Building Conflict from a Premise
Feb 22nd, 2021
Continuing my weekly series on Building Subtext, I go over what it takes to translate a Premise into four different sources of conflict, or Throughlines. If you do nothing else with Subtext, figure out these four major Storypoints for your story. Knowing where the conflict in your story comes from, and how it connects to what it is you want to say with your story, creates a level of integrity in your writing that everyone will notice.
[00:00:00] Google Chrome: Hey, everyone. Welcome to another edition of Building Subtext. This week, I'm going to go over the Premise and how you can quickly find the main sources of conflict in your story, just by choosing a Premise. So you'll see here in Subtext, this is a list of the hundreds and hundreds of Storyforms that I have inside of Subtext, and each of them comes with a Premise.
Now this Premise is based on the particular narrative dynamics that are in that story, so not every Premise is going to be the same. They're all gonna be different. Some of them are gonna sound the same because they're going to share a lot of the same narrative dynamics, but as we go through them and I'm going to go through a couple of examples here. You'll see that they don't have the same exact message. They're each trying to say something different.
And the main conceit here in Subtext is that when you're trying to write a story, when you're trying to write a complete story, that every complete [00:01:00] story is an argument. It's some sort of approach. A way of solving problems or a way of dealing with the kind of things that come up in your life, that the story's actually an argument for a particular way of doing something over something else. And this comes from the Dramatica theory of story. That's the main conceit of the entire theory is that every complete story is actually an argument.
And so what we have here with the Premise is what that argument actually is. So for instance, this is The Vast of Night, which is a Slamdance film that was it's on Amazon Prime. "Everyone suffers the tragic consequences of forgetting what is at stake when you speculate about wild conspiracies."
And so the idea here is that it's a, it's a tragic story. And when people just get caught up speculating about what could go wrong or what kind of stuff is going on, it's about alien abductions and stuff, that's when they start to suffer the consequences of forgetting what's really going on because [00:02:00] they get all caught up in speculation. And that's the tragic essence of that film.
For Peter Pan, "Being in harmony with supposing dreams come true, keeps you present, allowing your wild imagination to deepen relationships." So you can see that it's a much more positive message and it has a different feel to it. Whereas this one's pretty basic and to the point, this one's all about staying in harmony with, you know, supposing that dreams can come true. And when you're in that state and you're in that harmonic state, you actually you're, you can allow your imagination to deepen the relationships with the people that are around you. So this one's about tragedy. This one's more about improving the relationships.
This is Kajillionaire. " You can be a part of something real when you abandoned being in a particular group with an overly destructive process." And that's, you know, again like this first one, but it's more of a positive message. You know, you can actually be a part of something that means something. If you just leave that group that [00:03:00] keeps doing the same sort of thing, and that's exactly what that film is about.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things, which is Charlie Kaufman. Really crazy movie. You know, the Premise actually matches your feeling of actually watching the film. So, "Address your resistance towards being authentic by balancing your overwhelming acknowledgement of what really happened with your appearing to be someone."
So again, that's, you know, I might have to read it again for you to actually understand what it means. "Address your resistance towards being authentic by balancing your overwhelming acknowledgement of what really happened with your appearing to be someone." So he's having trouble, you know, being his authentic self. And he's got to balance things with his acknowledgement of what really happened with his perceptions and that creates all kinds of trouble. Here we have Hamilton, very, very popular play. "Keep disrupting things by moving towards following a course of thought and everyone will suffer the tragic consequences of having someone else write their [00:04:00] story." And you'll notice this one sounds somewhat like The Vast of Night and that's because they're both tragedies.
Hamilton ends in a tragedy and The Vast of Night ends in tragedy. The specific Elements, the specific components of the Premise are different, but where it actually ends up, it's the same sort of feeling. And so then that's why the Premise would feel the same.
So what you would do here, you know, if you're just starting out with Subtext and you want to kind of feel out, what does it actually like and not have to get into learning all this crazy theory that you can actually get caught up in doing what you want to do is just pick one that actually connects with you. So you just find a Premise that actually connects with what it is that you want to say.
You know, you can go through here. "You can be happily married when you get out of your way and abandon calling something off." That's that one episode of the Simpsons from the first season actually has a complete story, even though it's only 30 minutes long.
Let's [00:05:00] see. Oh, Barry. "While severe, you can pretend to be someone else by abandoning stopping something you're great at." And you just kind of look through here and see if you can find one that fits. Something that connects with you.
So I think what I'm gonna do is I'm just going to take something really simple. The first one I'm going to do is very simple. So I'll take Top Gun cause that's basic. It's the 80s classic message, "Abandon being reckless, and you can compete against the best of the best." So you just click here, and then what happens is it brings you into the Storyform just for Top Gun. What I'm going to do is I'm just going to go ahead and click Build a Story and then it's gonna ask me, okay, well, confirm your choice, repeats the Premise, and you'll see here now.
