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Thoughts on Story Structure

October 11, 2017

George Monbiot, writing for The Guardian, asks: How Do We Get Out of this Mess?

Donald Trump. North Korea. Hurricanes. Neoliberalism. Is there any hope of a better world? Yes, but we have to come together to tell a new, kinder story explaining who we are, and how we should live.

#storytelling trends well these days. Everyone understands that to market your business or push a political agenda you need to tell a better story. Compile your message into a functioning narrative, and you guarantee the highest amount of success.

And writing a complete story guarantees a successful broadcast of that message.

Stories are the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals. We all possess a narrative instinct: an innate disposition to listen for an account of who we are and where we stand.


Stories reflect the way we think and solve problems. We don’t possess an instinct for narrative—narrative mimics our innate disposition for meaning.

Unlike hard drives or RAM, our minds suck at remembering and stand unreliable at best when it comes to reality. We perceive the world through filters built upon justifications and then store that information away as truth. This rationale then become the motivation to seek out further alternate realities, the justifications pile up, and the cycle continues.

A complete story simulates the process of building up those justifications or tearing them down. A Steadfast Main Character reflects the former while a Changed Main Character imitates the latter. William Wallace in Braveheart and Robert Angier in The Prestige build up the rationale for their behaviors. Chiron in Moonlight and Chris Washington in Get Out tear those justifications down until they arrive at a point where they can change their point-of-view.

The Dramatica theory of story refers to this reality of narrative as the Storymind concept: A complete story functions as an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem.

When we encounter a complex issue and try to understand it, what we look for is not consistent and reliable facts but a consistent and comprehensible story. When we ask ourselves whether something “makes sense”, the “sense” we seek is not rationality, as scientists and philosophers perceive it, but narrative fidelity. Does what we are hearing reflect the way we expect humans and the world to behave? Does it hang together? Does it progress as stories should progress?

Narrative fidelity is a fantastic term. A better way to reframe those questions is to ask Does what we hear ring true with our mind’s problem-solving process? If the answer is no, then we will “sense” or feel a hole in the narrative. When the answer is yes, we appreciate the full intent behind the message—without static, and without interference.

Making a difference in the quality of storytelling requires a greater understanding of the mechanism by which a story progresses.

Only then can you make a difference in the world.

October 10, 2017

The Narrative is Not Real

Writing and reading. Reading and writing. What better way to spend our lives than to engage in the thoughts and considerations of others?

Before I get to this week’s article and an immensely helpful tip Narrative First employs when it comes to using the Dramatica theory of story to write great stories, I want to say a thing or two about stories.

On my Kindle, I bounce back and forth between fiction and non-fiction. Fiction first thing in the morning, a brief interlude of non-fiction to get me inspired before my daily sprint of writing.

This month it’s Stephen King’s 11-22-63 and Eric Barker’s Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong. The former primes the imagination, the latter sets the intellect.

In Barking Up the Wrong Tree Mr. Barker observes a reality of narrative: Meaning comes in the form of the stories we tell ourselves about the world. Whether you seek truth in the real world or honesty and sincerity in your own fiction, our mind’s instinctual nature seeks out significance.

We can’t help but see stories everywhere we look.

Consider last week’s events in Las Vegas and our collective attempt at finding some greater purpose amidst chaos. Without a clear understanding of the Overall Story Throughline, we “fill in the blanks” with what we assume to be there—crafting propaganda where necessary to complete our story.

The narrative is not real, but our minds can’t help themselves—they were built to find meaning.

Our perceptions determine the reality.

You can read more of my thoughts and reflections on Barker’s observations in the post The Importance of Storytelling in Our Lives, but for now, it’s enough to consider this:

Understanding the mechanism behind our instinctual approach to #storytelling paves the way towards telling better stories and improving the quality of our own lives.

Note: This post originally appeared in this week’s newsletter. Subscribe to Narrative First to receive insight like this and more each and every week.

October 6, 2017

In Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong, Eric Barker explores the importance of story in our lives:

Stories, stories, stories. They remind us how to behave and help us persist.

And they remind us "how" to behave through a unique collection of story points known as a storyform. The storyform carries the message or meaning, behind the narrative. Star Wars teaches us to trust in something outside of ourselves by setting the Main Character Solution and Overall Story Solution to Trust. Manchester by the Sea teaches us the tragedy of losing all sense of agency in our lives by setting the Main Character Problem to Desire.

These story points form the broadcast; the storyform works as the carrier wave.

UCLA film school professor Howard Suber describes movies as “sacred dramas for a secular society.” Just like with religious parables, we act like the heroes of the stories we tell. Studies show that when we relate to characters in fictional stories, we are more likely to overcome obstacles to achieve our goals.

We relate--to functional narratives--because they form an analogy to the minds problem-solving process. A working story is a working model of the mind at work. We relate when a story's structure mimics our structure.

