Rediscovering the Relationship Story Throughline

Finding what was already there

The most significant development in Dramatica theory in 2019 was something that has been there since the initial release: namely, the idea of the Relationship Story Throughline as a perspective. Pitched most often as the “emotional argument” between the Main and Influence Character, this Throughline is neither argument nor restricted solely to the relationship between the Main Character and Influence Character.

Heresy? Perhaps. Especially if your only familiarity with the theory is the Dramatica theory book. But for those of us who spent years putting these theoretical concepts into practice, the revelation results in relief.

The Relationship as a Character

I teach an online course called the Dramatica Mentorship Program. After years and years of teaching hundreds of students, it became clear to me that I see relationships differently than everyone else. I see them as a character.

Look to the Dramatica theory book, and you’ll see the Relationship Story Throughline portrayed as the “emotional” argument. Two soldiers meet on a field, and the debate between them is their relationship. This analogy encourages a he-said/she-said mentality: John thinks their marriage is OK. Mary thinks they need more communication. Their relationship is an argument over who is right and who is wrong.

This sort of interchange is not a relationship.

Previous incarnations of the theory even went so far as to recast the Relationship Story as the Main vs. Impact Character Throughline (itself an iteration of the original Subjective Story Throughline). A marketing push meant to attract more writers to Dramatica, the MC vs. IC Throughline fiasco only managed to delay the development of the theory.

Writers prone to dualistic thinking—those primarily beset by a Linear rational mindset—struggle to recognize the dynamic between things. Main vs. Impact makes sense because the reason we don’t see eye-to-eye is our individual incompatible natures. He-said/she-said is the description of a relationship from the point-of-view of the individuals in a relationship.

While it may not make sense to the rational mind, a driving force exists within the dynamics of a relationship. At times this force, particularly within the context of creating a narrative, seems to possess an intelligence of its own.

John may think things are lovely. And Mary may still want to open up the lines of communication. But the marriage sets plans all its own.

Even if you balk at the notion of this extra-intelligence, as a writer, you can’t deny the dramatic impact such a reality would play on a story.

This seemingly ethereal concept is the Relationship Story Throughline.

The Dynamic-First Approach

The key to writing this crucial part of your story is not to think about it at all. Write the other parts first, then check to see what kind of relationship is required to balance everything out.

Sure, you can start developing a story with a Relationship—as we did this year in the Writers Room with our Friends with Benefits story—but for most, this part of a story won’t be evident until further down the line.

In some respects, this approach resembles our new-found strategy for analyzing stories with Dramatica. For the first two decades, we would define the relationship first, then look for the perspective and matching thematic concerns. Now we seek the balancing perspective first, then find evidence of relationships that fit the mold. By taking this approach, we avoid confirmation bias and leave ourselves open to discoveries.

For instance, take the storyform for Back to the Future: the initial analysis cast only father and son as the primary relationship. This evaluation made sense because both fulfilled the roles of Main Character and Influence Character, and both appeared to fulfill the tenets of an emotional argument.

Cut to May of this year when John Dusenberry, a writer, and part-time Story analyst for Narrative First, wrote to me questioning why the Relationship Story Throughline of Back to the Future wasn’t between Marty and Doc. He felt their bond was the heart of the story.

And I had trouble defending the contrary.

A couple of days, and several articles later, and now the analysis of Back to the Future reflects multiple relationships. And not just two—but three relationships that portray the perspective of a Relationship Story Throughline.

Perspective First

When you look for the perspective first, you see the ease with which handoffs exist from one relationship to the next. The Relationship Story thematic elements needed to balance out the plot require a Concern of Becoming, or maturing, and an Imbalance of Temptation, or taking the easy way out.

Father and son conflict over taking the easy way out when it comes to Biff. Marty and Doc do the same in terms of revealing the future.

And mother and son engage in problematic temptations.😁

The same thematic elements exist in all three relationships. It’s not randomly funny that Marty’s mom has the hots for him—it’s essential towards the meaning of the story.

Yet another reason why this development stands out as the most important of the year.

Improving the Experience of Writing a Story

I can’t tell you how many times this year writers told me, “Thank you” for pointing out this aspect of a story. So many writers turn to Dramatica because they recognize its utility—only to turn away when they feel boxed in and restricted. Having this new perspective on perspective only confirms what many of them already knew deep inside.

Seeing the Relationship Story Throughline as a perspective first and a character second frees the writer’s artistic sensibilities from the reductive nature of easy-listening education. It opens up an entirely new landscape of thematically consistent and meaningful storytelling.

We all instinctively get that there is something there between us. Perhaps, understanding these relationships as characters will help us improve the quality and content of those characters.

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