These are the Subtext Settings and these are the settings that are actually beneath this Premise. It's like the subtext of this Premise. So, what is the story primarily about? Well, it's about Abandoning a [00:06:00] Perspective. The other alternative that is Staying the Course. In this case, this is all about abandoning a particular point of view that's not actually serving you anymore. So that's what this one's about.
The second setting is "What drives the structure of the story?" And if you remember the list of Premises that we went through, some of them had more of a harmonic relationship oriented Premise to them. Whereas something like Top Gun has this really straightforward sort of, okay, this is what it's all about. So that straightforwardness, as opposed to the more relationship oriented thing, that's what gets you this Reason. So it's actually Reason is actually driving the structure of the story. Whereas if you did the other one that was more harmonic and oriented towards relationships, then those relationships would be driving the structure of the story. And it all has an effect on the final story. Like what you're actually working towards.
The third setting here, "Is it difficult to separate the main character's personal issues from the plot?" Depending on what it is, that kind of story that you want to write, [00:07:00] sometimes you can really isolate the Main Character, the kind of stuff that they're going through from the actual Plot in the story.
And then other times they're kind of blended, they're almost seem like they're one and the same. In the end, you're know you're going to want to blend them and kind of bring them together. But usually you can tell whether or not, you know, are there they're like really close to each other or are they kind of separated and here, you know, cause Top Gun it's about him being the greatest pilot in the world. And that's kind of where he's got this whole thing where he has to prove himself. So that's, it's hard to separate his personal issues from the plot there. And it's not something that's completely different.
And then the fourth one here, "Does the Main Character flow with the plot, or resist it?" This is not your typical Hero's Journey Call to Adventure sort of thing. But this is really just about, when it comes to the big major turns in the story, is he or she able to flow with it or do they resist it or they like not, they're just not in there. You know This would happen throughout the entire story, not just in [00:08:00] one place, not just at the end, just at the beginning, but throughout the entire thing. So here, the Tom Cruise character, he flows with the plot because he's just got everything with it.
And then, of course, the very last question that is an essential part of this Premise, "Is what kind of ending does the story have?" Is it end in Triumph, which this one clearly does. Is it a the story of Virtue, is it something a little more Severe or is it like, you know, The Vast of Night or Hamilton where it ends in Tragedy, and here it's Triumph. The point of having this screen here, where you confirm your choice is to make sure, you connected with the Premise, so now let's dive into the Premise and see what it is that makes up that Premise. So these things actually create this in conjunction with the Thematic Components.
So there are two major components in a great Premise, there's two and one is all about Character and the other one's all about Plot. The Premise is like the crossover point between character and plot. So that's how you [00:09:00] get what it is that the story's actually about. That's where you get the meaning of it.
You can think of it like an internal version of what the problem is like to an external version of what the central problem with the story is like. Internally it's all about competing against, you know, other people. Whereas internally it's all about being reckless. And actually, I just realized these should be flipped. The Plot should be competing against the best of the best and the Character should be being reckless. So I'm sure I will redo this, but for right now, I can see that that's actually something that needs to be fixed. That's why when I was going through and I was like, wait, no, the plot should be competing against the best. And then the character element, the part that's not working is the fact that he's being reckless.
When you combine these two and you combine these things here, then you get this Premise, "Abandon being reckless, and you can compete against the best of the best." So if I just go ahead and Build that Story here, Subtext [00:10:00] goes and grabs all that stuff and then puts it into this story.
Here you can see, this is where you can develop and build out your story. There's a ton of different information here, but right now I'm just going to focus on the main Throughlines, which are the four different ways of looking at conflict in the story.
You can see the premise here, again, "Abandon being reckless, and you can compete against the best of the best." And what's really cool about Subtext is maybe this is the Premise that you want, but you don't want to write Top Gun again. You want to write something a little different, so maybe you come in here and this has a bunch of different illustrations of something that's close to that feeling of being reckless. Being vague. Being careless.
Maybe we'll do this, "Abandon being careless." You can see, it has the same sort of essence of being reckless, but it's a little bit different. And then that's how you can start to make the story your own. So the structure's gonna stay the same, but the stuff that you put on top, the storytelling part, that's the part that's gonna change.
And then here you can compete against the [00:11:00] best of the best. Here is a whole list of different ways you can "vote against something." You can "rebel against someone." You can "do what fathers and sons do together". "Do whatever it takes to survive." "Shoot people." "Search for something." "Abandon being careless and you can do whatever it takes to survive." Alright, maybe we'll go with that.
