning point of the story stood out—beckoning us to turn this narrative in a way we would never have dreamed of on our own.

But that’s not even the best part.

Because, as soon as we switched over to the Main Character Throughline we saw something genuinely astounding—a collection of Storybeats that needed absolutely no fine-tuning.

They worked perfectly without our input—as if Subtext knew our story better than us.

Well...all except the last one. That one seemed a bit off, unfamiliar, and odd. Until it finally occurred to us what it was really saying—

— It was relaying an idea the writer had several months ago, that was now sitting right before us. His writer’s intuition was made manifest right before our eyes!

Simply astounding.

I built the service, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing with my own eyes. Within an hour, we laid out a strong and meaningful path for his writing over the weekend. Make no mistake: there’s a massive difference between winging it and writing with the confidence that each and every scene serves a purpose in your story. Subtext makes the latter a reality.

But, for some, the service makes it too easy.

More Detail Please

By the time I finished with the previous writer, it was 4pm. This is usually my time to wind down, catch up on any housekeeping, and prepare things for the next day.

But it was Friday—and Sebastien had his book to write.

So I quickly finished off the first pass on the Detailed Structure option for Subtext and rolled it out before 6pm.

Detailed Structure Option in Subtext

From deleting players to updating Storybeats to generating ideas to allowing for a more detailed structure, Subtext is a living and breathing service that develops and changes day after day, and week after week. This, to me, is one of the most exciting aspects of being able to provide a service like this. A writer, like Sebastien, can request a feature or make a suggestion for something that could powerfully impact his own writing, and I'm able to fold it into the service in a couple of hours.

And it's something that everyone can take advantage of as it rolls out across the entire system.

My intention with Subtext is to develop a community that continually improves and expands upon itself, with the sole purpose of realizing great and meaningful stories.

Never Trust a Hero.

Subscribe and receive our FREE PDF E-book on why the concept of a "Hero" in story is outdated, and holding you back from writing a great story.