So what is meaning? Meaning, for the human mind, comes in the form of the stories we tell ourselves about the world. This is why so many people believe in fate or say things were “meant to be.” Having a story about the meaning of life helps us to cope with hard times. Not only do we naturally see the world this way, but frankly we can’t not tell stories. If I asked you how your day was or how you met your spouse, what would you tell me? A story. What’s your résumé? A story. You even tell stories when you sleep: dreams. And research shows you have about two thousand daydreams every day, telling yourself little stories about this or that. For nearly every area of your life, like career or relationships, you have a story you tell yourself about it. But rarely are these consciously or deliberately constructed.

Understanding the mechanism behind our instinctual method for #storytelling paves the way towards telling better stories and improving the quality of our own lives.

October 5, 2017

My favorite video of all time.

Watch as Executive Producer Chris Sonnenburg takes a Disney fanatic on a tour of his office during the production of the Tangled: Ever After animated television series. Wait till he opens up the shelf of his Kem Weber-designed Disney animation desk from the 1940s...

...that friend “Jim” he mentions? That’s me!

That was my desk back when I was a Disney animator. I found it in a warehouse when I was working on Pocahontas and kept it through The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hercules, and Tarzan.

When I departed, I gifted it to Moana’s Head of Story Dave Pimentel and he gifted it to Chris when he left. Chris moved on to other things (among them, producing the opening animation for Enchanted) and when he came back to helm the Tangled television series Chris brought the desk out of storage and reclaimed it for all time.

I absolutely loved that desk—the history behind it all, not only my experience, but that of those who created beautiful works of art before me.

And I’m so happy it’s in great hands now.

September 27, 2017

In 2015, Julian Hoxter, an Associate Professor of Screenwriting in the Cinema Department of San Francisco State University, published The Pleasures of Structure: Learning Screenwriting Through Case Studies.

I skipped to the good parts:

The use of story development software is controverial even within the screenwriting industry, however. Robert McKee is a critic of Dramatica: "I came in, too a look and said, 'This is ridiculous. Only someone without talent, a computer nerd, would think it was useful. They were not happy with me."

Of course. Because you didn't even take the time to consider what it was they were saying. You discounted the entire theory purely out of ignorance and panic.

For his part Syd Field rejected programs--despite subsequently being involved with a similar piece of tech for Final Draft: "It's all horrific. I don't understand a word of what they're saying."

Horrific. Ridiculous.

Inflammatory superlatives based on a foundation of irrational thought.

Like the skeptics of old, Robert McKee and Syd Field want writers to stay locked in the Dark Ages of writing and narrative structure.

I don't.

Heretical, perhaps. But when you think about it--progress is often confused for blasphemy.

Probably no coinicidence that stories with a Goal of Progress point to the Preconscious as a Consequence of failing to achieve a successful outcome.

In other words, only an Antagonist stuck in the impulsive repsonses of the Preconscious would use words like "ridiculous" and "horrific" to Prevent Progress and motivate people to Reconsider a new way of thinking.

I'm comfortable being the Protagonist on this one.

September 26, 2017

Jon Gentry, a contributor to the Narrative First Genre Gist Collections and the first student to enroll in the Dramatica® Mentorship Program just completed the certification process to become a Dramatica Story Expert.

A significant portion of the certification program involves decoding and encoding a comprehensive storyform analysis of a well-regarded film, novel, play, or television series. Jon chose The Imitation Game, written by Graham Moore and directed by Morten Tyldum, and the end result is a feast for fans of elegant and functional storytelling.

If becoming a Certified Dramatica Story Expert is something you might be interested, consider enrolling in the Dramatica Mentorship Program or better yet--let's use Deliberate Storytelling to write your next story together. Both approaches guarantee to develop your sense of story to the point where you'll be able to fly through the certification process with litte to no effort.

Read Jon Gentry's comprehensive Dramatica analysis of The Imitation Game.

September 26, 2017

Hope you’re enjoying the gentle slip into the Fall season...

Apparently, it’s Paterson week here at Narrative First. The podcast, the article, and the analysis all focus their attention on this latest and greatest from Jim Jarmusch.

I’m not a huge fan of his previous work, but I’m a huge fan of great storytelling and subtle and sophisticated narrative structure. Paterson is a treat because it features a Main Character with a Holistic Main Character Problem-Solving Style–something we don’t get too much of nowadays.

But even more compelling–Jarmusch presents a vision of what “conflict” looks and feels like through a holistic filter. Instead of Goal and Consequence think more Cost and Dividend and the balance between the two. In fact, the emphasis is on the shift in balances between different paths rather than a linear path of successive rungs.

It's something you have to experience for yourself before it can all start to make sense. I was pleasantly surprised by the film, and I’m sure you will enjoy it as well.