As you can see, this is where you can start to use Subtext to kind of brainstorm the kind of stories you want to tell. All right. So then if I come over here and I come into Throughlines, then you'll see four main summaries of the different sources of conflict that appear in your story. One centered around the plot. One centered around the Main Character. One is centered around the Influence Character, which is somebody I'll get to in a bit. And then the other one is centered around the main Relationships in the story.
What Subtext has done is it's grabbed this [00:12:00] Premise and it's figured out that, if this is the kind of thing that you want to argue, then this is where you should focus your attention.
If you want to have a huge leap forward in your story, you can just do the Plot summary and the Main Character summary and you'll be great. You'll still feel like something's missing. If you can get all four of these, then you'll be golden. The Influence Character then is somebody who creates conflict through immediate responses. So if you've seen Top Gun that's Iceman.
And then the main Relationships in the story are about temporarily adopting a lifestyle. This is usually more difficult for people to get ahold of, the relationships, and when I work with people, this is always the thing that we have to keep going on and keep going on. So I'll get back to this, but for the summary here. So let's just start out with the Plot.
The story we're trying to tell is "Abandon being careless, and you can do whatever it takes to survive." Maybe it's somebody who's just kind of stuck on climbing a mountain and his whole life he's just been like, well, everything is taken care of [00:13:00] for me. Maybe he stepped away from life from society because he just wanted to get away. And then the only way that he can actually get off the mountain is abandoning being careless and you can do whatever it takes to survive.
If I come back here into the plot summary here, and I just decided to illustrate it, you'll see it has an Illustration singing karaoke, which is not the story I just pitched. And then Storytelling where you get to write in what it's about. And then this is the actual structural Element that's underneath everything. So this gives you a little hint of what is underneath it all. This is the subtext right here. This is what's underneath all the storytelling that you have going on in here.
So "singing karaoke" isn't what I really wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about climbing something. Okay, so there, so now all of a sudden I've taken it away from flying airplanes and learning how to shoot, you know, other bad guy airplanes. And now it's about climbing.
[00:14:00] Maybe his name is Robert. And his party gets stuck on a mountain top because of Robert's carelessness. They start dying off as they try to reach the bottom of the mountain. It's like a typical climbing sort of thing. The idea is that all the problems in the story from a Plot point of view are going to be all about this focus on physical activity.
So then we'll look at the main character here. And let's go ahead and give him something. Now this went out and found "improving a group's declining health," which kind of actually fits with what it is that I was trying to write here. So if his main focus is about trying to improve their declining health or maybe he feels overly responsible. And this gets to the point where I said, where it's hard to differentiate between what's [00:15:00] actually going on in the story and what's going on with the Main Character and his personal issues.
Robert is the president of the company and is someone who cherishes being respected by the people that he works with. The fact that they're stuck on this mountain really gets to him. And he does whatever he can to improve their ever declining health.
Right. Okay. So then. What that means is while everybody is dealing with, you know, they're on the mountain, they're falling off and it's like, Oh, how can we get, you know, how can we get to safety? Maybe a helicopter tries to rescue them. And then the helicopter crashes.
Robert himself, he doesn't like that everybody is getting sicker and sicker and, you know, maybe like, cause the weather's really cold and their, their health is actually declining and he's losing their respect and maybe he's up for promotion and he doesn't [00:16:00] like the fact that this is going to look really bad for him if everybody dies off. Maybe he pitched everybody on this big trip and then now they're all starting to get sick and it's on him. And he's always wanted to show that he could do something. But he's always been careless. Right? If I go back to this thing here, "Abandon being careless he's just like taking shortcuts, right. And that's causing all kinds of problems here. All right. So I'm just basing this on the Premise of Top Gun, but already you can see that it's got, it's got some good stuff to it, right? It's like, okay, he's got to get over this. And then maybe they will be able to get off the mountain. To get the other two, you have the Influence Character and then the Relationships. The Influence Character is somebody who challenges the way the Main Character does something. They influence this person to eventually get to a place where he can abandon that being reckless.
Let's see what is this about, "having knee-jerk reactions to something" Either [00:17:00] it's somebody who's like on edge all the time and because they're on edge all the time, Robert can see himself in, you know, like that whole thing where it's like, "You and I are both alike," that's because the Main Character can see themselves in the Influence Character.
These are all different versions of either having nervous reactions or having knee jerk reactions to something or being somebody that's like completely numb, like a cool level headed. That's why in Top Gun it works, cause his name is actually Ice Man.
You can take it any way. Anything that actually connects with you. So let's just say being steady. While the rest of the group panics, Sarah is the kind of person who is never upset about anything, even when she's dangling off the edge of a cliff. Which impresses Robert, especially when everyone else starts to gravitate towards her for leadership, right? So do you see how this is working? Even if you don't do anything else, like you can see here, Act One, Act Two, Act Three. You can get into [00:18:00] major detail in Subtext. But even if you just stick to the plot, the Main Character you had something really interesting going on because there was like a reason for why there was this story. It's not just this thing that happened. It's not just climbing a mountain, but it's like, okay, this guy who wants to be seen as a leader.
