Refinements to the Premise in Subtext

Improving the accuracy of a thematic argument

Holistic thinking wasn't the only story dynamic getting the short shrift within Subtext's Premise feature: Experience and Engagement were also woefully absent.

The Premise of a story is not about one person. While it reads like it is all about the Main Character, the Premise truly reflects the story as if it were a person.

Capturing the state of mind of that person at the moment of inequity is the responsibility of the Premise.

Appreciating the Storymind

The Dramatica theory of story is based on a concept known as the Storymind. In short, Dramatica sees every complete story as an analogy to a single human mind working to resolve an inequity. Your story is an actual person. Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre? Those are just aspects of that one person.

The Premise is a snapshot of the Storymind at the place where subjective concerns of the mind meet objective realities.

Give up being aware of a particular group's activities, and you can understand how the past shapes the present.

is the Premise of Inception.

Give up bringing something to an end, and you can fight alongside the best of them.

is the Premise of Logan.

These work great for stories where the Main Character's personal problem syncs up with the progression in the Overall Story plot. And it works great when the efforts to resolve conflict in both feels overwhelming. But what about those stories where things feel more surmountable? And what about those times when the Main Character and Overall Story don't sync up?

Order and Meaning

To be able to address these different stories, I needed to make further changes to Subtext.

You can create a new family dynamic when you give up resisting.

is the Premise of The Santa Claus.

You can be yourself when you give up being distrustful.

is the Premise of Tootsie.

Note the difference between these Premises and those of Inception or Logan.

In the first batch, the subjective precedes the objective. This order creates a sense that is Overwhelming. I must change before the world.

In the second, things feel lighter, more Surmountable. The world shifts when I change—an order much easier on the mind.

The difference is even more apparent when you try to change the order for the same film.

Which one of these sounds like the actual Premise for Casablanca??

You can secure freedom for others when you give up restraining yourself.


Give up restraining yourself, and you can secure freedom for others.

The former clearly communicates the essence and Experience of Casablanca. Sure, Strasser and pals are intimidating—but nothing that isn't Surmountable. Giving up restraining yourself first? That sounds like a completely different film.

Yet, the latter was how the Premise actually appeared in earlier versions of Subtext.

Setting the Experience of a Story

This setting of Premise, soon to be available in Subtext's Premise Builder, is labeled Experience. The toggle simply asks, is the Premise Overwhelming or Surmountable? Flip the switch, and Subtext acts accordingly.

The results of this choice spread out across the narrative structure. Experience affects everything from the relationship of the Main Character to the Overall Story, to the relative emotional sense of the Storymind. For an in-depth look into this aspect of Premise, read the article How to Tell if Your Main Character Faces Overwhelming or Surmountable Odds.

Setting the Level of Engagement

Next on the list was the Engagement factor of the Storymind. Based on my experience writing The Refusal of the Call: The Resistance or Flow Through a Narrative, I knew the Premise also needed to account for the subjective mindset's encounter with the progression of the objective.

It's one thing to discuss the relationship between the subjective and objective (Experience), but it's quite another to consider the encounter between them. The effect of both may be Overwhelming to the mind, yet a certain level of assistance can make navigating those waters easier.

If the subjective is caught up with internal concerns, and the objective shifts on an external node, then that personal perspective adjusts to address resistance.

If instead both subjective and objective vibe on the same level—internal concern and internal node, or external concern and external node—then flow exists, and no adjustment is necessary.

With this understanding of the interaction between subjective and objective, I set out to develop this level of Engagement within Subtext.

Only one problem: everyone equates resistance with "The Refusal of the Call" nonsense from the Hero's Journey.

Open-sourcing Story Structure

The difficulty in incorporating Engagement into the Premise lies in finding the right pair of words to describe this interaction accurately.

At first, I tried Resistance and Flow—but many expressed confusion over those words and the Main Character's refusal of "the special world." Evidence, once again, of the detrimental effects of the Hero's Journey and its spinoffs. That reality, combined with planned developments in other areas of Subtext, quickly led to me putting those words aside.

Next, we tried Assistive and Resistive—and by we, I mean the collective community of Subtext and Dramatica.

These developments are not done in secret. I work my hardest to make any change the very best it can be, but then submit them to a group dynamic to see if they connect. If the cloud returns with something better, then it's my responsibility to head back to the drawing board.

Case-in-point: Assistive and Resistive.

Initially, these were great—until I started to write this article.

Casablanca's objective mind shifts along with an internal node. Ugarte's decision to hide the letters with Rick leads to his eventual death. Rick's refusal to hand them over leads Ilsa to pull a gun on him.

This internal node gels with the subjective mindset of Casablanca—Rick's bad attitude about being left at the train station. The result is a level of flow within the narrative. While at odds, the subjective Assists the objective in the drive towards resolution.

But ask anyone whether or not Rick's subjective concerns actually assist the objective plot in Casablanca, and the answer is a resounding No.

I know what is meant by Assistive, and the group of writers instrumental in arriving at that term understands what it means. Still, to anyone new to Subtext, or Dramatica theory in general, Rick is Resistive.

Assistive and Resistive don't work.

Thankfully, my work on The Holistic Premise this year offered a way out.

Measuring Frequencies of Engagement

The Premise is not meant to describe the Main Character's journey. Nor is it intended to depict the events of a story. The Premise is a snapshot of a mind in process: the Storymind. The emphasis must remain on the state of that mind, not on any individual characters or plot events.

A mind that finds the subjective vibe-ing with the objective is a mind that resonates with the outside world. Engagement is one of Harmony. When the subjective struggles to sync up with the objective, Engagement is one of Variance.

Variance and Harmony to which character? NO character. Variance and Harmony in relation to the story itself as it works through conflict.

What is the level of Engagement in something like Casablanca?

You can secure freedom for others when you give up restraining yourself.

Harmony. No sense of discord or friction exists within the Premise.

Contrast that with the same Premise set with a level of Variance:

You can secure freedom for others when you get out of your way, and give up restraining yourself.

That does not sound like Casablanca.

But it does come close to describing the level of Engagement within something like Good Will Hunting:

When you get out of your way and give up fighting a particular group, you can expand your world

As opposed to something like this:

Give up fighting a particular group you can expand your world

The level of Engagement within that film is not one of Harmony, but rather one of Variance. The Harmony version falls short of capturing the essence of that film in a single Premise.

Adjusting a Narrative Premise

By no means do I expect everyone to connect instantly with Variance and Harmony, or even Overwhelming or Surmountable. The way they present themselves in Subtext, Experience could be labeled Astronaut and Mage, and Engagement Frosting and Tire Tread. The names themselves are not as important as the ability to instantly see their effect on narrative structure.

With the Premise Builder, all is set and available on a single screen. An Author in search of a Premise can quickly adjust the toggle switches as they fine-tune their story's message. Once the variance drops between intent and words on-screen, the artist is ready to write with a structure aligned with purpose.

Never Trust a Hero.

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