This Week’s Updates

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September 16, 2017

Ryan Holiday explains why I write best when I run:

As a runner, the real race is getting up and running every single day. Life is the marathon. The same is true in writing. A lot of people sit down to write a book. Many don’t make it past that point. Plenty get something finished, but are intimidated by the maze that is publishing, promoting, selling. And of the relative few that make it through there, only some have the stamina to start the next one. To make it a career.

September 12, 2017

Nothing can be more pleasing to fans of great storytelling than opening up a movie everyone tells you to watch only to find the Rotten Tomatoes score at 99%. After several years of never being let down by this online rating system, you can trust RT to tell you the truth about the quality of a film.

Hilarious, then, when you consider that Hollywood is blaming Rotten Tomatoes for a horrible summer.

Between the first weekend in May and Labor Day, a sequel-stuffed period that typically accounts for 40 percent of annual ticket sales, box office revenue in North America totaled $3.8 billion, a 15 percent decline from the same span last year. To find a slower summer, you would have to go back 20 years. Business has been so bad that America’s three biggest theater chains have lost roughly $4 billion in market value since May.

As the Boston Globe reports (but won’t let me go any further because of a pay wall) The movie box office this summer was so bad because the movies were [so bad].

The Emoji Movie received a score of 8 because it deserved a rating of 8.

Breaking Structure and an Indication of a Great Story

As I explain in my analysis of Get Out (and podcast), writer/director Jordan Peele decided to change the final sequences of the film to mollify a potential reactive Audience. This choice, while ultimately successful, ran counter to the entire argument set up throughout the rest of the movie.

The concept of the Storymind reigns supreme: the analogy of a complete story working as a model of a single human trying to solve a problem is understood and accepted by every single person in the Audience–whether they know it or not.

The Audience for Get Out expected a Failure ending because the model of the mind setup in the previous 90 minutes set a course for Failure.

This kind of thing has been going on for centuries–it’s just now we have a lexicon and a computer model to help explain it (and Narrative First to help solve both!).

And when you think about it–the concept of Rotten Tomatoes has existed as long, if not longer. The groupmind collectively understands the composition and story points of a satisfying and emotionally fulfilling narrative.

Compare the “Amazingly Fantastic Stories” of my Narrative First Analysis Showcase against Fun, But Broken and Avoid at All Costs. I guarantee those in the first hover above 90% while the latter two land below the median, if not at the bottom.

The problem isn’t Rotten Tomatoes–it’s a system that hangs too small a value on a valid and complete narrative structure. It’s a system that relies on instinct and subjective approaches to story out of deference to a lazy mindset.

We have an objective model of the Storymind and story structure. Dramatica® is the way to fight back against Rotten Tomatoes and films like Peele’s Get Out stand out as a prime example of this new reality.

What will the site look like when every film and television show lands a 99% or 100% rating?

September 6, 2017

This week, I finish my series of articles on preparing your story for the Narrative First approach to Dramatica with the article Identifying the Storyform of a Complete Story. If you ever were confused or overwhelmed with where to begin, this series of articles–now entitled Preparing to Write a Complete Story–gives you a great place to start.

(Hint: I help you go through this process one-on-one in my Dramatica® Mentorship Program)

I’m particularly excited about this last article about the Storyform. So many writers new to Dramatica and Narrative First mistake the storyform for what their characters experience, rather than what their story is about.

The storyform defines the edges of the indescribable conflict at the center of a narrative.

What the heck does that even mean?!

Conflict isn’t a thing–it’s the imbalance between things. Only, you can’t describe an imbalance–you kind of have to experience it.

It’s like a rose. If I asked you to describe for me how a rose smelled, you probably wouldn’t be able to answer. That’s because the smell of a rose is something you have to experience, not something you can teach or know.

Same thing with conflict.

Your story provides an experience of that conflict for your Audience. Those Four Throughlines that surround the conflict and approximate it for them? That’s giving your Audience a chance to experience the inequity from different points-of-views.

In some respects, the experience of your story is something the Audience could never find in their own lives.

And that makes telling a story something extraordinary.

The storyform of your story sets the stage for that experiential process. It’s not what your characters are going through or what situations they find themselves up against–the storyform explains the experience of conflict you want your Audience to entertain.

The moment you stop thinking of your story as this thing about real people and real situations is the moment your storytelling rises to another level.

Other Updates This Week

Orson Welles makes an appearance on the blog with his explanation of the storyform.

The LEGO Batman Movie makes fun of the classic “You and I” conversation between Main Character and Influence Character (video clip included!)

(I also dropped in a clip of Batman’s 2nd Signpost of the Future that I discussed in last week’s newsletter)

This week’s podcast: Episode 46: The Final Word on Captain America: Civil War closes out the discussion on that shielded goody-two-shoes while diving into an in-depth exploration of the storyform.

And the new Learn section on the site provides an easy point of entry for writers new to Dramatica and Narrative First. Stop by to learn a new concept of story, or simply search for something that has been on your mind.


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