But now you make it even bigger. You increase the scope of the argument when you throw in this other person who is now showing, your main character a different way of approaching problems. Their success is what eventually leads this person to grow. And you can see the subtext here, what's driving Robert throughout the entire story is Progress. The fact that he's not progressing enough.
And then finally, the one that a lot of people have trouble with are the Relationships. Usually it's just one relationship in a story. And most of the time it's the relationship between the Main and Influence Character, but it can also be a relationship between the Main Character and somebody else. [00:19:00] It's not about the Main Character or about that other person, but it's about the relationship between them. In the same way that this Main Character and Influence Character balance each other out, the Relationship balances out the Plot and that's how you get a complete story.
So if we go in here, "temporarily adopting a lifestyle." You can see the random one that came up with was "being a member of Victorian society," which I don't know if that, I mean, maybe it, maybe this is set in the late 1800s and actually, what if we did go with it? So that was a total random one, right? So these are all different kinds of relationships about faking something, pretending to be in love. But I think I actually like being a member of Victorian society.
And what you want to write about here is illustrate how relationships grow through temporarily adopting a lifestyle. How does their relationship grow? In the beginning, do I want to make it between Robert and Sarah? I don't know. Let's [00:20:00] see. Maybe the, the heart of the story is between Robert and his father. Maybe his father is on the trip as well. Maybe he actually owns the company.
And so there's like this father son thing going on where you know, the father's like old school being a member of Victorian society. And this is, you know, it's very important that we get up the mountain and we show everybody what it's all about, you know, just very Conservative and Victorian values. And maybe the son is like new world, and they're not connecting to each other.
So Robert and his father George have a dysfunctional relationship that keeps them from getting close to one another. Yeah. So it's like a dysfunctional relationship in regards to Victorian ideals that keeps them from getting close to one another.
This would be great. So what it [00:21:00] is the important part is the pretending part is they can pretend to be father and son for only so long. Right? They can only pretend to be father and son for so long before the fact that they're really just aren't cut from the same cloth pulls them apart. Right? So it's like, you can only do it for so long. He's not living up to the ideals. They're not living up to the ideal of what a father and son sort of thing. There should be respect and that's just not happening. So by the end of it, they split up. Maybe the dad dies. I don't know.
So do you see what I'm saying? Like 10 minutes ago, I had no idea what I was doing. I was more bothered by the fact that the Character and the Plot things weren't in the right spot. But all of a sudden I have the foundation for a really great story. I have something like that could be really, really good. Where it's about, your typical climbing the summit sort of thing and all of a sudden now it's in the late [00:22:00] 1800s, just because of this random thing about Victorian society. And then I have this really touching father son thing. You can see, like, that's the heart of the story. That's like, Oh, okay, wait. Are they going to get closer? Is there going to be time where they finally reach an understanding, but that understanding is heartbreaking because it's going to be the end of everything.
Meanwhile, you know, Sarah, she's got her own thing and she's also not into Victorian ideals, but the difference, the, "You and I are both alike." Yeah. We, we both, aren't really into this old world. We're all, both part of the new world, but the difference is, I'm not panicking like you are. People aren't dying because I'm careless.
Do you see you have a foundation, you didn't have to go through and do all Act One, Act Two, Act Three Act Four. Just knowing where you're gonna focus your attention when it comes to the relationships in the story, when it comes to the interpersonal conflicts. And then of course, the main plot, which is basically just about climbing.
When you can wrap all those together and get a good idea of what it is that those are about then you can just write your [00:23:00] story.
And this isn't just geared towards the Main Character. This is also geared towards everybody in this story. So it's the Premise of the entire story. So, maybe Robert and his father were careless in the relationship. Maybe Robert survives and maybe his dad doesn't, but that's, you know, that's what he should've done. And therefore he did whatever it takes to survive because they abandoned being careless about their own relationship.
So I hope that gives you a good idea. I was going to do a bunch of different examples, but it takes a lot longer than I thought it would. So maybe I'll just do one at a time and in the next video I'll make sure I fix the little bug there between the Character and the Plot.
I'm really excited about being able to offer this up so that anybody can just jump in to Subtext and not have to learn a ton of theory and actually have fun writing a story because the important part is writing the story that you're really excited about.
You might come to it with a bunch of ideas of what you want to do, or you could just be, if you just like to write, but you're not really [00:24:00] sure where to start. You can just do what I did, which is just grab a random Premise, build out a story and then just figure out where the main sources of conflict are. And then you've got yourself, the foundation for a really great story.
I look forward to showing you more in the coming weeks. Thanks for watching and I'll see you next time.